Photographs by Byron Conroy
Raja Ampat, the last paradise as its known, is every divers’ dream. I know of no other destination that is as revered and talked about within the warm water dive community, it has a reputation like no other.
Famous for the most-diverse dive sites in the world, the most-abundant fish life, giant mantas and the healthiest coral reefs in the world.
I am lucky enough to have been there a few times in the past, but I had not been for several years due to the pandemic and the enforced closure of the borders. I was keen to see how well the area had faired with a lack of divers for a few years.
Raja Ampat is a huge area, and is usually explored by liveboard for that reason. The area is comprised of four main islands, the most famous of them being Misool in Southern Raja, however it’s around a 12-hour journey to get there depending on speed and weather. Liveaboards depart from the port town of Sorong on the mainland of West Paul.
With the increase in boats over the years, it’s now pretty easy to get to Sorong -Iflew in direct form Manado, but there are also international flights arriving also. Upon arriving in Sorong, I was greeted by Jack, resident guide on board the Scubaspa Zen, Indonesia vessel.
Jack immediately made me feel welcome as we chatted about diving on the short ride to the port, where we loaded the kit onto a tender to head out to the main vessel.
Embarking on a Luxury Dive Journey
Scubaspa Zen is relatively new to Indonesia, however the company have a long history of operating luxury diving and spa vessels in the Maldives. They have two boats operating in the Maldives and have a fabulous reputation.
The premise of Scubaspa was very intriguing to me, they are bringing something new to the dive industry in Indonesia. The vessel itself is a traditional Indonesian-style wooden vessel but built to the highest standards possible.
I have been on quite a number of liveaboards all over the world, but this vessel is really very special in terms of luxury and fit. Nothing has been spared and every detail has been thought of.
Did you know?
Raja Ampat, which means “Four Kings”, is located in the West Papua province of eastern Indonesia. The ‘four kings’ are the islands Misool, Batanta, Waigeo and Salawati but the area is actually made up of 100+ islands, some of which are not inhabited.
The idea though is to combine diving with a luxury highend spa. On the top deck of the boat they have a full service spa along with two fully trained employees who can take care of any treatment you may wish on board.
This opens up diving trips to more people, it enables couples to go where one will dive and one will spa, or you have a combination of diving and spa, or as I chose to take a full diving package with three to four dives per day and then add in any massages or treatments at your convenience.
After boarding the vessel and being welcomed by the fulltime bar staff with cocktails and refreshing towels, we were shown to the rooms where we could relax and wait for the final guests to arrive before the usual introduction and safety briefings.
The cabins are just exceptional for a liveaboard, full queen-sized bed, luxury bathrooms, private AC, writing desk, sofa area, floor to ceiling wardrobes and all finished in wonderful local wood.
After a few hours relaxing on board and exploring the different levels on the boat, it was time to meet the rest of the guests and have a proper introduction to the boat crew and our expedition leader Dom, hailing from the UK.
Dom has been in Indonesia working in luxury diving all over Komodo and Raja Ampat for 12 years before joining Scubaspa in May 2022 to begin their Raja Ampat programme.
Dom is warm, funny and clearly used to working in the luxury market, he is accommodating and ensures the boat offers the best service possible, but in a relaxed manner without any pressure or pretence.
Dom explained how the vessel would run, meals, dive schedule, etc, and made sure to remind us that this was our trip and to let him know of anything we need.
We then settled in for dinner, both lunch and breakfast are buffet style with a chef always on hand to make fresh eggs, etc, and evening meals are a la carte with the menu presented earlier in the day for you to take your choice.
Dinner was steak, cooked to order, a wonderful butternut soup and a choice of different deserts. To be served a wonderful meal like this on day one in a great atmosphere was something special. Over dinner, it was nice to get to meet some of the other guests and discuss dive stories.
Experiencing Misool's Majestic Marine Life
Overnight we sailed down to Misool in the South of Raja, this is the hardest to reach area of Raja Ampat and also the most well-protected.
The area is largely managed by a local island resort which limits the number of boats diving any one site on any day and also allocates times for each boat to dive each site based on their requests.
Now, Misool is famous for healthy coral reefs and mantas, but one of the reason for the health of the reefs and the manta population are the currents. Currents can be fierce, so having an expedition leader who understands the currents, tides and the dive sites is critical to ensuring you have a great trip.
Having chatted to Dom about out plans in Misool for the next few days, it was apparent that we had struck gold. Dom is the best of the best when it comes to having an intimate knowledge of the area and what time each dive site will be at its peak for both currents and action.
We began our diving with a site called Juliet, pretty famous in the area, a mushroom-shaped underwater island where the edge is filled with wonderful pink whip corals, red gorgonian fans and some bigger fish life in the blue.
