7 Day Raja Ampat Liveaboard Trip Blog

 

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24th-31st March 2018 - Manta Ray Expedition

 

Barefoot Conservation have developed an Expedition into remote Raja Ampat in search of Manta Rays. 7 fantastic days, exploring Raja Ampat Central and Northern regions. 

Barefoot Conservations Manta Ray Researcher, Aylin McNamara joined the expedition to collect data on mantas and other marine mega fauna seen throughout the expedition. Her aim was to involve the other expedition participants in citizen science and train them on Manta Ray biology and conservation.

Mantas Rays, being the largest species of all Rays, are threatened with Extinction. With slow reproductive rates and large number of threats, including the Gill Raker Industry, Direct Fishing, Fishing Bycatch and Boat Strikes, their populations have plummeted over the last 15 years. This increasing threat represented in the up-listing of Manta Rays conservation status from ‘Near Threatened’ to ‘Vulnerable to Extinction’ by the IUCN and a proliferation of protection measures globally to ensure their long-term survival. It is essential that information is gathered on these spectacular creatures to support development of effective conservation measures. Expeditions such as these gathering information on Manta Rays can help shed light on movement patterns of individuals and vital habitats that they use.

Since 2014 all of Indonesia’s territorial waters have essentially been designated as a protected area for Manta Rays, when national legislation was passed making it illegal to capture these beautiful creatures. This positive move by the Indonesian government has created the largest no take zone for Manta Rays in the world. Even earlier, since 2012 the 8 MPAs in Raja Ampat were designed as a special sanctuary for Rays and Sharks and the habitats they depend on, including the spectacular coral reefs found here. These coral reefs are fortunately still relatively untouched by coral bleaching, which has devastated much of the coral reefs around the world. Yet another sad knock on effect of humans impacts on our climate. Raja Ampats reefs seem to be particularly resilient to temperature changes which has buffered some of the effects. We hope to see this continue as the level of biodiversity and life these reefs hold is breathtaking. Because of these unique conditions we have a good chance of seeing Mantas on this expedition and studying the individuals we encounter. With both species of Manta Rays being present, the larger more secretive and much less observed Oceanic Mantas which can reach up to 7.5m width from wing tip to wing tip, to the smaller but no less spectacular Reef Mantas which can reach up to 5m.

Barefoot Conservation run a 7 day Manta Expedition, this time exploring the diverse dive sites of the central and northern region of Raja Ampat. This expedition would encompass the multitude of manta cleaning and feeding sites that are known within the region and continue the research that the team at Barefoot are working towards. The data collected would assist in documenting the key manta habitats of the area, establishing the environmental drivers of manta behavior at these sites and determining the demographics of the mantas populations found (species, sex ratios, size, age, colour variations etc).

On this seven day liveaboard excursion would be Barefoot Conservation's manta project scientists Aylin McNamara and myself Josie Chandler. The trip would allow us to gain access to farther flung sites of the area and get an insight into the manta populations residing there. It also enabled a great relationship with nine manta enthusiasts from around the world who had signed up to the manta expedition and shared the same passion for researching and conserving the largest rays in the ocean- as well as a love of diving!

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The team of 11 arrived in Waisai on Saturday afternoon and were escorted to our floating home for the next seven days- the beautiful Ratu Laut, an old fashioned Papuan style sailing boat. The afternoon was spent getting to know each other and learning from our knowledgeable cruise director Fareez all about the history of Raja Ampat and how we had become fortunate enough to know about the dive sites here. Raja Ampat was actually only discovered as a diving paradise around 20 years ago when Dutch explorer Max Ammer visited the region in search of fallen WWII war planes. Despite discovering few plane wrecks during his search, he hit gold by discovering one of the world’s most pristine coral reef systems. Since that day the underwater world here has been unraveled more and more but there still remains a lot to be explored- making diving and conducting research here very exciting! In the week to come we would be visiting a lot of well-known sites, but also some of Mikumba Diving’s best kept secret sites that their team has discovered during their time exploring here.

That afternoon Aylin introduced ourselves and the research we are doing at Barefoot in a brief presentation, we also shared the manta Code of Conduct that we would be following on the manta dives in order to dive with minimal impact on the animals. The talk of mantas got everybody sharing stories of previous encounters and eager to see lots more in the coming days!

