Underwater Guide To Raja Ampat, Indonesia
Known as one of the worlds best diving locations, Raja Ampat is a hotspot of biodiversity. Located within the ‘coral triangle’, this area has some of the widest diversity in marine life on the planet. These remote and jungle covered islands can be found off the northwest end of the island of Papua New Guinea. The region is made up of over 1,500 islands, islets, and shoals and encompasses an area of over 183,000 square km.
Historically the area was once part of a powerful kingdom centered in Maluku, known as the Sultanate of Tidore. The Dutch later invaded and claimed the entire region, before it lated became part of Indonesia. Today the culture on the Raja Ampat Islands is a mixture of indigenous Papuan cultures and the cultures of the migrants who have traveled to the area thought history.
The islands are covered in thick jungle and home to a large number of terrestrial species, including unique birds such as the Wilson’s and Red Birds-Of-Paradise. Waterfall hikes and nighttime jungle treks are a great way to experience the amazing scenery and wildlife that can be found on the islands.
But most visitors come here for what can be discovered below the waves…
With more than 1,300 fish species, over 600 hard coral species (that’s 75% of the worlds hard coral species), 13 marine mammal species, 7 marine turtle species, and 700 mollusk species (7 of which are species of giant clam), the underwater world in Raja Ampat is almost over stimulating. Oh yeah – and there are 57 species of mantis shrimp alone in these rich waters! The diversity found here is owed in large part to the geographic position of the islands – at a confluence between the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
As if the excitement of exploring the underwater world in such a rich diversity of known wildlife wasn’t enticing enough, the list of creatures you could spot in Raja Ampat continues to grow! In recent years a number of new species have been discovered in the region, including a new species of epaulette shark (Hemiscyillum freycineti) & the Papuan Garden Eel (discovered in 2010) – both endemic species.
For more information on the marine creatures that can be found in Raja Ampat, visit our Sea Life Of Raja Ampat page…
What To Know Before You Go
Raja Ampat has long been the terrain of liveaboards, but in recent years that has begun to shift. A growing number of homestays are opening throughout the islands, offering an often more affordable option for the budget conscience traveler. Many of these homestays are locally owned which means staying at them can be a great way to support the local community. Liveaboards still offer the best chance of accessing the outer islands and more remote reefs (which can be a once in a lifetime opportunity to see), but we are focusing this guide largely to the terrain of homestays as interest in them continues to grow.
How To Get There
Sorong is the gateway city to Raja Ampat. Located in the far west of Papua, Sorong can be reached by either boat or plane. Flights are domestic only (for the moment but this is slated to change in the future), so you must fly to Sorong from within Indonesia.
Flights To Sorong
- There are a number of different route options available to reach Sorong. Check out our blog on booking domestic plane tickets within Indonesia for more information on what search engines to use and how to pay with foreign credit cards.
Ferry To Sorong
- It is possible to reach Sorong by large, public, multi day ferries. Comfort, reliability, and safety may not be the strong points of these ferries, but the adventure of travel aboard one can make for a memorable local experience if you have the time. For more information visit the Pelni website.
How To Get From Sorong To The Raja Ampat Islands
The most common way to access the islands is by ferry. From Sorongs main harbor (Pelabuhan Rakyat) there are two types of ferry available – slow boats and express boats. Express boats currently leave twice daily for Sorong-Waisai (9am & 2pm)and twice daily for Waisai-Sorong (9am & 2pm) with the journey taking about 2 hours. There are currently two companies operating express boat service. The slow boat leave once daily Sorong-Waisai (usually departing at 2pm) and once daily Waisai-Sorong with the journey taking roughly 4 hours. It is extremely common for both types of boat to run late. Tickets to both types of ferry can be purchased at the boat docks the day of travel, but get there early as tickets do sell out. Express boat service is currently available from Sorong to Misool and back.
There are two types of seating on the express boats, regular and VIP. The main difference is that VIP seats are in an air-conditioned part of the boat and it’s a little less crowded…and their is slightly louder karaoke in the VIP section. If you want VIP tickets, definately get to the boat docks on the early side.
Flights and speedboats are also available (for a significantly higher price of course).
Where To Stay
The folks at Stay Raja Ampat have done an exceptional job complying info on all the homestay options within Raja. Rather than reinvent the wheel, we recommend that you visit their site to find the accommodation that suits you.
We will however share our personal favorite place to stay in Sorong – Royal Mamberamo Hotel (quiet, hot water, big breakfasts, good food & cold beers in the restaurant)
Raja Ampat Marine Park Entry Permit
In order to enter the Raja Ampat Marine Park you must pay a fee, called the Tariff To Support Environmental Services Raja Ampat. In exchange you will receive a ‘permit tag’ (looks like a keychain) which is valid for entry to the park for 12 months. The fee goes toward enforcement and administration of the marine protected area, as well as to conservation and development costs. When you arrive in Wasai you will be directed to an office or kiosk (the building has been shrinking in recent years) immediately after disembarking the ferry.
