By Mark Kolsen
Liveaboards can offer great snorkeling; in the Galapagos, they are a necessity. But not so in Raja Ampat, where several lodges and resorts offer daily snorkeling excursions to all major sites. Compared to liveaboards, these establishments allow you to stay longer for less money while snorkeling in Raja Ampat. And when you are out of the water, they offer large, comfortable beds in air-conditioned cabins.
Raja Ampat Dive Lodge vs. Eco Cove Resort
For five weeks this winter, I stayed at two different accommodations that cater to snorkelers: Raja Ampat Dive Lodge (RAD) on Mansuar Island (two weeks) and Eco Cove Resort (Eco) on Yeben Island (three weeks). I enjoyed my experience at both accommodations, though each had its own strengths and weaknesses.
Sites I Visited Snorkeling in Raja Ampat
Both accommodations take you to different snorkel sites.
RAD has a gorgeous house reef. I loved the nearby Frewin Wall’s spectacular coral. On my first snorkeling trip, we ran into a school of feeding mantas and frolicked with them for an hour. Arborek’s reef seemed mediocre, but it was inhabited by so many different creatures (giant clams, nudibranchs, morays, lizards, etc.) that I exited the water feeling as if I had just hit the jackpot. Both Gam Channel, a favorite of mine, and Kri Island were also great snorkels with beautiful coral.
At Eco, you visit Yefnabi Jetty, my number one favorite site due to its gently sloping ridges and breathtaking coral. You visit the famous Melissa’s Garden, where you might see many huge fish, but its deep coral carpets will satisfy divers, not snorkelers. Eco also takes you to Manta Cove, where snorkelers saw 6-7 mantas on each trip. You also snorkel Rufus Reef, Mayhem Reef, and Fam Channel; all sport beautiful coral gardens.
To see Eco’s “house reef,” you take a short walk to the end of the island, and enter the water off the beach. Or you can request that a boat take you in the afternoon. Either way, you will be rewarded with a gently sloping, coral studded reef.
During five weeks snorkeling in Raja Ampat, I visited only one disappointing site: Anita’s Garden, where coral bleaching is widespread. If Eco proposes a trip there, I would pass.
Footnote: Rare sightings: On Eco’s “house reef,” a dugong was sighted and filmed by a fellow traveler. Even rarer: in open water near Eco, a French woman recorded five orcas, one of which was killing a porpoise. The video, which I saw, was so crisp you could see blood in the water. Obin, Eco’s senior dive master, told me he had heard of only one other sighting of orcas in Raja Ampat, “three or four years ago.”
Footnote 2: Pollution in Raja Ampat, especially floating plastics, is very evident and, according to Max Hemmer, is increasing due to the growing number of liveaboards and home-stays (both accommodations I stayed at burned all their garbage). In my view, you will benefit by visiting sooner rather than later.
Snorkeling Boats and Staff
At both accommodations, snorkelers and divers go out together, and both are well accommodated with fine equipment and guides. Both places have fast, seaworthy craft.
RAD’s boats are a bit smaller and lighter, powered by twin 40 hp Yamaha 2 strokes, by far the most common engines in Raja. 2 strokes create some exhaust fumes, but the boats run so fast you rarely notice the fumes.
At Eco, their heavier boats are powered by twin 100 hp or 50 hp Yamaha 4 stroke engines.
By some stroke of luck, I was the only snorkeler at RAD, and thus had a guide all to myself! Peres had amazing eyesight, and saw creatures I never could. His English was excellent. He was by far the best snorkeling guide I’ve ever experienced.
At Eco I always went out with other snorkelers. Ruslee, our guide, was excellent, though not nearly as eagle-eyed as Peres, nor was he as fluent.
Frankly, if I ever return to Raja, and know that Peres is available to guide me, either alone or in a group, I will select RAD for that reason alone.
Observations of Raja Ampat Accommodations
Both accommodations offer clean large cabins with ceiling fans and air conditioning. However, Eco’s “standard cabins” feel a bit small, while its “superior cabins” are palatial, and recommended if they are available. The superiors have numerous electrical outlets, with a large shower room separated from the toilet room. Both places have hot water showers, but with much stronger water pressure, Eco’s showers are more enjoyable. They also have firmer mattresses and softer pillows. RAD’s cabins include a big separate couch and two sitting chairs which I found useful.
RAD Lodge’s grounds are prettier and nicely landscaped. RAD also has a spa offering excellent $28/hour massages, while Eco has none. RAD also has a nice waterfront bar serving beer and cocktails. Eco not only has no bar, but serves only beer and soft drinks, though you can bring your own alcohol. They did have a few old bottles of Argentinian malbec, but all wines are way overpriced at 82 euros per bottle.
This is Eco’s Achilles heel. The Internet there is very poor, usually accessible only in the very early morning. And when it is working, you’re really limited to texts and emails, as uploading or downloading is impossible. Staff told me a new internet tower might be constructed in June, 2023.
RAD has internet only in its common areas, and you must sign in to the network with one hour coupons. But the coupons are always freely distributed, and when you sign on, you can upload and download. If the internet is a top priority, you should really avoid Eco and choose RAD instead. It should be added that at both places, I had no trouble making phone calls on Verizon’s partner network.
I spent my first two weeks at RAD, where I thought the food was good. Baked goods like muffins were usually over-baked, and the calamari was chewy because it wasn’t pre-boiled. Because they often served buffet meals, fried foods often got cold in their serving pans. Still, I thought that for Indonesia, the food was plentiful and reasonably well prepared.
But by comparison, the food at Eco was incredible. Everything, without exception, was cooked or baked to perfection. Moreover, while every night predetermined menu items for next day’s meals were offered as a choice, if you didn’t like that choice, you could always special order different food for every meal! Don’t want banana pancakes for breakfast tomorrow? Simply ask for a cheese omelet instead, and you will find it on your plate the next morning. Eating at Eco was like eating at a fine restaurant. So if food is a top priority, Eco is definitely where you want to go.
Both accommodations had first rate staff, well-trained and ready to serve your every need. Credit here must go to their managers: Tony at RAD and Celine at Eco. Both staffs speak English, though RAD staff members are much more fluent. At either place, you will love the staff, especially their senses of humor.
Recommended Booking Days
Always try to book your Jakarta departure date for a Sunday evening or Monday morning. Why? These accommodations will usually give you a free ride to the Waisai ferry on Saturday (otherwise: expect to pay $$$).
You then take the ferry to Sorong, but can only depart to Jakarta around 4pm, on a non-direct flight. If you wish to take a direct flight to Jakarta, stay overnight in Sorong and leave around 11am the next day; you will then arrive in Jakarta on Sunday around 1pm Jakarta time.