Indonesia’s beauty spots are legendary, from Bali to New Guinea. But the undisputed gems of the East are Raja Ampat and Lembeh. What makes these places so irresistible to underwater photographers?
In the dining halls, on the boats, in the water, you can’t escape it. Take a seat at any table at the dive resort or liveaboard lounge and talk will be of lenses, housings, lights, models and makes, what’s new, what sucks. Everybody here, amateur and professional, is in eastern Indonesia for one thing, the hunt that binds them: The Picture.
Take Wang Jzahua. The 31-year-old from Guangzhou, China, has been shooting with his Canon S95 as long as he’s been diving; in only 10 months he has covered an itinerary that reads like a life list: Phuket, Similan Islands, Okinawa, Sipidan, Philippines. He booked a northern Raja Ampat excursion aboard Arenui mostly to capture blue-ringed octopus and a pygmy seahorse. But it’s the flamboyant cuttlefish we’re finding on every other dive that deliver the fix he craves: “I had seen lots of pictures, but I wanted a picture of my very own. I was very excited when I got that. Amazing.”
Like many of the offbeat creatures they seek, photographers enjoy a sort of asexual reproduction: Photographers beget other photographers. Through books, Web sites and magazines like this one, they inspire and motivate one another. Few areas birth more aspiration than Lembeh Strait, off the northeast tip of Sulawesi, and Raja Ampat, the “Four Kings” and their satellite islands northwest of New Guinea.
When it comes to Raja, no one has inspired more photographers than Burt Jones and Maurine Shimlock, authors of Diving Indonesia’s Raja Ampat, a sort of Raja Ampat bible pored over nightly by everyone aboard Arenui. Shimlock explains what draws the couple to eastern Indo after more than a decade and thousands of dives here.
“For me, it's Raja's healthy reefs with their profusion of fish and color. Schools of fish help create a necessary sense of movement in a still image, and in many places it's difficult to get sufficient fish action. Not in Raja Ampat,” she says.
“Lembeh is obviously about the weird and wonderful — on every dive, photographers have an opportunity to see and shoot a creature they've never seen, perhaps doing something no one ever knew about.”
Photographer Tanya Burnett, my companion on this trip, leads instructional photo trips all over the world. For her, Indonesia has it all: “Color, quantity, texture. It’s one of the most diverse places on the planet. And it’s also an exotic place that travelers want to learn about. That’s a wonderful combination, to have unique cultural experiences and magnificent diving in one package.”
Muck diving, it turns out, is a lot like yoga.
At first you look around at an underwater landscape barren but for trash and think, “What am I doing here? Am I doing this right? Nothing’s happening...”
But give yourself over to this sometimes uncomfortable pursuit and wonders begin to unfold. “Spectacular” can be an afterthought in Lembeh, like suddenly encountering the explosively colorful mini wall at the end of a night dive at Nudi Falls, or the warm fuzzy feeling that washes over stiff joints and cold cores after a mandarin-fish mating, erasing the stationary hour you spent to get the shot.
Indonesia surpasses in macro and wide-angle, but Lembeh is all about the little things. (Although explorers like Kerri Bingham and Hergen Spalink from Lembeh Resort’s Critters@Lembeh dive center are constantly discovering new reef and wall dives in the region.) On our first day, I see 30 animals new to me — and that was in the first two dives.
“It’s easy to go into critter overload here,” Bingham says of Lembeh, where even your safety stop can yield sights that top your best dives elsewhere.
After one of our last Lembeh dives, our guide points Tanya toward a shallow area just off the dive-boat moorings. “What could be so great in such a high-traffic spot?” I wonder as I flop over the side with mask and fins. Suddenly the most adorable harlequin shrimp limbo into view, seeming to flirt and pose just for Tanya’s lens. All at once, I get it: the allure of documenting and preserving an intimate experience with the tiniest of our planetary comrades. “It’s nowhere else on Earth but here,” Tanya says.
Sixteen pairs of eyes are trained on Debbie Benton, half of Arenui’s cruise-director/photo-pro duo, along with Gerardo Arriaga. We’re about to get a briefing on a Dampier Strait site called Manta Sandy. Mantas are among the holiest of grails for photographers in Raja Ampat, and this site is a known gimme.
“I can 100 percent guarantee that you are going to see sand,” Benton says to laughter and groans. Earlier she showed me her handwritten logbooks: This would be her 4,000th logged dive. We flipped back to 3,000: Manta Sandy! But signs were not auspicious: No mantas that day. Surely the gods could not be so cruel.
On us they smiled: A free-wheeling manta rodeo was underway, from a nine-manta train to two huge animals with peculiar outlines — Benton, smiling broadly, made the universal sign of a rounded belly. Mamma mantas! Everybody surfaced happy that day.
It’s a perpetual question in Raja Ampat, one you will hear daily: macro or wide-angle? At Manta Sandy, the answer was obvious, but at many sites photographers can happily go either way. To the uninitiated, macro may seem harder, trying to capture creatures that are all but invisible. But wide-angle requires a special sort of awareness. Underwater photographers have to see in three dimensions “like an architect,” Tanya says, looking not only at their subjects but at what’s surrounding them, even into the far distance, and balancing the ever-shifting worlds of light and water.
In Raja Ampat, the odds of bringing those elements into harmony are usually in your favor. Keding Zhu, a 31-year-old engineering designer from Shanghai, explained why he was making his second trip to shoot in Raja — his sixth in Indonesia — with his Canon EOS 5D Mark ii. “In Southeast Asia, Indonesia is the best diving, the center of the Coral Triangle. And Raja Ampat is the best of the best.”
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Online editor Becca Hurley also spent a memorable week aboard the Arenui. Read her story here.
An amazing encounter with manta rays at Indonesia's Manta Sandy captured in photographs!