By Pam and Bill Scholtz – (Silicon Valley area in CA)
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.
Comments Moved From Previous System
Nicole and Galen – May 24, 2015 – Thank You and Underwater Camera Info
What a well written story and useful information for our readers! Thank you Pam and Bill.
We have a wealth of information on this site for choosing a good underwater camera, as they suggest you do.
Jack Billiel – May 26, 2015 – Thank You
Thank you for the detailed post! My wife and I are researching future snorkel trips and Raja Ampat was on my list to consider. I appreciate you taking the time to share your experience.
Sean – Dec 15, 2015 – Raja
I have already read reams about Raja as it’s on my fantasy list but really enjoyed your write up… Many thanks for making the effort to post it.
Pam and Bill – Dec 15, 2015 – Raja
Thanks Sean! We are planning another trip there as soon as we can swing the time. It’s worth it. You can do what we did and live with the locals, or go full board and join a boat group.
Whatever you do, do it!
Steve Nadelberg – Sep 3, 2016 – Bucket List
Sounds like an amazing place. How much would it cost?
Pam and Bill – Sep 4, 2016 – Cost of Raja
Hi Steve, it is obviously fairly pricey to fly to Indonesia and it takes a long time; you’re looking at two days travel there (you gain a day coming back).
Average cost for a home-stay is about $70 per night double occupancy. That typically includes three meals and a double-size bed with mosquito net and shared bath.
Transportation from island to island or excursions, can be quite expensive due to the high price of fuel (no cars, all boats in the islands except Waigeo). If you book an excursion, you will pay the entire fee if you are the only people on the boat (low season as we were). If there are other people accompanying you on the excursion, they will split the cost amongst all. Excursions by boat can cost $100 or more depending on where you want to go.
You will also pay about $80 per person for a the Marine Preserve park pass (required of all visitors to RA).
All in all, it is much cheaper to go the home-stay route rather than book one of the dive resorts.
Steve Nadelberg – Sep 4, 2016 – Cost of Raja
Thanks Pam S. It sounds a little pricey, but sounds like it’s a snorkelers paradise.
Deb and Ed – Nov 29, 2016 – Where Did You Stay?
Pam and Bill, so many homestays in Raja Ampat! Can you tell us where you stayed? Or at least, which islands? Thanks.
Pam and Bill – Nov 29, 2016 – Raja Homestays
Hi Deb and Ed, we stayed at three homestays on three different islands. They were all very different experiences. The three islands were:
Waisai (which is the main island where the ferry will drop you off) – we stayed at Warimpurem Homestay. This was not the most scenic area but it was perfect to stay as a transit point in or out of the islands, and had the best food of the entire trip. The owners are very accommodating and there is a fantastic natural spring nearby. Again, not the most scenic for snorkeling but just convenient for one or two nights.
Gam Island – Stayed at Yendababo. Although our stay was fantastic, and this might have been my favorite island, this homestay is no longer recommended by the Stay Raja Ampat website because of their rapid expansion which makes it less of a homestay experience. There are several other highly recommended places on Southern Gam including Beser Bay Homestay and Nudibranch Homestay. The snorkeling on Gam was superb, our favorite of our entire stay in Raja.
Lastly, we stayed on Mansuar Island at the Koryau Kayem Homestay. Mansuar Island is just next to Kri Island and both have amazing snorkeling. Our homestay was in a wonderful location, but was the least comfortable of the three we stayed in. It needed some TLC. Food was so so.
Our advice to you, is to read the Stay Raja Ampat website homestay reviews carefully as you really will get key info that way. Depending on your itinerary, we would recommend staying on at least three different islands for variety.
Good luck and have a wonderful time if you are going!
Conni – Mar 22, 2017 – Raja Ampat
Your article was so insightful. I was in Raja Ampat last October and fell in love with the area. I was on a liveaboard for snorkelers, it was a great introduction but very pricey. I will try your suggestion of Stay Raja Ampat for my next trip.
(Folks can read about another site visitor’s experience with a Raja Ampat snorkeling liveaboard on this page.)
Pam and Bill – Nov 26, 2018 – Second Trip to Raja
We took another trip to Raja Ampat in late March, 2018.
Happy to report the coral seems to have survived the terrible warming and bleaching events of 2016 and 2017 very well. In fact, we went to several different spots and noticed almost none. Amazing fish on this trip as well.
However the trash problem is horrendous, something we did not seem to experience on our first trip. It is really bad, especially on some of the more remote islands.
We are fearful the trash will get out of hand as tourism picks up on these lovely islands.
Nicole and Galen – Nov 25, 2020 – Our Raja Ampat Experience
We were able to snorkel in Raja Ampat ourselves in 2020 and it was outstanding, best in the world for us! We did not use the homestays but were able to be part of an organized trip to Misool Eco Resort in the southern part of Raja Ampat. If you are interested in reading about a different way to snorkel this part of Indonesia, check out our Misool snorkeling page.