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  • Writer's pictureLee Hankinson

Raja Ampat Sustainable Tourism Getaway @ Biodiversity Eco Resort

Updated: Feb 19, 2022

The Region

Raja Ampat is widely considered as an epicentre of marine biodiversity. Located in middle the coral triangle, you can find some of the worlds most pristine reefs, containing an ever increasingly known amount of coral species. The biodiversity found among the tropical islands in the region inspired my favourite scientific figure - Alfred Russel Wallace, to come up with his own discovery of the mechanisms of speciation. In 1854, the young naturalist started his 8 year adventure traveling these islands and it was at the nearby Yenbeser village that Wallace stayed when he was doing his investigations of the Natural Selection theories (and you can visit a replica of the hut while on the trek to see the Red Bird of Paradise). When Wallace revealed his finding to Charles Darwin, it gave Darwin the push needed to publish his findings he had been sitting on for many years, which in turn, gave the world - On The Origin of the Species.

The boat ride and short hike to the iconic Pianemo lookout gives way to a view which is truly one for the holiday snappers. Unfiltered iPhone panoramic - because, terrestrial.

Raja Ampat is on every serious diver and naturalist's must-see list due to the pristine corals set among the lush forest back drop plus the sheer remoteness, which means that the sites are gorgeous, empty and untouched and the resorts are generally low key and eco-friendly. Present day, divers come here for the sheer diversity of marine life and the wide range of marine habitats available within a short boat ride. For the mega fauna and pelagic lovers we were rewarded with a plethora of turtles, schools of sweet lips and groupers, white tip and black tip sharks, bamboo sharks, wobbegongs and grey reef sharks with reports of manta rays and mobula rays present at adjacent sites. Additionally, the scenic lovers will be gobsmacked by the vast fields of corals and fish life and the soft coral gardens set among the mangrove backdrops.

Soft coral under jetties, reefscapes and fish life or mangrove shallows, Raja has a wide rage of habitats.

For the divers looking to scratch their macro itches, anemones, frogfish, pygmy seashores, and colourful nudibranchs are in abundance on many dive sites. Plus there are sites nearby to scout for ornate ghost pipefish and flamboyant cuttlefish. Keeping your eyes peeled and zoned in to find them can be the difficult part, but our dive guides were superb at zoning in on the best finds.

Anemone fish, frogfish, nudibranchs and pygmy seahorses are found in high abundances to keep all macro divers on their toes.

The diving in Raja reminded me a lot of Komodo diving, just a touch bigger and bolder. When I was last in Komodo we were extremely lucky to not have to really use our reef hooks, however, in Raja Ampat, it was more than a necessity on a few of the sites. It would have been dangerous to impossible without the use of the gear and luckily, due to our experience, we could select rocky substrate to hook onto without impacting any corals. Saying that, the dive guides were absolutely incredible and worked hard to make sure we would be in the right spots when dropping into the dive sites.

Raja Ampat is known for its heavy currents at some key sites. Be prepared to hook in, hold on and enjoy the show. Just make sure to find rocky substrate and not break and corals!

Raja has some incredibly challenging dives, so make sure you are ready for currents that can feel at times as if they may rips regs from your mouth or the fins straight from your feet. And if you aren’t ready for that, then make sure you plan accordingly. We had three dives where we had to lock into the reef and just enjoy the show in front of us. However, the benefit of Raja Ampat and the intimate knowledge of the area via the crew at the resort, is that there is always a dive site to cater for everyone's dive experience and always something new to discover.

The Crew

I joined a day late to the party in Raja Ampat where I met up with two of the Tethys Images crew and expert coral ecologists Ed Roberts and Tom Bridge as well as marine biologist and foram (See -Amphistegina) connoisseur, Martina Prazerez and the amazing professional photographer and videographer, Julia Sumerling. With such a wealth of marine ecology knowledge and photography skills and dive experience in the group, the dives were relaxed and easy going (when the currents weren't roaring) and dive sites were tailored specifically to the group's interests (just try not mention turtles, ever).

Who wouldn't be stoked to see a sleepy green turtle awake from it's slumber? With my dive crew comprised predominately of certified coral and benthic aficionados, their earmarked shots were capturing healthy coral reef ecosystems - think vast Acroporidae reefs or gorgonian fans and soft corals with filtering light and accompanying schools of associated fauna. So, I took great joy in the guides or myself spotting mega and macro-fauna alike (especially the turtles), as on most dives I had free reign to think about the right way to approach, frame and light my targets, knowing there wasn't a growing queue of eager shooters behind me, which is the bane of many a diver on location. And in between my shots, I could take in the experience of the others in how they were framing their own fantastic shots.

The amazing biodiversity of the healthy reefs is truly breathtaking, but I still really enjoy capturing creature portraits like this massive cuttlefish and this perched lizard fish.

The Eco-Resort

The Biodiversity Eco Resort is an intimate and remote eco-concept resort located on the island of Gam. With only 18 guests staying at a time in the eco-bungalos, the resort is tranquil, spacious and incredibly relaxing. With a small beachfront bar located adjacent to the jetty meeting the long white sand beach, its the perfect spot to wind down and tell tales of the day's discoveries.

