December, 2016 - Anilao in the Philippines: I'm in the camera room at the Aiyanar resort and little did I know that I was in the room with underwater photography royalty. David Doubilet of National Geographic fame was there doing a shoot on the area. As we got to talking a bit, I asked him where we should go next and after ascertaining where we had been he said definitively..."Raja Ampat".
Fast forward a few months to Maurie and I planning our 20th anniversary. Maurie has wanted to see New Zealand for years and of course I was looking for diving, so we ended up going to Raja Ampat. It was a compromise that made tons of sense to me at least. Since we had never been there before we enlisted the help of Tim Yeo at Blue Water Travel. Tim did a great job getting us to the Philippines and he outdid himself on this one. We ended up choosing two resorts, one in the north (Sorido Bay Resort) and one in the south (Misool Eco Resort) of Raja Ampat. The final step was booking the air which proved challenging as we used miles to travel up front.
Our route (Austin-Chicago-Hong Kong-Bangkok-Jakarta-Makassar-Sorong) took a total of around 60 hours. We had day rooms for long layovers in Bangkok (in airport) and Jakarta (FM7 just outside airport). I can tell you that the ability to take showers and change clothes was a blessing after being in the air for so long.
One of the highlights of the air travel was the fact that they had durian fruit blizzards at the Dairy Queen in the Bangkok airport. Durian fruit in case you didn't know is possibly one of the worst smelling foods on the planet.
Thoroughly jet lagged, we were very ready to get off the plane in Sorong. Representatives of the first resort, Misool Eco Resort, met us at the airport and took us to harbor where we boarded a ferry for the four hour trip to the resort.
Misool Eco Resort
Stunning, breath taking, beautiful... all these adjectives don't do the property justice. Imagine the most idyllic tropical island in the world and you are getting close.
We spent Christmas at the resort. I wasn't sure what to expect in a largely Muslim country, but they did it up right, including handmade, monogramed gingerbread cookies for Santa. Oh my! The middle shot below is worth clicking on to expand to see the Misool Christmas Tree. Sustainable, beautiful, and quite a work of art if you ask me.
Specifics on our stay at the resort:
- We stayed in Villa Tenang on the south beach (see map of resort). We chose this because it was our 20th anniversary and we wanted a level of seclusion. Also, I showed Maurie the pictures online and she was hooked on having the beach right outside our bedroom. See pictures above. It was an epic room. Air conditioning is provided along with other amenities. You have two choices to get to the dive shop from the south beach, the stairs or the water taxi. If you are looking for some exercise other than diving, take the stairs, otherwise the water taxi is your friend. When we go again, we will request the same room
- The food was very good. Given that everything is brought in by boat from Sorong, they provide a nice assortment of dishes. The cuisine is mostly traditional Indonesian food (curries, fish, chicken, rice, etc.) They also have a great selection of vegetarian dishes for those so inclined. They were amazing at tracking food allergies and gluten intolerance to the point where none of us with such things had any problem. Maurie and I took the cooking class and loved it. I've requested the recipes we made and will post here with the permission of the resort. They have a selection of white and red wine and local beer. If you want hard liquor, pick it up before you hit Indonesia as it goes up in price significantly. One more important fact is that they have TWO breakfasts. First breakfast is before the first dive and Second breakfast is after the first dive.
- Aside from the chairs, cushions, and hammocks at the rooms, there are a number of place to hang out and relax around the dive shop which are quite nice. We found ourselves socializing a lot in the dining room after dinner with our fellow guests.
- The staff at Misool are amazing. Mark and Sue couldn't have been more accommodating. Sabine Templeton who runs the dive shop was a fountain of knowledge about local marine life and is very active in manta research. Our guide Marfel Salindeho was nothing short of a miracle underwater in his ability to find critters for me to shoot. The rest of the staff were accommodating, very pleasant, and just nice people to be around.
- The dive shop is very well designed. There is a large camera area with charging stations and lighting. With all my crap, I ended up taking over two spots, but that is because I took a ridiculous amount of gear. The wet area had plenty of fresh water rinsing stations and showers for taking the salt off between dives.
One of the reasons we were attracted to Misool was the good work that the Misool Foundation does in the area. I won't restate their website, just encourage you to have a look at it. Some of their key projects are:
The Misool Marine Reserve - One of the key things the founders Marit and Andrew Miners accomplished is the creation of a 300,000 acre no take zone around the island. Getting this approved by the local government is one thing, but enforcing it is quite another. The foundation currently supports a number of staff that patrol the area both by boat and by drone to warn off violators. In addition to warning off fishermen, the team also has a very active coral restoration project going at multiple places in the reserve. More on that below.
