Almost a year to the day I am back aboard the beautiful Dewi Nusantara (formerly Paradise Dancer) sailing the bountiful waters of Raja Ampat, Papua, Indonesia.  This is the first of my three trips aboard Dewi, where I’ll be conducting a series of marine biology evening lectures and hunting for elusive pygmy seahorses to further my research on these amazing miniature fish.

The diving has been magnificent as ever, and after only two days in the Kri area we had already seen both species of manta (giant manta (Manta birostris), and reef manta (M. alfredi)), three species of pygmy seahorse (Bargibant’s (Hippocampus bargibanti), Denise’s (H. denise) and Severn’s pygmy seahorses (H. severnsi)) and five species of sharks (White tip, black tip and grey reefs plus the tasselled wobbegong and the Raja Ampat epaulette shark (Hemiscyllium freycineti)).

For the third day of diving we moved to Aljui Bay, which is probably my favourite area on the itinerary.  The steep cliffs and fjord-like scenery above the water continues below the waves where dense forest is replaced by vibrant soft corals and enormous gorgonians.  There are many species of unusual nudibranchs to be found crawling and snacking about the corals, but is it the pygmy seahorses in this area that most interest me.  In Aljui I have found several unusual associations of Denise’s pygmy seahorses and gorgonian corals, which had not previously been recorded.  We also saw several yellow Muricella gorgonians, one of which had seven Bargibant’s pygmy seahorses living on its surface.  They weren’t too deep, allowing us to spend time watching behaviour as they moved around and interacted with one another.  The night dive at Cendana Dock in Aljui was very productive this trip with several Raja Ampat epaulette sharks, toadfish, spot-tail frogfish (Lophiocharon tristignatus), flamboyant cuttlefish and even a pair of Harlequin shrimp (Hymenocera elegans) in the shallows! 

After Aljui we headed for the Penemu area where we did a couple of dives at Melissa’s Garden.  I saw a couple of pairs of eggs laying Loki whip gobies (Bryaninops loki) with the female laying whilst the male fertilised them.  The highlight however was the absolutely stunning hard coral gardens that cover the huge reef top of the site.  These are some of the healthiest and most diverse I’ve seen so I basically spent most of the dives pottering around the shallows awestruck!

Following our fantastic day at Penemu we sailed south to the area southeast of Misool Island.  In this area we spent several days diving Farondi, Wayil Batan and Fiabacet, which are really quite different to the sites in the north.  The most memorable aspect for me about these southern sites is the schooling silversides, which are continually hunted by mobula rays, trevally and any other predator that can manage to snag them.  The reefs are a kaleidoscope of colour, covered in soft corals and with rivers of fusileers flowing over them. 

For me another exciting aspect of diving in the Misool area are the red and white Denise’s pygmy seahorses that can commonly be found on the Melithaea gorgonians.  To perfectly match the polyps and stems of these gorgonians the pygmies have white tubercles (bumps) and a red body colour.  I have now recorded Denise’s pygmies from at least nine gorgonian genera and the seahorses match exactly the colour of each host.  Whilst very rarely found in other areas this association with the Melithaea is very common in Misool and is one of the most beautiful colour forms.

After amazing dives at Magic Mountain, where we again saw the giant manta, and Boo Jendala made famous as the cover shot of the ‘Diving Indonesia’s Raja Ampat’ book by Burt Jones and Maurine Shimlock we headed for the last morning of diving off Batanta Island.  Batanta is one of the four kings that make up the Raja Ampat region and is a great muck diving area.  There was an overwhelming diversity on the dive and the list of critters would easily rival a dive in Lembeh Strait.  Obvious highlights were a pair of Harlequin shrimp, a juvenile pinnate batfish, Randall’s frogfish, seahorses, ghost pipefishes and several nudibranchs that I hadn’t seen before.  One of the nudibranchs wasn’t in any of the books I’ve searched so far!  Maybe another a new species from Raja Ampat!

During the trip I presented several Power Point presentations on the marine life of Raja Ampat as well as tips on how best to observe and photograph natural behaviours of these creatures.  Some of the titles of my talks included: ‘Raja Ampat: Why is it so Special?’, ‘The Biology and Conservation of Pygmy Seahorses’ and ‘Observing and Photographing Behaviour’.  I also ran a competition with ‘Best Overall Shot’ and ‘Best Behaviour’ categories; the winning shots were a stunning pair of Harlequin shrimp and a beautiful filter feeding porcelain crab respectively.

Check out the images from this trip here.

Blogs for my second and third trips can be found by clicking the links.