Raja Ampat is often referred to as the crown jewel of snorkeling. Its reefs, many of which have yet to be explored, are teeming with life big and small and are astonishingly vibrant. With over 1,766 fish species and counting, and more than 550 coral species, Raja Ampat is the most biodiverse marine environment in the world and a truly incredible place to snorkel.
Raja, as it’s often called, is made up of over 1,500 islands and located off the western coast of the island of New Guinea― the world’s second-largest island. The eastern half of New Guinea is known as Papua New Guinea and is its own country. The western half is part of Indonesia and known as West Papua. Sorong is the main port of departure for Raja Ampat, and it’s where the newly built airport is located. The harbor is just a quick fifteen-minute drive from the airport and where you will either board the transfer boat to your resort or join your liveaboard.
Raja Ampat is a massive area that is broken up into several different regions. The area around the Dampier Strait and the Fam Islands are typically referred to as the north—even though it’s actually more central, and then in the very south, we have the area known as Misool.
If you compare Komodo National Park with Raja Ampat on the map you can clearly see the size difference between these two iconic snorkeling destinations, it’s not even close. Unless you are on a liveaboard or intend to spend some time at one of the resorts around the Dampier Strait followed by a visit to Misool Resort, there’s really no way to snorkel in both the north or Raja and the south in one single trip, it’s just too big.
In light of this, it’s a good idea to have a rough idea of what the different regions of Raja Ampat offer in terms of snorkeling resorts, logistics, and of course what each area offers in terms of marine life and reefs.
Snorkeling in Raja Ampat
Part of what has made Raja such an exciting tropical snorkeling destination is that this massive area has been declared an MPA (Marine Protected Area), and is also the world’s first sanctuary for manta rays. This MPA is very well protected, and as a result, in places like Misool they have seen an increase in biomass by 250% in just six years, and in some places by more than 600%. Aside from impressive conservation efforts in Raja, the area just has so much to offer, from breathtaking scenery above the water to the world’s most bio-diverse marine ecosystem. Also, because of Raja Ampat’s sprawling size, a lot of the area has still yet to be explored and people are still uncovering new and exciting snorkeling sites and species!
The area around Dampier Strait in the ‘north’ of Raja is probably one of the most visited areas by snorkelers. As it’s much closer to Sorong and the islands are more habitable, it offers more options for snorkeling resorts while making transfers just a bit easier. The north also seems to offer a bit more diversity when it comes to snorkeling sites. You still have the iconic limestone islands characteristic of Raja Ampat with their classic mushroom shape, but you also have stunning mangroves that seem to grow right out of the reefs in clear blue water, a labyrinth of submerged sandbanks and passage ways where mantas come to feed and clean, and several different villages whose large wooden piers have become the perfect safe haven for large schools of fish to take refuge from the predatory pelagic fish.
The reefs around the north are largely characterized by shallow hard coral plateaus that extend from and fringe the islands. The reefs will eventually slope away as you swim away from the islands, and in some places turn into walls and ridges. The limestone islands also create some pretty fascinating underwater topography where parts of the island have been worn away forming small caverns, and in a few places fun swim-throughs and windows. Thanks to the mushroom shape of many of the islands, you’re likely to find colonies of vibrant soft coral and sea fans growing just beneath the surface. These types of corals tend to prefer the darker areas of the reefs and are quite often out of reach of snorkelers as they are deeper or under coral heads. However, because the ‘mudroom top’ of the island provides ample shade throughout the day, snorkelers now have the perfect opportunity to see these brilliant corals up close.
Snorkeling around Misool in the south of Raja Ampat offers a slightly different experience in some ways. First of all, the islands around Misool are largely uninhabitable and with the exception of Misool resort, you won’t find any other resorts or homestays, which is nice as you won’t find too many other people around. Misool is made up almost entirely of karst limestone islands, and as a result, the area does not quite have the same diversity in the type of snorkeling sites as the north does. Misool resort does have one pier to snorkel around which is a truly thrilling experience as reef sharks and other big fish congregate beneath it. For those that are keen to explore some mangroves, there is one set of mangroves that can offer some cool snorkeling opportunities―though visibility can be not so great at times with its silty bottom.
That being said, there is no shortage of amazing snorkeling sites by any means, it’s just that most of the sites are characterized by a shallow plateau covered in a mixture of hard and soft corals which eventually falls away into gentle slopes, walls, and ridges as you get further away from the island. The area also has a number of really cool swim-throughs and small channels between islands which make for an exciting snorkeling experience. Also, because nearly all the islands in Misool have that abrupt undercut at the waterline like some of the islands in the north, it offers snorkelers the perfect vantage point for exploring the colorful soft coral colonies who love the shady areas of the reef.
While Misool may not quite have the variety when it comes to types of snorkeling sites, the area still offers just as much to snorkelers as it does have several beaches which act as nurseries for blacktip reef sharks, and with a bit of luck the opportunity to snorkel with whale sharks and friendly dolphins. Like Triton Bay, Misool has an area where bagan fishing boats fish for small silver fish using large nets that hang beneath the boats. As the small fish accumulate in the nets, the smell attracts whale sharks who come and ‘suck’ on the nets―sort of like us chewing on gum. Dolphins will also hang out beneath the bagan boats picking off the fish that manage to break free of the net. If you are able to find the bagan boat with the whale shark or dolphins, you can expect a unique and thrilling experience snorkeling next to some of the most iconic creatures in the ocean.
