Diving in Raja Ampat
West Papua, New Guinea Island
Located off the northwest tip of Bird's Head Peninsula on the island of New Guinea, Raja Ampat, or the Four Kings, is an archipelago comprising over 1,500 small isles, cays and shoals surrounding the 4 main islands of Misool, Salawati, Batanta and Waigeo. It is a part of the newly named West Papua Province of Indonesia which was formerly Irian Jaya and is mostly the domain of liveaboards, however there are also a very limted number of dive resorts available too.
Simply put, Raja Ampat is the bees knees in the world of scuba diving. If you don't enjoy your dives here, you may as well sell your equipment! According to the Conservation International Rapid Assessment Bulletin and their more recent 2006 scientific surveys, the marine life diversity in West Papua is considerably greater than all other areas sampled in the coral triangle of Indonesia, Philippines and Papua New Guinea. It is quite simply the cream of the crop in world diving!
Over 1,200 fish species - a world record 284 on 1 single dive at Kofiau Island, the benchmark figure for an excellent dive site of 200 fish species surpassed on 51% of Raja Ampat dives (another world record), 600 coral species (a remarkable 97% of all scleratinia recorded from Indonesia are likely to occur in these islands), 699 mollusc species - again another world high. It is believed that the region will soon receive protected area status.
The term "Frontier Diving" seems to have been invented for the Raja Ampat islands. To visit these waters is to feel at the edge of the earth. To gaze over the crystalline seas from onboard a liveaboard at the beehive-shaped, largely uninhabited islands is to be as far away from it all as you can imagine. At many places on the sea in Asia, the night sky is lit up like Piccadilly Circus by fishing boats. At night time in Misool you can peer out at the horizon and maybe see one or two distant specks of light.
Scuba diving in West Papua mostly takes the form of drift dives due to the moderate currents prevalent in the area, which provide nutrients for the myriad fish and coral. The variety of marine life can be staggering. Some areas boast enormous schools of fish and regular sightings of sharks, such as wobbegongs. At Mansuar it's highly likely you'll encounter large groups of manta rays and turtles. From the boat and often close to shore you may get the chance to don your snorkelling gear for some unforgettable interaction with resident pods of dolphins or even some passing whales.
Due to the sometimes strong currents, diving in Raja Ampat is not really considered a good choice for absolute beginners, rather for scuba divers with a few dives under their weightbelts looking to get away from the crowds. Visibility is normally very good but can vary and is normally at its best earlier in the day so your pre-breakfast dives are not to be slept through!
Dive Site Descriptions
Kri Island - Sardines is a firm favourite among the liveaboards of Raja Ampat. You won't find sardines here but the fish that you will find are almost as tightly packed.
Those who have dived here will talk with great enthusiasm about the sheer numbers of fish here. Of course there are great schools of trevallies and tuna in numbers that practically block out the light. But you can also be enthralled by vast numbers of bumpheaded parrotfish as they charge around and devour the coral.
Diving in Raja Ampat provides another highlight in the shape of the bizarre looking wobbegongs that lurk underneath table corals. These islands are one of the very few places outside of Australia that you can see these creatures. These strange looking tassled sharks make for a great photo opportunity as do the pygmy seahorses that you might find clinging to one of the huge gorgonians.
At times the current discourages any notions you may have of lingering in the one spot for that perfect snap, so if you really want those shots you may have to dive here again. Given the site's quality, it is no surprise that many scuba divers choose to do just that.
If you crave for the sense of being surrounded by fish you'll love Cape Kri too. Normally you will no sooner have deflated your BCD than the spectacle begins. A tremendous variety of fish will come into view, dominated, in terms of biomass by dogtooth tuna, giant trevallies and chevron barracuda.
Add to this the likely presence of large Napoleon wrasse, whitetip reef sharks and giant groupers, as well as innumerable fusiliers and snappers, and you will wish your log book pages were longer. The very fortunate may even get a look at the gigantic Queensland groupers, reputed to be as big as small cars, which are sometimes seen at this location.
To dive here is to drift effortlessly with the current past these great numbers of fish. However that is not all that this Raja Ampat dive site has to offer, as the coral growth is equally diverse. In and around the coral you can look out for nudibranchs and scorpionfish as your air supply decreases at the end of what tends to be a most rewarding and always entertaining dive.
