Diving Fit For a Queen in the Land of Four Kings

Author: Rachel Lee Horsfield

When we had a last minute cancellation on our Raja Ampat photographic workshop with Shannon Conway, another worldly force told me I had to go! So at three days notice I hastily made arrangements to fly to Jakarta to meet a group of Australians, two Germans and a handful of Brits to explore one of the most remote and famed regions of Indonesia; Raja Ampat!

I had long wanted to travel to this region, particularly after visiting the fabulous Komodo region last September so my excitement was palpable! The journey is quite a trek, but absolutely worth it. We flew from London to Jakarta via Singapore, stayed one night in Jakarta before flying at 0500 to Sorong via Ujung Pandang (Makassar). At about 1400 a group of 16 of us, sweaty and weary boarded the stunning liveaboard S/Y Indo Siren and set sail for a 10 nights cruise to the best sites the Raja Ampat region had to offer. Our route would take us on an off-set diamond pattern as we sailed west from Sorong to Batanta, a region where black sandy slopes gave way to shallow coral gardens and fishy bommies. We were broken in gently on a very shallow muck slope bizarrely named Happy Ending despite it being the first dive of the trip, where we found the beguiling mimic octopus who was almost as fascinating as the pulsating upside-down jellyfish. We would visit two more pleasant coral garden sites before heading to Misool, the jewel in the crown of Raja Ampat (aptly named ‘Four Kings’).

Misool is not only fascinating below the waves but also above. The green islets sit like droplets of emeralds on a sea several shades of blue. Limestone rocks covered in vegetation pop up out of the ocean seemingly at random. Larger islets can have beautiful secluded beaches and coves and the journeys to and from the dive sites were just as enchanting as the dives themselves! The southern region of Misool, Batu Kecil was where one of the top dive sites of the trip is located. Gorgonian Passage can be an unpredictable affair due to the often changing direction of the current which can either make for a pleasant drift or a more thrilling ride through the passage. The passage is formed by two large islands, rising high out of the sea, to create a perfect u-shaped valley, the sides of which are covered in gargantuan gorgonian sea fans. During our dive the current picked up quite a lot and so my buddy and I turned our attention to ‘flying’ just above the sea floor at the bottom of the canyon, getting wrapped up in any fish schools that got in our way and kicking hard against the current if we wanted to closely inspect any of the fans. The current pushed us out of the end of the canyon where we took shelter at the end of the valley on a wall where a Hawksbill Turtle paid us a visit before we launched ourselves into the blue for a safety stop.

At the end of the same day, I enjoyed one of my favourite things about diving; a busy shallow reef in the late afternoon dappled light. Whale Rock is an excessively busy and lively reef in the shelter of a small islet. Oodles of soft corals protect skittish Coral Grouper but the real delight was in rolling on my back and looking through the curtains of purple and orange anthias as the afternoon sun rays illuminated the first few metres of reef in a rolling, flickering golden hue.

Not far away was the number one dive site of the whole trip; Boo Windows. This site was so popular with our photographers that we did it three times in one day. The main draw of Boo Windows was the ‘windows’ themselves. Two oval shaped holes have been eroded into a seamount protruding above the waves at different heights according to the tides. At times you can see the tops of the windows from the surface. Boo keeps her windows in good nick and they are a perennial favourite with photographers coming to Misool. The trick is to get your buddy to swim through the window and frame the shot with the colourful soft corals in the foreground whilst taking advantage of the light and the textured surface; no mean feat for both photographer and model in the surge! If the windows didn’t take up a great portion of your attention then the White-spotted Red Pygmy Seahorse, or the large schools of Oriental Sweetlips, or Napoleoon Wrasse, or Bumphead Parrotfish might! On our final dive here my buddy and I circumnavigated the whole seamount, but naturally ended up right back at the windows for some more fun swimming through them and fighting the surge to hover mid-window!

An exploratory dive at Anti-Chovys yielded spurs, pinnacles and plateaus, creating a lovely macro dive. After dispersing the clouds of fusiliers upon entry we examined the inlets and grooves, harbouring numerous nudibranchs including Chromodoris Coi and Chromodoris Petechialis. A Blue-spotted Stingray posed politely for several photographs and a beautiful cowrie shell was found making a home on the base of a seafan.

