Friday, June 15, 2012

Cruising Raja Ampat

Kri Island

Kri Island

Kri Island
Pulau Jerief, Dampier Strait


Kri Island

Currents swirling on a windless day in Dampier Strait

Kri Island Reef

Kri Island

Anchored Close to a wall! Kri Island

Kri Island anchorage

Great Fam Island


Bluewater Mangroves

Looking out for crocs at the Bluewater Mangroves

Bluewater Mangroves

Bluewater Mangroves
Raja Ampat

At the confluence of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, Raja Ampat’s reefs are the most biodivers on the planet.  Strong, rich currents and official marine conversation area status help produce some incredibly dense fish populations.  And the topside scenery amongst Raja’s thousands of limestone islands is superb. 
In spite of all this, Raja has barely been touched by tourism.  About 40 liveaboards a handful of resorts, and perhaps a couple private sailboats host the limited yearly visitors to the world’s most biodiverse reefs.  Swift currents, deep anchorages, and limited sources of information make Raja an exciting and challenging experience for the adventurous cruiser.
Below is some basic info on Raja, and a few anchorage descriptions.  As for the other hundreds of unexplored anchorages in this amazing place- they’re yours to explore.

Raja Basics

Raja Ampat is an area of hundreds of square miles that lies West of Papua and is roughly bounded by Wayag/Waigeo in the north, Misool in the south, the islands of the Dampier Strait in the east, and the Boo Islands in the west.  Parts of this area (see map) are conservation areas where the following rules apply:
- No fishing, except subsistence fishing by local residents
- Prior to entry all visitors must purchase a Rp 500,000 pass, which is good for 1 year.  Passes may be bought in Sorong at the Raja office in the Meridian Hotel (near the airport), or possibly through a live aboard boat or dive resort.
- Liveaboard vessels must abide by strict anchoring and dive site etiquette rules.  ALL boats are encouraged to avoid anchoring in coral areas and anchor in water deeper than 40m if possible. (yes, that’s 40 METERS!)

There are few towns in Raja and many islands are uninhabited.  Limited local produce and fish may be available from villages.  Sorong and Ambon provide the nearest big ports for resupply.   There is no cell service in most of Raja.
There’s not much info out there on Raja for the cruiser.  Many areas are shoaly and poorly charted, and we chose to travel by day only.  We were surprised how many good anchorages we were able to find in spots that were charted as too deep/unprotected.  Often it was a matter of using gut feeling to pick out an area with potential, getting there, and snooping around for an anchorage.
Large-scale tidal currents in most of Raja run north-south.  In the Dampier Strait currents of 3-5knots+ run east-to-west on a falling tide, and west-to-east on a rising tide.  Tide changes can be very swift.  Many dive sites are at their fishiest when the tide is running strong, but use caution!

Sources of information:
- the Raja Ampat office in Meridian hotel - has passes, a list of GPS coordinates for moorings, and a couple dive books on Raja
- live aboard dive boats - there are several of these in Sorong harbor that may be persuaded to talk to you about anchorages and let you have a look at their charts.  Check live aboard itineraries online for inspiration.
- Dive resorts - if they are not too busy, resorts can be very helpful.  Best to be respectful, notify resorts in advance of arrival, and keep in mind that their customers come first.  Max Ammer at Kri Resort was one of the pioneering divers in Raja and is a tremendous source of info if you can catch him at a good time.
- Online:
    Two cruisers’ reports on Raja can be found online, look for WHALESONG AND DREAMKEEPER
    The nonprofit organization Kayaking for Conservation has a rep at Kri Resort and an interesting online             WWII USAF report on Raja.
    Raja Ampat home page- basic Raja info and links to all the resorts and liveaboards’ pages
    Google Earth - zoom in on your potential destinations and save the pics.  It’s hard to judge depths from satellite photos, but sometimes this will be your truest info source.
    Local people - from currents to crocodiles, this is the obvious best source for certain info

