I woke up with butterflies in my stomach. Today was the day I had waited years to experience. Should I jump out of bed now and peek through the curtains, or take time to enjoy the sense of anticipation? What if it failed to impress?
I jumped out of bed. I just couldn’t wait. I held my breath as I took my first glimpse. My eyes immediately fell upon many small, jungle-covered islands that make up the northern part of Raja Ampat National Park. I smiled. This was it; I had finally arrived. Now it was time to explore, relax and take time to breathe.
We had cruised overnight to arrive early and make the most of the day. It was only 7am, but, after a quick caffeine fix, we were on the tender heading to the shores of one of the islands.
“It’s not an easy climb,” warns Jay, as a small, daring group of us begin the slow, steady, upward pace towards what promised to be the viewpoint that would win first prize of the trip.
We cling onto spiky limestone as we balance on rocks and push our legs to the top. As we reach the peak and I glance across Wayag, I feel a little overwhelmed. The unique karst system of atolls dotted across a sparkling blue ocean is captivating. I had seen images before, but nothing compared. This was me, here, right now. I had to pinch myself. A pure, mindfulness moment to hold onto.
The way back down is just as challenging, but with the thought of breakfast motivating us, we all seem to make light work of it. Before we know it, we are speeding back to the boat ready to be rewarded with a delicious, breakfast spread.
As my breakfast settles, I head to the second deck to relax on the expanse and find myself reflecting on how the boat, Rebel, Rascal’s younger sister, was hand-made in Sulawesi. Every piece of wood was crafted perfectly to create this five-cabin beauty. The finishing touches are contemporary and it’s clear that every detail has been thoughtfully designed to accommodate the challenges of life at sea. The crew are attentive and multi-talented. The waiter is also a divemaster and the housekeeper doubles as a masseuse. Lisa, our cruise director, is a trained marine biologist – the perfect person to educate us about the corals that we are about to experience on our first underwater adventure.
Lisa explains that 75% of the world’s coral species are found in Raja Ampat National Park and that the reefs are extremely healthy. Despite bleaching incidents across the world, this area has shown strong resilience and with currents sweeping larvae to other reefs, it is encouraging further growth. With eagerness to see for ourselves, we split into two groups: divers and snorkellers. I join the divers as the two tenders take us out to the reef and after checking the current, we all back-roll or slide into the glistening water.
As I sink deeper, my mind starts to wonder what the ocean will show me. I’ve always felt amazingly comfortable underwater and today is no different. I watch the bubbles sneak out of my breathing regulator as I glide effortlessly through the water. Everywhere I look is an explosion of colour. There are fish everywhere going about their daily, reef life tasks flitting between the corals.
I am surrounded by huge clusters of yellow fusiliers, rainbow-coloured parrot fish and spotty trigger fish, huge areas of staghorn coral, green cauliflower coral and orange anemone coral. Black tip sharks and blue spotted rays seemingly playing a game of hide and seek. The gentle manta rays were yet to come, and the wise turtles would also make an appearance, but not today. Today was all about the coral and the liveliness and health of the reef. The perfect reminder that our planet is resilient and, when given the space and support, can thrive.
An hour later, bubbling with our highlights of our initial submarine journey, we were now speeding over to an island for an afternoon of beach bliss. The water inviting me in with its blue hues as I relax and breathe. I see Rebel sitting proudly among the islets. She doesn’t know it yet, but she will be the source of much nostalgia. I asked myself this morning, what if it failed to impress? Well, I hope that answer is easy to figure out and it was only day one.