Sel Pele - is a very large bay located on the western side of Waigeo Island, and is renowned as the best place in Raja Ampat for critter hunting. The bay has a large mouth with a small islet in its centre, and an inner bay with pearl farms that can be visited on request.
It's on the south or right-hand side of the bay's mouth, in the first half mile stretch or so, that Dinding Selatan is located. The dive site fluctuates between a 15-25 metre deep wall and a slope, with brown and orange soft corals and featherstars. The low profile silt bottom is speckled with small anemones, sponges, fire urchins, fans and hardy soft corals.
So what makes Sel Pele worth spending a day's diving at? The stars of the show here are perhaps the variety of cephalopods that you get here - everything from the gorgeous but lethal blue-ringed octopus, baby red octopus and cuttlefish. The bottom-dwelling Berry's bobtail squid can also be found on the sandy areas, so watch out for this unmistakable 5cm long, iridescent blue-green, extremely rare creature.
Check out the fire urchins too for zebra crabs, the sea cucumbers for pearlfish, and the sandy rubble for peacock mantis shrimp, flying gurnards, gobies and blennies. The variety of colourful nudibranchs that you can find here is second to none from the tiger nudi, Tambja Affinis, to Lock's nudis. Then there's West Papua's usual pygmy seahorses and full range of ghost pipefish - robust, harlequin, halimeda - and even the shortpouch pygmy pipehorse.
Kebung Kerang is the south side of the small island in the bay's mouth, where the steep bank drops down to 30 metres then down into the bay's main channel at 40 metres. Here the coral coverage is good with lots of gigantic mushroom leather corals, purple soft corals, sea squirts and large gorgonians, interspersed with submerged tree logs.
The fish life is correspondingly more prevalent too if less cryptic, with schools of fusiliers, pale-tailed surgeonfish, goatfish and large 6-banded angelfish. Nudibranchs are also in evidence here with the endemic orange, white and warty Phyllidia Babai and the solar-power nudi, Phyllidesmium Longicirrum, the unusual photosynthesising nudi from New Guinea and Australia.
A word of caution though - the bay can be plagued with large aggregations of stinging jellyfish. They tend to congregate on the surface near the edge of the bay, so they won't bother whilst you are diving, but it's wise to descend and ascend carefully and a little distant from the island's edge.
At The Jetty you will start the dive by exploring the shallows, right beside the jetty that is used by the pearl farm located on Waigeo Island. The little bommies and hard corals that are scattered in the shallows make perfect shelters for crocodile fish, scorpionfish and stonefish, so watch out!
The dive site is not very big but it is a fascinating spot to investigate in detail. Look out for frogfish sitting squat in their host sponges. Keep an eye out for nudibranchs since Dorid nudibranchs of several colour variations have been spotted here in the past, including the rare Glossodoris Cruenta.
As you proceed deeper you may run into a school of razorfish as they seem to hover upside down for no reason. The cracks and crevices of the reef are full or interesting specimens including banded pipefish, white-eyed and even giant morays, resting after a night out hunting. Crustaceans are around in big numbers here, especially at night when they are much more active. Mantis shrimps are always good entertainment value, scurrying around at break-neck speed and darting nervously into their holes.
Others crustaceans you might see here include big coral crabs, porcelain crabs, spiny lobsters, plus countless creatures that you might find fascinating but difficult to name! Definitely a place for critters lovers! Night dives promise additional beauties such as orangutan crabs and, if you are lucky, a Spanish dancer and beautiful nudibranchs like the Berthella Martensi.
South Penemu - This is a lesser known pinnacle nearby the south side of Raja Ampat's Penemu Island, the precise location of which is found only with thanks to the divemasters who will jump in the water to put a buoy in place.
It feels like a jump into the great blue yonder but on the descent you will soon recognise the pinnacle. Its shallowest sections are covered with anemones and soft corals and the mix of colours is just unbelievable.
As you go deeper, watch into the blue as schools of yellow-fin fusiliers can easily be spotted, as well as jacks and batfish. A giant trevally can pass you by, the size of it will impress even the most experienced scuba diver. Rainbow runners and black snappers will cross your path time and again whilst you continue your dive. Look out for impressive large groups of spotted sweetlips that make great photo opportunities.