The fee is currently:
- 1,000,000 IDR for non-Indonesian citizens
- 500,000 IDR for Indonesian citizens
*Note – The Surat Jalan permit is not required for travel to and within Raja Ampat.
Due to the way that scattered islands interact with atmospheric layers, weather in one region of Raja Ampat can be completely different from the weather in another. In other words – everything we are saying here should be taken as a generalization of the area and not a hard and fast rule.
Here are some averages:
*Water temps vary by site and depth
So when is the best time to dive? Well…whenever you want! Due to it’s location along the equator, Raja Ampat has a remarkably stable climate year round. However there are still some seasonal variations. Small boats can take a beating in choppy seas during the windy months of June, July, and August. Those months also tend to be some of the wettest over all with the highest number of days with rain, however the most intense rain storms tend to be in December & January (plan for power outages). In terms of underwater visibility, there is really no season that is better than any other – any month can provide both amazing and marginal vis. The moon cycle and it’s influence on the tides is often the critical factor when determining the best underwater visibility.
Underwater Photographers & Videographers
Raja Ampat is one of the most inspiring underwater playgrounds in the world for the diver who always travels with a camera. If you have a camera (no matter how fancy or simple), you will deeply regret not bringing it on your dive trip to Raja. There are a couple of considerations when it comes to underwater photography that will allow you to maximize your picture taking.
First, as with all of Indonesia the electricity is 220 volts, so make sure you bring sufficient power adapters for charging your equipment. Keep in mind that the power in this region can be very ‘dirty’, so expect power surges and protect your gear accordingly. Second, many of the homestays have limited power supplied by a generator, which may mean charging your equipment at certain hours of the day. Make sure you bring lots of extra batteries to take advantage of this and consider bringing a small solar charger. Finally, camera repair equipment is not something you will find in Sorong….period. Bring everything you need to fix your own equipment with you.
Hazardous Marine Life
The chances of having a negative encounter with a wild marine animal are very slim – and thats a good thing for both people and wildlife. By simply keeping a respectful distance from animals, avoiding sudden or potentially threatening movements, and being a conscienceous and aware diver/swimmer (know where your fins are!), you will likely never need to know what to do in the event of a negative encounter with a potentially dangerous species. Here is more information on these species and others.
That being said, it can be a good idea to know what to do if you are stung by a lionfish, cut on coral, or the like, since Raja Ampat is a remote region. Below is a chart that Katy wrote for her dive master (EFR means Emergency First Responder) of the main hazardous species in Raja Ampat and what you should do if stung, bit, punctured, etc.
Diving Raja Ampat
Some Of The More Common Raja Ampat Dive Sites
Arborek Jetty – An incredibly photographic dive, with large schools of jack & silversides under the jetty making for a uniquely beautiful dive. Current can get strong in the area so care must be taken to optimize the time of the dive. One of the highlights of this dive is the enormous giant clams which can be found nearby the jetty.
Passage – At it narrowest only 20 meters wide, the passage offers incredible diving that is a unique glimpse into the convergence of ocean water and more protected inner island waters. The marine habitat here supports an array of wildlife, including a wide range of macro invertebrates as well as larger species like bumphead parrotfish, barracuda, turtles, & sharks. In the more protected caverns, razorfish, cardinal fish, and archerfish abound.
Chicken Reef – This reef can be known to have a bit of current, bringing nutrients, which create an ideal habitat for a host of species. It’s a macro photographer’s playground, with invertebrates, pipefish, pygmy seahorses, and a wide variety of crabs and shrimp. Be sure to check under table corals and ledges for the weird and wonderful wobbegong shark.
Manta Point – Famous for the manta rays, which are its namesake, Manta Point (also known as Manta Sandy’s) doesn’t disappoint! From October to April of each year, these large rays congregate in the area to feed on small planktonic creatures within the water column. When the tides are right, the mantas will regularly visit ‘cleaning stations’ to have parasites and detritus picked off of them by smaller fish, such as species of wrasse. It’s mostly reef mantas that you will see here, but the site offers an incredible opportunity to spot the ‘black’ variation. Manta’s can be identified by their unique pattern on their undersides, so capture a photo of the belly and send it along to Manta Trust so that researchers can track these amazing creatures.
Blue Magic – This is a fantastic blue water dive spot, with a cast of characters that is uniquely attracted to this type of feature. Here it is possible to spot, giant trevally, barracuda, jacks, tuna, bumphead parrotfish, sharks, and although it is unusual, you could get super luck and get to spend your dive with an oceanic manta ray.
