Raja Ampat


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on October 9th i boarded the “Sea Safari 8″ bound for Raja Ampat.  i was reunited with my parents for the first time in 9 months, then introduced to the passengers and crew and shown to the lower deck.  like me, everyone’s quarters were pre-assigned but that didn’t stop us from trading rooms time and time again until we were absolutely confident we could hang our hats in the one that suited us best.  i ended up with a most exquisite little cabin with a bunk in the bow of the ship.  the wall next to my bed even curved along with the ship’s hull leaving little room for my feet at the bed side and plenty of ceiling to stare at while i was rocked to sleep each night.

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she was a fine ship: approximately 113 feet in length with a solid metal hull and a wooden superstructure that creaked appropriately on a rough sea.  every cabin had its own bathroom with a hot shower and every room including the dining room and observation lounge was air conditioned.  a seemingly comfortable setting for me and the other 13 passengers, however it would be the 11 dedicated crew members, our cruise director Dalton and guide/naturalist/photographer Ron that would ensure our days were long and packed to the brim with adventure and as little sleep as possible.

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Raja Ampat is a remote archipelago of over fifteen hundred mostly uninhabited islands.  it was created when a massive shelf of limestone (formed from many generations of compacted coral remains) was thrust to the surface by shifting tectonic plates.  over the years rain seeped into the porous rock dissolving it from the inside out.  subtle dips in terrain turned into deep valleys and deep valleys became the ocean itself.  this left behind hundreds of dramatic oblong shaped islands all within close proximity.  to top it all off, a limestone eating parasite called the chiton is rapidly consuming all of the limestone at the intertidal zone giving the islands a cool mushroom-like look until their imminent collapse.  sadly, the future is grim for these oblong wonders.  it’s only a matter of time before they are reduced to nothing and returned to the sea once again.  BUT in the meantime, a view from the top of even one of the lesser peaks proves to be of the more stunning the world has to offer.

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due to Raja’s remoteness, lack of tourist infrastructure and well… lack of people in general, experiencing it properly is very difficult and/or very expensive.  i had the luck and honor of experiencing it quite properly in the company of 13 well traveled individuals who were all a tad bit wiser than i.

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we barely had time to get settled after leaving port before the adventures began.  we stopped off at a small island and took the tender boats to its shores for what i assumed would be a leisure stroll along the beach…  and then something wonderful happened.  Ron our tour guide opened his mouth and elegant science started spilling out.  he knew the scientific names for everything.  he knew all the relationships between the flora and fauna.  he was well versed in the geology and natural history of the area and he could explain it all in one constant and digestible stream of thought.  often his scientific rants would get briefly interrupted by new discoveries.  be it a simple flower or a fallen seedling, to him they marked new pieces to the habitat puzzle that surrounded us.  the puzzle that almost always boiled down to the same burning questioron1n that is always on his mind, “who’s pollinating who?”.  he also explained how various plants could be used in a survival situation…  to paraphrase: “the hard bulbous fruit from this plant is a fisherman’s friend.  not only because its natural buoyancy makes it a useful buoy to hold up your fishing nets, but when you grate the skin and sprinkle it into a shallow bay it will deplete the oxygen in the water causing the fish to suffocate, die and float to the surface.  if you had enemies, you would use the sap from this common plant.  one drizzle of this touches the skin and you’ll be dead in less than an hour”.  on and on he went…

it was in those moments that i began to realize the gravity of the situation i had just stumbled into.  not only was i about to venture into a remote and wonderful realm that very few people ever get the chance to see, but i’d be doing so with someone who has the ability to elegantly explain every aspect of it to me.  after witnessing my first Ron rant i turned to my dad and simply said “wow… i didn’t realize it would be THIS kind of trip”.  he then patted me on the back and laughed and replied with “Ron’s the reason we came here”.  from that moment on i began to think of this trip less as a Raja Ampat trip and more as a ‘Ron trip’ that just so happens to take place in Raja Ampat.  most of the other passengers had done trips with Ron before and many will again because they recognize the value a guide worth this much salt can add to an adventure.  i’m sure that if Ron was so inclined to organize an expedition to a Walmart somewhere in rural Kansas, the people would follow him.  i sure as hell would.

