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The Private, Exclusive Guide for Serious Divers Since 1975
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October 2019    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 45, No. 10   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Raja Ampat Explorer, Raja Ampat Indonesia

same stunning reefs, same fish, one-third the price

from the October, 2019 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver,

At 6:30 a.m., I stumbled from below decks of the wooden Raja Ampat Explorer, my brain still fuzzy after the 15-hour flight from Germany to Sorong, with stops in Singapore and Manado, Indonesia. The sun was just rising above lush, green mushroom-shaped islands dotting the calm ocean. Suddenly, I saw a drone sent up by a diver to show the maze of tiny green islands scattered over several miles, all surrounded by inviting reefs and clear blue water. A good omen for my next 10 days of what would be great dives in an awesome place.

Approaching a dive site on Raja Ampat ExplorerAlthough this was my third time to Raja Ampat -- the first aboard the Pindito, the next I split with Kararu Voyager and Max Ammer's Sorido Bay Resort -- the destination is pricing itself out for all but deep-pocket travelers. So I tracked down a budget-priced liveaboard -- $2100 for 11 nights -- for an August trip -- not the ideal time, as it is typhoon season. However, despite choppy seas, cloudy, humid days in the high 80šs, 80 percent of my dives were five-star amazing.

Take the site Batu u Wayag. Before we backrolled off the tender, Wilson, my group's eagle-eyed divemaster, briefed us thoroughly on the topography and creatures, and, as he did daily, directed us to achieve proper buoyancy control. Once down, he helped out the two guys with the biggest cameras who were interested in critters. After I spent 15 minutes in one spot waiting, I was bored, and Wilson signaled I could kick onward. Soon a huge, nearly black manta sailed by in the 100-foot visibility. I spotted a big Napoleon wrasse on the colorful reef wall, but when I tried to sneak up, it descended. Gaston (we decided to buddy up after meeting), pointed to some table coral where sweetlips hovered, but I could only shrug because they were everywhere, every dive. He signaled again, now to show me a 5-foot wobbegong shark under the coral. After a cautious approach, I got shots of his frazzled mouth and head, and closer yet, his face and his eyes, tiny spots on his huge flat head. A three-foot turtle feeding on sponges allowed me close-ups of its barnacle-covered body. I tried to shoot garden eels, which, of course, disappeared when I got within a foot of them. That's when I thought, "Maybe itīs time to buy a really good camera."

With the budget price I paid, I didnīt expect a luxury vessel, but the Explorer worked out just fine. Owned and operated by Komodo Tours, she is a wooden two-masted schooner, with an inboard engine powering her along at nine knots. She's a sound boat, but basic, with lots of patchwork. She has two cabins on the bridge level and five below deck. I shared a roomy air-conditioned cabin below decks, with two thigh-high bunks on separate sides, each with a small cupboard and storage underneath. Our shower in the ensuite bathroom produced plenty of hot water; however, they asked us not to waste water or shower after every dive. They changed towels every three days. Around 6 p.m., I switched on the room AC, which made for a cool cabin at night. I noticed two emergency exits from the lower deck, one stairway, a ladder, and multiple fire extinguishers. There were no smoke alarms. Let's hope they are in by now.

They offered four dives daily, but only supplied nitrox for half the divers, because the slow compressor couldn't fill more tanks during surface intervals, but not all guests were interested in Nitrox. To switch between nitrox and air, some divers changed their computers each time from nitrox to air, while others dived with their computer only on air, to stay even more on the safe side. We dived from two tenders that looked like inflatable Zodiacs but with hard fiberglass coating all around, and rubber-matted patches on the tube. Most dives bottomed out at 80 feet, but the current made them challenging. Dive times ran around 60 minutes or until our aluminum 80s dropped to 700 psi, at which time we were to mosey up for a safety stop.

