“Astride the Equator”

The clear waters of Misool





“Astride the Equator”. March 28 to April 5, 2013.


Selamat Pagi! Good Morning, in Indonesian. Welcome to my blog, www.beyondeyelevel.com .

Imagine a dive expedition to a far away land, with myriads of islands, set in tranquil blue seas teaming with marine life with such a panoply of colour it will be the best underwater photographic experience of your lifetime. I would ask readers patience as the upload of images has been delayed, and I am working with a new IT consultant, and need also to re font the towards the end part of the story.

I travelled to remote Raja Ampat. This divers’ paradise lies in the eastern-most reaches of Indonesia that geographically form part of West Papua. In this area world-renown for its marine biodiversity, there live an estimated 70% of all hard coral species on the planet, over half of the known soft corals, and at recent count over 1427 species of fish life, with more being discovered all the time. The islands and seas of Raja Ampat span some 400 million hectares, with over 600 islands that straddle the equator from latitude 3 degrees North to 2 degrees 15 minutes South; and East West from longitude 129 degrees 17 minutes East to 131 degrees 50 minutes West.

Raja Ampat is the term from the native Bahasia Indonesia language which means the Four Kings: Raja, or Regent, the King; and Ampat, islands. The creation myth of Raja Ampat describes four eggs laid in stone by a megapode bird. These eggs hatched into the Four Kings who then settled the four main islands of Waiego, Salawan, Batanta, and Misool. To this day the egg-shaped rocks found in the area are considered to have great mythological significance. It is said that these four Raja begot the native people of the area, the Maya, a term which comes from two words “Mam”–man, and “ya”–myself. Today, nearly half of the population is descended from the Maya. It is likely that there have been human settlements in Raja Ampat over millennium of time, with a notable increase in settlement about 5,000 years ago, and from that time, the area came under the control of Sultanates further west in Indonesia. In expeditions known as “Hongi” Sultans’ forces raided East into West Papua to capture slaves. Today, the faces of the people show diverse ethnic background of not only the Maya, but also the Papuan, Chinese, and Indonesian.

It is believed that Chinese merchants sailing their junks on great voyages of exploration and trade, had contact with this area as far back as the sixth century, and may be earlier. We know that the great discoverer Marco Polo was further west in Sumatra in 1292, but it was not until the growth of the spice trade that this area had much contact with the outside world. The Portuguese through their control of the spice trade from the East Indies came to be the first predominant European power in Raja Ampat, and were followed by the British, French, and Dutch. Ultimately, European dominance of the area was bestowed on the Dutch following a treaty with the Sultan of Tidore at the end of the seventeenth century. And in those times, Raja Ampat was a trading area roughly mid-way between the commercial centres of Halmahera and Biak. By the sixteenth century, the spice trade was flourishing in the whole area westward from what is now West Papua all the way to the Moluccas.

Notable European voyages of discovery were conducted to Raja Ampat by the French in the “Uranie” 1818 and 1819, the “Coquille” in 1823, the “Astrolabe” 1826; then, by the British in “HMS Samarang” 1843-1846, and the “HMS Challenger” 1874-1875. The great British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace visited Raja Ampat in the 1860s in search of the Bird of Paradise and sailed amongst the bays and islands of southwest Waigeo. In the 1860s, also, the Dutch ichthyologist Peter Bleeker did his ground-breaking work on fauna and fish-life of the area. In more recent times, fierce fighting occurred between the Japanese and Allied forces towards the tend of World War II, particularly in the northern regions of Raja Ampat, and submerged wrecks of fighter planes can be dived today. Dutch sovereignty over the area continued till the end of World War II, when Raja Ampat was restored to Indonesia, with West Papua following in 1962.

Western tourism to this area has developed since the 1950s, and is growing as a Raja Ampat becomes a sought-after destination for dive tourists. Until recent times, these rich seas had been massively over fished, with significant depletion of particularly the apical fish populations. Even today, the main port of Sorong has many fishing boats, and has large fish markets which sell fish of all types and sizes. Conservation has been an uphill battle in Raja Ampat, but progress is being made. The brittle balance between conservation and economic development is a major issue for this area not only now, but will continue to be in the future. We were heartened by reports from our guides that populations of Snapper, Trevally, Shark, and perhaps Ray are more common on the reefs we dived than they have been in recent years.

Dampier Strait

Both geographic and oceanographic features contribute to the biodiversity of the area. William Dampier in 1700 mid-way in a three year voyage in the “Roebuck” sailed north from Timor to the northwest tip of West Papua, and then tacked over into the great channel that now bears his name. Dampier Strait is bounded by Mansuar in the south and Waiego and Gam to the north. Huge volumes of sea water shift through the Dampier Strait, and this compression means that the normal north/south equatorial currents are actually turned to east/west. It is this massive warm water oceanic flux that attracts feeding fish-life.

