This was kind of a special charter. Most of the liveaboards only spend September-April in the Raja Ampat area. This is because of the less than favorable wind and sea conditions during the summer months. Most head south to work the waters around Komodo, South Sulawesi and Bali. This was the first leg of Dewi Nusantara's transit south and took us from Sorong (gateway to Raja Ampat) to Ambon (gateway to the Banda Sea area). Here's my rough approximation of the route we took:
View DN Course Track in a larger map
After an overnight transit from Sorong, we spent 6 days diving the area to the southeast of Misool (one of the "four kings" or "raja ampat") and were treated to beathtking reefs rich with both hard and soft corals along with tons of critters. We then took a long transit south to dive off the island of Koon, on the east side of Seram. We were greeted by strong currents and sandy patches filled with frogfish, robust ghost pipefish and leaf scorpionfish.
After only two dives, it was time to head out again. 16 hours straight west to a location called Nusa Laut on the southern coast of Seram. First dive of the day, we were greeted by an eagle ray, a hammerhead shark and just as we were getting picked up by the tenders...a dugong zipped by a couple of times. I thought it was a dolphin. I didn't know these relatives of manatees could swim so fast!
Our last two days of diving comprised muck diving in Ambon Harbor. Black sand, murky water, junk and lots of strange and cool critters.
I’m back in civilization (Jakarta) at a hotel with real internet..Yay! I just spent 12 days on the Dewi Nusantara (formerly the Paradise Dancer). Probably the most luxurious liveaboard dive boat I’ve ever traveled on. Some fun facts for the sailors…she is a 180ft long wooden-hulled, three-masted, American-style schooner with a beam of 37 ft. The hull is made of ironwood, she displaces 800 tons and she is rock-solid in the water. When the boat was commissioned in 2007, the owner specifically didn’t want his flagship to be of the Indonesian Pinisi-style most every other liveaboard in the region adopted.
Unfortunately (or fortunately for those with landlubber stomachs), the winds were either too light or in our face, so we never put up the canvas. This was, after all, a diving charter..not a sailing charter..and we were on a schedule. The lack of wind made for an incredibly smooth trip and all the diving went off without a hitch.
I first laid eyes on her during my week at Raja4Divers, when our paths crossed near Fam Island. First impression from the beach:
But up close…wow…she’s just gorgeous.
I’ll give the sailboat enthusiasts a moment to wipe the drool off their keyboards….
When I was shown my bungalow at Raja4Divers Resort on Pulau Pef, I was surprised to find that my “shower” for the week was going to be a little…different.
Its called a Mandi. This is what Papuans consider a shower. A water repository and a giant ladle. At first, I was a bit disappointed. Hot showers are a simple pleasure to me. However, I came to enjoy the mandi. This one is quite luxurious, with hot and cold taps. What I experienced in Klasuat…was quite different. A bucket of cold well water, a ladle and a private corner of the village bathroom.
Never did a real, hot shower feel so good as when I returned to the hotel in Sorong. The hotel in Sorong is called the JE Meridien, with the “JE” in script that looks suspiciously like “Le”. There is also a Mariat hotel in town. Its like an alternate universe in Star Trek.
After another great meal served by my hosts (in candlelight because the villages supply of gasoline for the generator had run out the night before), we settled down for sleep (me under the mosquito net). I slowly fell asleep. I’m getting too old to sleep on hard surfaces!
And then it rained…Hard…REAL HARD! The way it only rains in the tropics where the heavens open up and there is nothing but sheets of water in the sky. With a tin roof…its quite deafening. By the next morning, the road was pure mud and we decided to head back to town early in order to give ourselves plenty of time.
Never was I happier to be sitting in a tricked out Mitsubishi 4x4 with a damn good driver. Particularly those moments when the car was sideways, sliding downhill on wet clay.
Here’s Hans and Eskul, the driver and assistant:
I had a great time in Klasuat. I think the government of the Sorong Regency have a wonderful opportunity here. Klasuat has a beautiful display tree for the Lesser Birds of Paradise very close to Sorong City, the gateway used by most tourists for diving the Raja Ampat. With a little investment in infrastructure, particularly the road and a formal homestay facility in Klasuat, this would provide an attractive reason for tourists to spend an extra day or so in the area. As it stands right now, one needs to be a bit adventurous to experience this…which is unfortunate. The birds are a 3 minute hike from the road.
