After ten months away, I am pleased to find myself back in Raja Ampat, Indonesia on the stunning live aboard Dewi Nusantara.  It is often cited that this area has the most biodiverse coral reefs in the world: literally as you leave this region, in any direction, the number of species decreases.  As well as accommodating a huge variety of species, the reefs are also bustling with extraordinarily healthy fish populations.  For this reason Raja Ampat is a marine biologist’s panacea and the perfect spot for me to be conducting talks on the aquatic life found here.  The reefs truly are as nature intended.

It is great to be back on Dewi Nusantara catching up with the fantastic crew.  There are many of the same smiling faces and some new ones too.  The dive crew of Wendy (cruise director), Acho, Andre and Risko have been together for a number of years and between them have some of the best spotting eyes in the business.  The second in command, Yann, is on a well-earned holiday but will be back for our Cenderawasih adventures starting on the 10th February.  For our present trip guests came from four continents to join Dewi Nusantara and dive Raja Ampat, which truly is a testament to the boat, crew and the diving. 

Each trip has its standout moments, and we have been lucky to have a few this trip.  One very special encounter we had at the dive site ‘Mayhem’ was a blue-ringed octopus ménage-a-trois.  Mike, one of the guests from Central Coast Dive Center in Cincinatti, USA found the trio.  There were two males hitching a ride on the back of a rather perturbed female.  She flashed her bright blue rings whilst the two males clung to her back.  The local damselfish were rather unhappy about the presence of these predators and repeatedly slapped them with their tails before the female dragged the caravan into a small hole.

A couple of Dewi Nusantara's guests having a magic manta encounterAnother golden moment we had this trip was at Manta Sandy, near Arborek Island.  I have been to this site many times before and always had some manta action, but this trip was something special.  I counted eleven reef mantas (Manta alfredi) at one time coming in to be cleaned.  They didn’t seem concerned with us at all and repeatedly swam directly over our heads.  A couple had missing fin tips, several had crooked tails and one was missing both its cephalic fins.  These injuries indicate that the life of a manta isn’t an easy one.  Indeed, over the past decade the huge surge in demand for their gill rakers by the Traditional Chinese Medicine trade has had huge impacts on their populations.  Luckily in Raja Ampat they are protected, but clearly other dangers remain for these graceful beasts.

January’s weather in Raja Ampat can occasionally be slightly unsettled, with a westerly wind blowing up from time to time.  This had a slight impact on our itinerary but luckily there are so many brilliant dive sites it is always easy to reschedule.  This took us to some spots I hadn’t previously dived; including Yilliet Island where we saw a mammoth sized giant grouper.  Ordinarily these fish are one of the first to be targeted by fishermen, but thanks to the network of protected areas across Raja Ampat such fishes can still be seen here.  We estimated that the grouper was 5-6ft in length and was graciously accommodating several remoras and pilot fish.  Other new sites, that have become part of the regular itinerary in my absence, include Yeben Island and Bird Slope in Aljui.  There are so fantastic reefs in Raja Ampat that new ones are added all the time.  Yeben had fantastic hard coral gardens where napoleon wrasse, dogtooth tuna and rivers of fusileers wandered.  Aljui’s Bird Slope was a cornucopia of soft corals, gorgonians and whip corals all adorned with their associated creatures.

Scarlet painted frogfish taken whilst aboard Dewi NusantaraAs always, I conducted a series of talks during the trip about the marine life of Raja Ampat.  Especially popular was one of my new talks entitled ‘Critter Hunting: Tips on Finding Cryptic Critters’.  My goal is to help divers get more from their diving by teaching them more about the species and behaviours they see.  During this talk I explained about the different habitats on the reef and especially those that harbour communities of organisms all of their own.  For instance Crinoids play host to clingfish, squat lobsters, shrimps, crabs, ghost pipefish and even juvenile batfish.  By knowing where to look and what they might expect to find there the divers came back from the next dive with a long list of discoveries.  After the talk about my pygmy seahorse research there were also a number of guests finding their own pygmies.  Daz and Lysa became particularly adept at finding them and got some great shots to prove it!  At the end of the lecture series I organised a photo contest, just for fun (although with amazing prizes!).  Kara took the best overall photo with her shot of a three spot angelfish.  The best behaviour picture prize went to Marc for his shot of a manta soaring over the heads of Wendy and Acho.

As we pull into Sorong harbour, I will be sad to see the present group leave but consoled and excited by the forth coming conservation trip in support of Sea Sanctuaries.  I am very much looking forward to meeting Drs Gerry Allen and Mark Erdmann who will join us for the next eleven days.  These two men are world-renowned conservationists and marine biologists, as well as authors of many books including the recently published Reef Fishes of the East Indies.  Since joining Dewi at the beginning of this trip, has been my first opportunity to pour over this three-book tome.  The book has helped put a name to some of the fishes that I have been unable to identify over the years.  However, I’ve had to start writing down questions for Gerry and Mark that have cropped up during my readings!  There will be more about this trip in my next blog, so keep checking back or sign up for updates on the right hand side of this page.

A selection of images from the trip can be found in my Raja Ampat 2013 gallery, by following this link.  You can also read the trip report from my second trip aboard Dewi Nusantara by following this link.