With over six-hundred islands spread out over fifteen-thousand square miles, Raja Ampat it an ideal destination for liveaboard diving. Don’t get me wrong, diving from the resorts is great—especially for those who aren’t so comfortable on boats. You’ll be able to really spend some quality time in that particular region, not to mention enjoy the space and non-rocking terrain. However, if you really want to explore the many different regions of this iconic destination, a liveaboard is the way to go.
With a few exceptions, most of the liveaboards in Raja Ampat—or Indonesia for that matter—are constructed in the typical Indonesian style sailing ship known as a phinisi. The easiest way to describe them is to say they look like a pirate ship. A sleek, glamorous pirate ship with onboard masseuses, nitrox, and a regular cocktail hour. The phinisis are generally constructed of teak or iron wood so they are built solid. The fine hardwood not only provides a solid hull, but it also creates a very pleasing and romantic atmosphere onboard. Phinisi’s are typically much larger than the steel boats, most with a length over thirty meters and a width generally over seven meters. This translates to large cabins and public spaces as well as designated camera rooms and gear-up stations.
Raja Ampat is broken up into several regions, with each region offering a different style of reef, marine life, and topside landscape. In the south, known as Misool, the horizon is dotted with the small karst islands while the in the north and central the islands are much larger and more habitable.
Since the islands are typically much smaller in Misool, the dive site’s are smaller as well. That doesn’t reflect in any way to the quality of diving by any means, it just means that all the coral and marine life are concentrated in one are. Diving in Misool is probably the closest you could get to diving in an aquarium. It’s how you imagined what diving would be like before you ever started diving. Full-full-full of life. The reefs are made up of a variety of soft corals, sponges, and layers upon layers of sea fans. Where fish are concerned, each site seems to have it’s on shoal of fusileers as well as some resident schools of batfish, jacks, and barracudas. It also happens to be one of the few places in the world where you can see both the giant oceanic mantas as well as the smaller-but still giant-reef mantas.
The central and northern sites—Pianemu and Dampier straight—also offer spectacular diving, and in terms of the dive sites a bit more varied. Unlike Misool where you have a small island that you spend your time swimming around, the north offers more submerged pinnacles, fringing reefs, drift dives, and of course the famous mangroves, as well as a few manta cleaning stations. The coral reefs are generally made up of hard coral plateaus on top that slope down on either side with scattered bommies where sea fans and soft coral colonies can be found. As far as fish life is concerned, it’s a similar story as the south—lots of them! It’s also on these sites around Pianemu and the Dampeir straight where you have a better chance of finding the iconic tasseled wobbegong shark. They can be found in Missool, just not as often and in the multiples you find in the north.
Is it Crowded?
Raja Ampat is very well controlled in terms of how many people can be on a site at a time and who can jump at what time. In Misool, the whole area is regulated so that only one boat can be on a site at a time. The boats talk amongst each other to inform everyone of their plans and then they work around the schedules so everyone gets to dive without any other divers around.
In the north there are more land based operations which are harder to contact and coordinate with, so at times there will be a small day boat with anywhere from 4-10 divers as well. The good thing about the north is that the sites are bigger so you don’t really run into them underwater.
Raja is affected by current, like most places in the world, but this usually isn’t an issue for divers. The tour leaders are well aware of the current-current situation and will plan the dives accordingly. Where currents are expected to be stronger we will generally opt for a site that accommodates a drift style dive. For more mild currents we will either drop on the up current side of the island to catch the big fish action and casually drift to the down current side where we will have the protection from the island. Up and down currents are not really an issue and can easily be avoided. Most of the currents are lateral and will just push us along the reef so no need to fight them.
Raja Ampat is the most bio-diverse marine ecosystem in the world. One reef in Raja will have more species of coral than the entire Caribbean ocean. With that in mind, all these fish and corals need food, and that can—at times—mean less than perfect vis given the abundance of plankton and other food particles in the water. The visibility generally hovers around 15-25 meters which is still very good in my opinion. I always like to make a point of this because a lot of times people expect it to be fifty-plus meter vis like the Caribbean. Of course you can have some weeks and months where the visibility is incredible, it’s just random when it happens and can’t be planned for.
Basically Raja Ampat is a place not to miss. I’ve done several thousands of dives in the area, not to mention dived all over the world, and it’s still by far some of the best all-around diving I’ve ever done, hands down. It’s highly predicable in terms of what you can expect to see, while consistently offering once in a life time surprise encounters with those more elusive sea creatures. Not to mention, cruising by the visually stunning landscapes of Raja on a luxurious vintage-looking sailing vessel is a unique experience on it’s own.