The Seven Seas News - March 2016
Seven Seas Raja Ampat cruise, Feb 14th to 26th 2016
Trip Report by Lawrence Blair. Photos by Scott Goldsbury.
Day 1. Feb 14th.
Hailing from Bermuda, the US, the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Bali our group met up in Makassar, Sulawesi, the night before our dawn flight to Sorong to begin our cruise. Of the 16 of us, only Lisa, Steve an Angie got the full 2-hour city tour because their driver didn't know where the hotel was, and drove them round in circles, disbelieving the advice on Steve's cellphone GPS. 3 a.m call to catch our plane to Sorong. Whisked aboard, and steamed out to Matan island, a picture postcard of palm trees and white sand. A chance for our divers to check their equipment in shallow, surprisingly murky waters. But we still managed to spot lionfish, pygmy seahorses, and a wobegong shark, resembling a bearded carpet with warts.
The Farondi archipelago, trailing South Eastwards from the large island of Misol. First glimpse of surrounding pinnacles of Karst limestone, which so photogenically characterizes the Raja Ampats. Unseasonably overcast weather with rain squalls. Is there any place where the weather is predictable any more? At our anchorage we are circled by both brahminy kites and white-bellied sea eagles, so low that we thought they might be hoping for handouts. Despite rain and murky water, a great 90-foot vertical drop-off dive, amongst forests of soft and hard corals, particularly the black coral so admired by jewelers, and appearing in the wild as great white powder puffs blowing in the current. Exotic nudibranchs, more pygmy seahorses, great schools of fusileers, and yet another wobegong shark, impossible to spot without the gimletty eyes of our dive masters. Our vessel is tied up to a rock, in a protective cradle of islets, where we settle down for a night of good food and excellent company, as we are all friends from previous cruises aboard the Seven Seas. Before dinner we are put to sleep by a lecture called The Coral Triangle and the Creatures of the Deeps, by your humble and tedious author.
Dawn reveals milder but still overcast weather. Two spectacular deep dives, before and after breakfast. The first at Pet's rock, out by itself, and the second to a fish-infested seamount called 'Love potion number 9', whose etymology is obscure. Great walls of red and orange sea fans and giant amphorae coral, looking like sculpted Victorian toilet bowls - and, amongst the fish-blizzards 80 feet down, an enormous 'barrier reef' grouper, which all witnesses attest to being six feet long. After an additional afternoon dive, we cast off from our cozy little anchorage of the previous 2 nights and head North West along the Farondi chain towards the island of Misol. Some of our party take an exploratory launch ride and find an un-named cave large enough to motor around inside. Sudden dense cloud and blinding rain. No one seems the least put out, for the weather and water is warm, and we are enjoying each other's company at this 'ends of the earth'. We find ourselves another snug anchorage for the night, open a few bottles, tell tall tales and watch the first of the 3 part series SHADOW OF THE SHARK, made for National Geographic, about our captain Mark's famous uncle and auntie: Ron and Valerie Taylor.
At 4 a.m. we up anchor to make for Shadow Reef, a featureless, submerged seamount at the edge of very deep water, where there's a chance of witnessing oceanic manta rays being pampered at a cleaning station. Dawn's early light reveals the site is so lashed by wind and waves that we must abandon the plan and head back to the protective lee of the islands we have just left. The weather lifts, and we are slightly irritated to find we have been joined by some 4 other live-aboard vessels, escaping the even worse weather further north. A series of polite radio conversations between us establishes just when and where each of us will dive, so we can stay out of each other's way. We are first into the water, at Camel Rock, to swim through a 60 feet deep 'saddle' of underwater life which nestles between the 2 humps which give the island its name. On our dive we find another turtle on the bottom, perfectly content to continue munching as we join it. When Mark films a close-up with his Go Pro on a selfie-stick, the turtle tries to munch that too. Later in the morning we're bubbling around the islet of Tank, which proves to be the best dive so far. Deep, off a vertical wall festooned with branched, fanned, fluted and filigreed growths. Heavy fish population both on the reef and out in the blue, including schools of 4-foot striped barracuda. Visibility at least 100 feet. End dive in the shallows, in a coral garden of hallucinogenic colors, with fish as curious and unafraid of us as we of them.
