Lynn, my parents, my sister and I board a Hello Kitty jet in a daze of sleep deprivation and time zone punch-drunkenness, Christmas music playing over the speakers in early March. We’ve already put in solid 12 hours to get to Taipei, where we wandered between themed boarding gates and endless Sony stores. We have a flight to Singapore and three more ahead of us.
The Hello Kitty themed everything starts to sink into our heads as safety instructions are rattled off in other languages, and both Lynn and Lexi go straight for a Hello Kitty barf bag, also eying the Hello Kitty toilet paper.
That was only a small part of the roughly 48 hours of travel time it took to get to Raja Ampat, Indonesia, with three two-hour flights from Singapore to Jakarta to Makassar to Sorong in the middle of the night, preventing any kind of sleep, still to go.
At a hotel in Sorong, we’re too tired to figure out how the patio door closed (like a door, it turned out the next morning), and without even a fighting chance and a few days worth of malaria pills in my system, I’m already covered in mosquito bites.
Then came a boat ride, around two-hours long, sweating, enclosed in a plastic canopy, stinking of fish – a seasickness patch stamped behind my ear.
And it was all worth it.
It’s been my dad’s mission, for the last few years, to find, and get us all to, the best dive location on earth. For him that means the best coral reefs, the most biodiversity, the place, of all places, you’ve got to see before rising sea levels and temperatures take it all away. Go to Netflix right now, and click on the series Planet Earth. You remember, the one with all the mind-blowing footage of wildlife around the globe. Pick the episode titled “Shallow Seas” and after David Attenborough quickly notes the enormity of the Great Barrier Reef, he ushers the viewer to where the real splendor is. Raja Ampat.
Meaning “Four Kings” for four of the major island, the seas, now protected by Indonesia, are thought to be the birth-place of the modern coral reef, and on a bright note, a reef system that seems to be holding up a little better than the rest to coral bleaching in our warming oceans. Called the heart of the coral triangle, it’s home to 1,508 fish species and 537 coral species (more than 70 percent of the species on earth), making it the most biologically rich and diverse reef in the world.
We are greeted by Papuan song and dance as the boat pulled up to the jetty at Papua Explorers Resort, our home for the next 10 days, followed by coconuts with straws protruding from them. A young French man named Arno gives us the rundown – everything from dinner to dive operations, and we take off our shoes for the last time in 10 days.
A soft sand path wanders behind the 15 guest pondoks – thatched huts stilted with dark tropical wood over the warm turquoise ocean, an imposing limestone and jungle wall to the other side. The walk is set to the most musical bird songs I’ve ever heard, and each boardwalk to each room has a small faucet to rinse the sand off your feet before entering.
Lynn and I settle onto the deck of our room, her in a red hammock swinging in the warm tropical breeze, a flat, tranquil straight of blue water between us on the island of Gam and the islands of Pulau Mansuar and Kri across from us. Schools of hundreds of tiny tropical fish leap from the water in a shimmering rainbow arch, hardly disturbing the water with a splash on reentry. I’ve never seen so many fish so keen to take to the air, and that’s not even counting the flying fish.
Over the next 10 days, we would trade that view – in thunderstorms and bright sun, sunrise and sunset, high tide and low – with boat rides around the rich blue straight and beyond to different dive sites, each offering up at least one stunning example of tropical reef that trounces anything I’d seen before.
I’ve been to the Great Barrier Reef, Bunaken in Indonesia, Bonaire, Tobago and Roatan in the Caribbean. This was a whole new world, in the most literal sense possible without leaving the planet.
Hard corals and Doctor Seussian soft corals in every color, schools of fish that form solid walls of flickering metallic light, octopus that instantly change color, texture and shape – not only as camouflage, but when he or she showed us a solid-white strip, must have been trying to tell us something – along with turtles, rays and so much more.
