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Published: July 12th 2013
I have been wanting to go to Raja Ampat for the longest time and it was on top of my priority list to visit; when my friend Ella asked me to join her and her friends going diving with Tiger Blue (www.tigerblue.info), I didn’t hesitate accepting the offer. In fact, she had been planning for the trip for a few months but had not pinned down the date. Upon hearing my ultimatum saying ‘now or never’, she browsed websites on Raja Ampat and found Tiger Blue (the reason she chose to go with it was because she got a response within 24 hours).
Like many other group trips of mine, I hardly knew anyone. This time, I had known only my friend Ella and her sister, Nia, and had asked another friend of mine, Agnes (diver), from Hong Kong to come along with me. There were a total of 9 participants, 5 of who are divers. It was not supposed to be a scuba diving live aboard only. Our goal for the trip was clear: we wanted to enjoy the cruise, got to see Raja Ampat, had a great dive and if possible, got a few good photographs (a few
folks on the boat are photographers too).
To come to this part of the country, it requires a dedication (time, money and efforts). First, it is not inexpensive. Most live aboard (LOB) operators are run by foreigners, and if you would like to have a quality LOB, you might as well pay the premium and enjoy the journey. There are approximately 40 LOB operators in Raja Ampat. Second, you would need to spend at least a week including of the traveling time, and third, most operators operate only during certain time of the year when the sea was not rough.
We left Jakarta at the wee hour taking a red eye flight to Sorong via Makassar (in hindsight, I should have gone from Singapore via Makassar directly and cut the travel time by a few hours). Many flights to the Eastern part of Indonesia fly in the evening, which I am not too fond of - as the travel time seems long but if you adjusted the time difference, you can barely have any sleep in the plane.
Upon arrival at Sorong airport, we were greeted by Captain Wouter van den Houten, a Dutch guy who has
lived in Bali for the past 20 years (he probably wondered why we had so many luggages with us for a live aboard) and transported to the Pier where a speedboat had been waiting to take us to Tiger Blue. Once boarding on Tiger Blue, we were greeted by the crew and Chef Lucas and were briefed about the boat. The next hour or so, we were being assigned our room and got ourselves comfortable in the boat while the boat started to cruise and Chef Lucas started preparing our lunch. Tiger blue was custom-made (it took Wouter approximately 18 months to supervise the building of this Phinisi schooner in Makassar) and tastely decorated. It has a total of 4 cabins sufficient to accommodate 10 people. My favorite part of the boat was the top sun deck as I got to enjoy the view as well as the breeze while the boat was cruising. As soon as we were onboard, we invaded every inch of the boat - we were literally everywhere! We spotted a group of dolphins as if they welcome us to their home at Raja Ampat.
Upon arrival at the first dive destination, we immediately got
ready for our check dive ,which went well but had nothing much to see. Besides Wouter, Ella's sister, Nia is also a dive master and a great underwater photographer (she brought her underwater camera gears which were humongous). Those who didn't dive spent their time snorkelling or relaxing on the boat. Only after the dive we learned that the cousin in law of Ella, Veronica (who has never been on a dive trip) had snorkelled with her brand new wetsuit for the first time without anything under neath - that incident had cracked all of us up! well done, Vero!
After our check dive, we were served lunch; we had enjoyed every single dish cooked by Chef Lucas (and finished them all in an instant!). Throughout the trip, we had steak, lamb chops, lobster, prawn and fish -- all of which were first class quality. Unfortunately, our enjoyable cruise didn't last long as the sea started to get rough and it started to rain, when we were heading towards Batanta. I had to retire to my room and laid flat to avoid any motion sickness and got out only after the sea was calm before it got dark. Wouter
during mangrove cruise
has decided to re-route our destination towards Waigeo and found a quiet bay shielded from the wind. It was a perfect sunset and such a breath taking and peaceful experience, difficult to express in words. You feel so close to nature. Even after dinner, I spent many hours on the sun deck admiring the myriads of starts in the dark.
Wouter started the second day by taking us with his rubber boat around the mangrove after breakfast. The water is crystal clear that we could see the coral underneath clearly, against the blue sky as a backdrop. Some of us could not help by jumping into the water and swim in the lagoon, while some tried the kayak. After lunch, we had our dive and this time I got to see wobbegong (or Shaggy Beard) shark for the first time in my life. I had joined two out of the three dives in the day.
