EXPLORING RAJA AMPAT
As I stare out over the bow of the ship towards the horizon I can feel that these few days are going to be something truly special. For the next four days I am surrounded by a mix of world class photographers, cinematographer, journalist and travel experts. As we trade stories over a drink I definitely feel like the baby of the group. I don’t have any TED talks to my name, no internationally screened documentaries, no starring roles in TV shows and no travel map that is so shaded in from exploration that it may as well just be a sign displaying ‘Earth – done’. Our boat is incredible; a huge sailing ship that feels like it could accommodate an army but instead hosts just 12 of us with our oversized camera gear, give equipment and more passion than you could ever imagine. We are in Raja Ampat with the Indonesian Ministry of Tourism and the experts tell me that we are about to explore one of the worlds last 50 ‘healthy’ reefs.
The sun is rising on day one and it reminds me of just how lucky I am to be here doing what I am doing. We have small clusters of islands all around us covered from top to bottom in dense rainforest. The dive site here is called Anita’s Garden and the dive site sits in a shallow clearing between three of the islands. We roll backwards off the boat and start to descend. I’m trembling with anticipation as the water rises up the lens of my mask revealing a vista of endless visibility in front of me. Just to my right there’s a huge archway carved out between the islands by centuries of relentless currents and to my left is our dive team. I am lucky enough to be grouped with Josh Jensen (incredible cinematographer) and the duo Lin Sutherland & David Warth who are filming a TV documentary series. You can almost feel the creativity ripple through the water as everyone gets to work. The group disperses across the reef with camera lights overpowering the oceans rippling blue tint, illuminating the true colours of the coral gardens. Bright oranges, yellows and red come to life with enormous coral fans protruding out from the sides of the of the tiny islands rock walls. It’s breathtaking to see it all in such good condition. Many sites in this day and age show the tell-tale signs of mass tourism in the form of destruction trails from mis-managed divers and boat charters. As we descend down the reef wall we have all found our first subjects and for me it is the endless streams of life passing in all directions above the technicolored reef. Schools of tiny fish cris-cross all around with purpose, as though they are commuting to work for the day as a the big round bat fish mill around still waiting for their morning coffee to kick in.
Climbing up the water column we level out onto the the plateau at the top of the reef where staghorn corals form a thick layer over the rocky bottom. Beautiful flueroescent schools of fish dart amongst the tangle of coral, pulsating in and out with the water movement almost like we were witnessing the reefs lung movement, taking deep breathes from the crystal clear water. I can absolutely see what the experts were talking about when they said it was one of the last ‘untouched’ reefs.
Over the next couple of days we will dive on a whole range of reefs that each hold their own little unique gem. From walking sharks to cuttlefish, barracuda and everything in between but it’s the last day of this trip that has me most excited. We are heading to Manta Sandy. For those who haven’t had the privilege of meeting a manta ray before they are one of the most majestic animals in the world. They dance with the grace of a ballerina, calmly glide like an eagle, have the curiosity of a child and the speed of a leopard. We arrive at the dive site early and our crew explain that all boats need to book in to the dive. We have a morning slot and the atmosphere of our boat is absolutely buzzing with the excitement of seeing these wonderful animals. It’s an incredible set-up here with a small hut poking up out of the water in the middle of the ocean. It’s manned by three or four rangers who check off our booking before giving us the all clear to head in. It’s so impressive to see this kind of infrastructure in place to preserve the manta site. We descend down the water column to around 15m and sit side by side, cameras at the ready. There is a line of rocks in the sand facing the reef. We are 10 or so meters back from where the action is supposed to happen with nothing by sand between us. Five minutes goes by as we gaze into the blue water looking for any signs of mantas. It’s hard to stay positive after 10 minutes passes with no signs and Josh slowly lifts from the bottom and swims off into the distance behind us. His lights disappear into the blue and so does my hope of seeing mantas. If the expert has left the building it’s fair to say the show is over. Another 10 minute eternity passes and a flicker of light catches the corner of our eyes as Josh emerges from the blue gesturing for us to follow. Finning across the sand with Josh’s silhouette just in sight my heart stops. A dark diamond like outline shoots towards the surface blocking out the sun momentarily followed by another and then another. It’s happening! A dance in circles followed by corkscrew formations and huge loops reminiscent of a ribbon routine from a floor gymnast. I click my camera into burst mode and squeeze the trigger as they come closer and closer to us.
I look to my left and then to my right. Next to me, Rita Kluge’s eyes are as wide as can be as she — surrounded by the most talented an amazing people as these beautiful mantas play and dance in the water above. How many people on earth could be this lucky? How many people can say “I’ve been there and I’ve don’t that”? Sadly less and less. These moments won’t be around forever as our oceans suffer under the pressure of human society. Raja Ampat is one of the last true paradises and now is the time to make sure you can say “I was there, I experienced that”.