THERE WERE SO MANY FISH AROUND ME in the water; at times I had trouble getting a clear view. Nothing was arranged in any orderly fashion. There were no neat schools, just thousands of fish positioned chaotically and darting about without any common factor.
I had difficulty concentrating my camera on anything in particular, and almost gave up looking for a satisfactory composition. Profusion had become confusion. I felt like a predator distracted by too much prey.
My air supply started to dwindle, and I decided to head up the reef for the shallows. Instantly, I was grabbed by an unseen force that took me in its grasp and sent me hurtling onwards, past great herds of grazing bumphead parrotfish and other animals I might have liked to have stopped and photographed, if only I could.
All I could do was control my depth but even this took some serious legwork. I was glad that the local Papuan dive guide had followed, and was keeping an eye on me.
We surfaced in an oily calm sea. Nothing here betrayed the speed with which it was moving. Welcome hands reached down to pull up my cylinder, and I was soon climbing the ladder
of our little boat. This experience was typical of diving in the Dampier Strait.

THE RAJA AMPAT, or “the Four Kingdoms”, is a group of islands west of the Bird’s Head Peninsula of West Papua. If you look at a map of the great island that jointly forms PNG and what was formerly known as Irianjiya, it resembles the outline of a dodo-like bird, with a head at its western end.
The Raja Ampat started coming up on the radar of adventurous divers after the likes of famous Australian ichthyologist Gerry Allen and underwater photographers Denise and Larry Tackett revealed it to have the richest reefs in the world.
More species of coral and of fish have been identified at the dive site Cape Kri than in any other part of the world to date. Cape Kri is a reef that runs alongside Kri island, home to diving pioneer Max Ammer. The young Dutchman went out to Indonesia in search of war relics. He became a major source of parts for WW2 Willys Jeeps, after discovering the place where the US Army dumped hundreds of new Jeeps on its withdrawal after the Pacific War.
Max made West Papua his home, and was soon running diving charters from his base in Sorong. No one had heard of the place then, and he more or less had it to himself.
He fell in love with that part of Indonesia and started a family. Eventually he settled on Kri Island in the Dampier Strait, believing this to be the epicentre of good diving in the area, and built an eco-resort, employing local labour and materials.
At this time, few people had heard of the Raja Ampat, but Max is an absolutely special and very spiritual man, and had faith that this was the place to be.
His friendship with the likes of Gerry Allen, the Tacketts, Roger Steene and famed dive-guide Larry Smith began to pay off, and Raja Ampat found a place on the world diving map. More recently, he has been using his Micro-light aircraft to explore the hinterland of West Papua, and has encountered a number of villages with populations that have never had any exposure to modern society. He told me that on seeing him, they simply run away.
He still spends time with Gerry Allen searching inland for scientifically undescribed freshwater species of fish.
The Kri Eco Resort is still available to those hardy divers on a budget, but Max also started to build a more luxurious resort, still using only local materials and labour, providing a standard more acceptable to us soft Westerners. It’s around the corner at Sorido Bay and overlooking Cape Kri itself.
Stay at Sorido Bay, and you will inevitably find yourself in the company of some of the high-profile cognoscenti of tropical diving.
But what makes these reefs luxuriate in so much life The ocean currents from the Pacific combine with tides that force water up through the Dampier Strait, where Kri Island acts as a foil to its flow.
The currents and nutrients carried on the cold oceanic up-wellings are what give the area its fabulous and prolific underwater flora and fauna.
Be warned, however, that the currents at Cape Kri can send unprepared divers whirling downwards, in a current that will find them bottoming out at 40m deep, before they are released and spat out into the ocean. Photographs do nothing to betray this fact.

ONE SITE, NOW KNOWN AS MIKE’S POINT in honour of Max’s young son, is at an island that has such strong currents around it that during the war US Army reconnaissance-spotters saw its wake and assumed it to be a Japanese warship camouflaged with bushes.
It was bombed to smithereens but now, more than half-a-century later, the broken rocks are covered in soft corals and home to countless fish. It makes for a fantastic dive when conditions allow.
Alas, the last time I was there the full moon and rocketing flow from the Pacific made it almost suicidal to attempt a dive, and we had to forego the opportunity. I remember, during an earlier visit, sitting in the boat anchored in a tiny corner that formed the lee of the current after a successful dive and chucking bits of peel from the dragon fruit I was eating into the water.
Each time I would make personal bets with myself as to which way the current would take it. I was wrong on every occasion, even though the interval between peelings was short.
Between Kri and the very much larger island of Waigeo, the channel is peppered with reefs, causing ripping currents and over-falls.
At the far end of this is an area known locally as Manta Sandy. It’s a manta-ray cleaning station. You drop in, drop down, hook into something secure and watch as the mantas dance on the flow.
Once you’ve selected your position, it’s nigh on impossible to swim to another; the current can be that strong.
You just have to be patient and wait for the rays to come to you. I’ve had very close encounters with both a big all-black manta and a virginal white one in this way.

SOMETIMES, THE SAND IS WHIPPED up in the current like an underwater sandstorm, leaving your photographs unsharp and disappointing, but if there is no current there will be no mantas.
I dived it one time in the past when there was slack water, but photographed a number of large wobbegongs, or carpet sharks, and a deadly poisonous inimicus devilfish instead.
Sardines Reef is not marked by any surface feature, and is so called because the fish are so densely packed. It’s essential to get in the water upcurrent, away from the reef, and head across the sandy seabed to the current point, an area where the current splits, so is calm enough to allow you to take pictures.
Once you move away, the stream of water hurtles you along over the shallow reef top. There is nothing you can do to stop yourself. You travel at an alarming speed and at the mercy of
the elements.
Kri Eco Resort and Sorido Bay are so well placed for all the spectacular dive sites of the Dampier Strait that it makes sense to dive them by small boat, returning to the jetty for meals at either resort. The resorts are like liveaboards that are permanently anchored.
There are a great number of dive sites like this close to Kri Island but you’ve probably got the idea that the diving may not be that easy. Those keen underwater photographers who like to dive repeatedly with the same subject, perfecting their craft, will be disappointed.
Around the Dampier Strait, it’s different every time you get into the water – which is why I like it. I could dive Sardines Reef every day and never tire of it but I know others have different tastes.
The vast quantities of nutrient in the water can also disappoint the underwater photographer looking to produce that “clean” shot.

SINCE THE RAJA AMPAT’S PUBLIC PROFILE has been raised, a huge number of liveaboard diving operations have moved into the area, spearheaded by Ambon diving pioneer Austrian Edi Frommenwiler’s Pindito, and they all operate out of Sorong, the nearest town with an airport.
These operations have expanded the area of the Raja Ampat in which diving now takes place, and because most of us who travel so far to experience such diving normally expect to take underwater pictures, these liveaboard operators have earmarked dive sites further south that are less demanding of a diver-photographer – but of course, they are often less spectacular too.
The reefs are covered with colourful gorgonia fan corals and these are home to countless different types of pygmy seahorse. Take a strong magnifier or an extreme-macro camera.
Some of these liveaboard vessels are huge pinisi-rigged schooners that carry a great many passengers. This means that there are sometimes a lot of divers on one site, although that site itself may be seldom visited.
I chose for my previous visit to book on the Mandarin Siren, because it is one of the smallest vessels operating from Sorong, and carries only six passengers. It is part of the Worldwide Dive and Sail fleet and, though small, is impeccable, as all Frank van der Linde’s boats are.
Excluding Deidre Moore, the Ulster-born-and-raised boat manager, the boat is crewed on a ratio of one-to-one with the six passengers. Deidre seems obsessed with finding the smallest pygmy seahorses during dives.
All liveaboard operations tend to be divided between northern and southern charters, and it’s important to book on the one that’s right for you.
Some longer charters incorporate both areas, but inevitably leave the diving in the Dampier Strait until last, so that their passengers are well dived-up before attempting the more difficult sites. There is no point in frightening off your passengers at the start of a charter.
Typically, on leaving Sorong, they’ll head for Batanta Island and some relaxing muck-diving. Then they’ll head south to Boo Rocks with its caverns and famous “window”, and the Fiabacet Islands, including the Misool Island Resort, around Misool.
The latter is another eco-resort, recently built and run by a British/ Swedish couple, and very pretty it is too.
The islands around the Misool region are jagged peaks recently thrown up, in geological terms, by volcanic activity and very spectacular above the water. The Misool Island Resort has eco-friendly bungalows built around a small bay on such an island. Close by are three well-known sites known by their shape at the surface rather than what goes on underwater.
Small Rock, Nudi Rock and Tank are sites that sit in view of the resort and provide beautiful coral growth.
Underwater photographers staying at the resort can be shuttled back and forth to them to their heart’s desire and the currents seem entirely manageable. Those on liveaboards
tend to press on after a few dives, ever looking for something better.
Back further north there are unique bluewater mangroves. Here you’ll find gorgonia growing close to the surface in association with the mangrove roots and the insect-eating archerfish and cardinalfish that live among them. You might encounter a saltwater crocodile too, if you’re very unlucky.

FINALLY, A WORD ABOUT THE WEATHER. The Raja Ampat is at 0° latitude, and nowhere in the world is more tropical. The islands are truly in the Doldrums, and strong winds with rough seas are rare.
However, this is not a place for sunbathers. Temperatures vary between extremely hot and quite cool, but these variations can happen almost moment-to-moment.
Clouds continually roll across the sky, obscuring the sun. It rains in biblical proportions, sometimes for days on end. This means that the light underwater lacks that contrast encountered in the Mediterranean or Red Sea, for example.
With ordinary ISO settings on my camera, I’ve often found I needed quite long exposures to get the background light in balance with my camera’s flash.
Down deep, there was precious little natural light. In the north, nutrients rushing past in the current can cause an unsharp effect too, so pictures can be disappointing at times.
That said, there is always plenty to photograph. In the southern area, things are easier but visibly and dramatically less dynamic. The stronger the current, the more high-voltage the diving.
After three visits to the area I have deduced that, whether you opt to be island-based or travel by liveaboard, the Dampier Strait is good for adventurous diving and the southern area around Misool is better for more sedate underwater photography, with plenty of macro subjects.

AN INTERESTING INTERLUDE
Our transfer between Kri Island and Sorong was by a small but fast boat powered by two large outboard motors. I had done the return journey several times before, and the first time I had departed from Sorong I had noticed that my cox’n had no visible means of navigation.
I asked how he knew where we were going, and he told me he took a route past the islands to his left out of Sorong, then simply kept going straight.
Darkness was falling. I took the precaution of taking a bearing on my computer-watch. Despite my misgivings, we duly arrived at dead of night, three hours later, at Kri.
Now, things were different. It was daylight on the return leg from Kri, but raining in such a continuous torrent that there were no landmarks. Visibility reduced at times to only a few metres.
After about two hours, our cox’n hove-to and asked if either of us had a compass. He had only a school compass jammed with sea salt. Slightly surprised, as divers, we were able to offer him three.
My fellow-traveller, Tony, remembered noting that the journey from Kri needed to be on a course of about 120° or south-east. We gave our cox’n the heading, and helped him steer that way.
From time to time through the incessant downpour I glimpsed what I thought were islands
to starboard. Gradually these became lost in the mist, as it became apparent that we were being steered north-east instead. I don’t know why.
I remonstrated with our driver, who would steer south-east for a bit and then veer north again. I was sure he was wrong but he was the local, the expert, so I suffered an element of self-doubt.
There were moments when we glimpsed some islands to the north, and I wondered if these were the ones that should have been to our south.
After another couple of hours, I realised with dread that I was right, and that these islands were not those I knew. I was cross with myself for not having taken control earlier, and at the cox’n too.
We thundered onwards at about 20 knots, burning precious petrol in what I was sure was the wrong direction. By now even the wrong islands had disappeared off our stern in the rainy mist.
Down to the reserve tank of fuel, there was still no sign of land. Things looked very serious.
At this point, Tony managed to get a signal on his iPhone, and called up the GPS function. It confirmed that we had missed completely the vast island that makes up West Papua and PNG, and were heading out into the Pacific.
We showed our position north of the land to our cox’n but, remarkably, he was unconvinced.
At this point I took over the helm and steered south-west.
I felt as if I had led a mutiny, but our lives might well be now at stake.
Out of the murk appeared a primitive local fishing boat belching smoke, and our driver asked the way to Sorong. The people on board laughed and pointed in the direction they were taking – south-west, the direction we had been advising on since getting our GPS position. He decided to follow them.
Our possible top speed was 30 knots but this fishing boat was making about three. The journey became tedious, but at least we were going in the right direction – if our fuel held out.
It was with relief that I first spotted the surf caused by waves breaking on a reef. At last the West Papuan mainland was on our port side, and our cox’n got the confidence to open the throttles.
It was with collective relief that we headed around a final headland and saw freighters at anchor outside the port, waiting to unload.
An unpleasant experience had ended well, but taught me yet again not to abdicate responsibility for my own well-being to others on the pretext that “they know what they’re doing”.

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: Travel to Sorong via Singapore and Manado or via Jakarta and Makassar (not recommended). Private boat transfer to the island resorts.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Sorido Bay Resort at Kri/Dampier Strait. www.papuadiving.com. Misool Island Resort near Misool. Liveaboard Mandarin Siren, www.worldwidediveandsail.com
HEALTH: Papua is a malaria area. Malarone is recommended. The nearest hyperbaric facilities are a long airflight away, at Manado. No deco diving.
MONEY: Cash is king: Indonesian Rufia or clean recently printed US dollar bills in low denominations. Euros may be accepted. There is an ATM machine in Sorong.
PRICES: A typical 10-night trip including seven nights on Mandarin Siren, flights and hotels en route, ranges from £3000 to £3600 with Scuba Travel, www.scubatravel.com
FURTHER INFORMATION: www.diverajaampat.org