You have three travel options to choose from when thinking about a trip to Raja Ampat in Papua, Indonesia. The high-end choices are typically liveaboards or deluxe dive resorts. The mid-range would put you in a very comfortable dive resort. The cheapest option is one of the hundred-plus rustic homestays dotted all over the archipelago. We opted for 6 days in the fantastic mid-range Biodiversity Eco Dive Resort and 8 days in 3 different homestays across the archipelago.
If you dive or want to learn to dive, plus you want more certainty over your trip, and you can afford it, then there is no better experience than checking into one of the dive resorts. There will be a high degree of comfort and excellent food. The diving trips will be run by trustworthy and dependable operators. Pre-trip communication, whilst not exactly fast, will be easy and your trip is likely to go as planned.
If you have plenty of time and are short on cash, then stay in homestays. If you wish to dive you can drop into Biodiversity and see if they can take you (albeit at a high price). Otherwise, you can chance it with one of the local operators. Some are dependable and some are not. Arborek Dive Shop and Barefoot Conservation seemed to have a good set up. If you want to snorkel, lounge on beaches, check out local culture, and don’t mind the rustic rooms then homestay is the way to go.
We did both and thought we had the best of both worlds!
Biodiversity Eco Dive Resort (aka ‘Biodiversity’), Gam Island
Biodiversity is not cheap. It was 6 times our average daily budget for our recent 15 month trip across Asia. However, it ticked many boxes for us when we planning the trip. Firstly, I wanted to finish up my Open Water Diver certification and the resort has an excellent reputation for training. Secondly, since this was a short trip for us, we wanted to leave little to chance when it came to diving, planning the trip, and, of course, the training. Thirdly, our journey in from Seattle was a gruelling 40 hours involving 3 long flights and 2 boat trips and we wanted a bit of luxury to help us recover fast.
We stayed in standard bungalows for 3 nights and a deluxe cottage for the other three nights. The rooms were fantastic with super-comfy beds, open-air bathrooms, and little touches of Papuan art here and there. The standard room shared a bathroom with the neighboring bungalow but that rarely caused too much hassle. The resort arranged our transfers to and from the island (Gam), our marine permits, as well as trips to Manta Sandy, Fam Islands, and the Bird of Paradise lek on Gam. Laura opted for a 15 dive package and I did my course and added in 13 dives. The resort has its own boats and they will kit you out with all your diving gear.
The meals were all served communally, which is a great way to meet fellow travelers and swap stories of ludicrous underwater activities. The food was always excellent and, unusually for a place that caters mainly to foreign travelers, extremely spicy. I hate places that dial down the flavors of local cuisine thinking we can’t handle. No such problems with Biodiversity’s kitchen!
There was a revolving cast of divers of varying experience. This made a huge difference to my overall enjoyment of the place. You got to know your fellow divers, which meant we all built up trust in each other, and there was never a shortage of good ideas, tips, and encouragement. When you are sharing a boat with people who have dived 5000+ times and complete novices, you have the double whammy of being surrounded by experience to lessen the fear and fellow newbies to lessen the intimidation factor.
Open Water Dive Training
OMFG! My first hour back in the briny with my gimp gear on was a fucking disaster. Within ten minutes of sinking into the drink, I wanted out. I just couldn’t do it. It’s not that I have never dived before. Jesus Christ! I have dived in a down current in Komodo. Here I was in ten feet of water on a nice comfortable sandy bottom with zero current and I was blubbering like a 1 month old having his first shower! Thankfully, my instructor Michael Bell was a no-nonsense Glaswegian who had no time for this BS. We surfaced and he told me that we will just go diving and forget the skills. He wanted to remind me why I was going through all this hassle.
We swam to the edge of the coral wall and descended to 30 feet. Suddenly, it all came back to me. We swam along and saw fabulous coral and a myriad of astonishingly colorful fish (batfish, surgeonfish, triggerfish, reef sharks…). Once he had got me entranced, he gestured me to throw away my regulator and put it back in my mouth. Nailed it like a fucking pro. Next, I cleared my mask. Then, took it off and replaced it. After 50 exhilarating minutes I had covered the morning’s training. Phew! Failing that would have put a damper on the holiday. Of course, it came down to Michael’s skill as an instructor. He had seen it before and knew exactly what to do.