Each lunch break took us on a trip to new pristine island retreat. No need for insta-filters or a #granolalife to sell people on these luxury white sand island views. - untouched iPhone snap.

The eco-resort feels so pristine and truly eco-conscious without the slightest hint of pretentiousness and this is due to the authenticity of the resort from its ethos down to its accommodation style and staff. The beachfront cottages are made by local craftsmen in the style of typical west Papuan huts and come with beachfront balconies and hammocks, safes, water dispensers, fans, mosquito netting, organic shampoo in the attached outdoor showers, hot water as well as dunk tanks and electrical points to keep any camera gear ready for the next days action.

The electricity for the rooms are delivered via a solar panel array on the resort which powers the entire resort with green energy 24-7. The staff are primarily locals with 35 full time employed from the surrounding villages and most had little to no experience in tourism before becoming part of the resort team. They have received training as to provide jobs in the kitchen, restaurant, housekeeping, boating staff, and dive guides.

The food was just superb, with three buffet meals a day catering for all diets but with the authenticity of the local ingredients and cooking styles, making every hungry diver excited to hear the service bell to call them from the sunset bar. Even the vegetables and the raw - organic coconut oil used in the cooking comes directly from the gardens of local villages as a means of local alternative income. With local and western coffee, tea and local fruit and snacks available through out the day, energy and caffeine levels were always topped up to sufficient levels.

The owner, the duo of Rey Corral and Patricia Sanz have done an incredible job in the creation of this resort and they were so accommodating for us. They even comped me a very much needed therapeutic massage from the on-site masseuse when they heard about my ill-fated flights, which moved my arrival back an entire day. I truly cant wait to come back to this eco-resort again, not just for the diving but for the eco-settings and the hospitality.

Both the cottage comforts and the view from the beach bar are perfect spots to unwind. Room photo taken from the Biodiversity website.

On the final night I moved over to the Yengkris Home stay next door to the resort where I stayed in a newly built beach hut. The home stays are very simplistic, decked out with a mosquito net, bedding and lighting and with a new bathroom block just ten meters behind the shack. But the simplicity can be a benefit as the homestays are clean, new, authentic and so very quiet. Not to mention the bungalow's balcony gives the most amazing views of the beach and the experience was punctuated by the local beach pups who greeted us at sunrise on our 30 meter walk back to the resort for our final breakfast and dive day.

The homestay provided a comfy bed, a beachfront view, clean bathroom block and pups to greet me in the morning. Sold!

The Gear

Compared to my diving companions, there was some gentle ribbings about the size of my rig and potential feelings of inadequacy, or was it over compensations on their part? Rewind 18 months and after weeks and weeks of scrolling forums, price comparisons, analysis of specs, auditing the 'future-proof' potential and weight issues, I excitedly came to my conclusion. I have tried to make my kit the ultimate light weight travel ensemble with the possibility to extend the viability of the gear when I can afford to upgrade to more high end compatible Sony lenses to hopefully, match my growing photography skills. To date, my travel kit consists of my Sony a6500 mirrorless body which I am using with the 16–50mm F3.5–5.6 OSS 'Kit' lens. The camera is in the Fantasea poly-carbonate housing with the Fantasea flat port.

I have decided to first pair the housing with the Fantasea-AOI UCL-09F macro wet lens which threads straight into the flat port. I always wanted to develop my macro photography skills and I can switch to the flat port to get nice scenic mid-range shots. I have a wet lens holder attached to the strobe arms, allowing me to swap out the macro lens easily under a minute - often to the dismay of the dedicated lens photographers. The camera setup is accompanied with two Sea & Sea YS01 strobes to provide that extra lighting.

The Rig(s). Compact, light, designed for travel and powerful and versatile enough to keep you happy for years to come. - Credit Julia Sumerling for the underwater shot.

With this set up I can fit everything camera related, including my laptop and all cords into my carry-on, meaning it is not going anywhere without me, giving me peace of mind when traveling. When I do get my inevitable upgraded lens or the Fantasea-AOI UWL-09Pro wide angle wet lens (Which I have earmarked at present), then I may have to get a little creative with the packing arrangements, but for now, I couldn't be happier.

The wrap-up

In conclusion, Raja Ampat not only lived up to my high expectations, but surpassed them immensely. The diving can be challenging with the currents, but the rewards far outweigh any qualms with battling the elements for a few dives as the sites are tropical reefs ecosystems in their most pristine state. The biodiversity Eco Resort is sustainable tourism done right. The resort was eco-friendly to the core, immensely relaxing and genuinely authentic and welcoming. The term "Eco-resort" gets bandied around today quite flippantly, but the Biodiversity resort is the real deal. The community programs that they have set up to support the local villages as well as their dedication to minimising their impact on the local environment is truly at the core of sustainable ecotourism.

And lastly, the gear that I have has delivered for me. I still have so much to learn, however, the Sony a6500 and Fantasea line housing and macro wet lens allowed me to capture the images I was after. I just wish I had the Fantasea line wide angle wet lens to make the most of the stunning reefscape settings. But this gives me yet another reason to come back to the Biodiversity Eco resort, in Raja Ampat in the near future.

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