Diving Raja Ampat in December
Raja Ampat...The legend among legends in the diving world...
In this blog we will talk about our first experience in Raja Ampat in December 2020. Later in May 2021, we returned to this paradise, but it will be the subject of another blog...
In this blog:
Before to go...
In March 2020 we were very excited when we boarded our flight from Amsterdam with destination Manado. We were about to start our jobs as dive center managers of Siladen resort and Spa. Things turned out differently but that was the case for most people that had plans for 2020. Six months after as the resort had stayed closed, we decided it was time to start travelling in Indonesia and wait for tourism to eventually return. Looking on the map, our home in North Sulawesi is just a stone throw away from Raja Ampat. Practically it means that Manado is just a one-and-a-half-hour direct flight away from Sorong, the entry port of Raja.
When you become a diver, interested in dive travel, Raja Ampat is one of the world’s top dive destinations that every underwater enthusiast quickly adds to their bucket list.
Raja Ampat is by far a cheap destination and just getting there from Europe or the US means opening up your wallet. Then you have three options. Either liveaboard, dive resort or home-stay.
We have to admit we love our comfort! So, home-stays were not really an option for us. Every diver knows the sentence eat, sleep, dive and repeat. And after a long day of diving every diver appreciates a good shower and a nice meal...
Since we came to Raja Ampat for Christmas, we didn’t mind to splash out a little and the difference in breaking our budget was not that big between resort and homestay.
Then, during times of corona the dive resorts offer great deals and we didn’t mind to pay a bit more the get a better experience!
So, we opted for Sorido Bay Resort - Papua Diving as the owner Max Ammer is the pioneer of diving in Raja Ampat and the resort is one of the best renowned resorts in the diving world. And we would not regret our choice.
Legends and history of the "Four Kings"
But let’s take a step back and talk about about Raja Ampat or the “Four Kings”. The name of Raja Ampat (Raja means king, and empat means four) comes from a local myth that tells of a woman and her husband who find six dragon eggs at the bank of the River Waikeo.
The couple took the eggs home and in the middle of the night, they heard whispers and they were surprised to find that the eggs had hatched and gave them four boys and a girl...and one egg did not hatch. The clothes the children wore indicated that they were descended from royalty. After growing up, the four boys became king and rule wisely.
The King of Waigeo was War
The King of Salawati was Betani
The King of Lilinta (Misool) was Dohar
The King of Waigama (Batanta) was Mohamad
The girl was named Pintolee and when she was found to be pregnant, her brothers placed her in a shell and sent her floating to Numfor Island.
Later in history Raja Ampat became a part of the Sultanate of Tidore, an influential kingdom from Maluku. Yet, after the Dutch invaded Maluku, it was claimed by the Netherlands and now this far east corner part of Papua is part of the modern-day Republic of Indonesia.
The Raja Ampat archipelago covers over 1,500 small islands surrounding the four main islands of Waigeo, Batanta, Salawati, and Misool. This diver’s paradise is located in the coral triangle and according to The Nature Conservancy and Conservation International, around 75% of the world's species live here. The incredible diversity of marine life and its huge pristine coral reef systems are a scuba dream come true and a fantastic site for snorkelers too as there are many shallow sites with colorful reefs teaming with life.
Most of the diving is concentrated in Misool
(liveaboards and one high end resort) and central Raja Ampat with many options for accommodation and diving.
How did we get to Kri Island?
Sorido Bay Resort operates private transfers from Sorong on specific days but we could not be on one of these. So we took the express ferry to Wasai. It operates daily and takes about two hours. For 250K IDR (15 euro) you get yourself a first-class ticket with air conditioning at arctic temperatures and flat screen tv showing the best of Indonesian karaoke. So, bring something warm and earplugs just in case you feel like having a little nap after a long international flight. Or if you feel like it you can sing along and impress your fellow travelers with your karaoke skills.
