10 days on boat exploring and snorkeling Raja Ampat, Indonesia

Easter Saturday 15th April Sorong (West Papua), Indonesia
A couple of years ago Dianne had seen a small piece in the Sydney Morning Herald book section about the Writer’s Festival in Ubud, and the reviewer said they’d gone on a boat trip from Kuta to Komodo afterwards, which was the highlight of their trip. After this, Dianne started looking for a similar trip, and eventually came up with Indonesia Island Sail, the trip we are doing later. However during her research she also read about Raja Ampat, which sounded really interesting, especially as it seemed to have only just started to be discovered, and everyone was saying it was some of the best snorkeling in the world. Most of the trips she found were VERY expensive diving trips, however she finally came across a blog of someone who had taken a budget snorkelling trip, however it was more basic than what we wanted, with everyone sleeping in a single communal room or on the beach. Regardless, she wrote to Deni Malingkas (Raja Ampat Adventures – ph (62) 81356281139, email denirajaampat@yahoo.com , facebook –Deni Rajaampat, and got an immediate reply back saying that he had just had a new boat built, and it would be in the water in a week or so, and sent a photo of it. Apparently Deni has been running trips for the last 11 years (though tourism has only really got going here in the last 5 years). Up to now he has been renting a boat. We started following him on Facebook, and he only had positive reviews, so we finally decided to commit, along with Debbie and Mike, provided each couple could have their own cabin (there are three cabins, with four bunks in each). Sharon and Jerry then decided to join us, and this ensured we could have a private charter for 10 days for US$1,050 each plus US$90 each National Park fee – an extremely reasonable price seeing this included accommodation, all transport (as well as the main boat, they also tow a large speedboat with a 40 HP Yamaha outboard, which is used once we arrive at a place to take us snorkeling or sightseeing), and three meals a day. We had enough faith in all of Deni’s reviews to forward US$6,840 in total to him.

In Sorong, we were woken by the first plane of the day passing metres above the hotel. Figured Jerry and Sharon would be on it, so we had better get our act together. We found them down in the foyer with other shattered passengers off the early morning plane waiting for a room, some bedded down on lounges in the foyer, in spite of a large notice forbidding this in this upmarket hotel. One couple in particular who are sharing a sofa come under the category of “get a room!” Jerry and Sharon had put in for a room, so left their bags at the restaurant desk, and joined us for breakfast. Mike and Debbie have already breakfasted early as is their wont.

We get a message from Deni saying he will meet with us tonight, as he is a Seven Day Adventist and is going to church today (Saturday). His wife also had a baby on Wednesday (his fourth – the oldest is seven) and is just home from hospital, so we can imagine he’s a bit busy! Deni looks too young to be even married, let alone have four children, but we later find out he is actually 38.

Sharon and Jerry retire to their room for some much-needed sleep, and Debbie and Mike join us, and the four of us venture out. Hail a bemo which takes us to the Saga Supermarket, where we stop for a look, finding it has EVERYTHING, including a fair selection of fresh fruit and meat. We see that this is exactly what we will need for our big shop with Jerry and Sharon later, then catch another bemo heading further west, and are dropped at the Sunshine Bar, right on the water at the end of a long beach with a sea wall. We have cold drinks, and catch another bemo back towards the hotel. Possibly because we are associated with a flash hotel, bemo prices don’t seem as cheap as in Ambon, in spite of it being a less developed area. Mike stays on, but the other three hop out where we think the road leads down to the wharf, but it turns out to be the Navy, and we can’t go in, so return to the main road, passing lots of friendly villagers on the way, and back to the hotel.

We have a swim, and after lunch the six of us head for the Saga shopping centre, courtesy of an empty bemo flagged down outside the hotel. Flash hotels have a problem in setting the fare expectations of bemo drivers, and we are getting charged 100,000Rp and more for fares which should be more like six times 3,000Rp or 5,000Rp, however, it is all good for the local economy.

We manage to get crates of soft drink, low alcohol beer, Bintang Beer, water mix cordial, a selection of mysterious nibbles for sundowners, and even a baby outfit for Deni’s new daughter. Strike trouble when Dianne and Jerry try to buy SIM cards for Jerry’s phone and Dianne’s Ipad. Have no luck in getting connected in spite of two girls in the kiosk and an English-speaking youth from somewhere else having a go. It cost Jerry 125,000, Dianne 25,000 for no joy whatsoever. Jerry tried the next day at a Telco kiosk next to the hotel with no luck.

We had the evening meal en famille, Murray with the all-you-can-eat barbecue, the rest with a la carte. Halfway through dinner, Deni arrived and we repaired to the foyer for a briefing and sorting out National Park permits, then headed back to the dining room to finish up with banana splits, and anything Murray wanted with his all-you-can-eat menu.

In the night we were entertained by singing and drumming from what looked like the verandah of a church hall below our bedroom. By 3AM, the voices had given out and all that was left was drumming, and the remains of the group huddling under the verandah in pouring rain. In the early morning, we were treated to a series of explosions, either crackers or gunshots.