The primary reason for coming specifically to Klasuat Village is its proximity to Sorong City (about an hour and a half) and that just 1km (that’s 0.6 of a mile to us ‘merikuns)outside of town there’s this tree where anywhere from 3 to 6 Lesser Birds of Paradise gather every morning and evening to sing and do their dance. I didn’t shoot any video, so you’ll have to re-watch Planet Earth to see what a BoP dance is all about. Now believe me…these suckers are waaay high in the tree and my neck is still sore! Also, even though I shot these pics with a 400mm lens, I still had to crop the heck out of them in Photoshop to get these closeups (thank you Canon 5dMkII megapixels!).
This is what I did for two mornings and evenings (that’s my lens he’s using):
And here he is..the lesser bird of paradise:
I get picked up at 2pm on Sunday (after church) and behold my ride into the wilderness, a tricked out 4x4 Mitsubishi pickup truck which came with a driver and driver’s assistant. With my guide, Rudie, that makes four of us..a bit more crowded than I anticipated. However, I was soon to be VERY thankful for an experienced driver behind the wheel. The road to Klasuat..well..sucks. It’s a rutted out dirt road that gets extremely muddy and slick when it rains, which is…always!
A couple of shots of the village:
I stayed in the second home on the right. My hosts, Barry and Rachel cleared the living room floor for Rudie and I to sleep on a mat and I was able to set up my mosquito net. I likened the experience to backwoods camping…with a tin roof over your head. Here’s a shot of the village church:
This is Lawrence, the head of the village, and his three children:
The hospitality of the village was incredible. They cooked up vegetables and rice for our meals, guided us to the birds and were just generally nice company.
They’re picking me up in a couple of hours to go to the Dewi Nusantara. It will be quite a contrast from my accommodations the last few days. Sometimes its easy to forget that the luxury resorts and boats established to accommodate tourists are not “reality”, but purely a fantasy world established to attract spoiled westerners to a naturally beautiful place that we like to call “paradise.” It represents a much harsher reality for those who live here.
Its important that we come, share our fascination with the vistas and creatures the locals would otherwise exploit and take for granted and spend our excess cash. Otherwise, nothing logically keeps the villager from chopping down a bird of paradise display tree for cooking wood or throwing a stick of dynamite onto a reef to feed his village.
This place is raw. With little commercialization in terms of tourism. Its part of what makes Papua and Raja Ampat unique. Stunning natural beauty with minimal tourist density. However, I think that if we are to “protect” the natural beauty of this place, unfortunately, more tourist commercialization must occur. It just doesn’t contribute broadly enough to the well-being of the locals right now.
Anyway, I’ll have a few “auto-posts” going up while I’m on the boat. Some bird pics and scenes from the village. Otherwise…see ya in 12 days!
Sigh…heading back to Sorong.
I’ll post a detailed trip report once I get back. In summary, my week on Pulau Pef was fantastic and I couldn’t have asked for a better opening chapter to my time in Indonesia. The resort was beautiful, with luxurious bungalows and excellent facilities. The dive operations were well run with a really nice camera room. And the food was fantastic.
But wait….just when I thought the aquatic surprises were behind us…
There’s nothing like the frustration when you get in the water with a wideangle lens and spot a rare, small subject like this ghost pipefish. I tried to get a shot:
It’s the yellow/brown thingy in the bottom-right (head down, tail up).
But I got over it. Because the reason we were at this site was…mantas!
While I’ve seen the occasional, manta-shaped shadow far, far away, this was my first up close and personal encounter. There were about 6-7 of them and they were magnificent.
Often during there a dive there is a lull between subjects. This is a great time to sit back and look at the “big picture” and just enjoy the activity on the reef all around you. But sometimes, I like to take close-up shots that highlight some of the textures and colors of the reef. I like to call these “wallpaper” photos:
Sometimes someone is mugging for the camera:
After spending the last day in Sorong (or “so wrong” to some).
I’m off to the jungle for a 2 days. Hopefully I come back with some cool bird/wildlife shots. I've set some more diving posts to upload automatically over the next couple of days.
