Raja Ampat, the northwest tip of the so-called “bird’s head peninsula” in West Papua (Indonesia), has been a public secret for decades now. If it is not yet on your bucket list, it really should be. Raja Ampat is an archipelago comprising more than 1,500 paradisiac islands, just south of the equator. Its pristine waters contain what is called “the coral triangle”, and indeed this place is one of the last bastions on our planet that has not suffered greatly from the pandemic climate change we are currently facing.
It was therefore time that the DiveSpot Team would explore this remote paradise. As Dirck, Jeroen and Lucca had other commitments, I looked for possibilities for a solo trip. After careful deliberation, a study of many offers and a lot of info, I opted for a place on the liveaboard “Manta Mae”. The Manta Mae is a small scale (31-meters long) traditional Indonesian Phinisi ironwood schooner, that can host up to 12 divers in beautifully decorated cabins, and is equipped with all modern comforts.
What I liked about the itinerary of the Manta Mae was that it would journey from the Island of Ambon (Moluccas), via the Banda Islands (where you can see hammerhead sharks!) to Misool (Raja Ampat) and would disembark in Sorong (West Papua). This 12-day voyage would bring you to the highlights of the Banda Sea as well as south Raja Ampat. After a 20-hours trip to Ambon, I was welcomed on board by the cruise director and the very friendly crew of the Manta Mae. After meeting the other passengers and assembling the equipment it was diving time. The air temperature was 31 degrees, the water temperature 27 and you could literally see the fish swim below your feet. You can imagine how the excitement was pumping through my veins!
The first dive site was “Batu Lempa” just off the coast between Pulau Ambon and the island Haruku. A fairly unknown dive site which has as a cool additional feature that hot water and gas fumes are released from the sea floor due to volcanic activity in the area. This first dive was already spectacular with enormous sponges, colourful Gorgonians, sea horses, schools of fusiliers a colourful Mantis Shrimp and an abundance of multi-coloured reef fish. This was a very promising start!
As the Manta Mae was waiting for clearance to leave the port for the Banda Islands, after a very comfortable surface interval with delicious food and drinks, we submerged for our second dive at the neighbouring dive site “Tulehu”. Tulehu is situated a few miles south of Batu Lempa but hosts more macro life. We encountered flamboyant cuttlefish, banded pipefish and a lot of nudies.
After surfacing, the Manta Mae was ready for departure and we embarked on an overnight cruise to Nusa Laut (the east of Ambon). Nusa Laut counts two great dive sites: Amet and Ankon. Both sites have their own characteristics. Whereas Amet treated us on very large schools of Fusiliers, Black Snappers, White Snappers and Brassy Chubs (as well as beautiful corals and sponges), Ankon’s perk is its underwater landscape featuring an enormous underwater arch inhabited by zillions of juvenile Trigger Fish, large Napoleon fish as well as several colourful nudies. However, the absolute highlight of the day was that, Irlan, our excellent dive guide, discovered a Pontohi Pygmy sea horse (Hippocampus pontohi) in one of the fans. This was my first time meeting this little fellow, so a dive to remember!
After a delicious dinner prepared by Manta Mae’s cook and some well-deserved beers, we went below deck for a refreshing sleep while the Manta Mae departed to our next destination: the Banda Islands.
The Banda Islands
Hammerheads! As our ship was slowly awaking in the morning mist, excitement was reaching absolute highs. Our captain had received news from other boats that Hammerheads where sighted just off the shore of the Banda archipelago. We therefore rushed to our equipment and descended a group of three remote dive sites called “Suanggi”. Unfortunately, the visibility was rather bad and the water too murky to make any decent photograph. Nevertheless, after 5 minutes or so, Irlan (our dive guide) was franticly pointing to the far distance, and YES! Gracefully, without a care in the world, two Great Hammerheads passed by. Even though underwater, you could feel that our group slipped in an awe inspired solemn silence, as these marvellous (and outrageously large) creatures floated by. And oh yes… the rest of the dive was exciting too, we saw 2 turtles, schools of fusiliers being hunted by Giant Trevallies and extremely large sponges, but we will never forget those Hammerheads.
After a delicious and lavish breakfast, we descended at Suanggi Utara (Suanggi North) in the hope of finding Hammerheads once again. For me this was a particularly exciting dive as it was my 100th dive.
We encountered a school of Bump Headed Parrot Fish, a Giant Napoleon, Trevally and Fusiliers… but where were those Hammerheads? We were nearing the end of our dive time and, as we touched a maximum depth of nearly 33 meters, also the end of our air supply. Fear caught us that we would have to do without Hammerheads this time… but out of nowhere one suddenly appeared! It passed by, almost like a shadow, and yet still clearly visible. A great way to end our dive!
Back again on the Manta Mae, a local speer fisherman manoeuvred his longboat alongside and offered his catch to our cook: A small Tuna and a Wahu. That night Wahu carpaccio was on the menu as fresh as you can only get it directly from the sea.
Next up was a dive at “Pulau Ai”, an enormous wall descending into an endless abyss full of enormous and colourful hard corals and anemones. The day ended with a dive at “Mandarin Slope” (or Mandarin City), just in front of Maulana Hotel in the Bandaneira harbour. Many have heard of the legendary colourful mandarin fish and its hedonistic mating behaviour, but it is a true rarity to find one. Well… not at Bandaneira! On a particular spot at the wall of the harbour at about 7 meters depth, there and only there, lives an abundance of Mandarin Fish. They are only active at sunset when they come out to mate. The sight is simply spectacular. A frenzy of hundreds of Mandarin Fish fuzzing around to find a mate – Eyes Wide Shut is nothing compared to this seductive play. Everywhere you look, couples of Mandarin fish, in brief dances as they approach each other for a second to spawn and fertilise before they separate once more. When darkness set in, the Mandarin Fish returned to their homes and the wall seemed abandoned. An extraordinary event.