Now to the dive trip. It is a fair haul from Brisbane with three flights, Brisbane to Singapore, Singapore to Madano, and Madano to Sorong. I flew Business Class on Singapore Airlines where I am a Kris Frequent Flyer, with Singapore Airlines my preferred carrier to this part of the world. I must comment for the benefit of fellow dive travellers that in my experience the level of customer service is not what it used to be on Singapore Airlines–with dive gear and cameras I weighed in at some 50 kg was charged $178 excess baggage out of Brisbane, on top of a $6,000+ airfare. I did explain to the Australian manageress at the counter that I was a Kris Frequent Flyer, had paid full fare, and had never been charged excess baggage in the past 25 years of flying with Singapore Airlines. I really don’t enjoy night flights, and to break the journey, I stopped over in Singapore. Travellers should be aware there is a provision to check bags through if the stopover is less than 24 hours; so keep a smaller bag with essentials and leave the big stuff with the airline so you will not need to check it in again in Singapore. I still think Singapore is one of the best airports to travel through, and why Australian Customs and Border Security cannot adopt the streamlined processes of Singapore is a mystery to me, although returning to Brisbane this time they were a lot quicker than they have been in the past. And, on the way through, don’t forget to collect your complimentary S$40 vouchers to spend at the airport (not bad when Bombay is S$23, and you can get two bottles of rotgut Vodka for S$38, if you choose). Inspired. But, I digress. I stopped a night at the Shangrila Hotel, whose rooms are now looking a bit tired. Singapore is a really neat place to go if you like orchids, and many can be enjoyed around the Airport. As well as the traditional Botanical Gardens, there is now a new development, Gardens by the Bay, which spans 101 hectares and houses over 250,000 rare plants. S$28 for admission. There are two huge domed conservatories. I enjoyed strolling through, along with lots of happy people enjoying family outings on a Sunday night. The development does have something of a “Disneyland” character, at least seen through the eyes of this amateur field botanist, but is a wonderful way that people who live in a city can appreciate the beauty of plants, and especially for future generations gain insights into conservation of the natural world. Of note, not a single bee or other insect was seen so it would seem in this wonderful museum for plants and flowers that our friends the always innovative Singaporeans are perhaps part-way to the creation of a viable ecosystem.

Although I am often a solo traveller, on this expedition I linked up with our group at Lembeh Resort, following a flight the next morning from Singapore to Madano. Our arrangements were capably handled by Kerri Bingham and Hergen “Herge” Spelink of www.gotmuck.com/www.divephotoguide.com . I first made friends with Kerri and Herge at the delightful Lembeh Resort when I dived there in 2011. They ran an excellent show which made the most of the fabulous critter diving of that area. Importantly they balanced the use of the sites for conservation, rotating access with other dive resorts. Their dive guides were educated to help the underwater photographer not to disturb the marine environment, and also were great spotters for the fascinating critters found there. Please see my separate Lembeh gallery with photographic highlights. This delightful American couple have now relocated to Bali, and coordinate dive expeditions that encompass trips to all parts of these seas where their local knowledge is invaluable. Visit their websites for inspirational underwater photographs, and information on the trips they have on offer. I overnighted at Lembeh, which was lovely, and caught up with my chums from the last trip over compulsory G & Ts; enjoyed an excellent meal, was entertained by the local church choir, then was off early the next morning by boat then minibus to the aero-port at Madano and the aquatic phase of this adventure. Oh, and almost forgot to mention, in true-blue Aussie style they have acquired nicknames, “Hergemeister” and “Kezza”. We had to wait a day in Sorong as Air Express had changed the flight to a smaller plane, so could not carry our gear until the next day. This occurred despite Herge’s best efforts to coordinate in advance with local management. As a result, we lost a day’ diving. The return on Lion Air was much smoother to Madano from Sorong. So, give Air Express a miss, and fly Lion Air out of Madano. For economy class travellers you can buy admission to the Garuda Lounge at Mandano for about A$7, well worth it.

As we had a free day in Sorong at anchor, a shore party was organised for a foray into the town. To garner blessings for our sea voyage, we paid a visit to both a Christian Church and a Buddhist temple. Sorong at a steamy 2 degrees south of the Equator, is a hot, bustling town, an important centre of trade, and port for both its fishing fleets and the giant Freeport-McMoRan (NYSE: FCX) Grasberg mine in West Papua. We cruised the street markets, purchased snacks for the trip, and inspected the smelly fish market. Harbour-side houses here are built in the traditional stilts-over-the-water style. My late Dad, Henry, once did a cruise to Indonesia visiting Bali, Sarawak, and other places, but I do not think his travels took him this far East in Indonesia. So, as son follows father, I took up his voyages some 75 years later. I will publish his images, and what story I can assemble at a future post. His albums do contain images of bare-breasted maidens , but things have changed and today’s maidens in Indonesia dress more modestly in public.

Church in Sorong

Our bags having arrived safely, and at last we were underway in the good ship “Indo-Siren”. The Siren fleet operates a number of live-aboard dive boats in Asian waters, including Palau, Maldives, Phillipines, and Truk. Recently, you may have heard, one boat had a fire and sank, rather to the dismay of its guests, all of whom were rescued unharmed. The ships of their fleet are built in a traditional style which added a note of authenticity to the adventure. Although the “Indo-Siren” does have gaff rigged sails, she is basically a steamer, and we chugged along at a steady 6.2 knots, heading south overnight to our first dive site. I had paid a single surcharge (which I never enjoy doing) I enjoyed a comfortable “double” cabin with en-suite, and learned a new custom–to put the loo paper in the bin, rather than challenge the digestive capability of the head. Always on a live- aboard, I really enjoy the first night at sea, and welcome a good sleep after the rigours of the travel. Overnight we travelled on calm seas in a light sou-east wind across the Ceram Sea, to arrive at the Misool-Daram-Boo-Yilliet area the next morning.

I believed I had packed well for the trip. There were spares for (almost) everything, even a spare camera (my trusty Nikon 7000) and Ikelite housing…which were to come into their own as the trip progressed. A few words on the setup for diving. The best aspect of this boat (apart from the Bintang beer all included) was the nitrox available at no extra charge for all dives, in mixes up to 32%. This gave added safety to the divers. We did up to four dives a day with less physiological trauma to ourselves than on air. Diving on nitrox does, as readers will understand, limit the maximum depth (the increased water pressure means increased blood oxygen partial pressure levels which increases the risk of oxygen toxicity that will cause convulsion, and death) but most of what we wanted to see was down to a hundred feet, anyway. On dive boats I am also concerned about the effects of dive crew doing repetitive dives, so better for crew as well. We had a number of divers over the age of 65 (an increasing cohort in the dive travel population). Nitrox, especially for the older divers like me, is an added safety measure against the bends, and now a days I choose live-aboards that offer Nitrox. Additional safety features included the hire of walkie talkies in water proof pods, so if you did come up unexpectedly away from things, you could radio the boat for help. There is a lot of current in Raja Ampat. Reef hooks were essential, both to enjoy the scenery around you, and also to do a safety stop in current without floating away. Send up your safety sausage so the boatmen know where you are. Hooks can be damaging to coral so chose carefully where you hook in. We were encouraged to use a reef stick so that we did not touch the corals and this is good policy not only for the protection of the coral but also of the diver. Gloves are essential; I got a few stings around my wrists and in the week it takes for them to heal they itch like crazy. Although an Eye Specialist, I did conduct an Ear Clinic for those afflicted by otitis externa. I would recommend the use of AquaEar, and meticulous drying of the ear canal after the day’s diving to reduce the risk of otitis externa.

