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July 2016    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 31, No. 7   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Raja Ampat; The Top Resorts and Liveaboards

possibly the best diving in the world?

from the July, 2016 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Raja Ampat, at the easternmost part of Indonesia, translates as "Four Kings." A small cluster of islands dotted around the western end of West Papua (formerly known as Irian Jaya), they became the focus of attention of the world's diving community when ichthyologist Dr. Gerry Allen counted more than 283 different fish species on the Cape Kri dive site alone. In 2012 Dr. Allen again broke the world record count for most biodiverse reef on the planet, with 374 different species of reef fishes identified during a single dive.

Max Ammer, from Rotterdam, first set up an eco-resort dive in 1998 on Kri, an island at the center of a confluence of currents in the Dampier Strait and for years was the lone voice promoting the destination. In 2001 the Nature Conservancy and others decided that Raja Ampat was the site of the world's richest coral reefs.

Misool Island ResortThe diving isn't necessarily easy. Some of the currents are not only powerful, but can go both up and down. A reef hook is an essential piece of equipment for any diver at the better sites. U.S. forces bombed one such site, Mike's Point, during WWII because the little island produced such a wake in the current; it was thought to be a Japanese warship disguised and under way. The payoff is remarkable coral growth and spectacular amounts of marine life.

Many resorts have since been built on other islands, and Ammer has added the luxurious Sorido Bay Resort to Kri. Now, divers have many resorts and liveaboards for diving platforms, so the destination is on every diver's bucket list.

Let us, with the help of our readers, give you an indication of some of the best venues, so that you don't waste your hard earned time -- expect 24 hours of travel from the west coast of the U.S. -- and money, which will add up to thousands of dollars.

C. Leroy Anderson (Salt Lake City, UT) visited Sorido Bay Resort at the end of 2015, and reported, "Perfect coral and tons of colorful reef fish. Some unusual dive sites such as the Passage with abundant soft coral and extremely varied, abundant, and healthy coral and fish. Good shark and pelagic encounters. I have gone several times with different operators, including two liveaboard. Max and the staff stand out. The customer's agenda is their agenda. I asked to see a wobbegong shark, and they found five wobbegongs; the dive guides seemed eager and pleased to do so. The food was great and the lodging fine indeed." And Michael N. Hofman (San Francisco, CA) adds, "Dive sites about 20 minutes from Cape Kri, and just a tad longer to Manta Sandy, rides are easy in the dive boats, which are all equipped with sun protection, towels, and coffee and snacks." Subscriber Leoline Grower (London, UK) went to Kri this February, and said: "the food at Sorido Bay was excellent (apart from on Saturdays) considering how remote Kri is, with plenty of fresh fish and sashimi."

Of course, people review food differently, and others were less satisfied with the meals. George S. Irwin (Bloomington, IL), visiting last October, said, "This is an expensive resort. The food was roughly similar each day -- a dinner buffet of overdone fish, chewy chicken and beef of some sort, the worst resort food I have experienced. All resort services stop on Saturday [Seventh Day Adventists], so you have paid for a full week but really only get six days of services and diving. Cape Kri is the house reef for Sorido Bay and is a spectacular dive, but there were at least two liveaboards diving this spot each day."

Misool Eco Resort on Batbitim Island makes a good alternative to Kri, with easier diving. It's in a pretty setting around a small, enclosed bay, and the operators have worked with the local government to establish a 465-square-mile marine protected area with a shark and manta sanctuary. This past February, Mario Mizrahi (Mexico City) stayed there with a group of 20 divers. "The resort is beautifully kept; the rooms are very nice and spacious -- especially the villas. You'll need a good insect repellent." Misool is even more remote than Kri, about 12 miles from the nearest village and 105 miles from the port of Sorong.

