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.
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).
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.
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.
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 :-)
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.
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.
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.
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.