Ultimate Raja Ampat – The Last Paradise (Part 1 of 3)
Being an underwater photographer for the last nine years or so, I am always on the lookout for that next “ultimate” photography destination. A place where photography just comes easy and the memory cards fill quickly. A place with so many photography opportunities, you’re constantly deciding which shot to process next.
One place that would continually show up and entice me, is biodiversity hotspot – Raja Ampat. A place regularly nicknamed – “The Last Paradise.” The more amazing images I’d see, from incredible macro, sweeping reefs and majestic mantas to name but a few, the quicker Raja Ampat became top of my dive destination bucket list. Patiently I’d waited for the right opportunity and thankfully, last year, I got the chance to join La Galigo Liveaboard for their Ultimate Raja Ampat safari. Would it live up to my high expectations? Let’s find out…
All the best places are remote and that was certainly the case with Raja Ampat. Located in West Papua, Indonesia, it took three flights for me to get there from the UK. A connecting flight to Jakarta from Heathrow via Doha, followed by a domestic flight from Jakarta to Sorong. Once in Sorong, the crew from La Galigo take over and really look after you, making sure the rest of your journey is as smooth as possible.
La Galigo pride themselves on their Indonesian crew, who have collectively spent many years sailing and diving Indonesia. It is a purpose built ‘Phinisi’ style sailboat and dive liveaboard. It really was a pleasure to see when I first laid eyes on it from the speedboat transfer. It was like something out of ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’. Completely unique from other liveaboards I was used to and I was lucky enough to be the first guest onboard too. Benefitting from a tour of the boat, the Suite on the upper deck really stood out and is a special room boasting its own private balcony. The deluxe cabins I was in were spacious and comfortable. I then got a taste of how good the food was going to be, a beef rendang bursting with flavour was a great start.
La Galigo is predominantly a dive liveaboard but they are happy to tailor bespoke charters on request. The boat hosts a maximum of 16 guests comfortably over seven cabins, split over two decks, although 14 guests would be usual for a full charter, whilst being spacious and comfortable. There were 11 guests onboard for my trip, which gave me a pretty good gauge of life on a full charter. All cabins are equipped with air-conditioning and an ensuite with fresh hot water showers. Yes!! They were hot throughout the whole trip, which is always a special feeling after a long four dive day. Although, it was the mattress and pillows that were the winners for me. Super comfortable, it almost made it difficult to get up for the morning dive. I was never going to miss a dive in Raja Ampat though was I?
After an initial and thorough boat and dive briefing from cruise director Fareez, it was time to gear up for what we were all here for – the diving. The group was split into three dive groups with three guides, meaning only a maximum of four divers to each guide. A nice ratio, allowing the speedboat and dives to be less crowded and more comfortable. The main boat would be moored very close to each dive site, allowing the first two groups to go out with the speedboats and be dropped in, then one speedboat would return for dive group three.
It all ran so smooth and what was impressive were the dive briefings before each dive. Between Fareez, Aghi and Fendy, they would take it in turns to draw each site on the whiteboard (quite the artists) and explain in detail the plan. Aghi was my guide for the trip and did an amazing job in leading us, looking after us and finding all the amazing little critters we saw along the way.
I must admit, the first dive really wasn’t what I was expecting from a check dive in Raja Ampat; a strong current making it a fairly quick drift dive in some questionable visibility. Luckily I had my macro lens on as the vis wasn’t great for wide angle. I soon got to realise the diversity to expect from the trip ahead though. With numerous critters found along the way, I knew things were only going to get better. The night dive showed that and followed suit, as critter after critter was found from a tiny ‘Shaun the sheep’ nudibranch to my very first wobbegong shark. What an incredible animal they are, lying still in the sand undeterred by our presence; it just looked at us, as we marvelled at its design. I came to Raja Ampat expecting to see a wobbegong but not so soon and so easily. A great start but hopefully I would get to see one later with my wide-angle lens on.
It didn’t take long to realise wobbegongs are a staple of diving in Raja Ampat, but this didn’t make it any less incredible each time we saw them. The very first dive the next day at ‘Blue Magic’ in the Dampier Strait, I hit the wobbegong jackpot for the trip. Not only did I see them resting, I also got to photograph two swimming and was even nearly slapped in the face by one with its pectoral fin. It did a 90-degree turn, swimming between me and dive guide Aghi.
