Diving The Last Paradise from Misool to Dampier Strait and Central Raja Ampat.
Photo above: Aerial photo above Piaynemo Island.
The Last Paradise
The name Raja Ampat literally translates to ‘The Four Kings’, after its four main islands Waigeo, Batanta, Salawati and Misool. This incredible part of the world is located at the northwest tip on the Bird’s Head Peninsula of Papua Island and many call it ‘The Last Paradise’. The archipelago comprises of well over 1,500 islands covered in tropical jungle which are surrounded by rich healthy reef systems, mangrove forests and incredibly abundant and diverse marine life. Whether you’re a lover of macro or megafauna, a visit to Raja Ampat will simply leave you in awe. It is the largest marine park in Indonesia with the highest level of protection. My first trip there in 2019 lead me even to visit a second time one year later, and I have just now returned from my third visit.
Everything about this place is beautiful and not only below the surface, the islands themselves have much to reveal such as endemic species of birds, tree kangaroos and many other rare species. Everything is thriving with untouched wilderness, wildlife and colour. Situated amongst an area that is known as ‘The Coral Triangle’, it is the most biodiverse marine environment in the world. Its incredible diversity is due to being located between the Indian and Pacific Ocean where fish and coral larvae from both oceans is shared. With over 1,500 species of corals and more than 530 species of fish, the library of what you might encounter is huge. From manta rays, whale sharks, wobbegongs, reef sharks, turtles, devil rays, endemic species of pygmy seahorse, nudibranchs and other macro critters it really is the pinnacle of diving locations.
There are a couple of ways to dive Raja Ampat, you can choose to stay at a dive resort on one of the main islands, or to go by liveaboard. I highly recommend the later option, as it is such a large area, diving it from a live aboard means to will be able to cover a larger portion of the archipelago and dive some of the more remote sites. All my trips to Raja have been by liveaboard visitng central and southern Raja Ampat. My most recent visit was 11 days with 3-4 dives per day on a boat called the Mola Mola 2.
Photos above: Incredible soft corals and sea fans from Nudi Rock and Boo Window in Misool.
Arrival In Sorong, West Papua (Indonesia)
To get here you need to fly to Sorong which usually means going via Jakarta or Makassar. Upon arrival in Sorong where the boat was departing from, the crew met us in the Airport and drove us our to the harbour where our beautiful vessel awaited. After a boat orientation and crew introduction we made a check dive at a nearby reef.
Missol, Southern Raja Ampat
Over night we sailed 20hrs south towards Misool in southern Raja, which in my mind has some of Raja Ampat’s best diving and due to being much more remote. Misool really is the 'Last Paradise'. This region boasts some of the most amazing landscapes imaginable from dense mangroves forests, muffin like islands, caves, sandy coves, deep ocean ridges and steep sea mountains of coral reef. The Misool Islands have been shaped by the powerful forces of nature over millions of years. Underwater the vibrant colours of the soft corals and sea fan species are unlike anything I have seen. Diving at the Magic Mountain, Four Kings, Boo Window, Puri Pinnacle, Nudi Rock, Goa Farundi and Eagle Nest are just some of the great sites you can dive. Each site is so unique with anything from walls of pink and purple corals, to sea mounts covered in life. To tell you all the magical encounters I had would take me days. The end of each dive my dive buddy and I were lost for words to even list what we had seen. Infact you will see more species of marine life on a single dive in Raja than you can in a whole year of diving in the Caribbean sea. Amazing right?
Photos above were taken at Magic Mountain, Misool.
The one site that really stood out for me on each of my trips was a dive site called Magic Mountain, it really could not have been named more accurately. This sea mount is packed with life from clustered schools of batfish and fusiliers to huge and friendly Napoleon wrass. Its rocky and coral covered slopes disappear off into the blue depths on either side. My buddy and I descended onto a deeper section of one of the ridges, we started to spot the arrival of several manta rays. I counted about 8 mantas approaching and as they came closer I was amazed to see that there were actually oceanic and reef mantas together. There are very few places in the world where you can see both species in one place, Raja Ampat happens to be one of them. More and more mantas were arriving from all directions, flying over our heads as they got cleaned by the smaller fishes inhabiting the mount. It truely was an exhilarating dive I will never forget.
Photo above of the silverside at Four Kings. If you look carefully there is a diver amongst them.
The Four Kings
My second favourite site is a quite famous one called 'The Four Kings', named after Raja Ampat it's self. The seamount is made up of 4 huge pinnacles that join together, covered in sea fans, hard corals, anemones and sponges. But what makes it so incredible is the density of fish. It is simply swarming with millions of fast moving silverside that are hunted at top speed by Trevally, Tuna and other predatory fish. At times it is even difficult to see your dive buddy through it all. It is one of the most action packed dives which definitely needs to be dived more than once.
Photo above showing the scene atop the sea mount of Four Kings.
Jelly Fish Lake, Misool West Papua
After a week exploring the south we then started to make the journey back north stopping along the way at a very unique place called Lenmakana Jelly Fish Lake. This is a section of sea that got closed off from open ocean, situated in the middle of an island surround by jungle. It hosts a population of stingless jellyfish that have adapted to survive by photosynthesis. They are safe to swim with as they no longer have need to sting. Getting into the lake involves a decent amount of climbing up and then down some natural rocky stairs and tree roots to reach the lake in the centre of the small island. The experience of swimming in this lake is quite incredible and there are few places quite like it. It felt like drifting through outer space.
