Diving “The Last Best Place” in Luxury - exploring Raja Ampat
Adventure aboard the Arenui liveboard to Misool, Raja Ampat and Triton Bay
Text and photos by Rod Klein
High View of Waiego Bay, one of the more picturesque areas of North Raja Ampat
In the past 10 years I’ve had the opportunity to dive most of the well-known areas of Indonesia: Lembeh, Komodo, Bali, Ambon, Banda, and North Raja Ampat, but when an invitation came to join an 11 day Raja Ampat charter on brand new Indonesian Liveaboard, The Arenui, from Triton Bay to Sorong (via Misool) I could not say no.
About the Arenui
Normally it is the diving in a particular area that is the primary story, but The Arenui is such a spectacular and unusual vessel, that she is as much a part of this adventure as the diving itself.
Under full sail, the Arenui Liveaboard, one of the most luxurious liveaboards in Indonesia
The upper sundeck on the Arenui. A quiet place to relax between dives or just take the day off. Here meals are often served and massages given
Besides they have two of the best diveguides in the region, Ali, who had learned his skills from the late legend Larry Smith, and Toby. Their experience and ability to find the most unusual critters, as well as their overall enthusiasm, was the sweet icing on my diving cake.
Here is the caveat: It took almost 24 hours of flying from my home in Venice Beach, California to Bali via Singapore. I stayed in Bali three days to overcome jetlag, and then flew to Ambon to overnight before catching a one hour flight to Kaimana where I would meet the Arenui. Sounds pretty easy, right?
Well, flying inside Indonesia isn’t always what it seems. After a relaxing day and nice meal at Maluku Divers in Ambon, I arose early to catch my 7am flight. Except there was no flight. When I got to the airport I discovered that Lion Air, the local carrier, had decided to change the day they flew to Kaimana, but failed to notify the passengers. I would have to wait until the next day to fly out.
After a phone call to the Arenui office in Bali to let them know that they would have to hold the charter for one more day (I always carry a local phone when I do international travel) I taxied back to Maluku Divers with all my gear for one more day of relaxation. So, at this point I’d been on the road for 6 days and hadn’t even put my big toe in the ocean. Things were bound to get better.
When I finally arrived in Kaimana, I felt much relieved to see the smiling face of my old friend Ali. We loaded my 3 large checked bags, full of dive gear and photo equipment, into a rickety old van used to transport guest luggage to the “sort of” harbor a few kilometers away. We personally jumped in a cab that took us to a skiff that would ferry us out to the waiting liveaboard. Our 11-day charter would start in Triton Bay and end in Sorong, with diving in Misool and Batanta Island along the way.
Upon boarding the Arenui I was blown away by how luxurious and tastefully done this boat was. Not only that, once I got settled I was offered a free 30 minute welcome massage! How cool is that.
The Arenui's onboard masseuse gives a guest a great massage
Three years in the making, the Arenui began life in July 2007. Built from scratch, the main hull was crafted from ironwood by over fifty local craftsmen in South Sulawesi. The structure of the boat was completed in Java and Bali. Seventy percent of the wood used to build the Arenui is recycled wood. Many parts of the boat are made from recycled teak wood from Javanese houses. Twelve different types of wood have been used in the crafting of the Arenui.
The hull is made up of seven types of wood and the interior five types of wood. Seventeen different types of finishing techniques have been used. All wood finishing has been by hand using traditional materials and techniques. They have taken some traditional elements of Javanese houses and recreated them. For example, the steps in front of the restaurant, for crew access to the top deck, are from a Javanese house. Triangular supports with intricate carvings can be found all around the boat. The boon support on the sky lounge area was hand-crafted in Bali. It has been designed to look like a typical Balinese doorway.
Another unique touch is the intricate carvings on the stairs from the restaurant down to the lower cabins. These locally carved wood panels depict the Ramayana Story. Ramayana is an important part of Hindu faith. It is an epic poem of courage, magic and humor, containing 18 books and 24,000 verses divided into 500 songs.
View of the dining and salon area on the Arenui
The bronze, brass and copper features, such as the unique hinges and handles are all handmade. Most of the lamps are made from copper or brass and were handcrafted in Java. The portholes are made from bronze. Pair these exquisite details with the top-of-the-line technology of a large wide-screen high-definition TV and two complete Mac computer editing stations, and you have a liveaboard like no other.
Diving in Indonesia
The Republic of Indonesia is the largest archipelago in the world comprising 17,504 large and small tropical islands fringed with white sandy beaches, many still uninhabited and a number even still unnamed.
It contains a mixture of deep basins and shallower waters. This area is known for its underwater beauty and extensive biodiversity and while liveaboards have been visiting other areas of Indonesia for some time, diving is relatively new to Triton Bay, and it has been only since the middle of this decade that liveaboards have ventured there due to its remoteness and the complexity of stocking up on provisions in the town of Kaimana.
