Off the coast of the West Papua province lies an archipelago called Raja Ampat — “the four kings”, a place whose beauty and diversity are larger than life. Under the crystal blue waters surrounding close to 1,500 islands, atolls and shoals live 76% of the world’s coral species, over 1,700 fish species, huge concentrations of sharks and manta rays, saltwater crocodiles and sea snakes. Above the water there are tropical forests teeming with bird song, monitor lizards, and other critters. And if you’re lucky you can witness the intricate mating displays of stunning birds of paradise on the islands of Waigeo, Gam or Batanta, catch a glimpse of palm cockatoos and spot paradise kingfishers. The local communities are equally as beautiful to visit and their traditions equally as impressive to discover. Raja Ampat is truly the beating heart of the Coral Triangle, the planet’s most biodiverse ocean region, but for a long while all this came under serious threat. Destruction brought by irresponsible industrial development, commercial and dynamite fishing, poaching, cyanide fishing for the aquarium industry, unregulated tourism and lack of opportunities were all writing a troubling story for the region. Luckily, a coalition of international organizations and local stakeholders have been working for over a decade to rewrite this story and return Raja Ampat to the paradise that it had been.
GETTING THERE: Most major cities in Indonesia have flights that can take you to Sorong, the main gateway town to Raja Ampat in the West Papua province. While flying around in Indonesia is cheap, getting to Papua will generally cost above average so it’s best to plan ahead. You do have the option of making your way by ferry from any of the other major islands, but from personal experience we would not recommend this service. We took a direct flight from Surabaya, East Java, which takes little over three hours and returned to Jakarta on a direct flight that took a bit over four hours. Airlines in Indonesia have a troubled reputation, but we had a good experience with Batik Air. A much more expensive but higher quality alternative to low cost companies is the national airline, Garuda Indonesia. Once in Sorong there are ferries and speed boats which depart toward the Raja Ampat Regency. Most resorts on the islands will include taxi transportation from the airport and by speed boat to your final destination once you reach Sorong. If you travel independently, taxis from the airport to the ferry terminal or to any point in the city will charge surprisingly much compared to other parts of Indonesia. Usually the ferry takes you to Waisai, on the Waigeo island, from where pre-arranged boats can pick you up and take you to your accommodation on smaller islands, but there are other ferry companies that go beyond Waisai. This page has plenty of information regarding transfers by ferry or speedboat.
WHERE TO STAY: There are several islands to choose from when deciding where to spend your time in Raja Ampat and they offer a full range of experiences, from the most relaxed to the most adventurous. The most comprehensive resource to read about each island and its available homestays, as well as about the region as a whole, is Stay Raja Ampat. This is your best option for lower cost accommodation that has a direct impact on local communities: you can choose to stay in guest houses in the various villages in Raja Ampat, owned and operated by Papuan residents and available to book on Stay Raja Ampat (some also allow camping). Another more active and exciting option is to do a kayaking island-hopping trip with Papuan guides that will take you to several islands and guesthouses, with plenty of opportunities for hiking and snorkeling. This experience is operated by Kayak4Conservation, another awesome online resource to learn more about Raja Ampat. This one is an initiative of the Raja Ampat Research & Conservation Centre (RARCC) founded by Papua Diving, which we’ll discuss below.
We went to Raja Ampat primarily to meet and interview Max Ammer, the founder of Kri Eco & Sorido Bay Resorts (Papua Diving) and of the RARCC. Papua Diving was the first land based scuba diving resort in Raja Ampat and Max has been involved from the beginning in the conservation of this stunning place. When he arrived here more than two decades ago there was still a lot of destruction going on: dynamite fishing, turtle poaching, shark finning, cyanide poisoning of the reefs and not a lot of economic alternatives for locals to give up these destructive practices. With the latter in mind, Max set out to create a resort on Kri Island and bring scuba divers from around the world to witness one of the best underwater paradises left on the planet. He invested in the training of local scuba instructors and guides and the resort, established in 1993, continues to employ 90% local staff. It was built to respect the traditional architecture from Raja and continues to improve its green practices to minimize its footprint. All the boats and kayaks used are built on site with local workers, and now the plans are to switch to solar-powered scuba diving boats to reduce pollution. The house reef in Sorido Bay is located next to Cape Kri, one of the most biodiverse reefs in the entire region. We partnered with Papua Diving to spend a week at the Kri Eco Resort (pictured on the side), which is an all-inclusive experience that made us feel truly in paradise because it’s so well integrated with the natural setting. Raja Ampat is probably Indonesia’s most expensive destination, so do expect to encounter prices more in tune with other resorts from around the world. With that in mind, Kri Eco still remains an affordable, excellent scuba diving resort which provides for a down-to-Earth luxury stay. On the other side of the Kri Island, Sorido Bay Resort is its higher range alternative with ensuite cottages. Similarly, the nearby Papua Explorers resort on the island of Gam has been involved in local conservation and founded the Raja Ampat SEA Centre. For a much more remote, higher-end accommodation you can also check Misool Eco Resort, another sustainable tourism initiative that has received accolades for the conservation work. As far as liveaboards go, however, we have heard that many of them cause damage to reefs when anchoring and that they don’t particularly follow sustainable practices. But if you’re dedicated to doing your research you might find a responsible option (e.g.: the luxurious liveaboard from Rascal Voyages who are Conservation International expedition partners; the Coralia liveaboard, a conservation-minded initiative of Papua Explorers). In any case, there are now many resorts and guesthouses in Raja Ampat that have followed the model of the first resort — Papua Diving, and of the old Papuan traditions, and have made a commitment to sustainable practices and to supporting conservation and local development. It would be a pity to spend your money at some of the few resorts or liveaboards that are there just for their own benefit. This is a good resource put together by a WWF initiative with accommodation from the Coral Triangle region in Indonesia, including Raja Ampat.
