Barefoot Conservation have developed an Expedition into remote Raja Ampat in search of Manta Rays. 10 fantastic days, 25+ dives exploring Raja Ampat Central and Southern Misool regions. Crossing two of the largest Marine Protected Areas within Raja Ampat, the Dampier Straight and Misool MPAs.
Barefoot Conservation's 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.
Our Trip Commences:
17th Jan - Day 1:
Guests arrive in Waisai, a small port town nestled in mountains of primary forest. We meet at the ferry port where they have just come from Sorong, the closest town with an airport. We take a small boat out to Ratu Laut liveaboard, bobbing on the horizon.
We settle in, the guests having come from as far flung areas such as Florida Keys and Chicago in the US and Hawaii as well as Bali in Indonesia. Sadly a liveaboard the day before had damaged coral reef habitat on Arborek Island with their Anchor, breaking national park regulations on where they can anchor to reduce impact on key habitats. Because of this all liveaboards were kept within harbour of Waisai giving guests a chance to recover from their travel and a chance for me to introduce myself to them. Our vessel always ensures they use the permanent buoys wherever they are available to reduce the need for us to drop our anchor.
18th Jan - Day 2:
06:30. Wakey Wakey and Breakfast
07:00. Check Dive at Saonek Kecil. Beautiful coral gently sloping from the island, where a Blue Spotted Stingray and Whitetip Reef Shark were seen. Ratu Laut dive guide, Fareez drew a map of the site for our dive briefing.
09:00. Big Breakfast of fried eggs, sausage and avocado. Two pods of dolphins were seen off the boat.
11:45. Blue Magic Dive. This dive site is a small seamount where Oceanic Manta Rays come to be cleaned by cleaner fish. With the tide rising, one Oceanic Manta was seen circling the seamount and then leaving. It did not settle to be cleaned as far as we could see. There were a large number of divers on the site. With 3 other dive boats observed on the surface, meaning in total 30-40 divers could have been on the seamount at that time. Barefoot Conservation is interested in understanding whether current diving numbers are disturbing the Oceanic Mantas. Cleaning stations can become abandoned by Mantas if tourism pressure is too great. It may be that this site needs better regulations to control and limit the number of divers on the site at any one time. As well as this Manta our group saw 2 Blacktip Reef Sharks, one large and showing signs of being pregnant. One Grey Reef Shark approximately 2.5m long and a Tasselled Wobbegong. This amongst the other multitudes of life found at this site including a big shoal of Spanish Mackerel, Tuna, Midnight Snappers, Big Eye Trevally. My favourite of the macro included a Blue Spotted Octopus. Tiny and although unaggressive by nature and very unlikely to bite the strength of its venom makes it probably one of the deadliest creatures you could encounter at Raja Ampat.
15:00. Sardine Reef full of pelagic fish where our team spotted a Tasselled Wobbegong and a Pontoh’s Pygmy Seahorse.
17:00. Presentation on Manta Ray biology and ecology, conservation status and how we can help through responsible tourism and by contributing to citizen science.
19th Jan - Day 3:
06:30. Wakey Wakey and Breakfast
07:30. Diving Yenbuba Jetty. An amazing jetty with huge fish resting underneath, to a Cabbage Reef and ending in a Reef Wall. One Black Tip Reef Shark and one Seahorse (species unknown) of 5cm were seen.
09:00. Big Breakfast
11:30. Diving Manta Sandy a well-used cleaning station for Reef Manta Rays. Fortunately, this is a well regulated site with a little ranger hut in the water. Each group visiting the site has to book in advance and submit the national parks card of each person diving the site. This is to limit the number of divers observing the Manta Rays at any one time, which is very good as Manta Rays can be pushed off preferred cleaning sites by excessive levels of tourists. In the long term it could reduce their survival rates as cleaning stations provide a useful function to reduce disease and parasites within the population. Little cleaner fish get busy cleaning all the parasites and debris from the manta rays body, mouths and gills as well as cleaning any wounds to reduce infection. Mooring points are available where diving boats drop their guests, then a no drive zone where boats are not allowed to drive directly over the site to reduce chance of boat strikes to the Manta Rays, who can often be seen coming to the surface. Once a diver enters the site they are asked to keep behind a line of stones to keep them at a respectful distance from where the Mantas will be cleaned. This all gives us perfect opportunity to see Mantas displaying natural behaviours. We are the only divers on the site and when we arrive there are 2 Mantas on the biggest cleaning ‘bomby’. We settle in and another black Manta (melanistic morph) comes in low straight in between us only a couple of meters away, we all hold our breath as it goes past. Such an amazing sight to be that close to a Manta. Its lack of fear of our presence shows it is comfortable with us settled on the bottom behind the line of rocks. It is a large female at least 3.5m if not slightly more. She hovers and circles the bomby for at least 15 minutes.