Raja Ampat MapEvery day, Wilson divided us into three groups, and when we entered, at least one tender hovered nearby to catch drifting or surfacing divers. At Chicken Reef, the guide Whisnu recommended a negative buoyancy entry to get down quickly, so when I hit the water, I kicked down hard, pressing my nose to equalize while simultaneously pulling the release valve on the back of my BC. At 90 feet, I found myself in a ripping current -- three knots, Wilson said later. Gaston and I flew along a wall densely covered with soft and hard corals, sponges and tunicate and decorated with scads of fish. Twice we tried to use our reef hooks but could not find a spot to anchor without ripping the coral. When we finally managed to hook, I relaxed and indulged in the menagerie of fish life below: barracuda, batfish, sweetlips, grouper, and blue-striped grunts. Humphead parrotfish, jacks, fusiliers, surgeons, angels, puffers, and triggers surrounded us, and, once in a while, a yellowfin tuna sailed past. Two big stingrays glided by, and a shy shark cruised by in deeper water. It was quite the show.

Then, off to the back side of Chicken Reef, where we kicked into calm water and into the midst of so many fusiliers I often couldn't see Gaston behind me. Some divers had been pushed deeper and into open ocean. I saw two struggling deep down, but they managed to sink to the sandy slope and fight their way back up. In shallower water, I slowed my breathing and pulse to enjoy the healthy reef replete with huge areas of staghorn and lettuce coral. Hovering at my safety stop, I felt a tiny touch on my hand and found rope-like transparent protozoa, many of them tied together to as long as four inches.

The rock islands of Raja AmpatDiving like this is what Raja Ampat is all about, and it doesn't take a luxury boat to find it. Europeans tend to look more for budget trips -- I think we don't wish to spend our money on all the luxury Americans seek -- and we were among a fun bunch of Austrian, Swiss and German -- two were women. Only three had fewer than 200 dives. We shared lots of laughs and jokes with the crew, locals aged 28 to 35, and the guides quickly learned which diver preferred looking into the cracks and who preferred looking out into the blue.

The dive deck was tight when all 14 of us donned our gear -- a large table stood in the middle, with two water buckets for cameras and computers. One black mark for the Explorer is that the compressors are right behind the dive deck and run when divers and crew are walking around. Seemed to me like an inviting place for an accident. Rubber mats covered most of the dive deck floor, but there were none on the stairs to the sundeck or around the bow, so barefoot divers had to negotiate a slippery course. The dive deck, which had scattered rubber mats, is two feet above the dive platform, so I was careful stepping down and took the help offered when stepping into a dive tender with all my gear on. Choppy seas made getting in and out of the dinghy tricky, and I had to find the right moment to jump.

Raja Ampat Explorer RatingEvery day started with a wakeup call at 6:30 a.m., when our Filipino chef came out of his small galley with toast, fruits, and cold cereal. After the first plunge came the big breakfast: eggs served any style, hash browns, pancakes, noodles, beans, and bacon, as well as fresh and delicious juices -- dragon fruit, watermelon, passionfruit. Lunches always had rice and a mix of veggies, a salad, and different meats, sometimes in spicy sauces. After the third dive, we munched on cookies, crepes or banana dumplings. Dinners were rice or spaghetti, tender chicken and beef, whole red snapper or other fried fish, lasagna and lovely soups of crab, pumpkin and even asparagus. After I told the chef I had problems with gluten, he daily told me which dinner meals wouldn't be a good idea. Desserts were mostly fruit-based, not always up to standard -- I wasn't a fan of the cassava with sweet sauce and cooked potatoes. Our meals were served in a nice lounge, also home to the large camera table. Behind the bridge was a sundeck with chairs and love seats. Four divers chose to sleep there for the fresh air and to watch the star-studded skies. Or maybe to avoid sleeping below decks.

One day after lunch, Marcus, the cruise director, sat us down to address a serious issue. One of the divers, a photojournalist, had spotted a wobbegong shark under an overhang and had kicked off a large piece of pillar coral while getting his shot. When told about his actions later, he laughed it away. Previously, I had watched him lying on pink soft coral to shoot a tiny nudibranch; when he left, the coral had turned gray. The divemaster had not reprimanded him, which perhaps shows the tightrope between criticizing customers and keeping a good-paying job. The guy still refused to accept blame. Wilson told us that the dive guides had recommended against visiting famous dive sites like Cape Kri and Blue Magic, as there would be other dive groups there witnessing the damage, thus spoiling Komodo Tours' reputation and possibly causing its dive tour permits to be revoked. I don't know if this caused the jerk to wake up, but in the end, we did visit these sites. Wilson strongly warned us to watch our buoyancy, hover when shooting, or forget the shot rather than risk damage. We did see other divers on three dives.