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To see off everybody’s first day in Raja we jumped aboard our tender boat Ayam Besar (meaning ‘Big Chicken’ in the Indonesian language), and headed over to a deserted sandy island for a couple of sunset drinks. A few of us ventured up the hill into the jungle for a lookout, but sadly disappointed by the lack of view joined the more relaxed drinkers in the shade of the palm trees down at the beach. A chilled evening before a week of busy diving, everyone was excited for the underwater surprises that would await us…

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The first morning of the trip started with an early wake up and a light breakfast before everybody eagerly boarded the fender boats and sped off to our first dive site, ready to backwards roll into the water before it even turned 7:30am! This site, named Mioskon, was a beautiful dive site delivering a myriad of underwater critters including tiny orangutan crabs, ribbon eels and multiple blue-spotted ribbontail stingrays. It was a relaxed dive to ease dusty divers back into old habits and a great taster of what Raja Ampat would have to offer us over the coming days. The dive was followed by a generous breakfast and a chance to warm ourselves up in the sun, then we were back into the water at our second dive site of the day: Blue Magic, a personal favourite of mine from previous visits. Blue Magic is a seamount situated near to Waisai, well known for the infamous guest that frequents it: the very rare Oceanic Manta ray (Mobula birostris). Oceanic Manta Rays, also sometimes called ‘Giant Manta Rays’ due to their enormous wingspan of up to 8 metres (!), are an elusive ray which are believed to spend a lot of their lifetime offshore and in deep water, hence why sightings of them are generally few and far between. The dive site we would be visiting however, is one of the few places in Indonesia where these oceanic giants are regularly sighted, the reason being that the seamount acts as a cleaning station and so a valuable stop for them on their long journeys. Unfortunately on our dive we were not fortunate enough to see any Oceanics but the dive was amazing nevertheless with large schooling tornados of trevally and passing dogtooth tuna. We would have to return in search of the giants!

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Our third and last dive of the day was to Sardine reef which was a fish frenzy from start to finish, with fish of all shapes and sizes swimming and schooling in all directions. Darting between the small fish we watched large trevally hunting and sharks cruising, it was a breathtaking dive demonstrating the density of fish residing in Raja Ampat, thanks in part to the strict fishing regulations in place here. To end a great first day of diving we cruised over to a local village, Yenbuba, and enjoyed the sunset on their jetty. Framed by beautiful islands big and small, we watched the sun set and heard stories of what the dives had delivered to others on the boat that day- the same dive site can hide different surprises for each group!

The next morning we awoke to a stunning backdrop of mountainous islands and glassy calm seas and started off the day with a great dive to a small WWII plane wreck, Thunderbolt Wreck. The wreck was largely intact, leading you to imagine the story of its demise, and the macro life living on it was amazing. The manta we saw breaching near to the wreck was a good omen for our next dive which would be a manta survey. The reason for mantas breaching is still unknown but it’s believed it could be for communication reasons- perhaps letting us know the mantas would be out in force today! The signal was well received and we jumped in at the manta site Manta Wai soon after breakfast. Manta Wai is a cleaning station for reef mantas (Mobula alfredi) and this time we were not disappointed. Soon after our descent we spotted two mantas cleaning at a large coral bommie and positioned ourselves away from the site but close enough to observe the show. Mantas will generally circle the ‘station’ while cleaning and allow the small cleaner fish (blue streak cleaner wrasse, moon wrasse, even some butterflyfish) to swim over their bodies and remove any dead skin or parasites. It is a mutually symbiotic relationship as both the cleaner fish and the manta benefit- the manta is kept healthy and free of unwanted parasites, whilst the cleaner fish get an easy meal. The manta will allow the fish to swim over the body, cleaning around the eyes, tail, even in the mouth and under the cephalic fins. It makes for a great diving encounter because the manta is calm and comfortable and the observers can stay stationary and get a great look at the majestic animals. 

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The two rays eventually left the station and we followed them at distance to find that they were moving to a much bigger more busy cleaner station, this is where we found the other divers waiting. We were lucky enough to watch six different individuals coming and going to the cleaning station during the dive, cooperatively cleaning and moving around each other in a graceful ballet. We saw both the ‘chevron’ colour morph (white ventrally, black and white chevron dorsal) and the black colour morph (almost fully black) visiting the site. Raja Ampat is one of few places where the ratios of these two colour morphs are almost the same, in most other regions the black colour morph is a rare sighting, the reason for this is still not fully understood. Everyone surfaced from the dive beaming with excitement after what we had just seen, some divers had had mantas swimming right over head and everyone had had their best manta encounters to date. I was eager to look back at the footage we had all collected and see if we could identify which mantas we had just sighted, wondering if it could be mantas that we site 50km away over near Arborek.

