Journal archives for February 2016

February 06, 2016

Scuba Diving in Raja Ampat, Indonesia

I’m back from another dive trip to Indonesia, this time to Raja Ampat, a group of islands off the northwest corner of New Guinea that hosts some of the most diverse coral reefs on earth.

The area is very remote. I flew Emirates from Boston to Dubai to Jakarta, then two domestic Indonesian hops to Sorong on New Guinea. Sorong has almost no tourist infrastructure to speak of. Which made it challenging when my friend Heidi and I went two days early to try to do some bird watching before boarding the boat. The taxi drivers do not speak English. It was difficult to arrange transportation to the former wildlife sanctuary that I had heard about, and we only managed to get there after the birds had quieted down from their dawn chorus, though we did enjoy seeing many butterflies in the forest.

Then we transferred by skiff to the Arenui, our home for the next 12 days which was anchored in the harbor. This is the same boat from my last trip in August, but this time in a different part of Indonesia. It’s a 140 foot wooden phinisi that takes 16 guests and 20 crew. This is the nicest liveaboard I have been on, with beautiful carved wood detailing and a very high level of service. They’ve got two massage therapists on the crew, and more chefs than usual so that breakfast is cooked to order and dinner was generally four courses.

This was the first time in a while that I joined an “open boat”, not knowing anyone there (other than my traveling companion Heidi) in advance rather than going with an organized group. We were mostly Americans, many from California, though there was a German couple on their honeymoon, and a Danish couple as well. There was a woman who is in the midst of several months of backpacking around the world who was previously in the interior of New Guinea. English is the common language on the boat, though the cruise directors (Lisa and “G”) are from Spain and fluent in many languages. The rest of the crew are Indonesian, with the chefs, stewards and massage therapists from Bali.

We did not do a dive our first day on the boat, but instead started the twelve hour passage to Misool where we did our first few days of diving. Then began the regular routine: cold breakfast available at 6am, first dive at 7am, hot breakfast after that, then a second dive, lunch, third dive, and afternoon snack. Depending upon the available sites, the fourth dive was either a twilight dive or a night dive, with dinner following. This made for some late dinners as night dives were at 6:30pm. The sixteen of us were divided into four groups, each with a dive guide. The two tenders would take out the first two groups, then come back for the second pair of groups. On different days we alternated which groups were first or “lazy”. By staying with the same guide for the entire trip, our guides got to know us and what we liked to see, to tailor dives to our tastes. I was the only one in our group of four who did every dive offered, and had my own private guide for most of the twilight and night dives, a real luxury. My guide was José, a marine biologist and freelance divemaster who was on the Arenui for a few months while each of the regular guides took a vacation, one at a time.

There was some variety of dive sites, but not as much as I had hoped for. Since this was an open boat, all sites were the cruise director’s choice, and were chosen to be “pretty”. Lots of slopes, walls, and coral gardens, but very little rubble, sand, silt or near-shore habitats.

We dived three different sites where Manta Rays were expected, and they showed every time. Four times we got to dive with the big Oceanic Mantas which I had never seen before, and twice with the smaller Reef Mantas. Blacktip Reef Sharks were seen with some regularity, though rarely close. We encountered Whitetip Reef Sharks a few times, and had a few sightings of Grey Reef Sharks off some of the walls. A treat was two new sharks that are not active swimmers: Tasseled Wobbegongs, huge carpet sharks that are well camouflaged and sleep on the reef, and Raja Epaulette Sharks (also known as Walking Sharks) that are shy but were occasionally seen on twilight or night dives.

Many sites had schools of large Pickhandle Barracudas, and schools of Bigeye Trevally were also seen. There were only a few encounters of larger pelagics like Dogtooth Tuna or Mackerel. But there were many many smaller fish. Lots of fusiliers, anthias and damselfish above the reefs. Many sites had what were referred to as “glass fish” or “silversides”, that appeared to be large groups of juvenile fusiliers, barracudas, cardinalfish, and sweepers. And there were a lot of colorful reef fish. Five kinds of anemonefish, many pairs of butterflyfish, gaudily colored angelfishes, clouds of orange and purple anthias.

