Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Raja Ampat Indonesia - A Wildlife Fantasy Above & Below

“Your room is very nice” Sophie whispered to me in her beautiful French-accented English. I nodded wearily as I dragged my carry-on through the sandy path. 

We had been traveling for three days to get here. Even styling in business class and spending our long layovers in lounges and hotels, I was numb with fatigue. Temporarily immune to the surrounding beauty, all I could think about was taking a nap. To the right of us, I was aware of a sloping jungle filled with strange sounds from which I was soon to learn housed exotic creatures and birds of all sorts. To the left, a neat row of guest cottages jutting out over crystal clear water. 

When we rolled up to number 13, Bird of Paradise, Sofie slid open the door. Despite my exhaustion, I was immediately enchanted. It seems Lovey and Thurston Howell III had vacated the premises and we were moving into what looked like their deluxe grass hut from Gilligan's Island.

The place was huge. The bathroom alone was the size of a studio apartment in Manhattan. The big open living space was anchored by a king size bed covered in crisp white sheets and draped with romantic gauzy mosquito netting. 

The front opened up to an extra large deck jutting out over the water sporting a large lazy hammock, two chaise lounges and a ladder to climb down to the sea. 

I learned there was a black tip shark nursery right in front and most evenings delightedly revealed a bioluminescence show in the water. 

Baby blacktip shark in front of our room
Right now all I could think about was doing a face plant in that bed. My husbandfish and most of the rest of our group had more energy and decided to go immediately out on a dive. My soul wanted to go with them but my body refused to cooperate. I hit the sack. Hard.

Feeling almost completely refreshed, I woke up in time for dinner and retraced my steps down the sandy jungle path to the large communal dining room where we were served a marvelous buffet style dinner scented with local spices and curries. 

After dinner, I slept another 10 hours and woke up good as new, ready to embrace our first day of spectacular diving at Kri Eco Resort

After a slight mishap with my gear, which Tom, the resort's gregarious and extremely helpful dive manager sorted for me. It was off to explore the underwater wonder and biodiversity miracle that is Raja Ampat. 

Dive Director, Tom
To say the diving here is mind-blowing would be an understatement. It seemed like every fish I’d ever seen in all phases were on the reef at once. 

For amazing underwater photos taken by, Rolph Schmidt, a diving legend, and über talented photographer in our group CLICK HERE:

Hundreds of creatures decorated vibrant and healthy corals painted in stunning colors and patterns. 

Cute baby blue spotted stingray in front of our room
I honestly did not know where to look first. It wasn’t just my impression. The group I was with have logged thousands of dives and they all surfaced with the same astonishment. 

Soon we settled down into the familiar rhythms of eat, sleep, dive, rinse and repeat that are the centerpiece of most scuba vacations. 

Every morning, we headed out for two dives with a safety interval stop made in between at a local island. These islands were either a village where the locals lived or homestays set up for kayakers and wanderers. 

Our break involved a selection of coffee, tea, cappuccino, cocoa served with homemade cake and fresh local fruits. 

At our stop, we often would take a walk through the village, many times accompanied by one of our guides or boat crew who lived on the island with their families. Sometimes the local kids joined us.

After our break, we headed back out to dive in a different location. and were back at the resort in time for a delicious lunch. An hour later the boats went out for a third dive. If we wanted to we could request a sunset dive or a night dive as a fourth option.  

Once sparse and remote, Raja Ampat (the Four Kings), West Papua has exploded as a diving destination. More resorts are opening up and we counted at least seven live-aboard dive boats patrolling the area. This does not come without its problems. I punched somebody underwater water (more about that later) and Paul Allen's yacht, The Octopus showed up several times during our trip looking like Gulliver dwarfing the other boats in the area.

The area is considered one of the most biodiverse regions in the world. Cape Kri, a dive site minutes from the resort is famous for hosting the most species of fish on one reef in the entire world. 364 to be exact. They were counted by experts. 

Kri Eco resort and it's sister resort Sorido Bay was founded by Max Ammer, an intrepid explorer who pioneered diving in this area 28 years ago.

What sets these resorts apart in the area are the employees. Most of the workers are West Paupuan locals. The exceptions at Kri were hotel managers Sophie and Florent from France and Tom from San Francisco. CA.

The company also facilitates and participates in many local conservation programs. Rarely have I seen such benefits and care dedicated to local workers.