In the afternoon, Laura joined us on the house reef for her first dive of the trip. I continued with my training and Michael took note of Laura’s skills so that he knew what her level was. Within five minutes of descending, we had our first huge highlight of the trip. We saw two big guitar sharks swimming below us. Weird looking beasts with flat guitar-shaped bodies and triangular fins pointing in every direction. Michael told us that was the first time he had seen any in 5000+ dives. This caused some excitement among the serious divers. They all dived in later to see if they were still around. No such luck.
Fam Islands Trip
After day one, I abandoned the Open Water training for a day. There was a critical mass of people for the trip out to Fam Islands. This was one of our must sees for the trip. Fam is a collection of astounding limestone karst islands in azure blue waters, with gorgeous undersea life. It is pretty far from most of the accommodation in Raja Ampat, so it’s best to go in a group to share costs. Michael was leading the trip and said he would guide me and another inexperienced diver if conditions were good. It was a little too challenging for dive instruction but fine for a 12m deep guided dive.
We dived at Fam Wall and Melissa’s Garden. Fam Wall is a huge drop off that parallels one of the bigger islands of Fam. The conditions were perfect: overhead clear blue skies and the water was clear and currents gentle. We saw a school of bumpheads, a Napoleon wrasse, octopus, and many unicorn fish.
Melissa’s Garden is centered on three rock pinnacles. There are fairly strong currents either side of all three pinnacles but on our dive conditions were again perfect. The coral was magnificent especially the carpet of turquoise blue hard corals. There were huge amounts of fish here. Barracuda, bumpheads, sharks, Napoleons and lots of sparkling anthias.
Above the water was pretty spectacular too. The highlight was the walkway up to the top of one of limestone pinnacles that afforded a spectacular view over the archipelago. It was brutally hot too. No amount of sunscreen could save my sorry ass from being burned. I looked like the stereotypical Brit abroad. Beetroot red and moany!
Fam islanders set up shop at the bottom of the walkway. They sell stuff you should buy (sustainable coconut products) and stuff you absolutely should not buy (the increasingly rare coconut crab). You should also endeavor to eat lunch at one of the small homestays in Fam. Spread the money around so that everyone benefits from the increase in tourism to the area.
Back to the Open Water Diver training
The next day, I was back in the water finishing up my dive certificate with Michael. My log book merely states, ‘Finished Open Water! Big Sweet Lips!’ No, Michael did not congratulate me with a big smacker! I am assuming we saw a bunch of sweetlips (fish…honest!). This somewhat downplays the lunacy of what I did that day. I still consider myself a non-swimmer! Certainly, someone who should never be in the ocean without buoyancy devices. At the end of the training, I had to remove my BCD (Buoyancy Control Device) underwater and put it back on again. It still confuses me why I don’t panic when I do this shit! But, I did it with aplomb! Hopefully, I will never have to do that again while diving.
However, when we got back to base we heard that one diver’s BCD blew out one of its valves and started to deflate underwater in an area that is more for advanced divers. She was experienced so managed to surface and fix the problem but, sheesh, I hope that never happens to me.
Having achieved my first major target of the trip, completing the open water, I was now in hot pursuit of target number two: seeing a wobbegong shark. I did not have to wait long. The very next dive at Francisco Dive site, my first as a fully qualified Man From Atlantis, I saw three. Two were cutely cuddled together under a gap in the coral and the other one was fully visible on the seabed. What glorious creatures! Utterly beautiful. Laura was at another dive site and had yet to see a Wobbe. She was bummed as the novice had beaten her to it!
Dive, dive, and dive again
The rest of the time at Biodiversity fell into a typical pattern. Early breakfast, dive one, surface interval on gorgeous beach, dive two, lunch, rest up, dive three, snorkel on the house reef, dinner and then a well-earned long night of sleep. Laura and I were often on different boats particularly if there were more advanced dives. I visited Andrea’s Point, Friwen Gardens, Batu Lima, Friwen Wall, Manta Sandy, Mansuar West, and Kabui. None of the dives had particularly strong currents and most of them weren’t too deep. In fact, the best coral and most interesting fish were usually in the 3-10m range.
Laura got to do some more advanced dives including the famous Blue Magic and Chicken Reef. She says both sites were true “fish soup” dives with moderate to strong currents and lots of life. Blue Magic lived up to its name with a manta cruising in over the reef.
The variety of sea life was astounding. This should be no surprise since one site in Raja Ampat holds the record for the most species of fish seen in one dive anywhere on Earth. Sharks were to be found everywhere. This is a sign of healthy reefs and oceans. We saw plenty of black tip and white tip reef sharks and more Wobbegongs. Laura also saw an epaulette “walking” shark on a night dive. There were turtles, nudibranchs, puffer fish, surgeonfish, devil rays, stingrays, octopus, bumpheads, and napoleons in abundance.
Oh, and mantas. Lots of mantas! Manta Sandy is an absolute must do dive or snorkel. This was one of the places where you see your permit dollars put to good use. There is a platform in the shallow seas where all divers have to show their permits and they limit the number of divers to 20 maximum at any one time. We had to wait an hour or so while another group descended. The marine guards were a little overzealous at times, bellowing at encroaching kayakers through a megaphone. But, overall, they policed the area well and it was a joy to be at the bottom of the ocean without an unseemly underwater scrum.
The sea guardians have marked out an area where the divers must congregate underwater so that they don’t spook the mantas. We saw ten of these wonderful animals and they were a curious bunch too. They would often swim right overhead and check out the group. I spent a good hour watching them. I left before the others since I tend to burn through my oxygen fast. As I ascended, I was followed up by a jet black ‘baby’ manta. She swam round and round me and came close enough that I could see her beady little eyes. Wonderful stuff!
Later on the Manta Sandy day, we dove at Mansuar West. Not so many dive resorts on Gam head out there since it is a long way out. But, it is not so far from Manta Sandy so make a request to go if you are out there. It was one of my favorite dives of the trip. Beautiful coral and an abundance of sharks.
Props to Biodiversity for getting in some bigger oxygen tanks. I was the first to use them and it meant that I could stay in the water longer.
We were sad to leave the resort after six fabulous days. I can’t imagine a better place to learn to dive, snorkel, eat well, meet great people, and relax in all of Raja Ampat. Still, we like to mix things up so we went back to budget travel mode for the rest of the trip.
Homestays in Raja Ampat
There are over 100 homestays in the area. This is definitely an investment for the future since there are currently not enough travelers to fill them all even in high season. In fact, at two places we were the only guests. If you want to book homestays ahead of your visit then go to the awesome stayrajaampat.com for the lowdown and booking forms.
A word of warning, the website is slick and in very good English, but don’t let this fool you into thinking that you will be able to converse in English at any homestay. Almost no-one speaks English so learn some Bahasa to help you get by. Almost any homestay can arrange snorkel trips, boat transfers, trips to Fam or Manta Sandy, and so on. But, don’t expect a hard sell. Very few of the homestays even advertise these activities and none of them will tell you about them if you don’t ask.
Some homestays will even arrange dive trips, but check out who the operator is. Some of the local dive operations are a bit flaky. Sometimes the boat doesn’t show up, or the dive master has left town, or they don’t do safety stops and so on. Check around with fellow travelers for the best advice. We are cautious divers so we chose not to dive at the homestays.
Warahnus Homestay, Kri Island
Biodiversity called ahead to Warahnus to get them to pick us up. A huge swirling storm delayed the boat getting to us. The weather is truly tropical. It is always hot. I never saw the temperature drop below 78F even in the middle of the night. Raja Ampat is close to the equator so on a hot clear day the sun is brutal and you must cover up and lather on the SPF50. However, storms brew up fast and you can get caught in astonishing downpours.
Warahnus is on a splendid beach with an equally splendid house reef. The rooms, typical for Raja Ampat, are super basic. A mattress on the floor, a couple of limp pillows, and a mosquito net. The room was a wooden hut on stilts built from locally sourced materials and built in traditional style. But, for only $24 dollars per person with all meals included it is a goddamn bargain.