The beautiful hard corals that grow on the pinnacle itself are home to Indian lionfish as well as smaller creatures such as several species of dragonets. Hermit crabs are also present in number here and it is fun to check them out, showing just their small eyes and antennas out of their shells that most of the time are undistinguishable from other nearby shells. Other rewarding sights for the sharp-eyed Papua diver include another beautiful creature quite common in this area - the Pantohe pigmy seahorse.
Waigeo - Bird Wall is a reef on the south side of Waigeo Island in northern Raja Ampat and is a gentle slope bottoming out at around 30 metres. There are small bommies and rocky areas scattered all along the slope which provide the environment for an astonishing number of marine creatures.
Cuttlefish can be seen here along with very interesting and unusual nudibranchs such as Nembrotha and Funebris. Keep an eye on your dive computer as it is easy to lose track of depth and time since there is simply so much to keep you occupied. You will find Indian lionfish resting or waiting for the next catch in addition to mappa pufferfish hiding from curious divers.
Check out the crevices for blue-stripe flagtail pipefish and also juvenile emperor angelfish, probably one of the most colourful and distinctive fish around. Don't forget to check behind you occassionally as there may be something interesting passing by such as big Napoleon wrasse and a great variety of fusiliers and jacks.
The shallows at this dive site are equally interesting and photographers who have chosen a macro lens will be rewarded with pygmy seahorses and sea dragons. A green turtle might also swing by while you are doing your safety stop so, eyes open!
At The Corner, you should be prepared for a bit of current since this site is on the southwest side of Waigeo and so it is exposed and not sheltered from the Raja Ampat currents by the island at all. But the current can be your friend since it will bring all the fish closer to the reef in search of a shelter and, provided the dive is planned and executed correctly, you will not have to fight it.
White tip and black tip reef sharks can be seen at depth, but they are very shy so make sure your camera is ready to shoot. Wobbegong sharks are sometimes seen on the slope and they are a lot easier to photograph since they tend to be sluggish and restful during the day.
You will also find it interesting to look out for sailor shrimps, spine-cheek anemonefish and also mushroom coral pipefish. If the current is mild then you will really have the chance to witness some of the most beautiful nudibranchs in the world. Many species have been discovered by scuba divers in Raja Ampat and they speak volumes for the biodiversity of the area. There are specimens from the family of Chromodoris, Nembrotha but also countless variations and sizes of Flabellinas. It is a nudibranch-lovers dream.
Wofoh - Wofoh Island has a cluster of surface breaking points: 2 islands and 2 rocks. The reef below is wide enough to form at least 3 different dive sites and you will likely have the chance to see them all over the course of multiple dives.
The west side of the island is a wall dive, the Blue Wall. It drops down to 30-40 metres and the colours here are just amazing due to a perfect mix of hard coral, barrel sponges and soft corals that create a beautiful background for your pictures. Subjects could include a school of colourful surgeonfish or some shy unicornfish. Keep an eye in the blue and below as black tip reef sharks and grey reef sharks have been seen in the area.
What you will almost certainly see are groups of yellow-fin barracuda swimming against the current, reflecting sunlight from their silver scales. This site is also a good chance for critter-lovers with Chromodoris nudibranchs present in large numbers.
As you come around to the other side of the island, the slope gets less steep. The site here is called Black Forest due to the presence of black corals (Antipatharia). Though black coral's living tissue is brilliantly coloured, it takes its name from the distinctive black or dark brown color of its skeleton. Here it hosts pygmy seahorses so make sure you still have air in your tank and, if photographing, enough space on your memory card for wonderful pictures of these amazing and shy creatures.
Yangelo - This island faces directly across from Gam Island and has beautiful and very healthy coral coverage. Yangelo Reef is situated at the mouth of a channel, with its shallows rising up to a beautiful hard coral garden. The deeper parts are home to numerous wobbegongs and probably the greatest abundance of schooling large fish in Raja Ampat.
The dive starts with a jump on the north side of the island from where you can still see a couple of bungalows on the beach that used to be shelters for fishermen. Once in the water, it is just a matter of going with the current (if any). The reef drops down to a depth of 25-30 metres, where the visibility is still very good (an average of 20 metres) due to clean water and direct natural light.
