There were so many fishes around me in the water; at times I had trouble getting a clear view. Nothing was arranged in any orderly fashion. There were no neat schools, just thousands of fishes positioned chaotically and darting about without any common factor. I had difficulty concentrating my camera on anything in particular and almost gave up looking for a satisfactory composition. Profusion had become confusion. I felt like a predator distracted by too much prey.
My air supply started to dwindle. I decided to head up the reef for the shallows. Instantly, I was grabbed by an unseen force that took me in its grasp and sent me hurtling onwards, past great herds of grazing bumphead parrotfish and other animals I might have liked to have stopped and photographed, if only I could. All I could do was control my depth but even this took some serious legwork. I was glad that the local Papuan dive guide had followed me and was keeping an eye on me.
We surfaced in an oily calm sea. Nothing here betrayed the speed with which it was moving. Welcome hands reached down to pull up my cylinder and I was soon climbing the ladder of our little boat. This experience was typical of diving in the Dampier Strait.
The Raja Ampat or the ‘Four Kingdoms’ form a group of islands west of the Bird’s Head Peninsular of West Papua. If you look at a map of the great island that jointly forms Papua New Guinea and what was formerly known as Irianjiya, it forms the outline of a Dodo-like bird with a head at its western end.
The Raja Ampat has recently come up on the radar of adventurous divers after the likes of world-famous Australian ichthyologist Gerry Allen and famous underwater photographers Denise and Larry Tackett revealed it to have the richest reefs in the world. More species of coral and more species of fishes have been identified at the dive site Cape Kri that in any other part of the world to date. Cape Kri is a reef that runs alongside Kri island, home to diving pioneer Max Ammer.
Max Ammer went out to Indonesia as a young Dutchman looking for war relics. He became a major source of parts for WW2 Willys Jeeps after discovering the place where the US Army at its withdrawal dumped hundreds of brand new jeeps after the Pacific War. He made West Papua his home and was soon running diving charters from his base in Sorong. No one had heard of the place then and he more or less had it to himself. He fell in love with that part of Indonesia and started a family.
Eventually he settled on Kri Island in the Dampier Strait, believing this to be the epicentre of good diving in the area and built an eco-resort, employing local labour and materials. At this time, few people had heard of the Raja Ampat but Max is an absolutely special and very spiritual man and had faith that this was the place to be.
His friendship with the likes of Gerry Allen, the Tacketts, Roger Steene and famous dive-guide Larry Smith began to pay off and Raja Ampat became put on the world diving map. More recently, he has been using his micro-light to explore the hinterland of West Papua and has encountered a number of villages with populations that have never had any exposure to modern society. He told me that on seeing him they simply run away. He tells me he still spends time with Gerry Allen searching inland for scientifically undescribed freshwater species of fish.
The Kri Eco Resort is still available to those hardy divers on a budget but Max also started to build a more luxurious resort, still using only local materials and labour, providing a standard more acceptable to us soft Westerners. It’s around the corner at Sorido Bay and overlooking Cape Kri itself. Stay at Sorido Bay and you will inevitably find yourself in the company of some of the high profile cognoscenti of tropical diving. It was to here that I travelled to a few years ago and wrote an article entitled ‘Rich Beyond Compare’.
But what makes these reefs luxuriate in so much life? The ocean currents from the Pacific combine with tides that force water up through the Dampier Strait where Kri Island acts as a foil to its flow. The currents and nutrients carried on the cold oceanic up-wellings are what give the area its fabulous and prolific underwater flora and forna. Be warned though that the currents at Cape Kri can send the unprepared diver whirling downwards in a current that will find them bottoming out at 120 feet deep before they are released and spat out into the ocean. Photographs do nothing to betray this fact.
One site, now known as Mike’s Point in honour of Max’s young son, is at an island that has such strong currents around it that during the war US Army reconnaissance spotters saw the wake so produced by it and assumed it to be a Japanese warship heavy camouflaged with bushes. It was bombed to smithereens but now, more than half-a-century later, the broken rocks are covered in soft corals and home to countless fishes. It makes or a fantastic dive when conditions allow.
Alas, the last time I was there the full moon and rocketing flow from the Pacific made it almost suicidal to attempt it and we had to forego the opportunity. I remember, during an earlier, visit sitting in the boat anchored in a tiny corner that formed the lee of the current after a successful dive and chucking bits of peel from the dragon fruit I was eating into the water. Each time I would make personal bets with myself as to which way the current would take it. I was wrong on every occasion even though the interval between peelings was short.
Between Kri and the very much larger island of Waigeo, the channel is peppered with reefs causing ripping currents and over-falls. At the far end of this is an area known locally as ‘Manta Sandy’. It’s a manta cleaning station. You drop in, drop down, hook into something secure and watch as the mantas dance on the flow. Once you’ve selected your position, it’s nigh on impossible to swim to another; the current can be so strong. You just have to be patient and wait for the mantas to come to you. I’ve had very close encounters with both a big all-black manta and a virginal white manta in this way.
