Top Five Reasons to Dive Raja Ampat
Text: Tom Halleran
Photos: Tom Halleran, Evan Possley, Simon Lorenz
Off the coast of West Papua, Indonesia, lies Raja Ampat. Over 1,500 sparsely populated jungle-covered islands make up this jaw-dropping archipelago. The topside view is absurdly gorgeous, with mountainous islands and their white sand beaches scattered across an aquamarine horizon. But the reason we all made the trek to this remote destination was what lay beneath the surface. Smack in the heart of the Coral Triangle, boasting more than 500 species of reef-building coral and over 1,600 species of fish, Raja Ampat is world-renowned as the most biodiverse underwater region on the planet.
I was fortunate to be able to join this 10-day liveaboard trip with Insider Divers which allowed us to see the very best Raja Ampat has to offer. With so many mind-boggling dive sites, chock-full of wildlife encounters, it was hard to narrow this list down to just five, but I did my best. These are my Top Five Reasons to Dive Raja Ampat.
Number 5: Jellyfish Lake
To get to Raja Ampat you need to fly into the city of Sorong, which borders the northern part of the region. However, it’s widely agreed that the best dive sites are found farther south in the center and southern areas. After a couple of warm-up dives in the north, we made the overnight crossing of roughly 15 hours to the even more remote southern area of the region.
The crown jewel of Southern Raja Ampat is Misool, a relatively large island which sits in a fairytale-like lagoon. The surrounding waters feature many beautiful dive sites (e.g., Magic Mountain, Puri Pinnacle, Love Potion #9), but perhaps the most unique site is found sitting on top of the island itself.
It’s a steep and somewhat challenging hike to the top of Misool, especially when you’re hauling your snorkel gear (and in my case heavy camera equipment). However, once you reach Lenmakana Lake, more commonly known as “Jellyfish Lake”, it’s more than worth the climb. This lake is jam-packed with beautiful, bright gold, stingless jellyfish and is one of three places in the world where you can swim with stingless jellies. Given the remote location of this brackish-water lake, the jellyfish have evolved with no natural predators and no need to possess stingers.
Number 4: Macro Critters
Raja Ampat isn’t as acclaimed as the nearby macro meccas of Lembeh and Bali, and I must admit I almost exclusively had my wide-angle lenses on during our daytime dives. We had come all this way to see the coral reefs; also, I didn’t want to jinx myself by having a macro lens on when a Manta Ray showed up! However, I shot macro on all our night dives, and I was blown away by the variety of awesome critters on each dive.
During these night dives we encountered bucket list creatures such as Pygmy Seahorses, “Pikachu” nudibranchs, Flamboyant Cuttlefish, and Peacock Mantis Shrimp. The ability to photograph incredible reefscapes and larger subjects like turtles and sharks during the day, then switch lenses and shoot macro critters at night, sums up the incredible biodiversity that makes Raja Ampat an underwater photographer’s dream.
In addition Simon provided the option to try a blackwater night dive. I was scheduled for the second one which unfortunately we had to abort due to heavy current.
Number 3: Sharks
If a lake full of golden stingless jellyfish wasn’t enough for you, Misool also has a lagoon sanctuary for baby Blacktip Reef Sharks just off its coast. Standing in waist-deep crystal-clear water, at the edge of a jungle island, watching for the iconic sight of a shark fin breaching the water, was truly an experience like no other. This relaxing setting provided an excellent opportunity for split-shots (where half the photo is above water and half is below). Beyond the natural beauty, and adorable baby sharks, this lagoon is also a recent and encouraging marine conservation success story. Earlier this century, when shark finning was still a major issue in the region, there were no sharks to be found in this lagoon.
However, in 2013 the Indonesian government declared the waters of Raja Ampat a shark sanctuary (the first ever for the country), and species are beginning to return. This lagoon now serves as an idyllic safehaven for Blacktip Reef Sharks to grow until they are strong enough to move to the deeper surrounding coral reefs. It’s wonderful to know that future generations will have the chance to enjoy this experience as our group did.
Another exciting element of Raja Ampat for shark lovers are the ever present wobbegong shark, a bizarre carpet shark that lies in ambush for small reef sharks and is at first hard to spot
Number 2: Manta Rays
There are two types of Manta Rays, Reef and their larger Oceanic cousins, and Raja Ampat is one of a handful of places on the planet where you can see both, potentially on the same dive. Reef Mantas “only” grow up to 15 feet wide, whereas Oceanic Mantas can reach an enormous 22 feet! Mantas are seen in this region year-round, but the best time to encounter them is when they aggregate here September – April. To maximize our chances, this Insider Divers trip was scheduled during the height of Manta season in late January. “Manta Ridge” is a well-known dive site and manta cleaning station in the North that lets you get up close with these gentle giants. It did not disappoint. Unaffected by the ripping current that this dive site is known for, the Mantas gracefully circled overhead, each taking their turn to be cleaned by brightly colored wrasses and butterflyfish. I was not lucky enough to see an Oceanic Manta on this trip – just another reason to come back.
Number 1: Coral Reefs
Exploding with color and life, the coral reefs of Raja Ampat are a sight to behold. The reefs here contain an almost unbelievable 75% of all coral species known in the world, over 1,600 species of fish, and 700 species of mollusks. Every direction you look is a picturesque seascape – soft and hard corals of every hue, massive schools of reef fish such as tangs and parrotfish, sea turtles, and returning Reef Shark populations help make up these bustling coral reefs.
There are also special coral dives that allowed us to experience truly unique coral growth. Corals grow on many of the islands village jetties to impressive sizes.
And finally we are also able to see the truly unique corals that grow so shallow that they attach themselves to the roots of mangrove trees.
Raja Ampat is known as “The Last Paradise”, and you see why when you gaze in amazement at these reefs, which serve as a magnificent reminder of how healthy and vibrant our oceans can be.
About the Author
Tom’s passion for the underwater world started at a very young age. It began with a love of sharks and soon evolved into a fascination with all marine life. He regularly dives at the famous Blue Heron Bridge muck diving site to capture shots of nudibranchs, octopuses and other interesting critters, and dives with numerous shark species out of Jupiter and The Bahamas to put his fisheye lens to work. Tom loves to share his images with family, friends and fellow underwater photographers, and hopes his work can help inspire others to have a greater understanding and appreciation for our oceans. He is also a photo coach, and an active member of the South Florida Underwater Photography Society (SFUPS), where he serves on the Board of Directors.