Raja Ampat, Indonesia - Snorkeling Paradise!
by Pam & Bill Scholtz
(Silicon Valley area in CA)
Yendebabo Beach on Gam Island, Raja Ampat
In mid-April, 2015, my husband Bill and I were lucky enough to have the snorkeling trip of our dreams in eastern Indonesia, in a region called Raja Ampat. We are enthusiastic snorkelers and have visited several great reefs and locales in the Caribbean and Hawaii, but this place quite simply blew our minds.
After a chance summertime viewing of the documentary, “Journey to the South Pacific”, we knew we had to go.
Be advised that it takes a very, very long time to get there. From San Francisco, it took us four plane flights, a two hour ferry boat ride and a half hour longboat ride before we reached our destination 44 hours later. Plan accordingly.
Located in the Coral Triangle, the Raja Ampat region is just off the coast of West Papua, Indonesia. Raja Ampat, or “Four Kings”, is represented by four large islands (Waigeo, Batanta, Salawati, and Misool), and about 1,600 smaller, mostly uninhabited islands. Several scientific sources believe that with over 500 species of coral, and over 1,500 species of fish, Raja is the most marine biodiverse place on the planet. A large portion of the area we visited is a designated protected marine heritage site. But because of its remote locale, it has remained virtually under the tourist radar (except for the diving community). As word gets out about this snorkeling treasure that is likely to change.
We arranged our trip through a marvelous website devoted to Raja, called www.stayrajaampat.com, which was loaded with information on snorkeling locales, accommodations, and general information. It was a godsend because through it, we found very inexpensive accommodations - in the homestays. These are not resorts; they are local-owned grass huts mostly over, or right next to, the sea. There is no running water, there is no electricity (except a few hours of generator power each night to charge electronics). Meals are provided, and the people were truly lovely, but it is very basic living.
The snorkeling, however, is paradise.
We snorkeled every day, multiple times a day. Most of the best reefs were the house reefs just outside the huts. Just off shore we would snorkel through the shallows and the sea-grass, where we would begin to spot brightly colored fish darting about and then the huge bright-blue sea stars. As we approached the coral bed, more and more fish would appear. As far as you could see in either direction, coral beds several feet deep, coral growing on coral, soft corals, hard corals, sea fans, and sea sponges. We saw hundreds and hundreds of fish, some in schools, and some by themselves, dozens of varieties of butterflyfish, damselfish, angelfish, clown anemones, chromis, squirrelfish, lizardfish, boxfish, trumpetfish, wrasse, parrotfish, triggerfish, surgeonfish, and my personal favorite, the beautiful Moorish Idols. There were lightning-quick stingrays and slow, lazy sea turtles. From a respectful distance, we watched a Giant Moray Eel moving in and out of his coral hideaway! At one spot we saw numerous Black Tip Reef Sharks streak by, and at another, we gazed at huge, graceful Manta Rays gliding in and out of the sunlight. I even spotted a Small Banded Sea Snake slithering around in a shallow area.
In addition to the house reefs, we spent time snorkeling around the local village piers. These were a ‘great bang for your buck’ kind of snorkeling place because you could see a lot of fish in a smaller area. Only once during our trip did we see a boatload of resort tourists pull up and snorkel at one of the piers.
We did take a couple of boat excursions, one to see the giant mantas, and others to a few more islands. Our homestay owners led the excursions and because they all have grown up there, they knew where the great snorkeling reefs were. Even the ‘average’ reef we saw at our last homestay was better than any other region we have snorkeled.
There is basically something here for beginner snorkelers to the very experienced. The house reefs are easy to access, (no boat required) and currents were minimal. For the more adventurous, there are excursion opportunities for drift snorkels and areas where currents are quite strong but habitats are breathtaking.
We feel so lucky to have been able to visit this region and we hope other snorkeler adventurers add it to their list and support the local Papuans as they try to preserve their reefs. They have been subsistence fisherman for years, and in the past, some of them used bad fishing practices like dynamiting and cyanide fishing. Thankfully, those practices have been largely abandoned as they realize they can make much more money preserving their reefs for the tourist trade. Go visit before the secret is out!
Helpful tips if you go-
- Bring your own snorkeling gear in your carry-on. (We brought an extra mask and we wound up needing it. I can’t imagine how bummed we would’ve been to have a non-working mask on this trip.) Actually we ONLY had carry-on bags for simpler travel - you really don’t need much clothing.
- If you want good underwater photos, bring a good dedicated underwater camera.
- Visit the villages and mingle with the locals; they were wonderful people.
- Simple life, simple food. Eats in Raja consist mostly of rice, fish, more rice, more fish, some fruit, more fish, more rice, and lots of tea. We didn’t go there for the food but just so you know.
- If you decide to go, consult the stayrajaampat website (link above) often. It has all the advice you will need.