INDONESIA DIVER SPECIAL
JOHN LIDDIARD considers Raja Ampat and the upsides of not being on a liveaboard
Appeared in DIVER May 2019
RAJA AMPAT WITHOUT a liveaboard? I thought everyone did Raja Ampat by liveaboard, but apparently not so. There are also some island resorts.
An island resort actually suits me well. Don’t get me wrong, I like liveaboard diving. A cruise can cover a big area and cherry-pick all the big-name dive-sites, so are great for getting the overview.
On the other hand, when a resort location is rich with diving, you can dive a different site every time without repetition, and get to experience the location in more depth.
Should you want to repeat a site, you can go back day after day – the boat hasn’t moved on. If you still want the big-name sites, there will be a few within range of the resort, just not all of them.
Think of Papua Paradise as a dispersed wooden liveaboard on stilts, that doesn’t move. The resort operates in pretty much the same way. Boat-diving is set up for two dives in the morning, one in the afternoon, then one at dusk and a night-dive, if you really want to pack them in.
Raja Ampat is known mainly as a fish and reef location, but this is Indonesia, so macro opportunities are inevitable.
Our warm-up dive is on Pator Reef, a barely submerged bank extending out from a headland. Coral rocks descend to a rubble-and-sand slope. Our guide immediately points out a sea cucumber with tiny emperor shrimps on its back.
Having started small we move up the scale with a wobbegong nestled in a cup of hard coral, then more crop up as we head along the reef. Wobbegong is Australian for tasselled carpet shark, and I have never seen so many of them.
These giant shaggy ambush predators are surprisingly well-camouflaged, and docile enough to lie there as we take it in turns for photographs.
Behind a snoozing wobbegong, a big domed eye is peeping out of a shadowed crack. Looking in, I can describe the owner of the eye as a cross between a pufferfish and a scorpionfish. It’s a toadfish, so unattractive that I can imagine it popping out at night to hold an ugly contest with the wobbegong.
Between dives, we step ashore at a local village. Some divers venture off to explore; others stay on the cabana just back from the end of the jetty. It’s a chance to peel off wetsuits, dry out and enjoy some doughnuts.
Yes, doughnuts – every morning the resort kitchen makes a massive supply. Some remain plain, some are dipped in toppings that include chocolate, nuts and sprinkles. It’s worth going diving just for the between-dive doughnuts.
A large steel ferry is approaching the jetty, the sort of double-ended ferry you see carrying cars across fjords in Norway and docking end-on to a concrete ramp. Is this monster really aiming to come in sideways to the T-end of this tiny wooden jetty?
Our boat crew rapidly moves the dive-boat further back on the jetty and out of the ferry’s way. A village woman runs along the jetty screaming and waving it off. Not that it has any effect.
The high side of the ferry gets caught by the wind, the captain loses control and, crunch, one end of the T is wrecked. The ferry is now “docked”; passengers pour ashore. We leave for our second dive before the encore of watching it depart.
BACK AT THE RESORT, our boat captain shows how it should be done, skilfully handling the boat against a strong onshore wind to gently kiss the dive-centre jetty as the ropes are tied.
After a two-tank morning trip and lunch, we head round the back of Birie island. Here Papua Paradise has a second jetty for working, where supplies are landed, boats refuelled and cylinders pumped. It keeps the hubbub away from the accommodation at the front.
The back of Birie faces the much larger Batanta island and, with other small islands, creates a sheltered sound.
Rainfall from Batanta runs into the sea with associated nutrient to give a slightly estuarine environment. It’s not really muck-diving, but mucky enough to be excellent for tiny creatures.
First prize goes to a funkily dressed halameda crab pretending to be a sprig of algae. A 2cm green spider-crab that has hit itself on the head with an over-sized green battleaxe.
Our guide calls me away from a ragged-looking dwarf pipehorse to a purple gorgonian. I can already guess that he has found a pygmy seahorse, which turns out to be one of the more common lumpy Bargibant’s variety.
Later in the dive, our guide points out a tiny yellow blob on a hydroid covered in yellow tunicates. My eyesight is no longer 20/20, so I struggle to distinguish a Pontoh’s pygmy seahorse without looking through my camera lens, but this blob is at such a tricky angle that I can’t even do that without risk of bashing everything around it. I wave him off and pass.
These two events have an unintended side-effect. On a stormy day where we can dive only in the sheltered water behind the island, our dive-guide asks which macro subject we would most like him to find for us. He mentions that he hasn’t been looking for seahorses because I’m not interested in them!
Misunderstanding corrected, pygmy seahorses abound.
THE FRONT OF Birie Island faces Dampier Strait. Morning dives usually head out into or along the front garden for clear water, fish and reefs, and afternoon dives are either nearby in the front garden, or round to the back garden.
On the opposite side of the strait is the long island of Mansuar, far enough away for a day trip with three dives and a packed lunch. We arrive at Cape Kri and three liveaboards are already there, one just finishing and two preparing to dive. This is one of the big-name sites on everyone’s route.
With a current running along the reef, the dive is run as a drift. That part works out well. I only occasionally notice divers from other boats far away, and it’s almost as good as having the site to ourselves.
However, it’s not a successful dive for me, as I realise I have sealed my camera housing without switching on the strobe trigger circuit. Natural-light shots won’t do justice to the big shoals of barracuda and jack along the ridge, so I settle back to float along and enjoy the dive – which works wonders for my air consumption.
We move on to a jetty at Sawandarek, where it’s even busier with liveaboards. Between doughnuts I open my housing and switch on the strobe trigger.