Cape Kri – One of the most well known dive sites in all of Raja Ampat, Cape Kri is a hard dive site to grow bored of. With a healthy abundance of corals, the area host an extremely long list of species both big and small, so multiple camera lenses are a must.
Sardine Reef – A great dive site with an abundance of reef fish to be found among the reef patch. This can be a fantastic site for spotting larger species such as bumphead parrotfish & napoleon wrasse.
Mike’s Point – After recovering from an ‘mistaken’ bombing during WWII, this reef is home to a great number of species due to it’s position in the middle of the Dampier Strait. Sharks and Spanish mackerel can be frequently seen here.
Mioskon Reef – The fantastic site with an often mellow current, offers a chance to see wobbegong sharks. In deeper sections of the dive it can be possible to find pygmy seahorses hiding amongst the sea fans.
Batu Lima – A well loved dive spot, hosts a wide variety of corals over slopes and small canyons. This colorful site is a good spot to see both macro & mega fauna, so make sure to bring multiple camera lenses.
Melisa’s Garden – A beautiful underwater garden of soft and hard corals, this site offers divers the chance to see everything from small invertebrates to colorful reef fish. It is a known spot for finding wobbegong sharks under ledges.
Keruo Channel – This exciting drift dive takes you on an adventure through a narrow channel. As you pass by towering walls on either side, you have the chance to enjoy colorful sponges, black corals, sea whips, sea fans and table corals…and the incredible diversity of life that calls them home.
Wai Island – A fantastically beautiful boat dive, Wai Island is a potential manta ray dive in the months of October & November.
Nudi Rock – This is a must for macro photographers. Though the island gets its name from it’s geographical shape, the diving lives up to it’s name by providing the chance to see a wide variety of nudibranches. Living among the crinoids are a number of shrimp, crab, and fish species, and the sea fans are a great place to find pygmy seahorses.
The Candy Store – This boat dive also makes for an outstanding night dive. A magnitude of species call this reef and adjoining wall home, and the keen eye can find critters large and small among the healthy soft corals.
Blue Water Mangroves – This unique dive site offers the chance to explore mangroves in clear water. The mangroves provide a nursery for many of the reef dwelling species, making this dive a wonderful opportunity to see certain species in different phases of their life cycles.
Boo Point East – An almost over stimulating dive of soft corals, this is a must for divers staying in Misool. This at times shallow, and protected reef is home to a large number of species, and batfish are a highlight to be found here.
Boo Rocks – An absolute must for Misool divers, this dive site is perhaps best known for it’s ‘window’ rocks. While mega fauna is always a crowd pleaser in this dramatic landscape, the macro life is outstanding in this spot, and care should be taken to inspect the area for small critters.
Whale Rock – A truly bio-dense coral reef, Whale Rock had just about everything on most Raja Ampat divers bucket lists. From banner fish and trevally’s, to all the invertebrates you could want, there will be no shortage of photos to take on your dive of Whale Rock. Fish schools can be enormous here so make sure to bring your wide-angle lens.
Gladden Corner – A healthy coral reef, full of branching corals, which are home to sharks, groupers, and bumphead parrotfish. This is also a great spot to site ghost pipefish and pygmy seahorses.
Eagle Rock – A vast array of soft corals make this dive site amazingly colorful. Numerous reef fish species can be found here, including napoleon wrasse, sweetlips, snappers, and other species at home under large coral bommies and overhangs.
How About Snorkeling?
The majority of Homestays in Raja Ampat have an adjacent house reef which is nearly always suitable for snorkeling. Some of these reefs have been thoughtfully cared for (such as the reef in Beser Bay), and other show more signs of impact from boat anchors, nets, and the like. However, most of the snorkeling you will find in Raja Ampat will blow your mind, and the chance to see the diversity on these coral reefs is second to none!
Conservation For Future Generations
Raja Ampat is such a special place – culturally and ecologically. As travelers, we must ensure that we are visiting in a way that brings awareness and respect to the region, and avoids doing damage to the sensitive coral reef ecosystems that attract us here in the first place. If we adventure in Raja with the ethos of ‘taking only photos and memories’ and work to cause as little disturbance as possible in the act of doing so – this amazing part of the world will hopefully continue to be a vital home for a wide array of species for may generations to come.
For more images from Raja Ampat and the rest of the Indo-Pacific, check out our Indo-Pacific Gallery
Looking to plan a Raja Ampat adventure? Here are some great resources:
- Stay Raja Ampat (by far the best resource for how to stay in homestays on the islands)
- Current Weather (Waisai)
Want to do volunteer conservation work while you travel?
More Info On Marine Life