Diving Indonesia’s Raja Ampat Aboard the Archipelago Adventurer II:

It Makes One Feel Like A King

Dear Fellow Diver:

Within an hour of arriving in Ambon I was whisked from Maluku Divers new resort on the outskirts of the harbor to the Adventurer II and into one of this area’s famous muck dives.  Called Air Manis (aka the Fishing Factory), it’s a fishing boat pier loaded with strange and amusing marine creatures.

Observing a beaky dragon sea moth waddling on its winged pectoral fins, a pair of harlequin shrimp dragging away a sea urchin, a variable neon slug with a red-orange margin so intense it seems to have its own power source, and the alien-appearing Ambon scorpionfish in plush gray, I knew I’d arrived at a world-class diving destination.

Met at the Ambon airport by AAII crew, it was the last time I schlepped, kept track of, rinsed, cleaned or dried my gear during the 10-day itinerary from Ambon to Sorong. Within half an hour I was onboard the lovely traditional Indonesian two-masted schooner, 35 meters of rich, lustrous teak and mahogany, that in yesteryear could have appropriately flown the skull and crossbones. Its sails are only raised for show, or when the craft’s single screw stops turning.

The spotlessly clean craft is tended by 22 (count ‘em, 22) pleasant, courteous and hardworking crew who keep things running like an upmarket Swiss watch. Even with our full of complement of 18 hand-picked Americans, dive and meal schedules went smoothly. My buddy and I much enjoyed a larger than typical live aboard cabin with its tiled shower, three windows (no portholes here) and individually controlled AC that could bring the temp down to 65F, a blessing given the relentless equatorial heat and humidity. And by the time I had completed my first dive each day, my cabin was clean and fresh sheets and towels in place.

On the negative side, a number of the cabins leaked water during the episodic heavy rains; happily mine was not among them. However, this is not unexpected in a wooden boat, and the crew did manage to get most of the leaks under control quickly.

The boat’s major domo, Dan, fresh in from the hospitality industry in Orlando, is a relaxed and funny, diligent and obliging chap of 25 who easily could be mistaken for an instructor at a skateboard park – pull a wallie, dude. 

Each diver has an assigned seat with a storage box underneath. At the end of each dive, I found a clean, dry towel (with my cabin number on it) waiting. We dove from an assigned, zippy and unsinkable aluminum skiff, one of two holding 9 divers each. There is no dive deck or dive ladder on the main craft. The skiffs were not crowded, even with a full complement of divers and crew. Tanks were AL80s, although they can provide a few oversized tanks upon request. Our entire group dove nitrox, and the boat’s membrane system makes for quick and precise fills. 

The DMs allowed our group as much diver freedom as was consistent with safe recreational diving and scheduling requirements.  Being mostly very experienced, and head-strong photographers, the members of our group pretty much went their own way at a dive site. I never felt intruded upon or “mother-henned.” The assistance I received donning and doffing my gear was almost embarrassing. I was helped in and out of my wetsuit, which between dives was spirited way for rinsing in a mild and divine smelling detergent and returned dry and inoffensive.
It’s hard to imagine how the crew could have been more accommodating. After boarding following a particularly scenic dive, one of our photographers realized that her card memory card had become corrupted and couldn’t meaningfully retrieve images.  The DM immediately offered to take just her back to the site and let her shoot again, and she took him up on it.  It’s hard to beat that for service.

While on the topic of photogs, the AAII is especially well equipped for them, with not only dedicated rinse tanks and an outside camera storage shelf with a safety net over it, but an entire dedicated AC room with individual tables for cleaning and fiddling with photo gear.  The space also has power outlets, battery chargers and a flat screen TV that can be used for showing the day’s captures.

I don’t know why it’s named My Reef, but I’m willing to claim it. Dascyllus are in a territorial humbug over a small piece of table coral, an ornate wobbegong shark lazes on the reef like a tatty Persian carpet, elongated juvenile spadefish spin in graceful circles, and curious estuarine halfbeaks hang out above them all. At Neptune’s Sea Fan, I am mesmerized by flocks of flitting, feeding, feuding anthias that punctuated the reef with splashes of lavender, orange, peach and violet. A school of humphead parrotfish in the 3-4 ft range, with foreheads looking like the finish on a poorly maintained used car, allow an unusually close approach.

With calm seas, water temps in the 84-86F range, vis from 40-80+ feet and on balance no need to go deeper than 40-50’, conditions for doing the customary 4 dives a day across my 10 days were nearly ideal. I was, however, disappointed by the ever-present swarms of floating plastic trash, particularly bags, although Ambon Harbor was by far the worst.

The Raja Ampat diver will want to keep the currents in mind. While the boat endeavors to select sites and times that minimize exposure, and most sites have a protected side, currents can get ripping and seem to change directions rapidly and capriciously. I wouldn’t recommend this region for the seriously unfit. And on the matter of diver fitness and health, Ambon Harbor serves as a sewerage system and city dump, and divers commonly develop external ear infections, and swollen lymph nodes, after spending time in it. (Take appropriate diving ear hygiene measures and bring along a bottle of Ciprodex®Otic or the like.)

