What’s so great about diving Raja Ampat? Here’s a concise rundown of what to expect plus Raja Ampat liveaboards and the practicalities of getting there
Soft Corals, Nudi Rock, Raja Ampat © Chris Mitchell
What’s special about Raja Ampat? Why would you go there for diving?
Diving Raja Ampat is pretty much a bucket list goal for every single diver in the world who’s heard of it. This huge area of far eastern Indonesia, located at the top of Papua island, is famous for being the most marine biodiverse area in the world. There are so many species here scientists are still discovering them.
For divers, Raja Ampat means some of the most healthy, large and pristine coral reefs in the world teeming with life both big and small. The waters of Raja Ampat have historically always been warm – around 30 degrees celsius – and so the reefs have not yet been unduly effected by coral bleaching or other climate change impacts. How long this remains the case is obviously a source of major concern.
There are several dive resorts in the Raja Ampat region and around 40 liveaboards – they tend to stay in Misool and Waigeo areas and central Raja Ampat in a typical 1 week or 10 day itinerary. Some liveaboards also do combined trips pairing Raja Ampat with Triton Bay or sailing across the Banda Sea (see below for more info).
Barracuda, Melissa’s Garden, Raja Ampat © Chris Mitchell
What Can I Expect To See At Raja Ampat?
Spectacular pristine coral reefs with teeming schools of fish is the Raja Ampat signature. Manta rays are the most likely big pelagic with whale sharks and sharks in general not so common. That said, wobbegong sharks are quite often spotted and the occasional black tip and even hammerhead, but these are lucky rather than likely encounters. There’s also the famous “walking shark”, the epaulette shark, which like many species was first discovered in Raja Ampat.
Big schools of barracuda, fat trevally hunting in packs, scores of batfish hanging in the blue and cyclones of jacks are all pretty typical to see over the course of a trip. Raja is very much a wide screen, panoramic dive destination if the weather and visibility are co-operating. As the area known as Raja Ampat is hundreds of square miles large, the topography and feel of dive sites changes a fair bit over the course of a typical trip, and there are often strong currents and sometimes murky visibility.
Diving Raja is often like walking in an ornamental garden designed by someone on acid – it’s floating across and beside remarkable clashes of colour and texture from reefs that have been growing and expanding and intertwining with each other for decades. While there are plenty of things to single out on each dive, it’s the overall sensory overload of simply being surrounded by the reef that makes Raja Ampat really special.
Bow of Damai Dua Liveaboard, Raja Ampat © Chris Mitchell
Raja Ampat Liveaboards
There are currently around 40 liveaboards that are permitted to operate in the Raja Ampat marine park. Raja Ampat liveaboards are typically Indonesian wooden phinisi schooners, although there are several steel hulled boats operating too. As Raja Ampat’s popularity has grown, budget liveaboards have arrived.
I’ve broken them down into rough price categories to make it easier to browse.
You can browse all Raja Ampat liveaboards that are available during your chosen month of travel – check to see trip timings, pricing and cabin availability on Liveaboard.com. Be sure to check previous liveaboard guest reviews for a sense of how the boat operates.
For Raja Ampat trips that are departing soon and so discounted, see the weekly updated Dive Happy Last Minute Liveaboard Deals page.
Surrounded by hundreds of fusiliers, Raja Ampat © Chris Mitchell
What are the stand out dive sites at Raja Ampat?
There are literally scores if not hundreds of great dive sites across Raja Ampat. Several books have attempted to gather them together, most recently Tim Rock and Simon Pridmore’s excellent Diving and Snorkeling Guide to Raja Ampat and Northern Indonesia (Hear my podcast with Tim about the book). Also recommended is Burt Jones and Maureen Shimlock’s Diving Indonesia’s Bird’s Head Seascape, as they pioneered finding many of the current sites.
Four Kings Corals, Raja Ampat © Chris Mitchell
Personal favourites include Melissa’s Garden, named by Raja Ampat pioneer Max Ammer after his daughter – it’s a relatively shallow plateau that seems to have everything in it – every time I’ve been there it’s been drenched in sunshine and a huge school of barracuda seems to be resident just off in the blue as the slopes of the plateau beckon down to darker depths.
