Raja Ampat, the birthplace of color

Raja Ampat, the birthplace of color

“I am not comfortable,” I wanted to scream.  I was in the domestic terminal in the Soekarno-Hatta International Airport in Jakarta, and the destination on my printed ticket itinerary was Ujung Pandang but the one over the check-in counter was Makassar.  And neither of these names matched my final destination of Sorong in West Papua, the departure city for liveaboards to Raja Ampat.  I was starting to feel that “frontier diving of Raja Ampat” somehow was a catchall phrase that included navigating domestic Indonesian airports.

I had approximately two hours of safety on the flight to Makassar, before I had to deplane and pick up the second boarding pass in the midst of some sort of cultural event and a huge crowd of Indonesians also collecting their boarding passes, only to arrive back at the same gate to board what might have been the same plane.  Not much English was spoken there, and the flight board had the incorrect time on it.  The time was not like an hour ahead or behind but some odd number of minutes behind.  I was insistent with the gate attendants to make sure that I got onto my flight to Sorong.  If I were to miss this flight, it would have been another day at least (and a hefty fee for an unscheduled boat pick up).

I clearly forgot where I was headed when I boarded the second plane to Sorong.  Sorong is located in West Papua, and the people in West Papua are of the same ethnic origin as those of New Guinea.  They look more aboriginal than Asian, and their past included practices of headhunting into the 20th century.  I was conspicuously non-Indonesian, single, and female on this flight, but it was an advantage in this situation.  The Papuans were very gracious and even spoke to me, treating me like some kind of admirable soul.  I felt almost as if I had landed in the middle of a “what is wrong with this” National Geographic documentary, where the indigenous people had forgotten their traditional costumes.  It reminded me that these trips are about more than just the scuba diving.

It was a relief to finally land at Sorong Airport.  It is the kind of airport that closes at 6 PM because there are no operating landing lights, everything happens at 3PM (all arrivals and departures for the day), and it is the highlight of the locals’ day when a jet lands.  Everyone rushes out to the runway including the makeshift fire department which consisted of a couple of very young looking Indonesian boys holding a hose that I presume was connected to some mobile water/foam source.  It took a while for the baggage to arrive at the baggage claim, even though it was just an open window in the wall so that the bags were passed directly from a cart outdoors.  You could not interfere with the process, like pick up your bag from the cart outside.  It had to be passed through the window first.  Mine had made it despite the lack of technology guiding its destination.

But the trauma of flying to Sorong was about to be cured.  Diving began in the north, near Waigeo Island, which is one of the four big islands that make up Raja Ampat (R4) or the four kings.  Our inaugural dive on this boat trip began appropriately with the famous Cape Kri, just off of Kri Island, which is reported to support the most diverse number of fish species anywhere.  It was not surprising then when it was a school of barracuda in a tornado-like formation, circling closer and closer to us that initiated our dive trip.  About midway through the dive, we experienced a sudden moment of complete “silence” and emptiness where it had moments before just been traffic congested with fish.  It was not clear what all the fish seemed to know until a moment later when about twenty eagle rays darted through, and left us hanging in the water wondering who says Raja Ampat is best for macro.

Even though Raja Ampat has a reputation for macro, the dives on the first couple of days in R4 were geared to see pelagic animals.  After the mass of fish at Cape Kri on the first day, we were parked on a sandy bottom at Manta Sandy Point waiting patiently for manta rays to show up at a cleaning station on the second day.  And they did, swooping over us without fear, and too close to my camera for a full body shot.  The sandy bottom should not go unnoticed here, for indeed strange creatures were lurking about in daylight, such as the Pegasus sea moth.

We dove in the north for several days, and viewed many geographically and environmentally different locales:  reefs of variable topography, a pier, a mangrove, and sandy bottom.  Made (Mahday) our Indonesia dive guide, or preferably dive god, guided us elegantly through these areas.  Currents can be tricky running through the islands, and the visibility low because of the nutrient rich waters.

The view was also spectacular from within the boat weaving around the limestone mushroom head islands/islets of the north and out to the Fam Islands through our cycles of eat, dive, and sleep on our way south to Misool.  On one of these islets, we were even treated to a barbeque.  It was an incredibly picturesque spot that was politely categorized as a nice place to start a family.

Misool, another one of the four big islands of Raja Ampat, was one of the main reasons for taking this particular itinerary from R4 to Ambon on the Archipelago (which no longer exists), as I was promised the most beautiful soft corals of the world were there.  It is difficult to say any one dive was better than the others along the way; they are all just different.  Made would proclaim at the end of every dive briefing, “This dive is one of my favorites.”  But in a way, I was reluctant to dive again after one of the dives in Misool, the Three Sisters.  It seems that every dive is like reformatting your memory card.  New images replace the “old”, and in this case it was too soon to part with the images from the Three Sisters.  This place was a jungle of soft corals, whip corals, enormous gorgonians, and sponges of every color you have seen and new colors that you have not.  It was as if this place gives birth to the colors of the world, and it was waiting a billion years for me to show up to look at it.  When I could snap out of my soft corals hypnosis to look for the other creatures that live amongst them, I would find dragon nudibranchs (pteraeolidia ianthina) and long flabellinas draped over each other, perhaps eternally tied together in an unresolvable knot.

If you read about Raja Ampat, you will be mostly seduced by the opportunity to view macro life, in particular pygmy seahorses.  It does not really dawn on you until you are in Raja Ampat, just how unique it is to view all types of coral at once, and yet, we are still oddly obsessed by something that may take up about 0.15cm3 of the volume of the ocean.  They are pretty well disguised, as they have adopted an incredible likeness of the gorgonian fan in which they live, and I am convinced that I saw a lot more of them than I was fully conscious of.  Fortunately, we had Deni who would hunt for them for us.  Technically I would not call this a hunt, because it seemed that he could find them on demand: hippocampus bargibanti, in red and yellow, and hippocampus Denise which looks like a plucked chicken.  The pygmy sea horses of Misool changed my perceptions about my previous encounters with these creatures.  They can live at shallower depths (above 25meters), and they can really be everywhere, especially if you have a “Deni” to find them.

It was not on the itinerary, but we actually asked for a dawn dive one day at a site called Blue Hole.  “Good morning,” said a huge marble ray like he was taking over Made’s job as dive god for the day.  Soon after, a bumphead parrotfish family, in the order of teenager to parent, paraded by eating their coral version of a Cap’n Crunch breakfast together at dawn.  Bumphead parrotfish have very white protruding teeth for gnawing on the coral; the teenager in the party was fairly awkward looking as the teeth were even more disproportionately prominent relative to the size of his body.  I guess that is why he looked like a teenager.

We were leaving the underwater world of the wobbegong and epaulette sharks; the trip was coming to an end and all that was left to do, was to moon-bathe in a spectacular show of moonlight.  Indonesians on the boats say the nature is just normal for them.  For me, a sense of panic strangely overwhelms me after almost every dive trip.  Even after thirty-nine dives, I began to have anxiety on the international flight home: when is the next time, where, and do I have enough money and time to see all of the places that I want to?  My scuba diving list never gets shorter.

©2013 Janice Marie Nigro/janikiInk.com

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