Friday, January 27, 2012

Beneath Indonesia’s Waters, Wild Creatures Await

Living in Indonesia is great for me both as a diver and an underwater photographer for DiveMag. I’m lucky that I don’t have to fly for hours, or even days, to be able to dive in the epicenter of the Earth’s coral diversity. It’s right in my backyard.

Last year was a great one for me and my diving journey, and I’m still overwhelmed by the beauty of some of the places I went.

After a break for Indonesia’s 2010-11 monsoon season, I began my diving year with a short trip to Maratua Island, which is situated in the Derawan Islands off Kalimantan’s east coast. Maratua is well known for its green turtle population, and you can swim with more than 10 of them on one dive. They are so tame that you can get very close to them, but touching is a big no-no.

Nearby lies Kakaban Island, famous for its Lake Jellyfish. The jellyfish don’t sting, and in Kakaban you can swim with millions of them. Plus, the mangrove surrounding the lake makes for great underwater photography.

To reach the Derawans, fly to Sepinggan International Airport outside of Balikpapan and then take a flight to Berau. From there it’s a two- to three-hour boat ride to get to Maratua, Kakaban or one of the other islands where there are resorts and homestays as well as dive spots.

Not long after my Maratua trip, duty called again. This time to the east: Raja Ampat. Nowadays everyone is talking about Raja Ampat as a fabulous diving destination. And everything they say is true: the variety and number of species in the waters there is hard to beat. It might take a while to reach the place, but nothing compares to the experience you’ll have once you do.

Although the best way to explore Raja Ampat is by diving from a liveaboard — a boat designed for people to live aboard it — some very nice eco-lodges and resorts are available.

Divers who are basing themselves on land normally fly to Sorong and continue their trip by ferry or boat to Waigeo Island or one of the other nearby islands.

Many consider Raja Ampat the cream of the diving crop. No wonder it’s so common to see more than a dozen liveaboards parked in any bay at Raja Ampat. With more that a thousand species of fish and millions of hectares of coral reefs, the areas should be on any diver’s bucket list.

I was asked to cover some highlights of Raja Ampat. My first mission: The wobbegong. This strange-faced shark is easy to find in Raja Ampat. It normally lurks on sand or coral rubble on the sea floor, at a depth of 1 to 20 meters.

My next mission was to photograph a manta ray. These harmless fish can grow up to five meters wide, and they feed on microscopic plankton and frequent their “cleaning station” almost daily.

We needed to wake up early to catch their breakfast time. Diving down to about 25 meters, kneeling on the white sand, we had first-class seats to watch the mantas circling around us while feeding on tiny little plankton, which was amazing given their huge bodies that often weighed up to 1,000 kilograms.

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