“A truly fantastic diving experience . I have never been anywhere else that rivals the health of these reefs and the amazing diversity of marine life on every dive. It is a bit of a haul to get to Papua but it is more than worth the effort and a photographers dream. As always all the logistics and resort were wonderfully taken care of – my only regret was I needed to stay a month.” ~ David Macnair
With as much dive travel as we’ve done over the years and continue to do, people inevitably ask us “What is Your Favorite Dive Destination?” And until six weeks ago, our answer was, “It depends.” But after spending 38 straight days diving Raja Ampat in West Papua Indonesia and logging over 100 dives, our answer has changed. Is Raja Ampat the best diving in the world? Read on and find out.
“It was the best diving we have ever done!” was the universal response from all the GDA tribe divers by the end of their stay. It was blow your mind immersion in dizzying hoards of fish. It was surprises at every turn and mantas literally leaping next to the dive boat. The only bummer about the trip was having to come home…truly!!
The adventure began with the anticipation of lots of new stamps in the passports and pampering by Asian airline flight attendants. There’s nothing like the butterflies in the stomach excitement of heading out across the world to a new dive destination. In this case, guests on our first adventure arrived in Bali to spend the next three days saturated in the luxury of our magnificent ultra upscale totally private villa. Yep, there are a lot of adjectives in there…all worthy of their place in that sentence. Sometimes we hesitated to even leave the pool, hot tub or massage pavilion of the villa but Ubud provided a wealth of activities including white water rafting on the Ayung river (Lee and Ruben swear we hit every rock along the way, hilarious!), shopping for artisianal crafts such as wood working, silver and intricately painted eggs, and enjoying an evening of cultural dance and beautiful Hindu temples. We hired a private spa company to give the guests massages at the villa in the pavilion by the water. A special treat was the four hands massage. Two therapists working in synchronicity. An unforgettable experience! We celebrated Marilyn Lemos’s birthday (we won’t tell which one!) and ate the famous Balinese crispy duck.
After our three days in paradise, lounging in the villa’s private pool, we flew off to spend one transit night in Ujung Pendang (now known as Makassar) and then a quick morning flight over to Sorong, one of the main cities of West Papua (formerly Iryian Jaya). We had just been deposited on the frontier of Indonesia. THIS was going to be good! We jumped into the boat for the stunning ride out to Sorido Bay Resort on the island of Kri.
Now we were ready to dive!
The friendly, yet somewhat shy, dive staff gave us our briefings in sporadic English and we happily joined in to learn some Bahasa Indonesian. Once we learned that Arus means current and Bagus means it’s good and Selamat Pagi means Good Morning, we were good to go!
We dropped into the 82 degree blue water and were stunned at the fish life. On some reefs you couldn’t even see the reef for all of the fish. We knew that even armed with as many fish books as we could carry, we were in for a challenge to count and identify all that we were witnessing! We dived a variety of sites from current swept drop offs to sandy slopes and little critter corners, all within the protected waters of Kri island and all within just 15 – 30 minutes of the resort.
We created a flexible dive plan which was usually two kick ass morning dives followed by lunch, a quick nap or foray into a fish book, followed by a 3:00 plunge on some world class dive site. On occasion someone tried to skip a dive but honestly, with the kind of dives we were doing, no one wanted to miss a thing!
One day we made an attempt to dive at Batanta island a 2 hour run from Kri but were thwarted by choppy seas out in the Dampier Strait and had to turn back. We were rewarded for turning back by a dive into the blue water mangroves where Liz Reeser found an amazing little fish completely new to all of us, the picturesque dragonet.
In the evenings we settled in with a cold bottle of Bintang, the local beer, or a hearty rum and Coke and talked fish or listened to Max, the owner, regale us with tales of early days in Papua when he arrived in search of WWII relics and plane wrecks. Evenings are peaceful in this remote location and everyone slept soundly!