Know that picture on the front of Jones and Shimlock’s Diving Indonesia's Raja Ampat?  It’s Boo Rock, a site that definitely rocks with fabulous soft corals in rainbow hues.  The “windows” in the rock formation make a boffo u/w frame for photos. This is not to mention the tangled throngs of tropicals drawn to this lush and interesting site. And at nearby Boo Cape, I experience both wonder and vertigo at the seemingly endless, opposing rivers of yellowtail, bluestreak and lunar fusiliers, midnight snappers and smalltooth emperors.  I also spot many small, frilly Chinese dragon nudis in powder blue and white, as well as an impossibly hirsute orangutan crab.

DM’s Made (pronounced ma-day) and Bram (short for Abraham) were unflaggingly cheerful and worked hard to point out a plethora of creatures I otherwise most surely would have overlooked.  Not the least among them marvelously camouflaged crinoid shrimp; spindly sea spiders; robust and ornate pipefishes hanging snout down and motionless (“You can’t see us”); and tiny, cheerleader-like pom-pom crabs waving even tinier white anemones in their claws. But, the Most Magnificently Minuscule Award goes to the always darling pigmy seahorses hiding in sea fans I can barely see even with my magnifying glass.

The DMs also were fun loving topside and below. On one dive a DM stealthily placed a crinoid on the dive beanie of another and it was hilarious to watch him unknowingly fin about sporting the creature like a plume.

Between dives the food is plentiful, a toothsome mix of Indonesian and “Asian fusion” cuisine that regularly alternated between fish, crustaceans, chicken and meat. A variety of chili-based sauces (sambals) could be added to spice things up and I am particularly fond of those made with fruit and at the upper end of the “Heat Index.”  Breakfast possibilities include eggs any style, plain or over fried noodles or rice, French toast and Indonesian fish or chicken “porridge.” Most meals include fresh fruit and breads baked onboard. A variety of canned soft drinks are available for the taking. All alcoholic drinks are on the honor system, with a Bintang beer $3.50 and mixed drinks $6.50. A measured glass of modest quality red or white wine is an outrageous $11.50.  Imported alcoholic beverages reportedly are taxed at 300%, but even so this wine price must violate some international maritime piracy law.

Soberly finning along Melissa’s Garden at 60’, as pretty and pristine as sites get, I am treated to meadows and cascading plateaus of table and other hard corals flecked with crinoids in a kaleidoscopic array of yellows, teals, blacks and whites, and deep burgundies.  Stands of acropora coral, some tipped in powder blue, others in pink, are home to schools of chromis that dart above, and juvenile domino damsels that pop in and out as if driven by a steam calliope. Sheltering underneath are pairs of pennant bannerfish turning slowly in the water like obtuse triangles suspended on a thread. Against this delicacy and detail, a massive humphead wrasse casts a wary eye my way as it lumbers past, and Oriental sweetlips with kissers that could suck a golf ball through a keyhole rest in the garden’s shade. The scene makes me feel extraordinary privileged to be a diver.

At Batanta, along a shallow and featureless black sand slope, I have the great good fortune of watching the elusive wonderpus forage along the bottom. Compact and sleek, its rich brown-reddish color and crisp white markings stand out starkly against the dark sand, and its Latin name, Wunderpus photogenicus, strikes me as spot on. Also in evidence are pugnacious, Martian-like tiger mantis shrimp obsessively tiding their already immaculate abodes.

My final dives finish with a bang at a site called Manta Sandy, where the four kings of Raja Ampat see fit to parade their stately marine cavalry in an up close and personal fashion.  I dove it twice in succession and both times the first manta showed up within 10 minutes or less.  They do lazy loops over the coral heads as various and sundry cleaner fish assiduously ply their trade.  As I kneel in the sand, one animal repeatedly passes over me at arm’s length – a veritable manta lap dance.  Between rays, the site offers gardens of spotted garden eels and barred shrimp gobies standing guard while commensal blind shrimp partners tirelessly push detritus from their joint burrow.   
Overall, I’d rate the AAII as the best boat I’ve done to date, and Raja Ampat diving truly is magical and unique. Sadly, there now are about 20 ops diving this national marine park, and as many as 10 at one time have been observed off Misool Island. While this was the only location where I saw other dive boats (3, to be exact), it was the off-season.  Like so many other exotic “hot spot” destinations, best to dive it sooner rather than later.   

Raja Ampat Diving
Diving (experienced)     *****
Diving (inexperienced)    ****
Accommodations            ****
Service & Attitude         *****
Ambiance                     *****
Food                              ****
Snorkeling                  Basically none
Money’s Worth               **** 1/2

* = Poor     ***** = Excellent
(World Scale)

Diver’s Compass:  Archipelago Adventurer II; website: http://www.archipelago-fleet.com; email: info@archipelago-fleet.com … various itineraries depending on season (the Sorong/Ambon Raja Ampat trips typically run from  to mid-October to early April) … double occupancy, $400/night … flights to Ambon available from various Indonesia airports, including Jakarta and Bali … Visa & MC accepted, but cash (preferably Rupiah; currently $US1=~ $R9,100 ) preferred for tipping … full line of rental gear … well-stocked first-aid cabinet and lots of O2 … nearest recompression chamber in Sulawesi; also chambers in Jakarta and Darwin, OZ … March air temps about 90F days/75F nights (both with a higher Heat Index); it’s the start of the rainy season so expect at least passing showers (or heavier) daily and somewhat reduced vis.

© Doc Vikingo Undercurrent - June 2010. Reprinted with the permission of Undercurrent. 


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