Raja Ampat has to be literally, hands down, one of the most beautiful places on earth. Or at least the most beautiful place I have ever seen on earth. And without sounding like a two-dollar hooker, I’ve been around, a lot, so I have a lot with which to make a comparison.
I can easily see that given the chance it could be a place I might go back to and never leave. My Dad once said to me he expected that I would end up living in a shack on a deserted island somewhere in Indonesia. Well if I do, I imagine it will be somewhere in Raja Ampat.
I was lucky enough recently to film on two very different boats, one a beautiful traditional Indonesian-style wooden boat, and the other a modern steel-hulled vessel. One travelled to Northern Raja Ampat, all the way to breathtaking Wayag, the iconic landscape of mushroom islands and limestone cliffs, surrounded by blue and turquoise water that shimmers like a jewel. The other went south to vibrant Misool, where mantas play, spectacular reef scapes are covered in endless fields of fans, black coral and gorgonians, and silversides swarm in not thousands, but millions.
The reefs of Raja Ampat are some of the most colourful I have ever seen, with more coral, a myriad of fish species and a mind blowing volume of fish life. Admittedly the visibility is not always crystal clear, but sometimes it is, and then it is just spectacular. And lower visibility means plankton. And plankton means larger marine life. Sharks, Mobula rays and Mantas. Both reef mantas and oceanic mantas.
Oceanic mantas can be distinguished from reef mantas by the distinctive T-shaped markings on their backs, the absence of the “fingerprint” markings on their white bellies and the bump at the tail which is the remains of a barb, which has disappeared over millennia in the reef manta species. But the oceanics are also bigger. Much bigger.
On my last dive in Raja Ampat I watched mesmerised as four oceanic mantas spiralled seemingly endlessly around a cleaning station. They were nothing short of majestic. It took my breath away. They clearly communicated amongst themselves in an intricate dance passing millimetres apart but never colliding. They flirted together belly to belly or flew like bomber planes over our heads. There is nothing in this world to compare to the feeling of being observed by an intelligent sentient creature so beautiful and so different from us in every way.
At other sites huge schools of silversides dominated the shallows, flashing and surging in every direction as they were pounded by jacks of numerous species. If I had been there a few weeks earlier I would have seen them being smashed to smithereens by mobula rays who come in from the deep blue. My lights reflect from them as they change direction in a heart beat, the sound of the fish rushing past like a curtain being pulled angrily across a window. Moments I felt and heard as much as saw.
Famous dive sites such as Melissa’s Garden, Chicken Reef and Blue Magic possess a myriad of marine life and incredible coral. But although Raja Ampat is famous for its stunning coral reef-scapes, huge schools of fish and larger life such as sharks and rays, it also has an incredible array of macro life. I saw more pygmy seahorses (multiple species) in my short time there than I have in all of my 17 previous years of diving around the world. There are nudibranchs of countless varieties, tiny candy crabs and almost microscopic hairy shrimp (I still don’t know how the divemasters found them).
Night dives have never been my favourite pastime, but here I will make an exception. Black water dives yielded strange pelagic tunicates, swimming worms, dozens of tiny squid and a school of fish that seemed to attack but were in reality simply attracted by our lights but also blinded by them, and they bounced painfully off my mask, regulator and face. A terrifying but also exhilarating and comical experience.
A fiercely protected secret location has to be one of the coolest night dives I have ever done. My lips are sealed! Cockatoo waspfish and Indian walkmen are everywhere, as are weird decorator crabs and tiny hermit crabs scurrying across the sand. But also huge crabs, peacock mantis shrimp, frog fish, ghost pipe fish, cuttlefish, small octopus, plurobranchs, flamboyant cuttlefish and a bobbit worm are out and about. Everything is either hunting, fighting or mating. There is no boring swimming around at night. Every creature has a mission.
I have always been a bit of a tunnel rat, I love exploring swim-throughs, caverns or caves, and many of the places I have dived in the past have had some pretty cool dives for someone who loves the thrill of the dark. Raja Ampat is no exception to this. As well as beautiful coral reefs, Raja Ampat boasts a number of cave dives. I was even lucky to be one of the first to dive a newly discovered site. The limestone islands are clearly riddled with holes like Swiss cheese. Caves which at first seem relatively devoid of life.
But turn off your lights, brave the dark, and the creatures who dwell in these shadowy realms come out to occupy the gloom. Copper sweepers with their huge eyes designed to see in the dark are the bats of the underwater world. They congregate in the darkest corners of the caves, lurking and waiting for the divers to leave before they venture back out. Tucked into the nooks and crannies are flickering disco clams (staying alive!) and colourful nudibranchs. Feather stars walk bold as brass through the darkness and small lobster hide protected in the darkest corners.
The stalagtites hanging from the ceiling of the cave make strange shapes through the rippling water. The face of the mask from “The Scream” stares down at me. But with only soft ambient light the cave is no longer a scary threatening place. Instead it takes on a cathedral-like spiritual ambience. It is beautiful.
Raja Ampat is not just an incredibly beautiful place to dive. It is also spectacular topside. After descending from the incredible view at the peak of Wayag, an admittedly slightly difficult climb, I walked into the warm aquamarine water to rinse my hot sweat soaked body. I lay on my back looking up at the limestone cliffs surrounding me, as sea eagles circled overhead and the water gently caressed my face. Everything stopped. I truly felt in the moment. I have never seen such a beautiful place.
Until I went to the heart shaped lagoon of Wayil. I sent my drone up to 500m to see what it looked like from above. The dramatic cliffs and crystalline blue water just don’t seem real.
From sea level and below, to a birds-eye view, this corner of Indonesia takes my breath and my words away. As much as I try to describe it I cannot do it justice. As much as I try to capture it on film, I cannot do it justice. The only way is to experience it yourself.
My last dive in Raja Ampat was one of the most memorable of my life, with both oceanic mantas and even a blue ringed octopus, only the second I have ever seen and the first I have captured on film. I almost wished for a boring uneventful dive to make it easier to leave. But I wouldn’t have missed that for the world. I returned to Bali with mixed emotions. Glad to be home, but so sad to leave Raja Ampat. A little piece of me certainly got left behind still singing love songs with the crew on the dive deck. The people who make this place their home are as special as the place itself. Certainly I lost a piece of my heart in Raja. And certainly one day I will return.
(For sure I love Indonesia)