World-class diving and untouched rainforest islands make the remote Raja Ampat archipelago a bucket-list destination says Carolyn Beasley
I’m snorkelling into a dark cavern, bravely switching on my underwater torch to follow my kids, aged seven, 11 and 13. They’re shouting excitedly, discovering a secret amphitheatre beyond the tunnel where bright sunlight pours in. Underwater, the light slopes into gin-clear water, illuminating huge sponges in bright purple and blue. Back outside, I snorkel along a narrow ocean gorge known as The Passage, between Gam and Waigeo islands. Gravity-defying rainforest hugs the cliffs, and heavy vines hang low, ideal handles for tired swimmers. Local guide, Misel, points out the neon flashing of an electric clam. It’s not the first time today I’ve seen something totally new and it won’t be the last. Raja Ampat is that kind of place.
This is Indonesia’s remote Raja Ampat archipelago, in West Papua province, arguably the holy grail of diving. The island chain’s name translates to ‘four kings’, referencing the four largest islands. But with 1,500 islands and seven marine protected areas guarding 1.1 million hectares of nature’s finest marine habitats, the royal riches here are underwater. These islands are touted as the most diverse marine environment in the world; a species factory. With 75 percent of the world’s coral species, 1,700 species of fish, five types of sea turtles, 17 dolphin and whale species and even two types of manta ray, the underwater statistics are certainly impressive.
One of the pioneers of both tourism and conservation in Raja Ampat is Dutchman, Max Ammer. Max established Papua Diving more than 21 years ago, and the company owns rustic Kri Eco Resort with 11 cottages and the more upmarket seven-room Sorido Bay Resort, where I’m staying, both on Kri Island. Max explains why Raja Ampat is so biologically diverse: ‘This place has so many different habitats, so many environments for species. There’s mangroves, seagrasses, reefs, even a cave you can kayak inside for 45 minutes,’ he enthuses. Also, Pacific and Indian Ocean currents meet here, creating ideal conditions for the dispersal of larval marine animals.
The ultimate day trip
A day trip from Kri Island proves Max right, and we encounter not only The Passage, but Manta Sandy, where four-metre wide gentle manta rays seem to lazily fly below my snorkelling family. Nearby at Manta Drop-off, powerful tidal currents carry me as I breeze over eight more behemoths.
On the island of Arborek, Papuan kids start out shy and soon become our friends. We snorkel under their jetty with giant clams, turtles and astonishing fish. At Hidden Bay, boatman Otto steers into a small opening only a local could know. The tiny inlet becomes a twisting bay, several kilometres long, with bizarre mangrove-lined coral lagoons and dramatic undercut mini-islets, the trademark Raja Ampat ‘mushroom’ islands. Palms, conifers and orchids cling to rocky outcrops. We cap the perfect day with a picnic at a local homestay, built on a photogenic jetty.
Right in front of Sorido Bay Resort, dive site Cape Kri holds the record for the highest fish count in the world, with 374 species identified by scientists in one dive. As I flip backwards into the water, I’m overwhelmed by the life. I descend through schools of huge barracuda, back tip reef sharks inspect me as they pass. Gorgonian fan corals, hard corals and sponges cover the coral reef, creating habitats for colourful reef fish. It’s a challenging dive with strong, plankton-filled currents, the food that makes all this life possible, and the spectacle is unforgettable.
The forests are also rich with wildlife, with weird and wonderful critters appearing at night. A tree-dwelling marsupial called the common spotted cuscus (nicknamed ‘Norman’), visits our restaurant and we hand him a banana or twelve. Walking back to our room, the forest floor under the boardwalk seethes with hermit crabs. Just steps from my veranda, I shine a torch in the shallow water and spot the cute Raja Ampat epaulette shark, which appears to ‘walk’ by on its front fins. By day, a different cast of characters appears with squawking cockatoos and the hoots of spice imperial pigeons creating the soundtrack. My kids help feed orphaned baby cassowaries; flightless birds rescued from poachers on the Papuan mainland.
Endemic to these islands is the flamboyant red bird of paradise, and I’m seeking it out at Waigeo Island. We follow our guide through the village and a bright red eclectus parrot flashes past as we enter the mosquito-rich jungle for the 15-minute hike. Our guide gestures to rustic seats, and the angle of the backrest directs my head tree wards to the branch where the birds may appear for their courtship dancing. The distant whine of a chainsaw makes me nervous for this Near Threatened species, and after more than an hour of silence and with darkness pending, my group reluctantly departs without a viewing. I find out that the birds showed up two minutes later, but I remind myself these are wild animals, not obliged to entertain.
Bird watching is a rare example of Papuans accessing tourism employment opportunities. Most tourists visit on live aboard dive boats, and the tourism income remains offshore. By contrast, Max’s resorts employ 90 percent Papuans. Not only providing hospitality opportunities, his not-for-profit organisation Raja Ampat Research and Conservation Centre (RARCC) empowers locals with skills such as boat building, pilot training and aviation mechanics. All resort guests are contributing, as 10 percent of profits go to funding RARCC.
My favourite initiative is Kayak4Conservation, which connects Papuans directly to tourists through multi-day sea-kayaking expeditions. The kayaks are built onsite in RARCC’s workshop. Through micro-credit loans from RARCC, local landholders have built basic Papuan homestay cabins for kayakers along the routes. Homestay hosts choose to protect their coral reefs so guests can snorkel during their stay. All kayak guides are local Papuans. ‘They love doing it, and they’re the best because they’re proud to show their own country,’ Max says.
My family takes the child-friendly option, kayaking to a nearby sandbank. Viewed from the kayak, Raja Ampat is breathtaking and I’m reminded of Max’s words: ‘Kayaking is non-intrusive, so we can get closer to everything. You see things here that you would normally never see.’ With no motor, I can hear tiny waves slap the kayak and every birdcall. Instead of observing nature, I feel like I’m part of it; just a tiny speck bobbing on a massive, life-filled ocean.
Boat transfer to Sorido Bay Resort from the port of Sorong takes around one to two hours. Sorong can be reached by domestic Indonesian airlines from Jakarta, Makassar or Manado. Rates include full board (excluding alcohol) and transfers for a seven-night stay from €2,050 (9,325 UAE dirhams) per person twin share or from €2,943 (13,386 UAE dirhams) per person twin share for a package including three guided dives per day. More information https://papua-diving.com