Easter Sunday 16th April Day 1 Raja Ampat Sorong-Friwinbanda-Friwin
We had been warned to expect an 8AM to 8.30 pickup, so we were up before the alarm, packed and breakfasted in time to get the baggage trolley to the foyer to wait for transport. Deni had correctly guessed we had a lot of luggage and sent two vehicles, one for the gents, one for the ladies. This took us out beyond the supermarket to a wharf at a public park. The gear was loaded aboard a rather elderly fibreglass long boat, which we thought might have been just a port workboat, but turns out to be our “speedboat”. It has a 40 HP Yamaha outboard, a rather bouncy buoyancy deck, and two ancient banks of three fibreglass bucket seats not attached to anything.P1040482

We transferred to our boat, the KM. Raja 4 Adventurer, a fairly chunky timber motorboat, one accommodation deck, and a bridge control room with a covered but open sided dining room astern. The boat is painted mainly white, with blue trim and varnish for the cabins. We get cabins first in best dressed, Jerry and Sharon forward, Mike and Debbie middle, us rear, but in front of a cross passage and lockers. Purely by accident, this turns out to be quite good, as there is an opening in the railing for people to get on and off the boat, which allows a bit more air circulation during the hot nights. Sleeping is in four transverse bunks, which we separate into baggage top, sleeping bottom. Each cabin has its own LED lights that come on at night, and its own power charging points which can be used at night when it gets dark and the generator is turned on, as well as during the day when we are motoring.

We are under way pretty quickly, as we have a long way to go, with all of us upstairs looking at the horizon, as we roll moderately in a starboard bow swell from the open ocean to the north. We take photos of the port area and the more upmarket tourist boats with masts and possibly furled sails, the port offices, and a colourful lighthouse on a small island, with a large fish sculpture on top, with a live sea eagle perched on the tail.

Further out, we see a Philippine style trimaran, and a massive squid catching platform. We see the fast ferries going past, considerably faster than us. Around the horizon, we can see islands wherever you look, and as we come into the lee of the large ones we have our excellent lunch on the top deck about midday. The meal pattern is set, with large amounts of rice, a green vegetable with a spicy sauce, and chicken pieces in hot sauce, served on greaseproof paper over a wicker plate, followed by some sort of melon or bananas.

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We pass several islands, and see some very flash varnished ketches, before anchoring off the small island of Friwanbanda about 3pm to get into the speedboat to do an excellent one-hour drift dive along the edge of a good drop-off, with colourful coral, particularly soft coral, and some good plate coral, as well as a long tom, and a slit in a rock which gave views of fish and coral through it.

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Back in the speedboat back to the boat, where we showered and changed. Very pleased to find there is a fresh water shower on board – cold water, but no problem in this weather. Continue on to Friwin Island, a small island with a sandy beach, and a village, where we anchored offshore to stop for the night. Went ashore in the speedboat to walk around the island to the west, before cutting through the neat streets of the village. We waited a while to see a youth do a spectacular swing from a massive tree hanging out over the beach, but luckily he chickened out, as it would have been quite dangerous. Further around the island we see our first wading bird, a whimbrel, and checked out dugout construction. There were a number of small church services taking place on the island, as it was Easter Sunday. Went to the end of the wharf where we photographed dense shoals of bait fish hiding under the wharf, then walked back to the swinging tree to get the speedboat back to the boat about 6pm.

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In the late afternoon, took photos of a pretty, but not spectacular sunset, and have another spicy but tasty meal. Murray settled down with plenty of repellent on, and the sheet sleeper for protection. Dianne decided to rig the permethrin-treated mosquito net we were carrying, but it was pretty close to her body as it was only rigged from the bottom of the top bunk. Went to bed about 9.30pm and had a couple of hours sleep before woken with some sort of allergic reaction on her face, which was stinging, particularly around the eyes. Decided it could be the mosquito net, so abandoned it as we had heard no mosquitoes. Finally got back to sleep about 4am for a couple of hours. The tide was running pretty strongly in the channel where we were anchored, holding the boat broadside on to the light breeze from the north. Our cabin doors (two panels of glass in a wooden frame- not built for privacy), one at each end of the cabin, are opposite a break in the bulwark of the boat, so we got a reasonable breeze all night. The others were less fortunate.

Easter Monday 17th April Day 2 Raja Ampat Friwin-Kabui(near Pulau Gam)- Peniki (Bat) Island

The generator comes on pretty early to run the services, and by 6.25, the noisy main engine has been fired up, and the anchor is being raised by four men. We have another long run today, and have to catch the tide for the run through the extremely narrow passage between islands. The morning is fine, but we have large tropical thunderheads on the horizon. Our course takes us on a narrowing passage between two islands, and we are surprised to sight a small whale which Deni identifies as a sperm whale. We get a couple of surprisingly good photos, but all we can see is a curved back and a tiny dorsal fin, looking like a surfboard fin. We pass by a village built on very high stilts on a steeply sloping hillside. They have a number of boats pulled up on a narrow beach, and terraced fields behind the village.P1040572

A large net is spread out on the steeply sloping bank, and is for drying, rather than catching fish, if we get the information right. We pass mushroom islands, a strange trimaran speedboat, and when we get into the narrowing channel with lots of mushroom islands, we pull up at the wharf of Jetty Warikaf homestay, a kayaking base, which has accommodation, a toilet block, and a fresh water hose which connects to a spring higher up the hill. This is where we will replenish our drinking water supplies.P1040586

It’s now about 8.30am, and we take the speedboat further up the channel to where it really narrows down. Pass the two caves we will investigate before stopping off a tiny mushroom rock.

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The water is clear here, and the coral and fish are good, but the tide is against us, so we get back into the boat and go to the caves. Fortunately Mike has a good underwater torch, so we are able to pass through the narrow entrance into a cave which is closed above, but has exits to the jungle at the side. The water colour is a pretty pale green, illuminated from below the cave entrance. We pass through a narrow passage into a second cave, which is open to the jungle above. We exit, and enter a second cave which is open at the bottom to the main channel, and we can take photos of divers against the green light.