One of the highlights, (at least for Mantagirl!) was the Wednesday morning 2-tank dive to Manta Sandy, a now famous manta cleaning station that Max discovered on one of his arial flyovers in his sea plane. The mantas are here almost year around feeding in the plankton rich waters outside the reef and then coming into the cleaning stations to be picked on by black lipped butterfly and a host of other cleaning fish. The mantas truly ignored us to the point where often they would simply come down on top of us skimming our heads by mere inches perhaps wondering if we were cleaning fish as well! It is an amazing connection when you are literally eye to eye with a 15’ manta ray!
However, mantas were not only present at Manta Sandy on Wednesdays! Every day, several times a day, mantas could be seen leaping out of the water at any given spot! One of the dive sites, Blue Magic, turned out to be a surprise rival for the mantas of Manta Sandy. Here, it was not the reef mantas but the large Pacific mantas (birostris) that circled our heads for so long we had to leave THEM. These big boys easily span 17’ or more! One dive we refused to surface until more than 95 minutes had passed!
Ok, enough about the mantas because I could wax poetically all day about them! On Saturday, Max gives his staff a day off but that doesn’t mean we took the day off. In fact, our day began even earlier, at 4:30am when we grabbed our flashlights and headed out by boat across to a local village. Here, a local guide, led us deep into the jungle to spot the Red Bird of Paradise. There are only about 55 birds who perform an intricate mating dance each morning at sunrise. The villagers had constructed some rough benches to sit on and await the coming show. Sitting in the dark, waiting for night to turn to morning, you can literally hear the moment when the night insects stop sounding and the morning birds come to life. Not only did we see the Red Bird of Paradise but Sulfer Crested Cockatoos and Blythe’s Hornbills as well. We enjoyed the children and a walk through the village before heading back to Sorido for breakfast. During the day, we dived from the dock into a large blue hole with a different sort of feel. Quiet waters, unusual coral formations and small fish expanded our knowledge base of the area.
We hopped back in the boat when the staff came back on duty at 6:30 pm for a night dive at the jetty of Max’s other resort, Kri. Unusual crabs, feathered basket stars and tiny cuddlefish were some of the cool stuff we found along the way.
We celebrated Lee and Liz’s 200th dive and Ruben and Marilyn’s 100th complete with Bintang shower and knighting ceremony. I think the local dive guides thought we were nuts!!
“Marilyn and I had wonderful diving in Raja Ampat; the variety, multitude and beauty of fish made it the best diving we ever have done, not to mention the great facilities in Sorido Bay and almost no tourists, no crowds, just a gorgeous virgin territory and marine park. The permanent manta ray cleaning station made it a unique experience. I just saw in a National Geographic documentary that the triangle between New Guinea, the Phillipines and Indonesia, before the land joined, became submerged, protecting those waters against the Ice Age and that preserved the great variety of marine fauna, more than 1400 species vs 300 in the Caribbean. We have gone diving numerous times with Ridlon and Carin and the places they choose and research beforehand have always been #1; we trusted them with our children and taught them how to be great divers.” ~Ruben and Marilyn Lemos, M.D.
Sadly, we said good bye to our first guests but were happy to see our second group of divers arrive. Everyone in this group were armed with cameras and we loaded up the dive boats each day with an assortment of housings, strobes and videos. Roberta faithfully built our fish list throughout the trip while we all added daily to the total which reached over 265 species! This time we did make it out to Batanta island with flat calm seas where we were rewarded with a mimic octopus, one of the wonders of the natural world for sure. Who would ever think there is an octopus out there which can alter the shape of its body to mimic critters such as a ray or lion fish? Unbelievable discoveries in the world of fish! But the best discovery of all within this group of divers was the tiny blue ringed octopus found during the crepuscular daylight by Nick Sargent. Go Nick!!!!
“First, I would like to say a big thank you to both Ridlon and Carin for what was a really great adventure and for introducing me to that area. I have had a quick look through my photos and they only remind me of what a fantastic place it is. It totally ruins it for anywhere else. Never have seen anything like it before.” ~ Nick Sargent
Everyone shot amazing images and definitely took home several wall hangers! We spent evening hours ogling over the images, then headed out to shoot them again.