As the rest of the day panned out, I quickly realised life in Raja Ampat was going to be very “fishy.” Dive sites littered with numerous species of fish and big schools swimming in unison were amazing to see, before the night dive at Batu Lima provided another shark species for me to tick off. One of the most unique as well, as the Raja Ampat walking shark strolled into view in the most interesting way I’d ever seen a shark move. A species of epaulette shark, it is endemic to Raja Ampat, which makes seeing one that bit more special.
The next day reiterated my initial feelings of fish life in Raja Ampat and to be honest, I never quite imagined it would be this abundant. We started with an adrenalin fuelled dive at Cape Kri. A dive full of life as numerous schools of fish were seen, with barracuda and bumphead parrotfish being the standout. It was also a dive for some relatively big grey reef sharks to make an appearance as they patrolled the reef. Although, it was the ripping current that made the dive unforgettable and a real adventure, before our next dive, that was in complete contrast.
A relaxed dive under Yenbuba jetty made for some interesting compositions and was the perfect divider for the morning and afternoon dives. Diving at Sawandarek on the third dive was one of the best dives I’ve ever done. I’ve never experienced fish life like it and the numerous BIG green sea turtles just added to the spectacle. Swimming amongst the sweetlips, snapper and other schooling fish on top of the coral stage at around 20 metres was a memory that will last with me forever. All this before shallowing up to the jetty amongst schooling jackfish, damselfish and an array of other stars of the show. I just didn’t want the dive to end. Thankfully I got to dive the site again but this time at night and it delivered in a different way. Numerous nudibranch, an octopus, cuttlefish, decorator crabs and more. A critter-filled dive to highlight Sawandarek as one of the best dive sites ever.
A great start to life in Raja Ampat but there’s plenty more adventure to come. Please stay tuned for parts 2 and 3.
For more information about diving in Raja Ampat:
Whatsapp: +62 812 2000 2025
Ultimate Raja Ampat – The Last Paradise (Part 3 of 3)
When you visit a place like Raja Ampat over 11 days you really have a lot to talk about. The biodiversity and landscape of the region are inspiring and this is why it’s taken me three blog articles to explain how wonderful this experience was. If you haven’t had the chance already to read the previous two blogs, you can find them here: Part 1 and Part 2.
After a crossing of around 14 hours – quicker due to a southerly current working with the boat – we found ourselves in Farondi diving Razorback Rock, Anchovy, Nudi Rock (yes, it looks like a nudibranch) and a night dive at Yilliet Slope. I have to admit, it was the south and around Misool that I was really looking forward to on the trip, but it didn’t really get off to the best start and never lived up to the high standards further north had set. To be frank, this was more down to the weather really and the visibility wasn’t brilliant.
A storm meant the dives were pretty dark and in fact, the dive at Anchovy in particular was more like a night dive than a day dive. Unfortunately, we can’t control the weather and on other days these sites could have delivered a lot more. The sea fans on each dive were equally as impressive as further north, and I’d probably say more abundant. The dark atmosphere did mean I could try some fun and different shots with clownfish in anemones but I probably should have switched to macro quicker that day. There are always fun critters to find on every dive site and Nudi Rock showed just that, with a few sea fans being infested with skeleton shrimp. While I’ve seen skeleton shrimp before, I’d never seen anything like this; every bit of the fan was covered. There must have been thousands and it was quite fitting that it was actually Halloween as well.
After a moody day, where I’m guessing the weather gods were celebrating Halloween, I finally switched to macro on the night dive and my photography was rewarded for it. An elusive pygmy squid started the dive but didn’t allow me to get a photo with its tricky movements. Still fun to watch and see, before once again, nudibranch were the stars of the show. A free swimming black and orange flatworm mesmerised mid-water, but it was a super tiny nudibranch of only around a centimetre long that I admired most and took some time to photograph. Then it was the turn of crustaceans once again. A couple of different types of decorator crab, a couple of lobster species and a whip coral shrimp finished off the dive after the sea slug starter.
The next day, the wide-angle opportunities improved drastically. Although, rather annoyingly, I stuck with macro on the first dive at Neptune’s Fan Sea. I hadn’t seen a Denise pygmy seahorse before and was desperate to get a shot of one before the trip was over. This site was a great opportunity. It was sea fan heaven, but that does mean there’s a lot more places to look. The topography was incredible on the dive, a cliff of sea fans greeted us and made wide angle a good option. It was such a relaxing dive with a small school of bumphead parrotfish making the occasional pass, and the soft coral formations continued in huge numbers and were so impressive. I did manage a couple of nice nudibranch shots but the seahorse remained elusive for our group.