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After finishing the caves, we drift along the steeply sloping channel to where we first entered the water at Nimo Island. This was the best part of the snorkel, with lots of fish, and a large variety of colourful corals, both hard and soft.

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Back at Jetty Warikaf homestay we went in for another half hour snorkel, taking photos of some good anemone fish, and the tightly packed schools of fish under the wharf, having fun swimming into the middle of the enormous school. After we washed off with the hose from the cold, fresh spring water, took photos of the pretty landscape and quaint buildings, and had lunch about 11.30am waiting for the tide to turn to reduce the current in the narrow channel and make it safe for passage. The channel is unbelievably narrow, down to 20 metres in places, but very deep, and has rain forest on either side.

At the far end of the channel we emerge into a wide bay, with tall, straight mangroves on a low point, the island on the right extending a long way, and other small islands in the distance. We pass a marker buoy for the channel, and a village on the shore, and can see our objective, Peniki (Bat) Island a low, mangrove covered island, and a smaller, high island with a beach, palm trees, a couple of buildings (not inhabited) and offshore islets. We anchor between the two main islands, have lunch and proceed to shore for exploring and snorkelling for Dianne, Jerry and Sharon.

The island has a couple of monuments we think are gravestones, but later we are told they commemorate establishing of churches at different times. The boat staff do a garbage burning, then later collect coconuts. Murray collects what he hopes will be an eating coconut to add to their collection. We start to walk around the island on the beach, but the beach ends, and walking on the sandy bottom looks like ending in a swimming exercise, so we retreat, and the three go snorkelling off the beach and around a curved sandbar which drops into deep water, almost to the boat. Not a lot to see, but do see a reef shark. Dianne’s allergic reaction is finally starting to settle down, helped by the salt water. Murray can hear a lot of different bird calls, but the bird sightings are fleeting. He manages to get a shot of a medium size black bird on a palm stump and a long distance shot of a white-bellied sea eagle on the mangrove island.

Back on the boat we rest and wait for evening to visit, in the speedboat, the bat colony on the mangrove island We have a short diversion when one of the ageing plastic chairs in the dining area collapses under Jerry, fortunately doing no damage, but producing an amusing photo. The water around the island is pretty shallow, and the outboard hits coral a few times. We see a few bats hanging on trees, but nothing special. Kill some time with photos of a good sunset, until the bats start to move about 18.30. At first there are only a few circling, possibly delayed by the presence of a sea eagle perched near them. Once a few bats get game, the rest quickly take off and fill the sky in their thousands. Most take off in the direction we came, but not all.

We all lay on the upstairs deck in the dark till about 9.30pm, watching the stars and what seems like a lot of moving satellites. Luckily no-one slept upstairs, as later in the night we had a storm with lightning and very heavy rain, but not a lot of wind.

As well as the six passengers, in three cabins, there are seven crew on the boat, all of whom are really nice and very helpful. It’s a shame that Deni is the only one who speaks English, as it would be nice to have conversations with them. There are two bunks in the Captain’s cabin, but the other five sleep wherever they find a spot.P1040615

Near the cooking area there is an internal sort of room where dry kitchen supplies are stored, and the rest of the space is used by various crew to watch videos on their phones etc, or sleep. They have some cardboard under them, but no mattresses, sheets or pillows. Some also sleep on the downstairs front deck if it’s fine, but have to find some other place when it rains. And we have our own cabins, and find it funny that we don’t have a top sheet! Late at night you can hear snoring coming from all over the boat!

Tuesday 18th April Day 3 Raja Ampat Peniki (Bat Island)- Wayag Islands

We are up early, before 6am for a long day motoring all the way to the far end of our circuit, in the islands and fjords of Wayag island. This seems to be a name which covers scores of islands, but might be just a convenience. Last night’s storm has cleared up, and we have clear skies with towering tropical clouds around the horizon. The dawn is colourful, so Murray takes a lot of photos. In the first hour we pass a massive squid platform, villages and Kawe Island, the high island with the abandoned nickel mine. The island is obviously volcanic, with patches of red soil on the mountains. There is cloud hanging around the top of the mountain, and we pass through a rain squall with some good rainbows. We pass signs of habitation, a couple of very smoky fires and a village. We drop off the speedboat with a couple of crewmen to pay the US$90 each National Park permit, and they catch up with us later in the day.

It takes quite a long time to pass Kawe Island, the nickel mine island, and Balabalak, the long, skinny island to the south of it. Ahead we can see a line of jagged peaks and isolated islands, the western end of the Raja Ampat archipelago. The skinny island is mostly bare of trees apart from some pockets of forest in valleys. It may be in the rain shadow of the massive nickel mine island. We pass a crown of jagged rocks sticking out of the sea, probably all that is left of a collapsed mushroom island.