Friday morning, we had quite an interesting cultural experience. One of the local villages was upset that Max paid his “rent” to another village, something that had been agreed upon in past years to everyone’s satisfaction. However, a trouble maker came to stir up the pot. He roused some of the tribe members and they all came to the resort. They boarded up the access to the dock and confiscated the fuel lines for the dive boats. The police came from Sorong and we all sat and watched this tribunal “court” play out in front of us. While we couldn’t understand a word they were saying, it was quite an event to witness and everyone went home with a great story!
We did not celebrate any diving milestones but we did celebrate Carin’s anniversary of her 29th birthday. The staff surprised us with a cake and singing and dancing and the musical talent of the staff. It was quite a way to spend a birthday!
Again, all too soon, the group had to leave and off they went to spend their last days relaxing at the Villa in Bali and doing some last minute shopping and chilling by the pool recalling incredible diving at Sorido Bay.
Ridlon and I had a week before our third group of divers arrived and spent every waking hour we could under the water and exploring new areas to show everyone. One day, Ridlon went off with Max in search of a wreck of what they believed to be a P41 War Hawk, WWII airplane. He had an idea of where it might be over by Sorong. Unfortunately, they did not discover the plane but had fun searching and hopefully it won’t be long before Max finds it through local knowledge of the fishermen.
Our last group of guests arrived on Feb. 5th and quickly settled into the jaw dropping beauty of underwater Raja Ampat. One day we made special arrangements to head out to dive Fam, about 1 1/2 hours away. This area hosts some beautiful small islands often compared to Palau’s rock islands. There is even a small bay with huge numbers of jellyfish. We whizzed through the islands and enjoyed the beauty and also climbed to the top of one of the hills for a great view
On the way back, we had some extra time so decided to stop off near Manta Sandy to see the mantas (one of the perks of having our private dive boat). The driver, James (of course!), said the mantas would be feeding this time of day. When we got there we could see huge numbers of wingtips breaking the surface. James instructed us to swim with the currents through the channels. It was like manta rush hour! About 30 or more swam one after the other past us. Their huge mouths were completely open and we could see all the way down their throats as they scooped up planktonic material. We have never witnessed this dense a concentration of mantas as they swirled past us in their own type of “feeding frenzy”. It was the perfect end to a great day!
On another day, we came up from a dive to see a huge “tree” floating upsidedown in the water. We had no idea what it was but we were keen to investigate! When we got to the tree, we discovered it was a huge stripped down coconut tree. It was acting like an island and hosting a huge number of juvenile fish. We jumped in for a snorkel and then took turns climbing up the tree for a photo op!
The resort, Sorido Bay, is a gem within the jungles of Raja Ampat. It has seven large, well appointed, air conditioned bungalow just steps from the beach. The public area is a lounge with a bar and long family style tables to share not just meals but stories. For the most part, we had the entire resort to ourselves. A long dock extends out over shallow reefs where an entire afternoon can be spent identifying fish from the surface or you can jump in and snorkel. Max is in the process of building a large deck with sun chairs for relaxing in between dives with a cup of tea without having to get out of your wetsuit.
“Our recent journey to the Raja Ampat Islands with GDA was a unique, rewarding experience. We entered an amazing new world with incredible underwater life and a first class, friendly resort . Culminating the trip at a luxury spa in Bali added a wonderful touch of culture to our visit to Indonesia. This is not a trip we would have done on our own; with the knowledge and planning by GDA, it became a very cherished memory.”
~Marcia and Mike Marino
When we weren’t diving, some of the guests enjoyed the use of the kayaks to paddle out to some of the small islands or sand spits. One morning, Max took us on an African Queen style tour of the mangroves to see even more of the diversity the area has to offer.
Six weeks flew by way too fast and by Feb. 15th we were off, back through Makassar and straight into Bali and back to our lavish villa for a few final days of relaxation before the journey home.
Two things that all of the divers agreed on. This was the best diving they had ever seen and they DEFINITELY want to return. Now, if you ask Sharkman and Mantagirl where the best diving in the world is….don’t be surprised when “Raja Ampat!” instantaneously and simultaneously is shouted out! We WILL go back and you WILL NOT want to miss it!
To Your Adventures!
Mantagirl and Sharkman
If you want to join the Shark Tribe and travel with us on an adventure, check out Global Diving Adventures.