Raja Ampat – the Four Kings

Written by Bjørnar Nygård on . Posted in Trips

04042012-6137On March 31 I left for a 10 day dive/photo trip to Raja Ampat on the liveaboard Arenui. Raja Ampat, or the Four Kings, is an archipelago comprising over 1,500 small islands, cays, and shoals surrounding the four main islands of Misool, Salawati, Batanta, and Waigeo, and the smaller island of Kofiau.

After a long and tiresome journey we arrived at the airport in Sorong and was picked up by two of the crew members of Arenui, and taken to the harbor where a tender was waiting to take us out to Arenui. Upon arriving on the Arenui we where welcomed with a refreshing tropical fruit drink and a hot towel to clean our self’s a bit. The Arenui is a classical Indonesian wooden sailing vessel looking like an old-fashioned pirate ship (but with all mod-cons), that takes 16 passengers and has a crew of 20, that do what they can to make you stay as best as possible. The cabins are exceptionally spacious and have been luxuriously furnished in a sophisticated and tasteful manner, and all cabins' individual themes and styles were inspired by handicrafts from each of the Indonesian provinces. Each cabin has a private en-suite bathroom and individual air conditioning. During the 11 day trip we stayed in the cabin Garuda, named after a large mythical bird-like creature found in both Hindu and Buddhist mythology, and also the national symbol of Indonesia.

Boo WindowsThe diving
Coming to Raja Ampat I had no special expectations on what to see regarding marine life and the underwater landscape. I had heard that the diving should be great and that there would be lots of life, but what met me on the first dive blew my mind, the diversity of fish, corals and other stuff was just a underwater photographer's dream.

Our first dive was at a site called Boo Windows, which is one of the better known dive sites in the Misool area of Raja Ampat. The dive here was so good that we actually asked if we could have another dive here instead of going to the next site that was nearby, and that we could. So Lill Haugen, Todd Winner and me where drop at the windows and enjoyed an hour photographing the windows and the marine life and enjoying our self’s. We had two more dives this day both at two beautiful sites with lots of colors and life.

We spent the next three days diving the Misool area. I shot a lot of wide angle on these dives but also got some dives shooting macro. On our last day in the Misool area we did a dive at a site called Baby Rock, and we where told that there where a good chance we would see schools of bathfish. And boy where they right, when we jumped in an ascended into the current that was around the Island we where met by a big group of batfish swimming effortlessly in the current. The plan for the dive was to stay a short will with the batfish and swim around the island, and look at all the other stuff that lives there, but Lill, Todd and me decided to stay with the batfish, and I don't regret that decision at all. We spent an hour in the same spot, enjoying the sight and trying to get the image we had in our mind, sometimes fighting the current or just flowing with it. After an hour or so it was time to come up and leave the batfish alone.

The last dive in the Misool are was at a dive site called Two Three Rock, on this dive I set-up my camera for macro as I felt that I hadn't been doing that much macro diving so far on the trip, as we where encouraged to do wide-angle in most places, except the sites where we did the night dives. So I went for my 40mm lens which I hadn't used that much, in hope of finding some clown fish in anemones and get the picture I had in my head. Unfortunately the clown fish weren't that cooperative and was coming in and out of hiding all the time making it had to get the picture I wanted, maybe next time. Our divemaster pointed out some beautiful macro stuff that was way to small for my 40mm lens, making me regret my choice of lens. At the end of the dive we came upon a beautiful sea snake that was out looking for food, it was quite fascinating to watch the snake swimming under rocks and into cracks in the reef while looking for food. After a while it has to go up for air and it comes straight back down continuing it's search. Watching the snake close up was a great way of ending the dives in Misool. The rest of the day and the better part of the night was spent traveling to our next destination in Dampier Strait.

