Batfish


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THE START OF THE LAST LEG OF OUR JOURNEY to the worlds richest reefs proved less than auspicious. Collected by a decidedly third-world taxi from the small airport at Sorong in West Papua, we were delivered to a rickety jetty that seemed to be surrounded by vessels in a variety of forms of abandonment and decay, some lying on their sides in the sludge left by a receding tide.
Here we transferred to a tired and elderly water-taxi boat for the last part of our trip. I noted that it appeared to have no radio, navigation lights or navigation equipment. A local Papuan sat and constantly tended the two rusty outboards that powered it. The acrid smell of benzene pervaded the air.
But how will you find the way I asked our coxn.
You see those islands He pointed in the failing light. We go past them and then go straight on.
His method of navigation seemed somewhat naive, but after an anxious 75 miles at full tilt in total darkness, and fortunately without breakdowns, we arrived at Kri Island. Welcome to the third world way!
At the eastern extremity of the Indonesian archipelago lies West Papua, formerly known as Irianjaya. To the north-west of this land mass lies the separate archipelago of Raja Ampat. This includes up to 1000 islands, and only many miles of Pacific Ocean separates them from the next landfall, Palau, a great deal further north.
It takes around a day from Manado in North Sulawesi by plane and boat to get there, but its where you can find what is probably the last example of pristine coral reefs in the world.
Locals make a living fishing from outrigger canoes with an unlikely assortment of small engines pressed into service and adapted for the purpose. There are a few tiny villages, but not much else.

Mahogany timbers
Kri Island has two resorts. The original site (called Kri) is an eco-resort with basic huts, beds with mosquito nets, local-style kitchen and fairly primitive toilet facilities.
The new resort at nearby Sorido Bay is still being built. At the time of writing it could accommodate only six people in three modern, fully serviced bungalows.
Its not really a building site in the sense that we would normally understand, because it is being built as far as possible using locally sourced materials and methods.
The mahogany timbers are machined on site, and even the bricks are made on the island. I noted the use of vines to tie the roof timbers. Seventy or so Papuans are employed on this project, the brainchild of Dutchman Max Ammer. Max once had a workshop in Holland where he renovated vintage Harley-Davidson and Indian motorbikes.
One day his neighbour told him how, stationed in the Dutch East Indies at the end of the Pacific war, he had witnessed the Americans bulldozing new Jeeps into a ravine because they were surplus to requirements.
Max bought a plane ticket and was on his way the next day. There then followed a long period of recovering the parts from wartime vehicles for sale to enthusiasts and collectors worldwide.
During this time he fell in love with the country, and was soon diving in search of wrecked warplanes, too.
He started his eco-resort at Kri 14 years ago with the highest ideals, employing the locals and using local materials. Its main attraction was to birders and divers. The new luxury venture simply bows to the demand from many of us to enjoy the sort of facilities we tend to take for granted in the modern world, although it must be said that during my stay the Kri eco-resort was full, and I was one of only three guests at Sorido.
The location is decidedly tropical.
A mating pair of cockatoos cackled in the trees above the airy dining room each day, monitor lizards lingered in the trees, and an enormous white beetle with antennae around 15cm across defiantly blocked the mahogany walkway one night. Evidently snakes were not an uncommon sight, though I did not encounter one during my stay.
The bigger islands of Raja Ampat are volcanic, but some are pretty rock islands similar to those for which Palau is famous. Is it worth the extra couple of days added to your holiday after staying in Manado to dive the water that squeezes between these islands Well its not for beginners, thats for sure!
Kri is a favourite location of underwater photographers Larry and Denise Tackett. Dr Gerald Allen, a well-known ichthyologist, made a record count of 283 fish species on the Cape Kri reef, the home reef. And Dr Jen Veron, a respected hard coral specialist, counted 400 of the 465 known species of coral in the world - at a single site.

