Southern Raja Ampat’s underwater drama

Raja Ampat underwater is one stunning tableau after another

Raja Ampat is famous for its marine life: it is alleged to be among the most biodiverse in the world. Every time we put our heads underwater we are reminded of the incredible drama below the surface. Finally, I can share some of it here! After our new underwater camera died the first time we used it underwater in PNG, we have a replacement. In the big duffle full of goodies that Dan has brought us from the states is a new underwater camera, a gift from my brother. I cannot stop taking photos with it and am so happy to finally have an underwater camera in hand again. Dan has brought his as well, and between us we are truly snap-happy.

Dan is a freediving instructor, so he’s been helping us with tips and information to safely improve our diving. Are we lucky or what? Don’t worry Mum, I’ll still probably never get much below 30 feet, even with professional help! Niall can manage over 40 now, confirmed he retrieved a lost piece of gear from the bottom in another anchorage. The girls are getting more comfortable, but have no depth ambitions, which is fine. We are never going to be hardcore freedivers, but since Totem doesn’t have the room or budget for scuba gear, it’s great to learn more about how to get down and enjoy beauty of the world underwater.

Like this.

A feather grabs the light.

Dan hovers behind a free-swimming crinoid.

The turtles never get old. Never, ever, ever.

Clownfish are adorable. #fact

Have I mentioned the adorable anenome fish?

It’s just that they have so much personality! Yes, they are fish. Yes, I said personality. TRUST ME.

Moving aboard your floating home

There is no “right” way to move aboard and go cruising: the books and blogs are full of different stories that reflect individual approaches and circumstances. Our story is based on a joint dream, years and thousands of miles in our starter cruising boat before buying Totem, delaying our move aboard until shortly before departure, and introducing our plans to most mostly to ourselves until a couple of months before we left.

By the time we cut the docklines, we had logged so much time in the Salish Sea between the two boats that our little family felt very much at home afloat. What we nearly missed, though, was making sure our boat really felt homey.

It took a little knock upside the head for me to realize how important this was, too. During the couple of years before we each left to go cruising, every now and again my friend Toast and I would duck our day to day responsibilities and sneak off to talk Boaty Stuff together. We were both counting down our timelines for embarking on the cruising life, and since I wasn’t terribly public about our plans, it was invaluable to have a friend to chew through whatever pre-departure questions or challenges loomed largest.  So we’d head for our favorite Thai hole-in-the-wall, and hash it out.

I remember talking over pad sie ew one afternoon about a recent experience she and Dr C had. They we joined another family of prospective cruisers on a daysail on their boat to talk about mutual plans to head south and frolic in warm water for a while. After a few hours together it was her assessment that they weren’t getting far. Cruising is a partnership, but it was clear that the partnership was not in accord on the game plan. The marker? A sterile boat that had all the charm and personalization of a band-aid.

It made me think: what effort was invested to make Totem into home? Our land-house was full of personalization- in the room colors, the artwork, the custom pieces or family that made it unique and special for our family. But Totem… Totem had none of these things.

She nailed something I hadn’t considered. Maybe it’s because Jamie and I both come to cruising from a racing background. Fitting out a cushy cruising boat was a bit of an adjustment! Some families, like the very interesting looking Anasazi crew, make stripped down racing boats work. More likely, though, it’s because we were so  focused on functional specs and adaptations. Jamie reconfigured the aft cabin berth (so our bed could accommodate snuggly little co-sleepers without getting too cramped). He rebuilt the portside seating, so we could fit five people comfortably without having to extend the table to the starboard side (which blocked all through traffic to the forward cabins). Somehow in the midst of all our improvements we were missing an essential element: you can’t make a boat into a home on practicalities alone. And the truth was, I simply hadn’t thought about it.

We found our way, of course. Some very personal artwork. One of our antique maps. Pretty fabric in cabins, new settee covers in the same color scheme.