We had planned a third dive after-lunch dive on the eponymously named little island of Nudi - which even sports a couple of bushes resembling the external lungs of a nudibranch - but the rain has returned, so we leave the dive spots to the invasive fleet, and head west and north, dodging squalls and rain. Soon the weather has lifted enough for kayaking, beach walking at a pure white, secluded beach with a half-built beach house for marine park rangers. Our first dolphins, the little, playful Spinners.
Wind has dropped, but still overcast with occasional showers. Doesn't deter us from diving and snorkeling, at spectacular Blue Windows, a 90-foot dive down through schools of ridiculously varied fish amongst jungles of fans and coral. Closer to the surface, towards the end our dive, we find the two openings, 40 feet deep, right through the lime stone island - the eponymous 'blue windows' - through which we swim and look down on the great deeps they beckon to.
Despite another couple of live-aboards unexpectedly appearing and dropping their load of divers on top of us, there is plenty of room for us all to be amazed and delighted. How easy it is, when you have a vast and uncorrupted paradise entirely to yourself, to be irrationally resentful of finding even a single foreign intruder to share it with!
The kayakers and snorkelers amongst us are happy, but the divers are overwhelmed by finally diving Shadow Reef, where weather had forced us to abort our dive 2 days earlier. In the open sea, this coral sea mount contains 'cleaner stations' where all manner of sea beasts come to have their hair and nails done, and to be picked clean of parasites by accommodating species of wrasse and shrimp. Here we encountered 7 large reef mantas, one of them completely black, others seemingly 'airbrushed' with beautiful black and white paint jobs. Flattening ourselves against the coral, 60 feet down off the edge of this mountain, the mantas began inquisitively cruising close enough to us to touch, their dark eyes observing us intently. Below them, in the blue gloom, cruised black-tipped reef sharks, and all manner of large edible fish. Immobile, amongst the coral, the reef fish next to us quickly lose their fear of us, reappear from their hiding places and continue their activities virtually in our armpits. A 2-foot snapper came up to examine me, and when I held up my magnifying glass to examine it back, it came closer and angled its body, as if to say 'ah, that's better, now I can see you in much better detail'. One of our party, DJ, said this was the best dive of his life. But he said that about several subsequent dives as well.
Our excellent captain Mark Heighes, who's previous days and nights of sudden squalls and driving rain, had kept him at all hours constantly improvising new courses and locations, now took us back, to the Farondi archipelago.
The weather is steadily clearing, and hints of blue sky reveal themselves for the first time on our voyage. We dive and snorkel, respectively, at the two islands of Nudi and Tank, which we again have entirely to ourselves. 'Nudi' because, as mentioned, it resembles a Nudibranch - of that vast tribe of rainbow colored, shell-less snails - and 'Tank' for no clear reason whatsoever! The water is now wonderfully clear, revealing the dizzying diversity of life for which the Coral Triangle is famous. As we surface, we find the sun has broken out at last, for the first time in 4 days, and white sulphur-crested cockatoos in the jungled islands overhead are raucously complaining of our presence.
Our first proper sunrise, and a bright hot day. At last we can worry about what SPF lotions to wear against the sun! We hazard another seamount, with 4 pinnacles, like the legs of an upturned chair, called the Four Kings (which is also the meaning of Raja Ampat). Mark has again perfectly judged the tide, so we can drop right down without fear of swept off into the blue. Large pelagic fish, barracuda, yellow-fin tuna, jacks, and the four underwater pinnacles festooned with such a variety of corals and sea fans, that its easy to accept the improbably statistic that the Coral Triangle contains some 75% of all the world's species of coral. Hanging at our safety stop at the top of the highest mount, we find ourselves at a wrasse cleaning station, where dozens of two-foot long batfish are awaiting their turn to be pampered. They lie hopefully and absurdly on their sides with their gills extended, in a long queue, rather like a line of expectant motorists, with their gas tanks off, waiting at a filling station.
The second underwater adventure of the morning is a ripping drift dive, at a place called Neptunes Fancy. Always bliss to be carried effortlessly along a life-festooned vertical wall, while the tender drifts in parallel far overhead. More pygmy seahorses which, although pointed out by our eagle-eyed dive masters, I fail to see even with the high rez portion of my magnifying glass. They're smaller than a pinkie nail, and perfectly match the color and texture of the sea fans they live in.