Next we headed to Arborek where we would have one of the biggest thrills of the trip. Manta Sandy is so-called for obvious reasons, and we struck gold on our second dive. The trick here is to get down quickly and wait behind a line created totally naturally from rocks and coral rubble in the sand. From here you can view three cleaning stations where the Manta Rays come from all directions. You must keep your wits about you and continue to look over your shoulders as well as forwards as these ‘big birds’ swoop right in over your head and hover over the pinnacles. Manta Rays are spectacular enough, but this region is famed for its black mantas, at first a little eerie to see but just as beautiful against the blue as their pearly white companions. The first dive here yielded two or three rays, but the second dive was an action packed thriller. The visibility was not stunning but this didn’t matter, as the rays careened in from all directions. Fortunately my buddy was alert enough to let me know when several rays were right above and behind me, and shortly, the divers and the mantas were all wrapped up together! What a jaw dropping forty minutes, it was a wonder I kept my regulator in! The current had picked up a little which made taking photographs slightly more challenging but the site is shallow and all I had to do was lurk by the pinnacle and the mantas did all the posing! No matter how many times I see these creatures on a dive, they never cease to amaze me! Our third dive here was a slightly calmer affair as my buddy and I took to hooking on to a handy rock and hovering in the current which had picked up again from the second dive. The mantas returned again but the highlight was a squadron of 6 or 7 Mobula Rays who stayed above us for most of the dive. Nobody else followed our lead of hooking and since we were looking all around us we enjoyed Manta Ray entanglements from all angles. My buddy was lying on the sandy bottom and I was hooked directly above her, and hovering directly above me was a huge black Manta Ray! All dives have to end sometime and even as we returned to the boat the rays were still circling. The poor boat crew had to retrieve us several times as we snorkelled off, following the rays until they tired us out!

Aljui Bay gave us several treats of a smaller variety. White Arrow sits in the shadow of a large limestone cliff. This is a stunning macro wall, replete with Flabelina species left right and centre. I was happy to see another of my favourites, the Orangutan Crab. This dive is truly compelling, with various types of cleaner shrimp, huge sea squirts and pygmy squid as well as a plethora of crustaceans and some tiny tiny soft corals. After an easy shallow dive off the jetty of the pearl farm at Cendana Jetty where I continued the eternal quest for the definitive hawkfish portrait and rumours of a banded seasnake abounded we headed out to Yangeffo and the mangroves!

Here the highlights were, naturally, the mangroves but also a great wide angle dive named Citrus Ridge due to the ‘bushes’ of soft corals that covered every surface. Pink, orange, white, green, purple and golden soft corals contrasted fabulously with the blue and as the current picked up we delighted in flying low over the bommies and ridges, kicking against the current to pause at particularly photogenic areas! This site is also home to some especially inquisitive batfish. Mangrove dives yielded opportunities for split shots and several meetings with Archer fish, who are always worth a second look with their obscure shape and zebra patterns. Night dives in this region brought me two species that had long been on my list of heart’s desires; a Tassled Wobbegong Shark and a Blue-ringed octopus! The wobbegong was a delight, with its tassles and fronds coming off at all angles which make it look like it has incredibly long eye lashes!

Our final stop was the Dampier Strait, which I had heard was one of the fishiest spots in the world’s fishiest dive region! And they were not wrong! Two very similar dives at Mioskon and Blue Magic produced more fish than you can shake a stick at! Schools of yellow snapper comprised up to three different species; wobbegongs sharks swim freely over the hard corals; Black –Tip Reef Sharks skirt the edge and the base of the reef and Great Barracuda are flanked left and right, top and bottom by sheets of Yellow-fin Barracuda! Surgeonfish and trevally swarm around like starlings on a winters night and would you believe it but we were again graced by a Manta Ray! We must have spent up to 40 minutes just sitting on the reef top as he circled again and again and again over and around us, and thanks to the advice of my ever trusty buddy I was the only person with a wide angle lens (even if that meant I missed opportunities to shoot Pontohi Pygmy and Bargabanti Pygmy Seahorses!)

Raja Ampat is a much talked about destination and it is easy to see why. The density, diversity and profusion of marine life, coupled with the pristine nature of the reefs and the truly enchanting top-side landscapes make this a magical destination.

Rachel sailed on the S/Y Indo Siren for 10 nights.


Ari with soft corals on Citrus Ridge (Rachel Lee Horsfield)

Tasselled Wobbegong (Joss Woolf)

A night dive at Cendanda Jetty yields some tiny tiny creatures!

Fusiliers stream by (Rachel Lee Horsfield)

Yellowtail Snapper swarm towards the camera at Blue Magic (Rachel Lee Horsfield)

A diver enjoys the afternoon light over the shallow reef of Mioskon (Rachel Lee Horsfield)

One of Boo Windows (Rachel Lee Horsfield)

Diver at Boo Windows (Rachel Lee Horsfield)

Diver at Boo Windows (Rachel Lee Horsfield)

White-spotted Red Pygmy Seahorse (Rachel Lee Horsfield)

Soft corals in Misool (Rachel Lee Horsfield)

Sea squirts and soft corals in Misool (Rachel Lee Horsfield)

Blenny on sponge (Rachel Lee Horsfield)

False clown Anemonefish (Rachel Lee Horsfield)

Ari and the Manta Ray! (Joss Woolf)

Manta Ray with Pilotfish (Rachel Lee Horsfield)

One of Raja Ampat's famous black Manta Rays sweeps overhead (Rachel Lee Horsfield)

...and circles around for another photograph!

Mobula Rays (Rachel Lee Horsfield)

Hard corals and mangrove roots at Yanggefo (Rachel Lee Horsfield)

Boo Windows from the surface (Ariane Hingst)

Gorgonian Passage from the surface (Ariane Hingst)

An example of Raja Ampat's delightful topside scenery (Ariane Hingst)

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