An immersion in the heart of West Papua, a magnificent province of Indonesia, leaves no one indifferent. It is very likely to be one of the most beautiful masterpieces that our planet Earth can offer! Raja Ampat is characterized by countless islands and islets dotted in an ocean brimming with life and color. The succession of meetings and wonders emanating from this Eden inspired me this following formula, which in my opinion is the most correct and the most concise to describe this place: Raja Ampat, a rainbow of bio-diversity!
Raja Ampat, term meaning “The Four Kings” in Indonesian is an archipelago made up of four main islands: Waigeo, Batanta, Salawati, Misool and some six hundred islets with a paradisiacal decor, located in West Papua, east of Sorong. Raja Ampat, are characterized by several unique settings that coexist, sometimes within a few strokes of each other's fins, sometimes separated by several nautical miles. Each place explored seems to be a colorful Eden where man has not yet had time to make his mark. Hopefully he never will!
Le Tidak Apa'Pa, charming little traditional Indonesian boat, one hundred percent wooden, will be my refuge for the ten days of the journey. With its characteristic banana shape, two masts and seven sails, this Pinisi, twenty meters long and five meters wide, can accommodate a maximum of eight people. So the Tidak Apa'Pa offers an intimate stay in a small committee. Nothing comparable with other liveaboards of twenty to thirty tourists. On board the Tidak Apa'Pa what is offered to you is almost tailor-made!
The owners of Tidak Apa'Pa, Ariane and Ludovic are lovers of the marine environment. They will guide you with enthusiasm and passion throughout the cruise. Tidak Apa'Pa is to date the only cruise ship Friendly Recycler ! What could be better than rebreather diving to make the most of Raja Ampat's underwater scenery and fauna! Small detail: each dive is unlimited in time! Only your consumption will limit you unlike other boats where the dives do not exceed sixty minutes, or even forty-five minutes for some. With four dives per day, it is no less than six hours of rebreather immersion that we carried out daily with Ludovic. What to make the most of this exceptional diving destination!
For lovers of photography, Ludovic, a great fan of underwater photography, is without question the dream guide! With his years of experience and his passion for underwater biodiversity, he easily finds the rarest but also the most emblematic subjects of Raja Ampat. No need for a book to identify your photographed subjects, Ludovic knows all the scientific names from memory! I tried to paste it several times but I never succeeded.
Ten days is the bare minimum required to just glimpse Raja Ampat's underwater riches. Departing from Sorong, the cruise begins with an overnight navigation to reach Misool, one of Raja Ampat's four main islands. The arrival at the dive sites took place at dawn, when the first rays of the sun eradicate the many islets of the night. From the deck of the boat, the setting is already absolutely magnificent. The countless strings of islands of various sizes dotted here and there by nature impose a slow and winding navigation on the Tidak Apa'Pa. The islands with multiple shapes shaped by the elements over time, spark your imagination. The first immersions in the colorful and lush waters of Misool instantly transport you to a universe where the abundance of life and biodiversity are in perfect harmony. The most unique features of Raja Ampat, which at the same time characterize this destination, are the extreme wealth and the extraordinary diversity that emerges from the surface of the water. Covered and protected by a thin translucent coat, it is only a few centimeters below the surface that an exceptional explosion of color and life begins. For underwater photographers equipped with an SLR, the decision to configure the equipment in macro photography or in wide angle is difficult! Each dive offers the possibility of taking exemption shots regardless of the configuration chosen. However, some spots lend themselves more than others to macro or mood photography. This is the case for example of diving sites Magic mountain et Four Kings which offer absolutely breathtaking reef scapes (underwater point of view)!
Magic mountain was one of the first dive sites on the journey. The eyes and the mind were already amazed by the richness and the beauty of the previous immersions where, among other things, a few pygmy seahorses and colorful shrimps of various shapes were seen. There, clouds of fish composed of thousands of individuals as well as splendid underwater decorations, flirted and played with the reflection of the surface. At that time, I did not expect for a second to attend the show that was going to be offered to us. Barely two minutes of immersion and we saw a manta ray of reef hovering between two waters. By paying a little more attention, we could vaguely distinguish other dark shapes at the limit of visibility. In fact, it was not one but eight Manta rays (Mobula alfreidi) swimming around us. The show was absolutely magical and yet it was not the first time I had seen manta rays. The magic of this moment was also due to the setting in which these sea giants evolve: a reef overflowing with life and color where anthias, schools of trevally and batfish make their way in the incessant ballet of Mantas. However, the presence of potato groupers and wrasse was not anecdotal. However, a Manta ray was different from its congeners by its well rounded belly and its cephalic fins irritated to the blood. No doubt, this ray would soon give birth! This future mother was followed by many males.