Four Kings is a superb pinnacle dive with incredibly rich encrusted corals, while Magic Mountain is a huge underwater sea mount covered in reef that also acts as a cleaning station for manta rays. For more discussion of Raja’s best dive sites, listen or read the transcript of my Raja Ampat podcast interview with Tim Rock.
Manta Ray with pilot fish, Manta Sandy, Raja Ampat © Chris Mitchell
Such is the popularity of some sites, such as Magic Mountain and also Manta Sandy, which is another manta cleaning station with almost guaranteed sightings, that there’s often a queuing system in operation between boats. This is to ensure there’s not too many divers in the water at any one time. This is one big advantage of staying at a Raja Ampat resort – while access to sites is limited to what’s relatively nearby the resort, divers can go at any time and so avoid running into anyone else.
Hidy through the fan coral, Raja Ampat © Chris Mitchell
How much time should I spend in Raja Ampat?
Most liveaboards run for a minimum of 7 days / 7 nights and often 10 to 14 days. There is a huge amount to see in the Raja Ampat region and given the remote location / cost of travelling to the area, if you can spare the time and money to stay longer, it’s definitely worth doing so.
Some trips combine Raja Ampat with Triton Bay where the liveaboard sails from Sorong through the Raja Ampat regions of Waigeo and Misool, further south along the Papuan coast though the transitional Palau Pisang and Mommon areas and then into Triton Bay. See the Dive Happy report on diving Triton Bay for more on this remote area, and listen or read the transcript of my Diving Triton Bay podcast interview with Jimmy Thai, co-owner of the Triton Bay Divers resort.
Other trips combine Raja Ampat with crossing the Banda Sea, taking in Raja’s Misool and central regions and then heading out to the Banda islands via the sea volcanos of Ganung Api and Manuk and Nusa Laut, ending the trip in the muck diving paradise of Ambon.
Major scuba diving locations in Indonesia
Where is Raja Ampat located in Indonesia?
Raja Ampat is at top of Papua island in far east Indonesia. (Papua New Guinea occupies the southern half of the island. Papua island itself is the second largest island in the world). Raja Ampat itself is located around the Bird’s Head Peninsula – so called because when you look at the map it indeed looks like a bird’s head sticking out the top of the island.
On the other, western side of the Bird’s Head Peninsula lies Cenderawasih Bay, another excellent dive destination in its own right. Most famous for incredible encounters with whale sharks which hang around fishermen’s floating platforms looking for a free feed, Cenderawasih Bay is even more remote than Raja Ampat with superb hard coral reefs and World War 2 wrecks.
It’s worth noting that whale sharks are also attracted to the floating platforms – known as bagans – located in Triton Bay. As it’s not that well known yet, the whale sharks of Triton Bay have not yet become a regular part of liveaboard itineraries.
Seasnake amongst the coral, Raja Ampat © Chris Mitchell
How to get to Raja Ampat?
Fly into the city of Sorong at Domine Eduard Osok Airport. Sorong’s airport code is SOQ. There are daily direct flights from Jakarta to Sorong. See Skyscanner to compare multiple airlines’ flight timings and prices for your travel dates. Also see the Dive Happy page How To Get To Raja Ampat for a more detailed run down of the logistics of travelling.
What dive insurance do I need for the Indonesia ?
World Nomads provide travel insurance if you’re travelling in Indonesia that covers you both on land during travels to and from your liveaboard and also while diving. Their insurance policy provides coverage for certified divers who don’t go below 40 meters and are diving with qualified guides or instructors.
You can purchase insurance coverage on a per trip basis and extend it easily online if you decide to keep travelling. World Nomads are recommended by Lonely Planet and National Geographic among others. Diving insurance is mandatory on liveaboards in Indonesia and proof of purchase needs to be shown along with certification cards and log books. Get an insurance quote now.