Consequent to increased exercise, comes the need for good meals, and these were not lacking on the “Indo Siren”. We enjoyed three solid “squares” a day. Breakfast offered a selection of fresh fruit, eggs any style, crispy bacon, followed by rice, noodles, pancakes, or French toast. Sometimes we had con-gee, a rice porridge; other times, oat porridge. The maple syrup bottle was popular, as was the Nutella, a yummy blend of hazelnut and chocolate. We Aussies of board took our uninitiated American cousins under our wing and introduced them to Vegemite. First dive of the day was around 0730 and this was followed by breakfast, and we were back in the water by 1030; lunch was usually around noon, and was smorgasbord style, fruit, salads, rice, noodles, soups and some meats including curry beef, chicken, fish, and prawns. A similar theme was followed at dinner time, and mains were preceded by a nutritious hot soup, with, if you’reup to it, an Indonesian-style side order of freshly chopped chillies. So, the reader may wonder why I would come home, after enjoying such a high standard of culinary fare! In fact, part of our group stayed aboard for another ten days…lucky sods! Needless to say, it took great willpower to eschew the delicious desserts for fear of packing on surplus calories. Snacks were often provided after the afternoon dive before the night dive–try the battered deep-fried pineapple, or the freshly roasted cashews–resistance is futile. Our ever capable cooks laboured in hot conditions to produce wonderful meals, both Western and Indonesian. There were plenty of areas on the ship to congregate. The sun deck was best for sunsets, and in the main cabin the photo-geeks had adequate space to set up their camera gear. Our ever attentive crew also did a near-heroic job of keeping the cabin air condition running, as we all found it quite hot topsides. We had a nice bunch of people on board, and there was a general feeling of camaraderie amongst the divers (all we were told were hand-picked by the tour organisers–?!). The crew were a happy lot, who worked hard, and ran the show like clock work. The Captain, a quietly proficient man, always positioned the ship well for the dive site, and always seemed to be on the bridge, particularly for night passages. When needed he also pitched in and helped the crew with the diving side of the operation. So, my personal award for best live-aboard dive boat I have ever been on. Now to the diving. I have put the dive notes in italics, and inserted other commentary on related topics, and interesting stuff in bold font. The images on the SmugMug gallery roughly follow the text; and I have chosen them for the best representative images of our experiences. We have also inserted images into the text just to keep the reader interested.

Colourful soft corals

Diving Day One: After setting anchor in the Daram Islands we were ready to get into “it”. Candy Store. Wow! One of the best, most exciting, diving experiences is the first morning dive of a trip on a lovely coral reef, in gin-clear water. As with the Dampier Strait, the currents of Misool and the Daram Islands bring plankton-rich upwellings which make for great fish life. Next dives were at Boo Rocks (including Boo Windows/Boo West/Boo East–in the Boo area of Misool). You will see pictures of rock portals, rounded openings on the southern end of the largest rock. The portals are classic scenes in books on Raja Ampat diving; please see the gallery for my humble versions. There is an underwater ridge, with interesting knife-edge plates of rock, formed by apparent tectonic plate movement that has lifted and layered the limestone. In the area we encountered anemones with clown fish (not as common here as at the North Solitary Islands at home) and couldn’t resist more pictures of the Western Clown-fish “Amphiprion ocellaris”. The inquisitive Coral Trout, are here called here the Coral Grouper “Cephalopholis miniata”. Soft corals, the “Dendronephythia sp.” of all colours, abound in Raja Ampat, and were the subjects of many photos. Our guide found the prickly Soft Coral Crab “Hoplophyrs oatesii”. In west Misool is the named site of Blue Water Mangroves where there is a tangle of interwoven mangrove islands separated by sandy channels. There are soft corals growing just below the surface, best dived for above/below surface photographs (“splits”) at slack tide. We did not get to this dive site, but found another with similar features on the way north. I would have liked to spend more time in the Misool area as it had fantastic viz, and is also home to the first local shark sanctuary.

Andiamo, also in the Daram Islands.  Here there is a profusion of corals, Gorgonia fans, Red Whip coral “Ctenocella pectinata” , and the Cauliflower soft coral “Dendronephthya muconata”. Fish action had Golden Trevally “Gnathanodon specious”, Giant Trevally “Caranx ignobilis”, and notably Herge in pink and Kezza in purple underwater attire. The barrel sponges “Xestospongia testudinaria” are common and literally glow red with illumination. Down around 75 ft, there was a garden of Black coral “Antipatharia sp. “; I spent some time composing the image in black and white. At the end of the first day, we did a night dive, Boo Wall, which was a bit disappointing for subjects, but I did find a lovely Nudibranch “Glossodoris electra”. On this dive, Tim was at work with fluoro photography. This is a relatively new technique underwater (although in Ophthalmology we have been using it for years) and involves projection of blue light onto a subject, then a red filter is used to filter out blue coming back to camera thus revealing natural fluorescence. It lights up the underwater world like Avatar. I kept company with a Raja Goby “Eviota raja”, and the Zebra Lionfish “Dendrochiru zebra”.