The resort takes on the expense of training them to be dive guides and dive masters as well as picks up the cost of their insurance, equipment, their families' medical insurance and provides cash bonuses in addition to salaries. I felt good about where our vacation money was being spent. 

Our accommodation was one of only two huts that were self-contained with an ensuite bathroom. All others had communal bathrooms. 

View from our room
The creatures topside were equally exotic as those down under. We had a house Gekko in our room who my husband proclaimed a loser because he tended to ignore the mosquitos rather than feast on them. He was redeemed by his cuteness by greeting me each morning peeking out from behind or sometimes inside my coffee cup. 

There was no shortage of monitor lizards around. Mostly they hung out around the dining room, displaying their beautiful photogenic patterned skin. 

Every evening the after-dinner entertainment was gathering at the outdoor sunset lounge to watch the show in the sky.

At darkness, bratty fruit bats chucked the leftover pits from their nightly fruit feast onto the jungle floor often startling guests as they made their way back to their rooms. One unfortunate guest had brought an apple back to her quarters. A big no-no. 

She returned to a fruit bat hootenanny who had shown their appreciation by defecating all over her room. Ditto for the jungle rats. The animals are everywhere but will stay out of your room if there is no food in it. 

Nights at the resort also bring out an abundance of marsupials like the red and white patterned cuscus, sugar gliders and tree kangaroos

During the day birds ruled the domain. It was like being a guest inside an exotic aviary. Cranky sounding sulfur-crested cockatoos and brightly colored squawking parrots peppered the trees along with others with serious musical talent. Some sounded like the hysterical or grumpy laughter of an old man which constantly cracked us up.

Nearby was one of a few islands in the world that house the magnificent endangered Wilson's Red Bird of Paradise. I was excited to go on this excursion and it did not disappoint. Once we pulled up to the island, we were met by our guide who took us on a 45-minute uphill hike to a tall tree where we waited for an hour for the birds to arrive.  

We bided our time fending off the mosquitos. The birds were too far away for me to photograph but glorious looking when seen through binoculars. 

“We used to snorkel there but the alligators got too big,” said Tom before we set off for a day trip to dive The Passage. Oookaay?

Alligator threats aside, this excursion was so incredible, we did it twice. The trip takes the entire day so the crew brings lunch for us. The dive starts in a fantastic cave where the sunlight peeks through above and the formations are incredible. The rest of the dive is a long drift through coral gardens so magnificent, it's like visiting another planet. That's the only way to describe it. Fields of purple finger corals, stunning sponges, and fans in blindingly beautiful colors. 

Traditional West Papuan fishing boat
Even though the days seemed lazy, our two weeks flew by. It was time to board the Ilike for a further 11-day dive adventure moving to a different part of this glorious part of the world. More about that at another time.

Lazing around in a hammock

Tips for Visiting and Diving Raja Ampat:
Our morning rainbow as seen from our room. 

Be advised: 

1) Dive responsibly (no decompression diving) for your own safety. There are no recompression chambers near this area. The closest ones are in Manado or in Darwin, Australia. Make sure you keep yourself hydrated and of course, don't drink alcohol and dive. 

2) The diving in Raja Ampat often has very strong currents. Make sure you are a good enough diver who is comfortable navigating crazy currents and have control of your buoyancy. 

3) Don't forget to take your snorkel on the dive boat. Sometimes there were spontaneous opportunities to snorkel. I was glad I prepared. 

What to leave home:

1)Discardable travel sized toiletries There is no way to dispose of plastic in this corner of the world. Do your part and do not bring plastic items planning to leave them behind once emptied. Plan on packing the empties into your suitcase to properly dispose of at home. 

2) Your transparent thong bikini - No matter how banging your bod is, the local Papuans are modest strict Seventh Day Adventists. Although they are used to a certain amount of tourist nudity, no one wants to see your tatas hanging out. Bathing suits are a must of course but don’t embarrass yourself or your hosts by parading around in skimpy bathing attire. Wrap yourself in a pareo or wear a cover-up, especially in common areas of the resort like the dining room and when you are visiting villages on surface intervals between dives. Respect the locals. 

3) Gloves -  The entire area is a marine park. Gloves are NOT allowed. You are not the exception. Because of the strong currents, less experienced divers often feel it’s ok to wear gloves so they can grab onto the coral to steady themselves. WRONG. Do not touch the reef ever except where it’s dead. If you don’t know the difference, learn it before you go. Grabbing the coral kills it. This is one of the most biodiverse places underwater in the world. Only responsible divers can protect it and have an obligation to do so. 