In this part of the world, pygmy seahorses are one of the great joys of diving. But they are almost always found on sea fans that are known to house pygmies by knowedgeable guides with keen eyes My eyes are not so keen, but nevertheless, I FOUND ONE! On a random sea fan. A half inch of perfect camouflage.
I think I’ll name it George.
I feel I might have bruised my guide’s ego by finding George on a fan that he only glanced at. Every sea fan on each subsequent dive was inspected thoroughly!
Sorry for the gap…I was busy diving and relaxing
Beyond the sheer diversity of critters to be seen in Raja Ampat, the reefs are just incredibly vibrant and beautiful. My photos cannot even begin to reflect just how breathtaking and awe inspiring these reefscapes are. Every dive just takes your breath away with the variety of hard and soft corals. Its an explosion of color and fish that my photographs can barely represent. This place is not immune from the problems seen in other poverty-stricken areas of the world such as dynamite and cyanide fishing (in fact, one of the dive boats heard a nearby explosion one day), but the current momentum in the region is towards preservation of the reefs versus unsustainable exploitation. Also, an increasing volume of dive operations and liveaboards makes such illegal activities more difficult to execute anonymously.
This photo provides a taste of both color and fish life on just about every dive site, and this is just a sponge!
In fact the small bait fish can be a bit of a nuisance. Take, for example, my attempt to photograph this sleeping Wobbegong Shark. Even when you shoo them away, by the time you get the camera up to your face, they’re back in the way!
Below are some more reef photos
Woke up to blue skies (its been overcast) and gin clear water. Gonna be a great day for diving. Check it out…
The routine here is two boat dives in the morning and one in the afternoon. So off we go!
Still had the macro lens on the camera, but the reefs are so incredibly lush, I’m jonesing to get the wide angle lens set up. Probably tomorrow.
Critters after the continuation…
After our warm greeting, we were shown to our bungalows. There are only seven on the island, so its very quiet except for the waves breaking on the shore and the morning wakeup call from every bird on the island. I’m the only American in the group this week. Everyone else is either Swiss or German. so I’m dredging up my high school german lessons (on top of trying to pick up some Bahasa Indonesian to speak with the staff). I took this picture of the resort upon arriving. My bungalow is second to last on the left.
First couple of dives are on the resort’s excellent house reef and a the next reef over. To start off the week, I’m going with my macro lens (which means lots of photos of little things). Look who I found:
More pictures after the break:
My version of the movie “Planes, Trains and Automobiles”.
Jakarta to Raja Ampat. One of the factors that makes this region so revered in the minds of adventurous divers is the sheer difficulty in getting there coupled with unforgettable diving. It took a full day to get here from Jakarta, starting with a 3:30am wake up call to catch the flight to Sorong.
I dreaded the flight, but the Express Air plane, though an older 737, was fine. My only beef was with the 20kg checked luggage limit (mine weighed in at 41kg). But in a world where every most U.S. airline charges for checked bags…the $50 I paid was a bargain. More importantly…they didn’t weigh the carry-ons…filled with 30kg of my precious camera gear! They even fed us…twice! Take that United!
We were met at the Sorong airport by the folks from Raja4Divers, handed over our baggage claim checks and loaded into taxis. Here’s where it got interesting. My cab:
Love Bug racing stripes, bodykit front bumper, #46 decal and incredibly…sponsored by Playboy! NASCAR in Indonesia. This guy was a real player. Check out the interior:
What attention to detail! I did notice a couple of flaws though..
Note the bald tire and missing lug nut. And the guy was hot wiring the car to start the engine (BTW…this vehicle was in much better shape than many taxis I saw in the airport parking lot). Oh well, it was only a quick jaunt to the harbor to catch our waiting speedboat for the three hour ride to Pulau Pef island. Here she is:
Now, she may look humble…but looks can be deceiving. It had all the necessities: luxurious cabin, meal service:
And even a head!
OK, its not very private and it gets a little breezy since its on the bow, but it technically meets my mom’s criteria for a boat she’s willing to get on!.