“Glossodoris electra”

Herge is the best underwater photographer I know. Not only is he an excellent technician, he as an artist’s feel for his medium, and particularly excels at composition, which is the most difficult aspect to my mind of an underwater photograph. Raja Ampat is a veritable feast of underwater photography subjects. Herge was very generous in offering coaching and mentoring on the trip, and I have included several paragraphs interspersed through the text with his key tips and techniques of UW photography. The trip was as much about diving these fabulous waters as it was about constructive improvements in your underwater photography, which really was an added bonus.

Wide-angle. For subject illumination remember to use both F stop, and flash. Whereas, shutter speed is used for the background. Mostly we shot at about half-power setting on strobes (with two) and diffusers. For wide angle, which is what we mostly did in Raja Ampat, optimum settings are about 1/125 shutter speed, and aperture F 10. If overexposing, cut back flash intensity. Watch flash coverage, and for wide angle, avoid flashes, fins, and other things in the periphery of the image. Angle flashes slightly outwards to reduce back scatter. Remember, the limit of flash distance underwater is probably about six feet. So, for example for mantas, basically it is natural light so use wider aperture, and recall your tables linking ISO, subject distance, and aperture. If they do get real closer, however, then you are back on flash settings, but be quick.

“Split shots”. Herge is the expert here, and has pioneered this wide-angle technique for the unique conditions of Raja Ampat. The mangrove estuary with still, reflective water, filtered sunlight through the trees, hard corals, fish, and colourful soft corals all near the surface in clear water set the scene for unique photographs, split below and above the surface. For best effect, set shutter for top conditions (about 250), avoid shooting into the sun, or park the sun behind a mangrove, and set F stop for below the water (try 9 to start with)…I added flash as well, with flash concentrated on the below surface subject. If there are moving fish, up the ISO and lessen the flash so they do not streak or reflect and overexpose. One movement up and out to shoot so you don’t see streaky water on the lens. It may be useful to polish the (outside of) lens with spit first, so you don’t see water droplets on the lens. We all enjoyed composing shots of the redsoft coral growing on a mangrove, a popular image that also appears in the books on Raja Ampat.

Red soft coral on mangrove, classic Rajah Ampat photograph

Macro photgraphy. Though Raja Ampat is a wide angle photographers dream, with concentration and especially help from your sharp-eyed guides, excellent macro subjects can be found both on both day and night dives. Herge recommends about F 14, shutter speed 1/250, and vary flash according to image. This approach does counteract my own tendency to use high F stops to enhance depth of field, with resultant degradation of image quality, so power down the flashes, and open the aperture more. I followed Herge’s suggestion to monitor the RGB Histograms carefully, pushing them to the right for best exposure. I have found the D 800 tended to underexpose on manual settings compared to the Nikon 7000 which I have more underwater experience with. The 800 has a playback display option where both the image and the colour graphs can be shown simultaneously.

Herge makes that point that all digital images are edited. Even shooting in JPEG, as I have done, the image is processed within the camera, before it even hits your editing software. Most underwater folks now shoot in RAW, then edit. There were number of heavy duty (and not just measured in kilograms of camera gear) underwater photographers on the trip, which was one of the aspects that made the experience so worthwhile. Lightroom was the most popular editing tool, as well as Aperture, and Adobe photoshop. For me, Sagelight remains on my home Dell; this trip I brought my new Apple Mac-Pro with retina graphics, and this gear has I Photo. I Photo also has an editing tool, so each image of the gallery has undergone some editing with this tool…you be the judge. I use the crop tool, brush out scatter, and touch up the saturation, brightness, and background, occasionally using a special effect like vignetting or black and white, but maintain that a quality photograph is taken, and is not the result of editing. I will be converting to RAW.

Gorgonia fans in soft pastels

Underwater photographic gear. Being with experienced UW photographers, is in itself an education on camera gear. I have summarised what everyone was using: Tim, a professional photographer, was using a Nikon D 800; Sea and Sea YS 250 flash; Subal Housing. There were problems with the housing– a button did not fire under pressure. Linda, flash Inon D 2000; camera Canon A7D in an Aquatica housing. These Inons did not really have enough power for Raja Ampat wide angle, and Linda plans to upgrade to Sea and Sea YS 250. Movie. Craig, whom I shared a camera table with, used a Light Motion Housing; camera Sony CX 550; with Sola 4000 lights (also a Light Motion product). Some excellent macro video was produced with this gear. Jim, Nauticam EM 5 housing; Inon flash Z 240, D 2000; Olympus OMD EM 5 light weight 24 mega pix. Apparently this is a new generation “micro res” chip format camera, but when we looked at the slide show at the end of the trip, it did not appear to have the resolution of either the Canon A7D or Nikon 800, but this may just be personal bias. Nikon cameras seem to be coming back into favour with UW photographers, but Canon remains the general favourite. Herge’s gear: Aquatica dome port for wide angle–they make a mega-dome; two Sea and Sea YS 250s (these have relatively fast re cycle times, with good coverage); Aquatica housing; Canon 7 D. He likes the controls of the Aquatica, but it is possible that Nauticam maybe better, though Kerri’s choice would be for Seacam housings. For me the jury is out on the really high-end gear, as I don’t think I will be getting there at least anytime soon.

And, taking survey on gear, a new find was the devotion that owners of Atomic regs have to their gear, these considered to be the best made. I am personally not keen on plastic type regs as they do not have the impact resistance of metal. The top of the Atomic range is available in metal. I recently retired my vintage Cousteau-Gagnan USD regulator as I could not get parts, and at home dive with my trusty old metal Conshelf.

