Raja Ampat to the Banda Islands is one of the great scuba diving liveaboard trips – it’s a smorgasbord of amazing reefs, superlative fish and fascinating history.
Feather Star on soft corals © Chris Mitchell
Raja Ampat to the Banda Islands is one of the great ocean journeys across Indonesia. If you take a look at the map, over 10 days the boat sails from Sorong at the top of western Papua in Indonesia through the Ceram Sea to the Misool area of Raja Ampat, then across to Koon island and onto the tiny but famed Banda islands, before sailing on to Nusa Laut and finally ending the voyage in Ambon, with its world-class muck-diving.
Explosion of coral colour © Chris Mitchell
I had done the Banda Sea crossing twice back in 2009, going back and forth in each direction as the liveaboard boats did their seasonal transition trips – in March and April departing from Raja Ampat and heading south to Komodo, and then in September and October leaving Komodo and sailing back to Raja Ampat. So I was interested to see if things had changed in the intervening 7 years before going back.
The unspoilt beauty of Raja’s teeming reefs has been endlessly raved about in dive magazines and blogs over the last decade, while scientists have determined it as the most diverse place on the planet for marine life. Simply put, Raja Ampat is the coral reefs of your imagination made real.
Despite the relative difficulty and expense of accessing Raja Ampat’s dive sites, it’s become hugely popular. When I first visited Raja Ampat back in 2007, we didn’t see another boat for pretty much the entire voyage. Nine years later, there are nearly 40 boats in the national marine park and on some of the really popular sites like Magic Mountain you actually find yourself in a queue. This tends to ruin striking an “intrepid hero going into the unknown alone” pose on the foredeck.
Raja Ampat to Banda Islands and Ambon liveaboard route map © Dive Damai
As of 2016, there were 40 different liveaboards operating in the Raja region. There are also several resorts now – from the well established like Misool Eco Resort and Kri to newer places like Raja Ampat Dive Resort and Waiwo Dive Resort – see my overview at Diving Raja Ampat: A Quick Guide for more details.
For our trip, we headed from Sorong straight to Misool as bad weather was making diving in the northern Dampier Strait area a very dicey proposition.
Turtle and the fish © Chris Mitchell
It was hardly a chore to spend more time at Misool. Take a look at any dive site map and the area is littered with so many dive sites you would be here for weeks just trying to see them all.
We did some of Misool’s greatest hits – Nudi Rock, Magic Mountain (Karang Bayangan), No Contest and Andiamo.
Boo Windows © Chris Mitchell
The iconic Boo Windows just kept giving, especially on the reef around the back of the window where there was endless frenetic activity from several schools of fish skittering about the place.
Coral bommie and the racing fish © Chris Mitchell
I also managed to get photobombed by a jack whilst waiting for the school of fish in the previous photo to start running across the reef.
Photobombed by a jack, Boo Windows © Chris Mitchell
The reefs at Misool are unarguably stunning – they are the picture postcard definition of what you expect a reef to look like, and then some. The corals here are coping with warmer waters which have caused die offs in other regions (listen to the Misool Eco Resort podcast for more info) and so the reefs still appear to be thriving rather than fighting a battle for survival
Coral bommie, Four Kings © Chris Mitchell
It is definitely a wide angle kind of place where you kick back and take on the majesty. Four Kings is one of my personal favourites, four pinnacles which get progressively deeper. This huge banana shaped coral bommie on one of the shallower peaks looks great from every angle.
Barracuda in the blue, Yelliet Kecil © Chris Mitchell
This huge school of barracuda sat on the edge of the plateau at Yelliet Kecil. We got a couple of brief encounters with manta rays during our four dives at Magic Mountain (Karang Bayangan) but not the full-on manta ballet that everyone was secretly hoping for.
We did have an incredible encounter with something quite unexpected. One early morning we were at the edge of a reef with a sharp drop off from the shallows. Geraldine, our guide, was at the edge while the rest of us were scattered over the sandy bottom. There was a single tank bang as a shadow shot up from the depths and around Geraldine, clearly checking her out. It twisted around her and then just as quickly disappeared back into the black, leaving behind the indelible memory of a hammerhead shark etched in our minds.
