The Best Snorkeling in Indonesia: Go to Raja Ampat

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Kevin Hayler: Professional Wildlife artist, author, and traveler.

If you’ve ever dreamed of finding a tropical paradise, with simple rustic beach huts, clear waters, friendly locals, and the most amazing coral reefs as you enter the water, it’s time to visit the Raja Ampat Islands in Indonesia. They will blow your mind. So what makes Raja Ampat so special?

The Raja Ampat Islands lie in the heart of the coral triangle and are the richest coral reefs in the world. The marine life is astounding, it’s prolific. There are fish everywhere and in huge numbers. Snorkel with sharks, sea turtles, and manta rays.

If that’s not enough consider this, most islands are forested and teeming with birdlife, including birds of paradise.

This is Paradise

Let me explain further…

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Snorkeling in The Raja Ampat Islands

Raja Ampat is often described as the epicenter of the coral triangle, it has 76% of the world’s coral species, making it the most bio-diverse coral reef system on the planet. 

I’m no biologist but if there is a place on earth that tops Raja Ampat I want to see it.

The sea life in some parts of the archipelago is insane. You can’t quite believe your eyes

There’s something for everyone…

  • Big fish
  • Amazing coral gardens
  • Huge shoals of fish.

It’s all there.

The islands are thickly forested and remain largely undeveloped, with perfect sandy coves, palm trees, and empty beaches.

Gam Island, a tropical paradise on a budget. A typical beach hut in Raja Ampat, Papua, Indonesia
Paradise Beach, Gam Island

The islands are alive with exotic birdsong, there are parrots, cockatoos, and hornbills flying from tree to tree. Birds of paradise display in their chosen trees, eagles glide by, and fish leap for their lives.

If you’re lucky you might see dolphins or even a dugong. (it’s like a manatee)

And all of this is accessible.

To keep costs down I brought my own snorkeling gear and fins. I even met a few people pitching tents. In this environment, a tent is hardly roughing it.

For most people, including myself, a palm-thatched bamboo bungalow makes the perfect home. This is tourism as it should be. Local people with local homestays.

My Thatched Beach hut on Gam Island in the Raja Ampat Islands. Paradise on a budget,. Papua, Indonesia
My Beach Hut on Gam Island

What else do you need to be happy? They provide a clean comfy mattress, a sheet, and a pillow. A mossy net, a small table and chairs, and a few clothes hooks.

Top Tips
1. Bring some plastic containers for snacks. On some islands, rodents can be a nuisance – this includes eating your soap!
2. You’ll pay through the nose for a beer so if you want a drink, either bring some from the mainland or stock up in Waisai (the main town on the islands).

There isn’t any crime. Locks? What locks? You don’t need ’em.

The showers are freshwater so you can rinse off after a swim and set meals are communal so you can meet the other guests and exchange tips and stories. I ate well.

How luxurious is that? I really didn’t want to leave.

Kri Island, Raja Ampat Islands budget accommodation in Paradise
White Sand Beach, Kri Islands

Snorkel From the Beach 

The islands are a diver’s dream but I saw almost as much marine life just snorkeling.

In fact, my best snorkel outshone all my dives. I swam through clouds of fish, one shoal after another, all twisting and turning in shimmering patterns.

Giant Trevallies patrolled the drop-off, schools of barracudas glided in and out of the blue, and reef sharks would appear and be gone again before I could get the camera in focus.

Turtles grazed the reef and would fly gently along, surfacing occasionally for air in slow motion.

I saw schools of huge Bumphead Parrotfish biting off great chunks of coral and leaving trails of sand in their wake. Napoleon fish also cruised by looking sideways while at the same time managing to appear slightly bewildered.

Shoaling fish in Raja Ampat islands at Arborek Jetty. Free snorkeling in paradise
Schooling fish – Arborek Jetty

Sighting any one of these glamour fish on a dive would be a talking point but to see them all snorkeling from the beach is unreal.

Are there any downsides?  Let me think – not many.

A few of the shallow reefs are in poor shape, notably around parts of Kri Island where the old anchor and bomb damage is still evident. 

And the locals? The Islanders are shy.

Local kid on Friwan Island, Raja Ampat Paradise Islands, Papua, Indonesia
Kids on Friwan Island

Greetings are not always forthcoming, smiles are not automatic. Eye contact is often avoided. How come?

Papua is part of Indonesia but it is occupied territory. Papuans have little in common with the rest of the country. Ethnically the Papuans are Melanesian and as different from Indonesians as they are from Dutchmen.

It’s little wonder then that culturally they behave differently.

It’s such a contrast to the near-celebrity status a Westerner acquires elsewhere in Indonesia, indifference comes as quite a shock. Not unfriendly, just not amazed.

The longer you stay the warmer the locals become and I can understand that. It’s hard to invest your emotional energy in getting to know new people only to say goodbye every few days.

