Dear Fellow Diver,
The latest “best diving in the world” seems to be Raja Ampat, Indonesia. The greatest marine biodiversity is in the Coral Triangle (Indonesia, Philippines and PNG). No less than the Nature Conservancy has crowned Raja Ampat (RA) the heart of this area and is actively involved in helping form numerous Marine Protected Areas, often partnerships of dive operations and local villagers. It seems to be working. In March, I spent three consecutive weeks of diving with one of my favorite companies –Mermaid Liveaboards.
When I back rolled off the 15-foot rubber skiff for my first “break in” dive, I was greeted with good visibility, warm (82-84F!) water, and lots of biodiversity. An endless stream of striped bristle tooth surgeonfish arose from the depths along a deep and vertical wall covered with hard and soft corals, sea fans up to 10 feet in diameter, bright sponges — the works. I headed into a mild current, following the stream of thousands of small surgeonfish that lasted the entire dive and I’m sure long afterwards. Early on I spotted a three-foot Napoleon wrasse at 80 feet and later two huge 4-foot adult bump head parrotfish. Hundreds of blue streak and other fusiliers were just off the reef, with bonito further out. Spanish mackerel and black fin barracuda darted in regularly. Closer to the wall, I spotted red dark fin groupers, eclipse butterfly fish, sweet lips and many more breeds. We moved to the top of the reef in 40 feet of water, where table coral that could seat 10 around it was topped by brilliant anthias and coral “trees.” As I rose slowly to the skiff after my five-minute safety stop, well aware that there is no air evacuation to those far-off chambers in Manado, Ambon and Bali. So, guess who gets to ride with you to the chamber? The other 15 divers on the boat, who would not be happy.
After shedding my gear, I climbed aboard a sturdy ladder onto the skiff and made my way quickly back to the boat. Most of the 18 crew (a 1:1 crew: diver ratio) on each of the Mermaid I and II are Indonesians — they have to be by law. The skiff drivers, who double as tank-haulers, are strong, proud and well up to their jobs, as are the rest of the crew, from the Indonesian Captain and two engineers to the deck hands. The Mermaid crews have entering and exiting down to precision. When you enter the skiff with your tank, there are at least six people on deck to assist you. They even put your fins on for you once you’re in the boat. The dive deck is level with the skiff — no ladders to complicate entry. At least two strong men have their hands on you at all times. These were the easiest and safest skiff entries ever.
The “Four Kings” (Raja=King, Ampat=four) still hold benevolent sway over this area and the Indonesian government. They’ve taken significant steps to protect the reefs and wildlife. Commercial fishing is tightly controlled, shark finning and finning and gilling of manta rays are illegal. Sustainable fishing by locals is OK, but each village avoids fishing the dive sites in support of the tourism that provides many well-paying jobs. Land-based operations are not only required to employ locals, but also they must educate them in English and other skills in exchange for the land leases for their resorts, coupled with huge protected zones. They’re often policed by locals providing even more jobs, often to ex-fishermen, who are motivated by what’s theirs to protect. This is an amazing turnaround from the wanton destruction by foreign commercial long liners and netters and dynamite “fishing” by locals of years ago. True, you don’t see a number of sharks on every dive, but you do see grays, white tips, and occasional black tip and wobbegong sharks. And nothing compares with Manta Sandy, three manta cleaning stations within 100 feet of each other in the Dampier Straits. I have dived the site 10 times on four different trips, and there have always been mantas — sometimes a dozen or more — up to 18-foot wingspan with the occasional pelagic manta. Groups are restricted to watching from a short distance. If you conserve your air and are one of the last on the site, the mantas will often line up to pass over your trickled air bubbles — consider it an Undercurrent tip.
On both Mermaid trips, I saw mantas at the site called Blue Magic on every dive, thanks to the current (remember, current is good — it brings lots of fish and big things to the shelter of structures such as reefs). On one dive, three pelagic mantas seemed to be waiting for our return and seemingly played with the divers for the entire 70+ minute dive. One had at least a 20-foot wingspan. Part of the success of the encounters was due to experienced divers following the rules and not chasing or otherwise scaring the mantas.
I saw all four types of pygmy seahorses — a Bargibanti, the “big” one measuring 1mm with his tail curled around a sea fan web. PJ, the best “program director/dive master/videographer” I’ve dived with, guaranteed a walking (epaulette) shark encounter. I had several, including a 30-minute stroll by one apparently unafraid of light. With a 10-year background in rock band videography production, PJ brings his skills to the Mermaid group. The National Geographic quality videos — pricey at US$100 — were so good, nearly everyone bought one. He provided audiovisual briefings, with excellent predrawn dive site maps and pictures of unique critters common to the site — a great aid in finding your first crinoid clingfish or finding the tightly packed school of sweet lips in a narrow crevice at 90 feet. Why doesn’t everyone do this instead of scratching something on a chalkboard and repeating the same “start at 80 feet and end in the shallows” briefing?
With four divemasters in the water on every dive, each spent a good part of the dive finding things to show us. On each of my prior three Mermaid trips, every guide was on a mission to point out as many interesting things to his three or four divers as possible. I was usually seeing or photographing something rather than hunting for a critter I’d never seen and knew little about finding. On my second trip of a back-to-back pair on Mermaid I and then II, I was paired with a young experienced diver and Celso, one of the senior guides. This was diving as we dream of it — anything we wanted, diving up current into the blue, seeking and finding 4-foot tunas, 7-foot fat gray sharks, barracuda, mackerel and giant trevally hunting among large schools of fusiliers, bonilla, jackfish, snappers and others. Or scouring the reef for critters or hanging onto your reef hook in a raging current watching the world go by — or even splitting off to do your own thing. I had several 90-minute dives and almost all were over 70 minutes.