Palau Jerief, Dampier Strait

One of several low sandy islands surrounded by shallow coral in Dampier Strait.  Reef extends well to the northeast of the island.  We scouted along the edge of the reef and got a grip just inside the drop off in 20’ in coral and sand.  The currents were very strong but the holding was good. 
There is a deep, steep-sided hole east of the island, in front of a lone house visible on shore.  We snorkeled this hole and the inner reef, which were rather barren.  The reef slope above the drop off had good visibility, and nice hard and soft coral mix, and good fish life including some blacktips..  Use care when snorkeling/diving; the strong tidal current develops quickly.
At dusk, the southern sky filled for about an hour with thousands of bats flying from the western channel islands to Batanta. 

Mansuar and Kri Island, Dampier Strait

Kri and Mansuar Islands form a long, steep, 1200 ridge of limestone whose shores are steep-to, with fringing reefs.  Extreme currents swirl by the islands, especially through the narrow channel between Kri Island and the small island to its northeast.  Here, the twin resorts of Kri Island and Sorido Bay host a house reef- “Kri Corner”- that is probably the fishiest in Northern Raja.  Here, huge schools of rainbow runners, sweet lips, trevally, emperors, snappers, barracuda, whitetips, and grey reef sharks feed amongst the powerful currents.  Following the drop off W to E along the northern side of Kri makes a great drift-snorkel.  Kri/Sorido Bay resorts are run by pioneering Raja diver Max Ammer.  The resort staff were very helpful, providing us with information and filling our SCUBA bottles.
Anchorage off Kri island resort is tricky.  Enter the 1/2mile wide clear, deep, current-swept channel between Kri Island and tiny P Koh.  The sides of the channel are easily visible in good light.  The reef on the Kri side is a vertical wall with a 100’+ bottom.  The P Koh side is sandy and steep.  Past the NW mouth of the channel in open water are several shoals that discolor slightly in good light.  We found temporary anchorage on a 25’ shoal, which we did not see until the depth sounder picked it up (in spite of good light) in open water with a strong current flowing, about 200m NW of Kri Point.  . 
Our preferred Kri Island anchorage was a marginal one in the curving bay on the southwest side of Kri.  Here, a steeply sloping reef fronts a shallow coral flat and sand beach.  Aside from the fringing reef, the bay is deep and clear.  We had just enough room to set out a 3:1 scope in 60’, good holding in sand and coral.  We were not able to set a stern anchor without damaging the coral of the reef flat.  We were protected from the west, north, and east, with the open water of the strait to the south.  But it was not for the faint of heart- when the wind blew strong from the south, we had only feet to spare between us and the edge of the wall! 
Across the bay on Mansuar was a small village with some shops and homestay facilities for tourists.  The
Village pier was recommended to us as a snorkel.  The wall that we anchored below was a very good snorkel with the tide flowing, with hard and soft corals, swarms of fusiliers and anthias, eels, big groupers, tuna, barracuda, blacktips, and massive humphead parrotfish.  At neap tide the sandy areas of the coral flat provide some fascinating tide-pool exploration.  Bird life included kingfishers, frigate birds, and dueling swallows and willy wagtails.
Some nearby popular dive areas that we did not have time to visit: “Manta Sandy” and “Manta Ridge” -Another area of strong currents and big fish is the shoals off Arborek Island, NW of Mansuar, where manta rays congregate.  North and east of Kri lie Mioskon and Friwinbonda, both popular fishy dive spots.  On the north side of Mansuar is a second dive resort,                        

