It had taken a while to get back into big dive-trips after the pandemic, but JOHN LIDDIARD recently returned from Raja Ampat in Indonesia, where a prescription of three dives a day proved to be the ultimate restorative
It’s been a long time since I have stayed at one resort long enough to complete that many dives before moving on. In fact with Covid it’s been a long time since I have been on a diving trip, and an even longer time since I have stayed at a single location for 39 dives.
Thirteen diving days with three dives each. All good, hour-long dives and some a fair bit longer. How I love a digital camera with a Gigabyte memory card.
No more hoarding the last of 36 slides on a film in case we come across something special 80 minutes into the dive. No more frantic hunting through a tiny card looking for images to delete 60 minutes into a dive when we find the flamboyant cuttlefish.
As long as I remember to change batteries and to charge them every night, my camera will always have space for another picture.
Thirty-nine dives, one resort, some sites repeated several times. Does it ever get boring? Not in Raja Ampat. Then I have several thousand pictures to sort through, discard the failures and process the raw files for the successes. That does get boring. How I hate a digital camera with a big memory card.
I am based at the Waiwo Dive Resort, with diving operated by Dive into Raja Ampat. Waiwo is located on Waigeo Island, at the north of the Dampier Strait, the largest of the islands in Raja Ampat and convenient for the ferry transfer from Sorong.
Including land and sea Raja Ampat covers about 27,000 square miles, much of which is full of diveable reefs. To put that in context, Raja Ampat covers about four times the area of Wales. If every hill in Wales were a dive site… or am I getting mixed up with a consequence of global warming?
Some days bring two dives in the morning, back for lunch, then a single dive in the afternoon. Other days we stay out on the boat with a picnic lunch, allowing us to venture a little further afield.
Either way, we settle into a pattern. Start the day at one of the deeper, high energy and big sites. Fresh fruit and Jammie Dodgers between dives. Middle dive more variable. Sometimes big, sometimes muck, sometimes transitional. Lunch or picnic. Last dive usually a macro site, but sometimes a jetty or reef.
But the pigeonholing of dive-sites isn’t an absolute. Between taking in the big scenery, corals, gorgonians and shoals of fish, there are plenty of nudibranchs, shrimps, crabs and the occasional pygmy seahorse.
Between searching the muck-sites for slugs and critters, a shoal of sergeant-majors demands a bigger view. How I love wet swap lenses, where I can switch between wide angle, zoom and macro at a whim.
Almost every first dive and a fair number of second dives involves hordes of sweetlips. Sweetlips are not fussy fish. Larger groupings of tens or hundreds of sweetlips regularly include several varieties mingled together about a coral head or beneath a jetty. Then there are the pairs and singletons, sheltering under an overhang, or at a cleaning station with wrasse flitting in and out of their gills and mouths.
Raja Ampat is “The Four Kingdoms”, one for each of the four large islands. If no-one was fussy about island size it could be called “The About 1,500 Kingdoms”. By a similar scaling-down, Raja Ampat could also be called “The Sea of a Thousand Sweetlips”, and that would be just the ones I have seen and photographed.
I never tire of sweetlips. With a variety of striped and spotted patterns in vivid colours they are such bold photogenic subjects, as groups in a wide-angle scene, individually or being cleaned with a regular lens and a bit of zoom. How I love wet swap lenses.
Or perhaps my photo dive-planning is getting extremely lazy. In the past I used to quiz dive-guides the night before, set up a lens for the day, and pay attention only to subjects that fitted that lens. Now I simply take spare lenses on the dive and make it up as I go along.
Its not only sweetlips. Many sites, including the famous Kap Kiri, also have big shoals of trevally, snapper and barracuda. Blacktip and whitetip sharks regularly cruise past, but always that little bit too far out and that little bit too skittish to come within photographic range.
Not so for the tasselled carpet sharks, or wobbegongs as they are more popularly known. They simply snooze among the corals, usually somewhere with a bit of shade but often just flopped over the reef.
