A Hotspot of Marine Diversity
Copy & pictures by Richard Smith
Both above and below the water’s surface the Raja Ampat islands of Irian Jaya, Indonesia are teeming with the diversity of life. Having only recently opened up to the international diving community and with a sparse population, the region’s reefs have remained in pristine condition awaiting divers with a love of remote and exotic locations.
‘Raja Ampat’ translates as four kings from Bahasa Indonesia and comprises an archipelago of over 600 islands off the western tip of the Indonesian half of New Guinea. The most convenient entry point into Indonesia, following the long trek from Europe, will most likely be Manado in northern Sulawesi. This works well if you plan to tie further diving at the Bunaken National Park or Lembeh Straits into your journey. From here you will travel on domestic airlines to the small town of Sorong on the ‘beak’ of the Bird’s Head peninsula, the most westerly mainland part of Irian Jaya. Sorong is a small and pleasant town; it acts as a local administrative centre and a base for oil and logging companies.
The only land-based diving operation in the area is Papua diving, the vision of Dutch born Max Ammer. The company was founded in 1990 after Max spent many months searching the area for World War II wrecks. At the time of our visit in February 2004 the Kri Island Eco Resort was the only site opened and our group of five intrepid divers were the only guests. This really is an enchanting place to stay and whilst facilities are very basic this adds to the charm. The relatively small Island is surrounded by white sandy beaches and has a steep and mountainous backbone. Due to the topography all main buildings are built on stilts over the shallow lagoon that surrounds the island.
There is room for around twenty guests in various huts constructed entirely of local materials that contain little more than a bed, mosquito net, small lamp and table. The sleeping huts branch off a 200m long jetty that spans the lagoon. Dive boats leave for the day’s excursions from the end of the jetty. The main communal eating hall is also on stilts above the water and also houses the base’s menagerie. During our stay the staff were hand rearing orphaned creatures including a scrappy but adorable Hornbill, a Cockatoo named Jacob which is the generic Indonesian name for all pet Cockatoos and a Cuscus, which is a small marsupial reminiscent of a sluggish and comical monkey.
Since our stay Max has opened a new more modern resort at Sorido Bay around the corner from the original Eco resort. Facilities include air conditioning, hot showers and televisions in all rooms. The house reef of this new site is named ‘Cape Kri’ and during a survey conducted by the eminent fish biologist, Dr Gerry Allen, he counted a record 283 fish species during one dive. Luckily this bountiful site with amazing coral cover is only a short ride from the Eco resort too.
Soon after arriving on Kri and unpacking our gear we were eager to get in the water. Our first dive was Chicken reef, only 5-10 minutes away by speedboat. The visibility wasn’t crystal clear but as the reef came into view every inch was teeming with life. As is common at many of the Raja Ampat patch reefs there were large schools of small silver fish and associated large predators. Spanish mackerel, Giant Trevally and Yellow-tail Barracuda tormented these smaller fish. Later dives at this site yielded many rare nudibranchs, Hawksbill turtles, Black-Tip Reef sharks, Sea Spiders, a large school of Hump Head Parrotfish and a pair of Robust Ghost pipefish that perfectly mimicked seagrass even down to the detail of encrusting algae on their surface.
Wobbegong sharks are also found at this site and are fairly unique to this part of Indonesia, occurring more commonly on Australian reefs. These large Carpet sharks rest motionless on the reef bottom during the day and blend in even down to their tasselled beard, which helps break up their outline. At night they become voracious hunters of fish and Crustaceans.
As darkness falls…
We only managed three night dives during our stay, which was a shame as they were excellent. Two were on the House reef at the end of the jetty and one at an off shore reef. The House reef had by far the most diverse and interesting inhabitants. The reef top had most of the action and in only a few meters of water we came across several Raja Ampat Epaulette sharks. These small nocturnal sharks reach a maximum length of two feet and are only found in this small group of islands. They can barely swim and instead crawl using their pectoral fins among seagrass and coral rubble to hunt small reef organisms.
