By Brett Atkinson
More than 1500 islands, 1700 different species of fish, and 80% of the world’s varieties of coral make eastern Indonesia’s remote Raja Ampat province a world-leading destination for snorkelling and diving.
Here’s what else to look forward to on a trip with SeaTrek Sailing Adventures, negotiating an impossibly scenic path through a maze of forested islands on the gracious Ombak Putih, a traditional wooden pinisi sailing ketch.
Swimming with turtles, sharks and manta rays
Beyond the shape-shifting shoals of smaller fish enlivening Raja Ampat’s reefs and drop-offs, bigger marine creatures are also regularly seen.
In shallow waters off Pulau Yillret (Yilliet Island) a brace of black-tip reef sharks cruise just metres away along our underwater horizon, while the promise of Pulau Dayang’s Manta Point is fulfilled with manta rays spotlighted by morning sunshine in deeper, gin-clear waters.
On several occasions, sea turtles ease into view while we’re snorkelling amid the submarine valleys and ridges of Pulau Misool’s labyrinthine reef system.
Snorkelling around Fish Bowl
After seven days of snorkelling, sometimes enjoying morning and afternoon excursions off Ombak Putih’s tenders on the same day, it takes somewhere special to emerge as the trip’s best snorkelling spot on day eight.
Welcome to Fish Bowl on tiny Pulau Yenbuba. Dinner plate-sized batfish bump and sway amid the barnacle-encrusted piles of a decades-old jetty, hundreds of yellow-and-black striped sweetlips move together as one, and clown fish Nemo lookalikes are spotted keeping safe in a swaying forest of anemones.
Drifting through Tomolol Cave
Reached through a labyrinth of forested islands best negotiated by colourful longboat, Pulau Misool’s Tomolol Cave is a soaring natural cathedral enhanced by stabbing shafts of light.
From the jetty, we don fins and swim leisurely on our backs for 300 metres, transitioning from semi-darkness into an almost pitch-black environment after a few minutes.
Bats swoop around the cave’s echoey interior until a teasing hint of light reveals our destination of a rocky, fern-framed glade at the end of the cave.
Floating in Jellyfish Lagoon
All living organisms in Tipkapas Lagoon, one of Raja Ampat’s unique marine lakes framed by karst limestone islands, entered through microscopic cracks in the side of this collapsed volcano, but we walk onto the craggy shoreline of the shaded lake on well-maintained wooden boardwalks.
Recent rains have diluted the number of stingless jellyfish – usually in the thousands – but a peaceful swim to the middle of the lake still reveals scores of pulsating translucent jellyfish drifting on imperceptible currents.
Hiking at dawn to see a Bird of Paradise
Sunrise occurs quickly this close to the equator, and at 5am off Pulau Waigeo, the indigo smudge of dawn soon dissolves into a misty morning.
A tropical triathlon incorporating a tender ride, a 4WD journey and a forest hike leads to a well-concealed hide where we wait patiently for an audience with Wilson’s Bird of Paradise.
The Wilson’s is only found on Waigeo and neighbouring Pulau Batanta, and within minutes a brightly-coloured male flits in to land on his carefully-maintained courtship arena, casually flicking twigs and debris over his head, and clearing larger leaves from the edges to maximise light.
One female does linger briefly on the edge of the arena but stays her distance. Maybe tomorrow, after another tropical dawn, she’ll be more interested.
Easing into twilight at a beach barbecue
Lamb chops the size of Sumatra and a plump parrotfish drenched in chilli and lemongrass are highlights of a beach barbecue on remote Pulau Hiruili.
Factor in cold Bintang beers and Balinese wine for the perfect sand-between-your-toes sunset celebration.
Music from a talented crew from all corners of Indonesia includes hearty humour, heavenly harmonies and more than a few musical echoes of the South Pacific. There’s definitely something familiar about that loping guitar strum.
Chilling to Raja Ampat’s best string band
More harmonies feature at Yensawai village, a Christian settlement on Pulau Batanta. This far east, at a similar longitude to Darwin, Indonesia has merged into Melanesia, and traditional songs are propelled forward by a quintet performing with handmade drums, ukuleles and a giant sit-down bass.
Adorned with manta ray headdresses and cassowary feathers, a circle of shy teenage girls perform a dance honouring two of the region’s revered creatures, while a posse of local boys decked out in knock-off Brazil, Barcelona and Portugal soccer shirts are thrilled to be gifted underwater goggles by the boat’s crew.
Raising the sails on an authentic pinisi ketch
When brisk tropical breezes arise, a decision is often made to raise the sails on the Ombak Putih. In a well-practised routine, longstanding crew member Julius Rahantoknam climbs the rigging to set in motion a seamless transition to a true sailing boat.
Billowing sheets of blue emerge to harness the wind, and seen from the water in a tender, the grace and power of the Ombak Putih is evident. The boat’s crew ascend the bowsprit for Raja Ampat’s best on-the-go views, and it’s only when we step back onto a moving boat that the Ombak Putih’s thrilling speed is revealed.
Experiencing the mystery of the Sumalelen cave paintings
The cave paintings of Pulau Misool’s remote Sumalelen cliffs were originally thought to be between 3000 and 5000 years old, but recent and ongoing research indicates the hand stencils and ancient terracotta representations of dolphins, birds and fish may be much older, more in line with 40,000-year-old rock art in Australia’s Northern Territory, and potentially done by visitors to Raja Ampat when the region was linked by a land bridge south to the Australian continent.
Taking in sky-high views from Pulau Piaynemo
Drones are rightly banned in the Raja Ampat Geopark, but ascending to platforms high above Pulau Piaynemo offers the same opportunity for superb photos. Islets are scattered jewel-like on a shimmering expanse of Raja Ampat satin, while pitcher plants and tree ferns cling to jagged outcrops.
There are even holes cut into Piaynemo’s wooden boardwalks so fledgeling saplings can continue to strive upwards unencumbered.