Ultimate Indonesia – Raja Ampat

Well, what can I say but what a holiday! There was laughter, there were tears, there was awe, there were men with guns and there are photos. We stayed on the seven seas liveaboard with Alex Mustard and Graham Abbot for 12 days and nights of fantastic diving in Raja Ampat. Raja Ampat is a marine protected area in Indonesia west of Papa New Guinea.

Alex Mustard

Most people in underwater photography circles have heard of him, author of a couple of books (I really liked reefs revealed), numerous articles and judge on some major underwater photographic competitions.  In person, Alex was friendly and relaxed. This was a group-lead photo tour rather than one of his specific photo workshops but he was still happy to give advice when asked (which I think we all took great advantage of) and he seemed to genuinely like sitting going through peoples photos with them. I found that it was fascinating to watch a professional photographer at work, from ideas, to subject selection, to shooting technique and finally image selection and rejection. It was good fun to dive with him, he and I almost missed lunch because we were mucking about for too long in the mangroves! As a tour lead he did a great job, especially in the airport to and from Sarong to Manado (the only place where we checked in en masse).


Graham Abbott

We were lucky to have Graham from diving4images.com as our dive guide throughout our stay on the Seven seas (I didn’t actually get to dive with the seven seas dive guide, Tommy). Graham planned the route we would take and what dive sites we would go on and in what order to get the best of our photographic time in Raja Ampat. He has a fish & critter Id book inside his head and is an amazing spotter with eyes like an underwater hawk! He showed everyone what they wanted to see and was very patient when everyone took turns to take photos of the same tiny things. He is a very funny guy, I know that Lena was especially impressed with his underwater modeling and eye crossing techniques.

Seven seas

The liveaboard was one of the most luxurious we’ve been on. The rooms were quite large (for a boat) and ours had ample space underneath the tall king-size bed to store the baggage and useful drawers for clothes and gadgets. The food was very nice, they seemed to have no problem catering for peoples dietary requirements (Alex and I dined on chicken when they served up seafood meals for example) and I never went hungry as there was a steady supply of snacks throughout the day. It seemed like there was a lot of space, it never seemed like there were too many of us. There were several spaces for us to spread out and attend to our cameras on without having to take them down to our rooms.

Diving

The diving operation was very slick. All managed by a lovely American guy called Stuart. He took video throughout the trip that we could buy at the end. The were crew great with handling the cameras and the diving gear. We had three dive boats to dive from (two tender boats and one rib). The tender boats were easier to dive from (they had ladders) but the groups on them were large. There was only ever four divers on the rib – maximum, so I was glad to be on that one with Alex, Mike and sometimes either Stuart or Graham.

The crew were very dedicated, sometimes sitting in the boats in their bright yellow rain macs waiting for us for over an hour. They seemed to know where we were at all times and when we ascended they were there on hand to help us up into the boats. Seeing how ludicrously bad I was at getting into the rib they supplied a little ladder for it which I thought was very sweet :-)

Critters

Well, this holiday certainly had critters galore! I’ve never seen so many fish and such lush and amazing coral in one place. The few days in Lembeh were supposed to allow us to get the macro out of our system. Raja Ampat is billed as a largely wide angle paradise, and while that is most definitely true (I took more wide-angle shots in those 12 days that I have in my life) it didn’t stop the macro lenses creeping back on throughout the week when the two words ‘pygmy’ and ‘seahorse’ were mentioned. I didn’t get to see the Denise ones but I’ve never seen weedy pygmy sea horses before so was especially please to see them. It was also a nudibranch hunters dream, with all different varieties on each dive.


Also, it was the first time Mike and I had ever seen manta rays! It was very exciting to see them and they came so close and they are so big! I think I must be the only person in the world to be intimated but such a gentle creature but they are very, very big.

Mangroves
I loved the day we had in the blue water mangroves. It was such a different and special environment (I wish we’d spent a little longer really). I haven’t processed all the photos from the mangroves yet so I will do an additional blog post later on for that.

