Sorry, no clever title or amusing anecdotes in this post. We take our snorkeling very seriously. Raja Ampat is a region of islands in Indonesia, just off the western tip of New Guinea. It is home to more species of coral and reef fish there than anywhere else in the world. As soon as you enter the water, the diversity and quantity of marine life takes your breath away. We’ve snorkeled all over the world and nowhere else compares. Pictures don’t do it justice — they can’t capture the variety of colors and the fish are rightly wary of us. But we’ll do our best.
A number of factors combine to make Raja Ampat the coral reef hotspot of the world: a stable climate with no cyclones, rich ocean currents at the boundary between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, few humans around to foul the water or overfish, effective conservation measures enacted in consultation with the locals, and the area has been geologically stable for millions of years while other seas have come and gone.
The views above the water play second fiddle to the underwater beauty but would justify a visit on their own. The sculptured limestone islands are perhaps even more dramatic and picturesque than what we saw in the Rock Islands of Palau.
When people ask us why we like to travel to remote obscure places, one of the reasons we often give is that we enjoy being not only the gawkers but the gawkees. In an area that doesn’t get many outside visitors, the arrival of tourists is an Event. The whole town will show up at the dock or airport for the excitement of seeing what strangely overdressed aliens might pop out. It can be a carnival atmosphere with children jockeying for a better view and vendors catering to the locals even more than us. Now in the era of ubiquitous cell phones, cameras click away at us like we are movie stars walking the red carpet.
Once in Uzbekistan, a wedding party taking their official photos in a park called us over to pose with them, presumably to lend the photos an air of the exotic.
New Guinea is divided between two countries: the eastern half is the independent country of Papua New Guinea and the western half is part of Indonesia. Cenderawasih Bay is on the north coast of the Indonesian side. When we were here four years ago, cell phones hadn’t fully penetrated the population but now everyone seems to have one. Not only in the bigish town on the island of Biak but even in the smaller villages we visited: Yende and Kwatisore. We got the full paparazzi treatment as well as endless request for “selfies” (the term now seems to be universal like “taxi”).
We’ve been to New Guinea three times and we always marvel at how friendly the people are. It is probably the friendliest place we’ve ever been. In the pre- and post-selfie worlds, we collected countless smiles, waves and handshakes. And not just because we are big fish in a small pond. We are small fry compared to Cenderawasih Bay’s most famous visitors: whale sharks, the biggest fish in the sea. They are not whales but are sharks, though it is mandatory to call them “gentle giants.” They eat nothing larger than a sardine.
Floating fishing platforms dot the waters of Cenderawasih Bay and it has become a tradition for the fishermen to feed the whale sharks, some say for good luck, others say that the feeding keeps the sharks from tearing into the fishermen’s nets for a snack. Nowhere else in the world are whale sharks so easy to see because of this unique cross-species relationship. We had the opportunity to snorkel with a young male whale shark, only about 20 feet long (a third of his potential) as he repeatedly came up to the surface to be fed like a begging pet by the fishermen.
First a bit of history, to explain why such a weird and wonderful activity is possible. Limestone is formed on the ocean floor and becomes dry land when geological forces push it up or sea level goes down. Once exposed, rain carves the limestone into caves and hills. That is how the humps of the Chocolate Hills formed. Now imagine that the base of the Chocolate Hills was flooded by a rising sea, leaving each hill a little round island. Actually, you don’t have to imagine it because that is what happened in the Rock Islands, part of the nation of Palau, 500 miles east of the Philippines.
As the sea level goes up and down relative to the hills, sometimes a bit of ocean is enclosed by a ring of hills and becomes a salt-water lake, complete with its original marine wildlife. Most of the wildlife has a hard time adapting to the new environment but the species that can adapt have the new lake all to themselves. In Ongeim’l Tketau lake in Palau, a trapped species of jellyfish adapted by becoming home to an orange algae that produces food for the jellyfish from the sun. The jellyfish no longer needed to hunt so they lost their ability to sting. That brings us to the present where we find ourselves swimming with a million orange jellyfish.
