Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Raja Reloaded

We are back in Bali after 6 fabulous weeks in Raja. Maurine and I left Bali in mid-February and I returned at the beginning of April. This was not a typical trip for us.

We spent our first 2 weeks aboard one of our favorite liveaboards, “Seven Seas” (www.thesevenseas.net). We were to be on board assisting a private client, OPS, the Oceanic Preservation Society (www.opsociety.org). They were returning to Raja to continue work on a photo project they started a couple of years ago. BTW, OPS is the group that produced The Cove, an excellent documentary about dolphin slaughter in Japan. Three days before the charter was scheduled to depart The Cove was nominated for an Academy Award. The movie went on to win for Best Documentary. We just saw The Cove and it is an engaging, real adventure. For those of you who haven’t yet seen it, don’t fear that it is too bloody or depressing. The movie is very James Bond-ish. Most of it deals with the back-story regarding the issues surrounding the crew’s incredible ordeal to film scenes of an event that the Japanese government was attempting to cover up. The actual footage of the slaughter, although graphically disturbing, only comprises a few minutes of the overall film.

After the film was nominated, director and producers decided they had to stay in the US to promote it during the run up to the Oscar voting. Since the director and a couple of the producers are the principals of OPS, they had to cancel their charter on “Seven Seas”. Everyone was totally bummed out, but at least they received an Academy Award as a consolation.

The boat was paid for, stocked and ready to go. Our non-refundable tickets were issued so the show “went on”. Actually it turned out to be both a fun and a working trip. Seven Seas owners decided to hop on board and brought a couple of Balinese expat friends. We called a good friend in Australia, the infamous, marine life photographer Roger Steene. Roger had to jump through hoops, but two days later he managed to show up in Sorong with the rest of the group. We hadn’t seen Roger in a couple of years so it was a real treat. (BTW, for those of you who have had the pleasure to meet but, like us, haven’t seen Roger in a while; he’s still as crusty as ever!) So off we went exploring. What a wonderful scenario, an excellent boat at our disposal and no real agenda.

We turned the trip into a working holiday, however. We spent the first few days in the Dampier Strait photographing around the new capitol city of Waisai, on a project for our “real job” at Conservation International (CI). We are producing an educational program that will be used aboard the Kalabia, the floating schoolroom sponsored by CI and TNC (see our recently released dive guide Diving Indonesia’s Raja Ampat, for more about the Kalabia.) It was so helpful to have Seven Seas as our base. In only a couple of days we were able to document a number of topics that would have taken us a week or more otherwise. FYI, even though Raja is remote and the epicenter of marine biodiversity, there is still much to be done to protect and preserve this fragile region.

After a few days of photographing issues related to the dark side of Raja, like uncontrolled erosion due to the construction of roads and the dredging of the new port facilities, rampant growth issues, etc., we were off to one of our favorite areas, southeast Misool. We have been exploring a remote area in the extreme eastern section off Misool around a group of islands called Daram. A few stellar sites in this area (Andiamo and The Candy Store) are included in our book, but our goal is to create a multiple day itinerary in the area. We found two more incredible sites, so now the boats can spend at least an entire day diving Daram with their guests.

BTW, Roger had never visited the Blue Water Mangroves, off northwest Misool, so we visited that area toward the end of the trip. Some of you may recall that there was a croc attack on a diver there last year. Many of the liveaboards have now chosen to take the BWM off their itinerary. We were a bit apprehensive, but we spent an entire day diving there without incident. The BWM were beautiful as ever. We are NOT necessarily recommending that boats return to this region. Just reporting that we spent a day there without incident. Putting the BWM on a route is up to the specific operator, crew and the guests.

After dropping off our guests in Sorong, we were transported to Raja’s newest land-based resort, Raja Ampat Dive Lodge (RADL). This lovely, little resort is owned by our oldest Indonesian friends, Reno and Nyoman Kirtya, of Grand Komodo Tours. GKT runs a fleet of liveaboards throughout the archipelago, but this is their first land-based operation. RADL is located on Mansuar Island, very near the manta aggregation sites in the Dampier Strait. The lodge is simple, but the rooms are large with air conditioning and private baths. The food is plentiful and good, mostly Indonesian. The diving is superb and RADL is conveniently located with access to many of our favorite sites in north central Raja (see www.komodoalordive.com for more about GKT and RADL).

The resort is new and for most of our two-week stay we were the only guests. That meant we were able to do one of our favorite things: GO EXPLORING! We found three outstanding new spots with big fish like mackerel, dog-tooth tuna, and Giant Trevally (GTs). Two of the sites had large schools of big eye trevally and barracuda. One of these sites also had a large school of a smallish (12-15in.) tuna and, to top it off, a manta cleaning station. We were in heaven, and dived each site numerous times.

We are so lucky to have found a place like Raja where more and more sites just keep popping up. We know that many of you have already visited Raja. What you should know is that if you chose to return and dive there with us you will dive numerous new sites!

After RADL, Maurine had to return to Bali to deal with the “fun” part of our job, the office work. I, however, got to stay on for another 2 weeks, again aboard Seven Seas. This time around I was guest cruise director for another private client’s charter. Werner and Myra Kurn, owners of Ocean Enterprises (www.oceanenterprises.com) in San Diego had chartered Seven Seas for their first Indonesian liveaboard experience. It was great diving with them and their clients. Werner is such a hoot; everyone had a great time. Of course, we showed them some of the new sites, but since they had never visited Raja every site was their “the best site ever”! Raja IS that special.

We will both be in Bali for the next 6 weeks, and we’re busy finishing the educational program for CI, and processing and editing all the digital image files we took in Raja, nearly 10.000 new images. Fortunately all our scheduled 2010 trips are full, so we are working on charters for late 2011 and 2012. Check out the travel section of this site soon.

Thanks for checking in with us and reading the blog. Don’t miss Maurine’s ongoing blog for Undercurrent (www.undercurrent.org). Apparently she chooses her subjects well because she is the highest rated blogger.

We are returning to the US for a short visit in late May and early June. Then we’ll be back in Indonesia on a new contract with CI for at least another year. Please stay in touch with us through this blog or by emailing.

Best Fishes,

Burt and Maurine