Raja Ampat becomes a new love

Raja Ampat is another must do destination in the Coral Triangle.  Our extensive reading seemed to show that Raja Ampat does have something for every diver.  Incredible reefs, mangroves and some muck diving.  This all proved to be true and diving in the mangroves was a first for us.  Without a doubt this is another must do destination.


There are several well reviewed shore operations in the region but we choose to try the Peter Hughes Paradise Dancer.  This was our first experience with a Peter Hughes vessel.  We prefer live-aboards in general since you typically get to see more of the region and get more dives in per day.  4-5 dives a day is great by us!  The Peter Hughes office was easy to work with and helped us with all the flight arrangements, no small task.


Getting There

As usual this is different for everyone.  The main thing to know is getting in and out of Sorong can be a problem.  On the way there we had no problem but on the way out the flight was canceled.  Of course they made us sit in the small “holding area” for quite awhile before admitting the flight was off.  Peter Hughes staff helped as much as possible but in the end you will need to find an internet site to start changing flights.  Right across from the airport is a business club called The Orchid; the manager was actually at the airport expecting issues and offered his club as a place to rest and get on the internet.  I was skeptical but he turned out to be a very helpful guy, of course there are some charges, just ask him and settle on a price. 


The Paradise Dancer

This is a new boat, huge and very comfortable.  If you are prone to get sea sick this is the boat for you as often you could not even tell it was moving.  It really is a beautiful boat.  The designers did an excellent job combining form and function.  You can go to their site and get all the stats on the boat.  It can accommodate up to 20 divers but is so large you never feel crowded.  The staterooms are incredible, comfortable and well thought out.  King size beds, tons of storage, desks and big heads with massive showers.  The wonderful design carries over into all the public areas.  Think W Hotel goes to sea.  The staff is top notch, friendly and always on the spot if you need something.  Meals were good to excellent.  You ordered your breakfast before the 1st dive.  They had the typical offerings for Westerners but also local noodle dishes.  Lunch was buffet and actually my favorite meal of the day.  Often with curries, salads, grilled meats and other dishes.  Dinner was typically sit down under the large awning covering the central deck. 


The Camera Room

Everyone on this trip had some form of camera.  Equally distributed between point&shoots, housed DSLRs and video cameras.  They camera room was just big enough as long as everyone was not in there at once.  There were plenty of charging stations but I think bringing your own power-strip or Squid is recommended.  The storage under the main level was large enough to slide our Stormcase 2500 under. There was always a cylinder of air available for blowing off housings.  The crew was very familiar with cameras.  You just set them outside the camera room before the dive and they took them from there.  They were also great on producing those tools you just happened to forget, but would not say there is a camera Pro on staff.

Minor Issues

Let’s just get these out of the way.  First being a new boat and made of wood they are still working a few things out.  The main one is a couple of the staterooms had leaks in the ceiling.  Our room had about a dozen major leaks.  So when it rained the bed had to be covered in plastic, items had to be pulled off one shelf and well you really did not need to get in the shower to take one in the head.  Now that said the crew was always on top of it and cut them in half by the time we left.  I am confident they will have them all gone in the short term. 


This is a new boat, route and there were a couple of issues with the dive routine.  The main issue is they are still figuring out some of the dive sites.  You dive from Pangas, 9 divers per panga.  Often they would on occasion drop the pangas on opposite ends of the same reef.  This typically ended with a large scrum in the middle of the dive and was a bit of a mess.  I mentioned this to the crew and they are working on it.  The dives where they dropped the groups at different sites went great.


I doubt they will make this mistake again but when you are on your way to a manta cleaning station and you come upon a dozen mantas feeding on the surface you give the divers the option to hop out and snorkel with them.  Yes current may limit some to sitting in the panga but COME ON, 12 Mantas, On The Surface, Feeding!!!!  Again mentioned this to the crew and they said was probably a mistake not dropping in.


Last but not least we had some very bad divers on this trip.  Meaning a lot of abuse of the reef via bad buoyancy and photogs trying to get shots they should forego.  One being so bad they had to put a DM with her full time to keep her from banging into things.  I wish all DMs would go over this more in briefings and if necessary offer a buoyancy class during the trip. 


The Dive Routine

We typically choose live-aboards because they maximize your time underwater.  We look for an open dive deck or minimum 4 dives per day.  If only doing 4 dives we like them to be in the 75-80minute range and this was typical in Raja.  First dive was done before breakfast, my preference.  Second dive, lunch, third dive, snack, dusk/night dive than dinner.  There where warm water showers, heated towels and neck rubs after every dive.  Of course plenty of sinfully good snacks between dives.  After night dives you were also met with a hot cup of coco.  In general we got 4 dives in per day with the exception of one day where we dropped a dive to climb to the top of one of the islands to take in the view and one day due to having to move the boat.  Oh by the way climb to the top of the island provides quite the view some Teva like sandals at minimum.


With 20 divers aboard we were broken into 2x10.  As usual once you set up your gear the crew handles it from there.  Dive briefings where well mapped out and to the point.  While some sites did have current there was nothing that most intermediate divers could not manage.  Once you surfaced the panga was typically right there.  You take off all gear in the water and than just climb up the ladder.


The pangas were comfortable and easy to dive from.  We can’t recall any rides more than 10minutes to dive sites and often just a minute or two.  There are two dive guides per panga and they are fantastic at finding the pygmy seahorses and other small creatures I would typically never spot.  When there are only 8 of you to a dive site it is fantastic and once the guides are comfortable with you the have no problem letting you dive at your own pace.  As mentioned they only Issue was when they would drop each group at opposite ends of the reef and we would end up with a mass of divers in the middle with some following the wrong guides, etc….  I am confident as they get to know the area more this will be resolved. 


Flora and Fauna

The Coral Triangle is famous for its diversity and rightly so.  On this trip we saw 3-4 species of pygmy seahorses, in greater numbers than we saw in Lembeh.  Most sites you could find everything from large schools of batfish or grunts to crinoid shrimp.  Some of  the highlights for us were: large schools of batfish, crinoid shrimp, hairy squat lobsters, pygmy seahorses, blue ringed octopus, bump head parrot fish, tasseled woebegone sharks, walking epilate sharks and just about any incredible species of reef fish you could imagine.  We would not call it a “shark rich” area but we did see black tips, white tips and a few grey reefs on several dives.


All of these creatures are hosted in a wonderfully healthy and diverse reef.  Soft corals, hard corals, sponges and fans are all there.  Raja supplied some of the most “colorful” walls we have ever seen.  This made some of the drift dives really memorable and night dives boarderd on psychedelic.


In the End

I can’t imagine any diver going to Raja Ampat and not enjoying themselves.  The time, money and effort getting there are worth it.  While there are many new places we want to dive Raja Ampat has moved to the top of “repeat” list and may put some new destinations on the back burner. 

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