Byron Conroy has dived Raja Ampat many times, but always from a liveaboard. He visits Meridian Adventure Dive’s land-based operation to see if it lives up to the same expectations.
Photographs by Byron Conroy.
Raja Ampat – probably the most-discussed and desired destination for all divers over recent years. Known as ‘The last Paradise’, this area has become a mecca for the most-enthusiastic and passionate divers, a place that all divers revere and have firmly placed on top of their bucket list.
The reputation of the location is unparalleled in diving, the health of the marine life, the corals, the schools of fish and the macro life have all become famous for their untouched condition and sheer abundance. Some 80 percent of the world’s coral species, 1,300 different fish species, and six of the world’s seven turtle species can all be found within the area. It is the most-biodiverse dive location on Earth and home to many endemic species.
The area itself though is large, Raja Ampat literally translates to the ‘Four Kings’ from the four main islands that lie within the area. The area is a collection of 1,500 islands within an archipelago located on the northwest tip of the island of New Guinea. The area is vast though and as a result, almost all diving has been done there on liveaboard, so as much distance can be covered as possible in order to dive the area. I myself have previously been to Raja many times, and am always drawn back by the incredibly rich seas, each time joining a different liveaboard.
Did you know?
The Raja Ampat Islands are an Indonesian archipelago off the northwest tip of Bird’s Head Peninsula in West Papua. Comprising hundreds of jungle-covered islands, Raja Ampat is known for its beaches and coral reefs rich with marine life.
However, six years ago, a Meridian Adventure Dive resort opened on the shores of the second largest island, Waigeo. Their aim? To show you the best of Raja but allowing people to do it from the comfort of a land-based resort. There are many great things about liveaboards, but many people also don’t like them due to various things such as seasickness, the overnight cruising, the inability to get off and stretch your legs, and the close living arrangements that you are naturally in. As a result Raja, which is possibly the best reef diving anywhere on the planet, has largely been off-limits to them.
So when the opportunity came up to see the resort for myself and try resort-based diving in Raja, it was one I jumped at. There’s one key issue with diving from a land base in Raja though, that’s the distance it takes to get to a variety of dive sites… well, Meridian Dive Adventure have thrown everything at this problem.
I have seen my fair share of dive boats, but I have never seen any like the ones Merdian are using. When I first saw them, my jaw nearly fell to the floor. Each of the five identical boats was custom made to Meridian’s exacting specification – each is capable of carrying 16 guests (12 divers and four crew) fitted with a central custom-made tank rack that can handle 32 scuba tanks. However, during my week-long stay, the boats were never fully loaded and we had a max of eight passengers on any trip.
Each of the boats were kitted out with all brand-new twin 250hp engines that were in immaculate condition, as were all things on the boat. We were easily able to cruise at 35 knots to get to the dive sites. If you think the average liveaboard will cruise somewhere in the region of eight knots, it means day trips to dive sites that would otherwise be impossible were now firmly on the cards for Meridian.
It was not just the fact that the boats were so well specified that was impressive, but the pride the staff had in them and the maintaining of them to an impeccable standard. The oldest of the boats are six years old, but to look at them, they all looked like they were setting off on their maiden voyage. Each was polished and tinkered all day long, the boat crew would always be cleaning them, and there was not a speck of dirt on a single one of them.
Each morning at the resort they offer a double dive morning, two dives without returning to the resort in between. The boats then return to the resort for lunch – as you relax next to the pool and enjoy lunch from the resort restaurant, the tanks are refilled and the fuel filled so they can offer another two dives in the afternoon. The resort schedule afternoon dives for every other day, however they will also offer them daily according to request from groups and on-site divers.
The dive centre was run by Jo, who has been with the resort since its inception and built the diving from the ground up. Our boat was run by Duan, a charismatic South African who has been diving for many years and brings a wealth of experience not just of diving but also of marine engineering and logistics to the operation. Duan was funny, engaging and loved to chat with guests throughout the day and also over a beer in the evening.
We started our diving by being introduced to Will, a British Divemaster who was working at the resort and local Divemaster Abner. Abner has been diving for many years and knew all of the sites and local currents like the back of his hand. After meeting the team, we whizzed off to an afternoon’s diving at Five Rock and Friend Rock. This was my first dives from a resort and having been to Raja many times on liveaboard, I was keen to see how the local dive sites were in comparison to what I had previously seen.