All joking aside..the boat was propelled by brand new twin-150hp outboards and it was every inch a speedboat. The narrow design actually made for a very comfortable ride, even in choppy seas and the cabin kept us dry when it rained. Three hours later, we were met by local musicians and given coconuts with straws in them...heaven. Finally, after three days of travel…I’m on vacation!
They may look silly, but the hoards of Asian travelers I saw in every airport wearing surgical masks may be on to something. After 36 hours of thrashing my circadian rhythm in planes and far-flung airports…I’m sniffling. An annoyance, but not a big deal. What else can I share (besides my germs)? Beijing’s international terminal is a cavernous, beautiful…mall. Bangkok’s international terminal is a well-appointed…mall. However, as I was dealing with an eight hour layover in the middle of the night, I was very grateful for the availability of sleeping quarters within the terminal. The overpriced bed and shower were worth every penny after nearly 24 hours of travel!
Because I’m catching a 5am flight tomorrow morning and traffic in Jakarta is legendary, I’ve chosen to spend my first couple of nights in Indonesia at the Jakarta Airport Hotel, directly above the terminal in order to keep my wake-up call to a reasonable 3:30am. The room is quite nice, but the internet is horrendous. Therefore…no pictures yet.
To get through the jetlag and to keep from being tempted by my bed, the hotel hooked me up with a 6 hour private city tour of Jakarta which consisted mostly of sitting in traffic while being chauffeured around town by a driver/guide with an English vocabulary of around 30 words. Despite the linguistic challenges that I failed to alleviate with a handy translation app for my phone, it was an enjoyable time. I kept offering bounties on scooters, but our car just wasn’t quick enough. Got in some history (the Dutch tried to make this the Amsterdam of the Indies by building the city on a swamp…predictably most died of malaria), shopping, sightseeing and scam-dodging…fun times.
Note to self…don’t forget deodorant again! Its hard beating back the hordes of hijab-wearing ladies at the airport because the only replacement product I could find was Axe bodyspray. I never suspected the commercials would be accurate…I just wish it would have happened when I was visiting a more scantily-clad culture
Because this is a last second trip taken on airline miles, the flights are…interesting.
To get to Jakarta, I will go O’Hare – Beijing – Bangkok – Jakarta on three different airlines and then I’ll go home through Tokyo on yet another airline. From Jakarta, I will cross Indonesia on local airlines to reach Sorong. The logistics are daunting…there’s basically a week of travel time in the itinerary.
But the destination will be worth it…Raja Ampat, the richest, most diverse tropical marine environment on earth. The heart of the “coral triangle”, this area encompasses an area the size of Kansas in the north west corner of the island of New Guinea.
The trip will consist of three stages:
The resort has “broadband” satellite internet, so I will try to post photos and update the blog on a daily basis through that stage and after the jungle trek. Once I’m on the boat, I’ll go radio silent for about 12 days.
Sooo...I haven't posted anything over the last couple of years. Did you miss me? Why didn't I blog my trips since Costa Rica? Well it was a combination of work obligations and desperately needing my vacation time to relax and spend time with my diving buddies, rather than sitting in a dark room in front of a laptop composing blog posts.
What did I fail to share with you? Unfortunately...Galapagos, Palau, Chuuk, Belize, Utila plus a few more Great Lakes wreck dives. I'm working on getting those slideshows up on the left sidebar shortly.
I'm updating links, slideshows and the look of the site. Why?
Well, I now have some free time and will shortly be heading out on my own to the Raja Ampat area of Indonesia for a month-long photo/diving excursion. Most avid divers know where this is and have it high on the bucket list. For those who don't...I'll post more on the details later.
The whitetips are hunting....anything. Pack hunting by the whitetip reef sharks is a sight to behold. They remind one of a pack of wild dogs, except without the social structure. This is purely opportunistic and its every shark for himself! The pics aren't great, because the sharks kick up a bunch of sand when they hunt. Oh, they didn't let us night dive the site where this happens for the first half of the trip because this also happens to be the dive site where the tigers had taken up residence and the divemasters didn't want us in the water at night with the tigers.
Every dive is so focused on the "big action" (i.e. sharks) that its sometimes easy to ignore the other wildlife in these very rich waters. I think the other fish get used to being ignored, because I had them swimming right in my face sometimes. Like this guy, who nearly bumped into my camera as I was waiting for hammerheads:
Normally, there are hundreds of marbled stingrays swimming about the Cocos sites, but they were making themselves scarce during our week. I wonder of the tiger sharks had anything to do with it (they love eating stingrays).