IMG_2411 (copy)But who exactly is this Ron K Leidich?  from what i could gather, he’s a naturalist/marine biologist/ornithologist/World War 2 historian/environmental activist/writer/photographer/tour guide/teacher/dive instructor/business man/family man.  when he’s not leading tours through Raja Ampat, Palau and Borneo, he is taking aerial photography of sperm whales via helicopter, and when he’s not taking aerial photography of sperm whales via helicopter, he is researching and documenting the undiscovered relationships between tropical plants and their pollinators.  he also lives in Palau where he runs his Kayaking company “Planet Blue” and is working on a book about the native plants of Palau that will be published next year.  he also played an instrumental role in the banning of shark finning in Palau.  does that about sum him up?  probably not even close but it’s a good start.

for the next ten days our daily routine would go something like this:  birding at 6:30am sharp, followed by breakfast, followed by first snorkel, followed by lunch, followed by second snorkel, followed by a hike/beach walk/island exploring, followed by a well deserved couple of beers followed by dinner, followed by a lecture or daily photo review, followed by passing out hard.  whether we were weaving through tiny limestone islands via tender boats, hiking through dense jungle or along sandy beaches,  snorkeling through coral reefs or watching a detailed power-point lecture, we were quite efficiently unlocking all of Raja’s hidden treasures and becoming smarter in the process.

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my second dose of hard reality hit when i equipped my mask, snorkel and fins and jumped into the water for the first time.  all of my past aquatic experiences combined could not even come close to preparing me for the bio-diversity and aw-inspiring beauty that lies beneath Raja’s surface.  from the mass profusion of giant corals that compete tirelessly for aquatic real estate to the countless species of invertebrates, crustaceans, mollusks and fish that make their homes amongst them.  it would seem that Raja Ampat is the marine equivalent to a metropolitan melting-pot at rush hour and the best part is that it’s all taking place less than ten meters below the surface making it a true snorkeler’s paradise.

(all professional-looking photos from this point on and including a few from above are courtesy of Ron K Leidich)

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please have a gander at some of my favorite underwater oddities:

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Wobbegong
will you believe that this freak of nature is a type of shark?  this is a sit-and-wait predator with tassel-like lips meant to fool fish into thinking it’s just another anemone until they swim by too close and get swallowed whole.

 

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Walking Shark
i found this little dude sleeping behind a rock.  though he is perfectly capable of swimming, he likes to use his fins to walk along the ocean floor.  his kind is also endemic to Raja Ampat.

 

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Blacktip
OMG, big f*ing shark!

 

Blue Spotted Feathertail Ray (copy)

Blue Spotted Feathertail Ray
this little blueberry pancake loves to lurk underneath hard flat corals

 

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Clown Triggerfish
sure you have all seen Triggers but have you seen them with giant white spots covering their belly?!  Triggers earn their name from their ability to erect their first dorsal spine and lock it into place with their second dorsal spine which then acts as a ‘trigger’ to release the first spine lock.  triggers will go trigger-up either when angry effectively communicating “you mess with the fish, you get the trigger”, or when they are frightened they can dive head first into a tight patch of hard coral and use their trigger to lock them into place.  at that point they would sooner die from getting ripped in half than give their predator the satisfaction of prying them loose.  as you can see, Ron seems to have riled this one up pretty good.

 

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Mantis Shrimp
this sharpshooting maverick of the sea comes equipped with either slashing or bashing appendages that are capable of slicing a fish in half or shattering your camera if you get too close.  he strikes with the force of a 22 caliber rifle, so fast that the water around its appendages boil and send out an underwater shockwave.

 

Wrasse, Pinstripe, Super Male (copy)

Wrasse
these fish have some interesting mating habits.  both males and females participate in group spawning which pretty much entails gathering around and launching your sperm and eggs into common area and hoping for the best.  unfortunately if you are a male wrasse, this is the only type of action you are ever going to get.  however if you are a female wrasse, not only do you get to partake in the fish orgies but you have the option of changing your gender and transforming into a “super male”.  this involves growing twice your size and gaining brilliant colors.  once in this form you become a total fish babe magnet with a harem of females to follow.

 

Spiny Devilfish (copy)

Spiny Devilfish
this little guy is the most poisonous fish on the reef.  it’s a good thing he’s only crawling at a snails pace using those little pectoral members.

 

Nudibranch, Phyllidia varicosa (copy)

Nudibranch
very small, very colorful, comes in over 3,000 flavors.

 

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Giant Clam
gills on one end and blow hole on the other.  go in for a closer look and get a blast of sea water in your face.

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during my ample time in the water i decided to dabble in a little free diving.  strap a few weights to your belt, descend slowly and move as little as possible while maintaining a zen-like state and you’ll be surprised at how little oxygen you really need.

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Raja has a vast trove of treasures above sea level as well.  we woke extra early one morning and ever so quietly stepped trough the interior of the island of Gam and witnessed the Red Birds of Paradise perform their mating dances in the canopy above.

