Turquoise waters, pristine islands, lush forests and white sandy beaches. No, this isn't a dream, this is a destination you can actually visit and its name is Raja Ampat. While most visitors are scuba divers looking to experience the stunning and diverse underwater world, there are tons more to do on this secluded part of the world. We jump straight into everything you need to know about Raja Ampat.
What is so special about Raja Ampat?
The land and surrounding sea occupy approximately 43’000 square kilometres. The islands are part of the “coral triangle”, the region with the highest underwater biodiversity. Eastern Indonesia and Malaysia, the Philippines, Timor Leste, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon islands make up this region. The biodiversity can mostly be found in the extensive coral reef, mangrove and seagrass habitats. According to The Nature Conservancy and Conservation International 450 species of coral have been found in Raja Ampat so far, half of the world’s total. No other area of comparable size has this many species. Almost 1500 reef fish species have been observed in the region as well as 700 species of molluscs. This is around 10 times the number of species that can be found in the Carribean. Therefore the area represents more species than any other region surveyed within the coral triangle to date making Raja Ampat the most biodiverse underwater world on our planet. The temperatures vary more than on other coral reefs and this makes researchers believe that the reefs are more resilient, including resources that help to build up reefs around the whole Coral Triangle.
The importance of the region when it comes to wildlife does not stop underwater. The sparsely populated islands are also a shelter for an incredible amount of terrestrial species as well as valuable forests. The region is also the Pacific’s most important Leatherback Turtle nesting site. Unfortunately not the whole region is protected, but seven Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) cover over 9’000 square kilometres of reefs, mangroves and seagrass beds.
What is there to see in Raja Ampat?
Let's start with scuba diving - everything! The coral reefs are healthy and teeming with colourful tropical fish unseen anywhere else in the world. The water is so clear that you feel as if you are swimming in a tropical aquarium, only better. You can immerse yourself in huge schools of barracudas or jacks. Mantas, sharks and other large pelagics pass by between the many islands. With some luck, it is even possible to spot a walking (epaulette) or a wobbegong shark. Even for the macro fans, there is plenty to see such as pygmy seahorses, nudibranchs and many rare small critters. The underwater topography varies from pinnacles to walls and ridges, so every dive will be a completely different experience. Almost every shallow reef is also a dive site, 200 are known in Raja Ampat.
Pianemo lookout: The view of all views.The most beautiful place on earth? However, you want to describe Pianemo there's no denying its beauty. A short walk up some wooden stairs on Pianemo island leads you to this viewpoint and one of the most breathtaking moments in your life. Once you've come down from the not-so-hike jump straight into the glass-like water and get the local coconut sellers to through you in a coconut to sip on while you float in paradise. Yes, it really is as dreamy as it sounds. Un-advised activities include jumping off the one of many small islands in the ocean, and off the boat you've just come in.
Arborek jetty - the most famous (and untouched) jetty in the world. Jump in and be greeted with thousands and thousands of sardines waiting to engulf you as you swim. You literally won't be able to see your hand in front of you swimming through their bait ball. I've been scuba diving for 10 years and I've never experienced anything quite like it - or anything on this scale.
Who should go there?
Raja Ampat isn’t just for divers. The area is incredibly beautiful and it is possible to snorkel off almost any island in the area. The waters are clear and the coral starts at shallow depths, so you can even watch the underwater world from your bungalow above the water. Wildlife enthusiasts can observe two different species of the beautiful bird of paradise, as well as other rare bird species, plus lizards, snakes, butterflies and tortoises. It is also possible to visit local villages, attend traditional dance shows or take adventurous hikes through the pristine forests and cave systems. The diving can be quite challenging with drift-dives in sometimes strong currents, so it is recommended you are at least Advanced Open Water certified. While some dive sites are suitable for new divers, it might be worth to get some experience first in order to fully appreciate what Raja Ampat has to offer.
Where is Raja Ampat?
So, how do you find this pristine paradise? Raja Ampat lies in the province of West Papua, the easternmost part of Indonesia. This province is also part of the second biggest island in the world located north of Australia, the other half of the island belongs to Papua New Guinea. Raja Ampat, literally meaning ‘The Four Kings’, is an archipelago consisting of four main islands - Waigeo, Batanta, Salawati and Misool plus around 1500 smaller islands, shoals and cays.
How to get to Raja Ampat?
It is quite a journey from most places in the world to get to Raja Ampat. You need to fly into Sorong on Papua from Jakarta, Makassar, Ambon or Manado. There are no international flights to Sorong.
Taking a liveaboard trip or staying in a resort you will most probably be picked up at the airport in Sorong by your host. When staying at a homestay you can either fly with a small aircraft to Waisai, the local capital, or take a ferry there. The ride will take two to three hours. From Waisai you can reach your homestay with a speedboat.
Where to stay?
Most accommodation options are on Waigeo, Batanta and the smaller islands between them: Kri, Gam and Mansuar. This area is called Dampier Strait which also features many of the famous dive sites in the north of Raja Ampat. One luxury resort can be found on Misool in the south. The only other option to reach the dive sites in the south is to take a liveaboard. Liveaboard trips are the easiest way to cover as many of the dive sites in Raja Ampat as possible. However, the area is so rich with marine life that you won’t get bored diving from a homestay or a resort. In general, the liveaboards are the priciest option, followed by the resorts and the most economic are homestays.
What else do you need to know before going there?
The average temperature is 31°C during the day and 25°C at night. Dry season is between May and September - this is the best time to visit. Outside of the dry season, it is still possible to visit, just keep in mind that everything will be wet or moist all the time and the sea can be rougher. The main advantage is that there are fewer tourists around in rainy season. The water temperature averages 29°C. Visibility is usually very good (30 m), but can drop when nutrient-rich waters come in. Manta encounters are more frequent between December and April. All other marine life does not change much throughout the year.