Burn the skin
In 2001 the Nature Conservancy, the World Wildlife Fund and Conservation International decided that Raja Ampat was the site of the worlds richest coral reefs. However, its not like diving in an aquarium. Visibility can vary from OK to poor, the light can be very gloomy at times, and strong tidal currents are a feature of every dive.
The weather drenches you in Raja Ampat. You are drenched in tropical sun. At times it can be so hot that walking on the planks of the jetty will burn the skin off your feet and turn your heart to a prune.
On the other hand, it can rain so heavily that you are drenched through your wetsuit and your tan is washed off your skin. The wind can get up so that a waxy calm sea is turned into an angry maelstrom.
It can get so gloomy and dark that you think night has fallen. And all that can happen within the time-frame of a single dive.
Currents depend on the tides. The glassy surface of the sea swirls with whirlpools and explodes where there are overfalls and rips.
Drop in at the current point where the flow meets the reef and you can be deceived into thinking the current has stopped, but as you move along the reef it gradually picks up speed until you are flying - unless you hook in and tie yourself off. A few hours later, its going the other way.
Two essential tools of any divers here are a reef hook and a surface marker flag. Using a hook can be difficult, because the living coral is so densely packed at times that it can be difficult to find firm substrate. Gloves, normally frowned upon, are allowed, but you must be circumspect about what you grab onto. The water is warm, but I would recommend a full-length wetsuit to save abrasions or irritating encounters with stinging hydroids and man-eating plankton.
After one dive I sat in the boat, moored in the lee of a small island, peeling and eating a local snake fruit. Each time I threw a piece of peel in the water, I made a personal bet with myself as to which direction it would take. I was never right.
Under water, at times it was so thick with fish of every kind that it was hard to see through them. These were not fish schooling neatly but a haphazard bouillabaisse darting and dashing in every direction. There was everything from hungry Spanish mackerel and tuna, looking for a suitable victim, to barracuda, trevallies and evil-looking black jacks hunting the algae-eaters.
There were massed surgeonfish and red-tooth triggerfish. I spotted several different sub-species of sweetlips, fish that seem happy to keep company together despite their differing stripes and dots, and of course there were plenty of ubiquitous blue-striped and other snapper bunched closely together.
Like the hunters, the photographers eye gets confused, and sometimes I had trouble selecting a suitable target.
Macro photographers will spot all the tiny creatures for which Indonesian diving is famous, but that in a way is missing the point.
I tried to record the vibrancy of the reef with wide views, but it was not always easy thanks to poor viz or gloomy light, or the untidy arrangement of my subjects.
As far as larger animals go, all the usual suspects were present but I suppose the wobbegong or carpet shark has to be the star of this show. We often saw more than one of these strange large animals on a single dive. I would be in the process of photographing one when a second would swim past my head!
They tend to lie still for hours at a time, camouflaged by their complex patterned skin and the frilly forward edge of their heads. The biggest of ambush predators, they make frogfish look a little harmless by comparison.
Raja Ampat is getting famous for reliable manta ray encounters, but we visited the cleaning station known to be frequented by them several times to no avail. It seems you cant have it all in the space of a week!
Some of the dives we did were long and quite tiring, as they involved a lot of hard work in the finning department. Some of the boat rides to the sites were lengthy too, but we always looked forward to the next one.
One dive site known as the Passage is getting an international reputation. The water flows between two islands and the effect is river-like. Unusually, you can see gorgonian sea fans here growing within a few feet of the surface. If you are lucky to enjoy bright sunshine during your dive you can see the rainforest through the surface.
It makes an unusual background.My favourites remained Mikes Point (named after Maxs son) and Sardines, simply for their sheer quantity and variety of marine life. But then I love fish. I love to see the sweetlips piled up in groups, or batfish hovering around the colourful corals and sponges.
Theres something for every diver whos capable of taking on the conditions. I am ready to believe that Raja Ampat hosts the richest reefs in the world.

THE TASSELLED WOBBEGONG
vspace=5 Up to 3m in length or even more when fully grown, an ornately spotted tasselled wobbegong, or carpet shark, lies in wait at Raja Ampat. The ultimate ambush predator, it has frilly wormlike projections around its mouth that
it uses to suck prey towards its razor-sharp teeth. Although not normally aggressive, wobbegongs have been implicated in many attacks on divers, probably after being interfered with. A wobbegongs placid nature can be deceptive and it is best left alone where it lies, under rocky overhangs and among the corals. The tasselled wobbegong is a tropical species found in Australian waters and among the coastal reefs of the South Pacific.
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The view from Sorido Bay

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locals arrive for work at Sorido Bay by outrigger canoe

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the jetty at the Kri Eco resort

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giant clam

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The golden glow of schooling snapper

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soft corals flourish in the flow of nutrients

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the Papuan dive boat crew

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water-taxis waiting to journey back to Sorong

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Jack hunting around vibrant coloured corals

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Sweetlips at the manicurists shop

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Surgeonfish

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FACTFILE

GETTING THERE: John Bantin travelled with Singapore Airlines to Singapore, by SilkAir to Manado (North Sulawesi) and on to Sorong (West Papua) with Wings Air (LionAir).
DIVING: Inclusive with Kri Eco and Sorido Bay resorts, www.papua-diving.com
WHEN TO GO: Any time
MONEY: Indonesian rupiah but only US dollars accepted at Kri
COSTS: Seven days at Kri Eco Resort costs £750 per person (based on two sharing) including 20 dives. The same at Sorido Bay costs £1200. Transfer package to Sorong including hotel accommodation, dinner & breakfast, £35. We suggest tagging a trip to Raja Ampat onto a trip to North Sulawesi - a return air ticket from Manado to Sorong costs around £130, or Eco-Divers can supply a seven-day package for550 (www.eco-divers.com). A typical trip from the UK to North Sulawesi costs1200 approx including full-board accommodation at the Tasik Ria Hotel and six days diving with Eco-Divers. ATOL bonded operators offering a la carte packages to Kri from the UK include Aquatours, 0870 423288; Dive Worldwide, 0845 1306980; and Explorers Tours, 0845 6447090.
HEALTH: Malaria risk in Raja Ampat - Malarone recommended.
FURTHER INFORMATION: www.tourismindonesia.com