You can get up close to huge manta rays and giant clams, gape at schools of barracuda, fusiliers or parrotfish, peer at tiny pygmy seahorses or multicoloured nudibranchs, and, with luck, encounter wobbegong and epaulette (walking) sharks. The reefs have hundreds of brilliantly coloured soft and hard corals, and the marine topography varies from vertical walls and pinnacles to reef flats and underwater ridges. To generalise, Raja Ampat is better suited to advanced divers; it's not exactly a learn-to-dive hot spot. There are, however, some dive spots and courses suitable for relative novices.
Most dives are drift dives. Beware: the currents that whip you along the edge of the reefs can be very strong. You can dive year-round, although the usually smooth seas can get rough from July to September (the Raja Ampat/Sorong area gets its heavier rain from May to October). The dive resorts generally offer packages of a week or more and focus on spots within about 10km of their resort. Some will take nonguests diving if they have places available, for around 550,000Rp per dive, plus extra for equipment rentals. Valid insurance and dive cards are required at reputable dive operators.
Many of the ever-growing number of homestays on Arborek, Pulau Kri and Pulau Gam also offer diving services, but only highly experienced divers should consider these options – the guides can be short on professional training and the equipment is sometimes subpar. We’ve heard numerous stories of people who’ve signed up to dive with a homestay and run into problems, including sickness due to poor air quality in tanks, severe cases of the bends and having to be rescued by boats from the top-end dive resorts. If you do dive with a homestay, ask to see its certification. There’s a decompression chamber in Waisai, but the quality of the facility is unreliable; the nearest decent chamber is far away in Manado, in north Sulawesi.
Dive Operator Checklist
Before choosing a dive operation in Raja Ampat, check that it meets the following recommended requirements.
- The shop employs certified dive masters and/or instructors.
- The condition of the rental equipment and storage facility meet your standards.
- The boats are in good condition and are not overloaded on dive trips.
- The dive shop has oxygen and first aid kits, along with staff trained in responding to emergencies.
- The dive shop either requires or strongly recommends that individuals carry dive insurance.
- The dive shop responds promptly and professionally to questions.
There are strong currents in some areas of the Raja Ampat Islands, but snorkellers can enjoy top dive locations including Cape Kri, Manta Sandy (although the manta rays are often a bit deep to see properly), the Fam Islands, Pulau Wai and Mioskon (10km northeast of Kri). Trips cost around 200,000Rp per person.
You can also see wonderful coral and marine life just by stepping off the beach or plopping in off the jetty in many places. The Arborkek, Yenbuba, Sauwandarek jetties are particularly rewarding. Most accommodation, including homestays, can rent or loan snorkelling gear.
Be sure to ask about potential hazards before setting out; some areas are known for their populations of large saltwater crocodiles. Also, keep in mind that as the pace of development increases around the islands, crocs may begin turning up in less expected places.
The many exotic birds on the islands include two fantastically coloured endemic birds of paradise, the red and the Wilson’s. The red male has a spectacular courtship dance in which he spreads his wings and shakes like a big butterfly. Village guides in Waisai and Pulau Gam provide a relatively easy way to see this, charging around 300,000Rp per person for early-morning walks to nearby display spots. More experienced birders seeking a guide with deep knowledge will want to go with Charles Roring, who charges 500,000Rp per day and brings a spotting scope, field guide and sound player. Sorong-based Papua Expeditions (www.papuaexpeditions.com) also offers specialised Raja Ampat birding trips.