Our guides have a cunning plan, and give us an extra 15 minutes’ surface interval, then move the boat to drop in away from the jetty and do the dive the opposite way round to everyone else.
Sweetlips are such pretty fish to photograph and a large shoal above a cabbage patch of coral is most co-operative. At first I think it’s all ribbon sweetlips, then notice a diagonal banded version close to the front of the pack.
It’s a familiar behaviour pattern, and the Raja Ampat marine reserve allows such shoals not to be fished.
As we work back towards the jetty, patches of coral rubble are layered with big grids of steel and sprigs of coral attached, part of a reef-restoration project. As well as plain grids the steelwork has been welded into giant turtles, manta rays and other marine creatures.
In a clearing among this coral-covered steelwork I stop by a giant clam so big that Hollywood would have it swallowing a diver whole, or even a small horse.
In the shallows beneath the jetty about 90% of the fish have collected into one big aggregation, with various sweetlips and snapper mixed together in the protective ball. The rest are spread out in ones and twos doing normal fishy things.
The liveaboards all appear to be on westward routes. For lunch and our third dive we head east to another jetty at Yenbuba, and get the location to ourselves. The end of the dive under the jetty is remarkably similar, with big mixed balls of sweetlips and snapper.
The difference is the way we get there, gently drifting along a big coral slope with turtles, more sweetlips and a shoal of batfish. And that is the only day on which we meet other divers.
About halfway across the Dampier Strait is the small island of Wai, an almost circular blob of sand and jungle in the middle of nowhere. It’s close enough to Papua Paradise that we can do it as a morning trip when the tides are right. When the tides are wrong, there can be big currents.
From 20m I can see the propeller blades standing up from the P-47’s big radial engine. At 5m deeper the slope flattens a little, and up close it’s apparent that the aircraft wreck is upside-down. It’s so overgrown with coral that in places it’s hard to tell where reef stops and wreck starts.
The change in slope of the reef and the height of the tail means there is room to look underneath and upwards into the cockpit to see the pilot’s seat, rudder pedals and instruments.
The dive-plan works out nicely, maxing out at 30m with a gentle ascent along the reef that turns into a regular reef dive.
It’s like two dives in one, but apart from two very friendly hawksbill turtles, the reef isn’t as good as another dive we do further round Wai to the west.
The ditching of Tubby flight
On 21 October, 1944, the seven single-engined P-47 Thunderbolt fighter-bombers of Tubby flight took off from Noemfoor Island to attack Japanese shipping in Ambon harbour, about 750 miles away and close to the limit of their range.
Having spent longer than anticipated on target, the aircraft were low on fuel returning home. Navigation was complicated by skirting round bad weather and, with daylight fading, it was decided to ditch close to Wai island.
The pilot with the most fuel climbed and pinged his distress beacon, and all seven of the aircraft ditched successfully.
Next morning, another flight of P-47s and a PBY flying boat were dispatched to locate and rescue the downed pilots. The PBY picked up two who had made it onto the island and another two from the sea.
Another PBY was called in to pick up another pilot subsequently sighted on the island, and the last two were recovered from the sea later that day.
Three of the wrecks have been found, one broken in 2m and others at 28m and 38m. Considering the remoteness of the location, only the wreck in 28m is now dived.
A COUPLE OF MILES east of Wai, a mound of reef rises to within 5m of the surface for a dive-site called Manta Wai. It’s not a non-stop manta show – a brief couple of passes at the start are followed by a regular reef dive. The rays suddenly return as we start heading up.
Now there’s good reason to go over the nominal 60 minutes’ dive-time. Our guide waves us to drop back down for a few minutes, while he remains above us with the DSMB.
Real “in your face” non-stop mantas come the next morning at Manta Dayang, at the limit of morning dive-trips to the west. Here a narrow channel is crossed by a bank and reef, and the potential for some aggressively ripping currents, were it not for slack water.
We line up along the sandbank facing the coral-head cleaning station, and within minutes the mantas arrive.
I probably see fewer than most because I’m deliberately off to one end. We can’t get any closer to the cleaning station, so I hope that by hanging out at the end the mantas will swim across me on the way to and from their clean-up.
The strategy pays off. The mantas have no issues with flying within touching distance over my head. Sometimes they approach from the front but also from behind me, where the first view I get is straight through the gill-slits from behind. It’s one of those dives where I need a mask with rear-view mirrors.
Such a dive could make the rest of a trip seem anti-climactic, but not at Papua Paradise, with all its variety.
I finish at Sauyador, a hummock of reef in the middle of a channel, a site where the current had been too strong, necessitating plan B a couple of days ago.
Now the tide has moved on and we have slack water, with big shoals of fish above, wall-to-wall carpet sharks, devil scorpionfish, cuttlefish and frogfish.
The diving might be over but the fish-spotting is not. Looking down from the dining-room balcony, I see blacktip sharks and sting rays patrolling the shallow water beneath the stilts.
Other divers reported earlier seeing a dugong from the balcony – I missed it, because I was in the camera-room messing with my camera at the time.
GETTING THERE> there8 John Liddiard flew with KLM via Schiphol to Jakarta, then Batic Air to Sorong. The speedboat transfer to Papua Paradise takes about two hours.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION> Papua Paradise Resort, papuaparadise.com
HEALTH> Chamber in Waisai.
MONEY> Indonesian rupiah.
PRICES> Booking through Dive Worldwide, a 10-night full-board with unlimited-diving package, flights and transfers costs from £3990pp. An overnight stopover might be required, diveworldwide.com
VISITOR Information> indonesia.travel
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