Raja Ampat Islands: Best Snorkeling in the World

Raja Ampat offers Coral, nudibranchs, and more

By Larry Taylor

The author says the Raja Ampat Islands offer the best snorkeling in the world. Photos by Gail Taylor
The author says the Raja Ampat Islands offer the best snorkeling in Indonesia, and he thinks the world. Photos by Gail Taylor

There is no doubt about it – the best snorkeling and diving in the world is in Raja Ampat.

This west Indonesian archipelago contains more marine bio-diversity than anywhere else in the world – more fish, more corals.

In 2002, The Nature Conservancy conducted a scientific survey of the Raja Ampat Islands to collect information on its marine ecosystems, mangroves and forests.

The survey brought Raja Ampat’s total number of confirmed corals to 537 species —  an incredible 75 percent of all known coral species.

In addition, an amazing 1,074 fish species were found. (One source has recently upped that to nearly 1,300.)

My wife and I have snorkeled all around the globe. Previously, we thought the best was in Palau. Raja Ampat, we decided, was even better.

One of the reasons is the area’s isolation. During our 10-day boat, live-aboard, trip, we saw no other tourists – no divers, no snorkelers, no anybody. The only other humans seen were natives in the few villages.

Located off the northwest tip of the island of Papua New Guinea, Raja Ampat (translated, Four Kings) is an archipelago comprising over 1,500 small islands, cays and shoals surrounding the four main islands of Misool, Salawati, Batanta and Waigeo.

Most islands are limestone, pock-marked with caves, and undercut with wave action. Some are volcanic. All are covered with green growth and small trees and are part of the newly named West Papua province of Indonesia.

The Shakti is designed after traditional Indonesian boats.
The Shakti is designed after traditional Indonesian boats.

On the Shakti Boat

We went there in late May on a Wilderness Travel snorkeling expedition. With 11 in our group, we stayed aboard the Shakti, a double-masted traditional Indonesian craft. It is 36 yards long and 8 yards wide.

Our room, though cramped, was comfortable. Captain and builder  Scotsman David Pagliari, raised in Hong Kong, maintains a crew of seven.

Most importantly, our guide was Ethan Daniels, a marine biologist. He is an expert on the flora and fauna of the area and has led several expeditions to Raja Ampat.

During cocktail hour on the top deck, he would gather us daily for a lecture on the marine life and geography of the places we would visit, with slides to illustrate his talks. During our snorkels when something was spotted, he would make sure everyone had seen it.

Our routine was two-morning snorkels and three afternoons. This was supplemented by hikes –  hiking up to vistas, exploring caves, bird watching. The first snorkel was around 8:30. So we got up early, seeing brilliant red sunrises, before breakfast at 7.

Our group leader Ethan Daniels gave daily talks on board about marine life.
Our group leader Ethan Daniels gave daily talks on board about marine life

In the Water Snorkeling

Boarding a dinghy, we were taken to spots with colorful descriptive names – Zen Coral Garden West, Monitor Lizard Beach, Guitar Island. We snorkeled along walls with every imaginable type coral and fish.

In deeper water, we would see large bump-head parrot fish go by in schools and solitary black-tip reef sharks.

One memorable sight – a school of hundreds of baitfish glided by with several two-foot, yellow, and black-spotted oriental sweetlips swimming under them,  probably trying to grab a snack.

On shallow reefs, we would see incredible coral gardens below us. Huge plate corals and sweeping soft corals were among every possible kind in greater abundance and colors than we had ever seen.

Living among them were yellow, orange, and purple sponges. Like eager students,  we were able to identify them from Ethan’s lectures.

There were several types anemone on the reef; each had its anemone fish, commonly called clownfish. Mostly orange with white stripes, here we also saw brown with blue stripes and pink anemonefish with a stripe down the back.

We visited many of Raja Ampat’s islands.
We visited many of the islands in the Raja Ampat Archipelago.

Going With the Flow

At times we would take drift dives. Our dinghy would let us off at the beginning of a tidal passage, and the swift water would carry us through – an amusement park ride in the midst of an aquarium. We just let ourselves go with the flow.

A couple of times we entered strange worlds – mangrove swamps where cardinal fish lurked in tangled roots, and tiny shrimp dug holes on sandy bottoms while goby fish (their roommates) stood watch for predators.