You can find all information about ferry's timetable and much more on the website https://www.stayrajaampat.com
Upon arrival at Waisai, we were welcomes by the resort's staff and the resort skiff took us to Sorido Bay on Kri Island about 45 min away. Our arrival was timed perfectly with a beautiful sunset of the surrounding islands along the way.
Sorido Bay resort
We could not have asked for a better place to spend our Christmas get away. Sorido Bay is located on Kri Island, Central Raja Ampat, inside a beautiful bay with a shallow lagoon.
Our bungalow was one of the eight beach front bungalows with lots of fish and baby reef sharks swimming just at our door-step!
Chris and Jade, the resort management couple gave us a very warm welcome and we immediately felt at home. Sorido is truly a wonderful place with large spacious comfortable bungalows with beautiful Papuan décor but at the same time practically designed for divers and underwater photographers that have lots of equipment. But Sorido Bay Resort does not only get its reputation from having nice bungalows. They are known for their creating the best possible dive experience for their guests.
Since our first day was on a Saturday it meant that there was no diving as for the resort staff (Seventh day Adventists) this day is like a Sunday. Luckily there is plenty to explore around the resort, so we opted for kayaking around Kri Island. The waters surrounding the island are calm and we saw plenty of fish and sea turtles poking their head out from the surface to breath. A sun hat and a bit of stamina is needed for this sunny two-and half-hour paddle around the island. But well worthed!
A must-to-do, the Red BOP trip
For the afternoon, Sorido Bay had planned an afternoon trip to see the Red Bird of Paradise (BOP). It is a short boat ride to the BOP island where we met with our guide Pa Niko. The walk starts at the village where we got a few surprised stares from the friendly locals and many kids.
But soon we were making our way uphill. Because of the strong rain we had to find shelter for 20 minutes but then we continued our way for another half hour to the lookout point. A few wooden tree trunk benches are setup and high up in the tree you hear the noisy bird of paradise. At hot warm days the birds might be lower in the canopy but the day we went, because of the rain, the birds stayed in the top of the tree. Sorido bay provided a set of binoculars which are very useful if you want to catch a glimpse of these beautiful forest creatures.
To photograph the birds, you need to bring a 600 mm lens and preferably more or a teleconverter to get a descent shot. The forests are dark and light is getting low in the afternoon so you need to shoot wide open.
Since the birds always perform their mating ritual at the same time and in the same tree, the chances to see them are very good to certain when its dry. We saw a female and four males that were trying to impress her jumping and flapping around from branch to branch. It did impress us but the female didn’t think much of it and after an hour the spectacle was over and we made our way back to the village. It had been a long day and after diner and the dive briefing, we were ready to pass out and we were looking forward for our first dives.
Diving in Central Raja Ampat in 2020
The day finally arrived, we had high expectations and could not wait to get into the water. We met with our Papuan dive guide Lius and another fellow dive photographer. It would become a great week and together we were a great dive team. Except for the visibility around 15 meters, we had great diving conditions with water temperatures at 29C. The best thing about diving with such an experienced resort is that the guides really understand how to plan the diving. To get the big schools of fish and pelagic it is important to time the tides and jump at the right part of the dive side. Our guide Lius did an amazing job.
Max Ammer the owner of Sorido Bay resort has personally discovered many of the dive sites that would later become real classics and some of the best dive spots in the world. Our favorites were:
· Cape Kri with the sweetlips (35-40-meter depth) and incredible top reef.
· Manta ridge with strong currents but many mantas when lucky.
· Sawandarek Jetty, incredibly diverse reef where you get to see the best of Raja Ampat.
· Blue Magic for the large schools of jacks and barracudas
· Melissa’s Garden named after Max daughter this impressive underwater plateau is covered in healthy hard and soft corals as far as the eye can see.
Rather than to bore you with all the dive site details I want to tell you about two of the days that were just incredible. The kind of dives that you will talk about at the bar the rest of your diving life. One of those days was at Manta Sandy and Manta Ridge.