"Habitat, habitat, habitat," says biologist Mark Erdmann, who sites the reason for the incredible explosion of life in this region… "Extensive fringing reefs, wave-pounded drop-offs, calm deep bays funneling upwellings of nutrients, sand flats, mangroves, sea grass meadows—all in an area that's isolated and still for the most part intact."
Map showing Triton Bay, Ambon, and Raja Ampat - and where they lie in Indonesia
Diving in Triton Bay
There is a price to pay for the great biodiversity in Triton Bay. Visibility is not generally good especially in comparison to the rest of Indonesia, due to the incredibly nutrient-rich water, but this is easy to overcome due to the sheer amount of life in and around the reef. This may not be a dive destination for every diver and if you want clear water diving and big fish on all dives this may not the place for you. Yes there are giant groupers, Napoleon wrasse, eagle rays, a few sharks, schooling barracuda and jacks, but all this does not happen on every trip. This area changes, water clarity changes, and critters are not always there.
A pygmy seahorse, Hippocampus denise, living on one of Triton Bay's seafans
Soft corals are every present in all of Raja Ampat, especially so in Triton Bay
Typical of the area is the site Black Forest owes its name to the black coral which truly resembles a forest on the slopes at this particular point of the dive-site. In all reality it should be called White Forest given that the polyps of the black coral in this area are really white; it is the skeleton which, once dried, gives it this color.
It’s also quite common to find sleepy wobbegong sharks not too far from the surface and with a bit of luck, on the night dives, the oddly strange Epaulette shark, known as the walking shark; but in a place of such biodiversity, don’t be surprised if you hit on a new species without even knowing it, lucky diver!
Two other Triton Bay divesites stand out: Larry’s Heaven (named for the late Larry Smith) and Little Komodo (also named by Larry). Diving at Little Komodo was one of my most adrenalin powered dives. I was making this dive in a very strong current hanging on to my camera housing. I was surrounded by a whole assortment of fish and it felt as if the fish here had never experienced sharing their environment with a scuba diver. The most exciting moment came when I looked up and was face to face with a few giant groupers and it was sort of like running into The Terminator on a dark evening and he does nothing but stand there, staring down on you!
Diving around Misool
At Misool, wide angle is the name of the game. The Misool Island group sits at the entrance of the Seram Sea, two degrees south of the equator and is about half way between Triton Bay and Sorong. This entire region is one enormous ancient limestone basin and even has limestone as the sea floor.
Misool itself has canyons and lagoons speckled with white sand beaches ideal for tender boat rides. We were able to spend hours exploring and never see the same bay. Soft coral, masses of schooling fish and incredible rock and coral formations make for great photo opportunities.
Sea fan and glassfish in Misool, Raja Ampat
An explosion of life in Misool
A diver hovers at the aptly named "Boo Windows" divesite in Misool
Batanta is the smallest of the four islands that make up northern Raja Ampat. Here we were able to do some serious “muck” diving at Black Beauty and Happy Ending dive sites. This was a nice change from the soft coral infested areas of Triton Bay and Misool.
Batanta Bay at dusk. Batanta is normally the first and last stop on a Raja Ampat itinerary. It offers great macro photo opportunities.
A pair of Imperial Shrimp on a sea cucumber, one of the many macro critters in Batanta
A juvenile Pinnate Batfish, near the top of everyone's critter list
Another Batanta critter, a tiny squat lobster in a crinoid
Underwater photography equipment used
For lighting the wide-angle shots, 3 strobes were used - dual S&S YS-250's and an Inon Z240. The 3rd strobe lights the center of the ultra-wide image. For lighting with the macro setup, 2 Inon Z240 strobes were used.
Visiting Triton Bay, Misool and Batanta was somewhat of a pilgrimage for us, following the last ventures of the late diving legend Larry Smith. It is a fantastic, and still somewhat unexplored area that threw up dive after stunning dive. However, what defined this region as a whole was the daily event of getting in the water and seeing so many fish that you could hardly see your buddy.
Diving Raja Ampat can be an adventure of a lifetime, once you make the long journey there. There are many different routes around that area, so make sure you understand where your particular trip is going. If possible, do the trip in style and stay for as long as possible, because you won’t want to return home after just 7 or 9 days.
Editor's Note on Triton Bay
Although liveaboards are regularly visiting Ambon and Raja Ampat including Misool, Batanta, Waiego, and Halmahera - as far as I know boats are not visiting Triton Bay due to political unrest there. Rumor has it the locals are demanding big bucks for the liveaboards to dive there, so no one is going there right now.
Liveaboards servicing the Raja Ampat Area
Win a liveaboard trip
4 liveaboard trips to Raja Ampat are being awarded in the Ocean Art Underwater photo competition, along with $67,000 of prizes - including a 12-day trip on the Arenui. Enter now!