Afternoon dive at Barracuda rock, again out by itself and so sharp that its impossible to climb ashore. Living up to its name, there were great schools of barracuda, and trevally, and a dark cave which happily, on being swum into, did not reveal any large, lurking surprise. Extraordinary evening experience, when our lights attract a positive feeding frenzy of remoras around the boat. About 30 of the largest we'd ever seen, well over 2 feet long, behaving like over-excited sharks. Not as passive a fish as I had assumed.
An almost full moon is visible at dawn. Fine sunrise and clear weather, but the sea is strangely murky again. Capt. Mark recalls a spectacular drop-off drift dive he made six years previously, and we manage to find it again. The better-sighted amongst us loved it but, with one eye, I found it rather sinister, trailing along, trying to keep track of us all, next to a dark wall which shelved completely over us, and plunged into the murk below. Unnamed dive-spot, so I refer to it as Halloween reef.
The after-breakfast dive, however, called Killer Cave, was one of the most spectacular (and arguably demanding) of the whole trip. It's a direct negative entry straight into the dark maw of a cave down towards its dimly lit exit 100 feet below. On emerging, due to the depth, one has to ascend to some 50 feet, and swim, reef left, energetically for quite some distance before entering yet another cave. This with a large mouth, guarded by schools of sweetlips and enormous bump-headed parrotfish. Within the cave I see my first 'electric clam' with coruscating sparks of light between its red tentacles. We rise to break the surface within this cave to find ourselves in a blue dome of stalactites, lit by a single spotlight from a natural window. A truly secret place. Almost out of air, we descend again, out of the cave mouth with its fishy guardians, to surface.
The afternoon is a grand adventure. An exhilarating 15 minute speedboat ride, first to pick up permits at a pearl farm, and then on to swim, using only our fins, in a vast, dark cave called Tomohon. Before entering, we find the raised funeral shelves of ancient human skulls and bones, for this is where the locals would leave their dead to be consumed by birds, until the Indonesian government recently forbade the practice. We swim into this great cathedral of a cave, festooned with stalactites. I remember the difference, from the mnemonic: 'they're like ants in the pants. The mites go up and the tites come down.' As we continue into almost complete darkness we are relieved by occasional shafts of light from overhead openings, and eventually reach the far end of the cave which opens up onto green jungle. Our speedboat ride back to the ship takes us into another cave, with the valuable black nests of swiftlets, almost within reach overhead. Then via impossible abstract rock formations, to a region of ancient ochre petroglyphs: fish, crocodiles, figures with bows and arrows, and the outlines of human hands. Museum pieces in themselves, some of them obscured by limestone 'spillage', attesting to their great age.
Overnight we head North nearly 100 miles, crossing both the Dampier Straits AND the equator into the Northern Hemisphere. No 'bump' was observed, and despite numerous experiments flushing the toilet, the water still appeared to spiral out in the same clockwise direction as it had in the in the Southern hemisphere. So much for the physics of the Coriolis Effect.
Penemu island. At dawn we attempt to dive the famous Melissa's Garden, but the current is too strong. By early afternoon it has abated enough to try again, with great success. Amazing creatures, great and small, including numerous varieties of remarkable, transparent and semi-transparent shrimps.
Afternoon trip over to climb the some 300 wooden steps up to the extraordinary lookout point which reveals an almost perfect pentagonal view of islands and bays. The sun is up, the water is calm. and we are well content. Evening concert aboard, by our singing crew and the unexpectedly super-talented Scott on guitar and Simon on harmonica.
A further long overnight cruise, and we awake in the northerly island of Wayag. Early dive on Figure Eight rock, so named for the form of our underwater course. Slightly cooler and murkier water, but full of fascinating small creatures, including a fist-sized bright yellow 'banana' nudibranch. Numerous forms of lion-fish, stone fish, and (rarely seen in this part of the Raja Ampats) an extraordinary Leaf Scorpion Fish. A similar dive in the afternoon, after which we explore by speedboat the inland waterways between dramatic rising islands, which are unseasonably dry, due to the very late rainy season. We beach on a tidal spit of sand, where a baby black-tipped shark is first grabbed by David and, when it escapes, is then caught by Steve (our two intrepid shark-grabbers) who holds it up for photos before its happy release. Some of us go on to climb rough path up to another lookout.