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We had a great dive after lunch to Pulau Dua with Grey reef sharks, Wobbegongs and Green Turtles and then as we waited for the evening’s night dive everyone gathered around the chairs for a second presentation on manta rays. This time the talk was all about their biology, ecology and on not such a positive note, some of the threats they are unfortunately facing. The talk complimented perfectly what we had seen that morning as I talked through the different behaviours, the different colour morphs, how to identify the sex of mantas and much more. Everybody enjoyed learning new things and a long discussion about everything manta ensued. With the sun fading already it was time to kit up for our night dive and we dropped in at Pulau Wei jetty for an action packed dive number three.

The next morning started with a sharky drift dive at a site called Larry’s Promise and then we moved to a site called Seabat Ridge for another manta survey. Seabat Ridge was named as such because of a fictional creature the ‘Seabat’ that was created by a previous dive instructor trying to fool his guests. We kept our eyes peeled for the furry, ray-like animal with long tusks but were not fortunate enough to glimpse one. The dive started off without any sign of mantas at the cleaning station so we explored the rest of the site, seeing multiple blue spotted stingrays and beautiful coral. As we headed back to the cleaning station we passed a small male black morph manta travelling in the opposite direction. Happy to see a manta we decided to surface and where then treated to a number of mantas entering the cleaning station during our safety stop. It was too late to descend now so we watched from the surface as eight different reef mantas swam around below us. Snorkelling from above gave a great viewpoint of the cleaning service, but left us frustrated that we could not get the branchial (belly) spot pattern that would help us to identify them. We found out that one of the other groups had also encountered around ten reef mantas at another section of the ridge and believed they might have good photos, we were all excited to have a look when we got back to the boat.

That evening after an amazing dive at a secret seamount, Karang Bata, I gathered with the photographers who had been lucky enough to get the manta ID shots over the last few days. Almost every diver had some great photographs to share with me and I was able to show them the process of how we sort, edit and analyse the photographs for ID matches. Once the images are prepared for comparison, we sort through our Barefoot Manta ID database and see if we can match the day’s photographs with mantas we already have sighted. We found a lot of matches from the Manta Wai dive which is great to see as it means that the same population of mantas are frequenting both sites, starting to unlock answers to the puzzle of where the mantas are travelling to and whether populations are resident or transient. Some of the mantas we recognised were Black Trigger, Black Bomb, and Valerie, with multiple new individuals being photographed as well. At Seabat Ridge the photographs were not so clear but we did manage to verify a few new individuals. Emir, a lucky diver who photographed a newbie at Seabat Ridge got the chance to name it and chose the name Black Bos after his country Bosnia, the spot pattern resembled the shape of the country so it was a great choice of name!

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The 28th was another great day for diving with visits to a fishy Yenbuba jetty, Lau Lau and another manta survey at Blue Magic which also left us empty handed. Most years in Raja Ampat the season for sighting Oceanic mantas will end earlier than sightings of reef mantas, and from talking to other liveaboard boats in the area it seems that the sightings of Oceanics had dried up for everyone. We would have to wait until next year to see these giant beauties again! The night dive at Mioskon left us more than satisfied though as we saw numerous night time critters including a huge sponge crab, the endemic Raja Epaulette and a grande finale of…a Blue Ringed Octopus!!

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The final full day of diving was near to our home turf Arborek Island and we even spotted our Barefoot divers on a dive boat near us. We dived Manta Ridge and ‘Robs Sandy Bottom’ that day, two of our favourite manta sites and were able to see three mantas at the cleaning station as well as dwarf cuttlefish and pygmy seahorses at the ridge. One of the mantas we watched at RSB had the right tip of his wing missing, so we noted this down along with other distinguishing marks. Collecting information on injuries like this can help us to monitor if an increase in boat strikes or fishing line damage is occurring and can help back-up proposals to limit boat use or fishing in a region.

For the final day of the trip we were pleased to return to everybody’s favourite dive site Cape Kri. Kri is well known for being the dive site with the highest biodiversity of fish species in the world, so a dive there never disappoints. As always the dive was spectacular with schools of different fish everywhere you look and grey reefs sharks, blacktips aand whitetips swimming amongst them. It was a great way to end a week of diving and everybody surfaced in good spirits but sad that it marked the last dive of the trip.

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It was time to pack up our dive kits and depart the boat that we had become so fond of. We had spent the week with a great group of passionate divers and we thanked them all for contributing to the manta research, hopefully we had kept the spark alive and they will continue to do what they can to protect and conserve mantas in the future. Even a simple photograph of a manta can lead to huge discoveries, telling us countless information about manta movements, threats and life history from a photograph that might otherwise be filed away. If you have any photographs of mantas from Raja Ampat that show the spot pattern, please send them over to , it could be the missing piece of the puzzle that helps us to understand them even more.

Thanks to all the liveaboard crew for having us onboard during this manta expedition, we were able to collect invaluable data for our project and had a fantastic time diving with the team!

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