On one dive with ripping current, I had tucked myself behind a piece of coral to stay out of the flow. I was holding onto a dead piece to keep myself steady. A diver from another diving outfit wearing gloves came flying through, his buoyancy out of control. He spotted my position and tried to get next to me (there was no room) by stopping himself by grabbing the coral I was hiding behind. He used both hands to stop himself, destroying the coral in the process.  So I punched him and he tumbled away. Moral of the story: dive within your limits and do not ever wear gloves in a protected marine park at the risk of underwater assault. 

4) Candy or plastic toys for children - Although this is a well-meaning gesture from many tourists, be aware access to dentistry in remote areas can be limited. Too much candy from tourists can be detrimental to the local children's teeth. Plastic toys present the same problems as toiletry bottles (see above)

14 items to Bring with you:

1) Refillable Collapsible Toiletry Bottles (see #1 above)Silicon ones deflate and take up less room in your suitcase on the way home. 
2 & 3) Sea Breeze & Bandanas - I use this not as an astringent, but to keep cool. It's an old cameraman trick. Sprinkle it on or soak a bandana then tie it around your neck or head. Sea Breeze's cooling agent will help when you are feeling overheated. 

4) Reef Friendly Sunscreen, Shampoo, and Conditioner. Chemicals in runoff from sunscreen and hair and body products can kill the reef. Stream to Sea offers a full line of reef safe sunscreen, after sun gel, lotions shampoo and conditioner. 

5) Burt’s Beeswax Lip Shimmers - Not only do these have a cooling agent in them, but the slight tint and shimmer give my lips a pop of color on what usually is a makeup-free vacation. Guava is my jam.

6) Underwater Magnifying Glass. For macro dives to see all the gorgeous small creatures clearly. 

7) Reef Hook - Bring a reef hook (see above on no gloves policy) and learn to use it properly.

8)Eco-Friendly Bug Spray. For yourself and as gifts for your guides. 

9) Anti Itch Lotion
 or cream for those spots you forgot to cover with bug spray. 

10) Neoprene Ear Guard - The wind from speedboat rides between dive sites can wreak havoc on your ears, especially with repetitive diving. Protect them from infection by covering them in between dives. 

11) Dry bag - For your camera, towel, pareo, shorts or whatever else you would like to keep dry during the day's excursion. 

12) Sudafed - Hopefully you won't need it but bring it anyway. If you get an ear infection, you will be nowhere near a pharmacy. 
13) Pareo - Not only are these great coverups (there are so many different ways to tie them around your body), they are incredibly versatile. Over my years of traveling, I have used a pareo for a nightgown, a sheet, a towel, a pillow, a beach blanket, even as a scarf on a cold airplane. They are a staple in my dive luggage. 

14) School supplies - As mentioned above, candy and plastic toys are a no go for presents children. I usually bring school and art supplies and give them to the local teachers to distribute to the students as they see fit. 

Visiting Raja Ampat:

Rates: Dive packages at Kri Eco Resort start at 1,667 Euro per week per person (double room with shared bathrooms). Deluxe Water Cottages are 2,134 Euro per week per person based on double occupancy. Room rates include accommodations, all meals, diving, and Nitrox. Laundry is Free and each room comes with 2 gigs of wifi access per week. 

How to Get There:  Direct Flights from Jakarta to Sorong, then a 2+1/2 hour speedboat ride to Kri Island (included in resort fee)


  1. OMG! Sitting here sipping my coffee I feel like I was on vacation with you and and Dr. B. This was an amazing trip. I love it all, except having a Gekko in my coffee cup. Ugh! I'm looking forward to reading Part II.

  2. Susan Elin ZachariasJanuary 25, 2018 at 1:16 PM

    An excellent blogpost, Lora, and I really liked your comprehensive list of what-to-take and the what-nots. Hope Sophie, Florent, Tom & the other workers at Kri Eco Resort get a chance to read your post. It was also very good to hear that the local workers are treated fairly. That pandan cake looked scrumptious. And the drama of you (rightfully) shoving another diver away from the coral was an added highlight.

  3. What a fabulous trip! Loved reading all about this resort and I learned some new tricks- Sea Breeze and Reef Hooks! Who knew!?!


Thank you for your comments and feedback. I love hearing from you!