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The Simple Joys of Staying Shallow: Raja Ampat on the Seven Seas

Feb 24, 2020

Trip Report & photos by Tommy Schultz.

Hawksbill sea turtle

It’s just before first light as Captain Abdul Rifai guides the Seven Seas towards Sawandarek village in central Raja Ampat. The clank of the anchor chain is our nautical alarm clock this morning – time to dive!

After a quick briefing from Cruise Director Alex, we’re speeding across the glassy sea as the glow of the sun rises in the east. Plunging into the warm waters with my dive buddy Richard, we’re face to face with a huge batfish – curious to check out these strange creatures who’ve just broken the beautiful silence of the Raja Ampat daybreak.

Alex guides us around the Sawandarek jetty, inquisitive pods of sweetlips staring at us with their taciturn faces. The current within the bay is almost non-existent, so I decide to explore the shallow reef while everyone else ventures deeper to check out an interesting bommie that Alex knows from previous visits.

The morning sun has just cleared the horizon and the entire panorama of the Sawandarek reef is bathed in a magical shimmering light – like a cathedral through stained glass windows. I check my camera settings to balance the exposure with the radiant beams of golden sun sparkling above.

​I spot a small hawksbill sea turtle gliding just above the reef, its avian eyes searching for a choice piece of coral to munch on. Swimming along beside the gentle creature, I start taking photos. The scene is straight out of an underwater photographer’s dream – perfect light, a willing photo subject, and an ever-changing background of schooling fish.

Before I know it, my hour is up – I’ve spent almost the entire dive shallower than a safety stop, but I come up feeling like it was the best underwater adventure I’ve had in a while.

I guess it’s easy as a diver to get carried away with always looking deeper, searching for that epic encounter in the unknown depths. Maybe it’s because as a photographer, I’m also looking for both magical creatures and magical light, but on this trip I always took the shallow option when given the choice.

As the memory cards on my camera came back filled from every dive, I leaned on the award-winning videography experience of Cruise Director Alex to choose the best lens combination for every location, and he always directed me straight to the best spots for photos.

Raja Ampat shallows

​Leaving the quiet village of Sawandarek to the stern of the Seven Seas, the crew charts a course to Aborek village. We’ll be exploring the shallow water jetty here, and, if we’re lucky, check out a manta cleaning station.

The first dive of the day takes us to an underwater mountain ridge near Aborek – the powerful undersea currents a favorite spot for mantas to stop by for a bit of grooming.

Dive buddy Richard and I hook in to rocks just below the crest of the undersea ridge and wait. Above us, the morning sun sparkles golden sunbeams across the reef – nearly perfect conditions for photos.

All we need is a manta.

To my left, my peripheral vision catches an unmistakable black silhouette. No matter how many times I’ve been in the water with these graceful elasmobranches, the experience is always pure magic.

I hold my breath to quiet the bubbles from my tank, waiting for the manta to approach within range of the ultra-wide fisheye lens Alex has recommended I use this morning.

Manta

​The gentle creature glides directly above me, momentarily eclipsing the morning sun as I snap a few photos. The manta is so close that with any other lens than the fisheye, my frame couldn’t take in the whole scene (thanks Alex!).

Our sixty minutes underwater passes like a dream, three mantas have come within mere feet of us – putting on a spectacular underwater show.

We’ll spend the rest of the day exploring Arborek, then it’s on to the next destination.

Overnight, we travel a few hours to the blue water mangroves at Yanggefo.

These environments are some of the most dramatic in all of Raja Ampat (which is saying a lot). Dense groves of emerald mangroves line the shore here, with shallow reefs of colorful hard and soft corals fringing the coast.

If you normally associate mangroves with the muddy seafloor of an estuary, snorkeling or diving here is a totally new experience.

I’m trying to create a split shot, where the frame is divided between the scene underwater and what’s visible above the surface. Normally the challenge with a shot like this is to find a location where the scene underwater is as interesting as that above, but in the case of Yanggefo this is definitely not a problem.

Mangroves

​Alex recommends the fisheye, and I change my camera port to a large plexiglass dome to maximize the split effect.

I’m snorkeling along the reef, composing potential split shots in my mind when I reach a stunning expanse of violet branching corals, surrounded by shimmering schools of anthias and other reef fish.

Above the reef, a beautiful stand of mangroves guards the shoreline – the perfect place for split shots.

While I’m composing the reef shot, I see a flicker of movement back in the shadows of the mangroves – a cuttlefish is jetting along the boundary between the two environments.

Moving slowly, trying not to scare the fast-moving creature, I can see another great split shot here.

With the cuttlefish hidden within the gnarled roots of the mangrove tree, the green of the leaves above is creating a great contrast. Hardly believing my luck, I’m shooting two different split shots in one place.

Another day passes as a highlight reel of underwater adventures. For the last part of the expedition, we’re exploring the reefs around Misool – home to some of Raja Ampat’s most iconic destinations.

At Melissa’s Rock I find orange and pink soft corals framed by a background of schooling surgeonfish, a trio of hunting blacktip sharks at ‘Whale Rock’, and finally the alien environment of the jellyfish lake – seemingly millions of this creatures rising to the surface to photosynthesize in the morning sun – just to name a few of the highlights of the last few days.

This is my fifth voyage on the Seven Seas and I’ve never adjusted to just how fast time flies when you’re out and exploring with Indonesia’s best liveaboard crew.

Before I know it, we’re steaming back into Sorong harbor, another epic adventure trailing in our wake and a coffee-table book’s worth of memories on my hard drive.

​Tommy Schultz
February 2020
Facebook: facebook.com/tommyschultzphoto
Website: tommyschultz.com

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