Off maps.google.com in Aljui Bay
by Janice Nigro
I had thought that in Raja Ampat further south in Misool was something like the soft coral and color factory of the world. I discovered on a recent liveaboard trip that Aljui Bay in northern Raja Ampat was serious competition…and with no other boats (yeah, try to find it). There is a whole lot of “oohing” and “ahhing” to be done though before you ever get under the water. It’s a cozy spot on the Earth-a secluded bay where you are surrounded by walls of green-ness growing straight out of limestone.
All of this geography makes for very interesting topography underwater. There were slopes leading into walls of the islands and vice versa. And there were alcoves and crevices and ledges to investigate. On one dive, Left of White Arrow, we went vertical, meaning we went down to a little over 20 meters and just traveled the same path upwards for an hour. There was a large alcove, like in a cathedral with hours of marinelife to look at, but one where you conveniently do not need a ladder.
I found my guide Jemy thoroughly preoccupied with an electric clam he had found lodged inside a small hole at the back of the alcove, flashing his light repeatedly to see the wave of blue light pass from one end to the other. I was mesmerized by a colony of featherworms on the floor of the alcove, which were like garden eels positioned vertically in the sand and disappearing successively as I approached.
These dives sometimes started before we hit the water, or they were still going on when we surfaced. At White Arrow, dolphins were playing on the surface at the start of our before second breakfast morning dive, and rays were visible at the end of another. It was an abstract art wonderland once under the waves though. One of those places where the corals really don’t seem to follow any particular rules; they just grow. Whip corals were sprouting from the bottom and from walls of the islands surrounding us and beside black corals of all colors on sloping areas. I would find myself over and over again attempting to capture the grandness of the patterns of large blocks of hard coral. I failed miserably, I believe, and am left only to suggest that you need to go there yourself to see it.
Every dive introduced us to more spectacular corals and macrolife that on further inspection seemed more prolific and bigger than normal. Take for example pygmy seahorses. They didn’t always live so deep or in the biggest gorgonian fans. On the contrary, I spotted my guide one day looking at the smallest and most hopeless looking gorgonian and finding two pygmy seahorses in it. We also discovered families and newborns on one of these, evidence of which I don’t have, as I am somewhat conflicted about ever shooting a strobe at a pygmy seahorse (and really bad at taking their photos anyway).
It apparently was not enough for us to just find the animals. We also got to view some unique animal behavior (beyond schooling which is pretty magnificent). It seemed as if it was some kind of brooding time for banded pipefish. Several pairs were observed. They were large pipefish to begin with so the eggs were absolutely visible attached to the underside of the fish. I got the underbelly with eggs in an image, but photographing a couple of uncooperative stick animals with a point and shoot was not in my technical skill set.
Our time was not exactly up as planned. It was supposed to be only one full day of dives in Aljui Bay and then we were to wake up the next morning further north. But when I went outside the next morning, the scenery looked the same. It was; the battery was dead. We stayed in Aljui Bay for an extra day until it could be replaced. It meant not crossing the equator to the north of us, but we had time to repeat some dives as well as explore some different ones, such as The Corner. This dive began as most-soft corals everywhere-but abruptly ended in a hard coral garden largely made up of a single type-lettuce coral-as if it had been cultivated there.
You cannot forget to look the other way on these dives. The other dive group filmed an instant when a flock of mobula rays passed by at The Corner, but otherwise you will exhaust yourself trying to keep mental images at least of all the fish surrounding you on any one dive.
It’s hard to know how to prepare for these dives from a photographer’s perspective. They might tell you wide angle, but then your guide shows you that gorgonian fan where several pygmy sea horses live with the newborns. They might tell you macro, but then how can you possibly photograph the soft coral without wide angle. The only way to photograph sealife here properly is to have someone lug around a second camera for you. Or collaborate.
Aljui Bay was unbelievably quiet. No phones, no other dive boats, no planes even. That’s how secluded we were. The rest of the world does not seem to exist. If ever there was a reason to focus entirely on the present, diving in Aljui Bay was it.
We were not entirely cut off from the rest of the world. A famous pearl farm, the Cendana Pearl Farm (owned by Australians and managed by Indonesians), is located here due to the nutrient rich waters. I had my fantasies about finding an escaped oyster with a precious pearl in it. I didn’t find it, but what I didn’t know was that it was easier than that. You can actually tour the pearl farm and shop afterwards.
I left without that kind of treasure but instead a mind full of memories of a place that few in the world step off to see.
©2016 Janice Marie Nigro/janikiInk.com