I decided to switch back to wide angle for Four Kings and that was certainly the right choice. A swarm of jellyfish greeted us on the dive and made it one of the most memorable of the trip. There was so much life around the pinnacles as the fish life danced a merry dance. The game of dodge the jellyfish entertained throughout and it was interesting to see as they’d get trapped on the sea fans. Something I’d never experienced before on such an incredible dive site. Barracuda point finished off the day’s diving in relaxing style, with a stunning top reef. Yes, I saw my first two Denise pygmy seahorses here, but no, I had my wide angle on. It was a great site for photographing lionfish though and there was a small school of barracuda giving the site its name.
Although “The Jellyfish Dive” was an amazing highlight of the day, it wasn’t actually diving that finished the day in style. A sunset cruise in Wayilbatan delivered those feels. You know the ones, when you’re in a beautiful place, at a beautiful time and with only a handful of people. You get that completely content feeling and just forget all your worries and live for that moment. It was a spontaneous trip out as well, as the itinerary was to trek to Love Lagoon. However, the guests on the trip before advised it would probably be best to take it off the itinerary for a bit. Unfortunately, with a forced Covid break and lack of maintenance care, the stairs have become slightly dangerous for trekking. The alternative didn’t disappoint and in fact excelled. An exploratory journey, where even the crew didn’t really know where we were going, took us to some breathtaking views with an amazing sunset backdrop. The glass like sea provided the perfect stage with its mirror like reflections. Then in the shallows we could see every bit of coral and life we passed, before tilting your head and following the cliff face up to amazing limestone islands covered in lush green rainforest. Just beautiful!!
With only two days and six dives left, one of my main goals was to photograph a Denise pygmy seahorse. I was in a catch 22 though, there were some memorable wide-angle dives to come. Starting with Boo Window and the arch swim through creating a dramatic image with a diver. I was happy with those wide-angle photos, but guess what? We did see a pygmy again. Still, I wasn’t to be defeated and we also had the friendliest hawksbill turtle on the dive too.
Next up was Shadow Reef (a.k.a Magic Mountain), in the hope to see the majestic Oceanic manta rays. We entered through a concentrated section of bad visibility and then the weather also changed with a storm passing over while we were below. It went dark underwater once more and unfortunately there were no mantas to be seen during the dive. It was still such a special dive site with schooling jackfish, a small school of batfish, another friendly hawksbill, Napoleon wrasse and my first whitetip reef sharks of the trip.
I had to switch to macro and hope for a pygmy at Whale Rock. No such luck unfortunately, but it was an amazing macro dive with numerous crustaceans and my favourite photos of whip coral shrimp. A Pikachu nudibranch was another great nudibranch find by one of my dive buddies. There might have been no seahorse due to skeleton shrimp infesting all the sea fans, but I was really happy with the macro photography success on this dive.
The night dive at Romeo carried on with the magnificent macro theme. We were there to try and see a walking shark again but unfortunately it remained elusive on this dive. Typical, when I have all my equipment working! However, a friendly cuttlefish, some pygmy squid and more crustaceans made the dive memorable still. Can I get to photograph a Denise pygmy with only two dives left?? I really hope so…
We finished our diving in Raja Ampat at Tank Rock and Boo West. I was advised both dives would be preferably wide angle. I knew I needed to stick to macro though, with seeing three Denise pygmies previously while shooting wide angle. I didn’t want to miss the opportunity before I left Raja Ampat. Then, as the dive started, I began to lose hope once again. Skeleton shrimp filled the sea fans once more and I thought that would be enough to scare any seahorse to another site. BUT!! It wasn’t long before my guide Aghi worked his magic and found a beautiful little Denise pygmy seahorse for me to photograph. Phew!!! The pressure was off for the dive early on, but now I just needed to get a photo of these difficult to photograph critters. Skeleton shrimp were still sharing the sea fan with the seahorse and parts of them tended to get in the way but without a nice composition of both. I did manage to get some decent in focus shots and my diving in Raja Ampat was complete. Mission successful for another new species for me. An orangutan crab and some nice photos of the skeleton shrimp completed the dive before a switch back to wide angle for Boo West.