We figured it out: familiar art, stockings from home, tinsel from Mexico

Of course, more things come over time- I love looking at the gorgeous nautilus shells we found in PNG, the triton we traded for, the pandanus mats on the cabin sole. You’ll add things over time: artwork from places you’ve visited- I love looking at Ceilydh’s collection in their main cabin.

With 20/20 hindsight, thank goodness for being prodded to remember the softer side of moving aboard, and thank goodness for Girlfriend Time.

Click on the monkey’s fist to read others bloggers on this topic.
The Monkey's Fist  

Crazy anchoring in Raja Ampat

Anchoring in most of Raja Ampat has been challenging to say the least. Depths of 100 feet and more are common; so are strong currents. We experienced this both in the island north of Sorong, and south near Misool. The deep water plus strong current is a difficult combination, especially when you throw in the squalls that this equatorial zone mixes into daily weather. But as a friend of ours likes to say- if this were easy, everyone would be doing it!

When the conservation team we met near Misool offered to guide us to a secure spot with good protection- and a mooring- we happily accepted their offer.

They took pictures of us on their cameras & phones, so I had mine taken with them

The entrance is so wedged between tall limestone islets that we wrote it off as being much too small when we passed it by previously. The tiny channel does open up more than we realized, and under their guidance we find ourselves inside a maze of karst (limestone) islands. It is absolutely stunning.

You want us to go in there?

The recommended mooring turns out to be inadequate- we might use it for our dinghy, but not Totem. The anchorage they have in mind is also very deep- the best we find is still about 130’. Then, the area is so small, that even putting out all our scope (and still being just shy of 3:1) doesn’t makes sense – we’d risk hitting the rock walls of the islets around. So it’s lines to shore: two from the bow, one from the stern.

Too deep to anchor, we only have lines- with chafe gear- holding Totem to shore

This little nook proves to be a haven. It’s a safe place where the kids can run a cycle of jumping off the boat to swim for hours while we explore the reef nearby…a haven from the wind and seas just a short distance away, outside our little karst maze.

Totem tucked into a little nook. Reefs prevent passage between the visible islets

We are just a few boat lengths away from reef walls where the karst islands plunge straight down into the water. During the days to come, we range around the small archipelago by dinghy to explore for more places to stick our heads underwater. Again and again, we keep coming back to our little parking spot to snorkel. EVERYTHING is good, but you can’t beat just jumping in off the mother ship.

Misool’s conservation crew

Balubulol fishing camp
This little island is home to camps for itinerant fishermen and a resident conservation crew

We’re anchored for mere minutes before the dinghy is splashed and we head out for our first round of exploration in southern Raja Ampat. Beaching on the island we’ve anchored adjacent to, the girls take off finding cuttlefish bones and shells. There are signs that fishermen overnight here- a rough platform that could double as a table, and the remains of a fish smoking setup. Along the beach are turtle tracks. We follow them eagerly to a large divot in the sand. Are there eggs below? The tracks are visible, but not perfectly fresh- it’s rained at least once since they were made. How many weeks could the eggs incubate? We resolve to do our homework on the boat and revisit the site.

Underwater, the eelgrass gives way to coral heads, and little gems begin popping out. A seahorse as it bumbles along near the bottom. I’ve wanted to see one for years- one that wasn’t behind aquarium glass, anyway. Finally, here it is! It is trailing seaweed and seems unwell, so we give it peace instead of stressing it further. We find out later that this kind of “playing dead” is a survival technique… the seahorse was fine, just trying to shake us off. Mission accomplished.

We hear the high pitched whine of an outboard from underwater, and pop up to see a fiberglass boat speeding heading towards us. It’s a little unnerving. This turns out to be full of the local conservation staff. They’ve been to Totem and met Jamie, but the language barrier was too great to accomplish whatever they wanted, so he’s come to collect me to translate. OK, no problem- we all head back to Totem.

