Irian Jaya (West Papua) - Island Dreams' Ken Knezick has just returned from a dive cruise to Irian Jaya, also known as West Papua. Sailing with Kararu Dive Voyages, this report focuses on the diving to be found in an intriguing region of West Papua known as the Raja Ampat Islands. Astride the equator, this remote group sits just west of the Indonesia-claimed portion of the immense island of New Guinea, our planet's second largest island. In a nod to the history of the region, and the separatist ambitions of some of the local inhabitants, the Indonesian government recently allowed Irian Jaya to be renamed West Papua. This area, and the neighboring country of Papua New Guinea, harbor some of the most remote and untamed territory left on earth. Equally in their natural habitat are the indigenous people here, many of whom still pursue an aboriginal existence in the primeval forest as practiced for many generations. As a result, much of the jungle, and the extensive fringing reef system, are still to be found in a relatively pure and unspoiled condition.
Getting There - In the ongoing pursuit of pristine diving, the travels of an adventure-seeking scuba diver are becoming ever more circuitous. The trek to Irian Jaya begins with air travel to either Bali or Manado, Indonesia. These cities are served variously by Singapore Airlines, Malaysia Airlines, and Continental Airlines. From Bali or Manado, one or a series of domestic flights are then required to reach the far-flung city of Sorong on the southern shores of West Papua. Arriving finally at the rustic airport on Jefman Island, our party was gratefully rewarded with the receipt of all our luggage, and the equally welcome sight of Kararu Dive Voyages' motor sailor riding at anchor just a few hundred yards from the airstrip.
Land-Based or Live-Aboard - While the options are still somewhat limited, divers interested in experiencing Raja Ampat and Irian Jaya do have a handful of workable alternatives. There is Irian Diving, a rustic but capable dive resort promoted by Dutch born Max Ammer. Working in the area for more than 12 years, Max has been developing a series of shore-based dive camps on beaches beside some of the area's most prolific dive sites. While the amenities are basic, Irian Diving has developed a small but loyal following that return for access to top-quality diving. Other early advocates of the region are the Swiss team of brothers Edi and Robert Frommenwiler. With their handcrafted, Pinissi-style motor sailor, the M/Y Pindito, they offer three or more dives per day. Thus far they have been catering to a predominantly European clientele. While previously based in Ambon, and then for a time in Komodo, beginning in October 2002, Pindito plans to again make Sorong its primary base of operations. The new addition to these waters is Kararu Dive Voyages; a Bali-based live-aboard operation that now plans to make a series of Irian cruises each spring during the best weather season. Also in the works is a live-aboard to be operated by Irian Diving's Max Ammer. Fortunately, access to this intriguing region should continue to improve. You may contact Island Dreams for an up to the minute situation report.
Kararu Dive Voyages and M/Y Sea Safaris III - Built from the keel up especially for Indonesia tourism, Sea Safaris III was commissioned in 1998. Her elegant lines hearken back to a previous age, as she is a modern version of the fabled Bugis Schooners that plied these waters in centuries past. The product of a wealthy Chinese trader who builds safari boats as a hobby, she has an ironwood hull and a solid teak superstructure. At 125 feet long, with ten guest cabins, she accommodates a maximum of 18 divers in double occupancy cabins featuring ensuite toilet, shower, sink, and individual air-conditioning controls. The comfortable dining area and salon are warmly decorated in teakwood. There is a small library, a good set of fish reference materials, a TV for viewing videos and DVD's, a stereo system, and Sasha's sizable and eclectic collection of audio CD's. Add her high capacity air compressor, storage air bank, chase boats, trained crew and experienced divemasters, and Kararu provides an excellent base of operations to dive and explore Raja Ampat and Indonesia.
Sea Conditions - My exploratory trip spanned late February to early March 2002. Topside conditions at this time of year proved to be excellent. Throughout our trip, we enjoyed cruising in virtually flat calm seas, with only two rain showers punctuating warm, sunny days. A region of sizable islands, there are many safe anchorages in Raja Ampat, and relatively few long distance sailings are necessary. As a result, live-aboard guests may eat, sleep and dive in relaxed comfort.
