IT MUST BE THE ULTIMATE ambush predator. It lies patiently, flat on a big coral head or under an overhang, imitating the surface upon which it lies. It doesnt bother to cover itself with sand or hide among the details of a reef. It lies blatantly waiting to pounce, to snap, to grab.
Only its tail, coiled like a spring, reveals that there might be an instant of intense action, a flurry of activity, when a fish goes missing from its school, paying the price for swimming too close to that coral-mimicking tasselled mouth.
The actions over in a moment, and all is calm again on the reef.
I saw both big tasselled wobbegongs and smaller ones. Also called carpet sharks, they seemed to be everywhere. They can grow up to 2m in length and quite large fish fall victim to the ambush.
On one occasion I watched for a long time as a school of big-eye snapper cruised, innocently unaware, in the danger zone of a wobbegong that was lying out in the open.
However, my patience was outlived by this natural fish-trap. Only a gradual tightening of its tail spring revealed that the wobbegong was a conscious animal about to leap and grab when the right moment came, and send another animal into the oblivion of its gut. It didnt happen while I watched.
The wobbegongs not in any hurry.
It knows it has time on its side. Marauding jacks or grey reef sharks may dash in with a frenzied attack but the wobbegong lies stealthily motionless until its moment arrives.
Because carpet sharks are not accustomed to being noticed by other wildlife, let alone being the victim of a predatory attack, they are susceptible to interference by a knowledgeable diver.
On more than one occasion, Onke, our Papuan dive-guide, would gently drag one by its pectoral fin out from under an overhang to give me a better chance of a good photograph.
In each case the animal would resist for a moment but then would settle down where it was released, no harm done, and almost oblivious to our presence.
Bearing no grudge for being disturbed, every animal would continue doing its impression of a rug. I was always aware, however, that each wobbegong possesses a big mouth full
of teeth, and always kept my camera at arms length in front of me as I went in for the close-up.

WHILE BRITAIN WAS ENJOYING an unprecedented white-out this winter past, Big Jim and I headed for the holy grail for divers, a steamy equatorial archipelago north of the western tip of West Papua, part of the big island that is shared between what was formerly known as Irianjaya and PNG.
Big Jim is a travel operator who specialises in a la carte dive trips, but is particular in that he only sells what he has personally experienced.
This was something of an educational trip for him. I had been to the area around four years previously, when there had been few dive operations present. Since then, it appears that every liveaboard in Indonesia is beating a path to the region.
So how do you get there Make the long and arduous journey to Manado via Singapore, then go for broke by flying ever onwards and eastwards to Sorong, a third-world town so wrong they named it right.
This is the jumping-off point for the islands, the biggest four of which earned themselves the name the Four Kingdoms, or Raja Ampat.
We chose to travel from Sorong on Seahorse, a beamy Sulawesi-built pinisi-rigged schooner, 33m long, built and completed in 2004.
In photographs she appears majestic, though in reality shes already looking a little tired, but she does the job.
There were some initial snags. For example, the regions equatorial weather swings between skin-crisping glaring sunshine to gloom equivalent to a solar eclipse, with drenching downpours of Biblical proportions.
When the latter happens, surface visibility is reduced to a few hundred metres, and neoprene-clad divers, sweating from the sunshine, are left to shiver on the foredeck.
It can change from one extreme to the other within the space of a few minutes.
Things got worse. On the second night on board, I suffered a deluge through the ceiling of my cabin. It was as if someone had chucked a bucket of cold water over my head while I was sleeping. It certainly woke me with a start.
I had already been supplied with extra blankets, because our air-conditioning unit refused to be adjusted to anything warmer than cold-store levels. It was so cold that I thought Rocky Balboa might come in at any moment and start punching our bodies in mistake for chilled sides of beef.
A blocked drain on the deck above proved to have caused the leak, but that morning I got more rainwater through the light fitting in our en suite bathroom than through the puny shower-head.
This is how I got my unenviable reputation for cabin-hopping - but then, I got to meet some new friends, too!

SEAHORSE CARRIES UP TO 16 passengers. As there were only 12 on board, I had plenty of options.
Every passenger was interesting in his or her own right. Raja Ampat is an esoteric destination, after all.
Besides Big Jim and I, Americans included an environmental scientist, a lawyer and an engineer. There was a Frenchman allergic to cheese, and his computer-savvy American lady friend; a youngish couple from Chicago who had sold their business and were wintering in Asia on the cheap; two Italians who had their own dive centre on the Tuscan coast, and the little South African self-styled Shark Warrior who flaunted herself clad only in a minimal bikini. I wasnt complaining.
So what about the diving Last time I visited the area, I was shore-based at Sorido Bay on Kri Island. The feature I produced was entitled Rich Beyond Compare, because Dr Gerald Allen, a well-known ichthyologist, had recently made a record count of 283 fish species on the Cape Kri reef, the home reef, while Dr Jen Veron, a respected hard coral specialist, counted 400 of the 465 known species of coral in the world - at a single site.
Today Triton Bay, also in Raja Ampat, vies for the title, so our expectation of great diving was as evident as our jet lag.

