I find myself in a David Attenborough episode. Just five weeks before, I was watching Papuan fishermen feeding whale sharks from the comfort of my sofa in Gloucestershire; and here I now am, at six o’clock in the morning, jumping into a warm, black sea and listening to myself breathing through my snorkel in a mixture of excitement and trepidation. Indonesia’s ocean floor is out of sight, fathoms below me. Then out of the deep, deep water emerges the largest fish known to man, bringing with it a number of remoras attached to its fins.
It is amazing and impressive. The smile on my face makes it difficult to keep my snorkel in place. Even the more nervous swimmers amongst us soon forget to be fearful. After an hour in the water, watching the whale shark’s comings and goings, a shadowy sighting of a blue marlin and a pod of playful dolphins keeping up a background chorus of squeaks and clicks, we all explode into conversation on the short ride back to the ship. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard so many adjectives and exclamations, all of which summarised by, “Best morning ever!”
Raja Ampat translates as ‘Four Kings’ and lies just to the west of the main island of New Guinea, and the Indonesian state of West Papua. Like many stories in Indonesia, folklore abounds and legend tells of four princes who were born of dragon’s eggs found in the forest and went on to rule the four main islands of the archipelago. There are also myriad emerald isles scattered between the four main islands sheltering coral reefs, pearl fisheries and villages accessed only by boat.
The area is best explored by boat as many of the highlights are inaccessible by road or are underwater. I am on board the beautiful Ombak Putih, a phinisi boat sailed by SeaTrek. A ten-day voyage includes some fantastic adventures both below and above the surface. In one of the villages we visit, SeaTrek hand out swimming goggles to the children, which is enormous fun for us all. The simple idea is to try and halt dynamiting in the area by revealing the stunning world below the surface and, in turn, lead them to protect it as a resource.
The snorkelling in the area is fantastic, with wonderful soft corals and healthy numbers of large fish. At Steppes Travel, we support the Misool Foundation, a charity making great strides in marine conservation in the area through a combination of supporting their local communities and patrolling the area.
A unique feature of the region is the startling and colourful birds-of-paradise, some only present on a couple of islands. Fortunately for us, they are creatures of habit – so, with the help of a local guide, the prospects are good for a sighting. This habit also makes them vulnerable and an easy target for hunters seeking their decorative feathers. The tourist market is really helping protect these sights, with the hunters redeployed as guides. We are lucky enough to track and find three different species.
In search of the red bird-of-paradise, we land on the beach at Sapokren village in the late afternoon. Dion, my guide from the ship, points forward and says, “That’s our guide, there in the green…” – there is a pause before he finishes the sentence with, “dress”. Indeed, at the front of our little line of keen birding converts is a short, jolly man in a green dress. He bare foots it through the forest with us trailing behind under strict instructions not to talk, and instead, “Enjoy the sound of silence”. Once in position, we spread out under the jungle canopy and try not to fidget. I take the opportunity to study the area around me, catching sight of a bright, blue-tailed lizard and a determined line of ants. Suddenly there is a call and everyone is on keen alert, with heads cocked, necks cricked and eyes darting around – they’re here. For around half an hour we hear the birds but see them only as brief flashes, despite shuffling and repositioning. In the lulls, our guide helps by mimicking one of the birds, calling them back to us.
Finally, the male arrives on a tree with a clear crown, which is not by accident. From here, he dances his courtship ritual up and down the bare boughs, wings aflutter and tail feathers trailing. It is an astonishingly athletic display to showcase his fitness and strength. His efforts are rewarded as a female arrives, and there are big grins of congratulation from the voyeurs below.