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Raja Ampat, November 2022 Trip Report

After almost three years, it was great to get back to Raja Ampat, the global apex of marine biodiversity. We began our tour cruising north from Sorong to the island of Waigeo, the largest of the “Four Kings”, or four main islands that define Raja Ampat. Along the way, our delicious lunch was interrupted by a distant pod of pilot whales in Dampier Strait, whose spouts and tall, dark dorsal fins could be spied off the port side of the boat. We kicked off our snorkeling at Penemu, a beautiful little group of limestone islands that are fringed by incredible hard corals.

Right from the get-go, we were surrounded with life of all shapes and colors: multitudes of wrasses, angelfish, butterflyfish, and damselfish seemed to pulse around the steep-sloping reef. A small blacktip reef shark cruised along the depths, while a trio of black-margined nudibranchs hung out in the shallows. A spiky pineapple sea cucumber, a large and bizarre invertebrate, was a group favorite for the first day. We completed our exploration of Penemu with a short hike up to an overlook, which provided gorgeous, expansive views of the rugged tropical islands, as well as nice looks at spice imperial pigeons and great-billed parrots.

Continuing our adventure northwards, we spent several days in Alyui Bay, one of our all-time favorite areas to explore. Alyui Bay holds an impressive variety of habitats, with an accompanying range of biodiversity. From a drift-snorkel over lush hard coral gardens to a leisurely treasure-hunt for critters, Alyui Bay boasts an amazing assortment of creatures. Hghlights from our snorkeling included peacock mantis shrimp, clown triggerfish, splendid dottybacks, colorful tunicates, and over a dozen species of nudibranchs! We also drifted over a healthy reef where we found seven species of angelfish in one snorkel, including the rare and local pewter angelfish. A dinghy tour of the bay one evening let us take in the stunning geology of the area, as well as get close views of orchids, pitcher plants, and ant-plants clinging to the steep limestone cliffs. Alyui Bay is also home to one of the best spots we know of to find critters: the Pearl Farm. Just off the beach from this active pearl oyster farm, we found stonefish, spiny devilfish, moray eels, seahorses, mantis shrimp, waspfish, a wobbegong shark, and five individual broadclub cuttlefish. We also spied a dark crocodile flathead, a peculiar fish that is a master of camouflage.

Our next destinations were a cluster of limestone islands called Wayag Islands at the northwestern edge of Raja Ampat. Giant clams, whitetip reef sharks, hawksbill turtles, and shrimpfish were some of the things we saw, and we even had a young manta ray cruise by our group in the afternoon. It was recently discovered, by tracking tagged manta rays, that this remote group of islands serves as a nursery for the rays. Manta rays give live birth, usually to just one baby every two years, which makes sense when you consider that newborn mantas are already six feet across! In the evening, we had a chance to do a night snorkel which gave us a glimpse into the fascinating contrast between day and night on the reef. We saw butterflyfish with altered patterns for camouflage at night, squid hunting small invertebrates that gather around our dive lights, and a variety of shrimp that emerge after being completely hidden during the daytime.

Heading south, we spent the next few days exploring reefs around Wofo, Pef, and Yangeffo. Our list of amazing marine life grew as we found banded sea kraits, juvenile harlequin sweetlips, pajama cardinalfish, and a variety of beautiful flatworms. Along the fringing reefs tucked into the mangroves of Pef, we discovered a pair of dwarf cuttlefish hunting invertebrates in the muck, and another pair courting among the mangrove prop roots. Yangeffo and Gam offered vibrant gardens of branching and plate corals, and we found the dime-sized minute filefish hiding among the branches of Nephthea soft corals.

Returning to Dampier Strait, we visited the island of Mansuar where the increased current fosters impressive hard coral growth and brings in larger fish. On the southern coast of Mansuar, we floated over schools of colorful sweetlips and snapper, and were surrounded by thousands of unicornfish and sergeants. A large grouper swam lazily below, as several blacktop reef sharks cruised by in the blue.

On our final morning of snorkeling, we visited a site on Batanta that has a manta ray cleaning station. It didn’t take more than ten minutes before the first manta showed up, and it was soon joined by several more! At one point, our entire group was hovering above five manta rays, some of which were over ten feet across! It was truly magical, like watching a slow-motion ballet, with these graceful giants sweeping back and forth above the reef directly below us. It was a perfect way to top off an already-amazing trip, and we can’t wait to return to Raja Ampat in March 2023.