Diving Raja Ampat - The Resort Experience in Misool
Contributed by Tim Hochgrebe
Story by Tim Hochgrebe and Siggi Gudergan. Photos and video by Tim Hochgrebe.
In 2004, a group of Europeans set up the Misool Eco Resort in the middle of nowhere about four hours by speedboat from Sorong, West Papua. Batbitem, an island near the Fiabacet-Boo chain in the southeast Misool area of Raja Ampat was to be the new Eden.
The aim was to provide an opportunity for superb diving in comfort with a strong commitment to environmental and social responsibility by balancing serving the local community as well as attracting divers from around the globe.
On that same island a Conservation Centre is being developed, which will provide a functional base for scientific research and conservation projects, as well as accommodating visiting researchers and scientists.
Hopefully this centre will facilitate and support research benefiting the unique ecosystem of Raja Ampat. After following the efforts of this emerging unique resort for years online and seeing images and hearing stories about the beauty of their chosen location both above and below the surface, this was a place we could not miss to include into our Raja Ampat itinerary.
Our journey from Sorong to the resort island was on the resort's newly leased 900 hp speed boat. Aided by calm glassy seas it took a record time of three and a half hours.
Along the journey we passed mangrove-lined shores and jungle with some traditional Papuan villages along the banks of the strait. We raced across wide stretches of open water before entering the spectacular scenery of southern Raja Ampat and the Misool area with its numerous mostly uninhabited islands and lagoons. During the trip we were escorted by pods of dolphins and huge pelagic fish leaping high out the water near our speedboat.
The last part of the journey revealed the stunningly beautiful scenery above water. It reinforced our appetite for remoteness and beautiful diving, which this bio-diverse marine region of West Papua represents. Approaching the resort island we felt that we had found what we were looking for: an island fringed with powder-white beaches and palms and sheltered by turquoise lagoons and plentiful reefs.
On arrival at the island we experienced the blend of remoteness within a tropical marine park and exclusive lavishness. Welcomed by both Western and Indonesian staff of the resort we enjoyed a fruit cocktail at the beach-front restaurant overlooking a beautiful, shallow turquoise lagoon around which the water bungalows that would be our base for the next 11 days are located.
Surrounded by palm trees and other tropical plants, we also met the Misool Resort Imperial Pigeon which continued being a regular visitor at the restaurant during our stay.
The restaurant provided fantastic meals throughout our stay reflecting a mixture of Western and Indonesian dishes, which were just awesome: Great food at a remarkable location with caring staff and considered fellow divers. Truly remarkable considering the fact that everything has to be shipped in from Sorong, Bali or even further afield to satisfy the tastebuds of finicky overseas visitors.
The water cottage in which we stayed was equally superb - raised on stilts over the lagoon we could observe what was happening both above and under water. From our veranda we could see beautiful neighbouring tropical islands and local fishing boats passing by as well as little sharks, blue spotted rays, a moray eel and a huge variety of reef fish which at high tide considered the reef in the lagoon as part of their home. And, when we wanted to be closer to the crystal clear water, we indulged ourselves stretching out in the fabulous hammock built into the veranda floor and stretching over the water.
Most of Misool Eco Resort is built from driftwood. In our cottage, the main room and adjacent outside open bathroom were meticulous in their design and construction combining luxury and indigenous natural materials. This casual, though sophisticated design provided a comfortable layout and picturesque ambience that offered the ideal setting to relax between dives and to absorb the surrounding atmosphere.
Having only about 20 guests at the same time at the resort further amplified the remoteness and exclusivity, which this resort encapsulates.
The resort has a fantastic house reef, which we dived on our first day as our try-out dive. Immediately we experienced how fantastic the diving in Misool can be and we witnessed the results of what the resort has been working at over the past 5 years: protecting and rebuilding the reefs and marine life in Misool.
For the first dive we decided not to take the cameras as we would come back often and there had not been enough time to set up. As we descended under the jetty though we were immediately surrounded by a massive school of, then an enormous school of blue fuselliers, barely moving aside as we swam amongst them - the light was perfect.
Somehow we regretted not taking the video camera, this would have been awesome footage, but sometimes you have to let your mind take the pictures and free yourself from the pressure of always hunting for that next perfectly composed and lit shot. The rest of the house reef offers excellent variety with reef slopes and walls covered in soft and hard corals. A nice place to call your house reef indeed and one of the best house reefs we have ever visited.
The resort has negotiated with village elders to lease more than 425 sq km of sea surrounding Batbitim and to set up a 'No-Take Zone' surrounding the resort. Within this area, all fishing, shark finning and harvesting of turtle eggs and shellfish are strictly prohibited. Reportedly, fish life is now improving which seems not only evident at the house reef but also the surrounding reefs in the area.
Some of Raja Ampat's best sites that we have dived are now within this protected area - they include the Manta Cleaning Station called 'Magic Mountain', 'Boo-Windows', 'the Fiabacet group', 'Gorgonian Passage' and 'Yillet', to name a few. Improved fish life is an outcome that is welcomed by not only the resort and visiting live-aboards and its divers but also some of the local communities who like to see their environment turning back into what it used to be.
Through the Misool Conservation Centre the resort practices and supports marine tourism as a sustainable and alternative approach to overfishing. They hope that this will contribute to conservation of Raja Ampat's amazing underwater world, while also creating benefits for the local communities. The spectacular underwater world and immense biodiversity is reflected in the wide range of species that have been found in this area:
- more than 1,300 species of reef fish
- including currently 25 species of endemic reef fish found only in Raja Ampat
- about 600 species of hard coral
- about 75% of all known coral species in the world are found in Raja Ampa
- more than 10 species of Marine Mammals can be observed in Raja Ampat
- 5 species of endangered sea turtles
Sitting at the comfortable dive centre of the resort we could witness some of the activities the Misool Conservation Centre - and thus the Misool Resort - is involved in to maintain and even improve this stunning underwater world and vast marine biodiversity.
Resort staff plan the nightly patrolling of the No-Take Zone and like some other dive resorts in this area, the resort supports a local school on one of the neighbouring island Yellu through packing and providing teaching materials.
While these initiatives are driven and partially supported by the Centre, funding from NGOs such as Wild Aid, The Coral Reef Alliance and Precious Planet as well as from private donors makes it possible to sustain them and to make a difference to the unique ecosystem Raja Ampat has to offer. In a similar vein, the Misool Eco resort employs locals from nearby Yellu who are taught English, trained in a variety of crafts and offered health benefits at the resort and who in turn teach Western staff local practices. Activities like these reflect their commitment to both environmental and social responsibility. It showed us how they try to balance serving the local community as well as divers from around the globe.
The resort's dive centre is just a short stroll from the cottages and offers very spacious facilities with large wet and dry areas comfortable for any diver with or without camera equipment. Kitting up was easy and dive centre staff generally organised our gear onto one of the dive boats, meaning no carrying of tanks for the guests.
We typically did three dives per day but there was generally the opportunity to do a fourth dive or night dive each day, which was normally at the house reef or nearby the resort. In addition to the astonishing house reef, there are several dozen amazing dive sites in close proximity to the resort of which some are only a few minutes by boat ride and some further away sites which are generally dives as double-dives are within 30 to 60 minutes boat ride from the resort.
Taking off in an uncrowded dive boat and riding through the Misool area with its numerous beautiful islands and lagoons prepared us for the diving that was ahead of us: fascinating in any case whether it was a fringing reef, a shallow patch reef, coral pinnacles or a deep wall.
We found the promised walking shark at 'Epaulette City', were stunned by the underwater beauty of 'Nudi Rock'. At 'Fiabacet One', a Yellowtail Tuna shot past us during the dive and at Potato Ridge we shared the water with a massive school of Bumphead Parrotfish. The 'secret' Magic Mountain, features a great ridge at 20 metres where we saw a graceful White-spotted Eagle Ray, barracudas overhead as well as hundreds of schooling trevallies. Big schools of Yellow Snapper along the ridge make for some fantastic images and video.
Here at 'Magic Mountain' we also spent a number of dives surrounded by Manta Rays in the shallows at the end of the dive, a truly magic spot. Until now, many of the dive sites in this area are still 'resort secrets' and not dived by the visiting live-aboards. This is another reason combine a live-aboard trip in Raja with a resort stay: the perfect combination.
We encountered varying visibility throughout our stay and some days the currents were very strong. In any situation, our experienced guides were fantastic spotters and we typically saw amazing fish and other critters on every dive. Amongst the many fish species, we saw different species of Pygmy Seahorses, a Leaf Scorpionfish (which are surprisingly rare in this area), many species of ghostpipefish and a Freckled Frogfish, to name a few.
On one of the last days we explored the ancient rock paintings (petroglyphs) of the Misool area. On our boat trip we passed a long chain of vertical-cliffed limestone islands, many fringed with white sand and abundant palm trees.
The fascinating ancient rock paintings are dramatic ochre and brown figures displaying little-studied rites and beliefs. Some experts estimate that they go back as far as 5,000 years. Even without ancient rock paintings and world-class diving, Misool Eco Resort still rates as an enchanting place and the minute we left, we started dreaming about coming back to spend more time diving, relaxing and indulging. The remoteness of this tropical marine environment and its exclusive comfort makes it a place we look forward to return to rather sooner than later.