It turns out they’re just checking up to make sure we all have the park fees paid for Raja Ampat and needed to see our paperwork from Sorong. The team alternates staff in the islands with staff in a village back on Misool, and monitors the conservation area. Once we establish that everything is in order and answer their survey questions they lighten up a little. We hadn’t seen many smiles at first, but now they’re pleasant and curious about us. Where are we from? How long have we been sailing? Where else have we been? They offer tips for where we should go in the mass of surrounding island, and tell us where to find a mooring nearby. The mooring sounds like a good alternative to our somewhat exposed, deep anchorage. We will stay the night but plan to move the next day.

During the following days, we get to know this crew and see them morph from the grim officials we met to a bunch fun-loving guys stuck out in the sticks. They invite us to their camp for dinner. It’s a rough setup of plastic tarp lean-tos (how do they manage with the torrential squalls?) on a small island with a fishing camp. We bring rice, vegetables and chocolate cake- they procure and barbeque some delicious fish. It’s a sweet and memorable evening.

Dinner at the crew’s camp

We reciprocate, and the next day they’re invited to Totem for dinner. This gets a little comical. At first, there are seven who will come. Late in the afternoon, one of the guys arrives with a bunch of fish for us to fry up, and he tells us there will be a few more- maybe eleven? Then another boat of conservation staff arrives, and the numbers swell to seventeen by the time we have dinner! They have brought a bucket of fish, we cook up a small mountain of rice, and everyone gets to try “American” apple pie. Somehow there is enough food for all.

We give them tours on the boat and I try to answer questions. They are not the usual questions, but with a lot of dictionary references, I learn how to describe our engine properly in bahasa. We run through photographs of things we’ve seen underwater, and they help us identify the more mysterious sightings (squid eggs- I would never have guessed) and learn the Indonesian names. By the end of the evening, I have blown a mental gasket with all the attempts at rough interpretation and can barely speak.

We’re only around the crew for a handful of days, but it’s time for group photos by the time we move on. Great memories!

South to Misool

Our route is planned to take us through islets in the southern portion of Raja Ampat. We have a week and a half before Dan flies out of Ambon, 350 miles to our southwest, and want to make the most of it. First, though, we simply have to get away from New Guinea and down to the islands! Because charts are terrible and all navigation must be visual, the trip is divided in two parts: our first day takes us through the channels of waterways south from Sorong; the second day will open up into the Seram Sea and take us across to the islands off Misool.

Motoring through the windless channel that runs south and west from Sorong, we skate cleanly through a line of afternoon squalls. The kids wait very, very patiently but they know they have a host of goodies sent from the states in Dan’s luggage. Finally- we are through the rain and tackle the duffel. It’s like Christmas, but bigger! Their grandparents have sent a treats from books to games to clothes.

Dan’s here! Southbound from Sorong, hanging out in the cockpit

The charts are bad and the nights are inky, so towards the end of the day we pick a spot to anchor overnight. There’s a quiet spot well outside the channel, although the one or two fishing boats that pass by per hour don’t constitute much in the way of traffic. Some of them swing closer to Totem to check us out.

I’m the king of the world!

Every once in a while, a village emerges from the mangroves. I’m so curious to know more about them. Who lives in there- are they Papuan, or transmigrated populations? Are they primarily subsistence lifestyles or is there some commercial work here? It’s hard to imagine what, other than a few signs of the (un)natural extraction occurring.

The occasional small village with homes like this on the water…but not many people

The current through here gets strong: thankfully, we haven’t had too much against us yet. Unfortunately, we expect foul current for most of the next the morning. It’s a new moon, but even if we had full moonlight we wouldn’t travel through here at night. There are no navigation lights and the charts are inaccurate. With the shallow bottom and shifting shoals here, it’s not worth the risk. Rows of subtle buoys strung by the hundreds from a pearl farm around the bend remind us why we only want to continue on with good visibility! So we drop the hook, and enjoy a sunset while current swirls in whirlpools next to Totem.