We see three more Mantas at our 5m safety stop. One black one has a broken right cephalic fin and half a tail suggesting it has been hit by a boat. They are moving just above the cleaning station on the surface where they are aggregating to feed. We see at least 6 from the surface but there could be more. All in all an amazing Manta Ray experience for the guests and a fantastic opportunity to study them. We take photos of the Mantas to identify the individuals later, and to compare with Barefoot Conservation's Manta Ray database with nearly 400 individuals logged in Raja Ampat area. We see a total of 9 mantas and get good ID shots of 6 of them. Later we identify 4 of them, including resident mantas ‘Black Flame’, ‘Black Arnaud’ and ‘Wild Beast’. The other 2 are new to our database.
15:00. Diving Arborek Tip, is a beautiful fringing reef surrounding this tiny palm tree covered island oasis. This is Barefoot Conservation's house reef as our basecamp is on Arborek Island. I go to visit other volunteer members. The rest of our group does a dive, seeing a profusion of fish and also two Crown of Thorns Starfish which is worrying. Barefoot Conservation is monitoring Crown of Thorns in every dive it undertakes and has identified a small outbreak at a local site, Juans Bay, and have notified the local authorities. It is important these coral eating starfish do not get out of control in the local area as they have done in other areas such as the Great Barrier Reef and Maldives, picking off the remains of the coral reef already devastated by bleaching. We record all the Mega Fauna seen on each dive. Here one Blacktip Reef Shark was seen, a Tasselled Wobbegong and a Black Manta Ray feeding at the surface.
Boat sets off for Misool in South Raja Ampat.
The journey to Misool takes all night, the movement of the boat rocking us to sleep.
20th Jan - Day 4:
08:00. Wakey Wakey and Breakfast. We wake up to a whole new landscape. Misool with its high reaching islands reminding me of pictures of Thailand and Vietnam. Very different to central Raja Ampat. The steep sides giving an inkling of the craggy steep and exciting landscape below in which we are about to dive.
09:00. Big Breakfast
11:00. Diving No Contest soft coral wall with lots of macro and big fans hanging off it. There was a strong current bringing wide range of pelagic fish including a big school of Pickhandle Barracuda. Our guide found a seahorse, Bargi Banti, only 1cm in a fan.
15:30. Diving Goa Farondi which has a soft coral wall with sea fans and a cave. Strong current means we can’t get to the cave but we have an amazing wall dive looking at the beautiful abundance of nudibranchs. On the way we see a female Hawksbill Turtle attempting to eat sponges while being blown backwards and forwards by the current washing over the rocks. We take pictures of its face to add it to our turtle ID database. You can tell it’s a female by the short length of its tale. Its approximately 40cm.
19:00. Night Diving Yellit Kecil. There are two islands, Romeo and Juliet Island. We dive around Romeo.Jumping into the blackness of the ocean.
Seeing a lot of different creatures. Others in the other group see a Tasselled Wobbegong and two Raja Epaulette sharks. I see only macro life which I take photos off but beautiful all the same.
21st Jan - Day 5:
06:30. Wakey Wakey & Breakfast
07:30. Diving Eagles Nest. My favourite dive of all the sites, due to its superb visibility (at least 25m) and impressive rock formations.
09:00. Big Breakfast
11:00. Diving Boo East. One Blacktip Reef Shark and one Green Turtle. Green Turtles are not often seen here.
14:30. Diving Shadow Reef. A number of mega fauna was sighted including two Blacktip Reef Sharks, one Whitetip Reef Shark, four Grey Reef Sharks. But most exciting for us were the two Reef Manta Rays seen. One black one disappeared quickly. The other normal Chevron coloured female was unusually white around the front. She stays with us for a while, circling and feeding. Her stomach has a small protrusion which we will be sending pictures of for a second opinion to confirm what it could be from. It doesn’t look like a typical pregnancy bump. My first thought is that it might have something to do with plastic pollution causing illness or blockages in its stomach, but this impact is yet to be proven. However, the consequences of ingesting large amounts of microplastics are likely to have a negative impact on their health. Microplastics has been found to now be within the water column in Raja Ampat, with Indonesia being one of the largest polluters of plastics into the oceans.
17:00. Manta Lecture. We had a chance to discuss our manta encounters, what behaviours the mantas were displaying, how to sex and size them. Passengers asked a lot of questions which shows how interested they were in this.
