“Can we check out some muck sites?” was a question our dive guide Andi had not expected. It was a completely unexpected question because we were diving the heart of the Coral Triangle at Raja Ampat, an area where everyone comes to admire the magnificent corals and impressive schools offish. Andi nodded his head as he pondered our strange request and replied “if everyone else wants to do some muck, why not.”
Raja Ampat, located in the Indonesian province of West Papua, has the greatest diversity of corals and fishes on the planet and has been a dream destination of ours for many years. We finally got to explore this rich marine ecosystem in May, joining the liveaboard vessel Sea Safari 8 for a ten day itinerary. This 115ft long traditional style Phinisi schooner was the perfect platform to explore this remote region, with comfortable en-suite cabins, a great crew, superb food and plenty of bench space for underwater photographers to tinker with their toys.
Departing the port city of Sorong, we first headed south overnight to the Misool area and from the very first dive we were stunned by the beauty of the reefs and the sheer volume of fish. Like other photographers that have visited this region we stuck with our wide angle lens over the first few days as we explored sea mounts, walls and coral gardens at sites like Candy Store, Andiamo, Karang Bayangan, Boo Window and Four Kings. At each of these sites we found the terrain decorated with gorgonians, whip corals, soft corals, sea whips, black coral trees and sponges. The fish life was even more impressive, not just the variety of fish species, but the dense schools of reef and pelagic fish.
During each dive brief Andi would put a symbol on the whiteboard as a tip for photographic subjects – M from macro and W for wide angle. He could have used a permanent marker as it was always W, but underwater things were a little different. From the first dive Andi was pointing out just as many small critters as big ones. However, with our wide angle lens, and with so many colourful corals and schooling fish to photograph, we simple ignored these macro subjects.
At the end of day three Andi put a W and M on the whiteboard against the dive site Nudi Rock. We were going to stick with the wide angle until Andi mentioned that this is a great spot for Santa Claus pygmy seahorses, a knobbly variation of the Denise's pygmy seahorse we hadn't seen before. It was finally time to put the wide angle away and look at the smaller critters of this area.
IMAGE BELOW - THE SANTA CLAUS PYGMY SEAHORSE
It was actually good to slow down and start looking at the small stuff that we had so far been ignoring. We soon realised that Andi had an encyclopaedic knowledge of local marine life and was pointing out small fish that were endemic to this region. He carried a small slate and was continuously writing down the names of unique dottybacks, damsels and blennies. We would have easily overlooked these species if not for Andi.
Nudi Rock didn’t have many nudibranchs, but what it did have was a smorgasbord of small reef fish. With a passion for fish portraits we were in our element photographing varieties of angelfish, basslets, butterflyfish, blennies and dragonets, including a surprising number of juveniles. Andi also found us a Santa Claus pygmy seahorse, but this one was very shy and near impossible to photograph.
Hoping for some wonderful macro subjects at night, we were a little disappointed by the night life in the Misool area on the sites we dived. Both Camel Rock and Pantai Kecil were wall dives, which can be a little hit and miss at night. We did see sleeping fish, a couple of moray eels and a variety of crabs and shrimps, but nothing really special.
On day four we enjoyed another fabulous macro dive at a site called Anchovy. This was another site where it was a toss up between wide and macro, but we were glad we went with macro as there were nudibranchs, flatworms, dottybacks, blennies, anemonefish, pygmy seahorses and many more small subjects to photograph. It was after this dive we asked about the possibility of some muck diving.
While researching my book Muck Diving, I discovered there were a few good muck sites in Raja Ampat that are rarely visited. Andi was keen, as he and the other dive guides had done little muck diving in the area. And fortunately the other divers, mostly keen photographers, were also happy with this little detour. Andi revised the itinerary so we could spend the next day at Batanta on our way north to the Dampier Strait.
IMAGE BELOW - ORIENTAL SEA ROBIN
Arriving off the southern side of Batanta, it was pretty evident from the black sand beaches that this area was perfect for muck diving. The first dive at Algae Patch 2 was just like being in Lembeh, a slope of dark sand, but unlike Lembeh no rubbish. We quickly found shrimp gobies, nudibranchs, pipefish, dragonets, mantis shrimps, lionfish, waspfish, scorpionfish and a long-arm octopus. Numerous sea pens sprouted from the sand, and some were home to porcelain crabs and commensal shrimps. We also spotted numerous sea anemones populated with panda anemonefish, and most were enthusiastically guarding eggs. Andi also pointed out two endemic species, the Batanta dottyback and a group of lyre-tail fire gobies.