On the move in the morning, we manage to avoid the worst of the current by staying toward the sides of channels. Back eddies sometimes even give us a little push. We worried that the distance we need to make before our rather uncertain anchorage could start to push daylight hours, so it’s a relief not to face much foul current.

It turns out we are grateful for the extra daylight hours to anchor. We explore several islets and bays before finding a manageable depth. It’s frustrating to see a picture-perfect bay, with the crescent curve of gorgeous white sand beach – fronted by tropical blues of the reef, backed by the lush green mountainside. But it’s very deep, too deep to anchor- until the bottom comes up rapidly to… much too shallow! It’s a challenge to find a spot but the exploring is fun, and we scope out several spots to return to by dinghy…and rest.

24 hours in Sorong

Back in Sorong, we nestle in among the liveaboard dive boats in the harbor.

Liveaboards in Sorong harbour

One of the blogs that fed our dreams was that of the Dreamkeeper. We are a few years behind their physical track through this part of the world, and their blog and website content has been alternately inspiring and a source of practical information. So I’m just a wee bit pleased to do a 24 hour turnaround in Sorong, fueled by ojek  rides (basically, your own private motorcycle taxi) and a bit of mania (provisioning for six people for two weeks, and wanting it to be nice- we have a guest aboard). Gar set the bar for this, but I am not sure I could have done it the first time, and I am definitely not sure we could have included fueling in the mix. Respect.

I “have” to go back to the market. No hardship for me there- I loathe shopping and am allergic to anything remotely mall-like, but I could walk the stalls, checking out produce, chatting with vendors for hours at these open air markets. This time, though, I need to keep a pace on. Discovering that the guys with the wheelbarrows will not just carry everything, but help source random produce (I am advised on the best watermelon selection, and told to avoid the avocadoes) and advice good prices- well, it’s a big win. How did I miss them last time?

Beautiful tuna, but sad, because we know the fishery here is terribly strained

The next morning, we pick up Dan at the airport. He’s been on a serious marathon to reach us, having traveled for nearly three days including a grand total of 6 different flights before he landed in Sorong. No, we aren’t easy to reach!

We wait at a hotel lobby for the Raja Ampat tourist office to open, so Dan can get his ‘ticket’ for the conservation area. The girls split a chocolate milkshake. It’s only nine o’clock in the morning, but Totem doesn’t have a freezer on board, so… well, why not?!

Mmmm… chocolate milkshake breakfast.

Once Dan has his park pass in hand, we head back towards Totem with just a quick stop at a grocery store for last minute purchases. No settlements or stores in the outlying islands off Misool where we are headed, and it would be wrong to run out of chili sauce.

Back on board, we haul the anchor and motor out of the harbor: 24 hours in Sorong, and ready to find cleaner water.

Memorable Stopoff at Mansuar Island

We could go straight back to Sorong, but we decide to stop off on the way- see if we can trade a couple of days in the islands first, and make it up with efficiency getting our Sorong errands done.

Heading past Mansuar island, looking for a place to drop the anchor, we see an open mooring in front of a dive resort. There’s a liveaboard boat on the other mooring, so we putter up and ask if we can take it and are happy to recieve their enthusiastic response. It’s 130 feet deep here, and the current runs at 3-5 knots, so we’d be a tad anxious on the hook.

We go ashore to get details on the mooring. It’s $20/night, which sounds great to us. They take our booking for dinner. There’s even wifi! We make plans to come back later in the afternoon, after some snorkeling time. This is the polar opposite experience to the cold shoulder at resort on Pulau Pef the day before.

The staff is friendly and attentive- we feel like welcomed guests. The dive master remembers seeing us off a dive site the prior week and asks what we saw. We get tips from another on islands to visit in Nusa Tenggara- places he thinks will be especially interesting for us. The children are over the moon with a “nice” restaurant dinner, and the chef basks in their adoration, bringing extra treats to the table. We play Mexican Train Dominoes on the lanai, and wait for the sunset.

Mexican train dominoes!

