A look at the underwater life of Indonesia's exclusive islands through a diver's goggles.
While zipping between Raja Ampat’s breathtaking islands and reveling at the turquoise lagoons, one can easily envision dinosaurs roaming this enchanting, sculpted paradise, which earned a place on Fodor’s 2020 Go List.
Raja Ampat, Indonesia, is one of the few places in the world where divers squint to discern rice-sized pygmy seahorses on one dive and are awed by bus-sized whale sharks (the largest fish in the sea) on the next.
Since four flights are typically required to reach this captivating corner of the world, considered the apex for scuba diving, the area has remained relatively untouched and pristine.
INSIDER TIPFrom the United States, plan for 50 hours of travel to reach these remote islands, often including an overnight stay in Bali or Jakarta to catch a red-eye flight to Sorong via Makassar.
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Plunging beneath the water, technicolor scenes explode from every surface. Eagle-eyed guides search for minuscule pygmy seahorses clinging to sea fans with prehensile tails. Perfectly camouflaged, these shy critters adopt their host fans’ colors and textures, morphing to pink, yellow, or purple. Look closely and you might see a protruding belly, indicating a pregnant male seahorse (yep, you read that right), with up to 2,000 microscopic replicas in his pouch.
INSIDER TIPGiven how sensitive pygmy seahorses are, refrain from touching, shining bright lights, or taking pictures with a flash to minimize stress.
Whale Sharks Feeding at the Surface
In certain areas of Raja Ampat, fishermen and whale sharks have a symbiotic relationship. Crafty juveniles have discovered that fishermen collect baitfish in the nets hanging beneath their fishing platforms (known as bagans). To deter the hungry leviathans from surreptitiously sucking the fish from the nets, the fishermen satiate them with food at the surface or trick them by dunking buckets and creating bubbles that the whale sharks gobble up like Pac-Man.
Scuba Diving with Whale Sharks
While one can snorkel with whale sharks in the Philippines, Maldives, and Mozambique, Raja Ampat provides a unique opportunity to scuba dive with them. Given the guaranteed food supply, they are a captive audience under the bagans, circling about for hours. In other locations, interactions are much more fleeting, lasting only a few minutes as they consume plankton at the surface and motor away. You’ll be riveted as these gentle giants cruise by with determined remoras (suckerfish) hitching a ride and consuming parasites on the whale sharks’ skin.
The Epitome of Biodiversity
With seven designated Marine Protected Areas spanning across 600 islands, Raja Ampat is considered one of the most biodiverse areas in the world. Boasting 500+ coral types and 1400+ fish species, divers and snorkelers will find their heads on a constant swivel, delighting at the endless life canvassing the underwater landscape in this world-class diving destination. Since Pacific and Indian Ocean currents supply nutrients to the region, its inhabitants eat well and prosper.
INSIDER TIPThe Misool Eco Resort has championed conservation in the area and provides a central location from which to explore.
Bashful pygmy cuttlefish, measuring only two inches long, dance next to crinoids and coral along sandy bottoms, adapting their skin color and mimicking their surroundings to escape detection. Watching their ruffled edges flutter and their tentacles search for food in a rhythmic salsa enthralls those lucky enough to observe them.
Nudibranchs (sea slugs) are one of Mother Nature’s most delightful and artistic creations. Given that 3,000 different types exist, seeing at least 30 variations in Raja Ampat is common. Since they move very slowly, it’s easy to observe and photograph their varied behaviors—laying eggs, feeding on coral, or rearing up like this one.
Due to the currents pumping through Raja Ampat, impressive water clarity (sometimes exceeding 150 feet), allows divers to feast on stunning spectacles. With such transparency, divers might give themselves whiplash as they spin around searching for the next opulent landscape or swarming bait ball. Glancing upwards while circling bejeweled pinnacles makes people feel as if they can touch the zodiac boats bobbing on the surface 100 feet above.
Raja Ampat is one of the few areas of the world to behold Wobbegong sharks. Although these tasseled, spotted creatures measure five to six feet, their intricate camouflage makes them extraordinarily elusive as they perch beneath the ledges. This also serves these snappy dressers well for their sneak attacks on prey that don’t recognize their splendid mosaic.
Adept at shape shifting, this curious cephalopod typically ventures out at night to hunt. Watching as one tentacle creeps out of a hole and tentatively feels around before launching itself out of a snug crevice into the open is quite hilarious.
INSIDER TIPDon’t tempt them with your GoPro as these inquisitive critters have been known to snatch them and flee.
Seeing a clownfish leads most people to think of Disney’s Finding Nemo. Dwelling amongst sea anemones treacherous tentacles, these brave defenders are immensely protective of their hosts and the 1,000 eggs they may have laid. Witnessing them peeping out and circling above their home and offspring to deter interlopers is common.
Given its location, Raja Ampat is one of the few places in the world where you can see both reef and oceanic manta rays. While reef mantas average ten feet across, oceanic mantas’ wingspans can be 25 feet. These ethereal creatures are frequently spotted feeding just beneath the surface or roaming amongst the cleaning stations, investigating divers as they deftly maneuver past.