Raja Ampat: drama on the reef

Raja Ampat:  drama on the reef

by Janice Nigro

Raja Ampat is a long way from anywhere so if you go, you want it to be the experience of a lifetime because you are not sure you will ever get back.  It has been a bit difficult to write about my recent experience on a liveaboard in Raja Ampat because this particular liveaboard did not exactly have it all together.   Although the captain was really handsome.

It could have been some kind of fundamental problem with the boat and the management but in fact the trip was rocky from the start.  Or maybe that is just what it is traveling to where it seems like the end of the earth.  I actually chose this itinerary because some friends in the dive business were going, and I thought it would be less stressful to travel to Sorong with people I knew rather than not.  Somehow our itinerary for the flight to Sorong was misunderstood, and even though we had checked in to our flight on time we missed it!  The boarding time was on our card of course and none of us looked at it, because we knew when our flight was, so when the Indonesian porters came to find us, we were surprised to have missed our flight.  Our first flight (although technically it was my fourth flight in about 40 hours; I suppose after about one day and a half of flying just to get to Indonesia, you are bound to make some kind of stupid mistake).  We were lucky to get onto another flight but that made for a pretty short transfer time in between flights at Makassar.  All of this was done in the middle of the night.  We made it, but there was some sweat involved.

And then…my traveling companions disembarked from the boat within the first 15 minutes after arrival.  I felt abandoned…but as I already mentioned just a few sentences ago, the boat did have an extraordinarily handsome captain.  And as I learned on the cruise, the Indonesian crew was pretty remarkable as well.  The cook was also a fantastic masseuse (he wanted desperately to cure my Neanderthal feet), and a young engineer with a sparkling smile improvised a tool in order to remove a lodged adaptor on my underwater housing.  The room “boy” was hilarious and could speak excellent English; apparently he learned on his own.  One day when we saw dolphins and none were jumping, he shouted, “Lazy!”  I like this about Indonesians that I have met.  They have an extraordinary ability to express themselves so cleverly in English, even with a limited vocabulary.  I can only imagine what fun I am missing not understanding Indonesian.  My dive guide for many of the dives was “El Toro,” and at first I thought it was a mispronunciation of Arturo, which of course seemed silly in Indonesia.  But his name was Rasmantoro and that somehow morphed into “El Toro”.  I have no idea how long he has gone by “El Toro” and whether that is his dive guide name only or if it has anything to do with diving at all.

A number of Westerners were also part of the crew.  One of them was a beautiful Italian dive guide who was “pipefish” thin and covered in tattoos.  I have never seen a female diver so thin that her pelvic bones protruded through her wet suit, actually wetsuits.  I was worried about how she would keep warm underwater, but she layered wetsuits and accessories to manage it.  She was a true macro detective finding incredibly small creatures during the days, and then in the evenings she would glide into the dining room in some sleek outfit.  And of course her native tongue was Italian which added to her allure.

The odd bit about this liveaboard was the fact that the cruise director had no previous experience guiding a dive boat and probably no experience guiding dive groups ever.  Usually they are a sort of mediator between the crew and guests, but I never heard him even speaking Indonesian to the crew.  His style was militaristic-knocking on cabin doors at six in the morning-which somehow was a prelude to a dive schedule that did not quite work.  It wasn’t clear that the cruise director was interested in leading dives or even diving for that matter or looking at anything on the dives that were led by the other skilled guides.  At one point on the cruise, I found him reading from a book which dives to do.  The reason for choosing a boat is because they already know the dive sites.  I am not sure what the purpose of this person was other than to demonstrate how not to be a cruise director.  Like if you do not like to dive, maybe you should not be a cruise director.  Because of the full moon and the time of the year, we thought it a possibility to view coral spawning, but instead, the cruise director was actually dismissed the last night of the trip.

The guests were sort of split into two groups: the Italians and the non-Italians.  I found myself for the first time on a European tour of sorts in Indonesia.  It seemed kind of normal to me to be surrounded by Europeans, as I spent just over seven years living in Norway.  As the sleek dive guide was an Italian woman, it was partly her job to be there for the Italians.  Several came as a group and had traveled to many great dive destinations together.  They were very experienced divers.  There was also an Italian couple traveling independently to the group.  He was a diver (and a plastic surgeon), while his wife was not.  In this situation, I could manage if my choice was to speak Italian or Indonesian, but the Italians all spoke fantastic English.  Only the wife of the plastic surgeon could not speak English.  My Italian is not great but finally I had an opportunity to say something to her one day when getting in and out of the dingy, because it sure helped that she had long legs.  I told her, “e piu facile con le gambe lunghe.”  She finally smiled when I said something because it was more than, “where are you from” in Italian.

In my group, the non-Italian group, were some other people from the USA: a physician’s assistant and a couple that I would classify as sort of well-educated hippies.  I or we could not determine what his profession was (my best guess is a professional photographer of some sort), but she was a curator for an American quilt museum.   A couple from Belgium, she was actually a beautiful Polish woman, and a really entertaining Spanish woman were the remaining guests.  The couple from Belgium had won one trip to the boat with their underwater photos.  They were uniquely tied to their cameras and would not dive without them.