It was inconceivable to only dive once on a spot as fantastic as Magic Mountain! So we didn't have to beg to go back the next day at roughly the same time in the late afternoon around four o'clock. Manta rays were they going to give us a new ballet? Nothing was less certain! After a few minutes of moving in the middle of batfish and other tropical fish, the sky suddenly became cloudy and the light suddenly fell! Did a cloud hide the sun? No ! Out of nowhere, an oceanic Manta ray (Manta birostris) sliding between two waters obstructed the sun. It was gigantic in size, much larger than the reef manta rays of the day before, which were already four meters and fifty in wingspan. This was to exceed six meters. We were amazed by his majestic swim and his extraordinary size. Our presence clearly did not seem to worry or disturb her during her many passages. We stayed motionless as close as possible to the reef, with our bubble-free rebreathers we then became almost invisible. It is the magic of rebreather diving that allows you to observe and contemplate this underwater world as it acts and interacts without the presence of man. This is how I was able to take some photographs of this majestic Manta as close as possible to the reef and its finned inhabitants. Undoubtedly, the dives on Magic Mountain have their place in the top ten of the most beautiful dives of my life!
Four Kings is undoubtedly one of the most amazing spots of Misool. Being particularly fond of the underwater atmosphere photo myself, I can say that the Four Kings spot will satisfy the most demanding of photographers. The spot is made up of four rock formations (hence its name Four Kings) whose bases are about fifty meters deep and whose summits peak between thirty and five meters below the surface. Once the rear rocking has been completed, the chain of bubbles gradually gives way to fry clouds made up of thousands of individuals swimming, twirling around the drop offs and coral potatoes. Blue jacks ambushed like torpedoes into the schools of glass fish. The synchronized and harmonious movements of the fry in the face of the incessant attacks of the carnivores create one of the most magnificent aquatic ballets there is. Towards fifty meters deep, the schools of barracudas and barracudas of several hundred individuals come to meet the divers. Going up quietly along the Four Kings, the crevices of the reef are adorned with a thousand colors as our lamps pass. Red, yellow, magenta, green, turquoise, orange and so on, the entire spectrum of colors of the rainbow is painted on this reef by the greatest of artists: nature. This explosion of colors is due to the impressive coral abundance, to the diversity of gorgonians, alcyonarians and other soft corals which colonize the smallest rocky surface. A real treat for the eyes, but also for camera sensors. The abundance of life and colors is such that we no longer know where and what to look or photograph, so much so that we returned there the next day. At the end of each dive on Four Kings, a characteristic smile appears on the faces of its visitors as soon as they exit the water! The perpetual underwater spectacle offered by this diving "temple" will forever be engraved in the memory of divers.
Between these fabulous dives with exceptional underwater atmospheres, the emblematic spots ofAndiamo, Candi Store, Yelit, Tank Rock, Whale Rock Dunia Kecil As for them, they are extraordinary hunting grounds for macro-photography enthusiasts. The search for pygmy seahorses perfectly camouflaged in their gorgonian fans is a real challenge. Their mimicry is so perfect that it takes a discerning eye to successfully distinguish them from the Gorgonian ramifications. Raja Ampat and especially the Misool region has three species of pygmy seahorses: Bargibant seahorse (Hippocampus Bargibanti), Denise seahorse (Denise Hippocampus) and Christmas pygmy seahorse which is endemic to Misool Island! The impressive plume of multi-colored crinoids clinging to the gorgonians and all the possible substrates present on the dive sites are all refuges for symbiotic crustaceans. This is the case with this commensal crinoid shrimp (Laomenes sp) PHOTO, this elegant crinoid crab (Allogalathea elegan) PHOTO, this baba Galathea of crinoids (Allogalathea baba) PHOTO and many other subjects just waiting to be photographed. Even the alcyonarians act as a refuge for decorating crabs and other small crustaceans looking for food, such as this yellow Orang Outang crab (Oncinopus aranea) PHOTO or this little thorny soft coral crab (Lissoporcellana sp) PHOTO.
