Underwater photographers can come across as somewhat spoiled. We see dozens of hammerhead sharks on a dive in the Galápagos—but wish there were hundreds. You saw a whale shark? “Yeah, but it was out of strobe range.”
Raja Ampat is one of those destinations that can spoil even the most humbled diver. Located in the far northeast of Indonesia, this archipelago of 600-plus islands delivers a combination of the world’s most pristine soft and hard coral reefs, and unique critters, numerous enough to quickly expand your portfolio.
Having been to Raja once prior, I left with one critter left off my memory card—the rare, red Hippocampus denise seahorse (talk about spoiled, right?). So when the luxury liveaboard Arenui offered me the opportunity to be an in-house photo pro on one of their cruises last year, my bags were packed right away.
Rare critters like the Hippocampus denise seahorse abound in Raja Ampat
Raja Ampat Aboard the Arenui
Much like the images you can capture in Raja, the Arenui is a true work of art. It’s no wonder the luxury liveaboard blends into the local waters: As a traditional Indonesian wooden sailing vessel, or phinisi, the Arenui is made of 70% recycled wood.
Hard-core underwater photographers will value the surplus of charging stations, spacious photo table, and photo-equipped iMac computers. But the little luxuries are also nice: Receiving a massage on the Sky Deck or watching a movie in the salon are both excellent ways to finish off the day.
My experience on Arenui was wonderful from start to finish. The staff is extremely attentive to detail, on everying from turn-down bed service to selecting the best dive site based on time and conditions. However, I do need to “complain” about the delicious meals the cooks prepared for us, as I simply couldn’t get myself to stop eating and gained a fair bit of weight by the end of the cruise!
The Arenui liveaboard seems to just fit right in while at anchor in a Raja Ampat bay
Misool Diving: From Mantas to Macro
As soon as I arrived in Raja, the search for that seahorse was on. Denise’s pygmy seahorse is normally found in yellow or orange color. Only within southern Raja Ampat’s Misool area are you able to see the unique red morph, named affectionately by the local dive operators as the “Santa Claus” pygmy.
But the Misool area is more than just about Santa Claus pygmy seahorses. Our dives here remained a constant mental struggle between bringing down a macro lens to shoot the small stuff, or a wide-angle lens for the very possible big animal encounters. I remember putting down my camera to rest when shooting a pygmy seahorse at “Antichovi,” only to find a robust gray reef shark swimming past me less than six feet away at the edge of the wall.
Big animals, critters, and schools of fish like these barracuda are signature sights in Raja
At “Shadow Reef,” a submerged seamount south of Boo Island, our patient wait was rewarded with visiting pelagic manta rays. Unlike their reef manta cousins, these rays are larger and have distinct triangular markings on their backs. We positioned ourselves around several cleaning stations and watched these gentle giants glide confidently past us as they circled in again and again to have their parasites cleaned by the various species of wrasses. Many times, after they had disappeared into the blue, you would be surprised to find that they returned quietly, hovering just behind you, observing your every move.
It’s important to keep an eye out into the blue for the chance to photograph passers-by, such as this pelagic manta ray
During night dives, we found several walking cat sharks, which are uniquely suited to survive out of the water for several hours at a time to walk on exposed tide pools
I was surprised to recognize a powder blue sea fan at a site called “Wedding Cake.” I had shot another at more than 120 feet deep for the book Gorontalo: Hidden Paradise. Fellow photographer Stephen Wong told me these fans are rare and found normally very deep. After showing it to my guide, he found many more, all of them around a depth of only 60 feet.
To achieve the sun rays in this image, I used a quick shutter speed, closed aperture and turned up the strobe output
Before leaving the Misool area, Arenui arranged for us to visit the Tomolol Cave—a sacred Muslim site that only a select few boats are privileged to have access to. The cave’s formation of stalactites and stalagmites shimmered in ever-changing colors when the water surface reflected our torches or the weak sunbeams found their way in. The “Jaws” rock near the entrance, and the formations around a small opening from the top in the middle section of the waterway, are most impressive photography subjects.
Diving the North: Coral Gardens and Massive Schools of Fish
As you move north through Raja Ampat, the amount of hard coral growth becomes even more prolific. But it is the accompanying schools of fish that make for stellar compositions. At “Melisa’s Garden,” we marveled at the pristine reef flat with table corals the size of an adult human—all of them covered with big shoals of green chromis.
The circular fisheye lens shows off a typical sight in Raja: healthy coral swarmed by small, schooling fish
When shooting a nudibranch at “Wagmap Reef,” I heard a loud cry and looked up. A wrasse hurried by, and spat out a ball. As the ball opened up, I saw eight stretched out legs with brilliant blue-ringed markings! By that time, all the photographers nearby had gathered around, each wanting to document this rare moment. But in another single gulp, the wrasse swallowed the octopus whole again, before any of us could fire a single shot! It then went on its way, obviously very satisfied.
Instead of risking a scratched dome port by a cranky crocodile known to swim around “Mangrove Ridge,” we went instead to Mioskon to shoot the rather safer sweetlips that swim in and around the coral. Our guides also found a tasselled wobbegong shark hidden under a big rock, among thousands of sweepers. There was a diver under the rock shooting when I arrived, and I could see the shark swallowed several fish for his camera. He backed out to create space for me. When I went in, the shark suddenly yawned into my camera.
Yawn: Diving is never boring in Raja Ampat!
I found my perfect swim-through photo opportunity at “Batu Rufus,” although Raja provides countless such environments. Set at a 8mm focal length, my fisheye lens was able to get the sea fan, the diver, the swim-through, the blue sky, and the rock above the water surface all within a single frame.
In Raja Ampat, however, you simply can’t have it all on a single dive. By bringing a wide-angle lens to capture that swim-through, I lost the opportunity to photograph a beautiful Pontoh’s pygmy seahorse with beautiful metallic gold markings, and a rare scaleless shrimp goby (Tomiyamichthys nudus). You never know what you might find at a dive in Raja.
Here, several elements combine to make a strong image: The sea fans, diver, swim-through, and topside through Snell’s window all contribute
The same goes for nature sights above the water. On the last day of the cruise, we were brought to Dampier Strait to see the bird of paradise. Thinking it would be the “lesser bird of paradise,” which I had photographed before, I was not equipped with the right lens. But, when the male birds started to appear, I realized I was looking at the rarer “red bird of paradise”—breathtaking.
That’s the beauty of Raja Ampat; no matter how many dozens of prized photography subjects you will see on a single trip—or even a single dive—you are always inspired for a return trip to see more. Trip aboard the Arenui to Raja Ampat in 2016: Booked.
Raja’s reefs are a kaleidoscope of colors and textures, from the tiny schooling fish to massive soft corals and sea fans