Our 2020 Misool snorkeling trip was easily one of the highlights of our lives. Misool is a remote area of Raja Ampat in Indonesia (map below). We went with an all snorkeling group that fully booked the Misool Eco Resort. We had an incredible time and made some wonderful new friends.
Our group was organized and led by Burt Jones and Maurine Shimlock, who turned us on to this incredible destination, and are responsible for us having this stunning experience. They have retired from organizing tours, but have a long history of love for Raja Ampat and in conservation in the area. Read more about the Bird's Head Seascape website they run below.
We expected to be blown away by the amount of fish and the stunning corals underwater, and we were. And we knew before visiting that the Misool Foundation is doing some amazing conservation work, creating and protecting a large no-fishing zone in these remote islands. But after hearing the full scale of their conservation work, while working with the local people in a very holistic way, we were honestly moved to tears. Just look at the abundance of life in the picture below (you can click on it).
We will share more about their conservation work, but
suffice it to say that we consider it one of the most important and
successful conservation projects in the world and we now donate monthly.
In the reserve, marine biomass increased an average of 250% in just six years, and in some
critical areas over 600%. We could see it. When they started they would
rarely see sharks. We saw 4-6 small reef sharks on every snorkel!
Misool is actually the name of one of the larger islands in Raja Ampat, Indonesia. Raja Ampat means Four Kings, and consists of an archipelago of over 1500 islands, with Misool being one of the kings.
The Misool Eco Resort and the large protected reserve it protects is in a remote area south of Misool Island. This area is known to have the greatest marine biodiversity of any place on earth.
The Misool Marine Reserve protects around 300,000 acres (nearly 500 square miles) of remote islands and the underwater marine life. The resort has some fantastic house reef snorkeling options that we describe in detail below, and we also ventured out twice a day on boats to a variety of close by islands and reefs. We found it very refreshing how many great snorkeling areas were only 2-15 minutes away by boat.
The snorkeling topography is very consistent around the area. There is normally a shallow shelf of reef right next to an island shoreline, that gradually gets a bit deeper, and then in most places the bottom drops off quickly into much deeper water. So on nearly every snorkel you have the opportunity to see shallow areas packed with corals and small reef fish like the pictures above. You can also snorkel over the drop-off, with vertical walls covered in colorful soft and hard corals and tunicates. Over the drop-off and out in the blue water you have the chance to see bigger fish schools, huge Napoleon Wrasses, sharks, and turtles (like the pictures below).
In most cases you are snorkeling around the edge of small islands. There are a few areas that offer a much larger shallow coral shelf to explore, if that is what you enjoy most. Finally, there are a few day trips you can take by boat that are farther away that offer unique island views, and underwater attractions, like a jellyfish lake (which is seasonal), or a narrow cut between two islands called the Gorgonian Passage.
Coral health and variety was astounding overall. The bright colors and variety of hard and soft corals were a joy to see. Are all the reefs super healthy? No. The resort is based on what was a shark finning camp, and there was even some dynamite fishing in the area in the past. The area has recovered immensely in the last 15 years, but there are still some areas where damage is evident. The resort is working to help those areas recover through conservation efforts. Still, there are no lack of pristine areas to visit. There were a few signs of coral stress here and there, but hardly noticeable. Corals in this part of the world seem to be very heat tolerant.
Fish populations, variety and sizes were simply beyond description. There were times right on the house reef where we would watch a school of thousands of beautiful fusiliers cruising by that never seemed to end. From endless clouds of little reef fish, to larger schools of much larger fish like jacks/trevallies and Bumphead Parrotfish, to gorgeous anemones and their resident aneomonefish, it was like being in a National Geographic/Blue Planet special. Misool easily has more fish than any other location we have ever snorkeled, including the Maldives.
And that is not to mention the many beautiful nudibranchs we saw, and
turtles and eels and octopus and squid and a cuttlefish, and the
seahorse on the house reef, and the gorgeous giant clams, night snorkeling with walking sharks, and the many
giant manta ray encounters. We really could go on and on about how much
we saw and experienced. We took over 3,000 pictures in nine days, not to
mention videos. We are currently putting together a movie of all the
videos we shot. Sign up for our monthly newsletter to see that when it is released.