While the visibility wasn’t great (but not terrible) for the final dive, it was another stunning dive in paradise, with once again amazing sea fans littering the reef wall in pristine condition. Then came my favourite schooling fish to see, as what must have been around a hundred batfish/spadefish were seen cruising in the current. Such an amazing sight, with a couple of blacktip reef sharks also coming to say goodbye. The real surprise and the memorable moment of the dive came from a tiny cuttlefish that was just bobbing around in the blue away from the reef. I really wasn’t expecting to see it there, as I caught it in the corner of my eye. It took me a second to confirm I wasn’t seeing things but sure enough it was there. It was super friendly and came right up to my mask and I can only hope it stayed safe away from the protection of the reef once we left.
I’d been desperate to visit Raja Ampat for so long and thankfully it didn’t disappoint. La Galigo was the perfect vessel, with the perfect hosts to explore the area with that really made my time extra special. It’s certainly a place I won’t just want to visit once. I could see myself returning again and again and still being amazed by all the things I’d see. I ticked off so many new species in this biodiversity hotspot and took countless photos.
I now had a long journey home of two days, with 22 hours in Jakarta airport. I wasn’t fazed though, as I had so many photos to go through to keep me entertained and those memories kept me smiling throughout the journey. I’d recommend everyone (not just divers) to put Raja Ampat on your travel bucket list. It really is a true paradise and I can perfectly understand where the nickname – “The Last Paradise” comes from.
For more information about diving in Raja Ampat:
Whatsapp: +62 812 2000 2025
Ultimate Raja Ampat – The Last Paradise (Part 2 of 3)
I’m hoping by now that you would have read the first part of my Ultimate Raja Ampat story with La Galigo Liveaboard. If not, then please check out Part 1 HERE. We really started with a bang and visited some incredible dive sites in the first few days. The amount of fish life seen on the dives was incredible and I could only hope the rest of the trip would continue to deliver.
I didn’t have to wait long before another unforgettable dive for the very first the next day. We were aiming for ‘Manta Ridge’ and as the name suggests, we were looking for the majestic manta rays. The anticipation was bursting as I love spending time with manta rays and the guides had already alluded to the fact they saw them on the current check. The current was strong and reef hooks were advised once we got to the ridge.
My group was the last in and as we worked our way along the ridge towards the cleaning station, it wasn’t long before a manta came into view. I managed to find a great spot to hook into and enjoyed the most amazing show. Stunning reef manta rays glided over my head within touching distance before hovering over the reef as they were cleaned thoroughly by black lip butterflyfish and other small fishes. This was how we spent most the dive at around only 10 metres before moving back along the ridge and shallowing up on top of the reef to hook in for our safety stop. HOWEVER, the best was yet to come for me personally, as I was reluctant to leave and dawdled behind the group, continually checking over my shoulder, until there it was…
This was what I was hoping to see on my trip to Raja and to be close enough to get a photo I was truly happy with. I’d seen black manta rays before, but never close enough for a decent photo, now suddenly the opportunity presented itself. I saw my group just metres away hook onto the reef at 5-6 metres and I felt protected from the worst of the current, as this majestic manta suddenly glided within just a couple of metres of me. I couldn’t believe the interaction I was getting and it felt like I was completely alone with it for this short moment. It glided along the reef while getting cleaned before circling a couple of times within touching distance. I just kept shooting and hoping the photos were coming out ok, while my adrenalin was pumping through my body for one of the best manta ray encounters I’ve had. Thankfully I was more than happy with the images I got and the memories were even greater.
It was only day four and I had already ticked off some real Raja Ampat bucket list moments. The pressure was certainly off but the day continued in style and showed the diversity of life here. After a second dive at Mayhem with numerous resting wobbegongs and an overly friendly hawksbill turtle, it was time to mix it up on the third dive and go small, really small. Raja Ampat is famous for pygmy seahorses, as it’s an incredible place for numerous healthy sea fans. I’d been advised you have the chance to see them on pretty much every dive, making it so hard to choose between macro and wide angle with the incredible choice here. For dive three though, I was advised Hippocampus bargibanti had been seen on the previous trip and I opted for macro. It didn’t disappoint and I was so happy to see the super cute bargibanti seahorses once again and have the chance to photograph them. Followed by one of my favourite critters no matter how many times I see them – the peacock mantis shrimp. I love it when a plan comes together!!