I can relate to that, I worked in a youth hostel for many years and experiences the same thing.

Where to Stay in Raja Ampat

I’ve visited twice. The first time was at the start of the homestay boom when the organization was finding its feet. It was great but the standards were very hit-and-miss. Some people, me included, had a good time, while others left feeling frustrated.

I was fearful on my return, that a gold rush mentality might have spoilt everything, as is the norm elsewhere in Asia. Imagine my delight when I discovered that far from being worse, I found things to be much better!

Yes, there have been some price hikes but as far as I’m concerned it’s been for the best.

There is now a tourist check-in station where you can pay your conservation fee of 1,000,000 Rupiahs and help in finding and booking accommodation and transport.

This is in stark contrast to my first visit when you were left very much to your own devices.

Now tourists are teamed up with others to share boat rides and transport costs to the popular islands.  This alone will save you a great deal of money and easily offsets the recent price inflation for most visitors.

Most visitors choose to stay on Kri Island and to a lesser extent on Gam Island. I’ve stayed on both. I’ve also hopped on a boat with other guests and visited the other islands. I had a great time on both.

If you intend to explore the less-visited places don’t be surprised if you’re forced to pay up.

It’s a captive market where everyone is related so it gives you very little room to bargain and overcharging is an issue. You may well find that you have to charter a return boat by yourself which will hurt your pocket and let’s be honest, may cause some resentment. 

You must bear in mind that fuel costs are very high in this part of Indonesia, plus a one-way journey for you is a return journey for the boatman. That’s twice the fuel.

That’s minor stuff when you know the score, I was in Raja Ampat primarily for the sea life and the pros far outweigh the cons. 

You’ll get an idea of how things have developed at it’s a brilliant website and tells you everything you need to know to plan your visit properly.

TIP: Take plenty of cash with you. There was only one unreliable ATM in Waisai when I was there, and it only accepted Mastercards. Since then the state banks have merged and made it even harder for foreigners to withdraw money! It’s very frustrating.

Consider taking a Wise Card with you as a backup. I have just joined and it means I can transfer money from my bank account at home onto my card and use it as a debit card. The fees are very low.

Wise bank account homepage

What to See in The Raja Ampat Islands

Now let’s have a quick look at some of the glamour species everyone hopes to see in Raja Ampat, and here’s the good news, you don’t need to be a diver to see them.

Manta Rays

Manta rays swimming. Manta Point near Arborek Island. Cheap and accessible snorkeling
Swim with Majestic Manta Rays

Swimming with Manta Rays is almost guaranteed. If that’s on your bucket list then you can’t get a more magical place. 

There is an island called Arborek which is nothing more than a pile of sand with a village on top.

It’s the access point to a nearby reef well known as a Manta Ray cleaning station.

I had an amazing encounter snorkeling with several rays circling around me all at once. 
They were twisting and turning in slow motion always just out of reach. 

It was whilst on a dive on a famous reef called ‘Blue Magic’ that I encountered the biggest Manta I’ve ever seen. A huge black oceanic giant Manta glided over us which must’ve been 5m across. 

Top that!

Reef Sharks

Grey Reef Shark. Seen around the reefs of Raja Ampat. Paradise diving

There are five species of shark regularly encountered:

  • Grey Reef Shark
  • Blacktip Reef Shark
  • Whitetip Reef Shark
  • Epaulet (Walking) Shark
  • Wobbegong Shark

I saw all five snorkeling

Grey reef shark. Common in Raja Ampat
Grey reef shark

Grey sharks are big, growing to about 2.5m (8″) and look mean enough to afford them plenty of respect. I saw two in Raja Ampat, one whilst snorkeling around Kri Island and another diving off Gam Island. Very exciting.

Blacktip reef shark. Common in Raja Ampat Islands. Paradise for snorkelers
Blacktip reef shark

Blacktip sharks are everywhere. The very biggest can grow up to 2m (6″) but you’ll mostly come across smaller ones.
Some places, most notably the people at Yenkoranu Bungalows on Kri, feed the local sharks fish scraps. Hang around their jetty and you might see a big one.

Whitetip reef sharks active at night. Found in Raja Ampat
Whitetip reef shark

I saw a whitetip shark lying on the seabed. I’m trying to remember where and I think it was around Gam. They hunt at night and rest up during the day. They may well be as common as the blacktips for all I know but they are certainly less evident on a day-to-day basis.

Epaulette (walking) shark seen in the shallows at sundown in Raja Ampat.
Epaulet or walking shark

Raja Ampat has its very own species of walking shark. They are small and nocturnal but quite easy to find if you bring a torch and spotlight the shallows.
I saw mine on Kri Island.

My best shark encounter occurred while I was snorkeling. I swam through an arch of a rock and looked around only to see a 1.5m wobbegong shark swimming towards me. It was so close, it gave me a jolt.
I followed it along until it finally came to rest beneath a coral head. Brilliant.


Sea Turtles swimming over a reef. Very common in Raja Ampat. Paradise snorkeling

Sea turtles are very common in Raja Ampat and you may encounter one anywhere at any time. They are particularly abundant between Kri and Mansour Islands, where you may encounter several as you swim across.

You are most likely to encounter green turtles but 4 species exist:

  • Green
  • Hawksbill
  • Olive Ridley
  • Leatherback


Dugong feeding on sea grass. Sometimes seen in Raja Ampat
Feeding Dugong

Raja Ampat has been a shark, ray, and dugong sanctuary since 2014 and as such you might well come across an endangered dugong if you’re lucky.

They are grasers so your best bet for a sighting is amongst the seagrass beds. Some bungalows advertise resident dugongs but reading the reviews they are far from guaranteed.

The nearest I came to seeing one myself was on a day trip whilst exploring reefs around Gam. I saw a nose break the surface of the water and thought it must be a large turtle. My helmsman corrected me and casually said “dugong”.

“Let’s jump in!” I urged excitedly. He shrugged unconcerned and simply said, “crocodiles”. I didn’t argue.

This is only a snapshot of the most charismatic marine life you may encounter. The variety and quantity of life have to be seen to be believed. But the glamour is not confined to the sea.

Seeing Birds of Paradise

As if the sea life isn’t enough, there are two species of Birds of Paradise unique to the Raja Ampat Islands and I saw both of them in one afternoon.

The Red Bird of Paradise displays at locally known sites at predictable times of the day. They dance in a dead tree, zig-zagging up and down the branches and flipping over to fan out their brilliant red plumage.

You can arrange guides to take you to known display areas.

I sought the services of a guide called Benny who lives on Waigo Island and I groaned when he suggested we get up before dawn. Forlornly I asked if we could possibly go in the afternoon instead, and to my amazement, he agreed and said they also danced at 3 pm!

We departed at 2 O’clock and he led me to a bamboo platform beneath a bare tree and sure enough, they appeared on time. I laid back with my binoculars and had a prime view. Now that’s how I like to birdwatch!

Even more impressive, the Wilson’s Bird of Paradise resided nearby and was due at 4 pm!

This stunning little bird clears a small patch of the forest floor as a display area and Benny led me to a tatty blue tarpaulin hide with a slot crudely cut out as a peephole.

Benny knew the bird call and told me a male was on its way. It was the most beautiful bird I’ve ever seen. It has an extraordinary featherless bright blue cap, yellow neck, red body, and two spiraling iridescent tail feathers. It’s almost neon

And I was only 2 meters away!

I watched him clear the lek of leaves and debris to prepare his patch for courtship and waited to see a female come down to inspect his work. Sadly the heavens opened at that moment and it was all over.

There are 250 species of birds to be found in and around the islands and for a comprehensive list of possible sightings check out this useful birding guide.

Spotting a Spotted Cuscus

A spotted cuscus foraging for palm fruit on Gam Island. Raja Ampat
Our friendly local Spotted Cuscus

If you’ve never heard of a cuscus you’re hardly alone. It is in fact a large cuddly possum and Raja Ampat has its very own species.

These shy, nocturnal tree-dwellers are seldom seen, but things are different on some of the islands.

In some places, they occasionally make an appearance, like the cuscus above who came along to feast on palm fruit. Indeed the folks at Nudibranch Homestay feed their resident cuscus so you’re very likely to see one.

I saw mine in Kordiris Homestay on Gam. We were lucky, not only was a tree in full fruit at just the right time, but our visitor came down to feed in broad daylight.

It was only a few meters away.

If all this floats your boat and you think it’s out of your reach, check out this website and you’ll discover how affordable it can be.

Typical house coral reef  Snorkeling in Paradise on a Budget. Raja Ampat Islands
Coral Reef in Raja Ampat

Excursions Between Islands

The great advantage of staying in a more popular place is teaming up with other tourists and sharing a boat to go snorkeling and island hopping. It’s great fun.

Visiting the amazing karst landscape of the Fam Islands must be high on your list. They are a long way from the other islands and renting transport is expensive. You will need to team up.

You will be gone the whole day, and along the way, you will stop to snorkel with manta rays and visit faraway reefs. It’s worth it. The landscape is simply stunning and swimming in the lagoon surrounded by the karst outcrops is wonderful.

The view over looking the Fam Islands in Raja Ampat
Fam Islands, Raja Ampat

The Wayag islands are further away and they are super expensive to reach. They are uninhabited karst islands surrounded by pristine reefs. Most visitors reach them on a liveaboard, but they can be reached on a very long day trip.

The price was about $400 (Rp6,000,000) for the boat charter on my last visit, I don’t know what the price will be now. It won’t be cheaper.

How to Reach the Raja Ampat Islands

The islands are relatively easy to reach. Before the pandemic closed things down you could reach them via a flight from Jakarta or Surabaya on Java. Alternatively, you can fly from Makassar or Manado on Sulawesi. As far as I know, services are running again.

You can also take a Pelni boat in theory, but I haven’t met anyone who arrived that way.

You fly to Sarong in West Papua and from there you can catch a public ferry to the main island of Waisi.

There are no direct international flights to Sarong and no direct flights from Bali either.

More Snorkeling Spots in Indonesia

I have snorkeled in many of the best reefs in Indonesia over the years. Admittedly, the “best” diving and snorkeling spots are subjective and the following list provides a selection of the most acclaimed and popular coral reef sites in the country:

  1. Komodo National Park: Aside from the famous Komodo Dragons, this UNESCO World Heritage Site in Nusa Tenggara offers pristine coral reefs teeming with a variety of marine life, including manta rays and sharks. The water is crystal clear and the snorkeling is great. Currents can be very strong. The snorkel sites are offshore.
  2. Bunaken National Park: Located in North Sulawesi, Bunaken is renowned for its wall diving spots filled with colorful coral reefs and diverse species of fish. Snorkelers can follow the edge of the drop-off. Sea turtles are everywhere.
  3. Wakatobi National Park: This Southeast Sulawesi park offers clear waters, vibrant hard and soft corals, and numerous fish species. It’s a divers paradise but the snorkeling is great too.
  4. Bali: Bali offers world-class diving spots and reefs right off shore. The USAT Liberty wreck in Tulamben is accessible to snorkelers, and there are Manta Rays and the rare Mola Mola (sunfish) in Nusa Penida,
  5. Gili Islands, Lombok: Known for calm and clear waters, the Gili Islands offer easy diving and snorkeling with abundant marine life, including many sea turtles and restored reefs  teeming with tropical fish.
  6. Togean Islands: Situated in the Gulf of Tomini in Central Sulawesi, Togean Islands feature stunning underwater biodiversity. Tragically, there is extensive dynamite damage. The only truly great diving and snorkeling is to be found around Una Una island, far from the others
  7. Banda Islands: Part of the Spice Islands, the Banda Islands in Maluku offer untouched coral gardens, steep drop-offs, and diverse marine life, along with a rich historical backdrop. The beautiful coral reefs are reached from the shore but they’re deeper than you expect. Free diving is great
  8. Derawan Islands, East Kalimantan: This archipelago offers a mix of muck diving, deep drop-offs, caves, and wreck diving. I snorkeled there with Manta Rays, hand-fed green turtles, and banana leaves, and snorkeled in the jellyfish lake.
  9. Cenderawasih Bay: Located in West Papua, and far off the beaten track, Cenderawasih Bay is famous for the opportunity to snorkel with whale sharks. They hang around the fishing platforms waiting for a free meal. This marine park is remote and would be a trip of a lifetime. On my bucket list
  10. Alor Islands: Located in the eastern part of Nusa Tenggara, and tricky to get to, Alor offers some of the best diving and snorkeling spots in the world. Known for strong currents and cool, crystal clear water, the coral reefs are pristine and the fish life is prolific. Snorkel the shore reefs with great care., the currents are dangerous, you must use fins, and take a thin wet suit jacket.

You will find plenty of places in Indonesia where snorkeling is great. This selection is the icing on the cake.

Best Snorkeling in Indonesia: Final Thoughts

Indonesia is an archipelago with more than 17,000 islands and boasts some of the world’s most stunning marine life. It’s a snorkelers paradise with warm turquoise waters, stunning beaches, and breathtaking coral reefs.

The country is incredibly cheap, the locals are smiling and friendly, and life is easy for travelers. Is it perfect? Of course not. I’m not dwelling on the negative. Let’s keep the environmental challenges to one side on this occasion.

Indonesia is safe, and most places are easily accessible. There is every reason to go and enjoy some of the best reefs you will ever see. Let’s make them so valuable they’re worth saving.

House reef in Raja Ampat
House reef in Raja Ampat

I paid for my paradise trip by selling my wildlife art. If that is something you dream about doing, then you should take a look.

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Paradise on a Budget Blog. Raja Ampat Islands. View along Gam Island beach. Image for Pinterest
Gam Island
The artist and Author Kevin Hayler

Hi, I’m Kevin Hayler
I’ve been selling my wildlife art and traveling the world for over 20 years, and if that sounds too good to be true, I’ve done it all without social media, art school, or galleries!
I can show you how to do it. You’ll find a wealth of info on my site, about selling art, drawing tips, lifestyle, reviews, travel, my portfolio, and more. Enjoy

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