Hard and Soft Corals, Koon Island © Chris Mitchell
The breakpoint for the sea voyage from Misool to the Banda Islands, Koon island is the archetypal speck on the map – it even looks the part of a tropical island from above. Below water the Too Many Fish site (which we dived three times – there was nowhere else to go that day) has some spectacular coral growth in shallow waters, with neon colours when the sun comes out.
Fort Belgica, Banda Neira, Banda Islands © Chris Mitchell
The Banda Islands have a huge historical reputation for a group of islands so tiny they are often barely visible on a map. The epicentre of the continual 17th century conflict over nutmeg between the European sea powers, the Banda Islands today have thankfully returned to their sleepy, quiet beauty, only interrupted by occasional visits from cruise ships which disgorge hundreds of daytrippers.
The morning walking tour around Banda Neira is fascinating – there is so much conflict and skulduggery layered into the history of these islands that everywhere you look there’s a reminder of the troubled past. The 17th-century Fort Belgica at the top of the island is the most visible reminder, a brutal monument to colonialism which has an eerie air even in broad daylight.
The briefest of readthroughs of the Wikipedia page on the bloody history of the Banda Islands is enough to convey the years-long horror of what happened here.
The “Banda Islands breakfast” consisting of Cinnamon Tea, Nutmeg Jam, Fried Banana and Taro freshly picked from the local orchards is just delicious.
A carpet of staghorn corals, Banda Sea © Chris Mitchell
Back underwater, the Banda Islands also show the aftermath of violence, this time caused by nature. This somewhat sombre looking photo is actually a cause for joy – when Banda Api volcano on last erupted in 1988, the lava flow went straight into the sea destroying a huge section of the reef. 20 years later, what should be barren volcanic rock is covered as far as the eye can see with staghorn coral – the beginnings of new life.
The volcano island of Banda Api © Chris Mitchell
I’d been to the Lava Flow dive site twice back in 2009 and it was heartening to see it continue to grow and evolve with the fish life also coming back too.
Hard corals, Lava Flow, Banda Sea © Chris Mitchell
There are also some gorgeous hard coral bommies on some of the Banda island sites which have been growing for decades which are impressively sized and a fascinating contrast to the soft corals of Raja.
Spaceship table corals © Chris Mitchell
Nusa Laut is the penultimate port of call before arriving in Ambon, an island stopover after sailing across the Banda Sea from the Banda Islands. In the shallows of this island there are some spectacular table corals. This one looking like a crashed spaceship was my favourite, but there were many others, all within 10 metres, drenched with sunlight and surrounded by powder-white sand.
Anthias and hard coral, Nusa Laut © Chris Mitchell
There was also plenty of fish life darting around the hard corals, with clouds of anthias proving to be particularly photogenic.
Coffee Rhinopia, The Twilight Zone, Ambon © Chris Mitchell
With the arrival in Ambon, the 11 day voyage over 560 nautical miles from Raja Ampat was over – but there was still some great diving to be had. Laha 2 is one of the three sites that make up The Twilight Zone, one of the most famous muck diving areas in the world. It’s certainly not pretty, or particularly clean, but there are numerous wonders to discover under the water and indeed, under the flight path of nearby Ambon airport. A pair of rhinopias proved a suitable conclusion to an epic liveaboard trip. There are stacks of dive sites around Ambon, and while I’ve passed through several times, I keep vowing to come back and spend some time here on a dedicated trip to see the other local dive sites beyond the muck diving which gets all the attention.
Raja Ampat to the Banda Islands and Ambon Liveaboard Conclusion
As the third time I’ve done this trip, I have to say I enjoyed it just as much as previous trips. It was a shame our route didn’t take us past one of the volcano islands of the sea snakes – Ganung Api or Manuk – but there is a lot of distance to cover. Perhaps the only drawback of this trip to mention is that the boat is moving most nights rather than being anchored due to the distances involved. The upside is that you get to dive sites in the Ceram and Banda Seas that are comparatively rarely visited, unlike those of Raja Ampat. The Banda Islands themselves are a fascinating land-based interlude, and Ambon provides a great finale.