2 colours stand out here: purple and orange, as the bommies scattered all around the slope are completely covered in soft corals of these 2 hues. All around are schools of glass fish chased by yellow fin fusiliers and trevallies. Watch out for lionfish and scorpionfish that like to rest on table or brain corals, plus nudibranchs and Pantohe seahorses both of which are commons sights at this spot. Also look out for octopus and banded sea snakes, which also enjoy the rich and diverse habitat of West Papua.
Yangelo Pinnacle is located between the islands of Gam and Yangelo and begins with a jump into the blue. It is easy find the pinnacle as there is not a great distance between the islands and because the pinnacle rises from the bottom until up to 6-7 metres below the surface. It is mainly covered in hard coral and you will be astonished by the size of brain corals and table corals. However, there are also huge gorgonian fans that can sometimes host ghost pipefish, Pantohe or Denise's pigmy seahorses, so be ready to peer in close.
The real action, if you define "big stuff" as action, is usually around the pinnacle. If there is a strong current then all the predators will be there looking for an easy catch. These include dog tooth tunas, spanish mackerel and giant trevallies.
If the current is mild then you should try to end your dive at the top of the pinnacle, where interesting nubibranchs can be spotted, usually the kind of Atromarginata or the more delicate Flabellinas. The light in the shallows is just perfect for shooting clear, vibrant macro.
Look around for anemones as a great variety of anemone fish can be found in West Papua Province. Common here are the spine-cheek anemone fish and the more common clown anemonefish. They can often be tricky little photographic subjects to get in focus as they keep moving around!
Jef Fam Group - The Jef Fam is a picturesque group of a dozen or so limestone islands and islets, lying directly west of Batanta Island. There are many channels with shallow, aquamarine inlets, bays, lagoons, beaches, cliffs and coves. They are a perfect setting from which to explore Raja Ampat's premiere hard coral dive sites.
The 3 small islets lying in a triangle that make up Batu Burung, or Bird Rocks, (aka Melissa's Garden) is the best spot in the area for regular sightings of the weird and wonderful tasselled wobbegong, as well as one huge great barracuda and occasional manta rays.
The tasselled wobbegong is rarely seen outside New Guinea and Australia, so it's worth diving here to see this member of the shark family alone. With its 2 metre flattened body and very broad head with skin flaps along its lips, it's difficult to imagine misidentifying this creature. Look out for them curled up inside large cabbage corals or under ledges.
The south side of the site is the deepest, so it's a good idea to start your dive here. You can drop 35 metres down a short walled section covered in short pastel soft corals. Then you can head east along and up a steep banked slope. The slope is covered in sheet corals and mushroom corals, small green sea pens, spiky blue-jade tube sponges, and brown hydrozoans. Bigeye bream keep a wary eye on scuba divers as they swim past, and blue-sided wrasse form small colonies here.
This site is fantastic for angelfish as all the Raja Ampat species seem to be here in their glorious colours and forms. Bicolour angelfish (yellow and blue halves), keyhole (navy with a white 'keyhole'), Lamarck's (black and white stripes), 3-spot (bright yellow with blue lips) and 6-banded are all easily spotted. Purple and threadfin anthias add to the spectrum of colour as you make your way up the slope.
If you headed along the western gentle-sloping side of the site then you'd come round until you were 15 metres deep or so, then head up the reef slope. Pairs of masked rabbitfish are common here and black and white banded sea snakes hunt over the green cabbage patch corals.
On the reef flat there is large field of porites and acropora hard corals in 5-8 metres. Small table corals, staghorn patches, green and brown elkhorn and finger corals cover the substrate along with brown soft coral bushes and hydrozoans. Titan triggerfish are at home feeding on hard coral chunks, and there are masses of slender fusiliers, and green and blue damsels. One of the most interesting features here are the giant tridachna clams at 6 metres depth - some over a metre long - with intricate brown, green and purple patterns. They are probably over 100 years old and so are quite a rarity!
To the north of the dive site is a long finger ridge, running from the northernmost islet, slowly down to 22 metres. Clown triggerfish, one of the most beautiful fish in the seas, go about their work in the depths and red-breasted wrasse are nice to spot here too. Be sure to look carefully in the anemones to find porcelain crabs, filtering the water for food.
Dinding Warna Banyak is the north-south channel that runs between the 2 islands of Keruo. Try to dive the west side of the steep banked wall as it allows more sunlight during the daytime. The channel runs for about 300 metres to a depth of 30 metres. The shallows start with yellow and orange soft corals then brown as you make your way along.