We cruise out in the dinghy to a manta ray hangout, but are skunked on sightings. There were many the day before, just not our luck! But we meet a sweet couple who have paddled across the channel to collect shellfish in the reef. They give us mangoes, and cut them for us to eat when they realize we don’t have a knife in the dinghy (not touching that gorgeous mango with a fishy dive knife. oh no). I flashback to PNG and the total ubiquity of knives and machetes.

In front of the resort, we discover the most amazing collection of fish hanging out right under the jetty. There are at least four lionfish, but instead of hiding in nooks and crannies, they are floating around in full display. It is both alarming and spectacular. Masses of glassfish part for the lighting fast passes of predatory trevally. Pairs of moorish idols and a school of batfish just kind of glam around looking fabulous. We should have stayed here!

We end up spending two nights in front of the resort. It’s just too nice and relaxing to leave after only one, especially when faced with the far less appealing anchorage in Sorong- where the water attractions will be dirty diapers floating by instead of jumping needlefish. It means we’ll only have one day to get everything we need in Sorong before Dan arrives, but we are feeling up to the task.

The second afternoon, a squall kicks up. It peaks around 45 knots. Not awful, but we think about how anxious we would be if we had anchored. I am trapped ashore with the kids: there’s a steep chop built up between the jetty and the boat, and the rain is epic. It’s fine, though. The chef (new best friend to the kids) makes them hot cocoa while we watch a movie on the iPad and wait for the weather to settle.

As it does.

Raja Ampat: turning back south again

Muscat's aft deck
We move on from our teacup anchorage to find one more spot for a last hurrah with Nalukai and Muscat. There’s a sweet collection of islands just a few miles north, and since there’s not enough wind to sail, everyone is happy to minimize the motoring distance.

Pulau Pef turns out to be a lot less friendly than the impression we were given by their pretty photos in the Raja Ampat tourist office. For the privilege of one night anchoring off their island (not using a mooring they have installed, not going ashore, not using resort facilities) they want 25 euros per person. On our boat, that’s more than the cost of an annual pass to Raja Ampat- for one night! It might happen in some parts of the world (Caribbean?), but here, it’s very unusual. The vibe from the Swiss fellow on shore is pretty clear: we’re not wanted there. It’s too late to change anchorages, so we decide just to leave in the morning and make the most of it.

We’ll part ways the next day, so it’s time for a little celebrating. Muscat hosts, and is decked with party lights.

Skits have been in the works: the children have been practicing a Monty Python routine, but lose their nerve. It’s hard to do anything when you are giggling hard! Nalukai treats us to the Time Warp dance (this is a family night, so Jeremy has kept his costume at an appropriate G rated level).

Christmas party

It’s a beautiful evening, one we thoroughly enjoy despite the sorrow at saying goodbye to our friends. They are heading towards the Philippines, and we’re headed back to Sorong (to pick up Dan) and then on through Indonesia. We’ll catch up again this year… Malaysia? Thailand? Not sure where, but confident that it will happen.

Totem at sunset

Raja Ampat: lingering with friends

I suppose if we were determined to tick the boxes of “things you are supposed to see and do” in Raja Ampat, we would have left our teacup anchorage after another day. But it’s friends who make a place memorable, and we are having too much fun with our friends on Nalukai and Muscat to contemplate a move. Our days blend together.

The children run and swim and hours of freestyle playing and exploring, just as they should. There are endless jaunts between the boats and a small beach where they have set up camp, complete with hermit crab forts and sand castles. They can jump right off the boat to swim around to the coral garden, or just to paddle around. Siobhan provides a ferry service to Willow in her new SUP/kayak style.

Siobhan paddling Willow

A bird of prey (sea eagle?) treats us to wheeling and diving right behind the transom. He misses this one, but caught others.

missed that one!

Around the corner from our little nook, there’s a beach with a few shelters used by itinerant fishermen (and the odd foreign kayaker, it turns out). It is the perfect spot to kick around in the afternoon.