There are two ways to visit these protected waters. You can
stay at the Misool Eco Resort, and you can also visit the area aboard a
liveaboard yacht. Our overall preference is to stay at the resort,
because they have done so much work to protect the area, and because
they employ so many locals. Plus the resort accommodations and service are incredible (more about that below). Note that Misool is very remote, and for most people it is a long multi-leg trip to get there.
We feel the lowest stress way to book a trip to the resort is with a guided snorkeling group. Our current trips partner leads at least one group each year to Misool. You will experience wonderful comradery with fellow snorkeling nuts. Also, travel in this remote part of Indonesia can be tricky, and having the assistance of a professional group leader is really stress-relieving. Domestic flights are often cancelled or the times are changed, and they generally do not notify anyone but regional booking agents of these changes. Dealing with those potential issues, plus other valuable services, makes booking with our trips partner invaluable. See the Misool Resort Guided Snorkeling Trip page here.
You can also book directly with Misool Eco Resort, and you can expect to receive equal quality of service and respect as the divers who will also be at the resort with you. Misool will not send you out with divers, but instead will provide you with a guide and your own boat. They are a great resort that way.
The other way to visit Misool is on a liveaboard yacht. Our trips partner also offers a snorkeler only liveaboard option for Misool. We do not recommend joining a dive charter. This is also a unique and amazing way to see these beautiful islands and the underwater sights. And if the resort is booked out two years in advance, getting on a liveaboard may be the only way you can see Misool sooner than later. See the Misool Liveaboard Guided Snorkeling Trip page here.
We would be happy staying in any cottage or villa available at Misool.
The Water Cottages are wonderful, giving you great views and your own stairs down into the water for snorkeling. If there is any wind at night, you do have a bit of water and wave noise. But we were so tired from snorkeling all day it made no difference. The Water Cottages give you the easiest access to the restaurant, dive shop, and dock for boat trips.
There are also the North Lagoon Villas, which are larger. Three of the four accommodate more people which is perfect for families. They also have stairs into the water.
The South Beach Villas on the South Lagoon are also fantastic. South Beach itself is
absolutely stunning. It's seriously one of the most picturesque and
private feeling resort accommodations we have ever seen. The villas up on the hill on the south side are also fabulous, with a treehouse-like feel. During our trip there were fruit bats at night on the
south side putting on a show that people really enjoyed. If there is a
downside to the south cottages, it is the stone stairs to climb over to the
other side of the island for meals and activities. You do get great views of the resort and islands walking over, and can always spot lots of turtles in the bays below. Or, you can have the free water
taxi take you around to the dock nearly any time (tides permitting), avoiding the climb, so it is rarely an issue.
The service at Misool is really top notch. We were exceptionally happy to be treated with as much respect as divers who might visit the resort. The staff are very joyful, and provided amazing service.
The food is also remarkably good for being out in the middle of nowhere. It's kind of hard to imagine how they do it. Although, coming home and having to cook for yourself and do dishes again takes getting used to!
The snorkeling options right at the Misool Eco Resort are superb. We saw some of the largest fish volumes, and wonderful corals right at the resort.
Below is a map of the house reef snorkeling options that we explored, and our favorite areas. Read full details about each zone below.
Be aware that if you visit Misool by liveaboard boat, you will not be able to snorkel the resort's house reef.
Zone 1 - Between the Water Cottages and in front of the beach is the large shallow North Lagoon. At low tide the water really empties out of here, and you can see corals sticking out of the water. So you do need a medium to higher tide to snorkel in this area. Because it is so shallow the water gets hot, so don't expect dense coral life. Coral life improves the closer you get to the drop-off. What you can see here are many young turtles in the sea grass closer to the beach and just piles of reef fish everywhere. Juvenile reef sharks also commonly cruise around. Don't forget to check in the shade under the Water Cottages for schools of fish. We had a school of spadefish right at the bottom of the stairs to our cottage. And at night you can see the walking sharks.