The other muck sites at Bethlehem, Algae Patch 1 and Bethlehem 2 were a mix of sand, rubble and patches of coral gardens. At these sites the muck critters were a little harder to find, with the highlight being the wide variety of small fishes. We found cowfish, jawfish, oriental sea robins, soles, lionfish, grubfish, dottybacks, gobies, damsels, blennies and small angelfish. But the standout were the flasher wrasses.
Andi had attempted to point out these colourful fish at a few sites in Misool, but with so much coral and fish about they didn’t standout from the crowd. But in this muck environment it was much easier to observe these small fish. At first these fish didn’t look much different from other wrasse, that was until we witnessed the males fanning out their fins to flash their brilliant colours. These colourful fish were much too fast for our cameras, so we gave up on photography and simply watching the performance.
The muck dives at Batanta were very enjoyable, and while we didn’t see as many critters as other famous muck sites, we could see the potential for the area. Andi also informed us that there are other good muck sites on the northern side of the island.
IMAGE BELOW - AN INCREDIBLE VARIETY OF SMALL COLOURFUL REEF FISH ARE FOUND IN RAJA AMPAT
We would have loved to do a night dive at one of these muck sites, but instead we had an overnight trip to reach the Dampier Straight. Over the next four days we had some incredible dives in this area, encountering manta rays at Manta Ridge and Manta Sandy, and some of the greatest concentrations of fish life we have ever seen at Sawandarek Jetty, Cape Kri, Mioskon Island and Blue Magic. The wide angle lens got a real workout in this area, but on all of these dives we could have just as easily gone with a macro lens as these sites were also home to pygmy seahorses, mushroom coral pipefish, ghost pipefish, leaf scorpionfish and a host of other small critters.
We did get the macro lens out on two day dives, finally getting the Santa Claus pygmy seahorse at Keruo Channel and a great collection of juvenile fish at Friwenbonda Reef. But it was the night dives in this area where the macro lens came into its own.
The big difference between the night dives in this area and Misool was rubble, as all the sites we explored had coral rubble for nocturnal critters to hide under. At Galaxy Jetty we found octopus, ghostpipefish, moray eels, hermit crabs, spider crabs and a huge sea hare. While at Friwenbonda Reef it was cuttlefish, slipper lobsters, decorator crabs and several Raja Ampat epaulette sharks. But the best was Yenbuba Jetty.
Exploring the rubble slope in front of the jetty Andi excelled himself when he found a banded toadfish only minutes into the dive. This was the first time we had seen this species, as these shy fish are rarely seen in Asia. Next up was a pair of sea cucumber swimming crabs on a sea cucumber, quickly followed by a reef octopus. Over the seventy minute dive we saw a wonderful array of crustaceans, hunting moray eels and a sleeping hawksbill turtle. Andi ended this magic dive by locating a Halimeda and a robust ghost pipefish hoovering together amongst the rubble and then a pair of Pontoh’s pygmy seahorses.
Our eight days of diving the rich waters of Raja Ampat ended all too quickly. On the sail back to Sorong we reflected on this incredible dive destination and can see why it is a mecca for wide angle photography. However, with a great assortment of smaller critters as well, Raja Ampat is a wonderful destination for all creatures great and small.
IMAGE BELOW - THE ENDEMIC RAJA AMPAT EPAULETTE SHARK
Liveaboards exploring Raja Ampat depart from Sorong. A number of domestic airlines in Indonesia offering daily flights to Sorong from either Jakarta and Bali, most with a stopover in Makassar.
Nationals from most countries are granted a free visa on arrival.
When to go
While it is possible to dive Raja Ampat year round, most liveaboards operate in this region from October to May when the seas are calm.
The water temperature in Raja Ampat varies from 28°C to 30°C, with most divers using a 3mm wetsuit. Currents are common in this area, and dives are planned according to the tides. Visibility can vary from 12m to 30m plus, depending on tides and plankton blooms. Sea Safari Cruises operate a fleet of wonderful liveaboard vessels to all the popular dive destinations in Indonesia.