Ever wonder how a dive destination can go from relative obscurity to absolute stardom seemingly overnight? The answer is photographers. Whether amateur or pro, we are forever in the search of that next great image and willing to go anywhere to find it. And when we come across some secluded corner of the planet that delivers, we can't wait to rush back home and show the whole world what we've found.
So where are photographers flocking to right now? Raja Ampat, Indonesia, an archipelago located off the northwest tip of West Papua. With 1,071 documented species of fish and 535 different species of coral, scientists are calling it the epicenter of marine biodiversity. We call it a "target-rich environment."Read on and discover the seven reasons why Raja Ampat is the hot new dive destination for some of the world's most talented underwater shooters.
No matter where you're diving in Raja Ampat, the beauty of the reefs is stunning: Everywhere you look, the entire substrate is cloaked in an amazing carpet of corals. Part of the so-called "coral triangle"(Milne Bay in Papua New Guinea, the Togean-Banggai Islands in Indonesia and the Calamianes Islands in the Philippines), Raja Ampat is at the heart of the region's biodiversity. In total, there are 535 coral species thriving in Raja Ampat, more than half of all known species. Nature has provided all the ingredients for healthy reefs. Sunlight, abundant plankton and other nutrients constantly sweeping by, and a profusion of fish that feed on algae combine to make these reefs among the best in the world. While photographers generally prefer better water clarity, in this case, the turbid water accounts for Raja Ampat's robust biodiversity and coral cover. One note of caution: The Nature Conservancy found evidence that bombing and cyanide fishing are practiced in Raja Ampat waters, and is working toward implementing strong education and protection measures to preserve these remarkable reefs.
 Fish Life
You can literally count the reasons Raja Ampat has been touted for its marine biodiversity. A 2003 Nature Conservancy survey turned up 828 new fish species, bringing the known total for the archipelago to 1,071 species, among the highest in the world. Even in poor vis, the pulsing density of fish life off this remote island group, especially fish measuring under a foot, will leave you slack-jawed. There's not a lot of big stuff; sharks in particular are scarce, with the exception of wobbegongs. What there is, in massive congregations, are smaller reef fish like opal sweepers, lionfish, fusiliers, cuttlefish and all types of butterflyfish. Bigger animals do occasionally make an appearance. Strong currents and the chance to be cleaned of parasites attract large groups of mantas--up to 30 at a time--to Manta Ridge, near Mansuar Island, on a daily basis.
The butt-numbing trip logistics that make it difficult to get to Raja Ampat have benefited the marine habitat of these remote islands. Reduced dive tourism traffic means pristine and yet-to-be-discovered reefs, healthy and prolific marine life, and the opportunity to be part of the movement to protect what's here. And where is here? The Raja Ampat archipelago is located off the northwest tip of West Papua--formerly Irian Jaya--and is comprised of four main islands, Misool, Salawati, Batanta and Waigeo, and more than 1,500 small islands, cays and shoals. It takes days to get to Raja Ampat from Los Angeles; you'll need several flights to get to the live-aboard departure points, Sorong, Fak-Fak or Ambon.
 Staghorn Coral
If you've never seen staghorn coral, we're not surprised. Certainly, in much of the Caribbean these distinctive branching corals are long gone, and even in the remote areas of the Indo-Pacific hard coral gardens are an absolute rarity. One of the reasons to bring a camera to Raja Ampat is for the chance to photograph broad expanses of intact staghorn coral on pristine shallow reefs, like those found in the photogenic maze of jungle-covered islets and highly sheltered reefs northwest of Waigeo. Each turn in the waterway here reveals another hidden cove and dense reefs of staghorns.