The isolated peaks of Raja Ampat resolve into fewer islands as the low land joining the peaks come into view. The island string is too long and low to take in with a photo so we videoed the whole string. About midday the captain sighted a pod of dolphins ahead and we managed to get photos of them swimming off the bow, but we were probably too slow to keep them entertained. P1040853 - Copy

We cruised along the southern shore of the Wayag islands, seeing beaches, peaks, passages through to the internal fjords, turning in through one of the breaks to the maze of passages, islands, and pointy rocks. In one of the secluded bays we saw a massive two masted white painted double ended schooner. This is how the upper class diving tourists live, a little bit further upmarket than our basic boat. We continue up the main fjord, finding our own beach close to a shallow passage leading to the sea. Just as we arrived and dropped anchor, two cruising yachts turned up and dropped anchor, a little too close to us. They are both pretty flash yachts, and have very nice rubber duckies. We’d been told that every man and his dog was in Raja Ampat now, but this is the first time we’ve been anywhere near another tourist boat.P1040842 - Copy

Wayag Islands consist of dozens of small uninhabited and incredibly picturesque limestone islands, and it’s mainly liveaboards that visit them, as they’re 30kms from Waigeo Island, the closest large inhabited island. They have good snorkeling here, but they’re more famous for their beauty, particularly viewed from the top of a couple of peaks.P1040776

About 1pm the keen snorkelers, Dianne included, take a turn around the bay and across to the sandy beach, but don’t see a lot, other than a bit of rubbish, mainly from storms, but manage to cool down.

Later in the afternoon we take the speedboat out through the passage to the sea, which is too shallow for the big boat, and pretty shallow for the outboard. We see some good reef, including some good plate coral, and a turtle, around a small offshore mushroom island, and drifting with the current.

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While we were swimming for over an hour, the tide had gone down too far for us to negotiate the passage, and we had to go further west, but not as far as the passage we entered by, to find a suitable passage, which enabled us to see more of the lagoon.

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On the way back to the boat, the crew saw a manta ray in the murky water in the bay, and we were in the process of kitting up to look at it when it made off. Dianne, who is sitting on the side ready to go, falls over and chases the ray, which is actually heading for her. She can see it above water, but not below. The ray disappears before anyone else can get in the water. We watch a medium sunset, take some photos, then have the major drama of the trip.

Dianne had been upstairs with the computer, and decided she will go downstairs, holding the computer and mouse in front of her. She got to the second-last step OK, but the distance to the last step is different to the others, and it is also wider, with part of it in shadow, and somehow she managed to end up sprawled in the side corridor with a very damaged right ankle. She didn’t fall very far at all, it was just the very bad way she landed. She immediately knew it was bad, as she felt something in her ankle move a long way, but it appeared to snap back. She can move it enough to make us think it is not broken, but cannot put any weight on it at all. We raid the freezer for some ice to put on it, with mixed success, look for anti-inflammatories without much luck, and settle for Jerry applying a crepe bandage and elevation, with Dianne lying in bed with a pillow on the shelf at the end of the bed to keep the ankle elevated. Murray, never the world’s best nurse brings down her rice and curry evening meal. She takes a sleeping pill to help with the discomfort, and gets a bit of sleep, but fortunately is not in a lot of pain when she is off the leg. Our trusty peach bottle comes in handy during the night, as she can’t make it to the loo.

Wednesday 19th April Day 4 Raja Ampat Wayag Islands

Dianne is still not able to put weight on her foot, but is determined to go snorkelling, with just one fin, no lycra suit (as can’t get it over her foot) and just a T-shirt. Does most of her moving around the boat on her backside, and manages the descent into the speedboat with her left leg and some support under the arms. Keeps her right foot up on a life jacket on Murray’s knee, sitting on the opposite side of the boat. Entry to the water was no problem, as she could sit on the side of the boat and just slip in. Getting out was more of a problem, but the ladder they use is pretty good, with the bottom step a fair way down, and she is able to lift with the left leg while being lifted under the armpits by Murray and a crewman.

Our first expedition is along the coast to the Conservation Centre, to sign in, and look at the fish and shark show between the jetty with a floating poly dock and the shore. Dianne was able to land on the floating dock and slip into the water from there.

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There were lots of fish under the wharf, including a large mottled grouper type down on the bottom. When the shark show was started by our crewmen throwing fish guts off the wharf, reef sharks came from everywhere. Murray was out in the middle of the action, while everyone else was looking from under the wharf. Managed to get some good footage on the underwater camera, particularly of sharks with large sucker fish, and one shark in particular which had a small black and yellow fish swimming about 5 cm in front of its nose. A bit unusual that all this takes place at the Conservation Centre – this is the sort of thing they are usually opposed to.

Black-tipped reef shark
Black-tipped reef shark

After the shark show, we swam out to a small mushroom island for some good snorkeling. Lots of staghorn coral, and some good plate coral.

In the afternoon we snorkel off another exit to the open sea. After, Dianne manages to get upstairs for dinner, going up and down on her bum. Ankle seems to be swelling even more, and is starting to go purple. Jerry and Sharon sleep up on top deck. The night’s sleep was interrupted by a cockroach visit to Dianne’s arm at 2AM. Otherwise, the sleep was better, without a lot of pain from the ankle, provided it is not moved at all.

Thursday 20th April Day 5 Raja Ampat Wayag Islands

Today is the day for doing a couple of treks to the top of a couple of peaks. We are at a beach at the base of the peak we will climb by 8.30am. Murray, Jerry and Sharon start the climb with Deni and two crewmen. Our group are in walking shoes, pretty substantial, while the others are in bare feet. Interesting kit for a climb on razor sharp limestone terrain. The first part was through the jungle, then up on tree roots and earth before getting into serious climbing over karst limestone outcrops. Most of the footholds were stained yellow, and reasonably smooth, presumably from continuous wear with bare feet. The track was littered with lumps off the soles of adventure sandals. The handholds were still razor sharp, very firm and secure, and the trees, even the small diameter trunks are very sturdy and secure, so there is little danger of falling. Towards the top, we get less tree support, and more bare rock face, but still heavily provided with footholds and handholds. Sharon has gone ahead, like a “rat up a rafter”, Jerry and Murray straggling behind. The crew have no problems in their bare feet.