We were fortunate enough to spend some time with some of the volunteers and workers that help enforce the no fishing ban as well as work on the coral restoration projects
From the Misool Foundation website...
A recent scientific survey analyzed fish biomass at several sites within the Misool Marine Reserve, comparing data from 2007 and 2013. The sites included many of Misool's most popular dive sites such as Nudi Rock and Daram. On average, the biomass increased by 250% over just 6 years. On some key sites, recovery surpassed 600%.
This is an incredible testament to what can be done for the environment. It gives me hope.
The Misool Manta Project - tracks the movement and behaviors of mantas in the area. This includes using pictures taken by staff and guests both to identify the unique markings of observed mantas. In addition, they fund tracking mechanisms to plot movements which are recorded for study later. Dive Manager, Sabine Templeton, gave us a presentation on this as part of her manta presentation. It was amazing to see the work they have done for these beautiful creatures.
The Misool Recycling Project - is something that this area sorely needs. Being from the U.S., we take garbage services for granted. In much of Indonesia, these services don't exist. As such the much of the refuse ends up in the ocean. The Misool Foundation started Bank Sambah to start to combat this problem. Through this initiative, they purchase recyclable materials from local villages and processes them. This is important not only because it keeps materials out of the ocean, but also provides incentive to locals to do so.
Our dive sites are listed below on the great log entry that the resort gives you when you are done. Almost all of the dive sites are within 15 minutes of the resort. Important facts about the diving ops at Misool:
- There is a lot of current in Raja. Be prepared to dive in it and be comfortable. Reef sticks and reef hooks are a must. Finally, tell the divemaster if you haven't dove in current before so they can help you.
- The boats look small, but were very comfortable. The boats maxed at 8 which freaked me out at first, but took 2 divemasters so the maximum size of group was 4.
- They dive a tight schedule of 3 tanks per day. You can request night dives in addition and you can always do the house reef in addition. That said, you are far, far away from a chamber, so they are very conservative (and rightly so) about no decompression limits, surface intervals, etc.
- Be NITROX certified before you come. Again, it is a safety factor for repetitive diving. Also, be an Advanced Diver or higher before you come. You will be diving deeper than 60 feet and you want DAN to cover you if something bad happens. If you don't know what I"m talking about, do the research.
- I wore a 1 mm suit and was never cold, my wife ware a 5/3 mm and was fine. Average temperature at the end of the year was 84 F / 29 C.
- The visibility at this time of year was between 40-60 feet. If you want better, go around July / August, just don't expect as many mantas.
The big dives as you may have figured out from my log were Magic Mountain and Whale Rock. Our first dive of Magic Mountain was, yes, magical. We had a big oceanic manta near the surface as we dropped in and huge schools of Blue Fusiliers as we descended down to the cleaning station. And yes, thar be mantas there.
Beyond the Mantas
Raja Ampat is one of the epicenters of global biodiversity. Every dive was a voyage of discovery with new fish, new corals and other invertebrates, or something else.
Misool in the south is known for its soft corals and it didn't fail to deliver. My personal favorites are from the genus Dendronepthya, commonly called Carnation or Cauliflower corals. They can be nearly every color in the rainbow including bright pink (top middle below) to yellow, purple, scarlet, white, and many combinations between. The somewhat abstract shot (second row on the left) below is a super macro shot of one of these corals.
Tiny crustaceans such as these are always one of my favorite things to shoot. With very few exceptions, I would not have found any of these without the help of our dive guide Marfel. As with the pygmy seahorses, he seemed to have a sixth sense of where to find these fascinating critters.
And my all time favorite, flatworms and nudibranchs...
Final Words on Misool Eco Resort
Maurie and I both decided that this is one of the very few resorts we would come back to without hesitation. They even have a discount for repeat stayers after the third visit, so more incentive.
Sorido Bay Resort
I have a confession. After finding Misool to be a virtual paradise, I was worried about how Sorido Bay might compare. Would we have our own private beach? How could there be a dive guide with as good as Marfel? Would there be 24x7 sharks in the lagoon? And then we got there and the worries went away. First, instead of a four hour boat ride, it was an hour and a half to get there. And then there was this...