About 45 minutes by boat on a calm morning we arrived on a site close to Arborek island. When we arrived, we saw several mantas on the surface feeding but when checking the feeding and cleaning station there were no mantas. Therefore we decided to snorkel first instead of diving, so we could at least get a few shots of these gentle giants. After an hour our guide Lius checked again and there was a manta at the cleaning station so we kitted up and slowly drifted towards the Manta Sandy cleaning station at 15-meter depth. After half hour there were 5 mantas at the site, two small coral blocks in the sand with mantas hovering above. Being just two divers, it is an incredible encounter when these curious giants come so close.
After a lunch and snorkel at Arborek Jetty it was time for the afternoon dive at Manta Ridge. This dive is for advanced divers that are comfortable with strong currents and can handle up/down currents. Lius had checked the conditions and there were mantas but also the current was pumping. Having guided many strong current dives in the Maldives we were ready! The dive site has a very shallow (5 meter) top reef that drops steep and very deep. When you reach the slope you use your reef hook or hang on to a rock. The water was dark with plankton and the afternoon sun still provided enough light penetrating below the surface to make out the shadows above us and coming towards us from the deep. First two or three and then a real show. A countless number of reef mantas came for cleaning and feeding on this very small part of the slopy wall.
Being below the cleaning station, the mantas didn’t care about our presence and even seemed curious at times hovering and circling less than a meter above us in the strong currents. Having dived and guided hundreds of manta dives we can honestly say this was one of our most memorable manta encounters. After an hour it was time to head for the surface and say farewell to the mantas.
Still in awe of what we had seen we headed to one of the many moon-jelly fish lakes in central Raja Ampat. It was not really a lake but more of an inlet in a bay that is not directly open to the ocean but surrounded by mangrove forest. I had never swum in a jelly fish lake and I was not very keen to do so after having been stung a few times in the ocean. The Raja Ampat moon-jelly fish in this lake are special and do not sting. They are about one foot in diameter and have medium long white tentacles. With the afternoon sun penetrating into the lake, the snorkeling and diving between these jelly-like creatures is an unforgettable experience. It takes a little effort to get over your first fears but they are surprisingly harmless and make great subjects for photography. The little aliens seem to glow in the dark!
A very special day!
It was after several incredible days of diving that Christmas day had arrived. In the tropics and far away from family and friends, Sorido Bay did their best to create a Christmas atmosphere. But this year, our Christmas day was going to be very different. Celine and I had been together for a few years and I had waited for a special place to propose. When we were planning our trip to “Raja”, I also had to plan bringing a ring and find the perfect location. And what better place to propose then an uninhabited little tropical island with a pristine white sandy beach. I had been in contact with Jade to organize this surprise and the day had finally come. And what a day it would be.
The morning we woke up we were greeted by a little cuscus in the tree next to our bungalow. These nocturnal marsupials are shy during day but this individual decided to come and say hi.
On the way to our first dive we were greeted by a dolphin and humpback whale! If your day starts like that you know it’s going to be full of surprises. We had great dives that day and saw our first wobbegong shark and a giant oceanic manta on one of the dive sites.
In the afternoon when we returned from our dives it was time to get on the knee and say the words. With a picnic basket filled with champagne and snacks we arrived to a beautiful little island and I asked Celine if she wanted to marry me. Lucky for me she said yes and we will continue our diving life together till eternity. The day finished with a beautiful sun set and it would-be a Christmas that we will never forget.
A big thanks to Jade, Chris, Max and the staff of Sorido bay resort for creating a wonderful and unforgettable experience.
After all those emotions, we can only strongly recommend booking your dive holiday in Raja Ampat with Sorido Bay - Papua Diving!
And you, have you been diving in Raja Ampat? Do you have a special story about it?
Let us know in the comment section, we would love to hear your stories!!
By Travel2Sea.com (July, 2021)
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