In the deeper sections gorgonians and black corals take over. The gorgonian fans are a great place to search for pygmy seahorses. Raja Ampat is known to be a great spot for these beautiful little fish and Keruo Island is among the best. The most common seahorses you will find in these area will be the hippocampus Bargibanti, hippocampus Denise and the latest discovery - hippocampus Pantohe, a rarity around the world.
Watch out for the yellowtail coris, Jansen's wrasse, brown-banded butterflyfish and sweetlips. On the sandy bottom, take a good luck through the rubble as you may be lucky to find red octopus, mantis shrimps, or, more rarely, the rather cryptic mimic octopus.
There is also lot of healthy hard coral in the crevices in which lurk giant and white-eyed morays, gaping ominously. In the blue, big schools of yellow fin fusiliers swirl back and forth amongst the hunting Spanish mackerel and round batfish. On night dives, you will be fascinated by the fact that there seems to be a different type of crab around every corner: decorator crabs, hermit crabs, spider crabs and countless coral crabs and lobsters.
Towards the end of the dive, in the shallow area, you can marvel at the pristine brain corals and table corals, as healthy as you will ever see. As you finish your safety stop you can scour the many anemones for spine-cheek anemonefish.
Manta Ridge - With a name like 'Manta Ridge' you'd really only be expecting to see one creature here, and you'd not be disappointed. Every dive at this popular cleaning station is blessed by the appearance of from 5 up to 30 manta rays. You can see manta rays at several places in the Raja Ampat islands, but this is the premiere place to see them reliably and in large numbers.
Manta Ridge is located equidistant from Mansuar and Airborei islands to the west northwest, to the south of Waigeo Island. You enter the water to the southwest of the smallest island imaginable - a few metres of sand protruding just centimetres above the open ocean's calm surface. You then follow the reef slope west until you hit the 'S' bend in the reef, and this is where the real action starts.
Strong currents attract large groupings of mantas daily into this cleaning station. Divers find a suitable spot on the reef to hook up to and watch the games begin. The powerful manta rays circle and queue in a seemingly orderly fashion for an appointment at the station. Blacklip butterflyfish display their availability and willingness to work by fluttering high above the reef. The mantas swoop in low over the slope to the attendant cleaners. Moon wrasse, leopard wrasse, black eye thicklips and cleaner wrasse all get in on the action, nibbling and chewing away parasitic growth and life from the mantas' mouths, bodies and gill cavities.
The mantas can be up to 4 metres wide, from wing tip to wing tip, and many arrive with their long-term allies - golden trevallies and remoras - with the larger mantas sometimes having attendant cobias. Most manta rays worldwide have dark upper sides and white lower sides. But one quite novel feature of the Raja Ampat mantas is that some of them are completely black. They are relatively unperturbed by scuba divers watching in close attendance, and will often perform 'loop-the-loops' for patient viewers.
Almost ignored by most visitors to this reef is the school of 30 or so bumphead parrotfish that graze on the reef slopes at around 20 metres. They must be quite relieved not to be the centre of attention here, as would be the occasional turtle that visits the reef.
As the cleaning station is located only 6 metres deep in the water and 5 hours cruising distance from the port of Sorong, it is an ideal place to visit on the last day of a Raja Ampat liveaboard trip, as the shallow depth of the site makes flying afterwards less of a risk.
Boo Island - From the surface there are 2 rocks separated by a short stretch of water, beneath which there is a wealth of marine life waiting to be explored. The first thing you'll notice as you deflate your BCD and descend onto this vibrant reef, is a large swim through in shallow water which several divers can penetrate at the same time. This is usually done at the end of the dive and there is much to see before doing so.
Firstly you will work your way along a wall which features much of what makes Raja Ampat special. Gorgonians, barrel sponges, dendronephtya soft corals and various forms of acropora all compete for space of this colourful seascape. Be sure to inspect the sea whips here as you may be able to spot small commensal shrimps attached to them, camouflaged in an identical green to that of their hosts.
Along the wall, and elsewhere on this site are a huge variety of nudibranchs including Chromodoris willani, Phyllidia elegans and Phyllidia nigra. The wall morphs into a sloping reef before giving way to a reef shelf, as you cruise around over topography that seems to change every few minutes.