Day 2. We dived the three named rocks adjacent to each other, Nudi, Tank, and Whale which are part of Fia Bacet in Misool.  Nudi Rock topsides featured trees that look like nudibranch rhinopores and cerrata. Tank Rock looks like a stack of scuba tanks. Whale Rock, well, looks like a hunk of rock. The East point of Nudi is considered a top dive site in Raja Ampat. In its coral gardens you will find the striking orange Bubble Tip Anemone “Entacmae quadricolor” home to its own Clownfish “Amphiprion ocellaris”. And, not to be confused with Nudibranchs, are the plentiful ascidians like the Ox Heart Ascidian “Polycarpa aurata” in vivid yellow and blue. Actually, while Nudibranchs were around they did not seem to be as prevalent as in other parts of the world. The “Phyllidia pustulosa” was commonest, and others encountered included the Co’s Nudibranch, “Chromodoris Coi” and the vivid yellow and black “Notodoris sp.” either “N. gardeneri” or “N. minor”.

Exquisite soft corals

Tank Rock, is a small barren block of rock just east of Nudi rock. There is a connecting underwater ridge…we did not dive the ridge due to strong current. There are three pinnacles to east of Tank Rock. Soft corals were abundant in the recesses; out in the current the Barracuda and myriads of other fish were on the prowl.

During the day, the Poltergeist (from German, 1840s, the “noisy ghost”) struck. As I compare notes with others, mysteriously they too had items which disappeared. My flash O-rings mysteriously vanished from the camera table, only to return later in the day. Nicola our Tour Director courageously volunteered her wrist bracelets, two Honda motorcycle O-rings which back to back would have done the job, so next time, check that you have spare flash O-rings. We were all impressed with Nicola who was an excellent Tour Director. She worked in well with our hosts, as well as patiently catering to the changing wishes of a rather precocious bunch of divers.

The third dive, Whale Rock, is located at the Western end of the Fiabacet chain of Rock Islands. I dived this of necessity with single flash. It was a real blast in the current when we first went in, as everything was out feeding. Sea fans and soft corals were abundant, with masses of schooling fish–Yellow tail Fusiliers “Casio cunning”, Silver tail Fusiliers “Casio caeulalaurea”, Blue-fin Trevally “Caranx melampygus, Great Barracuda,”Syraenia barracuda”, and Bannerfish “Heniochus diphreutes”. The massive Titan Triggerfish ” Balastoides viridescens” were quite common and going about their business of chewing up the coral with massive teeth. The Bump-head Parrot fish “Bulbometopon muricatum” were also busy like underwater excavators recycling the coral.

One of my favourite dives was Anti-anchovy. This is named because the fish there look a bit like anchovies, but are not. You have a big rock with relatively straight sides dropping precipitously to the sea bottom, and around this edifice are masses of fish. We did two dives there, in deep blue clear water, which was just exciting to be in, with much fish action. It was actually quite tricky to photograph both the fish and background and the best place for photos were the corners where currents merge. One corner also has a congregation of Lionfish. Swarms of smaller fish like the Golden Sweepers “Parapriacanthus ransonnetti” and the Indonesian Glass Fish “Salangichtys micro don” sought refuge amongst the crevasses and behind the Gorgonia sea fans from marauding predatory Big-eyed Trevally “Caranx sexfasciatus”. Swarms of tiny silver fish called Silver-sides “Hypotherini barnesi” clouded the water like droplets of mercury, and made for interesting photos as they too were chased, creating an explosive sound in the water called fish thunder. Technical points here, are to not blow the exposure with too much flash, and increase the ISO and shutter speed for fast moving subjects.

Fish thunder at Anti-Anchovie

After lunch, we re-visited Boo West. This time, with heaps of current, there was plenty of fish action. And, later that day, with the afternoon sunlight, we revisited the portals of Boo windows. Here I photographed our dive model Ginda, who models Aussie style in board shorts (boardies, in “Bogan”– a contemporary Australian dialect).

Ginda at Boo Windows

From our anchorage in the Daram Islands we could see the Misool Eco Resort, one of the early land-based dive resorts in Raja Ampat. The waters  in this area of Misool have been  protected over the last four years, and are a complete “no-take” zone–naturelement, we enjoyed more fish life around Misool.   Max Ammer, a Dutchman who is famous for many years of work towards the conservation of the marine environment in Raja Ampat founded two other resorts, geared towards diving and marine conservation, in the Kri Islands, Kri Eco Resort and Sorido Bay Resort. At this stage in the narrative, I would like to make a few comments about conservation. Readers will be aware my writings have a strong conservation emphasis.The seas of Raja Ampat have suffered the depredations of Man for hundreds of years. There has been unrestrained exploitation of this huge fishery, leading to a dangerous fall in both species numbers, and biodiversity. This vast area is sparsely populated by humans , which while being something of a curse as policing and environmental management may be more difficult, is also something of a blessing as the seas are not required to feed large adjacent human populations (as in the Andaman Sea–please see my post on the Koh Similan Islands). According to our guides, there are more fish now, and certainly more sharks than several years ago, so it is encouraging to see the apical predators and general fish populations making a comeback. The activities of conservation minded individuals and organisations must be recognised for for their contributions to the preservation and hopefully restoration of this fantastic marine ecosystem. These activities were pioneered by Max Ammer who formed the first Marine Conservation Area and pioneered “no-take zones”, which have now been expanded to more than 1,200 sq. km. . A number of organisations were behind a November, 2010 decision to declare Raja Ampat a sanctuary for sharks, as well as defining full protection for Manta rays, Mobula sp. Rays, Dugong, and Turtle. And, to lend further encouragement, there is currently a push to make all of Raja Ampat a Marine Conservation Zone. My reading indicates there are many involved in the advocacy of marine protection in Raja Ampat, including Shark Savers, the Walton family of Wal-mart fame in the US, local environmental NGOs (Non-Government Organizations), the Indonesian Government, as well as the Raja Ampat Research and Conservation Centre. The broad thrust seems to be three pronged, consisting of the following. Firstly, science. I did not know this before the trip, but some corals here are adapted to up to a 17 degree fluctuation in sea temperature, an interesting “pre adaptation” to the impact of global warming. Secondly, to create what is called an “enabling environment” for conservation, which includes working with local communities. Community education has been furthered via a marine conservation vessel “MV Kalabia”. We paid 100 Euros each as a Marine Tourism User Fee. This helps local communities with health care and education for their children, thus demonstrating the tangible benefits of conserving the resource, and that money can be made from tourism. Thirdly, and interrelated to the above, the establishment of MPAs, or Marine Protected Areas, which have grown since 2007 when some 1.2 million hac was under protection, and now encompass 45% of Raja Ampat’s coral reefs and mangroves. Still, it remains an uphill battle to impress upon individuals, community leaders, government policy makers, and politicians the need to wisely manage the area. As a step in the right direction, in March 2013 the Indonesian government signed into law legislation declaring the whole of Raja Ampat a Shark, Ray, and Turtle sanctuary, although there is still work to be done on enforcement.