Jim Willoughby (Bend, OR) stayed at Papua Explorers Resort based on another small island in the Dampier Strait. After an April visit, he wrote, "the service is exceptional, and the dive op is one of the best that I have experienced. The rooms were spacious and clean. The food was great. The setting was beautiful." However, he also warned, "The visibility was pretty poor on many of the dives. No fault of the resort, of course; the current could be ripping, which made photography a challenge."

But, one goes for the diving, and Sandy Falen (Topeka, KS) was ecstatic. "In thirty years of diving the Caribbean and the Pacific, I have simply never seen anything like Raja Ampat. The diversity of coral, the quantity of healthy hard and soft corals, and rather than drifting along hunting for fish to photograph, I was visually bombarded with more fish than my eyes and brain could register . . . We saw liveaboards daily, diving the same sites we were -- so you'll get liveaboard diving without the liveaboard price or confinement."

Seahorse is a typical pinisi-rigged liveaboardMost of our readers seem to prefer liveaboards, and their popularity is such that the Indonesian government has limited the number of licenses to operate in the area to 40! This means there is a downside -- simply the number of divers.

The whole area of Indonesia is now known as the Wallacea region after the famous Victorian naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, as it was he who first described the unique fauna. Operation Wallacea is an organization funded by tuition fees that runs a series of biological and conservation management research programs operating in remote locations across the world.

Keith Brashear (Indian Harbour Beach, FL) chose the Wallacea liveaboard Ambai in January, but was disappointed that there were so many underwater photographers on board. "On a full boat, the photographers tend to bunch up, flashes and lights going everywhere, and limiting views and sights for those who are not taking pictures but just want to enjoy the underwater scene. It would be nice to know that there is a trip [with no underwater photographers] where just those wanting to look at the whole scene and not just through a view finder could do so."

In our full review of the Arenui in August of last year, we were critical of this luxurious boat for not having full air-conditioning, which they corrected shortly after our review was published. Mark Rosenstein (Cambridge, MA) joined the Arenui this January, and writes, "The boat is the most luxurious liveaboard I have been on. Lots of carved wood; every cabin is different, artwork, a good amount of space and high-end fixtures. The only oddity is that you have to walk through the salon to get between the dive deck and the tenders."

Alice Ribbens (St. Paul, MN) had a great experience; after her trip last year, she booked again. "We saw so many wobbegongs, we almost didn't even react when we found them. We also saw many mantas and one oceanic manta that checked us out as much as we watched her. I am a total fish geek, and I was overwhelmed by the variety of species on every dive."

And Linda Rutherford (Montara, CA), aboard in February, enthused about the cruise directors, especially Lisa. "Even though Lisa had seen mantas many times, and we had spent the last 60 minutes watching five mantas circle repeatedly right over our heads, she was not interested in a rest [by missing a dive], but genuinely enjoys the thrill of diving, customers or not." Linda tempered her enthusiasm when she mentioned insufficient space for eight people using cameras and "a couple of the workstations do not have sufficient light intensity to check and clean O-rings, so bring a light of your own."

Liveaboards seasonally alter their itineraries, and Laurie Pemberton (Arroyo Grande, CA), who had once been on Mermaid 1 off Bali and Komodo, joined the same vessel in Raja Ampat. "Some reefs had so much growth and color it was almost overwhelming. A fun part of the trip was meeting people from Europe. The dive guides speak several languages." However, she discovered a drawback when connecting to Sorong from Jakarta. "We flew Lion Air, and did not realize when I made the reservation that Wing Air (leg to/from Sorong) had a 10 kg weight limit." Note to readers: there are many twists in arranging trips to remote Indonesian destinations, and good dive travel agents know how to negotiate them. If you book your own trip, be prepared for surprises.

Bret Gilliam, a regular Undercurrent contributor and blogger, writes, "I just got back in May from an incredible trip to the southern Raja Ampat aboard Damai II. This vessel is pure luxury, with gourmet food, huge staterooms, superior dive launches, and even onboard massage staff. And the diving is the best in the world."