West of Misool, located not far from the only port on the island, a mysterious Blue Hole known only to locals remains hidden a few meters deep. As its name suggests, this formation is characterized by a dark blue colored hole tending more towards black. The entrance to the blue hole, being at a depth of twelve meters, makes it difficult to see to anyone who is out of the water. The submerged sinkholes are karst formations resulting from the erosion of carbonate geological formations. This place was previously in the open air, certainly during the Pleistocene geological era. The action of the elements (rain, wind, river, etc.) has created this hole over the millennia. Entering these places is a journey through time. From its entrance at twelve meters up to forty-five meters deep, the gallery is vertical. With a diameter of around ten meters, the atmosphere is extraordinary. Here, little or no wildlife to contemplate, it is the geological and mineral aspect that imposes itself on our senses and our imagination. From forty-five meters deep, the gallery becomes oblique to the bottom of the submerged tunnel sixty-four meters deep. There, the light is almost absent, but that does not prevent some living organisms from thriving as best they can on the limestone walls.
The Tidak Apa'Pa weighs anchor and sails along the island of Misool to take us to another colorful site of Raja Ampat but also one of the most singular of Misool, a mythical site which I secretly dreamed of since many years. An unusual place as there are very few in this world! This place is the Lenmacana Lake or Lac des Méduses. This lake is like imprisoned inside one of the many islets that make up the Misool archipelago. From the outside, nothing lets guess what is happening behind the imposing steep ramparts. This is certainly one of the reasons for the late discovery of this lake in the early 2010s. This reservoir is both a prison and an Eden for these jellyfish. A prison because it confines them in a tiny and restricted place compared to the vastness of the ocean. But also an Eden, because it protects them from predators and other organisms that could compete with them. The access to reach the lake is relatively short and more or less easy to access, except when one carries a camera, underwater housing and flash weighing nearly fifteen kilos. The ascent using ropes was perilous for the equipment. But the game was worth the candle. Arrived at the top of the rampart, the lake can be glimpsed through the vegetation. I can already see hundreds, no, thousands of little jellyfish on its surface. No doubt, we are in the right place. Arrived at the edge of the water, it is without waiting that I immerse myself…. palmless! Yes, in order to avoid potential damage to these small jellyfish, fins are prohibited in the lake. The jellyfish, Mastigia papua of their scientific name can be counted by the hundreds wherever you look. But it seems that they concentrate more on the surface where the sun is present. They are much less dense in the shaded areas. Maybe they need the heat of the sun? For almost an hour, I completely drained the battery of my flashes in search of the ideal composition. Anyway, swimming among these beautiful little jellyfish, fortunately not stinging, will remain one of the best memories of this trip.
Not far from Lenmakana Lake, we take advantage of the landscape by sailing with the Tidak Apa'Pa annex in the meanders formed by the islets. Some places seem to be small fragments of paradise on earth. Tiny lagoons protected by vertical cliffs one hundred meters high are hidden from mass tourism. The white sand and the coral gardens on the surface of the water surrounding each islet reflect the light. The striking contrast with the deep blue of the drop offs accentuates the relief of this scene which seems almost unreal.
Not far from this magnificent place where the coral rubs shoulders with the green islets, the waves agitated around a rocky point jealously conceal the entrance to a submerged cave located a few meters below the surface. A school of hatchet fish stands guard in front of the entrance to this underwater cave. Inside, this cavity is not completely submerged. A large room several meters high reveals the interior of the island. Column-shaped stalactites fall from the vault. Their ends extend underwater like a cathedral built by erosion and time.
Just out of this underwater cave, we return to our boat for a night of navigation to Batanta where the second part of the cruise will begin. It is with nostalgia that we move away from Misool and its treasures.
In the early morning, we arrive very close to the dive site Melyssa Garden whose reputation promises us sumptuous aquatic settings. Melyssa Garden is one of the many fringing reefs that surround the islands of Raja Ampat. They are counted by hundreds, but this one has something exceptional. The coral cover of this reef is absolutely remarkable in several ways. Acropora colonies as far as the eye can see are in excellent health. To my knowledge, their gigantic size has little equivalent. This spot offers a multitude of shelters for the small reef fish that find refuge there. The colors displayed by the corals are like paintings by masters. In front of this fabulous open-air banquet, the humpback parrots have a blast. Surrounded by "deer antler corals", a giant clam of about one meter and fifty in length is certainly the oldest of the places.