In the shallows, Raja Ampat © Chris Mitchell
How much time should I spend in Raja Ampat?
The typical Raja Ampat live aboard runs for a week but if you can afford the time and money, stay longer. This is because Raja is a very long way to come and the running joke is, once you’ve been once, you’ll definitely be coming back. So do everything you can to maximise your possible available time. Many liveaboards run for 10 day or even 2 weeks, either staying wholly in Raja between the Wiego and Misool regions, or exploring Raja and then sailing down the Papuan coast to Triton Bay, or sailing from Raja across the Banda Sea via the Banda Islands and several other key sites before arriving in the the premier muck diving destination of Ambon.
Raja Ampat Dive Resorts
If more than a week on a boat sounds like too much to you, pairing a liveaboard trip with time in one of Raja Ampat’s dive resorts gives you the best of both worlds. Raja Ampat’s original, pioneering resorts are:
- Sorido Bay and Kri Eco Resort – both owned by Max Ammer at Papua Diving
- Misool Eco Resort – a luxury dive resort that’s also established a large marine sanctuary and no-take zone. Listen or read my interview with Misool Eco Resort co-founder Marit Miners for more background info.
Contact these resorts directly to check availability and pricing.
There are several resorts on the island of Rabia in the Waigo region – scroll out on the map above to see their location in relation to Sorong. You can check pricing and availability online at Booking.com, along with previous guest reviews.
There are also several homestays in the same area which you can book for topside activities and generally enjoying a more local, rustic experience of Raja. Some are shown on the Booking.com map above. For more in-depth info about Raja Ampat homestays run by locally-owned businesses, see the excellent StayRajaAmpat.com.
Where To Stay Before And After A Raja Ampat Liveaboard?
The city of Sorong is the departure and return point for almost all Raja Ampat liveaboards. With the oil and gas boom along with rising tourism, Sorong has expanded rapidly in the last 10 years and now has many accommodation choices. If you need some down time before a dive trip to deal with jetlag, or want some time to decompress after a lie aboard, there are plenty of comfortable hotel choices in Sorong.
if you want to explore more of Raja Ampat on land, there are plenty of tour operators that can organise bird spotting, jungle trekking, kayaking and the like.
And if you don’t want to stay in the city, there are homestays too, as mentioned above.
When to dive Raja Ampat? When’s the best time of year?
The Raja Ampat liveaboard dive season typically runs from October to March, with liveaboards transitioning to Komodo in March and transitioning from Komodo back to Raja Ampat in October. October to April is the official dry season in Raja, in contrast to the rest of Indonesia (hence the transition of the liveaboards to follow the good weather and calm seas). It’s still possible to dive during the wet season of May to September from Raja Ampat’s dive resorts, and for those who can handle potential choppy seas, colder water and the occasional torrential downpour, there’s the reward of having dive sites with far less divers around.
Bommie suffused in soft corals, Raja Ampat © Chris Mitchell
Is Raja Ampat safe for travelers?
In a word, yes. Bear in mind it is a remote region so travel insurance is vital. If you have any medical issues during your visit you will want to head to Jakarta or Singapore for ongoing treatment of any serious issues. World Nomads provides a combined insurance policy for both general travel and scuba diving too.
While Raja Ampat is fertile for oil and gas exploration, many Papuans are unhappy that the profits seemingly disappear back to the capital Jakarta rather than investing in improving the lives of locals. There is occasional sporadic unrest which is unlikely to affect a dive trip but it’s worth mentioning. It is also extremely unlikely tourists would be at personal risk – more inconvenienced.
What topside things are there to do at Raja Ampat?
Papua’s amazing natural resources aren’t restricted to the sea – it’s superlative native bird population makes it a world-class destination for ornithologists and enthusiasts. As diving has brought more and more tourists into the region over the last 10 years, local onland tourist services have improved. Stay Raja Ampat has an excellent list of land based activities.
What should I pack for a dive trip to Raja Ampat?
See the Divehappy Liveaboard Packing List to help you remember to bring everything you need.