Biggest fish of all are the manta rays we see at Manta Slope. This is a more regimented site, where divers are lined up along the slope beneath a manta cleaning station. On other dive-sites and days there are usually four to six of us on the small or big boat, depending on where we’re going. For this dive there are 12 of us with four guides on the big boat.
While many divers are keen to be first in the water, I have a quiet word with our guide and take my time kitting up to go in last. By the time we are on the seabed at the end of the line, a group of three manta rays are already looping over the cleaning station.
It’s a memorable experience, just sitting there and admiring their effortless aquabatics. But it’s not a photographic experience. Even if underwater visibility had been perfect, our line of divers is a little too far away. Slowly the other divers use up their air or nitrox until only the last few of us are left.
Our guide now edges us closer to the action. The manta rays continue their dance. I won’t be winning any competitions, but I can now get close enough for photographs to just about work.
By the time we are back on the boat, all the Jammie Dodgers have been snaffled up. Alas, every grand master plan has its disadvantages.
Two dives later and back in the dive-centre’s dazzlingly white camera-room, my batteries take longer than usual to recharge. The sign of a busy day. A clean white camera-room that is well-lit is a nice touch. So many camera-rooms are dark wood and dingy.
A big supply of universally adaptable sockets is almost taken for granted these days. So much so that I could end up conditioned into leaving adapters and extension-blocks at home.
Camera care from the guides and crew is immaculate. At the end of every dive cameras are lifted first, held clear of the boat and ladder with lenses pointing outwards, then each placed in a dedicated basket in the cabin, well away from divers and accidental damage.
My favourite fish-dive is a flip of a coin between Sawan Darek and Kap Kiri, both sites we repeat several times in several variations as a first, second or third dive, and both locations always deliver. Kap Kiri is an out and back along a submerged peninsula, when the current permits daring into the shallows above the reef where the shoals of fish are densest.
Sawan Darek has more of a variation in routes. Whatever the variation, it invariably starts in deeper water with shoals of sweetlips and snapper, then ends by the jetty with more shoals of fish among the jetty legs. In between there is usually a turtle or two, enormous shoals of mackerel and snapper in the shallows, random nudibranchs for critter lovers and the permanent fixtures of a giant clam and reef reconstruction sculptures to fill in the gaps.
An unexpected bonus is a Pontoh’s pygmy seahorse – the yellow to orange weedy-looking variety found on hydroids.
When it comes to macro, its harder to pick a single outstanding site. Pretty much every dive has starfish and sea cucumbers worth searching for emperor shrimps. On the rare occasions when there is nothing immediately obvious to photograph, peering under a few starfish or sea cucumbers usually yields a result.
Friwen island becomes a regular success spread across several sites. At the closer end of Friwen we get the classic Bargibant’s pygmy seahorses, the mauve-coloured variety disguised as a sprig of the gorgonian on which they like to hide.
On a rubble seabed closer to the far end of Friwen island we get slugs and crabs. The seabed here obviously gets some strong current at other states of the tide so the habitat is a dotting of soft corals, sea pens, sponges and featherstars.
Soft coral crabs, orangutan crabs and various decorator spider crabs are found in among the rubble and sponges, with squat lobsters concealed in the featherstars.
The north side of the island has an undercut wall in the top few metres, providing another variation of habitat to blow through our usually extended safety stop.
Our top muck-site is Sapoken, a sandy slope named after the nearby village. It’s a sufficiently long slope to be split between Sapoken 1 and Sapoken 2 on the dive-site map. A last dive here makes the day for a couple who had joined us for a few days after their liveaboard trip.
Following on from a week on a liveaboard, pygmy seahorses and flamboyant cuttlefish were the two critters still missing from their bucket-list.
Dive 2 at Friwen had just ticked off the pygmy seahorse, then dive 3 at Sapoken 1 is a long and successful hunt for a flamboyant cuttlefish. We knew they were present from a sighting earlier in the week and from clusters of eggs.
The time spent hunting wasn’t wasted. This is a reliable site for plenty of shrimps, spider crabs, and even some more regular seahorses. The mother of all anemones provides porcelain crabs and a republican guard of truly vicious man-eating Nemos.