March 31, Baby Rock. It was here that Herge demonstrated his prowess in photographic composition, managing to get good shots of Wobbegong sharks–I am told he prefers such fast-movers as achievable photographic subjects. Towards the end of the dive, I encountered some interesting overhangs, one with a coral encrusted window, which lent nicely to a background of schooling Batfish “Platax teira”. I still reckon it was Kezza who stole my Batfish shot at Baby Rock, and after that I did not seem to be able to get them to line up as they are supposed to (right, Kezza?). Then it was onto No Contest, at S 02 01.584 E 130 33.290. Now, this can be a tough dive with massive currents including side currents and down currents, but well worth it for the fish life. I recall three rock tops, with channels in between that concentrated the force of the current. As well as fish, there were lovely soft corals in the recesses, and Sweetlips and Batfish in the crevasses waiting for a meal to swizzle past. Kezza and I were able to manoeuvre around towards the leading edge in heaps of current. While most of the divers went for an early “fly”, we ended up hooked on, but all eventually went for a fly coming off, safety sausage up and away. Let’s see, next stop Komodo. There is a buoy on the West end which marks the descent, but I doubt it would hold in ascent. In these tumultuous currents, too, beware of down currents.While No Contest is for the romantics and the cognoscenti, Love Potion is for mere mortals. Love Potion a deep pinnacle which we swam out to in about 90 feet of water. I found it a bit disappointing without the intensity of colour or clear water I had come to expect; so I came back up after first signalling to Nicola, my guide on that dive. It was quite pleasant in the shallows out of the current, but given the time over again I would have gone back to No Contest, hooked in, and just watched the fish.

In this area we encountered a significant Papua Niu Guinea (PNG) personage from Tawali Resort where I have stayed on two occasions, and in a pleasant chat compared notes about the diving in both places. To my mind there are increasing attractions to dive in Indonesia including better access, probably now better value,  greater overall security, and the growing attraction of what are likely to be more protected areas. It is highly likely that PNG will have to lift its game to remain competitive in dive tourism with Indonesia.

Next it was into snorkeling gear. We beamed into the Alien Headquarters, also known as the Beehives, with our first opportunity for split shots. These rock spires, like space rockets, or temples to visiting Aliens are actually Karst Rocks, composed of jagged limestone, and are famous in photographs of Raja Ampat. This was really fun, and the gallery shows a split shot of Nicola kayaking. All too soon, it was time to rejoin the ship and start our northward journey after enjoying so many exciting dives in the South. We steamed overnight, making some 7 its over ground with a tail current, bringing us to Mansuar, just south of the Equator, at S 00 24.013 E 130 33.290. We enjoyed calm seas and an idyllic sunset.

Kezza in Got Muck? wetsuit and Nicola kayaking

April 1. On April Fool’s Day. I thought I was unscathed, until I checked the ISO setting which at 320 which is higher than I usually go–but set for the bright sky doing split shots. We dived Mansuar. This is the one with the Diagonal-banded “Plectorhinchus lineatus” and Ribbon Sweetlips “Plectorhinchus polytaenia” which you see in the magazines, though the general terrain was not all that interesting ( I confess I was getting a bit spoiled with the outstanding conditions), but if you swam round a bit and researched the area, there were some lovely pockets of fans, soft coral, and Glassfish. I got moved off the Sweetlips rock by Radar, our Viking friend, who had sold this image previously to a German dive magazine. No doubt another bucket of “Euro-Marks” was on his mind. As we regrouped and went shallower later in the dive, we had to hook in to do to a safety stop, admiring the passing parade of fish life. Next, inflate safety sausage, then ‘whee’, we were off in a divers version of a Nantucket Sleigh-ride.

Second dive, at Manta Sandy, probably should not be attempted on April Fools Day. I think the Manta knew what was up. There is a line of coral rubble which we stayed behind (see photo), waiting for Mr. and Mrs. Manta to arrive. It is said to be most reliable Manta site in Dampier Strait. Mantas come for cleaning, so stay clear of the cleaning station… a fact that could be appreciated at other Manta sites where Manta may be easily intimidated by divers in their cleaning station. This dive site actually goes deeper out to the channel, and it was from that direction two Mantas appeared out of the gloom. On the rubble as you swim back to the surface, look for Pegasus Seamoths “Eurypegasus draconis”, and Pontohi Seahorses.

As is my usual style, I will recount some interesting information and insights gained on the journey. You meet some interesting people on a dive boat. There was Jon, an American, who is a professional motivational speaker, and is a very well informed gentleman. His knowledge of Sci-fi, contemporary movies, and generally interesting stuff was near encyclopedic. On another note, I have never seen Americans as despondent about the state of affairs in their own land; I did try to cheer them up, by pointing out that it could be worse, just look at what our Labour government is doing to us in Australia!