At the top, when we recover our breath, we are able to take great photos and video all around the horizon. The view is definitely as good as the publicity says. Sharon goes the extra step to climb the centre hump of the peak which has an Indonesian flag on it. We go back down the same way we came up, facing the hill, looking between our feet for the next foothold. Back on the beach, we were more than pleased to get into the water and snorkel out around some offshore mushrooms.P1040835

Meanwhile Dianne, Debbie and Mike spend over an hour snorkeling, which was OK but nothing special, with lots of staghorn coral.

We then all transferred in the speedboat to the far side of the channel, which is more open to the open sea and has a lot better coral.

We transferred back to the boat for lunch, then in the afternoon, at 2.45, the three trekkers go across the channel and into some side channels to find a peak which has a wooden sign at the base. We pull up to the cliff face, stand on the gunwhale and stretch our legs up to the first foothold, haul ourselves up using one of the firm but razor-sharp handholds. It was less like a track, and more like a cliff face with a yellow stain from previous climbs indicating which way to go. The angle was more like 60 degrees than 45, and you more or less crawl up the rock face, keeping three contact points while you shift the fourth to a new hand/foot hold. When the rest of us get to the top, we find Sharon sitting in the only tree on the peak.

The scale of the view was less than the morning, and the sun was in the wrong place for a lot of the view, but it still took spectacular photos. We can look back to see our boat snugly anchored. The descent was the reverse, with Murray feeling a bit shaky by the time we were back in the speedboat. Dianne is not sure how she felt about missing the two trek – was disappointed that she couldn’t do them, but also a bit relieved, as they sounded pretty hard.

When the trekkers returned, we all went out about 4pm for another snorkel for an hour around a point at an exit to the open sea, then took a tour through the narrow labyrinth of passageways between the conical peaks. We can see the lone tree on the peak where we climbed, can recognise some of the spectacular cliff faces, but it is a bit dark and overcast for photos, and the water has lost a lot of its colour. When we get back to the boat it has been moved closer to where the big, flash boat had been moored. We are right next to the small peninsula with a sandy beach where the privileged class had set up their deck chairs, shelters and a small white pavilion which may have been a toilet.

After dinner, Dianne worked on photos until 11 PM. We were sleeping well when the first puffs of the storm arrived about 2am with lots of thunder and lightning. Jerry and Sharon had been sleeping up on the foredeck on mattresses, managed to get them back into the cabin before the rain started in earnest. When Murray realised that it was serious rain, he took down all the drying gear from the clothes line, closed the sliding doors, and we waited until the wind, which we could hear roaring in the trees above, settled down into one direction, and dropped as the really heavy rain came on. The captain let out a lot more anchor rope, to put the stern of the boat a lot closer to shore, and out of the worst of the wind, but it needed confidence that the anchor would hold. We managed reasonable sleep after, with the rain steadier, and the air nice and cool.

Friday 21st April Day 6 Raja Ampat Wayag Islands – Pianemo homestay, Penemu Island

Today we start back the way we came. It is overcast with light rain in the morning. Deni suggests we get into breakfast before we hit the open sea, which could be bumpy. We do a frantic search for our seasick tablets, but can’t find them, so will have to cop the bumpy seas sweet. It is not as bad as we had feared, so didn’t need them anyway, but don’t do a lot apart from looking at the horizon for a few hours. Dianne goes back to the cabin for a while to keep her foot up without the bandage, which may have served its purpose, and is now counterproductive, as the swelling and purple bruising has moved to the front of her foot.

By the time we stop for a one-hour snorkel at 2PM, we are in the lee of Yef Nabi Besar Island, and the seas have abated. We stop near an old wharf. The snorkel is really good, with a drop-off, and features among many others, an unusual yellow pipe fish, lots of different-coloured tiny fish, and some good anemone fish. Not so good was a toxic- looking orange cloud in one part of the water which we avoided. There was also patches where there was a lot of coral damage.

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We carry on to Penemu Island, near Piainemo Homestay, in a charming sheltered harbour among limestone karst peaks. Some people call this mini Wayag. We do a speedboat tour of the features of the harbour, and see red parrots and some unusual white geese with a black chinstrap and pale pink bill and feet.P1050118 - Copy

Go ashore at the homestay to see the sunset. The homestay is quite substantial, located on raised stilt platforms among a dense grove of mangroves. We look at the facilities from the walkway through, and decide they look pretty well organised, but a bit tucked-away in the mangroves for our liking (or more to the point, disliking of sandflies and other bities). We walk through and over a very narrow sandspit to the ocean front, which has a long sandy beach, backed by palm trees to the left, and a shorter beach leading to a steep tree covered rocky point, with a picturesque rain forest hanging out in silhouette against the setting sun.

We have a look in the trees for birds we can hear (sight and photograph a couple). Those that can walk do so to the end of the beach to the right, past some ageing but probably serviceable outrigger dugouts. Dianne sits and waits. Behind the beach bordering the lagoon are a number of thatched huts, possibly staff accommodation. Just where we walk out onto the beach there is a home-made gabion with rocks and sandbags which is protecting the beach, and has actually built up a wider section of beach. It might work, but doesn’t look all that flash, having snagged all sorts of floating garbage and debris. Although the homestay is well organised, we are surprised at the amount of flotsam and garbage washed up on the beach and not collected. A one-afternoon emu parade by the staff would clean up a hundred metres of the beach, and make it a lot more presentable to Western eyes.

