My final trip aboard the Dewi Nusantara liveaboard started in full force. Each of our three day dives on the first day yielded one or more giant mantas (Manta birostris) with the second dive at ‘Blue Magic’ being particularly memorable. A good sign before the dive was a breaching manta that flew straight out of the water not far from the tender and crashed down onto the water’s surface. Once in the water, nine of these behemoths spent the entire 65 minutes swimming over and between us. We were sure to give them plenty of space to approach their cleaning stations but even with my 10.5 mm fisheye lens they came too close to fit inside the frame. I could ascertain by the spot pattern on the belly that one of the animals in particular was intrigued by us and was making the closest passes. Incidentally, if you happen to get a shot of the belly from giant mantas anywhere in the world then you can upload them to www.MantaMatcher.org. My friends at the Marine Megafauna Foundation are working to create a global database of mantas to help elucidate their movement patterns, abundance and ultimately aid their conservation.
The next morning we went on a great adventure into the forests of Waigeo Island, one of the ‘Four Kings’ that makes up the quartet of Raja Ampat’s islands. We began our walk at 5am in search of the rare and illusive Wilson’s Bird of Paradise (Diphyllodes respublica), which is endemic to Waigeo and Batanta Islands. Birds of Paradise are members of the crow family and diversified on the island of New Guinea into forty or so impossibly beautiful and ornate species. Several years ago I saw the Red Bird of Paradise (Paradisaea rubra), also endemic to these islands, were males gather together at dawn in a lek and display together, hoping to draw the attention of a female. Male Wilson’s on the other hand, individually select a particular area of forest where they display to attract a female for a private show.
After an hour and a half walk through the pitch-dark forest, with one of the most amazing dawn choruses I’ve ever heard, our Papuan guide signalled for us to crouch behind a few strategically placed palm fronds. We were only several metres from the display tree of the male Wilson’s Bird of Paradise. We waited an hour or so and were fortunate enough to catch a fleeting glimpse of the stunning male. He was one of the most vibrantly coloured animals I’ve ever seen above the waves. His bright blue cap and vivid red back feathers stood out electrically amongst the drab foliage. It was a real privilege to have been one of the lucky few to see this magnificent bird. In the early morning light we walked back through the forest and spotted a large and stunning White-Lipped Python (Leiopython albertisii), pairs of noisy Blyth’s Hornbill (Rhyticeros plicatus) flying high above in the canopy as well as Eclectus (Eclectus roratus) and other small parrots and cockatoos.
We were lucky this trip to have with us the designer and owner of Dewi Nusantara, Guido Brink, and one of his partners, Simon Day. It is great to hear stories from Guido about the construction of Dewi, built in the style of an American Schooner. The construction of the boat took place up a river in the forests of Kalimantan, Borneo. Once completed, the hull was moved to Bali where the final fit out took place. In order to get her into the water, a channel was dug around the vessel and the river waters allowed to float the hull. Guido personally oversaw all of the construction, having already built another vessel, the Ombak Biru. It took 16 months from laying the keel to her maiden voyage, which I was actually on! You can see more on the Dewi Nusantara website about her construction: www.Dewi-Nusantara.com
Simon, a partner in Dewi, was also on the trip. He is a great character and an accomplished conservationist, having been one of the co-founders of Sea Sanctuaries. This is a conservation initiative that has created 58,000 ha of no-take zone in conjunction with local villages around the Penemu region of Raja Ampat. Within this huge area is one of the most famed sites in Raja, Melissa’s Garden. I call it the reef of a billion fish – a million would seem like such a huge understatement. There are so many fish that you can literally hear the roar as hundreds of bodies react in unison to the threat of a hunting predator. I was extremely fortunate to meet Simon and hear more about his project, which is protecting this very important area. Check out the Sea Sanctuaries website for more information: www.SeaSanctuaries.org
Aljui Bay was the destination for our third day of diving and it is always one of my highlights. This trip we had some great ghost pipefish sightings with a purple velvet and a white Halimeda both spotted on Bird Wall. These tow species are the jewels in the crown of the Solenostomidae family. As always though my highlight of Aljui was the night dive. We only had one dive on the small Cendana Dock but it was as intense as ever. One of my favourite creatures from this trip’s night dive at Cendana was a young juvenile Raja epaulette shark (Hemiscyllium freycineti) that our guide Yann found. Out in the open at around 6 m depth the 8 inch long baby shark crawled along the substrate searching for food. The colouration was quite strongly banded alternately brown and beige, but was not nearly as contrasting and bold as a juvenile bamboo shark.