What does not change is the variety of marine creatures that can come into view with schools of unicornfish, surgeonfish and blue dash fusiliers swarming around you in large numbers. Also look out for less common reef inhabitants such as octopus lurking in many of the fissures of the reef, their knowing eyes watching you more than you are watching them. Banded sea kraits are also not uncommon, probing around the reef as they hunt for food.
Green turtles can also be seen resting and apparently admiring the view as vivid blue and yellow angelfish (Centropyge bicolour), titan trigger fish, oriental sweetlips and several species of butterflyfish fill the water. There are also some enormous Platax teira batfish that are resident here in this overpopulated and memorable diving spot.
Fabiacet - is really a breath of fresh air for all of us that wish we could always dive on reefs with fish life as prolific as nature intended. If you're a tired and burnt out crusty old diver, then don't sit this one out. Bring your nitrox certification because this exceptional Raja Ampat island is one site where you'll be wanting to stay down for as long as your air will last.
The surrounding waters around these pinnacles and islands are very deep and clear. Here you'll find some of the best visibility in Raja Ampat - up of 40 metres - and the fish life is truly excellent, so bring your wide-angle camera lenses. Great hammerhead sharks can be found here, as the adjacent water is deep and they sometimes come up to shallower water to check out what the noisy, yellow and black rubber-clad, bubble-blowing creatures are doing in the water.
The outer wall shallows are dominated with cream, beige and brown leather corals and sponges. Neon fusiliers shimmer past and schooling pale-lipped surgeonfish dive into deeper water as you swim past. Green turtles can be seen munching on the sponges, and black and white striped angelfish are common here.
In the deeper sections are masses of large pink, lilac and purple gorgonian fans and sea fans. 6-banded angelfish and blue-girdled angelfish weave amongst the branches whilst orange-spotted trevally stalk past, intent upon their prey of slender fusiliers which move seemingly as one body in an attempt to thwart the hunters advances. Redtooth triggerfish and schooling bannerfish school off the reef in their hundreds.
The first narrow island is roughly 75 metres in length with a submerged pinnacle lying off its northwestern tip. Swim down to 24 metres and across the channel to gain the pinnacle. The channel is full of red gorgonians. Napoleonfish, pretty rare now in most places around the world, are seemingly everywhere and very approachable in Raja Ampat. Midnight snappers and whitefin surgeonfish occupy the channel, and thousands of small yellow and green sea cucumbers crawl across the limestone surface of the pinnacle.
The second island is approximately 200 metres in length, surrounded by steep bankings and walls, and separated from the first island by about 60 metres of water. When the current is running, the channel between these 2 islands is a terrific place to watch the fish action. It's about 20 metres deep, so just find a suitable spot to hold on amongst the tightly packed fans, green branching cup corals and sheet corals, and watch the fish world go by. Surgeonfish, sleek unicornfish, and many species of snapper - humpback, red, black and white and one-spot - all aggregate in large numbers here, as well as resident pale-tail chromis. Big groupers and great barracuda circle in the outer regions or overhead.
The 3rd and 4th islets are known as Warna Ember, which means Many Colours in Indonesian, and this is a pretty reflective name. The distance between the 2 is about 300 metres and makes for a fantastic dive. Near the third islet at 25 metres deep is a sandy plateau section with a few large table corals. This area acts as a large feeding bowl and attracts massive congregations of fish. Yellowmask surgeonfish, humpback snapper and Napoleon wrasse mill around the area, whilst yellowtail barracuda and mackerel chase after double-lined and blue and yellow fusiliers in explosive bursts of speed.
Leaving the plateau, you will make your way up the uneven coral terrain towards the 4th islet. Here the hunting is non-stop with giant fusiliers, slender fusiliers and schools of Batuna's damsels darting around the large green and gold sea fans, followed by bigeye trevally. The shallows have large porites corals with orange fairy basslets, the spectacular palette surgeonfish, and bumphead parrotfish grazing endlessly.
This small series of 4 islets lie in a short chain, about 25 km southeast of Misool Island, and are a must on any Raja Ampat liveaboard cruise. The larger 2 islets to the northwest are large enough for a few trees to take root on, the smaller 2 ones barely break the water's surface.
Farondi - Located some 20 km east from Misool Island, the limestone cliffs of the islet of Farondi are a firm favourite on any Raja Ampat diving trip because of the unique landscapes that they offer. Tunnels, caverns and dives on sumptuously coloured walls are the order of the day here.