MantaManta Sandy
There where two things that I hoped to see when coming to Raja Ampat and that was mantas and pygmees. After traveling most of our fourth day and night in Raja Ampat, we had anchored up not far from our next dive site Manta Sandy. During our dive beefing we where told that there was a big chance to see mantas here as they come here to get cleaned, and if the mantas did show up we should under no circumstance cross the line and approach them. If we so did we might get close to them but we would also spook them and they would leave, and ruin the rest of the dive for the group. So when we got in the water and descended to the cleaning station everybody found a spot behind the line and sat there looking for the mantas. After a few minutes looking from side to side searching on majestic silhouette came gliding in to the cleaning station from the right. What a beauty full sight. Seeing this beautiful creature put a big smile on our mouth. After a few more minutes another manta showed up, and then another one. They we circling the cleaning station, at first at some distance from us and the coming a bit closer, giving us a closer look at them. As we sit there enjoying the site, we here a “clang clang” sound and turning around we see this big manta coming in from the behind and do a swim over our head, what a beautiful sight to behold. At the most we had five mantas circling the cleaning station, but after about 70 minutes it was time to end the dive as the air was running out, but knowing we where coming back in a couple of hours leaving wasn't the hardest thing to do.

The second dive at Manta Sandy was as good as the first one if not even better. Coming down to the line we see three mantas circling the cleaning station. At the most there where four or five mantas circling the station, swimming past us or doing fly overs in a line. One of the smaller mantas boys, was chasing one of the bigger females doing loops up towards the surface, getting up real an personal with it. It was quite funny to see how this horny little manta was trying to court the lady. We had a couple of “fly over” and one of them was so close that you could almost touch the belly of the manta if you reach out your hand. After about 60 minutes Lill and me where the only one left with the mantas but we had to call it quites after about 70 minutes as the air ran out, but what a great dive it was.

The Mangroves
After Manta Sandy we headed over to a dive site called Citrus Ridge outside the Mangroves. Some of us wanted to do a dive in the Mangroves, even though the place is known to be the home of saltwater crocodiles. So Lill, Torgeir, Todd, Jerry and me went for a dive in Mangroves, with one of the tender's staying and looking out for crocs. The dive was a nice calm and shallow one, with lots of small fish swimming between the three roots and three trunks that had fallen to the sea bed. Unfortunately none of my images from that dive did the dive site any justice. But luckily we got the opportunity to do another dive here at a later time, more about that later.

After a nice night dive we traveled to the northern part of Raja Ampat where we hoped to see some Wobbegong sharks. On the first dive for the day we dive at a site called Black Forrest, as we descend down a wall our dive guide finds a Wobbegong shark laying on a shelf on the wall, and what a beauty it is, bur unfortunately for me I had made a bad choice of lens for this dive as I went for my 40mm macro on this dive. Even though I obviously made wrong choice with the lens, it gave me the opportunity to take some detail shots of the of Wobbegong and other critters that I found during the dive.

Our next dive was at the Pearl farm jetty, and this time I went with my fish-eye lens as we where told that there was a big chance of seeing the Wobbegong at this site, and they where right. We saw about 4-5 Wobbegongs on the dive, but none of them where very cooperative, just when you where ready to take the shot they turned away. I got a couple of shots that where OK but Wobbegongs weren't the only thing to photograph here, schools of Smooth-tailed trevally, Batfish, scorpion fish among other.

Pygmy seahorse, Hippocampus bargibantiPygmees
After our dive at the Pearl farm jetty we had the opportunity to visit the pearl farm or go diving, I chose the latter. On this dive I was hoping to see some pygmee seahorses, I had seen a couple on earlier dives but then I had my camera set up for wide-angle. So this time I rigged my camera with my beloved 105mm macro lens and wet diopters. Minutes after jumping in the water Tobi, our divemaster, finds a beautiful yellow/orange Pygmy seahorse - Hippocampus bargibanti in a gorgonian coral. These critters are hard to photograph as they are so small, when you finally find it in the viewfinder and are ready to shot they just turn the back to you. We spent sometime with this little beauty before we went looking for some more. After a short while Tobi found another Hippocampus bargibanti this one was pink, and it was even smaller then the previous one and it to was constantly moving away. I tried to take some pictures of it before we left it to it self. The rest of the dive was used to looking for nudibranchs, and other small critter, Tobi also found a beautiful and tiny Shortpouch Pygmy Pipehorse.

