If you’ve ever dreamed of finding a tropical paradise on a budget, it’s time to visit the Raja Ampat Islands in Indonesia. They will blow your mind. They are simply stunning. So what makes these islands so special?
The Raja Ampat Islands lie in the heart of the coral triangle and have the richest coral reefs on the planet. The sea life has got to be seen to be believed, it’s prolific. There are fish everywhere in huge numbers. Snorkel with sharks, turtles, and mantas, it’s virtually guaranteed, and then trek into the forest and watch the birds of paradise display.
If that’s not enough consider this, the beaches are clean white sand and ringed with palm trees. Most islands are forested and teeming with birdlife. Accommodation is in rustic huts lining the beaches and the coral reefs line the shore.
This is Paradise
The purpose of my trip was to dive and snorkel the reefs with the aim of finding and photographing wild turtles, mantas, and sharks, plus anything else that came my way.
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I managed to see all three which included a fantastic shark encounter while I was snorkeling.
I was also privileged to encounter a friendly cuscus – twice. Not sure what that is? Stick around and find out.
Raja Ampat Islands, Real Paradise on a Budget
Raja Ampat is often described as the epicenter of the coral triangle, the most bio-diverse coral reef system in the world.
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
- Macro life
- The weird and wonderful
- Amazing coral
- 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.
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. Truly a paradise on a budget.
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.
What else do you need to be happy? A clean comfy mattress, a sheet, and a pillow. A mossy net, a small table and chairs, and a few clothes hooks.
1. Bring some plastic containers for snacks.. On some islands, rodents can be a nuisance – this includes soap!
2. You’ll pay through the nose for a beer so 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.
How luxurious is that? I really didn’t want to leave.
Snorkel in Paradise For Free, From the Beach
The islands are a divers 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.
Sighting any one of these glamour fish on a dive would be a talking point but to see them all within a couple of hours of snorkeling is unreal.
Are there any downsides? Yes some, nothing in this world is truly pristine.
A few of the shallower coral reefs are in poor shape, notably around Kri Island where the old anchor and bomb damage is still evident.
And the locals? The Islanders are distant. I like to think of them as shy, and you have to try harder.
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 to 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; being ignored comes as quite a shock.
The longer you stay the warmer the locals become and I can understand that. It must be hard to invest your emotional energy getting to know new people only to say goodbye every few days.
Stay in Paradise, Raja Ampat on a Budget
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, others left feeling frustrated.
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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 has 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 (2019) 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.
That said 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.
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 www.stayrajaampat.com it’s a brilliant website and tells you everything you need to know to plan your visit properly.
Keynote Species of Raja Ampat Islands
Now let’s have a quick look at some of the glamour species everyone hopes to see in Raja Ampat and the good news is, you don’t need to be a diver to see them.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- Olive Ridley
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.
Birds of Paradise on a Budget
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 amazing, 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.
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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.
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 the islands.
Some places have local cuscus that makes an occasional appearance, like the guy 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, 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.
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