Goa Besar is located on the southern side of Farondi. You'll descend in a small southwest facing cove onto a shallow wall top covered in leather corals, plate corals and purple and yellow sea squirts. Azure damoiselles and chromis mark your descent as the flicker around in the bright light.
Head northwest over the shallow ledged garden of yellow soft corals, and down a wall into an underwater cylindrical hole. This chamber is lined with white, green and red black coral bushes, wire corals and encrusting sponges. Red ornate ghostpipefish hang unnoticed in the black corals.
Finally the wall gives way to an overhanging ledge. Follow this cutting down to the east and you'll see a tunnel entrance bottoming out at 25 metres with yellow sponges and green soft coral trees. The tunnel is about 20 metres long and 10 metres wide. Normally scuba divers can find midnight snapper and Indonesian sweetlips lurking in the darker corners. The exit way is at 26-35 metres deep, and now you have a choice to turn left and southeast or right and northwest along the island wall.
To the right along the wall are an amazing variety of orange, green and purple soft corals, small fans, foxtail corals and whip corals. Examine the whip corals as they host whip coral gobies and camouflaged shrimps. Take the time to inspect the gorgonian fans too. Raja Ampat is renowned as one of the best places in the world for pygmy seahorses. 1 fan has up to 40 seahorses alone, and you could be lucky to see the pink Bargibanti form, the orange Hippocampus Denise, or an unknown green pygmy.
To the left of the tunnel, if a current is running, you are likely to witness hundreds of slender fusiliers and giant fusiliers cascading down the wall. At 20 metres you'll come across another overhang with fans, and purple wire corals, protective shelter for juvenile coral demoiselles and yellowtail damsels. Ringed pipefish and ringtail cardinalfish watch out at you from their safe hiding holes.
Verena's Garden is at the southwest corner of Farondi Island. The main feature of this dive site is a secret air chamber enclosed within the island's wall. There are several small holes that allow sunlight to penetrate leaving a shimmering sky blue water surface.
You access the cavern through the entrance at 5-12 metres deep. The entrance way harbours golden cave sweepers and is marked by green fans, white black coral bushes and purple sea ferns. Small blue tube sponges host the splendid dottyback - Raja Ampat is one of the few places where you can see this splendidly coloured and splendidly named fish. The cavern is roughly 30 metres wide and penetrates 20 metres back along a sandy bottom into the island. Check out the sand for nudibranchs, and mimic octopus have been seen here too.
Back outside the cavern, you'll rejoin the wall which drops down to 35-40 metres at this corner of the island. The very pretty oval-spot butterflyfish (bright yellow with a large black spot or patch on its sides) are usually not too far away from here. They are normally found in pairs. Green freckled hawkfish stare curiously at divers from every ledge or tree. Its often worth taking a look out from the wall occasionally too for the redtooth triggerfish and longfin batfish.
Heading further west or right outside the cavern entrance way are some ledges at 28-30 metres and another huge overhanging ledge at 18 metres dropping to the sea bed. Small schools of humpback snapper can be seen here and giant orange frogfish. Occasionally a marauding band of a dozen or so bumphead parrotfish may come munching through. Raja Ampat has some large examples of this species, the largest of all parrotfish, at up to 1.5 metres.
The most colourful part of the dive is yet to come though. The shallow reef section here has a fantastic array of soft corals of every colour imaginable, with green gooseberry tunicates adding a delicate touch of artistry to the picture. Search under the corals at the wall structure itself as blue dragon nudibranchs like to congregate here.
Gamfi Damu - The currents can be strong around Gamfi Island but it is always good news since it brings nutrients to the reef and you will see the soft corals at their best. Most are at full extension, ready to trap and eat any free floating food, such as minute brine shrimp.
It is common to spot a marauding legion of bumphead parrotfish here, crunching hard corals with their impressive teeth. In the same shallow water, green turtles are often seen while eating or swimming to the surface to get a breath of fresh air. Trying to keep your eye on a swimming turtle is quite a challenge here since the water at this dive site is so thick with fish.
All around the reef are schools of jacks, giant trevallies and yellow-tail barracuda. They are voracious predators and hunt using a classic example of lie-in-wait or ambush so it is easy for divers to to come close and get a good shot of these formidable hunters.