Papua Diving - Divers generally enter this region via the airport at Sorong on the island of New Guinea, the world's second largest island. The first dive sites will often be around the island of Wai, only a two-hour boat run from Sorong, and site of Irian Diving's first camp. On this exploratory cruise, the quality of our dives ranged from good to quite wonderful. Some dives were planned for slack tide, while occasionally the current could be challenging. Fortunately, the stronger currents also generally made for better visibility, blooming corals, and greater fish activity. Following is an abridged listing of the some of the dive areas, and a simple characterization of some of the dive sites to be encountered and enjoyed:
Kri Island - Kri is home to Irian Diving's main camp, and when conditions are right, the nearby dive sites are nothing short of excellent. On dive sites like Sardine Reef, Cape Kri, and the aptly named Koteka, I enjoyed some of the very finest wide-angle photo opportunities I've ever seen. Beautiful hard coral bommies were host to dazzling soft corals and rainbow-colored crinoids with a foreground of oriental sweet lips or coral trout, a swirl of glassfish and anthias, and a background of schooling surgeonfish, jacks, and the occasional tuna. When the visibility is right, this can be an underwater photographer's heaven.
Waigeo Island - Home to a commercial Pearl Farm, Waigo dive sites included Yellow Wall, Tunicate Wall, and Magic Log. Yellow Wall was a memorably brisk drift along a sharp vertical drop-off. Again the fish population was both diverse and plentiful.
Kawe Island - Kawe straddles the equator. Our ship rode at anchor in the Southern Hemisphere, while our dive was conducted just north of the Meridian. Prominent dive site features were a towering seamount covered in reef fish and macro subjects, and an inshore site with a sizable cavern.
Wayag Island - Wayag offered up the ultimate topside photo settings. Clambering up a steep spine-like slope, we were rewarded with a 360 degree view of jungle covered rock outcroppings floating in waters of every imaginable shade of blue - a quintessential "Island Dream." Underwater, we experienced some strong currents here, and the visibility was not always tops. But there were some more very beautiful soft coral set ups, with a big Napoleon wrasse for good measure.
Mansuar Island - During our return trip to Sorong we made a stop at Mansuar. Here I enjoyed one of the most exhilarating dives of my career underwater. Immersed in a swirling profusion of marine life, the sensation was that of experiencing the coral reef as it existed in the timeless ages prior to human contact. Framed by colorful soft corals and crinoid encrusted sea fans, large coral heads swarmed with thousands of glassy sweepers, anthias, and smaller fry. Above circled large schools of jack, rainbow runners, and fusiliers, with the occasional kingfish or big tuna zooming through this fish soup on a feeding run. For me the effect was electrifying, and something so unique as to certainly made the trip worthwhile.
Salawati - On the day prior to departure, we stopped here in hopes of a topside glimpse of hornbills and the beautiful and exotic bird of paradise. Following our "dawn-thirty" birding trek through the verdant jungle; two dives just offshore provided some of the best critter diving of the trip, offering up a wobbegong shark, excellent nudibranchs, periclimenes shrimp in carpet anemone, and fun photographing a variety of interesting and personable blennies.
Underwater Photo Gear - In the water you will find broad application for both wide-angle and macro set-ups. As you will be well removed from a photo shop, be sure to bring plenty of film and backup photo gear. And have a camera handy for the stunning topside visuals.
On the Boat - Good live-aboard boats are proud of their air-conditioning. Well this is a GREAT boat, so plan on sweatpants and sweatshirt, at least one long-sleeved shirt, and perhaps a lightweight fleece jacket or pullover. I would always bring a pair of Chinese slippers, or something similar, to wear in the salon. Other than that clothing requirements are relatively simple - a few t-shirts and shorts, and good shoes for the shore excursions. If you bring multiple, quick-drying bathing suits, you will always have the luxury of a dry one.
Shore Excursions - No Komodo dragons here, but there are a few interesting topside experiences. An easy tour to a commercial pearl farm near Waigeo Island is interesting, and may allow the chance to purchase raw pearls from the very source. An invigorating scramble up a rocky and heavily forested hillside in Wayag rewarded climbers with dazzling views of verdant rock islands floating in turquoise blue waters. Other than the jungle walk to perhaps spy the bird of paradise, there are relatively few opportunities to go ashore.
The Bottom Line - Kararu Dive Voyages is an excellent dive platform, with a friendly, experienced and accommodating crew. The quality of the diving shown us in Raja Ampat was quite good, and can only improve as the various operation gains more knowledge and experience in the region. If your prime interest is critter diving and muck diving, Indonesia has better alternatives for you elsewhere. But if you wish to see virgin coral reefs swarming with countless schools of rainbow-colored fishes, there are few places in the world more prolific or satisfying than Raja Ampat. The lack of freshwater in the rock islands, and resultant minimal local human population in the remote areas should also mean that this region will remain pristine for some time to come. For my part, I found this fishy diving especially stimulating and photographically rewarding. Wide-angle camera system at the ready, I look forward to coming back to Irian Jaya soon, for more underwater adventures.
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Copyright © 1995-2014, Island Dreams, Inc., dba Island Dreams Travel. All photos, text and design elements on this website are copyrighted. All rights reserved.