THIS TIME, TRAVELLING BY LIVEABOARD, we were able to cover a much larger area and get as far south as Misool Island.
We visited dive sites at Batanta and Wai islands, and around Fam. We even had a chance to visit the recently built Misool Eco Resort, with its English and Swedish-American owners in attendance.
While having dinner there, we counted 17 baby blacktip sharks in the shallow waters of its little bay and were informed by some guests that they were enjoying the best diving of their lives.
One divers best may not be anothers. Around the immediate area we enjoyed sites with masses of different coloured gorgonia with more pygmy seahorse than a primary school has nits, but not really anything to make the heart stop.
Pygmy seahorses are charming if minute creatures when you first discover them in the close-up lens of your camera, but once you see them en masse they become a lot less interesting.
I took to endlessly photographing hard corals adorned with colourful crinoids and underwater seascapes violently coloured with flourishing soft corals. It was pretty, but it wasnt high-voltage diving by any means.
I should explain about the region and its eco-system. This is not the place to find gin-clear water like the Red Seas, for example. The seas are rich with life, and this includes the whole food chain, starting with the tiniest planktonic life-forms.
The water is a rich soup; so rich in fact that one should be ever careful to avoid skin abrasions and breaks in the epidermis that can lead to infection.
Its best to rinse ones ears with clean fresh water assiduously after every dive. Poor visibility and overcast weather can conspire to make photography difficult too, so underwater photographers tend to concentrate mainly on macro or close-focus wide-angle shots.
We were disappointed that we spent the first day doing muck dives that were not nearly as productive of subjects as the ones in Lembeh Strait, a location we had all passed close to on the journey to Sorong.
I got some nice shots of cuttlefish and nudibranchs, but nothing that was extra special. The massed sea-fans of Whale Rock, Nudi Rock and Small Rock were spectacular on first encounter but became a little repetitive when we found ourselves there for a second day.

TWO RIBS AND A LARGE ALUMINIUM ANNEXE boat are used to provide surface cover for the dives and to transport divers back to the Seahorse after they surfaced, as and when needed. That proved useful when I allowed myself to be swept off Nudi Rock and found myself surfacing next to Small Rock.
Strong fabric carrier bags are provided for transporting underwater camera-rigs securely to and from the main vessel.
On one dive, I devoted a lot of time to a big octopus that decided to pose for my camera, displaying its full repertoire of colours and textures. The occasional encounter with a hawksbill turtle or juvenile batfish broke the monotony
of dives that were exciting for pygmy seahorse enthusiasts but a little samey for those of us who can only see such creatures with the aid of a magnifying macro camera.
Big Jim and I amused ourselves by competing to see who could take the best shot of a clownfish or false clownfish in its anemone. We often took to clowning around ourselves during these dives. In fact we could have been accused of horsing about, too!
This southern part of Raja Ampat obviously had neither big animals nor the vast numbers of fish Id witnessed on my previous visit further north. In fact, we got to see fish in any quantity only once we got up to Farondi and Boo Rocks, where we were able to replicate the cover shot of the guide-book while other divers swam through a rock arch.
We also swam into a cavern crowded with densely shoaling deep-bodied fusiliers, their yellow tails contrasting with their predominantly silvery blue bodies. A crocodilefish sat looking a little embarrassed to be discovered on the stony floor.
Eventually, the Seahorse made its way northwards. A day was spent at Citrus Reef, where the roots of the bluewater mangroves provide nurseries for various fry and shelter for crowds of orbiculate cardinalfish.
Unusually, gorgonia grow close to the surface, which made for some unusual pictures. We were ever-conscious of the fact that a diver had recently been attacked by a saltwater crocodile lurking in such a habitat (Crocodile Attack!, January) and it kept us on edge and always looking over our shoulders.
The attacked diver had managed to escape the animals grasp by gouging out one of its eyes. We may have reflected the fear of Captain Hook, but there was no ticking of any swallowed alarm clock to warn us of the approach of the one-eyed spectre.
Saltwater crocs are the largest, most aggressive of all the species. Keen to see an animal bigger than any wed seen so far, I drew the line at an encounter with one of these living dinosaurs.
Finally, we made it up to the Dampier Strait between Waigeo Island and West Papua, and dives at classic sites such as the reefs at Cape Kri and Mikes Point. For me, this represented the real Raja Ampat diving.
I saw more fish under the jetty while pausing to visit Sorido Bay Resort on Kri than Id seen at most sites further south. The Strait is where currents bring cold upwellings to the reefs, and the whole food chain is present. Sharks (blacktip, whitetip, greys) are all in evidence, as are massed ranks of horse-eye jacks, blackjacks and trevallys and every example of tropical marine life.
Batfish keep the waters clean of defecation. Sweetlips (spotted, oriental and great) hang around in tight-packed squadrons, and the sheer volume of surgeonfish can obstruct the view.
Manta rays queue up at cleaning stations, and inimicus devilfish stride about the sandy areas on their chicken-like feet, confident that their venomous spines will keep them safe from the unwelcome attention of predators.
Despite the competition, the star of the show for me is the carpet shark, tail curled and ready to strike.

GETTING THERE: Singapore Airlines/Silk Air to Manado, Wings/Lion Air to Sorong. Baggage limit 20kg. A visa is obtainable on arrival for UK passport-holders for US $25. Note that departure taxes are paid in Indonesian rupiah.
MONEY: Indonesian rupiah, but clean US dollar bills with recent serial numbers are accepted.
HEALTH: West Papua is a malaria zone. No recompression facilties are available locally..
WHEN TO GO: Any time of year. Water temperature ranges from 24-30°C, depending on currents.
PRICES: A 13-night trip with 11 nights on Seahorse costs from £3445, or £3830 on Paradise Dancer, both with flights, accommodation and diving. A 10-night trip with seven nights at Sorido Bay costs £2450pp,