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...Highlights: shark action, manta rays, turtles, schooling fish & big pelagics, great macro life/ marine diversity...
...Diving environment: healthy reefs, wall dives, drift diving, caverns, advanced divers...

Simply put, Raja Ampat is the bees knees in the world of scuba diving. 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 Indonesian liveaboards, however there are also a very limted number of dive resorts available too.

If you don't enjoy the diving in Raja Ampat, 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!

Diving in Raja Ampat with wobbegongs and glassfish - photo courtesy of Stephen Wong and Takako Uno
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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

Northern Region

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.
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Central Region

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.
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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. Scuba divers 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.
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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.

Southern Region

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.
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How to Dive West Papua

This all depends on what type of vacation you want to have here. There are 2 main options:

Raja Ampat lies at the heart of the world's marine bio-diversity. For this reason it is the many diver's liveaboard destination of choice who want nothing but the best. The dive sites and surrounding area are spread over huge distances. There are many excellent liveaboards in the region covering large areas of sea.

But land-lubbers may prefer to stay in a dive resort to witness this specatular underwater show.

The Raja Ampat Diving Season

Most Indonesian liveaboards dive in 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 May to 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. For more on the climate of Sorong, visit Weather & ClimateOpens in a new window.

October to April is a time when plankton blooms reduce visibility but bring greater numbers of manta rays to the area.

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Where is Raja Ampat and How Do I Get There?

Review our maps below of Indonesian Papua, showing the location of the Raja Ampat islands, and its host country Indonesia. Here, you will find information on how to get to Raja Ampat.

Map of Papua/West Papua (click to enlarge in a new window) Map of Indonesia (click to enlarge in a new window)

Reef Summary

Depth: 5 - >40m
Visibility: 10 - 30m
Currents: Moderate
Surface conditions: Calm
Water temperature: 27 - 30°C
Experience level: Intermediate - advanced
Number of dive sites: Unknown, but >200
Recommended length of stay: 10 - 16 days

Useful References

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... Many many thanks for doing the bookings again for this wonderful experience. The only problem is that after Raja Ampat, where else can we go that won't be a disappointment by comparison? Anyway, we'll start saving for our next trip ... -- , Australia.  [More customer reviews]