Blue ringed octopus
After this dive we went for a night muck dive at the Cendana Fuel Jetty, and what a dive it was. The first thing that caught my eyes was a Peacock flounder, almost invisible there it was laying on the sandy bottom, with a beautiful eyes and nice blue spots on it skin. After swimming around looking for other stuff to photograph, one of the divemasters pointed out a White V octopus, laying on the sandy bottom. This one was even harder to see than the Peacock flounder as it blend so well into the bottom. Not far from the White V octopus we saw a Emperor riding on Mulliner's Nembrotha nudibranch, after spending some time photographing the Emperor shrimp it was time to look for some more interesting critters to photograph. While swimming around looking one of the other divers pointed out a beautiful Blue ringed octopus to me. The blue-ringed octopus, despite that it is quite small and carries enough venom to kill adult humans within minutes, is a very beautiful animal to watch. I spent some time watching it and photographing it as it changed color, and almost disappearing into the background only having the blue rings giving it away.

The Mangroves Revisited
The next day we once again got the opportunity to dive in the Mangroves, so Lill, Todd, Jerry and me had another go. This time we where also without boat support as both the Tenders was needed transporting and picking up divers at the other dive site, so we had to keep an extra eye out for crocs. The dive was as good as the first one, and this time I did my best to have my images do the site justice. There where quite a few batfish here this time getting cleaned which made for a good photo opportunity, and you can never go wrong with batfish. One of my favorite images from the dive got a fourth place in a competition at Wetpixel, and you can see it here (Fourth place at Wetpixel #434). No crocs where seen on this dive, but none the less it was a very good dive.

0586-04092012-8230Arborek Jetty
The next stop on our journey was at the famous Arborek Jetty. This site is well know for its colorful softcorals on the jetty pillars and the kids jumping in the sea in front of the camera and smiling, and it stood up to it's expactations. The pillars was draped with beautiful pink soft corals and gorgonian corals of all sizes, and the kids where jumping in all over the place. It was no easy task photographing the kids, as you never knew where they would come, and if they where jumping in in-front of you or one of the other photographers. But it was fun nonetheless, after spending sometime trying to get a good shot of the kids, which I didn't, I spent a good time photographing the soft corals and the juvenile bat fish that was hanging around under the jetty.

After the dive we had the opportunity to visit the Arobrek village or do another dive at the jetty, Lill, Todd and me chose the latter. This time we jumped in at the south end of the jetty, as there was a giant clam there that we wanted to see. Lill did some modeling for me at it and I got a couple of shots that I'm happy with. After the clam we went back to the jetty and once again had a great time here.

Lembeh Seadragon - Kyonemichthys ruamengani
At the beginning of our previous dive our divemaster Tobi found a Lembeh Seadragon, when he showed it I thought it was a Pygmy Pipehorse, as it look a lot like the I had seen on a earlier dive.When we returned to the boat and was told that it was a Lembeh Seadragon there was great commotion on the boat as this was the first time that the Lembeh Seadragon was observed in Raja Ampat, and everyone would see it on the night dive. So obviously set up my camera with my beloved 105mm macro lens, a teleconverter and wetpiopters. I was lucky enough to dive with our divemaster Tobi, and we were first into the sea and got quickly down to the little chap. It was no easy matter to photograph it as there where some current here and it turned away from the camera all the time. But I got to spend about 10 minutes with it before the rest of the group came and we let them have the chance to watch and photograph it. When the others had finished I got a second round with this magnificent creature. The current was still a bit strong and made shooting difficult, it is not easy to focus on a small creature that is 1mm thick and 3-4cm long and constantly moving back and forth or up and down, but I got a couple of pictures that I'm happy with.