Dom timed the checkout to perfection with almost no current on the site, it was perfect to get people settled in for what was to come. My guide Sammy was from Komodo and we immediately had fun underwater – it was such a pleasure to have a guide that was just loving being in the ocean.
He was a pleasure to dive with, constantly looking for cool things to see and being excited about every animal we saw.
So, in the afternoon, we dived Boo West, again timed to perfection by Dom with wonderful water conditions – given that we were diving in a week with a full moon, Dom had pulled a masterstroke. After a lovely dive, it was time for one of the most-famous sites in Misool, Boo’s Window.
Boo’s Window is another underwater island, we cruised down to around 18m where there were huge schools of fusiliers and snapper in blue and yellow colours, then began to head up towards the famous window, a reef shark crashed past us oblivious to our flapping around in comparison to his graceful path.
At around 5m, the current has created a large hole in the wall of the island allowing you to swim over a plateau at 5m, then directly through the window to the other side of the island.
As we made our way up the reef and towards the window, conditions were calm and mild – as we got halfway through the window, all of a sudden you could feel the power of the current that was rushing through the window and pushing into our faces.
All of the water that’s hitting the whole island is forced through this small hole, it was amazing to feel the power of the current. As we finally fought our way through to the either side it calmed again and I was able to turn and shoot the famous sea fan in the foreground with the window in the background.
Innovative Diving Operations
Scubaspa has been operating in the Maldives for may years, and anyone who has dived there knows that instead of using small tender boats for the diving and keeping the equipment on the main vessel, the Maldives operators instead use a dhoni, this is effectively a separate vessel that is only used for diving.
Around 15 metres long, with a roof, this full vessel has its own crew and captain and follows the main boat when cruising to destinations, but all the dive equipment is kept on board always and all diving is done from the dhoni. Scubaspa Zen has implemented this in Raja also, becoming the first operator to do so.
This is such a bonus of diving with Scubaspa, it is a much better way of diving – no more bumpy tender rides in full equipment, no more pulling all the tanks back onto the tender, and the main vessel stays dry and has much more space as there is no dive equipment on board, no compressors running and noises of tanks being filled. It is all kept away from the main vessel.
Dive One: The Mesmerizing Four Kings
The next day, Dom had planned a monster day for us, hitting two of the best dive sites in all of Raja Ampat – Four Kings and Magic Mountain. After an easy morning dive at Nudi Rock, we had our dive briefing for Four Kings (Raja Ampat in Indonesian), Dom briefed us that this was one of his personal favourite dive sites in all of Raja, the dive site is basically four pinnacles and you start on the shallowest one at around 5m, then jump across from one to the other to the deepest one at around 18m before heading back across to the first for the final safety stop.
When we got in, the colours and fish life were just insane – the top of the pinnacle was teeming with life, soft corals of every colour of the rainbow, sea fans, gorgonians, sponges and then the fish, fusiliers, jacks darting in and out, glassfish.
Napoleon wrasse, jacks in schools of 100 or more, batfish, GTs hunting in the blue. I could have stayed on the first pinnacle all day, just relaxing and enjoying the show, the current was there but once again it had been timed to perfection for there to be enough current that the action was happening, but not so much that the site was hard work. After 20 minutes of just enjoying the pinnacle, we jumped across to the next one.
All of a sudden the water went dark, like the sun had just gone down. I looked up to see a swarm of sardines in their millions had come over the top of the reef, GTs and other predatory fish were swarming in and picking them off, causing the light to shoot through openings to the surface as they cruised through the swarm.
We headed back to the main pinnacle after completing 50 minutes of the most-wonderful diving. As we came back, the current began to pick up with the change of the tide, so we were able to hook in on top of the final pinnacle at 5m and do an extended safety stop enjoying the action as we were constantly surrounded by every tropical fish species you could imagine.
Did you know?
Along with dolphins, primates, and elephants, manta rays have demonstrated high levels of intelligence and long-term memory, able to map their environment using sight and smell. They are among the largest fish in the ocean with a wing span of up to seven metres and weighing up to two tonnes.
We headed back to the main vessel with people screaming with excitement, they had never witnessed anything like that dive site, people who had dived all over the world in every location, all of them had never seen an underwater show like that before…
I reminded them that Magic Mountain was next. Once again we were greeted with warm towels, ginger tea and cakes from the boat crew and then served the most-wonderful buffet lunch on board before the dive briefing for Magic Mountain.
Dive Two: The Magic of Magic Mountain
So Magic Mountain has long been my favourite dive in Raja, it’s famous for the mantas. but to me it had always offered much more than that. In order to get the mantas though you need a little current, so the dive can be quite challenging. It is however shallow and easy to hook on should the mantas come.
Dom had arranged for us to dive on a current change, so we got the tail end of the tide running one way, then the beginning of the tide starting the other direction. This was to make sure we had some current, but that it was not going to be ridiculous as it can be during full moon peak tide change.