The steep rock walls around the lake mean that the sun only shines in patches on the lake. The jellyfish migrate during the day to follow the sun. The sun was on the opposite side of the lake from where we got in so we swam toward the sunny side for a while before seeing our first jellyfish. Then another, then a few, then more and more until finally there were so many that it was hard to move without bumping into one. The jellyfish swim in every direction and every orientation, making a kaleidoscopic effect that wouldn’t be out of place in a 1970’s movie depiction of an LSD trip. The adult jellyfish are about the size of a grapefruit and feel firm but soft like raw meat. When one unexpectedly swims into your leg, you can’t help but turn around to say “excuse me” since they feel like you are bumping into a person’s leg or arm (and there are usually several other snorkelers in the lake distracted by the jellyfish, so that happens too). Here is a video of what it is like to float among them. And if you want even more, try this one.
Jellyfish Lake is one of the coolest things we’ve seen. Even though we swam there in 2002, we were eager to do it again (and we generally hate repeating ourselves with so much new and exciting stuff to see in the world). We were glad to see that the lake was healthy, as were the beautiful conventional snorkeling sites around the islands such as “Clam City” and “Shark City.”
Here is a video showing how dense the sea life can be…with a surprise guest star at the end.
If you look at the images that Google displays when you search for “Palau” you would never know that there is any Human City in the country. Palau is one of the smallest countries in the world with only 20,000 inhabitants but the capital of Koror (where most people live) is a nicely functional town in a beautiful setting. It has several restaurants, a couple department stores (more than downtown Seattle now) and supermarkets overflowing with all the Spam you could ever want.
If you come across one of those Tropical Island Paradises calendars at a mall kiosk, the chances are good that the cover photo is a tiny green island surrounded by a ring of white sand and impossibly blue water. And that island will be in the country of the Maldives, a string of atolls between the Seychelles and India.
That is why we’ve been eager to come to the Maldives and experience some of that trademarked Tropical Island Paradise but our first stop in the country was the capital Malé, which proved to be an unexpected highlight. Its unexpectedness was the highlight. The Maldives economy is tourism-based but they have not encouraged tourism in Malé where about a third of the population lives, instead directing it to isolated high-end resorts on remote islands. The taxes, leases and salaries that these resorts pay flow mostly back to Malé, which has grown into a surprising metropolis of highrises and swarming motorcycles on a tiny island with about the same population density as Manhattan (albeit with only 110,000 inhabitants).
It was unlike anything we had seen before. Though the island is a very walkable mile square, everyone buzzes around on motorcycles which meet at uncontrolled intersections but somehow the streams of cycles pass through each other without a honk or traffic jam (video). The shops were well stocked with everything a modern city dweller could need and absolutely nothing geared to tourists. Some fellow travelers we talked to were disappointed that there “wasn’t anything to see or do” but that contributed to its unexpected allure to us. We enjoyed being the only obvious outsiders on the street but encountered no frowns or touts. We just walked around and soaked in life in a place that was at once both completely different and completely familiar. One of those familiar/unfamiliar sights in the city (which is short on both land and fresh water) was a small park where the grass and most of the trees were plastic and festooned with lights, now apparently in disrepair. Even the birds in the trees were artificial. It was a whimsical, colorful and absurd respite among the densely packed buildings.
The Maldives is a Muslim country and until recently practiced a very relaxed form of the religion that didn’t emphasize public displays of piety such as headscarves and frequent prayers. But in the past decade, a more conservative vibe has grown in Malé, apparently as a tool by one of the local political parties and with the usual money and encouragement from Saudi Arabia. Now headscarves are almost universal on the street and every shop closes for 20 minutes during the calls to prayer. But this piety appears to be at least partly superficial. For example, we were wandering in a large shop when prayer time came. The staff apparently didn’t know we were there and turned off the lights, locked the doors and retreated into a back room. When we peeked in on them, they weren’t on their mats praying but instead sharing YouTube videos on their phones. We were able to escape the shop and noticed similar scenes when we peered into the darkened windows of other “closed” shops. The more liberal political party has recently returned to power so perhaps the pendulum will swing back.
So we had a good time in Malé but one day was enough. Now we wanted to see those calendar-cover islands and the colorful life below the water. But the windy weather that has followed us through the Indian Ocean continued during our visit and kept us out of the water for the next two days. Finally on our last day in the country, off South Ari Atoll, we had the great snorkel we had been waiting for. The fish were plentiful, of many varieties, good sized and not scared of us. All of those are positive signs that they are well protected from overfishing.
