“If I don’t dive, is it worth visiting Raja Ampat?” I’ve been asked this question a few times now and the answer is an overwhelming YES! Most of the beautiful corals and colourful fish live close to the surface where there’s more sunlight. Several of the guests we encountered came just for the snorkelling and often they saw just as many (and sometimes more) interesting fish. Here are some examples of the amazing reefs about 100m from our bed!
Our options were pretty limited when we arrived for a spontaneous adventure in Raja Ampat. The diving liveaboards we were interested in were either full, already at sea, or charging per-night what I was spending per-week in Thailand. We then turned to the list of dive resorts. Luck was on our side when the the travel agent called up our #1 choice out of the resorts, Raja Ampat Biodiversity Eco Resort, and it happened to have an opening starting the following night. They offered to pick us up a day early and set us up with a homestay just a few hundred meters down the beach until we could check-in. The first of many moments that made Biodiversity an unforgettably positive experience.
Our hosts Rey and Patricia turned out to incredibly cool people. After years of busting their asses working for dive shops and resorts, they decided to go indie and open their own little budget-friendly dive resort situated on pristine beachfront, just up from one of the most amazing house reefs swam in. Located on Gam island, it’s only a short boat ride to many of Raja Ampat’s famous dive sites and about a 20 minute boat ride to Waisai, where you can catch a ferry back to Sorong. The resort opened in April of 2012 so all the gear and facilities seemed brand new but the place had been open long enough that they had all the kinks ironed out. On top of that, the resort only has room for about eight guests so you’re guaranteed to get a personal experience.
We explored our new beach and reefs after checking-in and then returned around dusk to eat homemade cake and coffee with our new friends. I saw some rustling in the trees and one of the guests noticed my eyes wander. I passed it off as a monkey, but she excitedly told me that it might be a Cuscus. A what? We rushed over and were face to face with one of the cutest animals I’ve ever seen. The colourful possom-like animal eventually retreated from the gathering crowds before I could snap a good shot, but I was starting to wonder if the world above the sea was going to be as entertaining as what we were seeing below.
Life was pretty simple for the rest of the week: woke up around 7am, ate a banana pancake, got on a boat, did two incredible dives in the morning, back for a huge lunch spread around 1pm, reading or siesta-ing in hammocks, some snorkeling, socializing with a lovely group of Italians over coffee, snacks and sunset, more reading, dinner feast, sleep, repeat.
The sensory overload experienced when diving in Raja Ampat cannot be described. Even images fail miserably when trying to express the blissfulness created by the combination of being immersed in warm water, surrounded by schools of colourful fish, pushed along by gentle currents, lost in the rainbow of colours of the vast and healthy coral gardens. Alas, this gallery is the best I can do share the experience with you:
Eventually we had to listen to reason and leave the west-papuan paradise since the place is geared towards bigger bank accounts than ours. We said goodbye to our lovely hosts and left them with promises of returning within five years. It’s good to have goals, right?
Raja Ampat is not known for being a last-minute budget destination, but we tried out best to cut costs. Our journey to paradise was bumpy: boat ride from Gili to Lombok, 90min cab ride to the airport, flight to Makassar, overnight at the airport, arrival in Sorong at the crack of dawn, sweaty walk to the tourist information centre followed by a two hour wait for it to open, 30 minute walkthrough of “sold outs” and “just lefts” when going through the list of diving live-aboards, cab ride in a nice car that dropped us off at a sketchy pier far away from our destination, second cab ride in a much sketchier car that at least got us to the public ferry pier, two hour ferry to Waisai island, final ride to a remote beach on Gam island. As soon as we saw the reefs under the crystal clear bathtub water and stepped off the boat, our feet sinking into the soft coral sand, we knew it was all worth it.
I thought beaches like this only existed in the movies, Hollywood trickery to simulate an ancient natural purity lost to the plague of mass market tourism. At that moment, I thought to myself that my feet were sinking into the platonic Form of a beach, like I had been transported into a world where everything was at it should be. Clearly I needed some sleep.
The rest of the day was spent sinking into the white sand or floating on the turquoise water. The reefs just a few feet off the beach provided better snorkelling than most dives I’ve ever been on. It’s no surprise seeing as Raja Ampat houses 75% of the world’s coral species and several scientists have claimed that its waters are the most biodiverse in the planet thanks to its location at the heart of the Coral Triangle.
Exhausted from our 24+ hours of travel, long walks, and swims, we tucked into a deliciously simple dinner courtesy of our homestay and promptly fell into a deep sleep. The next morning I awoke with the sun, emerged from our basic wooden shelter, stumbled down to the beach to admire the soft light of dawn casting shadows on the legions of little crabs skittering about on the sand. I grabbed my razor, poured hot water into a giant old clam shell that acted as my sink, and started giving myself a much needed shave. I felt like Robinson Crusoe until my romanticism crashed into Georgia’s lecture on sanitation. (We compromised by her promising to take a picture so that in a few decades I can convince myself that I went through with it.)
At this point it was time to move our stuff down the beach to Raja Ampat Biodiversity Eco Resort.