I am not making this stuff up about the professional diversity  of the scuba divers.  You all know that I am a scientist (well one on sabbatical) but there was even an Italian in haute couture.

We were minus the two people from the US, my traveling companions who were supposed to ease the stress of traveling to Sorong (and back again).  So as I had started out being the Spanish woman’s roommate, the unexpected departure of my traveling companions left an empty cabin.  One benefit is that the boat let me have their room (I didn’t even have to ask for it), so the Spanish woman and I each had our own cabins.  Fortunately, this cabin did not have some of the issues that the other cabins had such as leakage, but short electrical outages were pretty routine in the evenings.  In some respects, these are all minor issues when you consider where you are and how it might be to manage a boat from there.

Still, diving Raja Ampat is fabulous but of course challenging.  Raja Ampat means the four kings.  The four kings refers to the four major islands in the area-Batanta, Waigeo, Misool, and Salawati but the area is littered with smaller islands everywhere.  The region is challenging because of the currents running through all of the islands as well as the low visibility due to the nutrient rich waters.  I had a restart on one of my dives at Nudi Rock because the current at the surface pulled me away from my group.  I should not have descended at all because I was already behind at the surface.  A mere three minutes into the dive, I realized that I had no chance of catching up to them in the current.  I surfaced and the boat tender spotted me.

The first dive of the trip was a few hours after we arrived on the boat.  We had barely left Sorong harbor.  The dive was at Batu Hitam (Rock Black-more  Indonesian words!).  It was an amazing dive in part because it was a warm 29oC.  Many creatures were spotted, but I was amazed to see three different kinds of cephalopods all in the course of an hour and ten minutes: octopus, cuttlefish, and a squadron of squid.

Our itinerary had us diving Batanta first, some muck dives, and as I hadn’t really done any muck diving in Raja Ampat, this was new to me.  It was fine black sand and we were seeing what you might expect here, supersized nudibranchs, sea penns, and pygmy cuttlefish.  But I always see something that is a slightly different version of something typical.  Normally one reasonable size crinoid shrimp can be found buried within a crinoid.  At Happy Ending, I found a crinoid in the middle of nowhere where a whole lot of tiny tiny crinoid shrimp were living and jumping around on top rather than hiding deep within it.

One of the most magical places possibly on the planet though is Misool.  I have already written previously that it seems to be the place to give birth to all colors on earth.  None of this had changed.  I spent a lot of time just floating past in awe of the Three Sisters (no photo can recreate the emotions you feel when you float past such complexities created by nature) and examining more closely the different types of soft coral.  Olga (the Italian dive guide) was able to find some hippocampus denise pygmy sea horses and the so-called Chinese dragon nudibranchs were draped over the “Sisters” everywhere.  Only two days in Misool; I didn’t have enough of it.

One of the unique underwater environments in Raja Ampat is the mangrove.  Topside you can see the mangled roots of the trees dipping into the water and under the water are the reefs.  But your mind conjures up the types of creatures that may lurk about.  Like crocodiles.  We did not see any, but in this context a night dive is possibly one of the creepiest things you can do or think about doing if you focus too much on the possibility of encountering a crocodile.  For the most part, these dives were like any other on the coral reef as a group of some enormous bumphead parrotfish munched past us on the hard coral.  I was surprised by a wobbegong shark on a night dive at Mangrove Ridge although he was not surprised by me.  They often can be found lodged in lettuce coral with their heads pointed towards the sky, and you have to be a real jerk in order to disturb them out of this peaceful position, as if they are in a recliner with a remote control.   With Olga leading the dives, we were not exactly sure how long we were “underwater” as we were sort of snorkel diving in the mangroves unregistered on our dive computers.

Cape Kri is arguably one of the most famous dives in Raja Ampat because of the diversity of the fish.  It is a lot of fish, so many fish that if you are not close enough to your intended photo target, someone else is sure to get in the way.  On the first dive at Cape Kri, there was no current.  Even the fish seemed confused and were switching directions continuously in an effort to find a current to guide them.  On the second and last dive for me, “El Toro” made some marvelous discoveries, such as a walking shark, in the last minutes of the dive.  And when I had my head buried in another anemone, he was crazily banging on his tank to get our attention.  When I looked up, a beautiful manta ray, pure white with no markings underneath, soared directly over me.  It must have been only about two to three meters deep.

We had no special barbeque on one of the small islands as I have had before, but we did take a short boat tour through them.  It was here that I experienced a moment of true independence from the rest of the world, as I was able to make a quick change in the bright sunlight from my sundress into a top for swimming in the spectacularly blue water.  People were living here and I wondered if they too thought the cove was anything special.

Although it was a bit of a soap opera on the liveaboard, for this particular trip anyway, to witness the spectacular biodiversity still in evolution in Raja Ampat is the real drama.  And I have done it three times.   Sometimes it pays to make your own lunch every day.

©2013 Janice Marie Nigro/janikiink.com

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