It felt great to finally cast our lines from the floating dock at OceanView Marina once again.
Our departure date from the Philippines was a little later than hoped, but as we motor sailed out those gates & down the gulf a sense of instant freedom & release rushed over us & we were only looking forward.
(Was very hard to leave Marley behind thou!)
The 6 day passage from Mindanao through Moritai to our first stop Wayag in Raja Ampat was all round delightful. That feeling of contentment whilst floating on the bluest of blue waters, not only was Keira being energised from natures elements - so was I.
I recall an evening on watch sailing on a velvet sea under a star filled sky through the calm doldrums, my little world is filled with silence & stillness. The only sounds were the very occasional slight flutter of an empty sail, the trickle of water running past the hull, the breath of a curious playful dolphin coming along side to see if our bow was worth the ride - which it was. As im peering down into the clear magical sea, I’m suspended between these two worlds, in this very moment.
I can spend all day staring out at the horizon especially when the conditions are like how they have been, flat & glassy when every splash big & small gives you an insight into what lies below.
It has been a nice change, already so noticeably as we enter Indonesian waters the abundance of marine life compared to what we saw in our time cruising in the Philippines.
I still get excited when a flying fish launches itself out of the water & skims the surface until they can go no further. It makes me wonder if they feel the same as I do as I take a big breath & dive down into the blue.
With fascination i watch the tuna & the seabirds work the ocean for a feed.
Ive seen many billfish & mantas fully breach on this trip by just staring at the endless horizon. I love the unexpectedness that arises swiftly from what can appear to be the blank apparent sameness of the ocean.
I saw what I thought was huge pod of dolphins in the distance but as we drew nearer something seemed different.
I steered our trusty autopilot ‘Lionel’ to port 20 degrees, slowed down the revs of the engine trying to decipher exactly what lies resting here in 2000+ meters. In the middle of the pod a large rounded head pops up vertically my screams wake Steve who is resting in the V-berth “Steve! Steve!! Wake up, there is a huge pod of dolphins with a sperm whale in the middle” I grab my camera I’m vibrating with excitement, drop back into neutral & they come into investigate, allowing me to properly identify these mammals as a huge pod of short finned pilot whales (not a sperm whale surround by dolphins - as originally thought). Their must of been 50 or more whales obviously as curious as I was as more & more heads began to spy hop around the boat.
I entered the water a mother showed off her calf to me whilst also being slightly wary & protective, many others swam around, under, back & around me again. Their communication of clicks was intensely loud yet soothing.
I could feel my heart beating rapidly still with the excitement, I try to calm it down to not scare them off. Luckily for us they hung around for maybe an hour or so. I jumped back on board Keira to drive & Steve also had a great swim.
(Video - swimming with pilot whales)
6 days since we left Samal Island & I see Wayag in the distance, looking forward to dropping the anchor & exploring these incredible limestone limestone mountains that peak out of the deep sea. The topography is breathtaking, like nothing I have ever seen before. The navigation charts we have are also nothing like what we have in front of us. So I stand on the bowsprit to spot any shallow bommies that may arise in front of us as Steve weaves us through looking for the perfect sandy spot to drop the pick. He is also having to constantly remind me to stay focused as lookout, he sees how distracted I am getting as I am in awe with this mythical setting.
That feeling of contentment that encapsulated me not long after setting out on this trip is still very much present, if possible more so even. We found that sweet sandy spot to drop the anchor & sat here for a week, snorkelling straight from the boat, adventuring in our tender Keiran, catching a fish for dinner, watching the sunrise, & watching it set.
From here we continued south to Sorong which is the main township on the mainland on this part of West Papua. We needed to check in with immigration & proceed with customs formalities, also to pick up our good friends Alaina & Chris who are flying in & will join us for the next couple months as we cruise & dive Raja Ampat.
Spending most of our time between Sorong in the South & Wayag in the North, we checked out Batanta, Kri, Massausar, Fam, Yallalgo, Equatorial Islands, Kawe, Pef, Friwen. Only touching the edges of these places, & they were all so very amazing in their own ways.
The hardest part we found about cruising through this part of the world was finding good anchorages, as around the island it often goes from hundreds of meters up to 3 or 4 within just a few meters off the shore. & coral everywhere!!!
A few of the less reefy areas were surrounded with mangroves in these snug little bays we could tie the stern off to the mangroves. Unfortunately I did not feel as comfortable swimming here as it felt a little crocy to me then Steve & I saw one swim by the boat at one of the anchorages, so that confirmed that.
Raja Ampat would have to be one of the most abundant & diverse marine ecosystems I have ever seen. It is a perfect example & proves how sanctuary & marine parks really work. It was very promising to see the huge fleets of old prawning trawlers in Sorong as a year ago the government banned trawling in the area obviously recognising the damage & destruction this fishing practice causes whilst by maintaining a healthy ecosystem the tourism is worth more in the long run.
Most of the Islands we visited & throughout the area were uninhabited. It was really lovely thou when we did come across a village to go ashore. In particular actually our last stop in Raja being Friwen Island. We went ashore one evening & we were welcomed by such a beautiful, friendly Papuan Island community.
It just happened to be the last night of their week long new years celebrations which involved drumming from sunset to sunrise up & down the small village, we joined in dancing with the slow progression down the road. Stopping occasionally for cups of sugary tea & sweet cakes which were set up at one end. I was sad to leave this oasis of Friwen Island not only was it surrounded by many spectacular dive sites, it was the first real connection we have had with culture & community.
We voyaged further South to Misool, once again mind blowing topography & it felt even more remote & untouched than Raja. Once again, anchorages were still not ideal we luckily found a 20 meter flat limestone ground, the anchor did not bite into anything, but by dropping loads of chain, hoping the winds would stay light, if not we would have to move on.
The conditions stayed favourable for us overnight not a breath of breeze allowing us to stay & choose one of the many lumps without to many crazy currents to dive & it just happened to be one of the best dives we did here.
As we desended on the lee side of the tiny island the sheer wall dropping down into who knows how deep, we were engulfed by a swarm of sardines or anchovies who were using the wall, & now us as protection against the many predators of tuna, mackerel & trevally that darted in to indulge on the smorgasbord presented in front of us.
My light would be blanketed by a cloud pf sardines overhead as I hover at about 10 or 15 meters below the surface. I glare up at the sun peering through the mass of fish & behind them about 15 mobulas join in on the action & stay with us the whole dive. The wall itself was covered with magnificent soft corals & fans, to be honest i probably did not appreciate them fully as I was a little lost in everything else that was going on.
(video - Diving in middle of baitball)
Up until recently we were still uncertain where we were going to leave Keira whilst we return to work for the 2016 whale shark season.
Darwin it is!!
Being the middle of January we will be crossing the top of Australia during cyclone season. We have been keeping a close eye on the weather systems, forecasts so far are predicting all to be very light & variable winds.
As I sit here very slowly sailing across the Banda Sea having not seen land or another boat in days, I feel very blessed for all I have experienced here throughout our travels. Its a place I will hold dear in my heart & I dare say we will be back again one day.
With still 350 odd miles to Darwin I have mixed emotions saying good-bye to West Papua yet excited about the next chapter & venturing into new ground for us both in our own back yard of the Northern Territory.