ABOUT THE PARK & WHEN TO GO: As mentioned above, you won’t get better scuba diving or snorkeling than in Raja Ampat, and to get a full sense of just how beautiful the place is we would recommend at least a week stay. This underwater paradise survived for a long time in the presence of humans which respected ancient practices of selective fishing, setting aside areas that would not be exploited and giving species time to recover after harvesting periods. When new practices started erasing traditions the balance of Raja Ampat was gravely disturbed, but Conservation International, The Nature Conservancy and the WWF worked together since the early 2000s, and involved local stakeholders and the government in order to create a system of marine protected areas (MPAs) in Raja Ampat, as well as sanctuaries for sharks, dugongs and mantas. The total protected area is roughly 35,000 sq km (13,500 sq mi) and is home to more than 1,700 species of fish of which 70 are found only here, to 600 species of hard coral, to 700 species of mollusk and to the largest nesting beaches for the critically endangered Pacific leatherback turtle. To learn more about conservation initiatives in the larger region around and within the Raja Ampat regency, visit the website of the Bird’s Head Seascape project. With new economic opportunities from nature-based tourism and with stricter laws, illegal fishing, poaching and destructive activities have gone significantly down. Now the biggest threat is unregulated tourism, especially in regards to numbers of liveaboards, and the issues that come with larger numbers of people arriving on the islands: water consumption, pollution, sewage and irresponsible practices like touching, standing on or breaking corals. Most resorts and guesthouses can arrange trips to other islands, including short hikes to see birds of paradise, snorkel or scuba dive with manta rays and a visit to famous lookouts like Wayag or Piaynemo within the Fam Islands. These two lookouts have become the first picture that comes to mind when thinking of Raja Ampat, so a visit there is, compared to any other activities, a very touristy experience. Garbage is more prevalent and so are the unsustainable food options (please avoid eating coconut crabs). However, the view from above is worth the hustle.
Raja Ampat is located just south of the Equator and the bigger islands often have their own microclimates. Rain is unpredictable, but there are far less chances in October-November and in February-April. There is a spike in rainy conditions in December and January. The months of May through August see an intensification of winds which make it less appropriate for sea travel or kayaking adventures. June and July receive the bulk to the rainfall. We were there in April and only had one rainy day of the seven we spent in the region. Late October to early April is also the best time to see the beautiful manta rays, which by the time we arrived, were preparing to depart (seeing even a few of them was an absolute gift).
VISITING THE PARK: There is a park entrance permit which has to be purchased in Sorong, Waisai or directly from most of the scuba diving resorts. The price in 2018 for foreigners was 1 million Indonesian Rupiah pp/US $65, and half that for citizens and residents. Raja Ampat is no doubt one of the most beautiful, lively places left on Earth and the dream of many travelers, but it’s also fragile and can be easily disturbed. It’s up to many factors for it to remain more of a niche destination based on a respect for the natural environment rather than a mass tourism destination where newcomers can learn to scuba dive at the expense of corals or explore the limestone islands jutting from pristine waters just for the sake of a perfect shot. It’s a place where every choice we make as travelers can have a great impact. Know that in 2018 there was no well-concieved garbage and plastic collection and recycling service in Raja Ampat and a lot of remote homestays and villages struggled with keeping up with disposal given the increased number of visitors. It’s really important to not bring single-use plastics with us or to pack them away when we leave. Most resorts and probably guesthouses will give you access to drinking water, with no need for single-use plastic bottles. They will either provide you with a reusable bottle or you can bring your own. Similarly, accommodation packages include all meals and snacks which should not require too many packaged goods. Another important thing to keep in mind is your safety and that of the coral reefs when scuba diving or snorkeling. If you find a cheaper than regular option for scuba diving trips, double-check their record. Raja Ampat, despite its calm, clear waters, is not a destination for beginner scuba divers due to very strong currents and tides, and requires well-trained guides. During full moon these tides are even stronger than regular. Saltwater crocodiles, poisonous sea snakes or sharks all require common sense, attention and checking conditions with your resort or homestay when looking to explore an area. Insurance is mandatory for scuba divers. All these islands are isolated and the local hospitals are basic, so keep yourself focused on best practices to keep you safe. Avoid using lots of precious resources like fresh water and accept as a given that most resorts and homestays will provide a semi-salty water at best for showers. If you see floating plastic of any sort while in the water, try to pick it up and maybe make the full commitment of bringing it out with you from Raja Ampat. Finally, just take in all the beauty everywhere around you because there aren’t many places left on Earth quite as breathtaking as Raja Ampat.