In terms of marine life, the north and the south of Raja offer a very similar experience with a few exceptions. As this guide has stated several times already, Raja Ampat is the most bio-diverse marine environment in the world, meaning, there’s really no end to what you can see. The limestone overhangs provide sheltered areas to resident schools of batfish while bigeye jacks and barracuda swirl in the blue on many of the sites. Waves of fusileers are a staple no matter where you are, as are sea turtles, reef sharks, and a number of different species of anemonefish, scorpionfish, angelfish, and just about any type of reef fish you can imagine―big or small. As Raja is the world’s first manta sanctuary, there is also a very robust population of both reef manta rays and oceanic mantas. It’s one of the only places in the world where you can encounter both species of manta. There are also two other really unique species of shark that can be encountered right up in the shallows. One of these sharks is the wobbegong, a type of carpet shark that lays on the bottom waiting for small fish to pass by, and the other is the Raja Epaulette walking shark who uses its pectoral fins to walk across the bottom and is endemic to Raja Ampat.
Likely Marine Life Encounters
Other Likely Marine Life Encounters
Blue-spotted & Kuhl’s stingray • Various species of scorpionfish • Stonefish • Boxfish • Moray eels • Bumphead parrotfish • Giant trevally • Bluefin trevally • Whitetip reef sharks • Green sea turtles • Various species of angelfish • Spanish mackerel • Tuna
Surprise Marine Life Encounters
Raja Ampat Snorkeling Season
Raja Ampat’s snorkeling season is the opposite of Komodo’s snorkeling season as it starts around December and ends around May. This is when the weather is most favorable and snorkeling conditions are more predictable. As Raja lies along the equator, it is a very tropical location where rainstorms happen in both the north and south of Raja quite frequently. The good thing is that these tropical storms do pass quickly leaving blue skies and calm seas in their wake. Average air temperatures hover around 85°f in the day and 78°f at night, though it may feel a bit warmer as Raja can be quite humid. The water temperatures throughout the year, no matter what the tide or current are doing, are consistently around 80-82°f.
Marine life encounters don’t really change much throughout the snorkeling season, most of the species are resident to Raja Ampat and do not migrate. At certain times of the year, there may be a larger concentration of mantas in certain areas as the plankton (manta food) is pushed around by the currents, but because the population of mantas is so healthy there’s always good chances for manta encounters throughout Raja. Knock on wood. One species that is a little bit seasonal are the anchovies/silversides. These tiny fish can be found in dense shoals around certain islands towards the beginning of the Raja Ampat snorkeling season, and with their presence, they attract groups of mobula rays and other predatory fish like giant trevally, Spanish mackerel, and tuna.
Snorkeling Holiday Examples
Considering the size and diversity of locations in Raja Ampat, we’ve come up with a number of different snorkel holiday options that range from one to two-week resort-based snorkel safaris in both the north of Raja as well as Misool in the south, to multiple liveaboard snorkel safaris that will cover both regions of Raja. We also offer quite a few combination snorkeling safaris that include Raja Ampat as well as other popular Indonesia snorkeling destinations like Halmahera, North Sulawesi, Wakatobi, and Triton Bay.
While we run snorkeling safaris with three different resorts in Raja Ampat (two in the north and one in Misool), they all run in a very similar fashion. We’re picked up as a group at the Sorong airport and then shuttled to the harbor where we’ll board the resort’s own transfer boat to the resort where we’ll be based for the entire safari. Every day after breakfast we’ll jump on our own private snorkel boat complete with guides and head out for at least three different snorkels on three different sites. All the resorts have their own fantastic house reefs that are always open for those that want to spend a day relaxing and snorkeling at their leisure, or for those that just haven’t had enough and want to spend every waking moment in the water. As with just about all our snorkeling safaris, all meals, snorkeling, accommodations, transfers, and internal flights are included. Alcohol and rental equipment are generally the only additional costs.
The liveaboard option will involve a similar group airport pickup and harbor transfer where we’ll board our liveaboard and ‘set sail’. All of our Raja Ampat liveaboard options are full charters, meaning it will only be us snorkelers onboard. Unlike the resort option where we will either be based around the Dampier Strait in the north or Misool in the south, the liveaboards will be able to explore both the north and the south of Raja Ampat. Like the resort snorkeling safaris, we’ll be able to enjoy three to four snorkeling sessions per day. All meals, snorkeling, accommodations, transfers, and internal flights are included. Alcohol and rental equipment are generally the only additional costs.
As we said, we also offer a few different combination tours that include Raja Ampat along with one or more destinations. Some of these are resort-based snorkeling safaris while others are liveaboard-based, but all will run in a very similar fashion to the single location snorkeling safaris. Full charters for the liveaboards, up to four snorkels a day, same inclusions in the costs, snorkel guides, etc. The only difference with these combo tours is that we will have a few more transfers as we move about the country. These combination tours are a great way to experience the jaw-dropping beauty of Raja Ampat while also being able to see and experience some of the other top snorkeling areas in Indonesia.