Long convivial dinner, under a full moon, before raising the anchor and heading south to cross the equator again at 10.30 p.m., back into the Southern Hemisphere once more. More inconclusive experiments with the toilets' hydro-dynamics.
Awaken in Waigeo, at the pearling farm at the mouth of Aluji sound. Wall dive, coolish turbid water, but ending the dive in a wonderland of shallower corals. This is critter rather than big fish territory. Another 'electric' clam in a cave, with carpets of small 'fanned' tube worms. Transparent painted shrimp, exotic soft corals. Second, similar dive in Channel Island, with still clearer water.
Afternoon speedboat ride into Aljui bay. Orchids, pitcher plants and a little bay of large, ominous-looking brown jelly-fish. Four o'clock dive under Cendana Jetty, the fuel-loading pier of the Aljui pearl farm, to check before the night dive. Six-foot wobegong shark, two ghost pipe-fish, black lion-fish, scorpion fish, cuttle-fish and thick schools of different fish species. Three 'no-fooling around' giant clams - easily a yard across, plus the longest banded sea krait I've ever seen. About six feet, threading its way through the coral like an optical illusion.
The night dive at the Jetty, reputed to be the best critter dive in the Raja Ampats, and therefore possibly in the world, proved on this occasion to be less spectacular than usual - we think because it was a very bright full moon. Numerous lion-fish, spooky, yard-long crocodile fish, and octopus.
We also saw a sinuous Raja Ampat epaulette shark, which walks on four 'knitting needle' pinions over the coral like a ferret on stilts.
Crystal Reef, fantastic early morning dive. Clear, warm, not much current - big barracuda, moray eels, clouds of juvenile batfish. Afternoon we head out to try for mantas at Manta Sandy off Gam island. Strongish current and, most unusually, no mantas at all. Amused ourselves digging holes in the sand, watching small fish plunge industrially in to excavate further, and then some of them quickly becoming aggressively territorial about the whole project. We move on to anchor close to Arborek, Waigeo, for our early morning effort to spot Wilson's Bird of Paradise.
Wakeup call at 4.15 a.m. and in the launch and heading ashore by 5. Works like clockwork, met by guides with 2 open-backed vehicles for half hour drive into the jungle and then merely a 5-minute walk in the dark to two tiny blinds, one for each half of our group. After 40 minutes of pleasant, insect-free darkness, listening to amazing bird calls, lo and behold, one brilliant little male bird appears before each of our 2 groups. Before dawn our guides have sprinkled handfuls of small leaves over the bird's meticulously maintained dance arena. When the bird appears at first light, he is outraged, and starts ostentatiously flinging the leaves and twigs over his shoulders, to clear his arena, where he then struts his stuff. Although he's the second smallest of all the 39 Paradise bird species, he has great 'presence'. But despite his hard work, no sign of a female. I was reminded of those youthful times when I'd spend the whole day cleaning up my apartment, and then the girlfriend never shows up. Wilson's bird is only found in these 2 tiny islands of Waigeo and Batanta. This wonderful little over-active gem of a creature, furiously trying to attract a mate, was for me the highlight of the trip.
Back aboard, we motor out for a current-torn, fish-filled dive off a seamount we call Blue Magic. Used our reef hooks, and our hands, to cling on to the coral, 'twisting in the wind', as Spanish mackerel, tuna, barracuda, large wrasse, moral eels, and a couple of very fat white tip sharks, soared around us. A real sense of being in the heart of the sea, and a perfect last dive of the cruise.
Lovely, gentle ride back toward Sorong, anchoring in the p.m. to kayak and swim off a long white beach with intermittent stands of mangrove. A wonderful end to the cruise. Hard to imagine that despite this year's monstrous El Nino bringing us unseasonably bad weather for half of our cruise, we didn't miss a beat, and every day brought new adventures. The following day we fly out of Sorong, all in our various directions, but full of plans to rejoin the Seven Seas and do more of the same a little later in the stream.
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