Sometimes the sand is whipped up in the current like an underwater sandstorm leaving your photographs unsharp and disappointing but if there is no current there will be no mantas present. I dived it one time in the past when there was slack water but photographed a number of large wobbegongs or ‘carpet sharks’ and a deadly poisonous enimicus devilfish instead.
‘Sardines Reef’ is not marked by any surface feature and so called because the fishes are so densely packed. It’s essential to get in the water up-current, away from the reef and head across the sandy seabed to the current point, an area where the current splits and is therefore calm enough to allow you time to take pictures. Once you move away the stream of water hurtles you along over the shallow reef top. There is nothing you can do to stop yourself. You travel at an alarming speed and at the mercy of the elements.
Kri Eco Resort and Sorido Bay are so well placed for all the spectacular dive sites of the Dampier Strait it makes sense to dive them by small boat, returning to the jetty for meals at either of the resorts. The resorts are like liveaboards that are permanently anchored.
There are a great number of dive sites like this close to Kri Island but you’ve probably got the idea that the diving may not be that easy. Those keen underwater photographers who like to dive repeatedly with the same subject, perfecting their craft, will be disappointed. Around the Dampier Strait, it’s different every time you get into the water – which is why I like it. I could dive Sardines Reef every day and never get tired of it but I know others have different tastes. The vast quantities of nutrient in the water can also disappoint the underwater photographer looking to produce that ‘clean’ shot.
Since the Raja Ampat’s public profile has been raised, a huge number of liveaboard diving operations have moved into the area, spearheaded by Ambon diving pioneer Austrian Edi Frommenwiler’s ‘Pindito’, and they all operate out of Sorong, the nearest town with an airport.
These operations have expanded the area of the Raja Ampat in which diving now takes place and because most of us that travel so far to experience such diving normally expect to take underwater pictures, these liveaboard operators have ear-marked dive sites further south that are less demanding of a diver-photographer, but of course they are often less spectacular too. The reefs are covered with colourful gorgonia fan corals and these are home to countless different types of pigmy seahorse. Take a strong magnifier or an extreme-macro camera.
Some of these liveaboard vessels are huge pinisi-rigged schooners that carry a great many passengers. That means there are sometime a lot of divers on one site although that site itself may be seldom visited.
All liveaboard operations tend to be divided between Northern charters and Southern charters and it’s important to book on the one that’s right for you. Some longer duration charters incorporate both areas but inevitably leave the diving in the Dampier Strait until last so that their passengers are well dived-up before attempting the more difficult sites. There is no point in frightening off your passengers at the beginning of a charter.
Typically, on leaving Sorong, they’ll head for Batanta Island and some relaxing muck-diving to start with. Then they’ll head south to Boo Rocks with its caverns and famous ‘window’, and the Fiabacet Islands including the Misool Eco Resort, around Misool. The latter is another eco-resort that has been built and run by a British/Swedish couple and very pretty it is too.
The islands around the Misool region are jagged peaks recently thrown up, in geological terms, by volcanic activity and very spectacular above the water. The Misool Eco Resort has eco-friendly bungalows built around a small bay on such an island. Close by are three well-known sites known by their shape at the surface rather than what goes on underwater.
‘Small’ rock, ‘nudi rock’ and ‘tank’ are such sites that sit in view of the resort and provide some stunningly beautiful coral growth. Underwater photographers staying a the resort can be shuttled back and forth to them at their heart’s desire and the currents seem to be entirely manageable. Those on liveaboards tend to press on after a few dives, ever looking or something better.
Back further north there are unique blue-water mangroves. Here you’ll find gorgonia growing close to the surface in association with the mangrove roots and the insect-eating archer fish and cardinal fish that live among them. You might encounter a saltwater crocodile too if you’re very unlucky.
Finally, a word about the weather. The Raja Ampat is at zero degrees latitude and nowhere in the world is more tropical. The islands are truly in the Doldrums and strong winds with rough seas are rare. However, this is not a place for sunbathers. Temperatures vary between extremely hot and quite cool but these variations can happen almost moment-to-moment. Clouds continually roll across the sky obscuring the sun and it rains in biblical proportions, sometimes for days on end. This means that the light underwater lacks that contrast encountered in the Mediterranean or Red Sea, for example.
With ordinary ISO settings on my camera, I’ve often found I needed quite long exposures to get the background light in balance with my camera’s flash. Down deep there was precious little natural light. In the north, nutrients rushing past in the current can cause an unsharp effect too so pictures can be disappointing at times. That said, there’s always plenty to photograph. In the southern area, things are easier but visibly and dramatically less dynamic. Remember, the stronger the current the more high-voltage the diving.
I’ve been to the area four times now and have deduced that, whether you opt to be island based or travel by liveaboard, the Dampier Strait is good for adventurous diving and the southern area around Misool is better for more sedate underwater photography with plenty of macro subjects.