Diving The Sweet Spot
Indonesia’s Raja Ampat can justly lay claim to being the planet’s finest dive destination.heads down to see for himself
AS A KEEN diver, I’ve often pondered the benefits of dive tourism, especially when witnessing a novice accidentally knocking off a piece of live coral or walking across a fragile reef in blissful ignorance. But there’s no doubt that dive tourism is a powerful force in marine conservation, especially, perhaps, when the tour operator is at the luxury end of the market and its customers are loaded with much-needed foreign cash.
A fine example is the Dewi Nusantara dive ship that operates in Indonesia’s Raja Ampat area, off Bird’s Head Peninsula at the northwestern tip of New Guinea. Raja Ampat is quite likely the richest of all the world’s coral-reef areas, with an astonishing 1,430 species of fish and 550 of coral (roughly 10 times that of the entire Caribbean Sea). What’s more, new species of both, and other marine creatures, are being discovered on a near-monthly basis.
Mark Erdmann, senior adviser of Indonesia’s marine programme with Conservation International, an organisation active in protecting Raja Ampat (about one fifth of its 4.5 million hectares is now marine reserve), is unequivocal when it comes to the conservation value of the area. “Simply put, Raja Ampat is the global epicentre of marine biodiversity,” Erdmann declares. “There are more marine species recorded from here than anywhere else on the planet, in part due to its location in the centre of the uber-diverse Coral Triangle, but even more so because of the mind-boggling array of habitats represented in Raja Ampat – each with its own suite of species. Many of these fishes are endemic and found nowhere else in the world, and travellers to the region quickly grasp that Raja Ampat is also one of the singularly most beautiful and wild areas – both above and below water – remaining on Earth.”
The high biodiversity of the area results mainly from it being a “sweet spot” at the confluence of several oceanic currents. Biologists believe that the area functions as an incubator for marine life, seeding much of the vast Coral Triangle stretching from the Philippines to Borneo to the Solomon Islands. Raja Ampat, incidentally, translates as “four kings,” a reference to the main islands of Salawati, Misool, Batanta and Waigeo.
Conservation International, in partnership with the World Wide Fund for Nature, The Nature Conservancy and the Indonesian government, has established seven protected areas in Raja Ampat where, among other practices, shark fishing and finning are banned. (Sharks in the area have been the subject of finning for three decades, leading to a near absence of the creatures.) Meanwhile, each diver must pay an entrance fee of US$60, which generates about $250,000 a year. Most of the money goes towards funding village conservation projects (such as community patrols of local waters) and a village healthcare programme for pregnant and nursing mothers in Raja Ampat’s 103 villages.
Raja Ampat offers without doubt the most rewarding diving I have ever done, and in the past dozen years this hobby has taken me to the Great Barrier Reef, Pohnpei in Micronesia, and the Maldives and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands in the Indian Ocean. But none of these trips has been in the lap of luxury to the degree executed on the Dewi Nusantara, which plies the waters of Indonesia and, from September to April, Raja Ampat in particular.
Dewi Nusantara (Goddess of the Archipelago) is a realised dream for its builder and owner, Guido Brink. Very much one of life’s free spirits, Brink was backpacking in India when he was offered a job in Jakarta. One made-in-a-day suit later, he was working for an advertising company in the Indonesian capital. But his main love is the sea. Given his experience crewing on the tall ship Amsterdam and his encyclopaedic knowledge of things nautical (especially the Dutch East India Company), a move into the luxury dive-boat market was the logical next step for him.
Brink built his first boat in Indonesia in 1997; the magnificent Dewi Nusantara, which he had constructed in Borneo and fitted in Bali, was finished just two years ago. Marketed under the name of Paradise Dancer as a member of the world-renowned Dancer Fleet, the 57-metre, 750-tonne, three-mast schooner is the largest dive vessel to ply the waters of Indonesia and is available for charter when not on regular trips, attracting Hollywood film producers, Hong Kong billionaires and wealthy retirees for whom money and time are no object.