Tiny dolphins play in our bow waves as we move from dive site to dive site. And between dives, we are delivered to pristine white-sand beaches, jetties hanging above the reef, or overlooks with sweeping views of surreal mushroom-shaped tiny islands.
Breakfast, lunch and dinner were at communal tables with fellow divers from Germany, Australia and elsewhere. We got to know the Turkish family that owns the resort – their two amazing children who ate just about every meal with us and told us about growing up in Jakarta, Raja Ampat, and soon, Sydney. A visiting relative from Turkey turned out to be a fellow journalist who loved basketball. While we were there, he’d find out his newspaper had been taken over and dissolved by the government – yet Donald Trump would make ours the country regarded with the most dubiousness while we were there.
The Papuan dive guides and workers play music and sing, and each night we would fall asleep to the sounds of the ocean under our mosquito-netted bed (I think the only mosquito bites I got were in Sorong, didn’t see any at the resort).
We had our challenges – Lynn, as a new diver, took a couple dives to dial in her buoyancy control – occasionally getting to the surface at the end of a dive before she intended to. I was kept out of the water for what at the time was a melancholy two days with an ear infection. But Lynn quickly gained control over her BCD, easily outdoing more experienced divers also at the resort, and I made it back into the water for one last day before we had to leave. And what a day.
Arno knew I was disappointed I’d missed out on Blue Magic, a dive with a lot of current where Lynn and my family saw manta rays. He, a marine biologist who holds ecological preservation above tourist attractions, wouldn’t go for the easy way to see these incredible creatures if it impacted them, but he took us to a cleaning station, where mantas come to have small fish clean them.
When we arrive to find small dive boats from live-aboard ships circling, Arno’s brow furrows. He jumps in the water with mask and snorkel, assessing the scene. Divers are smack-dab in the middle of the cleaning station, risking scaring off the rays for good. He talks with their guides, taking pictures of their boats for follow up, and gives us a strict set of rules for watching mantas at the cleaning station.
We descend to a sandy bottom, staying behind a line of dead coral, and wait. Just as we get ready to give up and swim toward another section of reef, they appear. Like some alien creature, with wingspans of up to 20 feet, they circle and loop in the cleaning station, and we watch with wide eyes. We end up seeing five rays before surfacing.
As the trip came to a close, I scoured my memory of the trip, trying to shore up the fleeting pictures competing for space and blurring in my mind. The boat ride through a narrow passage – like a river between a bay and the open ocean. Lynn’s first night dive at the resort’s reef. The smile and laughter of the Papuan guides as the teased “crocodile! Crocodile!” Or “selfie! Selfie!” The one-foot-tall picturesque island of Arborek and its grinning children. The gestured and multi-lingual conversations with other divers from around the world. The birdsong and sunsets.
Inevitably, we’re on the boat back to Sorong, three flights through the vastness of Indonesia, and back to Singapore, where best-laid plans become plan B become a hotel stay in the red light district. Five flights on two different airlines in each direction and we didn’t lose a checked bag, and the hardest airport experience was reserved for America’s immigration, where we waited almost two hours for our stamps back in.
To sum it up, this place is truly one of the world’s great treasures. If you dive, go there now. As fast as you can. If you don’t dive, learn, then go there. Despite the jet lag, airline food, hot and humid tropical airports and mosquito bites, it’ll be worth it.
Learn From Our Experience
- Take care of travel immunizations early – we were up against the clock on some series of shots that had to be a month apart.
- Quick drying clothes, but nothing fancy – we constantly fought to dry out damp clothing, but don’t overspend just to have it mildew over.
- Don’t forget desiccants for camera housing – Our cameras fogged up often. On another note my Light & Motion Sidekick light for my Gopro was great for photo and video, if only the Gopro itself were as good.
- Reef Safe Sunscreen – Keep your skin nice and pale, but don’t turn the reef white too.
- Be ready for current – Raja Ampat has currents at many dive sites, and resorts or guides will likely issue reef hooks. Buoyancy control is critical.