Men with guns
We travelled overnight sometimes to get to a new area. One particular morning we had arrived at a new spot, the sea was very calm and it was just past dawn. Speeding across the water was a small boat with 3 or 4 men in it, one toting a rather large machine gun. Not something that one usually sees over breakfast so it made me sit up and take notice. They pulled up and boarded, pirates I thought? Apparently not. Stuart told them to leave the gun in the boat (which they did). Apparently we were rather too close to their pearl farm and they’d had some robberies, they thought we were pirates and had come to check us out lol. Satisfied that we were just a bunch of tourists and not stashing a large oyster string on our boat they moved us on.

Tears
Well almost, I got bitten by a large angry trigger fish that snuck up on my while I was photographing soft coral in the shallows of the ‘The windows’ divesite, his shallows apparently. I was very glad I was wearing wetsuit that day! And no I didn’t take his picture, I was too busy trying to smack him with my camera while he menacingly swam at my head – eek! Luckily for me he didn’t break the skin and a got away cleaning with a massive bruise on my knee and the fright of my life.

Topside

While on a trip such as this one you don’t expect there to be much to shoot above the water (well I don’t anyway), however the landscape was so beautiful I just had to get my camera out of that housing once in a while. Stuart gave us a couple of excellent opportunities for tender boat rides around the small islands between diving. The landscape was just so very green and lush. When I looked carefully I saw a fleeting glimpse of a bright green bird and a brilliant pink bird high up in the trees. We stopped for a minute or so on a small beach with a hut, although I don’t think anyone actually lived there. It did give me a change to try my hand at another 360 panorama but when I loaded all 31 NEF files into photoshop to try and stitch it, it unsurprisingly crashed! ;)

With thanks for a great holiday to Alex, Graham, Stuart & the crew of the Seven Seas, Divequest and everyone on the trip.

click on the following to see the full set of images in each galley:
:: Raja Ampat underwater images ::
:: Raja Ampat Mangroves ::
:: Topside ::
:: Mikes Topside photos :: EDIT: Mikes cancelled his pbase so this gallery may no longer work.
:: Lembeh Strait underwater images ::

All images in this post are clickable to see larger versions and all images are copyright Suzy Walker or Michael Toye.

Caught in the act!

It’s not often that I get to see photos of myself whilst I’m taking photos underwater but Mark Webster sent us some pictures taken of me taking this picture from our recent trip with him!

This is my picture of the Scad fish…

And here are Marks pictures of me!

Many thanks to Mark for these.

Underwater Photo Workshop – The Brothers liveaboard

Well, after one exhausting week back at work I’ve finally got around to writing a little review of our recent trip. It was off to Hurghada, Egypt for a 1 week summer break (booked with oonas divers) aboard the MY Blue Planet 1. Destination: the Brothers! For those of you who haven’t heard of the brothers, they are two small islands in the middle of the Red Sea. They can only be travelled to by liveaboards (much fewer diving boats is always a good thing).

The real appeal of the trip for us was the photo workshop. We’re total Photo-workshop-junkies now, whenever we book a diving trip we try and make it a photo workshop of some sort. It’s not so much that I want to buy photo teaching (although that always comes in handy), what we are actually aiming to buy is piece of mind that the diving will be specifically photo oriented and tailored to the needs of photographers. Although Mike doesn’t actually take photos underwater he’s just as much (if not more) a fair-weather sort of diver. The groups are usually smaller (to accommodate all the huge camera rigs!) and the diving usually a lot more flexible. More time to do your own thing, several dives on the same divesite and a much more relaxed swimming pace ;) No more chasing a manic dive master for 45 minutes nonstop for us!

This workshop was run by Mark Webster. We went on Mark’s trip to Indonesia last year and it was amazing! He’s a really nice relaxed and easy to get on with guy. His wife Suzanna wasn’t with us unfortunately on this trip so there was just the crew of the boat, the dive guide Ashraf, Mark and ten of us. The workshop was very informal. If we had questions Mark was on hand to help. Also, Mark gave a daily presentation on various themes such as wide-angle, macro, wrecks and capturing the character of marine life.