Photo above: Jelly fish lake.
Gam Island Mangrove Reef
Continuing further north, our journey then took us to Gam island where we had the opportunity to dive in a mangrove forest surrounded by a coral reef system. There are very few places in the world where you can see such healthy coral growing so close to the roots of a mangrove forest. Some of the corals even grew on the roots of the trees themselves. This dive was a highlight of the trip to me and the clarity of the water here was sensational.
Photo above: the mangrove reef at Gam island shot as a split image.
I was quite sad to see on my most recent visit to this site that much of the old wooden jetty had collapsed but there was still so much to see here and it remains one of my favourite dives in Central Raja. There is a lot you can encounter such as schooling sweetlips, the biggest green turtle I ever saw, epaultte sharks during the night and wobbegongs. Despite the adjacent development nearby, the reef is thriving and certainly worth visiting for both day and night dives.
Photos above: Old wooden jetty and schooling sweet lips over the reef at Sawandarek.
Central Raja & Dampier Strait
The next day we arrived in the Dampier Strait, central Raja Ampat. Our first dive of the day we planned at Blue Magic, a coral covered pinnacle clouded by huge schools of Trevally that swarm in a kind of fish tornado above your head. Feeding in the current at one edge of the reef were some grey reef sharks, the amount of fish here was simply jaw dropping. Just as the dive was ending I looked over to my buddy who was flapping his arms signalling manta, we all looked up and a huge melanistic oceanic manta swopped over our heads.
That day we also dove at Cape Kri which was an action packed drift dive along a deep coral ridge. There we encountered huge dense schools of Raja Ampat’s famous sweet lips which was the highlight of this dive for me. Out in the blue water off the reef were grey reef sharks hunting in the current. We were pretty astonished at the end of our last dive at Cape Kri we encountered a school of devil rays passing through the divers on the reef. What an epic way to finish up the last dive of the trip!
Photo above: Schooling sweetlips at 40m on Cape Kri island.
Keep Reading ...
Having now done three seperate trips to Raja Ampat which followed the same route at the same time of year (late January/early February). I can certainly say each trip varied quite a lot. In terms of weather and sightings each experience was very unique and incomparable. But the most recent trip this year in 2023 there were a few things that left me feeling quite sad for what is happening there in Raja. First of all the development of central raja seems to have taken off and the amount of boats and divers has increased incredibly. What kind of effects this will begin to have on the region only time can tell. And I really hope that measures can be put in place to insure the area is protected before it gets out of hand. The fish life and reef health is certainly not as I remember and there was noticeable signs of damage to certain areas. Whether illegal fishing operations were going on during the covid lockdowns I don't know. But I did not see such abundant and dense schools of larger fish like I had on my last trips either, so it leaves me wondering.
Photo above: Bleaching corals.
You know when you have been somewhere and you have just incredible memories from there and you cant wait to go back. But when you do you leave feeling disappointed maybe even uneasy that the destruction of nature is happening so fast that you can see an obvious difference even after just 3 years. Raja Ampat is no stranger to the effects of climate change and a recent surge of warm waters in the area has resulted in localised areas of bleaching. This was particularly evident in Misool this trip, water temps were not below 29-31C on our dives. There were many sites where shallow sections of reef were bleaching and much of the anemones were completely white.
Photo above: Bleaching corals.
Photo above: A bleached anemone
Sale of Endangered Species
I think the most shocking thing I did not expect to see in Indonesia's most "protected" marine park was the public sale of the items pictured below. We stopped at Piaynemo Island to hike up to the view point and on the jetty we were greeted with some locals selling trinkets and live coconut crabs. First of all Coconut Crabs are protected in Indonesia, the sale of which can result in up to 5 years in jail, yet it is advertised openly here. Next upon close inspection we found jewellery made form Hawksbill Turtle shells (also endangered) and bracelets made from black coral. Next was the same for various shells and ornaments.
How can this be happening so publicly in such a popular diving destination under the eyes of the park rangers? Yet nothing is done to stop this? Especially considering the fees that each visitor to the marine park is paying, the cost of which is about to double. Bribery and corruption must be going well here as it is in much of Indonesia. Seeing this really felt like the cherry on the cake making me feel even more deflated about this trip. I understand that local people and villages must be struggling to support themselves so they definitely are not the ones to blame here. But things do need to change and the money from the marine park fees needs to be going where it should to support the people and the environment in this region.
Photo above: Items for sale at Piaynemo Island.
Photo above: A live coconut crab for sale at Piaynemo Island.
While I may have finished this blog on a slightly more heavy note than I would have hoped, don't let this discourage you from visiting. It truely is a a very special part of the world and well worth diving. My advice is to avoid the crowds and book a liveaboard that visits the more remote areas. Other destinations worth considering are also Alor and Banda sea. There are some liveaboards that will run from Alor to Misool which is something I would love to do in future. From what I have heard from some of my Indonesian contacts is this crossing can showcase some of the most untouched and remote diving Indonesia has to offer. So remote in fact that fisherman don't even fish there!
For more photos from my trip visit @brookepykephotography on Instagram