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this osprey swooped down and caught a snapper with its talons right before our eyes.

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this rare species of cuscus as well as this fruit bat were just asking for it…

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we even visited a paranoid pearl farm.  i use the term paranoid because of the many guards with machine guns that keep it secure.  when you are dealing with that many pearls at once you are going to need some muscles to compliment your oysters.

this timid woman demonstrates the correct way to extract a pearl from an oyster so not to stress it out too much.

this timid woman demonstrates the correct way to extract a pearl from an oyster so not to stress it out too much.

 

our fishy finale on our final day in the water was one i wont soon forget.  we let the soft current carry us along the coast of Kri Island to a rounded corner where the shelf dropped off into a deep blue abyss and an opposing current met us head on.  perhaps it was the clash of currents, perhaps it was the dawn of the full moon or perhaps it was just that time of day when fish get especially randy because when we rounded that corner we were greeted by thousands upon thousands upon thousands of schools of fish of all shapes, sizes and colors.  they all weaved into one another gracefully but stayed determined to keep formation.  several meters below i noticed multiple schools of trevally coming from different directions and all converging into a central point forming a dense knot of fish below my feet.  i filled my lungs with air to their fullest capacity and descended into them.  rather than swimming away from me they simply opened their circle slightly leaving a safe arms-length distance allowing me to enter.  i sunk to the center of the circle and before long i was completely surrounded.  when i glanced up to the surface to gauge my depth my view had been obscured and the circle had IMG_2619 (copy)closed over the top of me.  i was completely engulfed in a sphere of fish so thick that no ocean scenery could be detected beyond them.  it was just trevally in front of trevally one after another in every direction moving fast and vigilant on a tight circular path over and over again.  i found myself elated and disoriented at the same time.  i was also on the verge of a minor panic and was starting to entertain unreasonable thoughts.  these were not small fish and if they all suddenly decided to turn in on me at once and tear the flesh from my bones i would be reduced to a sinking skeleton in a matter of seconds.  i darted swiftly in one direction in an attempt to exercise any dominance i had over them but they only shifted the inner circle slightly to uphold their safe arms-length distance.  it became clear that i was less than an afterthought to them.  trevally are among the fastest swimmers in the ocean and the least likely to pay any mind to the likes of an awkward lanky surface dweller.  i posed about as much of a threat to them as a Wile E Coyote does to a roadrunner and if there were any part of me that had the slightest bit of doubt about that fact the record would be set straight in the seconds that followed.  somewhere in the orchestra a single fish must have omitted a low frequency sound to indicate that it was being threatened quite possibly by one or both of the blacktip sharks who were lurking nearby.  to say that news travels fast in fish community would be an understatement because in the span of that next second every single last fish suddenly vanished all at once leaving me all alone surrounded by the familiar blue abyss.  i looked up and was relieved to see that the surface was in plain view.  it was time to start breathing again.

umbrella_boatit was hard rain on our final day as we packed ourselves and our belongings into the tender boats and headed back to Sorong to go our separate ways.  we didn’t let the torrential downpour get in the way of long goodbyes, but even then the goodbyes didnt seem nearly long enough because the next thing i knew the passengers had all dispersed and just like that i was right back to the harsh realities of world travel and decision making, soaking wet with half a plan.

 

 

fam1

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Captain Roark

  1. #1 by Catherine on October 31, 2013 - 2:39 am

    Love the blorg Roark. It was great travelling with you. Looking forward to seeing you in HK at some point. Catherine

  2. #2 by Karen on October 31, 2013 - 8:20 am

    Wow! I love your description of our fabulous trip. I am so glad you were there with us.

  3. #3 by Kevin on October 31, 2013 - 8:10 pm

    There is no good reason I am not there. Fair winds, man.

  4. #4 by Diane on November 1, 2013 - 1:57 pm

    Fabulous entry! Loved the description and included science. Thank you very much for sharing your adventure.

  5. #5 by Tony on November 2, 2013 - 6:21 pm

    Roark, this was a trip of a lifetime. Your Blog is up to the standard of the trip, absolutely fabulous. Your Mom’s and Diane’s choice of an adjective is spot on. THANK YOU for this insightful, humorous and comprehensive summary of the experience.

  6. #6 by Ron leidich on November 2, 2013 - 11:54 pm

    Roark,
    You are a gifted writer and most excellent traveling companion. Thanks for including me and my photos on your site.
    Cheers,
    Ron

  7. #7 by Anaplum on November 21, 2013 - 5:58 pm

    Amazing. I’m beyond jealous.

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