Bird's Head Peninsula OG Expedition

By Joanna Lentini

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The Coral Triangle is an established mecca for marine flora and fauna, a nature enthusiast’s dream.  The biodiversity of life is immense.  In fact, it’s widely considered the greatest on Earth!  And so, it comes as no surprise that our annual trip to the Bird’s Head Peninsula in West Papua, Indonesia attracted scuba divers from around the world.  Our mission: To investigate changes to the reef system and document the congenial relationship of man and whale shark.

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The ten-day Bird’s Head Peninsula expedition commenced on September 25, 2015 out of Nabire Regency in Papua Province, Indonesia and was operated in partnership with the MSY Seahorse Liveaboard. Over the course of ten days at sea, expedition members had multiple, close encounters with the visiting whale sharks of Cenderwasih Bay, explored the pristine dive sites of Waigeo, Raja Ampat, and even had an opportunity to witness the beautiful, conservation-minded mermaid, Odessa Bugarin, free-diving -- all before departing from Sorong, Indonesia on October 6th, 2015.


Getting There:

Expedition members connected from around the world in Jakarta, Indonesia where they set off on a five and a half hour flight to the capital city Jayapura, located in northeastern Papua. While flying over the vast, dense rainforests stretching to the northern shores, one’s thoughts easily drifted to images of untouched reefs, the sort of pristine underwater world you imagined as a child. However, before we could sink beneath the waves to see for ourselves, we had one final two-hour flight backtracking to Nabire, which lies in the center of Cenderawasih Bay’s coastline. Once in Nabire we were met by the friendly faces of the MSY Seahorse crew and shortly thereafter transferred to the dock by van. From that point forward our feet didn’t touch dry land for ten days!

The Liveaboard:­

As we were exploring two very remote areas of Indonesia: Cenderawasih Bay and Waigeo, Raja Ampat; we relied solely on the MSY Seahorse Liveaboard to get us where we needed to be. And as the locations differed every day, the diving conditions were unpredictable.  Some days the ocean was calm like glass while others we were at the utter mercy of roaring currents.  But it was all good fun (and with strong currents comes a true plethora of marine life of course).  The thirty-three meter Indonesian Phinisi Schooner and crew of 12 provided us with excellent care and over a decade of experience in the region.  

The Scuba Diving:

The dive sites varied greatly.  In terms of terrain, divers explored stunning walls, sandy slopes, lush mangroves, amazing swim-throughs, and lush plateaus.  Depths varied from very shallow down to thirty meters.  In Cenderawasih Bay, mostly calm conditions prevailed for the whale shark encounters with currents and schooling fish increasing in Raja Ampat as anticipated.  Overall, life on the reef appeared healthy and abundant with endless opportunities for keen photographers.

Of the ten days allotted for the trip, nine were dedicated to diving. The crossing from Cenderawasih Bay to Raja Ampat required a little time to navigate and the short break was welcomed.  Most days, rising early enabled divers to complete up to four dives a day (sometimes five!). Three days were reserved for ample time with the whale sharks in Kwatisore with the remaining six days divided between thirteen diverse dive sites across the region, including: 

  • Mangguar: Dr. Seuss, Pulau Mangga
  • Oransbari: Oransbari Jetty
  • Dampier Strait: Manta Sandy, Karang Lalosi, Airborek
  • Yangeffo: Citrus Ridge, Mayhem Reef, Mioskon
  • Dampier Strait: Blue Magic, Mike’s Point, Sardine Reef
  • Kabui Bay: The Passage

To get our feet wet on day one, we visited a colorful, coral site aptly named Dr. Seuss by OG’s own Michael Aw. In the shallows, soft coral swayed in the surge as the waves above collided into giant, jagged boulders.  A bit deeper, delighted divers encountered barrel sponges, gardens of whip coral and patches of stag-horn coral.  Further down the slope reef sharks were spotted patrolling the territory. 