Lots of small creatures were seen. Colorful nudibranchs and flatworms were on every dive. A vast variety of shrimp and crabs, including Harlequin Shrimp, Donald Duck Shrimp, Spotted Guard Crabs and Hairy Squat Lobsters. Four different kinds of pygmy seahorse, though the “Santa Claus” Pygmy is undescribed and might just be a color variation of Denise’s Pygmy Seahorse. We saw Reef Octopus on many daytime dives, though they were usually shy. Several Blue-ringed Octopuses were encountered, mostly on night dives. On one night dive under a village wharf, we discovered an 18 inch long toadfish in a hole, protecting 50 tiny baby toadfish!

Our first four days of diving were around the island of Misool. This is where we had the Oceanic Manta Rays, but not as much diversity of reef fish as I was expecting. The plan was one more day in Misool before cruising north to another area for more sites. But late that night, the first mate became very sick, having trouble breathing. One of the guests was a doctor and helped stabilize him, and we started the 14 hour cruise back to Sorong to get him to a hospital (there are no helicopters in Sorong for medical evacuation). The Arenui paid for his medical care and transportation, as he was ultimately flown out of Sorong to a better hospital. So not quite halfway through the trip, I had a day with only one dive, a mucky one just outside the Sorong harbor. Interestingly, most trips I end up with sores on my feet, but a mostly dry day in the middle allowed the just developing sores to scab over, and they didn’t bother me again. That night we made the shorter crossing to sites along the Dampier Strait where we spent the rest of the trip diving near Waigeo Island and some smaller isles. The diving here had better diversity of reef fishes.

One of the best dive sites in this area was Cape Kri. Shortly before our planned dive there, we heard by radio from another dive boat that a Saltwater Crocodile had been seen on the site, and they postponed that dive. And we spent the rest of the trip talking about crocodiles. One dive site was right below some mangroves, and when I inquired about spending the end of the dive in the mangroves, was told to avoid them because of the possibility of crocodiles. However, the next day I was able to talk them into letting me forego a regular dive to spend an hour in some mangroves, the first time I’ve really gotten to explore this habitat in detail. I finally was able to observe and photograph Archerfish, and added several new damselfishes to my life list, including the very colorful Java Damsel. The only “dangerous” creature I encountered was a sea snake, not often seen in this area. Our last dive of the trip, we did get to do Cape Kri, and it was one of the best dives. Wish we had gotten to do it more than once.

We did two land excursions during the trip. We visited the village of Arborek (whose wharf we dived under twice). A couple hundred people live there, mostly fishermen. They have a church, a school, and two tiny stores in the town with just two streets. The people were friendly, and eager to get their photos taken with westerners, especially the blondes in our group. We also visited a lookout point 300 steps above a beautiful lagoon. I took the advantage of both of these to look for birds and butterflies, seeing a modest number of birds, but failing to find any “birdwing” butterflies, the family from New Guinea that has the largest butterflies in the world. There was also the option one morning to go see birds-of-paradise by skipping one dive. I wanted to to this, but they wouldn’t run the excursion with only one person, and no one else wanted to go. Most of the guests were not on anti-malaria medications or there probably would have been other takers.

Overall it was a good trip. I took 4,200 photos, did 33 dives, and observed 552 species of fish that I could identify. That is the most species I’ve recorded on a single trip, though very closely followed by Komodo and the Solomon Islands. I would consider going back, especially with one of the groups I often dive with who could then influence the choice of dive sites to get into more diverse habitats.

A selection of my favorite photos from the trip are online at https://www.flickr.com/photos/14233971@N04/albums/72157664293709136

Posted on February 06, 2016 17:18 by maractwin maractwin | 0 comments | Leave a comment

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