Fam Islands

The Fam islands are a current-swept group of limestone islands and islets at the west end of the Dampier Strait.  At the north end of the group, Great Fam/Penemu is a high island with several picturesque steep-sided islets to the east.  We did not visit Penemu, but there are reportedly a number of good dive sites there, and a shallow ‘marine lake’ with juvenile sharks and Cassiopeia jellyfish, which are often visited by liveaboards. 
The southern Fam group consists of low-lying islands, with the exception of Palau Fam, which has some hills.  On Palau Fambemuk there is a town with a large pier and a coast guard station.  We saw two local boats anchored off this island, but did not stop there ourselves.  Some friendly coast guard guys came out before we had even anchored to look at our papers and ask for a Rp 500,000 bribe, which we firmly refused  while showing our Raja entry pass receipts (their response: OK, Rp 200,000?  Some beer?  Some cigarettes maybe?…). 
Palau Fam has a very well sheltered anchorage on the north coast- a deep, hazard-free bowl almost completely enclosed by mangroves and the small Palau Ambabee.  Enter from the east via the 60m-wide passage between P Fam and P Ambabee.  Approach to the passage passes over some 60’ humps, then the passage itself is deep and clear.  Keep to the center to avoid fringing reef along the shore on either side.  Look for anchoring depth along the steep sides of the bowl; we found room for 3:1 scope in 60’, mud and coral, on the west side between the sand beach and the derelict pier.  Alternative entry into the bay might be possible over the sandy shallows between the limestone islets on the northwest rim of the bay.  Watch for shallow spots and bommies.  Moderate tidal currents flow through the two entrances to the bay.
The extensive mangrove swamp is home to large schools of juvenile fish, sharks, occasional bright seafans and soft corals, and birds including great herons, kingfishers, colorful parrots, and fruit doves.
Calm anchorage in southerly winds can be found on an extensive shallow shelf on the north side of the southwest end of P Yar.  This anchorage is open to the northwest.  Shelter from other directions is provided by the curve of the land and small reefs projecting on either side of the long sandy white beach.  Tuck in close enough to land to get out of the strong tidal current, and anchor in 20’ sand and coral.  There is a small village on the beach.  On the north side of the reef that projects from the island’s SW end there is a dive/snorkel site called ‘Snorkeler’s Paradise’.  We experienced poor visibility and current in this mildly interesting maze of bryozoan-clad grey rock with some hard coral and reef fish.


Kofiau is a limestone island of moderate elevation.  It surrounded by a broad underwater shelf of about 60’ depth, which is swept by currents and dotted by dozens of low sand and mangrove islands.  Kofiau’s waters have the greatest diversity in Raja Ampat, and there are several dive sites in the area.  We did not dive here due to poor visibility and bad weather.
Convoluted geography and shallow water make for many anchoring possibilities around Kofiau.  We anchored in 25’ sand off the west coast of Pulau Panjang.  Keep a careful lookout for the midchannel patch reef that lies halfway between P Panjang and P Mangimangi, as well as the fringing reef that juts out off the south end of P Panjang.  Both can be hard to see in non-ideal light. 
The area around P Panjang and P Miatkori is thick with the floats of pearl farms.
Our second anchorage here was a marginal one NE of P Sina, in 45’ sand and coral at the edge of a steep reef.  We were fairly exposed from most directions, but holding was good.  Nearby Walo Island has good snorkeling with bommies and fish life, especially off the south and west coasts.  The interior of Walo is a fascinating shallow lagoon dotted with a maze of mangrove islets.

Nampele and the Bluewater Mangroves

Nampele is an isolated place with an unusual combination of mangroves and clear water- hence the name, “Bluewater Mangroves”.  The water around Nampele’s low mangrove-forest islets is kept clear by the strong tidal currents that sweep it daily.  This makes for an interesting snorkel or shallow SCUBA dive, but watch out for crocodiles.  There was a nonlethal attack on a diver in 2009 here (see his description here ).  The colors here are subdued- lots of brown soft coral, but it’s a chance to peek into a world that’s rarely seen.
It’s possible to take a boat right through Nampele Island.  The island is cut by 3 wide, deep, (40’+) connecting channels, and anchorage can be found in these channels, deep within the mangrove forest.  Watch for shoal at the northern mouth of the north-south channel. 
Mosquitos here are vicious.

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