We wait a long while for sunset, but it is quite good when it arrives. Walk back through the homestay and get back to the boat. Dusk is pretty short here, and it is dark not long after we get back. We are visited by a trading family in a long canoe, selling soap and coconut oil. Purchases were made, and we talked to the wife and small children. We spent the night at anchor in the harbour, with Jerry and Sharon sleeping on deck.

Saturday 22nd April Day 7 Raja Ampat Penemu Island –between Yanggelo and Gam Island)

We have a very pretty 6am sunrise over the islands at the entrance to the harbor. Get some photos of alfresco sleepers on the deck. After breakfast we take the speedboat across the harbour to the wharf at the bottom of the stairway which leads to a couple of lookout platforms over the harbour. The wharf looks set up for some sort of tourist market, with stalls and coconut stores. We read the signs and start up on the 300 wooden steps to the top. This is a lot easier trek than those at Wayag, as the steps cover similar terrain, but with a lot more loose rock, rather than the sharp but firm rock we are used to. On the way up we see some skinny lizards with brilliant green tails, hear a lot of birds, but see none. From the top we can see down into the harbour with its limestone pinnacles and mushroom islands, and across to the homestay, our boat, and a rather flash wharf which may be for official visitors. Get good photos, and it is indeed a mini Wayag. Back at the bottom of the stairs we catch up with Dianne, who is not yet up to much walking. As the sign said “for decrepit please do not climb to the top”. The same team of merchants that visited last night, are on the job at one of the stalls, and we would have bought a coconut drink, but no one had any money with them. We took a rather reluctant photo of the two small girls with Dianne, returned to the boat then headed out at 9am to an offshore group of islands for an hour of snorkelling. The snorkelling was really interesting, with some very big, but elusive hump-headed parrot fish which we failed to video due to camera malfunction. One was enormous and had a mouth full of teeth. Managed one hazy still photo of him. There was a beautiful yellow, daisy-like coral growing on the underside of the overhang. We’d never seen it before, but didn’t get a very clear picture of it either. Also saw a reef shark. There were interesting overhangs on the mushrooms, reaching down to the water surface, and quite a current. There was a narrow bridge between the main island and a mushroom rock, which was completely open below water level, with a strong current trying to push us through. We resisted and swam around the islet, as Dianne is still swimming with only one flipper, and only one hand, as the other is holding the camera, and not sure we’d make it through, but others took a big breath and swam under. Once around the islet it was much calmer and swimming was a lot easier. This part of the snorkeling was great, but the very bad part was the amount of garbage, particularly plastic, in the water. It was like someone had just dumped a large truck full of it nearby, and there was so much you couldn’t avoid it. Apparently this is not normal, and must have been brought in on the current. This is the first time we’ve ever come across this when swimming, and makes a bit of a farce of the publicity about Raja Ampat being pristine. There were also lots of jelly fish, including some like box jellies, others small and transparent, like irukanjies, but none appeared to be stingers. There were strings of what looked like jellyfish with a brown dot in the middle strung together as well. We were told these were jellyfish eggs – if so, there are certainly going to be a LOT more jellyfish in the future. Must be the spawning season for them as in some places they are so thick you almost have to fight your way through them. We touched one, and to our surprise found that although they were transparent, they didn’t have the feel of a jellyfish – they were much firmer.

Class Thaliacea -Pelagic tunicate? or comb jelly
Class Thaliacea -Pelagic tunicate? or comb jelly

The big boat came out to meet us, and we moved to another group of small islands, passing lots of garbage in the water. By 10.30am we were snorkeling again for another hour. This was an excellent spot with enormous plate corals, great coral gardens, and a small reef shark. By the time we got back on the boat everyone was exhausted, and after lunch everyone had a sleep before we went to a great spot called “Melissa’s Garden” for our third snorkel of the day. It consisted of three small islets, one in particular very attractive with dense greenery on the top portion.P1050134 - Copy

There was a channel between them, with a fair bit of current, and in the channel were great schools of fish, some of them quite big. Saw the biggest bumphead parrot fish of the trip. Once we crossed the channel there were some interesting things below water on the islets, including a very docile group of batfish and a poisonous lion fish? Definitely one of the best days of snorkeling on this trip.

The big boat picked us up about 2.30pm, and we motored for nearly two hours to find a protected lagoon in amongst the mangroves between Yanggelo and Gam Island. This time we moored either end to trees on the bank, hopefully to get a transverse breeze to keep the cabins cool.

Tonight we had beef curry, some of it a bit tough, but tasty. While we were waiting, the crew went out to catch a fair haul of fast-mover fish. There were a lot of birds calling in the scrub, and managed to photograph a pair of parrots, one red male, green female, and a butcher bird.

Settled in for another hot night, with only flickers of lightning over the top of the hills, and not much respite from the heat or insects. The other four sleep upstairs on the deck, but at 4am in the night the lightning delivers on its promise, and there is a general stampede downstairs. There is only a brief wind squall, enough to require closing of the windward sliding door, and nothing like the rain we had overnight in the Wayag Islands.