Another highlight was an unusual pale pink Harlequin shrimp, which was wrestling with a starfish that was considerably larger than its self. These shrimp usually work in pairs to ensnare their starfish prey and relocate them to a larder where they consume them over a week or so. This individual was working alone so as it pried each arm off the substrate another one would hold fast and appeared to be getting the better of the shrimp. Other night-time critters included a verdant green frogfish resting in the recesses of a large sponge, a huge slipper lobster and many large Pleurobranch nudibranchs.
A New Manta Mecca
Having previously visited Yap, the “Manta Ray Mecca of the world”, and found the hoards of divers entirely disconcerting, the ‘Manta reef’ of Raja Ampat was a breath of fresh air. The dive guide was fairly low key about the site but on arrival we saw literally dozens of Manta fins breaking the surface as these gentle giants filtered the plankton rich waters for food. There was no disappointment as we entered the water and saw many individuals passing over the reef. It wasn’t until we moved into the blue a little that the show really started. Out of nowhere a group of 15-20 Mantas headed straight for us, coming so close that the leader hit our dive guide across the shins.
On subsequent dives at the site we again moved off the reef to find up to a dozen huge mantas barrel rolling in areas of especially rich water. They would allow us to get extremely close but a camera malfunction meant I only have memories to remind me of the amazing experience. The concentration of Mantas appears to be a year round phenomenon and with such low levels of interruption from divers they go about their business with little concern.
Saturday, a day of rest
For religious reasons there is absolutely no diving on Saturdays at Papua Diving, which is the perfect opportunity to visit local villages or take a tour. We decided to go to a neighbouring island named Waigeo in search of the Red Bird of Paradise, which congregate ridiculously early each morning for the males to display to the females. This turned out to be a highlight of the trip and made all the more adventurous by getting up and heading to the site long before sunrise. By torch light we left the boat and headed through a small village where we were enthusiastically greeted by the locals. After half an hour hike we arrived at the tree where males meet to display; this behaviour is known as lekking. There was a small hide half way up a nearby tree, which gave an amazing vantage point of the 5 or 6 males enthusiastically showing off their gaudy plumage. It would have been fit for an Attenborough show!
On Sunday we were keen to get back in the water and went to a slightly further a field dive site called the ‘Passage’. The journey took us through thickly forested limestone islands, very similar to Palau’s famous Seventy Islands. The dive must be well timed to catch the correct tide as it takes place in the narrow channel between two islands and photographers would not appreciate a roaring current on this site. The site is unique in that huge sea fans and Black Coral trees reach to within inches of the surface and the rainforest reaches to within inches of the water’s surface. There are reports of Saltwater Crocs in the area so beware!
The Little guys
The wonder of Raja Ampat is that many species of pygmy seahorses occur commonly on several dive sites and often at much shallower depths than other locations. Common species are both the red and yellow Bargabant’s pygmies (Hippocampus bargabanti), Denise’s pygmy (Hippocampus denise) and the newly discovered and as yet scientifically undescribed Pontohi’s pygmy (Hippocampus species?). The expert eye of the dive guides is essential in finding the Pontohi species as this has no specific fan to inhabit and can be found on any algae or small hydroid on the reef. Having never encountered the yellow Bargabant’s or Pontohi pygmies these were real highlights of the trip. The dive guides informed us of a fairly reliable site to find the Pontohi species, which happened to be under the wing of an American B47 World War II plane wreck and at a depth of 31m, unfortunately there wasn’t much time to hang around to study it’s behaviour.
Until next time
After ten days in paradise we took the boat back to Sorong and headed home. Having thoroughly enjoyed the ‘back to basics’ Eco resort I would love to return and experience the more modern site. There remain countless sites to visit in the area and with Papua diving’s plans for a liveaboard and several charters beginning to make the most of the area’s diversity there are many ways of sampling this in a trip.
Travel advice - Foreign and Commonwealth Office – 0870 6060290 www.fco.gov.uk
- Papua diving www.PapuaDiving.com
- Kararu www.kararu.com
- Pindito www.pindito.com
- Several other liveaboards also make occasional trips to the Raja Ampat Islands.