As we jumped off the dhoni, I was the first in the water. Knowing the site pretty well I had a plan to get on top of the mountain quietly and settle in on the edge looking for the mantas, however as soon as I opened my eyes on the negative entry decent, the mantas were there and the magic began.
It was super easy to swim against the current as we had the tail end of the tide run, the current was moving but not too much. We spent the next 20 minutes flirting with a group of seven mantas as they danced in the current, barrel rolling and playing and allowing the cleaner fish to come and remove the parasites.
The current began to slacken off as we reached slack tide, and the mantas left with the current, but Magic Mountain has so much more to give. There is usually a school of jacks that live in the shallow area on top of the mountain along with a school of batfish, I was able to shoot them in the afternoon sunlight that was dappled and the sun gently broke through the surface.
As I was shooting in the open water I began to feel the current again, so I headed back down to the edge of the mountain where the rest of the group had hooked in. The current was still manageable though so I chose not to hook in and signalled to my guide Sammy that we would cruise the edge, then they came… The cinema was open again and the mantas returned as the current picked up.
We all spent the next 30 minutes diving with the mantas, with the most incredible soft sunlight coming lighting up the top of the surface with a golden glow. The dinner conversation was electric, people had come to Raja Ampat with the highest of expectations, but they had been blown away by the experience from this day.
As much as it is nature’s show, it really can’t be expressed enough how Dom’s choice of dive sites and times had been the difference, the intimate knowledge he has is what makes all of the difference to the experience, being at the right site and the right time every time.
Over the next days we continued to be treated to the most wonderful spectacles underwater – six manta rays at Dayang, the craziest coral reef I have ever seen at Melissa’s Garden as we headed back North, untold numbers of fish species and also some of the finest macro diving on Earth. It’s hard to commit to using a macro lens in Raja as the wide-angle scenes are so incredible to shoot.
But when you do, the macro is exceptional – over the trip we saw octopus, seahorses, flamboyant cuttlefish, pipefish, pygmy seahorses and more.
Evenings at Sea: Unwinding in Style
Evenings were spent in the full-service bar, where the local bar tenders Yaga and Allit were offering us cold beers and different diving-themed cocktails every day.
Yoga was on offer on the top deck led by the spa treatment team, people were booking massages in the evenings and having sunset drinks on the top deck, which is all made of luxury wood.
Thursday night was movie night, with Dom offering a selection of diving-related movies, a projector was set up on the top deck to watch the movies and relax in the sea breeze on the luxury outdoor double beds they have built on the sundeck.
Through the week I chose to have two massages, both were incredible, the team are so well trained and to be able to relax with gentle massage after a day’s diving, reflecting on what you had seen that day underwater, was an amazing feeling – I don’t think I have ever been more relaxed!
Exploring Other Enchanting Dive Sites
The final few days diving were a little closer to Sorong as we headed back to our home port, but the diving in this area is also very special, with my personal favourite dives being the jetties. There are three main ones – Airborek, Yenbuba and Sawandarek.
What I love about the jetties is the way nature has harnessed human interaction to make them such a thriving place of fish life and corals.
Yenbuba has the most incredible fish life directly under the jetty, sitting at 5m underneath there are so many different types of fish in large numbers, along with soft corals all over the wooden legs of the jetty. I love to shoot up, looking through the crystal-clear water to the clouds above while red coral lights legs and the fish of every cooler swarm around the camera.
Sawandarek is all about the reef, a sloping reef wall where there is no need to dive more than 15m. There is a huge school of jacks along with sweetlips in the shallows, there is also a resident population of green turtles the size of which I have never seen anywhere else before.
The last day was spent diving the sites of Citrus Ridge, Cape Kri and Blue Magic, in the Dampier Strait. These sites all offer so much diversity, Cape Kri is famous for having the highest number of fish species ever recorded in one single dive anywhere on Earth. But for me the best diving in this area is actually in the mangroves, the mangroves are unique and the chance the be able to shoot there is something very special. The mangroves are the nursery for so many species of fish, so I went swimming in the shallow water looking for juvenile batfish, sharks and rays that hide in-between the roots of the mangroves.
Conclusion: A Journey Beyond Diving
The final dinner is a BBQ served on an inhabited island – with all of the crew involved, it’s a special way to end a very special trip. Scubaspa have tried to do something different, they are offering real luxury in Raja Ampat along with full spa and a whole new way of diving the islands and they have got it absolutely right. The boat is incredible and it is only surpassed by the staff and the wonderful atmosphere on board. The boat offers something for everyone – high luxury, amazing food, and the diving is planned to perfection to give you the ultimate diving experience in Raja.
This article was originally published in Scuba Diver UK #74.