Located off the northwest tip of Bird's Head Peninsula on the island of New Guinea, Raja Ampat, or the Four Kings, is an archipelago comprising over 1,500 small isles, cays and shoals surrounding the 4 main islands of Misool, Salawati, Batanta and Waigeo. It is a part of the newly named West Papua Province of Indonesia which was formerly Irian Jaya and is mostly the domain of liveaboards, however there are also a very limted number of dive resorts available too.
Diving in Raja Ampat with wobbegongs and glassfish - photo courtesy of Stephen Wong and Takako Uno
Simply put, Raja Ampat is the bees knees in the world of scuba diving. If you don't enjoy your dives here, you may as well sell your equipment! According to the Conservation International Rapid Assessment Bulletin and their more recent 2006 scientific surveys, the marine life diversity in West Papua is considerably greater than all other areas sampled in the coral triangle of Indonesia, Philippines and Papua New Guinea. It is quite simply the cream of the crop in world diving!
Over 1,200 fish species - a world record 284 on 1 single dive at Kofiau Island, the benchmark figure for an excellent dive site of 200 fish species surpassed on 51% of Raja Ampat dives (another world record), 600 coral species (a remarkable 97% of all scleratinia recorded from Indonesia are likely to occur in these islands), 699 mollusc species - again another world high. It is believed that the region will soon receive protected area status.
The term "Frontier Diving" seems to have been invented for the Raja Ampat islands. To visit these waters is to feel at the edge of the earth. To gaze over the crystalline seas from onboard a liveaboard at the beehive-shaped, largely uninhabited islands is to be as far away from it all as you can imagine. At many places on the sea in Asia, the night sky is lit up like Piccadilly Circus by fishing boats. At night time in Misool you can peer out at the horizon and maybe see one or two distant specks of light.
Scuba diving in West Papua mostly takes the form of drift dives due to the moderate currents prevalent in the area, which provide nutrients for the myriad fish and coral. The variety of marine life can be staggering. Some areas boast enormous schools of fish and regular sightings of sharks, such as wobbegongs. At Mansuar it's highly likely you'll encounter large groups of manta rays and turtles. From the boat and often close to shore you may get the chance to don your snorkelling gear for some unforgettable interaction with resident pods of dolphins or even some passing whales.
Due to the sometimes strong currents, diving in Raja Ampat is not really considered a good choice for absolute beginners, rather for scuba divers with a few dives under their weightbelts looking to get away from the crowds. Visibility is normally very good but can vary and is normally at its best earlier in the day so your pre-breakfast dives are not to be slept through!