Zone 2 - All along this part of the drop-off you will find interesting dense coral growth, schools of larger fish, anemones and their fish friends, and reef sharks commonly cruising by. It is a really nice snorkeling area that does not have much current. Do keep an eye out for boat traffic. The resort boat captains are really careful, but it's still worth being aware.
Zone 3 - Past the North Lagoon Villas, in front of the employee village, there is another shallow shelf that has wonderful corals, and tons of reef fish. And the drop-off out to the point is also great, with many larger fish enjoying the cooler water that comes up the wall in this area.
Zone 4 - This is our favorite area, but it comes with a couple of minor cautions. There can be a current in this channel. That is what feeds all the sea life with nutrients. So it's a good idea to check with the resort, and see what the tide is doing, before venturing into the channel. Boats also come to the dock here. The resort boat captains are very careful, but you should still be aware when boats are around. The amount of fish life in this zone can be simply astounding. We had a school of thousands of fusiliers cruise by that never seemed to end. The coral health is best right along the drop-off before the dock. On the south side of the dock there are some wonderful table corals in more shallow water closer to shore. And you can keep going nearly to the point before coral health starts to drop off. You can even keep going and snorkel in the South Lagoon, currents allowing. We walked barefoot back over the hill after doing this once.
Zone 5 - Just off South Beach in the sea grass there was a resident seahorse when we visited. And young turtles are also very common here eating the grass.
Zone 6 - The Blue Hole is an old collapsed cave that is about 30 feet deep to its sandy bottom. It is rimmed with shallow staghorn corals, with
lots of reef fish in residence and some notable anemones full of anemonefish. We saw a little ray tucked under coral
on the rim. Look for big clams on the sloped wall of the Blue Hole, and
outside in the sparser coral area. You will also find some coral
conservation replanting work in this area.
Zone 7 - While there is coral rubble in some areas in the South Lagoon, we found a really big area of very healthy hard corals in excellent snorkeling depths here. It is basically between the Blue Hole and the two easternmost islands. There were countless fish in this area besides the beautiful corals, and reef sharks cruising through.
We would not bother swimming out to the drop-off on the south side. The coral health is not great because of the storms that hit this side of the island in the off season.
Zone 8 - If you have the opportunity, don't miss snorkeling all the way around the little island right next door called Marsemol. Check with the resort first for the tides and current. The resort may offer a guided trip around the island, or if you want to go by yourself let them know first. They may offer you a short boat ride so you don't have to swim across the channel. The snorkeling around this island is honestly some of the best in the entire region. We saw a school of about 40 Bumphead Parrotfish munching on the reef, five octopus, amazing fish schools, shallow coral fields, and vertical walls. It is fantastic, and so close!
We were fortunate enough to be at Misool while the founders Andrew and Marit were there, and had a few nice talks with them. They are kindred spirits for sure, and our new heroes. The story of how they created Misool on a shoestring budget, and how they worked hand-in-hand with the local community to create the marine reserve, was extremely moving to us. They actively patrol the area to prevent any fishing or shark finning, from three different ranger stations. They also use radar and aerial drones to patrol.
Between the resort and the conservation foundation they employ nearly 250 people, mostly locals. They built a kindergarten school for one of the local communities.
The Misool Manta Project collects population and behavior data that helped lead to a nationwide ban in Indonesia on manta hunting and trade. They run a huge plastics recycling program that pays locals to recycle, which has removed 700 tons of rubbish each year. And that is not all. Learn more at MisoolFoundation.org.
We now donate to the foundation monthly, which Andrew and Marit said is very helpful. You can also. The healthy reefs and abundant fish populations are results you can see yourself when you visit. To learn more about how to donate visit our Snorkeling Charites page.
Our hosts on this trip, Burt Jones and Maurine Shimlock, run the Bird's Head Seascape website, which is a great source of information about travel here and for learning about the conservation work going on in Misool and the rest of the Bird's Head. Check it out!