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Paradise diving in Raja Ampat, Pearls and Spawning Crinoids

March 30 – Having arrived on different days and subsequently scattered around North Sulawesi at various dive resorts and hotels, our group of 18 finally gathers together at the Manado airport at precisely 8:30 a.m., as directed by our travel-savvy leader, Paul. A two-hour flight will carry us to Sorong, an easily forgotten port city on the Bird’s Head Peninsula in the distant reaches of eastern Indonesia, where we will board the Paradise Dancer a.k.a., the Dewi Nusantara (Goddess of the Archipelago). Ned, Paul and I and several friends in our group have been making regular visits to the fish-rich waters that bathe the offshore islands making up Raja Ampat (The Four Kings) since 2004, about the time the area caught the attention of the popular diving press. Our 600-mile voyage will first take us through Raja Ampat then on west to the little-dived waters of Halmahera before ending 12 days later at Lembeh Strait in North Sulawesi.

Paradise Dancer

The Paradise Dancer in Paradise

The Halmahera leg of our journey will be exploratory. The Dancer’s dive team acquired a few random GPS numbers for area dive sites, but for the most part, we will be feeling our way as we go. Several in our group including Janet Eyre, Heather George and Lillian Kenney, are advanced fish surveyors from REEF (Reef Environmental Education Foundation.) The group will be recording fish species sighting data along the way – quite a challenge on reefs purported to hold more than 3,000 species.

Liberty's first flight

Up, Up and Away – Liberty’s First Airplane Flight

Liberty Tukunang, veteran dive guide from Kungkungan Bay Resort in Lembeh Strait, on special assignment, will be joining us on the voyage to help with our last push at gathering photographs of new invertebrate species for Reef Creature Identification, Tropical Pacific. This is Liberty’s first airplane flight and our group, sharing in his excitement, makes certain he sits in a prime window seat in order for him to see Lembeh Strait as we fly east. “Police Pier,” he calls out after recognizing one of the familiar Lembeh sites he has been regularly diving for the past 12 years. 

Our friend, the celebrated underwater photographer Geri Murphy, who dived with us at Kungkungan Bay Resort last week will also be put to work helping supply photos for this report.

Sorong boat

Excitement Mounts as We Transfer to the Paradise Dancer

March 31 – Guido Brink, designer and owner of the Dewi Nusantara, is also joining us on the trip. At 57 meters and 750 tons, this is definitely the largest liveaboard we’ve ever set foot on as well as one of the most luxurious. After prowling around the beautifully appointed salon, spacious sun deck and camera room the impressed passengers somehow end up inside the sumptuous master stateroom booked by David and Joyce Kay, who generously offer to host a party if anyone is willing to take off time from diving.

Joyce roughing it in Stateroom

Joyce roughing it in Stateroom

anna amex

Anna and Amex

April 1 – Our first stop is Alyui Island where we spend our surface interval visiting the Atlas South Sea Pearl farm. Armed with my faithful American Express card, my plan of acquiring pearls is foiled, when the ever-vigilant Ned sensing something foul afoot, hops aboard the tender at the last moment, dashing my hopes for an après-dive spending spree. However, I did, for 60 seconds, have in my possession an exquisite strand – price tag $63,000.





Anna on the Prowl

Anna on the Prowl

Kevin Smith, manager of the remote facility, gives us a most interesting tour of the operation. He begins by explaining how the hatchling pearl oysters used at the facility are raised and shipped from Bali. It is heartening to hear how nothing in the process is wasted, from shells to meat. Once the oysters no longer produce gem-quality pearls, some of the shells are even ground for use in make-up and car paint, which explains the up-charge on the Oyster Pearl finish I selected for the car we purchased last year.

Pearl On the Halfshell

Pearl On the Halfshell

The vessel’s Cruise Director, Wendy Brown, a keen fish watcher in her own right, shows us a photo of an unidentified frogfish that a previous guest had taken near a local dock. To our delight, it is a Lophiocharon trisignatus, a species we sighted for the first time on a previous Raja Ampat trip. The fist-sized oddities have the unique behavior of incubating fertilized eggs on their sides. An egg-laden parent sporadically waves its dorsal and tailfins to aerate the developing embryos. The individual we photographed in 2007 with a well-developed clutch attached will be featured in an upcoming issue of Scuba Diver Austral Asia in our regular Search Image column. Everybody aboard has heard about our famous frogfish find, and are pumped to the gills about a chance to see the exotic animal for themselves.

After backrolling out of the dingy the group moves en masse toward the dock where the phantom frogfish was last detected. On the way, I am waylaid by a swarm of Convict Fish streaming into their burrow. The massive cloud of 3/4-inch black and white fish continued to pour into their burrow opening for 25 minutes. Every now and again a grouper, strategically hidden nearby would rocket up into the mass to snag a late afternoon snack.

The tiny fish are still pouring into the opening when Yann, one of our dive guides, swims up excitedly, giving the hand signal for frogfish. Luck is running, the divers have not only found one but three of the goofy little curiosities – a very gravid female waddling across the bottom closely hound-dogged by two smaller hot-to-trot males. Even with the frogfish peepshow still underway a few of the divers disappear down the slope to catch a glimpse of a Blue-ringed Octopus Liberty discovered at 30 feet. Unfortunately, low air forces us to the surface before the frogfish spawn, which typically occurs shortly after sunset.

Blue Ringed Octopus

Blue Ringed Octopus

A gold rush of spawning activities continues on the night dive. Together we watch sea cucumbers, brittle stars, urchins, clams, pillow stars and, something I have been hoping to observe for years, spawning crinoids.

Before the evening is up, we add a huge wobbegong, an epaulet shark and the rarely sighted Banded Toadfish, Halophyme diemensis, (its distinctive croak giving away its hiding place under a log) to our rapidly growing list of wonders.


Banded Toadfish

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One Response to "Paradise diving in Raja Ampat, Pearls and Spawning Crinoids"

  1. Mike Hohman says:

    Love the frogfish video. Never seen anything like that… Spent 11 dive days on the Paradise Dancer and not one diver ever saw a frogfish… 🙁 Thanks for sharing the blog!!

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