However, last year, one of our readers, Michael J. Millet (Dublin, CA), noted that on the journey from Ambon to Triton Bay in Raja Ampat, the vessel tended to roll a lot in the open sea, which made some passengers seasick. Further, because of hazy, smoky skies, the airstrip at Kaimana was closed indefinitely, so that some guests missed their international flight connections. So, when you journey to such remote areas, be prepared for surprises, and bear in mind that this is a truly tropical destination: when it rains, it rains in biblical proportions.

Peggy and José Miguel Duran enjoyed their fourth time aboard TemuKira last fall -- they traveled from Manokwari to Raja Ampat.

"At Blue Magic, Mioskon and Mike's Point, the visibility and sheer abundance of life was again incredible. We had a great night dive at the Raja Ampat Dive Lodge jetty, with even a couple of twin-spotted lionfish. We also dove the mangroves at these unspoiled islands before moving back to Mansuar to experience again the best of the best before returning to Sorong. Our last dive at Yenbuba Corner provided clouds of surgeonfish, barracudas, batfish, chubs, and fusiliers, before presenting us with a huge marbled stingray as a parting gift in our last few pounds of air."

Swiss-owned Pindito was one of the first liveaboards to operate in Raja Ampat. Edi Frommenwiler [the owner on-board] might have only logged a mere 85 dives back in 1992 when he built his boat, but since then he has charted more dive sites there than any other operator. Mark Etter (Lititz, PA) was full of praise for the crew after his repeat trip in October 2015.

"I have never seen a group that was so dedicated to ensuring our safety and well-being. The diving was great when we reached the northern locations, and we were visited by groups of mantas. Kri was spectacular, and we were able to see the P-47s as well. Edi has a great boat and continues to make improvements each year."

Ann Donahue (Salt Spring Island, BC), aboard in February, said, "It is a long journey to get to Raja Ampat, but so worth it! The density of life, as well as the diversity, makes it truly a special destination. Some areas have strong currents, but the knowledgeable divemasters of the Pindito always found manageable dive sites for us."

Michel Deville and his wife, Julia, the Swiss owners of WAOW, simply wanted the best liveaboard ever, hence the name. The WAOW project manager, Australian Andrew Laughlin, often doubles as cruise director. The vessel was featured in Undercurrent July 2013.

Marc Pinto (Castle Rock, CO) was on board last September. "We've been on other boats marketed as luxury, but they simply don't compare to the WAOW. This ship is huge, with a wide beam, which makes it very comfortable. We had the master cabin -- it was enormous -- with its own expansive private deck. The food was amazing and varied. Each dinner entree came with a nice sauce, and they were always quick with seconds. The service was topnotch, and they even had a massage therapist on board who doubled as a server. For sure not an inexpensive trip."

A final word from Catherine R. Mack (Washington, DC), who wrote us about her December trip aboard Dewi Nusantara. "The boat is huge and accommodating. The dive crew is experienced, helpful, and friendly. The four daily dives were over the top. Never have I seen so many creatures and such diversity. The currents are wicked, so it's important to be extremely skilled or to stick with your divemaster, who, in our case, really knew how to anticipate and handle (turning us around/ hooking us on/taking us deeper or shallower) the strong currents. You must have a reef stick and a reef hook. There are places where we expected to see mantas, but they showed up in places where they were unexpected. Food terrific. Crew friendly and accommodating. Rooms spacious and comfortable. Weather perfect. What's not to like? Coming home!"

Raja Ampat might offer the finest tropical diving in the world, but it is incredibly remote should anything go wrong, and thanks to powerful currents, the most famous dive sites are not for inexperienced divers.

Two books worth buying before going: Diving Indonesia's Bird's Head Seascape by Burt Jones and Maurine Shimlock, describing the best dive sites, and The Raja Ampat: Through the Lens, a visual treat by various photographers, both available through Undercurrent's book section.

- John Bantin

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