The guides on MM I were uniformly excellent. For some reason, MM II was 50/50. My guide, Ramon, rarely pointed out critters, and our group often found ourselves following his fins for 15-20 minutes while we swam into the current to get to the best parts of the dive. After a few days of this, we requested to be dropped up current and drift through the dive. No change. We requested again — no change. I asked other guides on both boats why this happened, and they uniformly assured me this was not typical. It was a dive limiter, but not a disaster. You could be color blind and diving would still be great.
One of my favorites was the mangrove dive. The juvenile fish, sometimes in huge schools, were spectacular. Banggai cardinal fish and archer fish were everywhere, but I didn’t see one spitting at its prey. While poking my head into the mangrove roots, I felt something against my thigh. A huge banded sea snake slid by me and stuck its head into the roots just in front of me. Startled at first, I knew that you have to literally stick your hand into their mouth before the fangs in the back could get to you with their venom (which makes a rattlesnake’s seem like balm by comparison). So I shot a video of the 4 feet or so of the back half of the snake and then decided I’d been “reasonable” enough for the day and exited.
I’ve emphasized the big things so far, but most of what Raja Ampat is famous for is much smaller. One can quickly tire of seeing what would be the find of the dive most anywhere else — nudibranchs here are that beautiful and common. For John on the MM, nudis were his passion, and soon we all were finding and showing him a variety of them. Juvenile sweetlips and black snappers, harlequin shrimp, mandarin fish, helmet gurnards, cockatoo flounder, toadfish, giant 4-foot clams, mobula or the like were seen on every dive. Walls of light orange soft coral to rival the famous white wall in Fiji were seen at several sites — and hardly commented on. The hard coral was amazingly healthy, with fields of lettuce coral, plate coral almost 15 feet in diameter, huge staghorn formation on many dives. And when you saw a 12-foot patch of destroyed coral, you knew it was from a turtle, not a careless diver or boat. I often saw lionfish, but considerably fewer than I now see in the Caribbean — something is keeping them in check. This gives me hope that some adaptation will put this disaster back into balance before they eat every fish under a foot in the Caribbean.
Every diver’s wetsuit is gathered, rinsed in treated water, rinsed in plain water and then hung to dry after every dive. You then find it lying at your gear station just prior to the next dive. This drastically cuts down on the skin rashes divers sometimes get, which are often due to irritants such as sting coral finding their way from the outside to the inside of your suit. Amazing what an eager-to-please crew of 18 can accomplish. Such as helping you suit up. Semi-dry wetsuits take more time and effort to get into, and there was always staff to help us. (By the way, make your next wetsuit a semi-dry; it’s worth more than the extra price.) Warm dry towels after every dive. Hot cocoa after night dives. A Bali masseuse for $18 an hour — I couldn’t fit in enough! Room cleaned daily. Fresh linens and towels every 3-4 days.
The camera tables are small. Camera rinse tanks were beside equipment rinse tanks and computers, pointers (why would someone rinse a pointer?), masks, etc., sometimes found their way into the camera tanks. However, I didn’t feel my camera was at serious risk. You had to charge batteries in your room, which on some boats has been a fire risk.
The briefing and eating areas are combined on MMI but separate on MM II, making for a cramped eating experience on MM II. Not a real problem, but one very large, very hungry American did cause congestion at the front of the line at almost every meal — while complaining of others being slow. (This same diver drained his wife’s tank on every dive. I explained how dangerous this was and convinced him to move up to a 100 cu ft. tank, but he kept on draining his buddy’s tank.)
Food was best when local dishes were prepared. Fresh fish were bought from local fishermen off the back of the boat. We had hour-old tuna, snapper, mackerel, and trevally as sashimi (a huge hit) and cooked for several of our meals. Occasionally the food was overcooked, but not to the point of distraction. Meals were huge, with salad, vegetables, rice and homemade soup (great!) as well as 2-3 main courses. Vegetarians were happy. Desserts ranged from fruit to cake and ice cream. First breakfast beginning at 6 a.m. was continental, followed by eggs as you ordered bacon, pancakes, etc., at second breakfast after dive #1. Lunch after dive #2, snacks of fresh papaya, pineapple, etc., plus cake after dive #3 and dinner after dive #4, which was usually a night dive. Surprisingly, the night dives — often the highlight of a Caribbean trip — usually suffered by comparison to the day dives. Not that I missed a one … Apples, grapes, oranges, butter cookies, granola bars, tea, individually brewed coffee and sodas were available 24 hours for free. Beer was about $2.50 and wine was about $35 a bottle — cheap considering were you are.
There are mainly “Deluxe” suites (depending on the Euro exchange rate) at $4250 on the 11-night MM II trip and $3500 on the 9-night MM I trip with one or two budget rooms $375 cheaper. I found all to be adequate with the MM I room, even roomy by liveaboard standards. However, my cabin on MM I (called Phi-Phi) was the closest to the stern and immediately over the engines. The noise was more than most would care to endure, but the real problem was the room temperature. When the ship repositioned overnight, the room became quite warm. This was compounded by the fact that the AC unit was at the front of the boat, and while cabins aft complained of being cold, we at the stern barely got any AC flow. Noise and heat in the rearmost cabin is a common complaint on many liveaboards. Next liveaboard trip I will avoid this room.
When I spend over $2,000 in airfare, travel almost 50 real hours in economy class each way and suffer 10 or more hours of jet lag, I want to make sure the diving I get is worth it. There are up to 50 liveaboard options in Raja Ampat, depending on the season. Make sure the one you get is as good as the Mermaid — very few come close.