Sunday 23rd April Day 8 Raja Ampat Near Gam Island – off Kri Island

There is a very ordinary sunrise, but Murray is up early to record it, and sits with Mike while we scour the hills around the anchorage for birdlife. See some black headed birds with large white bills, later identified as butcher birds, and some large pigeons, white bellies, forest green wings, russet under the tail, and pink feet and bills. Apart from the pink feet, identified them as Imperial Pigeons. See more on the way out through the channel from the anchorage. Out at sea we encounter a stream of current in the ocean which is thick with all sorts of floating garbage, take close ups of it, but the slick on the ocean caused by the rubbish extends across the water as far as you can see.P1050177 - Copy

We pass a number of islands, and anchor off Arborek Island, a small, low island almost fully occupied by a quite sophisticated village, with a substantial Protestant church with a bell tower but no bell, and a substantial wharf and reception complex. Looks a lot like a resort, but more basic.

We put the big camera and going ashore gear in the waterproof sack, and head out in the speedboat to Manta Point to see the manta rays which are always there. There are dive boats hanging off stakes in the sand bank, without the normal “diver below” flag, but with divers down looking for mantas which are having the day off. One lot has seen two mantas taking off in the distance, and that is all. We snorkel for a while, mainly around the only decent bombie in the area, but see no mantas. We get back in the speedboat and head across a couple of kilometres to a steep headland which drops into very choppy water. We start off beside a beach, heading west along the coastline, in some good coral and fish terrain, but it is hard going against the current, which we assume will turn once we round the point, but the sea floor becomes pretty bare as we near the point, the current stronger, and the sea choppier, so Murray makes an executive decision, checks with the others and calls for the boat. Deni and Jerry continue along the edge for a while, but by the time we pick them up they have washed in the current back to where the boat picked us up.

We return to the Arborek Island wharf, and organize what “going-ashore” gear we have with us, which isn’t much. Dianne has a scary time getting from the speedboat to a floating platform, and then to a rickety set of stairs, all on one leg. She’s also wearing the lycra suit for the first time since the accident, as it’s a bit scary getting it on over her foot. Ashore, Jerry and Mike, the only ones with any money on them, contribute 100,000 Rp to the semi compulsory donation box, and we walk ashore into the village, looking pretty strange, most still in their lycra suits, and Murray still in his wetsuit, busting for a loo visit. Has to bite Jerry for 10,000 Rp for a tourist toilet, money well spent, with a very friendly homestay family collecting and thanking Murray for his patronage in the well-kept western style loo. Dianne only has one sandal on, and one bare foot, and attracts a bit of attention to her purple and swollen foot. This is the first time she’s walked on it other than getting to the loo, dining table, speedboat etc. She walks a couple of blocks without too much problem, but it is a bit more tender later in the day. We look at the Barefoot Conservation depot, walk along very well kept, straight streets with blue and orange picket fences, piped water run under the sand, with valve wheels sticking up out of the sand at a handy kicking height.P1050193 - Copy

We walk past the church just as the congregation is emerging (it’s Sunday), are allowed to take photos, talk briefly to the pastor. Outside the church, on the beach are large-leafed trees which have been fitted with circular tables made of bamboo, and seats of the same material. Jerry finds the seats well sprung, and surprisingly strong. Back at the wharf, the snorkelling gear was loaded onto the floating dock, and we launched from there to snorkel under the dock, where there are always plenty of fish, and along a surprisingly good drop-off, with occasional damaged sections. Features included a group of four very large clams close together, and a lion fish.

Back to the big boat for lunch, and from it we take photos of the intense tourism happening on the wharf, with four or more high speed tourist boats pulled up disgorging day trippers. One of the fast boats boasted three 300 HP outboard motors. This helps explain the prosperous nature of the village, and the care they take to keep it attractive.

Set off about 12.30pm. We carry on east to the north side of the long Mansuar Island, around the end, and back up the steep south side, with steep jungle clad slopes leading down to cliffs into the water, with sea caves and occasional coconut backed sandy beaches. We arrive at the passage between Mansuar Island and the smaller Kri Island, which has isolated resorts on the end of it, and anchored the boat near Lumba Lumba Homestay on Kri Island for the night. We then proceeded by speedboat to the substantial town across the channel on Mansuar Island. Town has a large church with a four storey stone bell tower, and a large wharf. Plan was to snorkel around the wharf, and south to a point where the current gets too strong, and return. As usual, there are schools of fish under the wharf, and interesting growths on the piles. Further south, there is a good drop off with a lot of larger fish out deep. In particular there was a tightly packed school of sweetlip. We are lagging behind, and meet the group on the way back, as they have found the current too much for their liking, particularly with the speedboat still tied up at the wharf (it usually accompanies us as we swim). Our cheap Chinese Go-Pro knock-off camera has locked on video, so we are unable to record most of this snorkel.

It’s now about 3.30pm, so back to the boat, where we are anchored for the night. We find this a bit surprising as it is quite bumpy, and there is a fair wind pushing us toward a lee shore. But the wind drops and the sea quietens down to an acceptable level. Murray sorts out the camera (he hopes), and we sit on the foredeck telling travellers tales until it is time for a good chicken dinner, with a strange soup, but good papaya to finish off with.

Jerry and Sharon opt to try the deck again. We hear them abandoning the deck about 5am as the typical storm comes through. During the trip, if you’re a light sleeper you can manage to get a couple of hours sleep before you’re woken by someone going to the loo, loud snoring, or people rescuing gear from the rain. At least you’re usually so tired from all the snorkeling that you soon go back to sleep.

