Scuba Diving in Raja Ampat, Indonesia
Text and Photos by Kevin Lee
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Indonesia, the world's fourth most populous country, is a vast archipelago of over 17,500 islands. Toward the eastern side, on Papua New Guinea, is a region called Raja Ampat, meaning "Four Kings". Here, among hundreds of islands, warm waters offer some of the world's most spectacular scuba diving. Being so remote, reaching Raja Ampat is no easy task, as it requires three or more flights. Major international hubs are Jakarta and Singapore, with intermediate connections via Manado, Makassar or Denpasar, before arriving in Sorong, from where numerous liveaboards operate. The author, along with seventeen other scuba divers, enjoyed an eight-day diving cruise aboard the Archipelago Adventurer II.
Wide Angle perspective, from below a wooden pier
Raja Ampat's great marine life
Raja Ampat is considered a major epicenter of marine biodiversity, with over 537 corals (three fourths of all known), more than 700 kinds of mollusks and well over 1,000 species of fish inhabiting these waters. In fact, one famed ichthyologist, Dr. Gerald Allen, counted over 280 fish species on a single dive! It's no wonder this region is reputed to have the greatest diversity of marine life on earth and the abundance of underwater animals is truly staggering.
Beautiful pregnant male pygmy seahorse, which carries the eggs
Other amazing animals that populate Raja Ampat are pea-sized frogfish and even smaller seahorses, which will challenge the skills of macro-photographers. Nudiphiles will not be disappointed as a myriad of opisthobranchs can be found on virtually every dive. The fortunate diver may encounter the remarkable golf-ball sized Blue Ring octopus. Five were seen on the author's trip. These highly venomous cephalopods rank as one of the most deadly animals on earth. A single bite from this diminutive octopus means quick and almost certain death. However, these creatures are rarely aggressive and present no danger to divers as long as a respectful distance is observed.
Macro photographers in Raja often find the fabled and highly venomous Blue Ring Octopus, which were not uncommon in Raja Ampat
Getting there and conditions
Raja ampat can be a challenge to reach, which normally requires transfers through Singapore, Thailand or Jakarta, then Manado, Denpasar or Makassar, before arriving in Sorong, West Papua.
October to April is considered the best diving season. Water temperatures are a consistent 80F~86F degrees year round and visibility generally ranges between 30 to well over 70 feet. Depending on tide movements, a few dives can involve strong currents, where reef hooks may be needed to tether in place. Otherwise, an open water ascent may be required. In such cases, boating tenders need to be vigilant to ensure safe retrieval of every diver. A safety sausage is highly recommended, so surface staff can easily identify distant, drifting divers. Most dive site conditions are generally calm, allowing maximum enjoyment of mantas, whales, dolphins, black-tip sharks, barracudas, sea turtles, corals and massive schools of fish. There is no lack of great subjects for the wide-angle underwater photographer.
View from atop a steep hill, showing the beauty and grandeur of Raja Ampat
When visiting the Four Kings, a land excursion may be offered i.e. hiking to the top of a small island. Take it. The trek can be sweaty and steep, but once on top, the stunning panorama of sweeping ocean, dotted with picturesque islets, will make you forget your burning legs and lungs! This analogy is apt for the entire trip. Although the journey to Raja Ampat can be somewhat arduous, you will be amply rewarded with fantastic underwater encounters and great experiences. A simple web search of Indonesia scuba diving liveaboards will yield a useful list of operators.
Wishing you safe and pleasant diving.
Raja Ampat Liveaboards - Editor's note
The are several choices for diving Raja Ampat via a liveaboard, which allows you to a wide variety of dive sites and maximize your number of dives.
The Arenui and Dive Damai both offer a luxury botique liveaboard experience for the most discerning travelers and photographers. The SMY Ondina and Kararu dive voyages both offer slightly more modestly priced trips, but both have a good reputation with photographers.
More Raja Ampat Underwater photos by Kevin Lee
Raja Ampat is home to many unique and unusual opisthobranchs
Once found, crypticbranchs reveal stunning beauty
Magnificent colors adorn aposomatic nudibranchs, warning predators "beware"!
A pair of fish settled in for the long night
Nemo's cousins, stay close to the protection provided by a stinging anemone
Blenny with a big personality makes a colorful fashion statement
Exquisite solar-powered nudibranch Phyllodesmium longicirrum can produce its own food
Stunning Cowrie image
Ever moving and elusive juvenile angel fish
Small fish abound in many shapes, colors and with big eyes!
Tiny fish hiding among soft coral polyps
This quick & constantly moving juvenile wrasse sports colorful attire
This rare seahorse is difficult to find and even more difficult to photograph in the surge!
For more detailed information on diving Raja Ampat, visit our Guide to the Best Dive Destinations