Raja Ampat: where the sea comes alive

Batfish under the Arborek Jetty in the Raja Ampat region of Indonesia.
Batfish under the Arborek Jetty in the Raja Ampat region of Indonesia. Seanna Cronin

Kneeling on the sand, listening to my breathing through my regulator, I reach an almost meditative state.  

The sunlight has a diffused quality thanks to the 15 metres of water above me and it's a warm 30C - no wetsuit required.   

There are more than a dozen of us waiting in a holding pattern for the stars of the show to arrive at their regular cleaning station, a shallow coral bommie.   

All seems quiet until an eagle-eyed diver spots movement about 20m behind us. Pulling up stumps, we are greeted with a graceful display that will have us in rapture for the next half hour.  

Eight large manta rays swoop and soar in front of us, performing giant, synchronised loops. While hugely entertaining, this marine ballet serves another purpose, of course, for feeding and socialising.  

Manta Sandy, as it's known, is one of the most popular diving and snorkelling spots in Raja Ampat, Indonesia.   

The importance of the site is not lost on the locals, who have formed a 'manta task force' which monitors the rays and enforces strict guidelines for tourists from a permanent monitoring post launched in October this year.   

In the West Papua province of Indonesia, Raja Ampat lies within the coral triangle - the world's epicentre of marine biodiversity. It is home to more than three-quarters of all known coral species and famed ichthyologist (fish scientist), Dr Gerald Allen, famously counted more than 280 fish species on a single dive.  

Raja Ampat is a hot spot for marine biodiversity.
Raja Ampat is a hot spot for marine biodiversity. Seanna Cronin

Raja Ampat translates to the 'four kings', which refers to the four largest islands in the archipelago.   

This tropical paradise is protected, to a great extent, by its remoteness.   

Departing from either Jakarta or Denpasar, visitors must take two domestic flights to arrive at Sorong, where they then must board a boat to be transferred to one of the many liveaboards operating in the area.

The Sea Safari 8 is our base for three days of diving and land excursions, including a short hike into the jungle to see the endemic red bird of paradise.   


The Sea Safari 8 is a liveaboard operating in Raja Ampat.
The Sea Safari 8 is a liveaboard operating in Raja Ampat. Seanna Cronin

Perched high in the tree top, we are lucky enough to witness a male dancing for the attention of a female, bobbing his emerald head from side to side and spreading his wings to show off his crimson red plumage.   

That's not the only weird and wonderful creature found in the region. Misool Island is home to the archerfish, which preys on insects by shooting them with water from its mouth, and the walking shark of Raja Ampat, or Raja epaulette shark, which was identified as its own species just a few years ago.   

As its name suggests, the shark uses its fins to walk across the reef.  Small and shy, they only come out to hunt at night. Several of my travelling companions are lucky enough to find one on a night dive at Arborek Jetty.  

In the daytime, the jetty and surrounding reefs are teeming with fish life and colossal giant clams.   

Arborek Village's locals, who number about 200, are another shining example of the region's community-driven conservation.  

Children perform a traditional dance for visitors on Arborek Island.
Children perform a traditional dance for visitors on Arborek Island. Seanna Cronin

After welcoming us with song and dance, we are invited to walk Arborek's neatly-kept streets. Colourful murals remind you to pick up your rubbish so it doesn't end up in the ocean, a huge problem in Indonesia, and the island is home to a conservation group and a research station.  

I'm heartened to see Raja Ampat's residents taking the management of their resources into their own hands. It's a wonderland worth protecting.   

The writer was a guest of the Visit Indonesia Tourism Office.  

Topics:  coral reef indonesia manta rays manta sandy raja ampat scuba diving travel visit indonesia

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