A regular turnover of new faces on the boat comes from divers staying at Waiwo for a few days’ shore-based before and after a liveaboard trip. We even get some divers who booked a “liveaboard” directly online, took one look at the boat and jumped ship. To me, that shows a good reason for booking through a high-quality tour operator such as Dive Worldwide, which manages the whole thing.
Looking at the wall map at the dive-centre, the named dive-sites are just a tiny sample of the possibilities along the coastline and reefs. Our dive-guides voice a desire to explore and identify new sites, although they rarely get a chance to do so. With guests, they generally stick to the known locations. There are more than enough established sites to provide variety for most visitors.
It’s something I learnt myself leading club dives and then working as a dive-guide. You don’t lead a diver you don’t know onto a site you don’t know, with depth, current and what to see that you don’t know.
Off the map
Having qualified all that, with enough time on location we do get to try out some dives that are not pinpointed on the map. Sites that are only partially known, or pushing on from the usual edges of a known site. Sometimes it’s more of the same. Sometimes it’s just round the corner and everything becomes completely different. That’s how we ventured away from the usual starting points at Friwen.
Sometimes, it’s a little sad. Venturing into Kabui Bay, there are small resorts that have closed down as a consequence of Covid. Some are kept in repair or have become homes for locals, others are falling derelict, including their jetties. Dive-sites that would have been their local patch become our critter-hunts.
Most of our dives are south or west of Waiwo. Partly because that is where most of the dive-sites are, partly because after heavy rain the visibility to the east takes longer to recover. As the visibility clears up, a couple of trips to the east yield something different.
The wreck of an illegal fishing-boat was scuttled in 30m just off the reef. It’s a wooden hull and all the useful parts such as the engine and deck gear have been stripped, no doubt now installed on an Indonesian boat. At the stern, the propeller and rudder are still in place. Like any wreck on the sand with a bit of current, it has become a fish-magnet.
Also out to the east are two “lighthouses”. I put that in quotes because these are not the granite towers you would expect in the UK, more beacons built of steel tube. One sits on top of an isolated reef and the other off the point of an island. The real dives on both of these are actually the surrounding reef, with the legs of the lighthouse being a curiosity at the end of our safety stops.
We also get the surprise encounters. Ascending from the offshore reef at Lao Lao, a large translucent jellyfish glides past with a shoal of tiny fish hiding inside. A subject both intriguing and to be wary of. I don’t know enough about the local jellyfish to know how dangerous it is. I keep a safe distance and make sure that I don’t cross behind it. It could have happened at any site.
As Steve our esteemed editor observed: “I don’t think we can ever have enough of Raja Ampat, can we?”. I can happily agree. Thirty-nine dives, and there is not one dive I could look back at and say “shouldn’t have bothered”. Dive into Raja Ampat delivered a 100% success rate.
GETTING THERE: John Liddiard flew with Emirates via Dubai to Jakarta, then Batik Air to Sorong. Transfer to Waigeo then takes about two hours by ferry. Travel from the UK was booked through Dive Worldwide.
CURRENCY: Indonesian rupiah (100,000 Rupiah is about £6). It’s easy to lose track of the decimal point.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Diving was based at the Waiwo Dive Resort with Dive into Raja Ampat. The well-hidden jungle-style resort has two waterfront villas with more planned, six seaview and six garden terrace rooms, all air-conditioned.
BOOKINGS: Dive Worldwide can arrange a 13-day / 12-night trip that includes return International and domestic flights, with one overnight in Jakarta and another in Sorong, plus all transfers. Guests get nine days / eight nights in a garden room on full board, and up to three dives a day. The price is £3,045 pp (two sharing).
Photography by John Liddiard
John Liddiard started diving in 1978 with University of Bristol BSAC while studying physics. He became an instructor and, as his interest in underwater photography developed, turned full-time diving photo-journalist in 1998. As a regular contributor to Diver magazine, he became well-known as author of the popular and long-running Wreck Tour series.
Also on Divernet: Raja Ampat