It was now time to head to the most northern part of the itinerary – Wayag. Famous for its stunning landscape and lagoon, I was really looking forward to mixing it up and taking a break from diving. Our first adventure of the day would be a trek up Wayag Lagoon instead of diving, although I couldn’t resist a quick swim with the blacktip reef sharks that were circling the boat before the trek.
The trek in itself was an interesting adventure. I wasn’t expecting it to be difficult and presumed it was stairs but I soon realised it wouldn’t be that easy. It made it much more fun though, as we navigated the footholds and scrambled up the formations in the limestone. The limestone can get quite sharp and you really have to have your concentration in check on this climb, but it is more than manageable for any fitness level if you take your time. It is only a short 20-minute hike but took longer due to being mesmerised by the incredible views with each step higher. One of the most stunning views I’ve been lucky enough to lay my eyes on. The different shades of blue of the glass like sea broken up by lush green rainforest covering the limestone islands. It’s so cliché to say “the view took my breath away” but there’s no other way to describe the scene.
Diving around Wayag was all about macro critters for me. Two more day dives followed where again nudibranch of all shapes, size and colour made appearances. Our guide Aghi was brilliant at finding the really small flabellina variety. Squat lobsters, crabs and shrimps were the crustaceans keeping me entertained before one of the best night dives ever. Terserah Point is a sloping white sand dive looking for the weird and wonderful. Bobtail squid were seen in great numbers and were another first for me, with a long arm octopus, cuttlefish and decorator crab also putting on a show before the grand finale. The charismatic coconut octopus dazzling with its colours and tentacle show, while trying its best to hide between two shells. Again, another first for me, which was becoming quite the norm on this trip. Even having a close call with a box jellyfish right at the end of the dive, it got the adrenalin going but again another cool critter to see and my first.
The next couple of days we started to head south again, as we were aiming for the area around Misool Island and the marine reserve. We stopped at Kawe, Aljuy and Penemu along the way and the dives were all about the stunning coral that Raja Ampat is famous for. While also trying to see manta rays again at Eagle Rock 1. Unfortunately, the dive didn’t deliver mantas, although it was a stunning site with hawksbill turtle, wobbegong and the only banded sea krait I saw on a dive on the trip. However, we just happened to be diving the wrong island at Eagle Rock and when we surfaced, we saw mantas from the boat and took the opportunity to swim with them as six swam past at the surface. One bigger manta continued to circle a coral pinnacle beneath us – enough for another manta fix!
The swim throughs at Wofoh South and Batu Rufus provided stunning photography opportunities with amazing topography. The dancing anchovy school mesmerised, and the coral formations were breathtaking on all dives, none more so than the beautiful Melissa’s Garden. This was a relaxing dive on top of some of the best hard coral gardens I’ve seen. Anthias danced in and out with Napoleon wrasse a constant sight throughout. It was also another amazing dive for nudibranch, quite the popular macro subject in Raja Ampat. Pianemo trek on the morning of day seven was again a welcome break from diving and something different to enjoy and see the amazing scenery from a vantage point. A much easier trek, as a well-maintained staircase leads you up to the viewpoint over the lagoon. Breathtaking views were waiting, while meeting local villagers and buying fresh coconuts provided welcome company from our liveaboard bubble.
While all these sites were truly special, it was again the night dive that stole the show for me. Another sloping white sand dive but this time at Wofoh North. Again, it was all about the weird and wonderful, as the guides alluded to it being a great place for wunderpus octopus. I was keeping my fingers crossed, as it was another new species for me to see and as it happened, I didn’t have to wait long into the dive. There it was, sitting perfectly still in the sand, no bigger than the palm of my hand and guess who found it? Yes!! That’s right! I was so excited to spot it in the sand myself, although it took me a second to make sure it definitely was an octopus. What an amazing dive this was for the whole 50 minutes. Another wunderpus was found, that was actually still in its larval stage; an amazing find. Spearing mantis shrimp, nudibranch, sea moths, bobtail squid, devil scorpionfish and more were just the tip of the iceberg on another amazing night dive.
This place just continued to deliver with its amazing biodiversity and it was now time to head south on a 16 hour crossing heading close to Misool Island. Stay tuned for our adventures on the final four days diving the south.
For more information about diving in Raja Ampat:
Whatsapp: +62 812 2000 2025