18:00. Manta IDing. We sat down and looked at the ID shots of each of the Manta Rays seen. These are the belly shots with their unique individual marking on them. We compared these to the nearly 400 manta rays on the Barefoot Conservation Manta Ray database. Finding only 4 matching and all the rest new unique individuals.
19:30. Dinner and then enjoyed a beautiful sunset as the boat traveled further.
22nd Jan - Day 6:
06:30. Wakey Wakey and Breakfast
07:10. Diving Nudi Rock coral ridge and wall. Hawksbill turtle male seen quite large with an 80cm carapace. Dolphins seen off the small boat as we leave the site, shooting under the bow.
09:00. Big Breakfast
15:40. Diving Two Tree Island. Coral Wall. Dolphins surface when we are just about to jump in. The other group dives and sees two dolphins.
18:00. Manta Ray IDing
23rd Jan - Day 7:
11:00. Barefoot Conservation Lecture. We discussed what Barefoot Conservation was doing in terms of community engagement, science training and diving. Provided guests with information on the conservation challenges facing Raja Ampat region.
13:00. Diving Mioskon Slope coral. Two Whitetip Reef Shark, large Marbled stingray and five blue spotted stingray.
17:00. Diving Chicken Reef. Saw amazing nudibranchs and a tiny cuttlefish. Two Blacktip Reef Sharks and one Whitetip Reef Shark.
24th Jan - Day 8:
07:00. Wakey Wakey & Breakfast
08:30. Diving Blue Magic. Tide rising and current flowing west to east. There were 4 other dive boats so the site was pretty busy with divers. Because the current was relatively strong they were hooking in and some were inflating their BCDs so they hang high above the coral. This is good for coral and stops accidents. But it is bad for mantas. We train those on our liveaboard to stay low to not get in the way of the mantas.
The visitors who were hanging on reef hooks high above the cleaning stations had a visible impact on the behaviour of the mantas. Who moved to another cleaning site further to the edge of the seamount. I kept low and one circled overhead. The experience was breath-taking, I was literally holding my breath as it went past. And even with all my experience of studying mantas my heart was racing and the joy I felt to be in the presence of such a beautiful creature was profound. Our group saw 4 Oceanic Mantas that day averaging 5m from wing tip to wing tip all females.
10:00. Big Breakfast
Stop at local island for supplies and walk about
15:30. went back past Blue Magic and saw a total of 9 dive boats on the site. This could mean 90-100 divers on the site at that one time. Part of our study is looking at the impacts of tourism on the Oceanic Manta Rays. It is easy to push mantas off cleaning stations.
Beautiful sunset that everyone enjoyed
25th Jan - Day 9:
05:30. Wakey Wakey & Breakfast
07:00. Diving Kerov Channel. Beautiful coral reef. Saw one very large Blacktip Reef Shark.
08:30. Big Breakfast
11:00. Diving May Reef. Another amazing dive with so many fish it was unbelievable. The other group saw a large Tasselled Wobbegong
After lunch we asked the boat crew if we could go and visit a nice beach we saw nearby. They took us on an outing and we snorkelled around, enjoying the sunshine.
15:00. Diving Melissa’s Garden. One of the most spectacular coral reefs, full of small reef fish swarming like a multi-coloured cloud above the reef. There is some indication of boat damage on this reef and all the liveaboards and visitors must be careful to reduce any further damage. We saw 3 Black Tip Reef Sharks between 1-1.5m and a Blue Spotted Stingray.
17:00. Visited Pianemo. Flags still flying from when the president of Indonesia recently visited. This is a beautiful spot, where you can look over the unique landscape of Raja Ampat far below. Unfortunately, on leaving people are selling Black Coral bracelets, Turtle shell pendants (potentially from the critically endangered Hawksbill Turtle) and Endangered live Coconut Crabs for eating. There are also plastic straws in the coconuts sold. There is a lot of work to be done here to help people understand the long-term impacts of their actions.
26th Jan - Day 10:
06:00. Wakey Wakey & Breakfast
07:30. Last Dive at Cape Kri, one of the most biodiverse coral reefs in the world. End of a fantastic trip. Oceanic mantas have been seen here before by Ratu Laut dive guides. We are not fortunate enough to see a Manta Ray this time though but we do come across large schools of sweetlips and groupers hanging out in the depths. One top of the reef there is too much life to really be able to fully capture with the camera. But a great ending dive to an amazing expedition.
Happy and content we make our way back to Waisai where the ferry picks everyone up at 2pm for their journey home. We enjoy a large breakfast and lunch beforehand and give thanks to the crew who took us around. I realise on this expedition I have not only provided expert information on Manta Rays and Mega Fauna in Raja Ampat to our guests, but I have also made friends for life. People I really look forward to visiting and keeping in touch with in future.