In search of further land tours this trip, since we had a few non-divers, we hopped just over the equator to a small group of islands called Wayag. Here is one of the most photographed vistas in Raja Ampat, Mount Pindito. Between dives we explored the mushroom-like limestone islands and climbed the mount. The view was much like the limestone islands of Palau except without any other people to be seen in any direction. It was quite a clamber up the rock but took only about fifteen minutes each way. The pure isolation in this absolutely stunning landscape was a very special and humbling experience.
Another privilege this trip was to be present at the engagement of two of our guests, Tom and Sue. On the first dive of our forth day our cruise director, Wendy, placed the engagement ring that Tom had given to her in an overhang. Wendy called over the couple and Tom pulled out a slate where he had written “Sue, will you marry me?’. She nodded and I swim over to fulfil my duties as official photographer! We are all hoping to be invited back to join them on their honeymoon, which will obviously take place on Dewi Nusantara!
As it is my last trip on this visit I will be sad to say goodbye to the fantastic crew, many of whom I have known since the maiden voyage four years ago. The camaraderie between the crew is great to see and it is obvious the whole operation has become a very well oiled machine over the years. There are as many crew as guests with each and every crewmember working hard for everything to be perfect for us divers.
Four dive guides, Wendy, Yann, Andre and Risko, work on Dewi ensuring small groups and a top experience in the water. Wendy, the cruise director, has been a good friend of mine for many years and I have really learned a lot from her. Nothing is too much trouble and she works very hard for everyone to have the best possible cruise. The assistant cruise director, Yann, is well known as one of the best dive guides in Indonesia and is a hoot to be around. He is always smiling and joking, but when it comes to finding amazing critters on the reef everything becomes much more serious! Yann showed me my very first pygmy seahorse ten years ago and I am very pleased that we still dive together now. The other two dives guides on Dewi, Andre and Risko, hail from Bitung and Bunaken respectively, both in north Sulawesi. They are extremely experienced and have brilliant eagle eyes for all the creatures that live on Indonesian reefs.
Raja Ampat chose to give us a great send off for our last full day of diving. We spent two dives on the seamount, ‘Magic Mountain’ in southeast Misool. There was just the right amount of current to energise the fish and open up all the soft corals. It was great to see a pregnant white tip reef shark and at least four juveniles around the seamount. The presence of these sharks is certainly a testament to the great conservation work undertaken by Misool Eco Resortwho have gone to great lengths in creating a large no-take zone in the area. We also had a single reef manta (Manta alfredi) spend the entire dive with us and which made some nice close passes. The definite highlight, however were mother and calf bottlenose dolphins, which swam over a couple of us as we hooked on at around 9 m. From previous experience I’ve found that dolphins love a good sing song so I started singing as soon as I saw them. I’m sure the mother slowed down and turned back to see what was producing these dulcet tones! What an amazing dive and rare treat!!!
I am working with the folk at Dewi Nusantara to put together some more trips for the future, where I will again conduct lectures about Indonesia’s amazing reefs, marine creatures and photography tips to get the best shots of them. If you are interested in joining one of these trips please either contact me or Dewi Nusantara for further information.
Images from all three trips can be found in my Raja Ampat 2012 gallery by clicking here.