Located off the north-western side of the island which is split between the countries of Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, Raja Ampat is an archipelago in the middle of the Coral Triangle with incredible marine diversity. We ventured here because it holds some of the last pristine coral reefs anywhere in the world. Noted naturalist and broadcaster, David Attenborough (Mac’s idol since he was 5 years old) says that a single reef in Raja Ampat can contain more species of coral than in all of the Carribbean – 75% of all known species grow here. And, having seen it, I believe that these claims might well be true.
Coral reefs world-wide are dying at an alarming rate. It is estimated that 25% of all coral reefs are now damaged beyond repair with another 60% are under imminent risk because of a combination of factors including rising surface temperatures, ocean acidification due to increasing CO2 levels, rampant costal development causing both pollution and sedimentation as well as over-fishing and destructive fishing methods (dynamiting, poisoning). Science does not yet have an answer for why the reefs of Raja Ampat have survived better here than in other areas but they appear to be more resistant to high surface temperatures, somehow making them less likely to suffer from the bleaching and coral disease that have decimated other areas of the oceans.
Healthy reefs support health fish populations so this area also has some of the greatest biodiversity of anywhere on Earth because it is at the crossroads of two major oceans – the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean. Like in the Galapagos, cold currents bring nutrients from deep in the open ocean to the surface when they hit the shallower waters of the archipelago. Unlike many shallow seas which are devoid of nutrients, the nutrient-laden water supports a wide variety of fish – more than 1,500 different species and nearly 700 mollusk species.
All of these factors combine to make one incredible place to visit. Although many people would wait until they had more dives under their weight-belts to venture this far, we decided that if we waited to go to Papua, we probably would never see it. You see, getting there is not easy – which is probably good because too many people would go if it was easier to get there.
Our journey began in New Zealand with a 10 hour journey to Denpasar, Bali via Brisbane, Australia. After clearing Indonesian immigration and switching to the domestic terminal, we took an hour-long flight to Makassar then had to spend part of the night there because our second leg didn’t leave until 3:00am. Arriving in Sorong, West Papua, at 6:30am, we waited until 11:00am for our boat to the island, which was another hour-and-half journey. All-in-all, the entire journey took us something like 30 hours, only about three of which were actually spent sleeping, and that was beginning relatively close by in New Zealand. You really have to want to get to Raja Ampat to go there, but it is definitely worth the effort.
We chose a relatively new resort, Papua Explorers, because it offered the right mix of both diving and non-diving activities. We aren’t really big scuba divers, so don’t plan our days around getting in as many dives as possible. Instead we wanted to learn about life both above and below the water. PapEx helped us snorkel as a family, visit local villages, find the elusive Red Bird of Paradise and get some phenomenal diving in for the parents as well.
The snorkelling and diving were incredible – pictures only capture momentary glimpses of what we experienced. Beyond the myriad of fishes, we saw octopi fighting, were visited by reef sharks on nearly every dive, watched manta rays being cleaned for probably 20 minutes, found woebegong sharks hiding under rocks, observed the diminutive pygmy sea horse (even a pregnant one!) hanging on to sea fans and were surrounded by more fish than I ever thought existed in the world. There were three baby black-tipped reef sharks and a blue-spotted ray that swam under our bungalow porch like clock-work every morning and evening.
But, more than the marine life, the things we enjoyed most about Raja Ampat were the people. The local Papuans are peaceful, soft-spoken, quick to smile and always singing or playing an instrument. We visited a village on Arborek Island where we were allowed to walk through town without once being accosted by people trying to sell us trinkets and treasures. In nearly two years of travel, this is the first time that I can recall where literally no one asked us to buy anything. In fact, there was nothing but biscuits and toilet paper for sale – no necklaces, bracelets or sarongs. The people smiled at us, waved, and went about their day, seemingly happy to share their island with us without expectations. It really makes me wonder why the people of Papua have not succumbed to exploiting tourists in the same way that nearly every other place we have visited has.
Our main dive and snorkelling guides, Hervil and Moses, are brothers from a neighbouring island. While their English is limited, Hervil’s zen-master confidence diving put our nervous nelly tendencies at ease. Moses seemed to enjoy playing with the kids in the water as much as they did, but also found lots of critters to look at as well, striking the perfect balance and keeping them interested day after day. Our other guides and boat drivers, Obaja, Ismail, Derek, Manu, Nathan, Gundawan and others were wonderful as well – we just didn’t spend as much time with them as we did with Moses and Hervil. Everyone made us feel very welcome and well looked-after every day.
We were also fortunate to have an incredible group of guests with us almost the entire two weeks we were there – Marquee and Jay from Chicago, Sonia and Richard from Portland, and Joonas and Camilla from Finland – making the time out of the water as enjoyable as the time diving and snorkelling. They embraced the kids as equal members of the group, not just something to be seen and not heard. This made our time together even better, especially for Mac and Lucia who now exhibit the traveller’s love of sharing stories from the road, but are often over-looked during the dinner-table discussions because they are “just kids”. Not so in Papua. We would love to come back again sometime soon.