Monday 24th April Day 9 Raja Ampat Off Kri Island- off Batanta Island

As the rain arrived a bit later than usual (but not as heavy) it is still raining when we have breakfast. Wait till it stops, and the sun comes out, which happens about 8am. Dianne is back to using the wetsuit without a Lycra suit, but applies anti-sun to her legs this time, as she got a bit burnt the other day. The ankle is getting slowly better, but still cannot take a flipper (or shoe). We’re a bit worried about how we’ll manage when we get off the boat tomorrow, particularly catching planes – may have to try and get a wheelchair.

We take a long speedboat ride up the southern coast of Kri Island to Cape Kri, the point where the current splits. Must be a pretty popular spot, because we see six dive boats during the hour we are here. We make our way back west along a drop-off, see some good fish, including a couple of epaulettes (walking) sharks, and get excellent footage of a small turtle swimming just in front of Murray, then later follow an incredibly dense school of fish, mainly black surgeon fish, but including a range of coral feeders, not at all skittish in numbers, and get right amongst them. Once again our camera jams, luckily towards the end. After just over an hour snorkelling, we return to the boat, but stay inside the speedboat while Deni gets some money to pay for snorkeling at Jetty Sawandarek on Mansuar Island, which takes a good half-hour to get there by speedboat. This is our last snorkel of the trip. There is a wharf reaching out to the edge of the drop-off, and an excellent home reef stretching around the bay to the east. This is a popular dive and snorkelling site, and there are many schools of fish, some very large. In particular there are large groper, sweetlip, and barracuda, and a lot of the usual varieties seem to be larger here than at other places. Not sure how long their reef will last though, if they don’t police snorkelers better. There was a group of tourists there who could obviously not swim, or not swim very well. Some had lifejackets on, and kept putting their feet on the coral. One in particular just had a mask and snorkel and no flippers, and he was just basically walking on the coral to get around. Not too good for his feet or the coral! Back on the boat, Murray tries to download our jammed camera, with no luck, finding our footage of the turtles and large surgeon fish school not there.

We have lunch and head out south east, back towards Sorong, but aiming for Batanta Island, a 60 kilometre long island which stretched all along the south horizon. A high point of the afternoon was a plate of freshly cut coconut, in slices, with the rind removed, courtesy of a request to Deni by Murray.

One high point of the afternoon was finding the missing photos from the morning’s snorkeling. Apparently when Murray was fixing the jammed camera yesterday, the camera lost its date, and reverted to the factory setting, so today’s photos were shown at the top of the list, rather than the bottom.

Dinner is spaghetti bolognaise, as we suspect fresh supplies are pretty low at this stage. Everyone is anxious to get back to Sorong now (both crew and passengers) and we just sit around waiting for bedtime.

Tuesday 25th April Day 10 Raja Ampat off Batanta Island-Sorong

We had a really big storm in the middle of the night, with the wind swinging around the compass, rain coming in through gaps around the door, and gaps between the wall planks. More anchor rope was let out, and the wind direction stabilised, but there were big waves passing us, and the captain started the main engine to take strain off the anchor, and prepare for making a move toward shelter or out to sea. After only a few minutes, but what seems a lifetime, the wind steadied, and the engine was shut down. It took a while for everyone to calm down and get back to sleep.

By sunup, the wind had died away and the seas had abated. Deni told us that it was very unusual for the wind to come from all directions like that. This is also why he likes to find sheltered spots in the mangroves, which are more protected from the wind.

We set a course for Sorong, arrived in the harbor at about 10am, said our goodbyes and took photos, and were shuttled to the hotel to wait for room allocation. We were lucky and got a room immediately, and left the others in the foyer to cool their heels. Spent the rest of the day taking it easy, catching up on diary and internet after none for 10 days. Had a big late late lunch, and didn’t bother about dinner.

Summary of Our Thoughts on Raja Ampat Adventures

We would thoroughly recommend a cruise around Raja Ampat with Deni Malingkas and his new boat Raja 4 Adventurer. Deni is extremely reliable, knowledgeable about the area, and responsible. His boat is not luxury, but neither are his prices, but it does have all the basics. However Deni and his staff give first class service. There was always someone on hand to help, which Dianne really appreciated after her injury. His cook made very good meals under what we imagine are not easy conditions.

Deni has a lot of repeat customers, which speaks for itself. We did the 10-day trip which enabled us to go as far as the Wayag Islands. We recommend going here for the isolation of the area and the almost complete absence of other tourists, not to mention the fantastic scenery, which can only be fully appreciated when you climb one of the peaks to look down. Dianne can’t vouch for this personally, but has Murray’s photos to confirm it. The snorkeling here was also very good, though not outstanding.

Raja Ampat is definitely worth visiting for the snorkeling. We saw an incredible number of soft corals, and plenty of variety in everything, as well as plenty of examples of large fish. We thought it was on par with the best snorkeling we’ve done (Palau in Micronesia, Maldives, Great Barrier Reef in Australia) but not necessarily better.

It wasn’t as pristine as we’d been led to believe – in fact we saw some of the worst examples of rubbish being carried by currents that we’ve ever seen. The water clarity at places was fantastic, but at other places it was badly affected by plankton, jelly fish and jellyfish spawn, which were so thick it was like swimming through a thick soup.

It’s probably a place to go to sooner rather than later, as it is already showing signs of over-use at popular spots, and damage by tourists with no understanding of how to act to protect coral.

Unless you want to spend a lot of money, and go on a diving boat (which is not a good idea anyway if you only want to snorkel, as arrangements are based around the divers) you couldn’t do better than signing up with Deni as not only is it good, but it was the only snorkeling boat we found.

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