Americans must watch more film and TV than us Aussies, and probably have access to better programmes. I took pains to reassure them that we did in fact have colour television in Australia, as well as a “Lost Generation” of youth who are glued to I pods, and mobile phone screens, watching video games. I have included a list of his favourites:

Crusade, sequel to Babylon 5, in 5 episodes.
Walking Dead
Kindred the Embraced (about Vampires–not really my cup of tea).
Serenity, the movie.
“V” pronounced, vee.
Torchwood (5 episodes), with the best #3 “Children of the Earth” and #4 “Miracle Day”.
Sarajane Adventures (the TV series of the Terminator with Sara O’Connor).
A new author, Lee Childs with main character Jack Reacher is now on the must read list, and in a techno upgrade this will be downloaded into my i Pad for ease of reading. Of note, Tom Cruise has just come out with a movie and plays the Jack Reacher character.

So if you have chosen and edited the best of your images, and you have finished your trip account for your blog, then dig into some of Jon’s favourites, as you relax between dives.Kerri and Herge offer a number of trips annually, so check out their website, and drop them a line. I am looking forward to returning to Raja Ampat on their next “Indo Siren” charter in 2015, and will also slot in another trip to Komodo, one of my favourite places either this year or next. To spend the most time at Komodo, fly there from Bali joining their trip in September of this year, otherwise take a trip on the “Pindito” which in late July does Bali-Komodo-Bali with a crossing of Wallace Line, and stops at Moyo Island off the coast of Sumbawa, and Satonda Island, an ancient volcano with a black, salty crater lake. Your return trip crosses to Sangean Island, also an active volcano. Raja Ampat is again on the programme for October-November 2014 featuring the southern islands to Misool and over to Halmahera, the largest island in the Maluku Islands (known as the Moluccas from the time of the spice traders).

Action at the Pier

Arborek Pier, near Gam Island, was the feature dive of April 1. We loved this dive and our happy snappers went nuts. Day diving it treated us to swirling schools of Ox-eye Scad, “Selar hoops” that zoomed around the wharf pilings staying just out of range from their hungry predators. There were luxuriant soft corals growing on the pilings. The night dive was terrific, the best of the trip. Broad-club Cuttlefish ” Sepia latimanus” was not to be deterred in posing for the photographers. This is the world’s second largest Cuttlefish. I am always fascinated by cuttlefish with their adaption to morph in both form and colour. The Banded Frogfish, “Halophryne diemensis” soon got your attention with its guttural croaking, most unusual and unlike anything you will hear underwater. Other interesting subjects seen on this night dive included a Pipefish, “Syngnathoides sp.”; the Walking or Epaulet Shark (which looked to me like a Blind Shark, also a type of Carpet shark, which we see at Byron Bay–they are a food of the Wobbegong) “Hemiscyllium freycineti” which is named after the French explorer, Louis Claude de Freycinet. Apparently this is now quite special to the area and we were pleased to encounter it on the night dive (it is also called the Indonesian Speckled Carpet shark). The local Tasseled Wobbegong, also a type of Carpet Shark, “Eucrossorhinus dasypogon” was appreciated here more than at home, where at Julian Rocks the local “Wobbies” are everywhere. On the night dive, at around 8 pm, in pitch black darkness, disaster stuck at Arborek Pier, with a leak in the new D 800 housing, a perverse finale to April Fool’s Day, 2013.

The author brought his favourite flower camera the Nikon 800 (please seewww.wildflowersyuraygirnationalpark.com) with its new Ikelite housing, but almost from the word go was to have problems with the set up which meant both the main and sub control knobs did not reliably work their respective dials on the camera. The housed D 800 was almost out of action, unless F stop and shutter speed were pre-set before the dive, with flash intensity as the only variable that could be controlled. Canon has a feature on their camera where under Menu it is possible to adjust the controls electronically, which would be a real asset in this situation. I previously had this problem with the D 80 housing, but solved it by glue-ing wet and dry sand paper to the black washer on the wheel inside the camera, so tighter contact is made with the command dial on the camera, but I do not think this is what the designers had in mind. To cap it off, the housing leaked on the second night dive. Fortunately the camera itself was not damaged and has responded, so far, to wiping down with medical alcohol pads, and drying off gently with a hair dryer, but the electronics board of the housing was out of action and the housing will be going back to Ikelite in the US. Cause of leak, unknown. I was able to get back into business with my older Nikon 7000 in its Ikelite housing but remain disappointed that I was not able to fully put the 800 to test on later two thirds of the trip, especially at that time I had acquired some valuable pointers from Herge and others to improve my photography. I have flooded an Ikelite housing previously in the Solomon Islands, and on this occasion also it was with the 105 mm macro port, but on that occasion I think that a flash O-ring was mistakenly used in place of the correct port O-ring. Not so on this occasion, as the O-rings are now all placed in their respective zip lock bags. Ikelite has responded well in the past to repair of a near new housing; I hope they do so again under warranty. Since I housed my first digital camera, the D 80 several years ago, I have been a Ikelite fan. I like the clear material and the Ikelite housings are fairly robust, but I would comment that too many controls go through the housing for features that are not going to be used underwater. I have suggested that they allow their customers to custom order a housing with which bits they want. Do any readers have any contacts at Ikelite that actually listen to their customers? I would also comment that it must be possible to insulate or waterproof the electronics board in case of flood as once water impacts the board it fails, and this is the point where the system is most vulnerable as other thru-hull fittings are mechanical and can be replaced. Flooding generally is less common with alloy housings; it not only is an expensive business, but can ruin the trip if you are not able to take pictures. I have been encouraged by my dive buddies whilst consoling myself with a few Bintangs after these experiences to move into alloy housings, which will also entail new ports, new flash arms, and Sea and Sea YS 250 flashes (about A$1,000 each). So as the cameras have become more expensive, perhaps this is the way to go. Work also needs be done to find a harder material than the Ikelite Plexiglas for the optical front of the ports, which now after several years of tough love are scratched. Anyone interested in some second hand housings at a bargain basement price?