Immediately on submerging, I was blown away by the quality of the sites, there were so many fish all colours of the rainbow, huge schools of yellow snapper, incredible sea fans, hard coral reefs and baitfish with blue trevally swooping in to feed in the dense clouds of fish. It was incredible, and we had not even been to any of the ‘big’ sites yet. For me those initial dives summarized everything I expect from diving in Raja Ampat. The rich marine life, the sun, the warm seas and the gentle currents, which bring all of the life in.
One of the species that Raja is famous for is the tassled wobbegong. An unusual shark species that lies flat on the sand, usually in a cave or a coral overhang. On the first dive of the trip, we saw three separate ones, and throughout the week they kept coming thick and fast, my favorite encounters being with the ones covered in glassfish camouflaging them.
Some of the most-famous dive sites in Raja are the jetties, they are usually on local islands and traditional wooden structures that allow local people to moor their boats and embark their vessels. These jetties though offer a sanctuary for marine life, offering shelter and protection for many species. Also due to these being local islands, there is usually an abundance of food available for the species that inhabit the area. The most famous of the jetties in Raja are Arborek and Sawanderek. We visited both of these during our stay, and there’s a reason they are famous. Incredible fish life, huge schools of sweetlips, jacks and larger predatory fish such as giant trevallies cruise the shores of these local islands. Underneath the wooden structures there are soft corals adorning the wooden planks and fish darting in from every direction.
The biggest attraction to Meridian for divers is its proximity to the world-famous Cape Kri. This site is home to such an array of fish and coral life it’s hard to comprehend. It’s also home to a large school of sweetlips and incredible shallow water coral garden. It is famous for being the dive site where the highest number of marine species have been spotted in one single dive, an incredible 374 species identified within one single dive.
The dive itself can be a little challenging with some good currents, but these currents are what brings this incredible marine diversity. The dive usually involves dropping down to around 25m and using a reef hook to stay stationary at the split point of the current. This is where the main current hits the reef and is split into two separate directions. This is the point at which you will get the most fish action. After 25 minutes or so of reef action, its time to unhook and allow the current to push you along the reef as you slowly begin the ascent to shallower waters. The coral life and schooling fish are incredible, huge corals, fusiliers in their thousands and then an incredible shallow reef to conduct the safety stops before leaving the reef to ascend in the blue water.
The Dampier Strait is also home to Manta Sandy, a reliable manta ray site that has maintained its reputation due to the excellent management of the area by the Manta Trust and the local marine park. The dive site has a ranger station that maintains the site by specifying which boat can dive and when, and also limiting the number of divers on the site at any one time.
The dive itself is usually quite easy, a sandy bottom at a depth of 16m with a stone line having been drawn in the sand. Divers descend and use the current to drift into the area where the mantas can be seen. All divers remain behind the stone line at all times to be able to not spook the natural behaviours of the resident manta rays that come in for cleaning. Displays of up to a dozen mantas can often be seen at the site. For our group we had a manta ray with us for the entire duration of the dive, allowing for incredible natural encounters for all divers on our boat.
Melissa’s Garden is worldwide known as the best hard coral reef remaining anywhere in the world. It’s an ovalshaped reef in between several small pinnacles that extend above the surface. The reef is brimming with life but it’s the hard coral garden that really blows the mind. The edge of the reef features schooling unicornfish, jacks, trevally, countless Napoleon wrasse and other larger fish species. After circumnavigating the reef for half an hour in the 10-12m range, we finally rose to the shallow water to glide over the reef top at 6m.
The top of the reef is made of a variety of incredibly healthy hard corals of every type but dominated by staghorn corals in every colour of the rainbow, and literally millions of chromis and damselfish. It is seeing reefs like this that make you realize just how the underwater world should be, this really lives up to the name of ‘the last paradise’.
So I came to Raja to find out if you can see the best that Raja has to offer by resort, and the answer is a resounding ‘yes’! The Meridian Adventure Dive team have built a great resort and incredible dive operation with your every tropical diving whim catered for.
The resort itself features 30 bedrooms, a bar, restaurant, pool and reception area along with the dive centre. Everything you could need for the ultimate dive holiday, all in almost new condition and impeccably maintained.
This article was originally published in Scuba Diver ANZ #56