Meals are communal, tasty, and filling. There were a few fellow tourists at this spot, which meant we had plenty of convivial apres snorkel. A bunch of retired Swiss people who had been to Raja Ampat on many occasions, a high maintenance Slavic couple, a solo Greek guy with many Indonesia trips under his belt, and a small French-Belgian family with one lucky ass cute kid. I never went to the tropics when I was 5. Just tacky British coastal resorts with ‘kiss me quick’ hats, sticky candy, and end of pier variety shows. Oh, and brawling Glaswegians!
The Slavs were freaked out by a family of rats that paid them nightly visits. Apparently, this is common in Raja Ampat but we only saw one or two the entire trip. That said, we’re glad we brought a Rat Sack critter-proof bag to store our snacks.
If snorkeling and relaxing ain’t your thing, then there is no reason to come to Kri. It is a staggeringly beautiful place. A small rugged, green island, with delightful curved bays, which afford fairly sheltered snorkel time. We spent hours every day in the water. We saw sharks every time we went in the sea. Big schools of colorful reef fish. And, giant clams at the end of the jetty.
The best spot to snorkel, however, is across the channel between Kri and neighboring Mansuar Island at Yenbuba Jetty. It is a famed dive spot but you don’t miss out on much if you prefer to stay on the surface of the water. There was a huge shoal of unicornfish, lots of big groupers, schools of snappers, turtles, and gazillions of other fish big and small. Strong swimmers can swim between the two islands but we negotiated with the English-speaking homestay host, Bermon, to boat us over when his family headed off to Sunday service at Yenbuba village. Try and be respectful of the local’s day of rest and worship. These guys are attentive all week to their fish-obsessed guests but Sunday they head out to give praise and catch up on local gossip with family and friends. In general, it is tricky to organize trips and transfers on the seventh day.
Next stop: Arborek
Arborek is such an awesome place that it deserves a blog post all of its own. So, that is what I will do. Bermon, our host at Warahnus, took us to Arborek in his big family boat. On the way, we made a quick stop at a sand bar in the shallows between Kri and Mansuar. Blinding white sand, blue sea, and green forested islands in every direction.
In Arborek, we stayed at the idyllic Worisun (Sunset) Homestay and we lucked out again since the owner’s son-in-law, Issy, spoke some English. This was probably our favorite homestay. Lovely clean rooms, a pretty beach and gardens, and isolated from the main drag. We had the place to ourselves for three-days and I guess it is what you would call a ‘romantic’ spot! The food was uniformly excellent- lots of fresh fish, tofu, tempeh, and plenty of greens. Check out the next blog for more details on trips, snorkelling tips, and much much more.
Warimpurem Homestay, Waigeo Island
Issy and family took us to Waigeo for our final stop in Raja Ampat. The family was heading in that direction to get supplies in Waisai, so they charged us less than the normal rate. It was a long boat ride, and not for the first time, I got a vicious sunburn. Warimpurem was the first place in Raja Ampat we had stayed that was connected to neighboring villages by a road. It was a bit of a shock to hear the roar of motorbikes and cars. It was even more of a shock when several cars disgorged 40+ people on a field trip to check out the homestays in the area. We got chatting to one guy, who said it was a delegation from other islands in Indonesia coming to see the benefits of sustainable, locally-owned homestays and tourism ventures.
Warimpurem was a little more ramshackle than the other homestays we stayed in. More like a rustic rundown homestead from a Hollywood Western. The rooms were comfortable and, shock horror, we even had internet at one tiny spot of the beach. Again, the food was great. This is not a place to come snorkeling. There was no coral of note, few fish, and the visibility poor.
We wandered down the road to visit a small fishing village. It was a lovely spot- a well-kept tidy village, with colorful fishing boats aplenty, and lots of cute kids wanting to pose for photos.
Waigeo Island is famous for its abundant bird life. There are two types of Birds of Paradise, which you can see on a guided trip with Abraham from the homestay. But, you can also just wander up the road a couple of kilometers and see cockatoos, parrots, and hornbills in the lush rainforest.
If your budget allows it and you dive, then I think that a stay at Biodiversity is an absolute must do. In twenty-plus years travel, I can hand on heart say that our stay there is in my top ten experiences ever. However, there is much more to explore so get out to the other islands and stay at a homestay. It is the type of community-based tourism we should support. It is rustic but everyone we met- six year old kids through to 75 year old retirees seemed to love it.