We were told to wake up early the next morning as we wanted to see Cendrawasih (bird of Paradise) in the wild on the third day of our trip. We left the boat at around 4:30 pm and took a speed boat which
took us to the shore. In the dark, we had to hike the slippery hill till we reached a hut at the top about 45 minutes later. We then waited for the birds to come out. Apparently this bird came out early in the morning and would chirps while dancing to attract the females. I had brought my tele lens with me and was so ready to get a good shot; unfortunately, when I spot the bird and started clicking, I realised I didn't have my setting correct and the pictures turned more like a black and white. After breakfast, we got ready for our next dive and this time was my favorite dive of all. We went to Sandy point and got the chance to dive with the mantas. I had never seen a manta while diving before in my life and never imagined that the mantas would stay close to us, playing and dancing around the cleaning station for almost an hour. Unfortunately, I didn't have my underwater camera back then, so I didn't have the images of this beautiful creature (a reason to go back to Raja Ampat). I was so happy with my encounter with the
mantas that I had decided to skip the next dive. Later on I learned the mantas had surfaced and swam along with the snorkelers in such a close proximity. We didn't have a third dive as we had to move to the next destination.
I was also told that if I woke up early I could get a glimpse of the Cockatoo in the wild on the fourth day of our trip; so I did. I woke up at 5 am and had my gear ready on the upper deck. Yes, I saw a few of white Cockatoo but it was too far to capture. Then, I saw a pair of beautiful eagles flying and I frantically started clicking my camera to find later on that I didn't get my setting correct again and all pictures were blur. I had to convince my self that it was the experience that counted, not the result.
Our dive on the four day was quite interesting as it was close to the mangrove area, one of which was a cave dive. We're told that it was a bit eerie, so upon descending, we felt a little bit tense. My friend Ari
stayed close to Wouter while moving towards the cave entrance, where we found a sizeable puffer fish as if it was guarding the entrance (it didn't even budge when we entered the cave). I could hear my heartbeat faster than usual but followed our dive master who led us up all the way to the opening in the cave where we surfaced. Then I heard hissing sound and realised that my Buoyancy Control jacket was leaking and started to get panic (the thought that came to my mind was 'how was I going to exit the cave without much air on my tank?)'. Wouter then led us swimming to the brighter area of the cave, and I was relieved to learn it was the exit of the cave (a few of our snorkeling friends joined us as well from outside). So, our initial fears were totally baseless! In the afternoon after our dives, Wouter took us for another mangrove tour with the rubber boat. The view was equally stunning but this time, it was supposed to be a sunset mangrove cruise. First, we could not find the way out of the maze of islands and later on when we found
a passage, our rubber got stuck in the coral reef (Wouter bled his calf when he had to go down and pushed the rubber boat); we finally managed to get to the boat safely before it was dark.
On the last day of our trip, we're told our dive would start early in the morning; some of us were too tired to wake up early. Initially, I would skip the dive and enjoy the cruise or snorkel instead, but Wouter said this was one of the best dive sites in Raja Ampat, so I must go. Reluctantly with sleepy eyes, I joined the rest of the divers. I didn't with the decision as I got a chance to see a white reef shark (not while diving but while snorkeling after my dive). That was the end of our Raja Ampat journey as the boat started to move towards Sorong. Unfortunately, it was not a smooth cruise and I had to lay flat again until the boat reached Sorong around 4pm. We had our lunch only after we reached Sorong and parted half heartedly with the entire crew who have been very attentive and helfpul throughout the journey.
stayed overnight at Mamberamo Hotel, which seemed to be the best hotel, in Strong as we needed to catch our flight to Jakarta the next day. Thanks to Ella, who organised this trip and for choosing the right operator, Tiger Blue, thanks to Wouter who made our trip memorable, and thanks to Chef Lucas who was responsible for adding a few kilos of our weight. More importantly, I got to make new friends from the trip: Ari the bird watcher (who gave up her cameras after seeing mine and Ella kept changing hands), Vero the fish whisperer (she thanked the fish for being there when she snorkelled), Anto and Dani the Snorker Master, my photography guru, Alfian and our dive master Nia and her model boyfriend, Boy (who was always happy to pose for us).
I am very sad to learn that our dive guide and captain of the boat, Wouter van den Houten, passed away in Bali on August 2nd, 2013 on a motorcycle accident (further information can be obtained at Tiger Blue facebook website). May his soul rest in peace; he will be missed!
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