Saturday, September 27, 2008

Discovering Raja Ampat (again)

Maurine and I are back in Bali after a month’s voyage aboard Grand Komodo Tour’s live-aboard Putri Papua. As most of you know we are working jointly with Conservation International to produce a dive guide to Raja Ampat (R4). During the past 25 days we logged nearly 150 dives (each) surveying areas of R4 seldom, if ever, dived by the live-aboards which operate in this amazing dive destination off the western tip of Indonesian New Guinea (West Papua).

Our mission was to find new divesites in order to relieve pressure on the most popular sites and give the live-aboards more options and flexibility when creating their itineraries. Because September is early in the dive season we concentrated our efforts in the North where the south-easterlies, that blow this time of the year, have less affect. We found over 30 wonderful new sites many of which will certainly be on live-aboard itineraries in the coming years. R4 is noted for its diversity; it contains more reef species than any other place on the planet. Visiting divers are awed by its stunningly beautiful coral reef panoramas with clouds of reef fish. Our findings confirmed that the area still has something new to show returning visitors. We were also committed to finding new “critter” sites and we found a few of those as well. On one site we photographed ornate, robust and halameda ghost pipefish. We also found flamboyant cuttlefish and wonderpuss (the octopus)!

We’ve never dived some much in such a short period of time. On many days we hardly got out of our wetsuits. Typically we would do 20-30 minute dives to see if a site merited being included in the book. We had submersible scooters, so in 30 minutes we could cover a distance much greater than the average diver would in an hour dive. Often the four of us (Maurine, myself, and Putri Papua’s two excellent dive guides, Weka and Jhonny) would drop in at four different spots in order to cover more territory. This way we could get a pretty good feel for any given region fairly quickly. We would often be surprised when 3 of us would come up reporting disappointing dives and we’d consider the area a write-off but then the 4th would surface having discovered a real keeper. A “keeper” being a dive we would want to do again…and again. It was fun but exhausting work! Especially considering we only had 3 days out of 25 when it didn’t rain part of the day!

We will be returning to R4 in December to continue the quest. We are scheduled to dive with the following live-aboards who have graciously donated time to complete the project; Archipelago, Arenui (a new live-aboard about to begin operations) Cheng-Ho (Kararu Dive Voyages), the Pindito (owned by the original explorer of R4, Edi Fromenviller) and Seven Seas. We will also be staying with Max Ammer, another R4 pioneer, at one of his two resorts in Northern Raja and hope to do some aerial photography in his new ultra-light aircraft. Plans are to also stay at the new Misool Eco Resort, which opens next month and is located in SE Misool. We’ll get a chance to thank all these fine operators in the book but we’d like to thank them here as well.

You might wonder what we’ll be doing between now and December. In 2 days we board Seven Seas with Howard and Michele Hall to continue work on their newest IMAX film, “Under the Sea 3D”. We worked on the first segment of the project in PNG and are excited to be helping them again on this, the last leg on their filming schedule. We will be at sea for another month. We leave from Bali and head East to the Banda Sea where we hope to get footage of feeding sea snakes at Gunung Api. On our way to the Banda we’ll be stopping for a couple of weeks to film in our old stomping grounds, Komodo National Park. (BTW, Komodo has been protected for 15 years and the diving is better now than when Maurine and I originally began diving there in the early “90s.) The Hall’s movie is due in IMAX theaters in April ’09. We know the team has captured many incredible sequences and the film promises to be their best yet! Don’t miss it.

During November we will be working in the office getting all the back-story information prepared for the Raja book and the first week of December we will fulfill a life-long dream and visit the ruins of Angor Wat in what is presently Cambodia.

We’ll get back with you around Halloween.

Until then…

Best Fishes,
Burt and Maurine

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