We did a couple more excellent dives at Banda, at Tanjung Button, Api Lava Flow (where lava from the Api volcano entered the sea), Batu Kapal (north of Bandaneira) and Pulau Pisang (north east of Bandaneira where we encountered large fish such as Tunas, Giant Trevally, Bump Headed Parrot Fish, as well as enormous Gorgonians and an exciting underwater tunnel (Glapa Miring). Next up was an excursion to the Dutch fortress Benteng Beverwijck and to Banda Neira where we saw the Fortresses Nassau and Belgica that date from the 17th century Dutch reign.
Too Many Fish
Last stop before Raja Ampat, was Pulau Koon (east of Pulau Seram, Maluccas) which features the beautiful dive site “Too many Fish”. Here we saw the Black and White banded Sea Krait, one of the most poisonous snakes in the world. Also, a large school of Barracudas passed by and Irlan showed us a tiny Orangutan Crab, hiding in the soft coral. This magnificent creature really looks like a miniature size orangutan and is extremely cute. A great dive site that does tribute to its name!
Later that afternoon, local villagers offered fresh coconuts from their longboats in exchange for cans of Coca Cola while we saw whales in the distance sending fountains of water into the sky as they jumped up and plummeted back into the sea. At sunset, the Manta Mae set sail for Raja Ampat.
In the evening as the Manta Mae was gently sliding into the moonless night, a spectacular sight unfolded itself. Above countless stars appeared on a pitch-black sky, revealing the milky way and a great number of shooting stars. Below, in the water, bioluminescent creatures (probably Comb Jellies?) lit up in the dark waters when touched by the lights of the Manta Mae. It looked like a thousand wandering lights emerging from the depth of the sea. It was such a beautiful and fascinating sight to behold that Evan (a fellow diver) and I spent a great part of the night watching the Comb Jellies illuminate and slowly extinguishing their light as we passed by.
Next early morning we arrived at Raja Ampat. A true fairy-tale world. Picture small green islands as far as the eye can reach. Pristine and crystal-clear waters in myriad hues of blue and turquoise and dolphins dancing playfully in the waters below the bow as they escorted our ship. And the best thing was that we had it all to ourselves: apart from a sporadic encounter with another boat there was no living soul (human that is) to be seen in any direction. In short: a true paradise. We were thrilled with excitement that the next 15 dives would be here. What beauty awaits us below? What a privileged feeling to be one of the few to be able to discover it!
The first few dives were simply spectacular. We started at Boo Rock with encounters of Tunas, Yellow Tail Barracudas, Giant Trevallies, a pygmy sea horse, a school of Pick Handle Barracudas and lots and lots of nudies – and not to forget all the enormous beautiful corals, pristine and fully intact. Next was Jamar Island which treated us on a real fish bowl – fish everywhere! Cherry on top was a magnificent ocean dweller, a Giant Oceanic Manta Ray, that graced us with its presence. The same day we submerged at Juliette and Romeo dive sites where Irlan discovered a Denise Pygmy Sea horse, decorator crabs, red coral crab, Mosaic Boxer crabs, Marble Shrimps and a Black Tip Reef Shark. Later, from the boat we spotted hunting rays in the water below. It was a crazy day that needed to be contemplated later at night with a nice cold beer.
Although we thought this was a pretty magnificent start of our dives at Raja Ampat, it got even better the next day. We descended at the dive site “Magic Mountain”. The current was a bit stronger here, but man… what a spectacle. Several Black Tip Reef Sharks circling around us, a fish bowl sliced open time and time again by racing Giant Trevallies, schools of batfish, fusiliers, halfmoon fish and again a Giant Oceanic Manta Ray. It was a spectacular sight unfolding before our eyes, so we used most of our dive time watching the show and thought unanimously one thing: we need to dive here again! So, we did, and on top of the whole frenzy were treated to three Grey Reef Sharks. This is definitely one of our favourite dive sites!
Next were Nudi Rock (which is a rock that truly looks like a Nudi branch), Romeo, Tank Rock and a number of other dive sites that host a mixture of large animals and macro life. In particular quite a significant amount of pygmy sea horses, flatworms and nudi branches as well as decorator craps, harlequin shrimps, orangutan crabs, Reef Sharks, Devil Rays, crocodile fish and Blue Sea Dragons.
Sadly, after four days diving at Misool and Raja Ampat, our journey was nearing its end. Our last day diving was spent close to Sorong where we would disembark the Manta Mae and head back on a 31 hours flight to Amsterdam. However, it was not over yet! We still had two dives lined up and those dives did not disappoint! After spotting some nice Ghost Pipe Fish and several Nudies, one of the divers found a lazy Wobbegong sleeping on top of a large coral formation. It was resting there, picture perfect, and did not seem to mind us at all. It could not have been a better last dive of this amazing journey on board of the Manta Mae!
Our experience with Manta Mae was top notch. Our equipment was prepared for every dive, the food was delicious, the cabins comfy and the crew extremely friendly. Also, Irlan, the dive guide, is highly recommended, in particular for finding macro life. The Manta Mae was comfy while still preserving a Robinson Crusoe feeling.
For more info regarding the Manta Mae Charter visit www.mantamaecharter.com
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