Raja Ampat Explorer at sunsetAt Cap Kri, a stunning corner site rich in marine life, we hit current again, but just two knots. All the soft coral and hairy sea stars opened wide to catch nutrients, resembling a colorful, flourishing meadow of flowers. The two guys with huge cameras got there first and not only took their time shooting pictures, but also reviewed their results together and signed which angle to use next. Meanwhile, Gaston and I finned behind, pissed at their self-absorption and lack of concern for others, wondering if the creatures would leave before we got our chance to take photos.

I should note, however, that not every dive was great. For example, we made two dives at some village jetty with good fish life under the jetty, but then mostly long sandy stretches with some boulders. The second was worse, with more sand and small boulders, not my thing, since it was slow going just for a few sightings for nudi and critter lovers.

Our last dive at Mike's Point was the highlight for me, as that's my name too. Whisnu warned of strong current, so negative entry was a must. I reached an overhang at 90 feet and grabbed hold, but could see no other divers. When I got my bearings, I saw bubbles behind a huge boulder. The 2.5-knot current was fierce, but I somehow managed to get across it and to a cavern-like overhang to rest and look around. Sweetlips, jacks, and surgeons floated effortlessly; it was like watching The Blue Planet in HD. Slowly I ascended and found a beautiful coral garden, where a hovering cuttlefish changed its color and features, even lifting two of its arms as a warning when I approached. A small turtle calmly fed on the coral.

A basic twin bunk cabinOne thing I liked about my Explorer trip was the island visits it offered for sightseeing, birdwatching, and hiking. On Wayag Island, the captain took us on a hillside hike -- a bit of exertion, but worth it to see the karst landforms and the 360-degree view. After a birdwatching tour, Marcus took us to a village built like a fortress, with new, well-tended wooden huts around the outer circle and small shops in between, selling sweets, fruits, and small items. Kids were everywhere, watching us tourists with big eyes. In the evenings, I and a few others read while the remainder looked at their pictures or worked on their PCs; at some point most went up to the sun deck for small talk, but socializing ended around 9 p.m.

One night we anchored in front of Raja Ampat Dive Resort, a magnificent place with lovely bungalows and beach. It's a pretty penny to stay there, but I got my money's worth on the Explorer because I saw the same amazing fish life and reefs for a third of the price some people pay. The craft is not deluxe. But with a max of only 14 divers, I had space to stretch out and relax and got plenty of care from the excellent crew. If you want to see the best of Raja diving and can tiptoe carefully on a few slippery parts of the dive deck and platform, you will come away with a great trip aboard the Explorer and save enough money to do it again.

-- M.J.

Our Undercover Diver's Bio: Mike Nelson in Sea Hunt inoculated me with the dive virus when I was 17. I followed all his adventures on TV and saw myself one day in the future diving into the deep blue in a silvery wetsuit with those two hoses and big tube regulator. Diving since 1974, I've made more than 2,200 dives in more than 100 destinations worldwide. I'm always looking for special destinations that have 'icing on the cake' dives like Phoenix Island, Kiribati, Rowley Shoals, Djibouti and New Calendonia. I'm still dreaming of visiting Bikini Atoll and Yemen.

Divers CompassDivers Compass: For 11 nights, I paid around US$2,100, which included four dives daily, meals and transfer from Sorong airport; the marine park fee was an additional $100 . . . sodas and beer cost extra, and other drinks were BYO. . . The Explorer offers rental gear, but only if you book it in advance . . . the best time for Raja Ampat diving is October to March . . . I laid over in Manado at the Novotel for $140/night . . . Lion Air to Sorong has a baggage allowance of only 22 pounds, so I had to pay $20 for 20 extra pounds . . . a recompression chamber is at Wasai, but I read it's currently not compliant with international standards and that bent divers should be evacuated to Manado . . .Websites: Raja Ampat Explorer -- . . . Novotel Manado -

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