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The Whale Sharks:

These insatiable filter-feeders are attracted to floating, fishing platforms (bagan in the local tongue) in search of an easy meal from the fishing nets.  Home to young Indonesian fishermen, the bagan provides food to the transient whale sharks and a source of income to the young men through both local fishing sales and ecotourism. The fishermen have created a dynamic relationship with these sharks and have learned to view these gentle giants as not just engaging company, but also as a supplementary source of income.  In this way, whale shark diving has proven a true and effective vehicle of conservation as fisherman see an alternative to culling with live whale sharks earning many multiples more than a few shark fins.

Surrounded by these massive, yet gentle sharks, divers witnessed firsthand the grace and beauty of our ocean’s largest fish.  Adding to the surreal experience, Filipino free-diver Odessa Bugarin spiced up the scene with her vibrant mermaid tail and breath-holding skills as she swam gracefully alongside the sharks.  Imagine the photo opportunities!

Over the course of three days we encountered as many as six whale sharks at once.  It was difficult to tell if the same sharks were circling or if more were just past the edge of visibility.  The bagans were positioned over open water so divers could not see the ocean floor.  Beneath us, circling barracuda and small reef sharks could often be seen feeding opportunistically on the scraps from above. 

As the water was full of plankton the visibility depended a lot on the currents and time of day.  Early morning seemed to offer the greatest visibility and concentration of whale sharks.  Midday the sharks slowed down a bit but by late afternoon they were back at it again. On the whole, the action was fairly consistent and non-stop. With hourly dive rotations throughout the three days, there really was not a bad time to dive.

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Raja Ampat:

Making our way to Raja Ampat took a little over a day to complete and by the time we reached our destination, everyone was quite keen to get below the surface again.  However, due to a fierce current, which reduced the Seahorse’s speed by 4 knots, we decided to dive a shallow jetty in the small village of Oransbari.  The enchanted jetty was bursting with vibrant, tropical fish, soft coral glowed in the afternoon sun, and ancient clams rested on the sea floor.

From time to time a dazzling mermaid was spotted zigzagging between the wooden piers and as the local village children caught wind of her arrival they entered the water one by one to investigate.  Quite the free divers themselves, they quickly captured the attention of the underwater photographers and vice versa.  The energy just below the surface was on fire, a perfect way to kick off our arrival to Raja Ampat.  

Continuing throughout the region, we discovered the magnificence of Raja’s reefs.   Roaring currents, which left us at the mercy of the sea seemed overwhelming at first, proved to be quite an adrenaline rush.  Of course, with such ripping currents an impressive amount of sea life appeared. 

We regularly found ourselves enveloped by huge and varied schools of marine life including batfish, oriental sweet-lips, bump head parrotfish and several species of barracuda.  These evolved locals effortlessly held their ‘ground’ against the ‘windy’ currents as some of us less adapted creatures struggled to maintain our underwater poise.  Nevertheless, mesmerized by the robust reefs lacing the sea floor, we somehow found inner strength to levitate with control amongst terraced shelves bursting with coral and the occasional sleepy wobegong.

Our final dives in Raja Ampat were spent exploring a vast mangrove system in Waigeo.

The channels are known as ‘the passage’ and revered by divers for an astonishing array of coral just below the surface.  Early in the morning sunlight seeps through the canopy above, dancing on the coral clusters below and the photographic opportunities both for macro and wide angle are overwhelming.  The passage possesses several underwater coves to explore as well. The combination of mangroves and coral gardens is truly a unique and impressive bionetwork and was the perfect way to end our time in the region.

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The OG explorers noted some of the world’s healthiest reef systems, greatest biodiversity, and perhaps the best opportunity for reliable, up-close whale shark encounters on the globe.  Additionally, the extreme currents in this region can offer something for the adrenaline junkies out there.  Having only surveyed about one third of the Raja Ampat region on this trip, much remains to be explored on future expeditions.

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Ocean Geographic Explorer (OGX) is a diving adventure resource with a special focus on marine photography and ocean conservation. Our content is divided up into six primary categories: Travel, Sea Science,  Equipment, Photography &Video, Conservation, and Lifestyle. We endeavor be a portal for people with all levels of interest in the marine environment  to learn about and become part of a community of like-minded ocean lovers who enjoy sharing their knowledge of and experiences in our fascinating ocean world.

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