There is a swing, and a line of patient children who wait their turn.

waiting patiently to swing

Fiercely competitive bocce ball breaks out.

Serious bocce game

The beach is nicely shaded for much of the day: a bonus in this heat. We string up a hammock to make the most of our pretty spot.

Swinging in the hammock

The snorkeling just off the bay is spectacular, and this side of the island is just outside the conservation area- so spearfishing is ON.  The grouper are large, and at least initially, are unfazed by our presence- excellent dinners are procured. Jeremy is a spearfishing newbie, but proves lethal. Jamie lands some beauties. I still can’t reload the spear on my own- that’s a problem that needs fixing!

Fish, hours from the sea, cooked on a beach fire. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Fish on the grill

The firepit has a rough table and bench; with a few camp chairs added, it’s the perfect place to get together for dinner. A bag of marshmallows is found in some corner of the bilge, and the kids get to have a roast.

beach bonfire

We’re joined on our last night by a fisherman who paddles into the beach. He’s hard for me to understand because he doesn’t have many teeth, but we get that he’ll use one of the shelters overnight, and is pleased to share the spot. We share our dinner with him, and Muscat give him some gas for his outboard. It turns out he’s quite a long way from home but had been paddling to conserve fuel. With the generosity of those who have little to give, he insists on giving us a beautiful fish from his catch.


Raja Ampat: now THAT’S what we came for

It happens. Our next anchorage, which becomes referred to as “the teacup” for it’s wee size and general shape, is such a slice of heaven that we decide to stay for days and days. We scout it out, then lure Nalukai and Muscat to our position. It’s not too difficult.

Nalukai anchors all the way inside; lines to shore help keep us both in place

Tucked between two islands, it’s a deep cut that makes it hard to effectively. The shoreline is about fifty yards on either side of Totem, and the water is around ninety feet deep- so even putting out all 400 feet of chain, we don’t really have enough scope given the squalls that roll through most afternoons. Besides, once that all that stretches out- we end up on the rocks. No thank you! We still drop the hook, but secure lines to shore as well.

While Jamie and Jeremy are fiddling with lines on Totem and Nalukai (there is an aborted attempt to create a raft), Niall and I decide to just get our heads in the water already, and dive in. We meander around the perimeter of our teacup. The sides are very steep-to, and drop to the bottom of the basin in just a few yards. The coral looks like it was the victim of dynamite fishing- disappointing, although we’re not sure.

As we get around the point of our little anchorage and turn the corner into the channel that opens to the sea, everything changes. It happens so quickly, we can’t believe it. Niall and I are having a massively exuberant “conversation” underwater without actually saying anything to each other, but with may wild gesticulations and ecstatic expressions. Quite simply, we are blown away. We decide on the spot that this is the most dramatic coral reef we’ve ever snorkeled. That is a massive statement, and I’d back off somewhat with the heat of the moment in hindsight, but it truly is awesome and certainly among the best.

What makes it so amazing? It seems to have everything. There is a great variety of corals: hard corals creating the architecture of the reef, with soft corals adding a flow on top that is alternately gaudy and gauzy. The colors are amazing. And the fish- oh, wow, the fish. It starts with a few large racoons- OK, interesting. Then there’s the school of curious barracuda that follows us. Cute! And then the explosion occurs, when we come just around the bend to see more than we can really comprehend or take in at once. Swirling schools of tiny baitfish, a group of bumphead parrotfish (with a big 4-footer in the lead), anemones with cheeky clownfish popping in and out, schools of some kind of fan-tailed trigger we’ve never seen before, and just masses of colorful reef fish. I cannot begin to describe it well.

It is such a shame that our underwater camera died prematurely. I have mourned it throughout PNG and I’m really mourning it now. But the good news: after we left Sorong, we learned that we’ll be having a visitor from home- soon! Orders are hurriedly placed, and the promise of a new camera is exciting…but I regret not having a chance to capture this early impression of the amazing Raja Ampat region.