Toward the end of 2023 one of our Original Divers, Emily, was lucky enough to embark on a once-in-a-lifetime adventure to Lembeh and Raja Ampat. The latter has long occupied the top spot of her diving bucket list, with its pellucid turquoise waters, hidden lagoons and out-of-this-world sea life. Read on to discover how easy it was for her to fall back in love with Lembeh and why Raja Ampat was so deserving of her top spot.
My first stop was Lembeh Resort (north Sulawesi). I'd visited before so it felt very much like going back to a home from home; one that also happened to be home to some of my favourite dive sites. Of course, it didn't disappoint. On a single dive I spotted 13 different species of nudibranchs at Nudi Falls dive site. And that was just what my eyes were able to catch, I'm sure there were many more. Another highlight of my time at Lembeh Resort was seeing the holy grail of frogfish - the hairy frogfish. For any frogfish fanatics, you'll know this is the unicorn of the underworld. Tiny in size, incredibly rare and excellent at hiding in plain, we somehow managed to see two at the Aer Bajo 3 dive site, a true muck diving site with a sloping sand bank. Next came the flamboyant cuttlefish eggs. November is breeding season and on numerous dives we saw clusters of eggs laid by the ironically colourblind yet colourful cuttlefish. You could just about make out the white outline of the juvenile cuttlefish but we knew we'd have had to wait until to December to witness them hatch. Fortunately the resident photo expert at Lembeh Resort had reels of footage of cuttlefish emerging so we could still experience their reproduction.
After bidding farewell to Sulawesi we flew to Sorong, before cruising on speedboat to Papua Paradise in Northern Raja Ampat. Raja Ampat has long been a place of bucket list dreams and will forever hold a special place in my diving memories, if for no other reason than all the new and magical encounters I was able to experience. On a dive round Wai Island there was quite a current so we hovered on reef hooks for some time, observing the reef and watching several black tip reef sharks pass by below us. Once unhooked, we drifted over the coral gardens and turbinaria and acropora fields until right at the end, when a manta appeared and gracefully swam past us and stopped us dead in our tracks. As we came up, there were tears in my eyes. This is how a reef should be, I thought to myself. Next up on my Raja Ampat bucket list was wobbegong sharks. When we arrived to the resort I told the guide how much I wanted to see one, which was received with a perplexed look. It wasn't until we got diving that I understood why - they're everywhere in northern Raja. Other highlights included seeing epillautte (walking) sharks, which you could even see on house reef snorkels. When it comes to all things macro, Denise's pygmy seahorse were a personal favourite with their distinctive yet completely camouflaged orangey-pink colouring.
In addition to Raja Ampat's wonderful underwater highlights, there were plenty of treats back at the resort. My favourite was the resident dugong at Papua Paradise who would visit the resort in the early morning and just before sundown to eat the seagrass that lined the island's edge. We saw it on a couple of occasions from the jetties, which felt particularly special, to be so close to such a rare and vulnerable creature. My final highlight was witnessing Wilson's bird-of-paradise pruning his display site. With my mind set on seeing him in display, we got an early morning boat to the mangrove entry point and then climbed on foot through the forest. The thirty-minute uphill climb, just as dawn was breaking, was every bit as magical as I'd expected. A cacophony of birdsong heralded us onwards to the viewing site. We waited around 20 minutes in the hide before the Wilson's bird-of-paradise appeared and started clearing the leaves in his display patch. Unfortunately, he didn't display for us, but it was still a lovely sight to see - and the perfect excuse to come back again.