In South East Asia, there is the so-called ‘coral triangle‘, a region of high species diversity comprising Indonesia, the Philippines and Papua New Guinea. Right smack at the middle of this triangle is a cluster of Indonesian islands called Rajah Empat (Four Kings)
Located in the Southern most region of Indonesia’s West Papua Province, Raja Empat is truly one of the most prolific reef environments in the world.
The four ‘kings’ of the local name for this area are the islands of Waigeo, Batanta, Salawati (Doom Island) and Misool. Collectively they stand guard at the northeastern entrance to the Indonesian island chain, where they are washed by the South Equatorial Current.
This current flows generally west across the Pacific, but here it takes a more southerly course into the Halmahera and Seram Seas, before charging on into the Indian Ocean. The area’s stunning diversity is in part a result of this mixing of oceanic and local waters, as well as the varied underwater topography.
Coral expert Dr John Vernon identified 465 species of coral here, 20 of them new to science, while another survey by Dr Gerry Alien came to the conclusion that the Raja Empat has one of the world’s richest coral reef fish fauna, with at least 970 species – including an amazing 283 species found on a single dive!
The Coral Fish Diversity Index (CFDI) rates the Raja Empat as the third best worldwide in terms of number of species, after Milne Bay in Papua New Guinea, and Maumere Bay, off the Indonesian island of Flores.
The combination of these and other surveys have led to the islands being nominated for UNESCO World Heritage status in 2002, though this is still pending ratification.
A long chain of limestone islands extends east of Misool. Once a fringing coral reef that was uplifted by tectonic action and broken into a multitude of islets, today they form karst beehives and mushrooms, dotting the bays that are carved into the coast. Above the water, the abundance of orchids, marsupials and birds is remarkable.
The current here runs north to south, but reverses to run in the other direction during the course of the day. Schools of bannerfish, orbicular batfish, yellowback fusiliers and gold-spotted jacks, alternated with individual encounters with cute, clown-like, white barramundi dotted in black spots, a yellow masked angelfish and a red coral grouper with blue spots.
The nearby dive sites of Canyon and Staircase has schools of bluefin jacks, barracudas and steely-blue bumphead parrotfish, always wary of divers. These funny creatures leave a cloud of white dust behind them, as they crunch their way along the edge of the reef flat, scrounging for the odd tidbit of food.
Another unusual critter you can encounter is the elusive pygmy seahorse, Hippocampus bargibanti. They can be found down at 28m on Muricella gorgonians.
Sailing east you can reach another group of islands, dropping anchor off the palm-fringed coast of Ef Pian. White terns circled above as the waters below provide opportunities for close encounters with ornate soft corals and gorgonians and, more significantly, the humphead batfish, Platax batavianus, a species seldom seen in other waters.
Go further South and you have a good chance of spotting mantas. Divers have reported seeing giant mantas here which have a wingspan of over 6m.
Sharks are glaringly absent from Raja Empat, their absence made more stark by the abundance of everything else. Indonesian fishermen come here to service Asia’s demand for shark’s fin soup and despite shark preservation laws, finning is still commonly done in the area.
Sorong is the departure point and is reachable from Jakarta with Pelita (www.pelita-air.com), Lion Air (www.lionair.co.id) and others. The flight goes via Manado or Makassar so if Singapore or Malaysia is your point of origin, you can save time by flying to Manado first.
September to December is the best time to visit Rajah Empat. Avoid January/February when the northwest monsoon brings rain and poor visibility, and July/August when the strong south monsoon winds send the boats back to home port.