Despite having vowed to never fly on Excel airways again (after the last time) on the flight out we got there 10mins before checkin opened and they were unusually nice to us! We didn’t get charged extra baggage, probably because they didn’t feel the weight of our hand luggage or see how much stuff I’d get stuff into my new photographers jacket! The plane was nice, although we knew in advance that they charge you for *everything*, even water, so we’d stocked up on food & drink before we boarded. We met up with Mark (and a few of the others) at the departure gate. We were actually sitting next to Jeff on the flight out – what are the chances of that!? Anyway, 5hrs passed relatively quickly and we were soon stuffing ourselves into a tiny minivan for the 30 minute ride to the dock. We stayed moored at the dock overnight so we could wait for the Egyptian authorities to give us permission to set sail in the morning.

The first dive was a check dive at Sha’ab El Erg (a.k.a Dolphin reef) unfortunately we didn’t see any dolphins so I was forced to take photos of Mike in his new ‘wing’ ;) !

It was the first time he’d taken it for a spin and he seemed very proud of it.. We originally bought it to save the weight of his stab jacket (BCD) but with all the metal clips and everything on it I think that it was perhaps a rouse to justify the purchase as it only saved perhaps ½ a kilo! Apparently it gives much more freedom of movement around the arms. I think I like to have stuff in my BCD pockets too much to switch though.

The rest of the first two days diving were close to Hurghada at a place called Abu Nuhas. There was no real current and the visibility was quite good. It was all wreck diving though (apart from the night dive which we didn’t do and they saw loads of Spanish dancers – damnit!). I like wrecks but probably not as much as the next man. After two days of wide-angle (shooting with my Tokina 10-17 fisheye in a big dome port) it was quite glad we moved on. Here are some shots I got of the Carnatic and the Ghiannis D:

Having said that I did like the glass fish inside the Carnatic!

We sailed away to the Brothers. As moored up at little brother and I was glad I’d brought my sea sickness pills!

This little guy accosted me as we jumped in the water, two shots and he was off. Just proves it’s a good idea to preset your camera to some sensible settings before jumping in!

I switched to macro but on the promise of possible sharks I switched back again. No sharks though :( Suzanna saw some, but she fins like a divemaster and I had no chance catch up with that action. I think this is her and Ethan speeding into the distance!

We stayed at little brother one full day (and night) and an early morning dive the next day. In the brothers they never do night dives so it was pretty much 3 dives per day (or less) for the whole trip. The current was much worse than we are used to dealing with at both islands (but that isn’t hard as we don’t really like currently dives at all). Also, diving from a rib with a huge camera is a bit of a game. There was one lovely dive at big brother by the pier, straight off the back of the boat, just me and Mike (everyone else had sped off in the rib to dive the other side of the island). No current, quite shallow, nice and relaxed. Everyone else soon cottoned on that there was a non-currently, photo friendly opportunity and the rib was then undersubscribed in the afternoon.

The last dive day was spent back closer to Hurghada again at Gifton Island & Gotta Abu Ramada. This is back in range of the dive boats (and where the picture at the top of this post was taken). Lovely macro diving though. I filled a whole gallery of just Christmas tree worms! We also saw a great octopus that sat and posed for me (see below).

Also, something I’ve never seen before, schooling puffer fish! The ‘ride of the valkyries’ music popped into my head as soon as I saw them all coming towards me!

As seems to be tradition on photo workshops there was an informal end of week competition, this time we were all asked to submit two underwater photos which would be judged by the crew. Congratulations one again to Valerie for winning with her shot of a cute little Nemo. Here she is taking her trophy.

Unfortunately I don’t have a copy of Valeries winning shot to display. :(

I was very pleased to be second AND third! Here are my two submitted shot.

All the photos in this post shot above the water were shot by Chefdude with a Canon EOS 1D Mark IIn & EF 85mm f/1.2L, and all shot below the water (unless otherwise stated) are taken yours truly with a Nikon D300 in Subal housing.

The full underwater gallery for this trip is here: http://www.pbase.com/suzy_walker/the_brothers_liveaboard_2008

All in all we had a great trip with a lovely bunch of people! Hope you enjoyed this review.