Denise pygmy seahorse, Hippocampus deniseDampier Strait
On our 3 day travel back to Sorong we had two and a half day with diving in the Dampier Strait, this gave us the opportunity to revisit Manta Sandy. The dive here this time left us waiting for the mantas a long time, but after about 25 minutes three mantas came gliding into the cleaning station and stayed with us for about 30 minutes before they left.
After the dive at Manta Sandy we went to a dive site called Otdima, here had a great dive with a big school with Sweetlips. Lill, Todd and me took turns on shooting and modeling for each other. One of the images that I took on this dive I entered in a competition on the boat, more about this later.
The last two dives of the day was spent at site called Mioskon, and it was spent shooting pygmy seahorses and other small critters among other a couple of different variations of the Pontohi pygmy seahorse.
The next day we had two dives at Sardine Reef which has really giant clams at the depth of 10m (33ft) but the site is all about non-stop fishes here. There's a resident school of bumphead parrotfish in the shallows which weren't that interested in being photographed, colorful soft corals and plenty of critters.
The next dive was at a place called Cape Kri, and I went with my macro setup on this dive hoping to see some pygmy seahorses, and I did. Tobi pointed out a couple of nice yellow Denise pygmy seahorses that I spent some time photographing and I got a couple of shots that I'm happy with. The rest of the dive was spent looking for nudibranchs and other small stuff.
The last night dive of the trip was held at Mioskon, and this time Todd, Jerry and me spent most of the time taking time on photographing some beautiful Pontohi pygmy seahorses. As I trying to get a good shot of the Pontohi pygmy seahorses I saw a movement in the corner of my eye, and I turned my head and found a small and beautiful painted frog fish, and I started taking pictures of that instead. As I'm checking some of the images I shot of the frog fish it starts opening it's mouth and I hear my buddy Todd shout. I get back in position and starts taking pictures of the frog fish hoping it will do it again, after a short while it starts opening its mouth again and I get about 5 shots of before it closes its again. Todd then gets the chance to get some pictures of the frog fish and I look for some nudibranchs and other small critters. After simming around for a while I return to the rock where the Pontohi pygmy seahorses where for another round with them and spend the rest of the dive studying and photographing them.
The next day we had two dives at dive site called Blue Magic, this site is known for it big schools of fish and it is also possible to see giant manta rays here, as they come here to get cleaned. But we didn't see any mantas on the two dive we had here, but that was okay as we there where lots o other stuff to watch and fish all over the place. This was a good way to end the diving in Raja Ampat.

The Arenui and its crew.
The Arenui is a beautiful boat perfect for relaxing after the dives either on the sun deck or in air-conditioned the lounge area. There are two charging stations in the lounge for storing of camerea equipment. The service and treatment you got from the crew, there was simply nothing to fault, it was always a smile no matter what time of day. Getting the camera washed, cleaned and blown dried and put away to the charging station after every dive I think is something you should look far. Just to get a dry towel after the dives were great, and getting a hot towel and a cup of cocoa after night dives are some easily can be well used to :) The food drew inspiration from local and international cuisine, and all meals where laid out in buffet spreads except diner which had a changing menu each day. During the trip you where sure to discover some new tastes. The diner where held in the indoor restaurant or sky restaurant on the upper deck under the stars, all depending on the weather, mostly the diner where at the sky restaurant.

Trip summary
The diving and dive sites in Raja Ampat was great, either you are taking pictures underwater or just dive and end enjoy your self there is a lot to see and take in. For me the best thing about the diving was that no matter where we dived you could either go with wide angle or macro, although it was encouraged to do wide-angle in most places. There is a lot of beautiful soft corals and lots of fish that gives you the opportunity to take some nice wide angel pictures, there is also a lot of small stuff that make for great macro opportunities, you just have to look hard and look for “unnatural” movements either on the ground, gorgonian corals or the soft corals, and if you don't spot the little critters the diveguides will. All in all this was a great trip the was over in a heart beat and it sure made me wanna come back for a second run on a later time.