In one grove, we took off fins and stealthily walked through the shallows to a deserted beach. Close to shore was a “nursery” for baby stingrays and reef sharks. Disturbed, the babies fled at our approach. One ray nearly bumped into my shocked wife’s leg.

While leaving the grove, we spotted the shaggy wobbegong shark under a ledge. It looked more like  “Cookie Monster” than a fish.

Adventures and Revelations

Each day brought more surprising adventures. None more so than the day we took our “field trip” to the pearl farm on Waigeo Island. The tour was most interesting as we saw how oysters were seeded and shucked for pearls.

The rare Woebbegong shark crouches, waiting for prey.
The rare wobbegong shark crouches, waiting for prey.

This was also our only shopping stop with pearl jewelry on display at the end of the tour. A plus here – our boat was given a bag of oyster meat, a delicious treat for dinner.

Following the tour came one of our trip highlights – snorkeling off the dock in front of the farm. No dazzling coral here. It was rocky reefs and sandy bottoms but amazing creatures to behold.

Without our guides, we would have swum past most of them. The cuttlefish, for example, takes on the color of its surroundings. Its skin even becomes spiky to mimic jagged surfaces. The craggy scorpion and stonefish are difficult to detect.

The spotted epaulet shark was here, its coloring, too, blending amazingly with the background. When startled, it walked away on two lower fins, as it uniquely does.

Indonesian Guide

Particularly good at spotting was our Indonesian guide from the Shakti, Robert Lahenko. For example, he would dive and, coming up, would say “crocodile fish.” We would shrug, saying, “Where?” He would go down again and trace its outline with his fingers. And, “Voila!” There it was.

The cuttlefish is a master of camouflage.
The cuttlefish is a master of camouflage.

After everyone saw it, he would sometimes nudge it, letting us see it slithering away. He, along with Daniels, is what made this trip so rewarding.

Something new to us, but readily seen here were beautiful nudibranchs. Diver friends have gone deep to see them, but here they were in shallow waters.

Mollusks without shells, these are sometimes called sea snails. We were constantly on the lookout for them – one- to two-inch creatures, decorated in all ranges of  blues, oranges, yellows, reds

Snacks and Meals

When we came in from our afternoon snorkel, we had delicious fresh-from-the-galley baked goods: cinnamon rolls, apple cake, cookies, all made from German recipes of first mate Diana “Din” Himmelspach. Conversant in English and the local Indonesian dialect as well as German, Din translated directions to the crew and cooks.

Shakti had two Indonesian cooks who prepared local foods. While the curry-like dishes were tasty and hearty, they did get a bit monotonous. Lunch and dinner always consisted of white rice, a vegetable, meat and fish, or shellfish. All were sauce-based with ginger and local spices. Dessert was fresh fruit.

Village children greeted us on our visit.
Village children greeted us on our visit.

Breakfast consisted of crepes and/or eggs and freshly baked bread. A few times corn flakes were a welcome option. A cooler on deck was open 24 hours a day and was filled with local beer, juices, and soft drinks.

Our next-to-last day, we anchored off South Gam Island which is home for the spectacular Red Bird of Paradise.

We went ashore for a short hike to a “bird blind,” erected by islanders to view the birds above. We heard their calls, and there they were, high in the treetops.

Silhouetted against the sun, the birds were difficult to photograph. But we saw them go through their mating display.

Villagers we met were living much the same way they always had. We could hear the whir of a generator, however, and saw a TV satellite dish on top of a meeting hall.

The people were very friendly, especially the children. Some in our group joined in a pickup soccer game on the field in the middle of the village. This was our introduction back into civilization before we headed home the next day.

Tired but happy, we were definitely ready to stretch out in a full-size bed and luxuriate in our large bedroom.

Wilderness Travel schedules eight trips a year to Raja Ampat – four in late spring; four in late fall. For information: (800) 368- 2794, email.

To arrange a trip on the boat independently go to shakti-raja-ampat.com

Larry Taylor retired from instructing college journalism after over 20 years. He came to teaching after 15 years in the newspaper business, working for Ridder/Johns Newspapers. After retiring, he has done much traveling and writing about it. He also reviews plays and musical presentations for local newspapers and online magazines. His wife Gail works as a fundraiser and photographer. She takes photos for his stories.

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