Discover Indonesia’s secret isles and whale sharks on this 18-night cruise

Coral Expeditions offers three grand adventures in one cruise through Indonesia’s remote Raja Ampat islands.

I am on an 18-night Coral Expeditions cruise through Indonesia’s Raja Ampat marine paradise, its exotic Spice Islands, and West Papua’s Cenderawasih Bay. The bay is one of the rare places in the world with a resident population of whale sharks, the world’s largest fish.

Coral Expeditions was among the first Australian cruise companies to offer Raja Ampat itineraries back in 2013. The ‘Four Kings’ archipelago of 1,500 sheer limestone karst islands straddles 4.6 million hectares across the Equator at the swirling crossroads of the Pacific and Indian oceans, making it the epicentre of the biodiverse Coral Triangle.

Underwater wonders of Raja Ampat, Indonesia 

Raja Ampat has 1,700 fish species, eight percent of which are found nowhere else, 75 percent of the corals found on earth, five of the world’s seven sea turtle species, 17 species of whales and dolphins, almost 700 mollusc species … the list goes on and on.

Diving in Raja Ampat with Coral Expeditions
Diving in Raja Ampat with Coral Expeditions

We spend several days exploring the archipelago stopping at multiple sights to snorkel and dive in crystalline waters around soft and hard corals where parrot fish chew and rainbow-hued butterfly, anemone, angel and damselfish weave. We swim with turtles and rays, see giant waving Gorgonian fans and, with our expert guides, discover intricate micro marine life that is proof of a healthy reef system.

Darwin departure

Most trips are one-way with guests either sailing out of Darwin or Sorong in Papua. Coral Expeditions arranges jet aircraft charter transfers (at an additional cost) to or from Darwin depending on the itinerary.

We depart from Darwin, spending two days crossing the Arafura and Timor Seas. During this time lecturers talk about how the nutmeg and cloves grown on tiny island specks in the Banda Sea – the Spice Islands – changed the course of history. Arabs, Portuguese, Dutch, and English traders fought for control of these plantations when nutmeg could be sold in Europe for 32,000 times its local price.

We learn that the Dutch valued this trade so much they traded the swampy island of New Amsterdam, now called Manhattan, for the British-controlled Banda Island of Rhun in what ‘East Indies’ author Ian Burnet called “the real estate deal of the millennium”.

Climbing Mt Pindito

The Wayag Lagoon is the jewel of Indonesia’s remote Raja Ampat archipelago and the bullseye of marine biodiversity on the planet. To get here, I climb hand-over-hand up a muddy, twisted tree-rooted hillside, grabbing vines to swing up and over logs dotted with lurid funghi. One last moss-covered mound and there the Wayag Lagoon is laid out before me: the neon-bright turquoise and emerald waters are dotted with jungle-topped limestone karst islands descending into the translucent depths. 

Coral Expeditions in Wayag
Coral Expeditions in Wayag

Misool, southern Raja Ampat

At Misool in southern Raja Ampat, our guides show us rock art drawings of spinner dolphins and other marine mammals only visible by boat and we swim in the turquoise Yapap lagoon dotted with soaring stone pillars.

Yapap lagoon, Misool, Raja Ampat islands with Coral Expeditions
Yapap lagoon, Misool © Coral Expeditions

Island hopping

On the island of Kofiau, grass-skirted drummers and flute players escort us around Kampung Deer village, where villagers proudly showcase their coconut husking and fishing skills and we plant mangroves to help contribute to preserving their tropical home.

Locals welcoming guests to Kampung Deer village
Locals welcoming guests to Kampung Deer village © Susan Gough Henly;

Kora kora canoes welcome us at Banda Neira island and locals take us on a walk through the township with its mosques and churches, Chinese temples, and colonial architecture. The sombre Dutch Fort Belgica under the smoldering gaze of Gunung Api volcano is the site of a traditional nutmeg dance performed by locals. Later, we snorkel above schools of tiny multi-coloured fish.

Our final adventure is in Cenderawasih Bay, West Papua, arguably the best locale in the world to swim with whale sharks. Here, tiny bait fish are available year-round at traditional fishing platforms, with the whale sharks returning to the platforms again and again to gulp feed vertically. Here I swim with eight of these silent swirling filter-feeding giants. It’s one of those magical wildlife encounters that will stay with me forever. 

Swimming with whale sharks in Cenderawasih Bay
Swimming with whale sharks in Cenderawasih Bay

The ship: Coral Expeditions’ Coral Adventurer hosts 120 passengers in 60 cabins.
Raja Ampat itinerary: departs Darwin and Sorong for 18 nights, all-inclusive, from $17,590 pp

Reaching isolated destinations with Coral Expeditions

This independent Australian small-ship expedition cruise line accesses some of the most remote regions in the world with complete ease by offering departures and arrivals from Australia. Therefore there are no complicated flight planning or lost days. Coral Expeditions offers sustainable travel at its finest with low guest numbers and expert guides who help facilitate authentic connections with diverse cultures as well as deep insights into the natural world.

Starting with humble home-grown adventure cruises on the Great Barrier Reef 40 years ago, the Cairns-based company has grown to a purpose-built, blue-water fleet that still has a soft spot for coral adventures.

Our 60-cabin Coral Adventurer and its sister ship, the brand-new identical Coral Geographer, not only offer intriguing adventures across Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Japan, Micronesia, and the Philippines but also through some of Australia’s wildest seascapes including the Kimberley, Tasmania, Arnhem Land, the Great Southern Ocean and the Sub-Antarctic.

The colours of Raja Ampat are exquisite
The colours of Raja Ampat are exquisite © Coral Expeditions

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