It is also one of the most luxurious and well appointed, with eight 194-square-foot double cabins with portholes, and one 495-squarefoot cabin (the Master and Commander Suite – a nod to Brink’s love of the seafaring novels of Patrick O’Brian). This cabin is at the stern of the ship and features sweeping panoramic windows in the manner of the captain’s cabin of an 18th-century man-of-war. All rooms are en suite and air-conditioned, with the dark, varnished ironwood from which the ship is built forming pleasingly robust walls, floors and ceilings. The number of rooms means that there are no more than 18 guests aboard at any one time. Eight crew are dedicated solely to pampering the passengers, with a similar number responsible for the navigation and maintenance of the vessel.
In addition to the sleeping quarters, Dewi Nusantara has a large lounge (where meals aretaken if the weather is inclement), the “waist”of the ship that serves as an outdoor diningroom and kitting-up area, two sun decks withhammocks and loungers, and a camera roomwhere divers can dry and service their opticalequipment. The vessel has two tenders, andits compressors can handle air or nitrox,which is increasingly favoured by divers.Other nice touches are the provision of warmtowels after a dive followed by a quick headand neck massage from one of the crew, and acup of hot chocolate spiked with Baileys aftera night dive.
Guests are also very well attended when under the water – cruise director Wendy and Indonesian dive masters Yan, Bakro and Acho are astonishingly observant, picking out, for example, minute pygmy seahorses on what seems to be an unoccupied gorgonian fan. There are four dives per day: before breakfast, after breakfast, after lunch and at night. All are optional, of course - guests can do all four or none at all if they feel like a day snoozing on the sundeck. But most passengers are hardcore divers who have travelled long and far to get to Raja Ampat and are intent on getting in their daily quartet.
If I had one gripe, it would be that this glorious sailing ship rarely sails (unless you specifically charter her). On our trip, the sails were hoisted only once for a photo op, with divers placed in the vantage points of the tenders from where we could make the appropriate “ooh and ah” noises. That said, it really is a matter of practicality: during our 11-day voyage, the vessel covered more than 700 kilometres to reach the best dive sites, and leaving such a journey to the vagaries of the elements simply would not work.
And what dive sites they are. The first thing that strikes anyone who ventures under water in Raja Ampat is the variety and proliferation of corals and their attendant fish – a surreal cartoon world, where you’re content to hang in the current and be deliciously overwhelmed by the spectacle. All that species diversity translates into a breathtaking tableau of colour, shapes and movement: it is, to use a much-overworked word, awesome.
Among the hundreds of species on view are manta rays, wobbegong sharks, Napoleon wrasse, winged pipefish, clown trigger fish, turtles, giant barracuda, giant clams, octopuses, toad fish, ghost pipefish and banded sea snakes, at exotic- sounding locales such as Neptune’s Fantasea, Boo’s Magic Mountain, Edy’s Black Forest, Nudi Rock and Happy Ending. But of the 27 dives I made over 10 days, two more than any other stay firmly in my mind. One was a night dive off a wall at the island of Boo, in the southwest of Raja Ampat. Here, countless millions of tiny electric-blue planktonic creatures were attracted to the beam of my torch, in such numbers that I became surrounded in a swarm – an experience that instead of being alarming, as one would expect, was actually exhilarating. Whether they were crustacean larvae, baby fish or some strange invertebrate, I have no idea, but the effect was most definitely that of being in another world.
The other dive that comes to mind was also at Boo, at a site called Boo West Corner, where the submarine terrain enabled me to hang motionless in a gap between two small rocky islands. In this gap, predators such as trevallies and barracuda were hunting the inordinate numbers of smaller fish hanging, like I was, on the current. As the hunters darted in on lightning raids, their silver sides flashed brilliantly with every turn. Much of the marine life in Raja Ampat seems unfazed by the presence of divers, coming up much closer than at other, better-known dive sites. To witness such a scene is a reminder of just what a thoroughly exceptional place Raja Ampat is.
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