At the exit of the water, we take advantage of the surface interval to admire Pianiamo, the emblematic point of view of Raja Ampat: Citrus Bridge. It is one of the most emblematic spots in Raja center and certainly one of the most magnificent. During the dive it is not less than four Wobbegong, the symbolic shark Bearded Carpet (Eucrossorhinus dasypogon) from Raja Ampat that we had the chance to meet, including one in the open water. His slow and fluid stroke made us follow him for several minutes. Suddenly, he seemed to want to land near a coral potato. This is how he brought us to one of his fellows: a Wobbegong female, probably wooed. At the end of the dive, it is on the banks of the Citrus Bridge Mangrove as we make our bearings. I must admit that landings in a place like this are worth seeing and believe me you will not count the minutes! Located at the intersection of the terrestrial and reef environment, the mangroves act as a link connecting two totally distinct universes. The marriage of the reef and the mangrove vegetation is absolutely breathtaking. Each element of this ecosystem has a role to play to maintain this fragile balance and this soft harmony of which only Nature holds the secret. In perfectly clear water, corals and small reef fish rub shoulders with the roots, branches and leaves of mangroves. Looking up, we can see garfish swimming under the smooth surface of the water giving us the impression of flying in the sky and the branches of the trees. At the bend of a root, a school of apogon fish peacefully swims in this Eden for fry. I could spend a whole day contemplating and photographing this extraordinary place.
Magnificent fringing reef, Sawandarak is a diving spot accessible from the shore. A white sand beach separates the village from the turquoise waters. Children play in the waves of small waves. A traditional wooden pontoon that serves as a landing stage for tourists and villagers becomes a refuge for all kinds of aquatic animals. Below the surface, it is an explosion of biodiversity, colors and abundance that is only a few meters from the beach. The balance between human presence and underwater fauna seems to have been found here. It is a real hope and a model to follow!
Whether in schools or alone, the pontoon shelters a multitude of fish. Tabular and soft corals colonized the piles of the landing stage. In perfect harmony, wild life gently takes back its rights over human constructions. The fringing reef of an extreme variety is the perfect example of a thriving coral biotope in very good health. Corals of all kinds are home to dense clouds of glassfish. Some green turtles (Chelonia mydas) graze peacefully on tiny algae growing in the middle of coral colonies. Hawksbill turtles (unscientific) attack sponges and jellyfish that roam in these fishy waters. A few meters away, escorted by its faithful bright yellow king trevallies, a giant loach (Eupinefreus would throw) about two meters in length rests in one of the many crevices of the reef. A few tens of meters further north, a giant giant clam (scientific name), whose lips are adorned with a coat of magnificent colors, commands respect by its mere presence.
The legendary school of sweet Cape kri is a must see by Raja Ampat. Near the tip of the cape, on a sandy bottom about thirty-five meters deep, the school of sweetlips is easy to find. It must be said that these fish always stay in the same place. The rebreather dive allows long minutes at this depth without having too much decompression stop. It is really a great asset to make the most of this special school of fish. When we arrived, the bench was split in two. It took us a few minutes to group them all together. Two varieties of sweetlips are present in this massive and compact ball. The sweetlip (Plectorhinchus lineatus) and the sweet treat (Plectorhinchus polytaenia). However, the majority of individuals in the group are sweetlips. The goal of this training is to appear larger and to simulate a single individual to dissuade predators from attacking the bench. We can easily understand the effectiveness of this technique when we compare the mass and volume of the bench made to the diver. What shark or other grouper would dare to attack an individual as imposing as that? Above the sweetlips, another school of fish is forming, these are paddle snappers (Lutjanus gibbus) a bright red which contrasts with the deep blue. These magnificent fish occupied us more than forty minutes at thirty-five meters deep. The ascent along the reef is also carried out in the company of other schools of fish, such as the naso. Coral shark sleeping behind a coral potato is surprised by bubble-free divers
Article by Gabriel Barathieu, Gabriel is an accomplished photographer who has won numerous photography prizes with pictures of whales or incredible half-water and half-land. For a few years now, he has settled in Mayotte where he explores the region's deep sea. You can find his work on his website and why not order a photo to decorate your home or office.