So after a couple of days swimming with the tigers, it was time for some hammerhead action. Scalloped hammerheads gather into schools and come into Cocos for one reason, to get cleaned by the little barber fish. Hammerheads get easily spooked by divers' bubbles, so the technique to get good photos or videos as follows:
Find a cleaning station....get close, but not too close...wedge yourself between a couple of rocks....every time a hammerhead comes in, hold your breath a hope he gets close enough for a shot before you pass out. The second you exhale, it will bolt away.
Did I mention you need to do this in a current/surge with the bottom littered with sea urchins? They call it a "Cocos tattoo" and most of us got nailed once or twice (right through the wetsuit). Hurts like hell right when it happens, but the pain fades through the course of the dive and a little vinegar spritz when your back on the boat helps dissolve the spines over a day or two.
Anyway.....hammer time! Its an awesome sight when they do the initial flyby:
And if you hold your breath long enough, you may get one to come in real close:
So after a pretty smooth 35 hour crossing from Puntarenas to Cocos Island, we prepared to do a checkout dive on the shallow side of Manuelita Island. Almost every dive charter begins with one of these dives to help the divers get the kinks out and make sure everything is OK. These dives are almost universally shallow and generally boring.
We take the short boat ride out to Manuelita and as I'm getting into my gear one of the divemasters calls out "tigre!" A tiger shark in Cocos! That's when I realized that divers are probably the only people in the world who jump INTO the water when someone yells "shark". You never saw a group of people suit up so quickly to get in the water. Now, unless they are baited or chummed-in, tiger sharks are usually very skittish and will swim off as soon as the first divers enter the water, so I wasn't expecting to see it. As I slid in, much to my surprise, there wasn't one tiger shark, but THREE! Here's a shot of a pair.
So we spread out, settled in on the bottom (25ft) and enjoyed the show. And they DID get close.....
Next dive, there were SEVEN in the water. The divemasters were giddy. They had never seen tiger sharks in Cocos waters before......and now there were seven! The sharks stuck around for two days and we got four dives in with them. It was a truly special time.....particularly because they weren't baited in or fed. More pics after the continuation.
On our way back to San Jose from La Selva, we asked the driver to pull over so we could get some photos of the scenery along the road. I zeroed in on a little waterfall beside the road so I could play with the tripod and some long exposures. This is what I got:
That's what happens when a giant orange tour bus passes in front of the camera during a long exposure. Pretty cool huh?
I'm in the beautiful country of Costa Rica to dive Cocos Island from the Undersea Hunter. Given the itinerary, I've got an extra day on the front end to do a little ecotourism. We've chosen to go to La Selva Biological Station, mostly because it is an active research center and quite a different ecosystem (tropical rainforest) than what we will experience in the mountains at the end of the trip (more on that later). Jesus was it hot and steamy. I grew up in New Orleans, I thought I knew hot and humid, but I have never experienced it like THIS! [.....that's why they call it the rainforest, dumbass!]. We were guided by a naturalist from the park who was instrumental in teaching us about the various flora and fauna. Some pics
Red dart frogs
More pics after the continuation
The Shinkoku Maru is considered one of the "must dive" sites of the lagoon. The Shinkoku lists an illustrious career record, including supporting the attacks on Pearl Harbor, Rabaul, Ambon and Midway. The ship was torpedoed and sank late on February 19, 1944. This 500ft oil tanker offers divers every possible wreck diving experience, Beautiful coral growth, interesting subjects on the deck, easily penetrated superstructure and more challenging dives inside the wreck. We spent most of a day on her.
On the stern, there is an auxiliary helm telegraph used for docking. Today, an anemone and some anemonefish call it home.
Over the years, the Trukkese dive guides have made a habit of bringing certain interesting items onto the deck to create little displays of artifacts. This is great for more inexperienced divers with no intention of entering the shipwrecks of Truk, but does create greater temptation for thieves and also expose the items to faster deterioration. Here's a display of a first aid kit (see the red cross) with some random bottles placed in it:
More after the continuation: