The Good, The Bad and the Ugly – (The Diving Bit)
This post is specifically about our diving experience in Raja Ampat. We only dived together on two occasions as I came down with a bad ear infection shortly after we arrived and just as I recovered the Wooky was himself struck down with the same affliction and confined to his hammock for almost a week. We had different gripes but agreed that the diving was excellent.
On top of that after the first couple of dives I lost the red filter for my GoPro and the Wooky’s underwater camera finally gave up the ghost completely. Gutted was not the word. I haven’t had time to learn how to edit video footage but we do still have some decent pictures before the camera died.
The diving was amazing. Raja Ampat deserves its reputation as a world-renowned destination for some of the best diving there is. There is beautiful abundant coral; diverse landscapes with slopes, walls and pinnacles; schools of hundreds of jacks and barracuda; many species of shark (black tip, grey tip, nurse and wobbegong), and it is one of the few places you can almost guarantee to see manta rays.
The sites are quite small and the currents unpredictable and challenging, which all make for what I call “hard work diving”. You find yourself having to swim against the current for at least part of the dive, and sometimes drift diving just means flying through the ocean not actually seeing anything but that can be fun in its own right.
The usual sites, Blue Magic, Cape Kri, Manta Point and Manta Sandy, Melissa’s Garden (out by Fam) are all stunning but rather small. However, the experience of being surrounded by massive schools of fish, spotting sharks one after the other is awesome, and everywhere you look there are almost every type of reef fish you can imagine.
It is, without doubt, very fishy. There are a lot of fish and each dive is a consistently breathtaking experience (if a bit knackering).
The Wooky put off visiting manta point until I was well enough to dive again and then when I was well enough he was ill. It really was unfortunate that he missed the mantas because it was one of his diving dreams. I was lucky enough to see manta rays at the cleaning station but maybe because it had not been on my wish list I found them a little underwhelming. That’s not to say they are not the most amazingly, graceful and beautiful creatures but after all the hype I just expected them to be bigger. Don’t get me wrong, they were huge but I suppose that’s the power of legend.
Personally, I found the diving challenging but I also felt a sense of enormous achievement because most of the time I was diving without the Wooky (as he was sick). Not that he’s ever anywhere near me like a buddy is supposed to be (he’s usually 10 metres below me and everyone else) but having him around is a bit like a bit like a comfort blanket. To be able to dive solo in the unpredictable and sometimes volatile conditions was a huge personal accomplishment.
The charges for diving are much higher than other places in Indonesia and elsewhere but the general consensus seems to be that you are provided with substandard equipment, and dive with groups consisting of divers of hugely varying experience and ability. On top of that extortionate additional charges are levied under the guise of a fuel surcharge.
Our particular experience of the diving was disappointing for those and a variety of reasons.
Our equipment was worn out and badly maintained. Air gauges are inaccurate and depth gauges are invariably broken. I had two leaks from both my first stage (for non-divers that’s the bit where the regulator attaches to the air cylinder) and also from my second stage (once again, for the benefit of non-divers, that’s the bit I shove in my mouth and how I breathe air into my lungs). Luckily for me, by this time (65 dives or more under my belt) I knew enough to know that these were not serious leaks but that’s not really the point.
The fins were old and mine were held together with gaffer tape. The wetsuits were also old, ripped and worn out.
The fuel surcharge added hugely to the cost of dive trips beyond a 10 minute ride from the homestay. It was charged per person (not per boat) with a minimum number of divers per trip. So, for example, there would be a minimum of 4 guests with a surcharge of IDR 500,000 but if 8 guests made the trip, no discount was made.
It was a scam of a money-spinner, pure and simple. and fostered resentment among the guests and the divers who were already paying over the odds for substandard equipment and service. It is likely that homestays will change their policy in order to attract business in what has become a highly competitive market. Hopefully, in time, standards will improve across the board.
Briefings were completely inadequate. They were not at all comprehensive and did not take into account the fact there were divers of a range of ability within groups. Even the most experienced of divers appreciate a briefing that checks hand signals are understood, the protocols and procedures to be followed regarding air consumption and also in the (not unlikely) event of separation.
Now this is arguably more important in a place like Raja Ampat when problems are more likely to occur (and indeed did). This is a direct reflection on the quality of the dive centre and the guides and this surprised us and was completely at odds with all we had read and heard about people who have dived Raja.
Unfortunately, the Wooky only dived about five sites because they repeated visits to give preference to new and short-staying guests. If, like us, you were staying for longer (and therefore spending more money) they were less likely to accommodate you. Further, despite Raja’s reputation as a world-class diving spot there did seem to a lack of variety or choice which we found strange. The same sites were dived over and over.
In a region which is classed as remote and difficult to get to, the dive sites were sometimes the most crowded I had ever seen underwater. Certainly we were never the only dive group in any area at any time and on one occasion there must have been a total of 30 divers on the small site of Cape Kri. It was the underwater equivalent of Benidorm.
Diving is an amazing pastime but it is also dangerous for all sort of reasons. It is generally accepted that you should only attempt to dive Raja Ampat if you have at least 50 dives, are qualified up to Advanced Open Water, and are a competent diver. The conditions can be dangerous and it is not uncommon to read about accidents involving even experienced divers mainly because of the complicated and fierce currents.
The homestays all purport to impose these restrictions but that turned out to be utter nonsense and the reality is that anyone who is willing to pay cash can go diving.
I personally had two dives ruined by having a new diver in my group. She had just completed her Open Water course and had only 6 dives to date. She wasn’t comfortable with the gear, she forgot to seal her mask (rookie error and resulting in her being unable to see for the whole of one dive), and she during one dive she was carried off by a current because she wasn’t close enough to the wall (again, rookie error, which in fairness the guide should have covered in the briefing).
What was most concerning about the lost diver incident (she was found again) was that I watched it happen. I saw the guide first look around and thought he had noticed she was struggling a little but he simply looked away. A few seconds later he glanced over at her again and saw by this time she was completely out of control, being carried away by the strong current and disappearing off into the blue. He indicated me and the other diver, Isabella, to stay where we were and he swam off after her.
Isabella and I waited for about 15 minutes (it was boring just hanging around in the same place but we did see a turtle and a bumphead parrotfish) until we had to decide what to do. This demonstrated the need for briefings. Isabella initially suggested going after them (no way I said), then she said we should finish the dive (neither of us had done that dive before and I wasn’t happy with that either), so eventually we agreed to head up to the surface.
Losing a diver is pretty careless and he should have been keeping a much closer eye on her particularly as she was so inexperienced. We should have been fully briefed on what to do in a situation like that and if it had been explained that you need to stay close to the reef in a current we might not have lost the diver in the first place. Isabella and I were most unimpressed.
On another dive during a trip to Fam (amazing scenery, no doubt about that – typical Raja Ampat) we dived a ridge and it was quite a deep dive. I’m not all that bothered about going that deep unless there is very much to see but it’s dark down there and you have to be careful you don’t go into deco (where you descend too quickly). Having a dive computer is essential if you are going to dive regularly and particularly if you are going to dive below about 30 metres.
For non-divers going into deco is really quite dangerous and it’s all about ascending from certain depths at a pace where your body can safely deal with the effects of diving. The risks of deco are hugely increased below certain depths and that is why a dive computer is indispensable. Investing in decent dive computers was arguably the best thing we did. It gives you confidence and means you don’t have to rely on your guide to ensure all is well with your nitrogen saturation.
If you do go into deco and become seriously ill, you want to get to a decompression chamber pretty damn quick. It can be fatal. In a place as remote as Raja Ampat there is no decompression chamber within easy reach (there is rumour of one in nearby Wasai but it has never been tested and the worst thing that can happen if you don’t get rapid treatment is that you can die – it’s that simple).
Isabella didn’t have a dive computer but loved deep diving because of the nitrogen narcosis which can make you feel a bit high as well as a bit reckless. On this dive my computer told me I was at 45 metres (deep enough for me thanks) and started warning me about bottom time (i.e. going a bit mental at me telling me to start thinking about ascending).
Isabella and the guide were a few metres further down before we started to ascend again. I had the benefit of my computer guiding me on my ascent but Isabella had no such support and was relying on the guide (too much in my humble opinion).
Even the Wooky was surprised that an experienced guide (and he was a very experienced and skilled guide and instructor) would take such a risk.
Our experience meant we faced issues that compromised safety and contradicted all the advice you read on the internet and in particular the diving community.
As stated in our previous post we had no regrets but were surprised and disappointed at the poor standards employed despite all known risks.
The risks we took were carefully calculated and we never felt that we personally were ever in any real danger (we are both quite sensible underneath it all) and it was a privilege to dive in such an amazing location and we would love to return some day.
However, unless affordable options raise their standards (and we hope that they do), or unless we invest in our own gear, before we consider revisiting this undeniable wild, remote and magical paradise we may have to save enough for a liveaboard trip, or splash out on a more expensive option.
So it may be some time before we return.