April 2. Captain moved the boat to another site around Gam Island near mangroves for two dive sites, Mayhem and Citrus Reef. Mayhem is great for fish, and I hung off my reef-hook as the current built. Many Fusiliers, Jacks, Golden Trevally “Gnathanodon specious” , and Yellow Goatfish “Mulloidichthys martinicus” were swirling around. This a a high voltage dive site. I photographed around a coral clad rock pinnacle, three feeding Lionfish “Pterois volitans”, and many Indonesian Glassfish. Citrus reef is located in a channel between Yanggefo and Gam. It is home of some of the best soft corals, Barracuda, Emperor “Pomacanthus imperator” and Blue Angelfish “Pomacanthus semicirculatus”. Start deep on northern side, and swim with current, working gradually inshore. We did two dives on Citrus Ridge, which I particularly enjoyed for the soft corals, in citrusy orange colours. In between formal dives take your part tank, or just snorkel, with your camera and wide angle lens in the fringing mangroves, searching for colourful subjects like the red soft corals, and enjoy this splendid place for split shot photographs.

April 3, was our second to last full day of diving. We steamed at night, or perhaps in the early morning it was so quiet, and enjoyed a sunrise at Blue Magic. This day we dived three sites, Blue Magic, Sardine, and Mikes Point. The Soldierfish “Holocentridae sp. ” schooled up in secluded nooks and crannies, often with a photogenic backdrop of soft corals.

Citrus Ridge

Sardine. GPS S 00 32 066 E 130 42 977. Here you can tell by the latitude that we were just below the Equatorial Line, and could have received a visit from the Good King Neptune at any time. Sardine is one of the premier Dampier Strait dive sites with plenty of fish; and on our dives, more plank-tonic water. The further north we travelled the less viz we enjoyed. When Max Ammer discovered the site he thought the schooling fish were sardines, but sardines are not found on this site. Fish action increased with current and there were many Blue and Gold Fusiliers “Caesio caerulaurea”. We dived at Mioskon which lies in Dampier Strait south of Kabui Bay near an island with a white sand beach, Kerupiar Island. During WWII US forces surveying the Dampier Strait from the air thought that Kerupiar Island looked like a camouflaged Japanese ship, so they bombed it. Topside, half of the island is blown away. We dived off Mike’s Point, named after Max Ammer’s son. There are great bombies on south side and we think these are chunks of rock that were blown off the island by the bombing, and around these areas are gardens of the Purple Soft Corals well known in the northern Raja waters, and large schools of Redfin Anthias “Pseudanthias dispar” Our sharp eyed guide found what he called a “Hippocampus pontohi” resplendent in golden colours. This type of Pygmy Seahorse is free living and not associated with sea fans. After some research it would appear our new seahorse could in fact be a Severn’s species, which have gold, red, and brown colours, whereas the “H. pontohi” are predominately white with yellow or pink patches. Late afternoon, we went ashore for drinks on Kerupiar Island, and a group photograph. All enjoyed the lingering and radiant orange equatorial sunset.

On the last day, it was reverie at 04:45 for the hardened “Survivors” undertaking a commando-style hike up to see the Red Bird of Paradise in the early morning with the sunrise. With our local guides, two very fit blokes, we trooped up a rocky track to the summit, then sat quietly watching the mating ritual of these lovely birds in the high forest canopy. David Attenborough did a fabulous show on these magnificent birds; I have also seen them caged at the Port Moresby Zoo, but the Red Bird of Paradise “Paradisaea rubra” looks stunning in the wild, and we saw the elongated train of glossy red feathers in the tail of the male as he sported with complex mating rituals high above. Also occurring in this area of Raja Ampat is Wilson’s Bird of Paradise “Cicinnurus respublica”. Overhead, we heard the call and just caught a fleeting glimpse of the Papuan Hornbill “Rhyticeros plicatus” . We paused to photograph the lovely view from our mountain vantage point (see gallery) enjoying the ethereal calm of the morning. As we hiked back to the boat I photographed the only flower of the trip, an exophytic orchid.

Our last dive was at Kri Point. I joined our best spotter, and we went looking for macro treasures. We found a range of Pygmy seahorses “Hippocampus bargibanti and H. denisi”, a tiny orange “Acoel” flat worm, which I had never see before, living on Leather Coral “Sarcophyton sp.”; an unknown crab possibly a type of Porcelain crab; as well as the near translucent pearly-blue Tunicate, known as the Sapphire Tunicate, “Perophora namei”. I was stoked to have enjoyed these macro treasures and many colourful, lovely wide angle subjects during our dive trip on “Indo Siren”. Even though we had been diving for now some 8 days, on the last dive, Raja Ampat still continued to impress and amaze with the diversity of its marine creatures. I have booked for 2015 and can’t wait to go back. This is a resilient and prolific marine environment which if given the chance to recover will do so. Despite the best efforts of the forces for conservation, there is still much to do to ensure protection of this exquisite paradise for future generations.

Three books were excellent source material. “Diving Indonesia’s Raja Ampat, the Planet’s most Bio diverse Reefs”, by Burt Jones and Maurine Shimlock, Saritaksu Editions Bali, and Conservation International, 2009. “Diving Indonesia’s Bird’s Head Seascape”, Burt Jones and Maurine Shimlock with Dr, Mark Erdmann and Dr. Gerald Allen; Saritaksu Editions, Bali in cooperation with Conservation International, Indonesia. “The Raja Ampat through the Lens of (multiple photographers), Conservation International, 2009, and the Raja Ampat Research and Conservation Centre, Tien Wah Press, Singapore.

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