Raja Ampat to the Banda Islands and Ambon Liveaboard Dive Site List
|#||Date||Site Name||Region||GPS Point||Remarks|
|1||18-Feb||Two Tree Island||Misool-Wagmab||02'01.684S||130'44.055E||check dive|
|2||18-Feb||No Contest||Misool-Balbullol||02'01.584S||130'41.431E||reef dive|
|3||18-Feb||Yelliet Kecil||Misool-Yelliet||02'11.757S||130'36.620E||reef dive|
|4||18-Feb||Bojok Yelliet Besar||Misool-Yelliet||02'10.935S||130'35.683E||night dive|
|6||19-Feb||4 Kings||Misool-Nobul||02'12.500S||130'22.678E||reef dive|
|7||19-Feb||Wedding Cake||Misool-Wayil||02'12.283S||130'25.165E||reef dive|
|8||20-Feb||Boo Windows||Misool-Boo||02'13.295S||130'36.700E||reef dive|
|9||20-Feb||Karang Bayangan||Misool-Warakaraket||02'15.557S||130'38.878E||reef dive|
|10||20-Feb||Karang Bayangan||Misool-Warakaraket||02'15.557S||130'38.878E||reef dive|
|12||21-Feb||Warna Berwarna||Misool-Daram||02'05.962S||130'51.588E||reef dive|
|13||21-Feb||No Contest||Misool-Balbullol||02'01.584S||130'41.431E||reef dive|
|14||22-Feb||Nudi Rock||Misool-Fiabacet||02'13.103S||130'33.936E||reef dive|
|15||22-Feb||Boo Windows||Misool-Boo||02'13.295S||130'36.700E||reef dive|
|16||22-Feb||Karang Bayangan||Misool-Warakaraket||02'15.557S||130'38.878E||reef dive|
|18||23-Feb||Too Many Fish||Koon||03'55.680S||131'12.741E||reef dive|
|19||23-Feb||Too Many Fish||Koon||03'55.680S||131'12.741E||reef dive|
|20||23-Feb||Too Many Fish||Koon||03'55.680S||131'12.741E||reef dive|
|21||24-Feb||Batu Kapal||Banda Neira||04'29.197S||129'55.806E||reef dive|
|22||24-Feb||Pohon Miring||Banda Neira||04'30.499S||129'56.861E||reef dive|
|23||24-Feb||Lava Flow||Banda Neira||04'30.330S||129'52.812E||reef dive|
|24||24-Feb||Mandarin lane||Banda Neira||04'31.363S||129'53.886E||critter dive|
|25||25-Feb||Pohon Miring||Banda Neira||04'30.499S||129'56.861E||reef dive|
|26||25-Feb||Lampu Hijau||Banda Neira||04'30.112S||129'53.129E||reef dive|
|27||25-Feb||Banda Neira walk||land excursion|
|28||25-Feb||Mandarin lane||Banda Neira||04'31.363S||129'53.886E||critter dive|
|29||26-Feb||Amed||Nusa Laut||03'38.742S||128'48.702E||reef dive|
|30||26-Feb||Amed||Nusa Laut||03'38.742S||128'48.702E||reef dive|
|31||26-Feb||Nahalia Bay||Nahalia||03'38.586S||128'47.384E||reef dive|
|32||26-Feb||Ferry Jetty||Nahalia||03'38.777S||128'47.316E||night dive|
|33||27-Feb||Laha #2||Laha||03'42.442S||128'06.201E||critter dive|
|34||27-Feb||Blue Ocean Divers||Laha||03'42.338S||128'06.210E||critter dive|
Raja Ampat to Banda Islands and Ambon Liveaboard Practicalities
The Raja Ampat to Banda Islands trips are known as transition trips i.e. the liveaboards move from Raja Ampat for the beginning of the Komodo dive season, or from Komodo to Raja for the beginning of the Raja Ampat dive season. As such, they usually only happen twice a year in April and May and then October and November. You can see all Indonesia liveaboards offering the Raja Ampat / Banda Islands / Ambon trip in April and May on Liveaboard.com, where you can also check departure dates and compare prices. You can also check availability for the transition trip in October and November, running from Ambon to Banda Islands to Raja Ampat.
Flights and Hotels in Sorong, Ambon and the Banda Islands
Trips typically depart Sorong (airport code: SOQ) and arrive Ambon (airport code: AMQ) or vice versa. Both Sorong and Ambon have decent hotels to stay if you want some downtime before or after your liveaboard, but don’t expect five star luxury. Check flight timings and prices on CheapFlights. You will typically have to fly to Jakarta and from there change to your international flight (or flights) home.
If you want to stay on the Banda Islands, there’s also a few accommodation options available there too.