Sea snakes and octopus (Octopus vulgaris) can be spotted inside the crevices in bommies but be careful because the extremely venomous greater blue-ringed octopus has been seen in this area.
If you are a macro lover you will be pleased by the variety of nudibranchs that can be found here. Gamfi Damu Island is another one of those dive sites that showcase the best of Raja Ampat: healthy reefs, lots of fish life and more macro than you know what to do with.
Kaleidoscope - As a break from all that big stuff you may want to sample the colourful delights of this Misool Island dive site. Although you may have to look past a few mobula rays and Napoleon wrasse to get an unhindered view, what you will see is a reef which boasts an unbeatable range of colour.
Even old school divers, whose sense of hearing has long since gone, have been heard to declare the reef scenery at Misool Island to be as good as any they have seen. Here there is a sloping wall that is covered in a blanket of soft corals in every vibrant colour possible.
Critters abound in the area too and you can encounter ghost pipefish and pygmy seahorses as well as nudibranchs and flatworms. This is one Raja Ampat dive site that most want to return to after sun down, and with some justification, as a night dive here is nothing short of stunning.
The Passage - Between the islands of Wayilbatan and Walib in the southern region of Raja Ampat, there is a channel over 30 metres wide featuring some of the finest benthic life you are ever likely to see.
Currents feed through this corridor between the islands, sweeping nutrients whose fate is likely to be falling into the welcoming arms of hundreds of sea fans. They stretch out from either wall to ensnare passing food and are present in a dizzying array of colours. Bright oranges, luminescent yellow, deep purple and vital green combine to launch an all out assault on your senses. Even in conditions of mediocre visibility the effect can be stunning. Depending on the current you may either drift past this jutting, multicoloured army of webs, or, if calm, you can stop and discover the little gems that call them home.
Pygmy seahorses are here and there are is no shortage of fans for them to cling to. You can expect to see many yellow and pink Hippocampus Barbiganti as well as white and orange varieties of Hippocampus Denise. There is no need for photographers to queue up at one solitary fan at this dive site. With some fans being home to 6 or more specimens, there is plenty of choice.
Apart from the pygmies that normally steal the show, you can also check either vibrant wall for nudibranchs of which there are several, including the delightful little yellow blob that is the Thecacera specimen (aka Pikachu). The passage is also home to various colours of crinoids promising a fascinating variety of clingfish, squat lobsters and crinoid shrimps. Other little creatures of interest include the Reindeer wrasse which can be seen slowly weaving its way around quieter patches.
With current and nutrient-rich water, there are also larger species to be seen away from the wall in the channel such as schools of yellowfin barracuda, mobula rays and occasionally, passing squadrons of eagle rays. Despite all of these fascinating creatures both large and small, it is the spectacular colourful scheme that will most likely impress you and etch The Passage deep in your diving memory.
How to Dive West Papua
The dive sites and surrounding area are spread over huge distances. There are many excellent liveaboards in the region covering large areas of sea. However land-lubbers may also enjoy a stay in a Raja Ampat dive resort.
Most Indonesian liveaboards visit Raja Ampat during the months of October until the end of April, although it is possible to find a few boats running trips all the year round. During the months of July to mid-September, strong winds and rain can cause rough seas, causing boats to schedule other areas to visit and closing some of the dive resorts in this period.
However, it is possible to enjoy scuba diving in West Papua all year round since several boats leave the islands of Raja Ampat and move east along the north coast of Papua into Cenderawasih Bay. Here you can find whale sharks at any time of the year and many of the dive sites are sheltered from rough seas.
The Papua provinces of Indonesia have 2 rainy seasons - in November/December and again in July/August. Sea temperatures are pretty constant, ranging from a low of about 27°C between May to October, to 30°C in the November to April period. It can rain here at any time, not just during rainy season.
October to April is a time when plankton blooms reduce visibility but bring greater numbers of manta rays to the area.
Good for: Reef life and health, wrecks, underwater photography and visibility
Not so good for: Non-diving activities
Depth: 5 - >40m
Visibility: 10 - 30m
Surface conditions: Calm
Water temperature: 27 - 30°C
Experience level: Intermediate - advanced
Number of dive sites: Unknown, but >200
Access: Raja Ampat liveaboard cruises
Recommended length of stay: 10 - 16 days