We also had a chance to see the fish while eating lunch in the world’s first underwater restaurant, at a resort on the same island. You descend from a dock down an enclosed spiral staircase into a glass dome. Inside is seating for maybe 20 diners. Someone periodically feeds the fish from above which encourages a constant parade of colorful visitors and even some small sharks. It was an amazing experience despite merely OK food at an extravagant price.
On a more depressing note, the coral was mostly dead, probably from a combination of warming seas and runoff from the resort. The fish are having a good time now, living in the skeleton of the dead coral and eating the algae that is fertilized by the nutrient-rich runoff. But the party won’t last long. The reef is visibly breaking down, eventually leaving the fish and the islands exposed to the wrath of the open ocean. The highest point of land in the Maldives is only 6 feet, so the entire country may disappear beneath rising seas within a few generations.
The largest seed of any plant in the world is the nut from the coco de mer palm tree, which is found only in the Seychelles. It is a protected species and only rarely are specially certified nuts available for sale, much to Laurel’s disappointment because the meat is said to have a unique and intriguing taste. We never saw a real nut for sale but every gift shop in the country is filled with replicas. Not because of their rarity, size or taste, but because the two lobes of the nut come together in a shape that is reminiscent of a woman’s crotch. A feature that is even more exaggerated in the souvenirs and novelties.
We encountered the real tree in a botanical garden in Victoria, the capital of the Seychelles, which is on the island of Mahe. When we stumbled across the tree, we didn’t realize it was a coco de mer at first but were immediately impressed by the size of its nuts.
The Seychelles is made up of dozens of islands spread across several groups. Earlier we visited the Aldabra Group of the country. Mahe is part of the granitic islands. Granitic was a new word for us but just means they are made of granite, as opposed to the coral sand of the atolls like Aldabra. The granitic islands hold the vast majority of the population, which isn’t vast. Victoria which is sometimes described as the “smallest capital city in the world” or sometimes “one of the smallest.” La Digue is another one of the granitic islands we visited, a sleepy tourist destination with its granite displayed to great effect at a much-photographed beach called Anse Source d’Argent.
We also visited the island of Praslin where we had some good snorkeling among the granite boulders and saw a shape-shifting octopus (in the middle of this video). On Silhouette Island we enjoyed a lazy afternoon watching crabs go about their business on the beach. If you would like to enjoy the relaxing pastime of crab watching, try this or this video.
Below are our other highlights from the granitic islands.
First, an embarrassing admission. We noticed when planning our 2011 trip to Madagascar that some place names started with the word “Nosy” such as a beach resort popular with Europeans called Nosy Be. We had no idea what the word meant but found it endlessly amusing to say. On this trip, it wasn’t until after we visited a few places that were all named Nosy This or Nosy That that we finally learned that nosy means “island” in Malagasy. All those Nosy places were islands, a pattern that it probably wouldn’t have taken Sherlock Holmes eight years to deduce.
Madagascar itself is an island, but it doesn’t feel that way when you are on it. It is bigger than California and Washington combined. When you are inland, you can drive for hours in any direction without seeing the ocean. Heck, it look us over a week to drive half the length of island in 2011, though we were slowed by bad roads and distracted by lemurs. So the locals don’t think of the “mainland” of Madagascar as a island. But the northern part of Madagascar is surrounded by many little Nosys, most with beautiful white sand beaches, impressive rocky cliffs and rich coral reefs.
And don’t forget the land-based wildlife. On Nosy Tanikely, we found our first chameleons of the trip. Playing a bit second-fiddle to lemurs, chameleons are the other signature animal of Madagascar. When most people think of chameleons, they think of a lizard that uses its powers of color changing to blend in with its background. But in Madagascar, many of the chameleons are brightly colored and change hues to communicate their emotions. (Yes, chameleons have feelings too…) This guy below was gorgeous perhaps due to his excitement of having his picture taken.
The day after visiting Nosy Tanikely, we went to Nosy Hara National Park. We had a great snorkel there and combed the remote beaches. Here are some pictures from both areas: