Raja Ampat (Northern and Central), Indonesia

Looking out over "Little Wayag"

King of Wonders

With Mark’s mom safely on board and all the provisions stowed away, we headed north to begin our exploration in the underwater world of Raja Ampat.  If you are a scuba diver, you have likely heard about this group of islands and seen fascinating photos in diving magazines.  This area is world renowned for its vibrant reefs and amazing sea life, and we couldn’t wait to check it out.  In all, we spent 3 months in the Raja Ampat waters, with sights and experiences that could comprise an entire book, but for now, let’s dive in and look at some of our favorite field trips through this spectacular archipelago.

Climbing the craggly Wayag Staircase
From Sorong, we sailed directly to the northernmost island group to Wayag.  The mushroom-shaped outcroppings were reminiscent of our time in Fulaga, Fiji, and the turquoise waters surrounding them is what makes Wayag so picturesque.  One afternoon, we hiked up one of the jagged rock faces with spears of limestone jutting up from the nearly vertical path.  This hike is called the Wayag Staircase, however, a staircase it is not… not even remotely.  At times, we were grasping tree roots with one hand, holding onto a spike of limestone with the other while desperately trying to find any flat surface that would provide a toe-hold.  To say the climb was precarious is putting it lightly, but we all (including Nana!) managed to reach the summit un-impaled.  The view was unbelievable.  It’s no wonder that this very view has become the poster child for Raja Ampat, found on postcards, magazines, websites and brochures.  None of them, however, capture the 360 degree magnificence of this place.  I found myself not wanting to leave the summit.  I’m not sure if that’s because the view was so amazing or the thought of descending this ‘staircase’ was so horrifying!  Oh well, what goes up must come down and we all did… safely.

The view from the summit made the precarious climb worth it!!

Sarasvati anemone shrimp (photo by Matt on SV Perry)

A few days after we arrived, our friends on SV Perry showed up and it was time to do some diving!  Throughout our time in Raja Ampat, it was so reassuring (and fun!) to dive with Matt and Jen.  It just provided that extra sense of security to have two dinghies along instead of one.  There were a few instances when fuel lines broke or other unpredictable things happened that would have been very hard to handle with only one dinghy there.  Safety aside, though, It was simply a lot of fun to have other eyes searching for sea creatures and macro reef critters, capturing what we were seeing through another camera lens.  Matt has a sweet camera setup with super zoom, which beautifully captured the intricate details of what we saw.

Anchored and stern tied in Wayag, kids could swim to the beach!
For the next month, the two boats hopped from island to island, diving as we went, kids snorkeling and playing on every beach we could find, and boat school somehow managing to plug along despite all the distractions.  As the kids have gotten older, they have become more autonomous with their schooling.  We still do an hour or two of their learning together, but then they separate to do subjects that don’t require my explicit guidance or instruction.  Of course, some days they need a bit more guidance, but there are days I am able to join Mark for an hour-long dive while they progress in their assignments in the morning.  Nana even helped out being dinghy driver or substitute teacher when we needed her, which came in very handy!

Mark’s mom, Mariellen, has come out to visit on the boat a few times now.  So, she knows what to expect and has figured out how to jump aboard and seamlessly join the crew.  This time, she became a student, as well, getting refreshed on her basic scuba skills and even learning how to drive the dinghy and paddle board!  Go, Nana, Go!  Elizabeth stepped right up into the role of teacher, and gained confidence as she led her grandma on a dive by herself and taught her the ins and outs of driving an outboard motor.

Three generations diving together!  Mark, Mariellen, and Elizabeth

Kitted up and ready to go!
We also had another guest aboard for a few weeks, a dear friend of mine who had recently stepped off her catamaran and joined the landlubbers in Australia.  I met Kerry years ago during our time in Fiji, and since then we’ve found ourselves sharing time together in New Zealand and Vanuatu.  She has become a precious sailing sister of mine, and I was thrilled when she emailed to say she’d be in Indonesia while we were here!  Plans came together, and we met her in Waisai as she stepped off the ferry from Sarong.  With two extra women on board, poor Mark and Michael were outnumbered, but they took it all in stride.  I was loving all the estrogen in the air and relished the conversations together out on deck watching the sunset.  My social time in Solomons and PNG had been scarce (except for our sweet friends on SV Perry!  So glad we were buddy boating, Jen!) and I was looking forward to having more ladies around.  I had taken a quick trip home while in the Solomons just to fill up on girl time and family time, but my cup was on empty once again.  The timing could not have been more perfect!

Watercolor 101 with Kerry
Kerry enjoys diving and photography, so Elizabeth was happy to have her as a dive partner, too.  In the evenings, we all gathered around our laptops, looking at the day’s photos and learning a bit about editing.  Elizabeth was able to share some of her photos, too, and loved being included in the conversations and collaboration.  Kerry took some time to sit down with the kids for art lessons one afternoon!  Nothing like having private lessons from such a skilled artist and photographer!  This is one of my favorite things about boat schooling around the world - learning from experts in their field about something for which they are passionate!  I am so thankful when people we know or even people we’ve just met are willing to take the time to share their knowledge and expertise with us, from cooking to fish identification to jewelry making to music making!!  Every person we meet brings new and exciting lessons to be learned.

Lawson explaining how pearls are formed
One of our favorite lessons in Raja Ampat was from Lawson at the pearl farm he manages.  Not only did the farm’s main jetty offer some of the best snorkeling we’d ever seen, but Lawson offered an informative seminar about seeding, growing, and harvesting pearls.  (During the seminar, we actually also met a couple who was visiting on a live aboard dive boat from Colorado!  Suddenly the world felt really small!) Lawson came to be a good friend while we were there.  He and the guys did an evening fishing trip and then he came over for coffee the following morning.  We all loved hearing the stories he had to tell about shark and crocodile encounters he’d had while working on oyster farms in northern Australia!

During all our time in Raja Ampat, we did not see one crocodile, although they are said to live in the mangroves that line some of the islands.  Divers have reportedly been attacked in certain areas, so we steered well clear of those.  In the end, there were no scary croc encounters for us to tell about, but there were many amazing animal sightings during our time there.  I have never seen such interesting and intricate sea life before - bright blooms of magenta and orange soft coral, sea fans wider than I am tall, tiny nudibranchs, bizarre wobbegong sharks, and giant manta rays.  Each dive was unique and extravagant.  We experienced swift currents, steep walls, swim-through arches, submerged sea mounts, sheer rocky outcroppings, stacked boulders, gentle slopes of sand, and some walls with coral overhangs jutting out over our heads up near the surface.

Wobbegong shark gliding by to check us out (photo by Kerry)

Raja Ampat is truly the best diving I’ve ever seen, and we were so glad we’d put a compressor on board prior to arriving.  This addition has literally opened us up to diving opportunities we wouldn’t have had otherwise.  We can do two or three dives a day and fill up our own tanks, making us a completely self-sufficient dive live aboard.  Too bad we don’t have housekeeping and a cook on board like the huge phinisis that catered to the diving tourists visiting in droves to dive these iconic waters.  In Sarong, we’d been surrounded by the wooden schooners, even getting the chance to walk around one of the most luxurious ones, the Mutiara Laut.  These boats do three to four dives a day with dive guides and a full crew who prep all the guests’ dive gear and ferry them around to the best dive spots.

On the Field Trip Live Aboard, we are the crew.  Mark had his hands full with five divers.  He ran around refilling tanks, loading them into the dinghy, driving the dinghy, helping all us ladies get geared up, leading the dives, and then undoing and redoing it all when we returned to the boat.  We all pitched in as much as we could, but he carried the brunt of the workload.  Thankfully, diving in these gorgeous places was all the payment he required. :)

Ready to dive!  (Our Buff headscarfs keep hair
from tangling in our masks - we don't dive without them!)
Raja Ampat, translates as Four Kings, and fittingly so, as it is considered The Crown Jewel of tropical marine biodiversity.  The archipelago consists of over 1,500 bits of land protruding from the Coral Triangle.  Within this ‘triangle’ which stretches from Malaysia north to the Philippines and as far east as the Solomon Islands, scientists have found 76% of all known coral species in the world even through it only covers 1.6% of the earth’s oceanic waters.  Once underwater, it’s like we went through a portal into a fantastical world of vibrant color seascapes housing creatures beyond our imaginations.

During every dive in the Four Kings, I found myself in awe of the One King who had created such a kaleidoscope of wonders and hidden it where it would take mankind hundreds and thousands of years to ever discover.  I couldn’t help but feel like I had a front row seat beside the artist Himself as He revealed His majesty and glory in each and every stroke.

Kubaryana's Nembrotha nudibranch
(Photo by Elizabeth)

Psalm 104:24-25 New International Version (NIV)
24  How many are your works, Lord!
    In wisdom you made them all;
    the earth is full of your creatures.

25 There is the sea, vast and spacious,
    teeming with creatures beyond number—
    living things both large and small.

Wayag - Raja Ampat, Indonesia from Mark Silversetin on Vimeo.


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