Captivated by some of the reef's tiniest creatures? You've come to the right place. Pygmy seahorses, for example, which are uncommon elsewhere in the Indo-Pacific, are found often on many dive sites, though you will need an experienced guide to help you locate them. Off Mansuar Island, west of Kri Island, our dive guides found multiple pygmies on multiple fans. For those shooting macro, either by personal preference or local water conditions, the Lilliputian universe throughout the archipelago is compelling. Fascinating slow-moving or sedentary creatures like wobbegongs, crocodilefish, blue-ring octopuses, anemonefish and lionfish, plus tiny shrimps, gobies, nudibranchs and countless invertebrates, will keep underwater shooters happy.
 Blue-Water Mangroves
The otherwordly, compressed mangrove habitats found off Misool and in the passages of Waigeo Island are sure to be the next unique dive habitat, about to see the same level of attention as the recent muck-diving craze. The shallow blue-water mangrove forests found in the narrow, current-swept channels of these islands seem to bring up the best of the deep to meet the species known to skim the surface. Among the life you can expect to see are orange cup corals, seahorses and percula clownfish.
 Soft Corals
The rich tapestry of purple, pink, orange, yellow and red soft corals in Raja Ampat will put you into sensory overload--on every dive. To a great extent, what defines Raja Ampat besides the mobs of fish are the lush expanses of large fans and soft corals plastering the substrate found just below the surface (rarely do you need to drop below 70 feet in any area of Raja Ampat). There are healthy colonies of corals at virtually every depth, to within 10 feet of the surface. The large soft coral clusters in shallow water off Farundi Island in the Misool Islands are quite spectacular, and while visibility can be marginal, the beauty of the reefs and the swirling clouds of Pacific tropicals--anthias, fusiliers, parrotfish--also found here make Farundi a don't-miss photo op. Nearby Fiabacet Island also offers soft coral reefs that are ideal backdrops for underwater shooters.
Who's Shooting Raja Ampat?
Photographers who journey to Raja Ampat will find themselves in good company. Just consider the friends and peers I ran into there recently. On the flight from Manado to Sorong I sat next to David Doubilet and Jennifer Hayes, who were on their second photo expedition to Raja Ampat for a National Geographic article, this time departing from Fak-Fak. Later, they spent a few days with Raja Ampat pioneer Max Ammer at his Sorido Dive Resort in the Cape Kri region. Our first morning, as we dawdled around the Sorong harbor, marine photographer Burt Jones and critter-finder extraordinaire Larry Smith from H2O Adventures visited us onboard. Eric Cheng and Norbert Wu were cruising Fak-Fak to Sorong the same week I was there, and just before I left home I had a long conversation with Berkley White about his recent trip to Raja Ampat. After I returned, I got an e-mail from Chris Newbert prior to his three-week adventure there, and next year underwater filmmaker Howard Hall will make a one-month trip to the region for his newest IMAX movie. --Stephen Frink
Gear for Shooting Macro
Super-macro subjects can be hard to locate, but a talented guide may be able to help find them. Many of these critters are relatively sedentary, so the guides learn where they are likely to be found. They also learn the proper habitats. Find the right kind of sea fan, and there is a chance to find the pygmy seahorse! If you plan to shoot macro, here are some gear tips:
- Lenses The primary lenses for the Canon full-frame D-SLR for macro use are the 50mm Sigma macro and the 100mm macro. In the Nikon world, I recommend the 60mm Micro-Nikkor and 105mm Micro-Nikkor, two of the sharpest lenses in the Nikon line. Any of these lenses can focus from infinity to 1:1 (life-size).
- Teleconverter A teleconverter maintains the working distance of the lens, but at the cost of light transmission due to additional glass elements. A 50mm f-2.8 macro lens with a 2X teleconverter becomes essentially a 100mm f-5.6 lens, but it is capable of capturing twice-life-size images. Some teleconverters allow autofocus, but it's exceedingly difficult to use autofocus with such narrow depth of field.
- Extension tube The extension tube has no glass inside, but does move the lens farther from the sensor plane, thereby shifting the focus range. For example, with the Canon 100mm macro lens, Canon's EF25II extension tube has a very limited focus range, probably between six and 12 inches. Anything closer or farther away than that will not be in focus, but with the right subject this can be a sweet option. With either a teleconverter or extension tube installed, you'll be in super-macro mode for the duration of the dive.
- Diopter A diopter is simply a close-up lens that screws onto a lens's front thread. For underwater use, adding a +4 diopter to your 100mm macro lens is fine as long as you only want to shoot tiny creatures on that dive. An easier solution may be to use a wet diopter, a close-up lens that fits over the port. This is a great option, permitting normal reef photography in conjunction with super macro on the same dive.
Raja Ampat is comprised of four large islands (Misool, Salawati, Batanta and Waiego) and some 1,500 smaller islands scattered over hundreds of miles of tropical sea. Access is via live-aboard, either from the port of Sorong or other small Indonesian gateways such as Fak-Fak or Ambon. Sorong is the nearest airport to Raja Ampat, but the other gateways offer the advantage of a more diverse cruise portfolio through the Banda Sea, typically requiring a 12- to 15-day itinerary. Our group arrived first in Bali and overnighted there; others may use Manado as a gateway. An overnight somehwere is required. Normally the live-aboards depart Sorong at night, usually on the same day as your arrival, so that you awaken at Misool or Cape Kri to hit the best diving right away.
All U.S. and Canadian citizens must have a valid passport with at least six months remaining before expiration and a return or onward ticket. A visitor visa is issued on arrival for a maximum stay of 30 days. The cost is US$25. You must also have two blank pages in your passport (not amendment pages) for the positioning of the visa document. The departure tax is IDR$100,000 (about US$12).
Luggage restrictions vary depending on the airline and the class of service selected. In general, domestic U.S. flights and direct overseas flights allow two pieces of checked luggage weighing a maximum of 70 pounds each and one piece of carry-on luggage. The carry-on item should not weigh more than 15 pounds and measure more than 45 linear inches (length + height + width). Your carry-on item must fit under your seat or in the overhead bin.
Bring new crisp bills issued after 2001. Some banks will not take older or torn bills. US$100 bills with the series starting with "CB"and "CD"issued in 2001 and with the series starting with "DH"and "DD"will not be accepted.
The best season for diving is November through March when water temps are in the high 70s to low 80s. Visibility: Water clarity can vary widely, depending on currents and season, but generally, visibility is better on deeper sites.
Carry an adequate supply of any personal medication. Bring a prescription (or copy) for inspection by customs authorities and for an emergency supply while traveling. We also suggest that you carry the prescription for your eyeglasses or contact lenses. All vaccinations and medications should be obtained prior to departure.
There are a number of health risks associated with travel to Indonesia and precautions should be taken at least three weeks before departing. Malaria is a year-round risk except in Jakarta, other large cities and the tourist resorts of Java and Bali. The dengue fever mosquito is found throughout Indonesia and there is a significant increase in reported cases of dengue fever throughout all the country's provinces during the rainy season. Visitors to Java and Sumatra are advised to ensure all polio inoculations are up to date before travel. Outbreaks of bird flu have also occurred. Travelers are not at risk, but are advised to avoid close contact with caged, domestic and wild birds, and ensure that all eggs or poultry dishes are thoroughly cooked as a precaution. Travelers' diarrhea is a major risk; visitors should drink only bottled water and avoid dairy products, uncooked meat, salads and unpeeled fruit. The standard of local medical care is poor and very expensive. It is essential that you take out full medical and travel insurance covering all eventualities. A tetanus booster is recommended for all travelers to tsunami-affected areas in Indonesia and any country, if their last immunization was five or more years ago. No vaccines are required if arriving from the U.S. or central Europe. Malaria is endemic in Raja Ampat, and necessary precautions should be taken. For the latest information on malaria prophylactics, consult a doctor who specializes in travel medicine. Also recommended but not required are vaccines against hepatitis A and B.