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Raja Ampat: The Ultimate Diving Destination in Papua, Indonesia

Raja Ampat: The Ultimate Diving Destination in Papua, Indonesia

It’s every diver’s dream destination: Raja Ampat in West Papua, Indonesia. The archipelago, also known as the Four Kings, consists of 1,500 small islands, shoals and cays and has the richest marine biodiversity on earth, period.

The area is home to 75% of the world’s known coral species and hosts a wide range of big pelagic fish as well as manta rays, dolphins, migrating whales and several shark species.

*Rather watch than read? Skip to the video.

Raja Ampat Indonesia

Life is a beach in Raja Ampat

Raja Ampat is kind of in the middle of no-where. It’s located off the northwest tip of Bird’s Head Peninsula on the island of New Guinea, in Indonesia’s West Papua province. Raja Ampat, or the Four Kings, is an archipelago comprising over 1,500 small islands, cays, and shoals. The four main islands are Misool, Salawati, Batanta, and Waigeo, where most of the diving is at.

Diving in Raja Ampat

Lets start with the fun stuff: the diving. Raja Ampat is one of world’s top locations for diving. I did six dives during my stay and every single one made it to my top10 dives list. For reference, I had about 50 dives under my belt and I had dived in Thailand (including the Similan Islands), the Philippines, Miami, Cabo San Lucas, Costa Rica and Cabo San Lucas.

The main underwater attraction in Raja Ampat is the Manta Ray. All three types of Manta Rays can be found here, the Oceanic Manta, the Black Manta and the Reef Manta, and I was fortunte to see all of them.

Oceanic Manta at Blue Magic

Hard to describe the feeling of swimming up close with a majestic creature like this Oceanic Manta Ray

Other highlights of my dives include one of the strangest looking sharks, the Wobbegong shark, the very rare Walking shark, plenty of Blacktip and Whitetip reef sharks, giant Groupers, schools of Barracudas and smaller creatures like the Pygmee Seahorse and the Orangutan crab.

Watch this compilation video:

(Skip to: Diving: 0.35, 1:12, 2:20, Manta Rays: 1:12, 2:35, Reef Sharks: 0.41, 2:53, Wobbegong Shark: 0.50)

Trivia question: What’s type of animal is that walking in the tree at 0:08? Comment below if you know the answer!

Dive sites in Raja Ampat

There are a ton of dive sites in Raja Ampat, and more are being discovered regurarly. Most of the dive sites are located around the islands of Kri and Mansur, in the central Raja Ampat area. See below for a map with all the dives sites listed.

Raja Ampat Dive Sites

Click photo to enlarge

You can expect all dive sites to be of above average quality, but below are a few must-dives that you should’t miss. The shots in my dive video were all taking at these spots.

Manta Sandy

This dive site is one of the few that exist in the world where you’re almost guaranteed to see Mantas. It’s a fairly shallow dive, the cleaning station is at about 12m. Excellent for beginners. You can find other type of sealife at this location too, but honestly when there are five Mantas circling around you, you’re not going to pay too much attention to them.

Manta Ray at Manta Sandy

The dive spot “Manta Sandy” in Raja Ampat is one of the few places in the world where you can see Black Mantas in the wild

The locals have set up a perimeter of rocks around the cleaning station to keep divers from getting too close to the Mantas. The Mantas don’t seem to mind the company though, as they swam right over us several times.

Cape Kri

This dive site has the world record for most different types of species of fish spotted on one single dive. Dr Gerry Allen recorded a total number of 374 fish species on a single tank dive! There are so many fish, you just don’t know where to look. Barracudas, Jackfish, Groupers, huge schools of Big-eye Trevallies, Snappers, Banded Sweetlips as well as reef shark can be seen here in abundance.

Sardine Reef

Wobbegong Shark Raja Ampat

Can you guess what this creature is?

Sardine Reef was our dive instructor’s favorite dive site, mostly because of the pretty corals. Highlights of the dive for me where the two Black-tip Reef Sharks, a giant Grouper, a few Blue-Spotted Stingrays and the Woebegone shark in the picture above. Towards the end of the dive, the current got stronger and took us to a shallow reef, about 5-10m deep. Pretty fun to let the current take you over the reef superman style.

Blue Magic

Black tip Reef Shark

You’ll see sharks on most of the dives in Raja Ampat, like this Blacktip reef shark

Blue magic is known as “little Barracuda point.” It hosts a large school of Barracudas, Jackfish and Sweetlips as well as Black and Whitetip Reef sharks. Last but not least, Oceanic Manta Rays are often seen passing by here as well. I saw one on my dive, the one at 2:35 in the video. This dive can be a bit challenging depending on how strong the current is.

Choose your dive operator carefully


A word of caution here. A lot of the resorts and home-stays offer diving services. Not all of them are certified and operated professionally though and I’ve heard locals expressing their concerns about the safety of some operators. I recommend you check that the operator and the instructors are certified before you book any dives. If the dive shop is with PADI, you can either check on the website or call them. Keep in mind that Raja Ampat can be a challenging place to dive, with currents at many of the dive spots.

I personally dove with Manta Dive Raja Ampat and had a great experience. The shop is located at Waiwo Dive Resort (where I stayed) and run by a guy named Rinto.

Manta Dive Raja Ampat dive crew

Rinto and his dive crew at Manta Dive Raja Ampat

Before I went diving I looked up his PADI instructor number, as I had read some bad reviews on Tripadvisor, but everything was fine. He had recently taken over the management of the dive shop after the old manager screwed up a few times. Rinto was actually one of the best instructors I’ve ever dived with so I felt a bit bad about my initial suspicion, but better safe than sorry.

Diving in Raja Ampat ain’t cheap…

Diving in Raja Ampat is not cheap. One dive will typically set you back a minimum of around 650,000 Rupiah (US$45) per dive and equipment rental around 350,000 (US$25) per day. The more dives you do on one day, the cheaper it gets as you only have to pay for the equipment once. If the dive site is over an hour away by boat, there may also be a fuel surcharge.

Liveaboards

Another way to dive in Raja Ampat is to go on a live-aboard. There are many live-aboards in Raja Ampat, but they aren’t cheap. Typical rates vary between $300 – $400 USD per day. That does include food, non-alcoholic drinks and up to five dives a day, including equipment. See here for more information on live-aboards in Raja Ampat.

Raja Ampat Liveaboard

One of the many liveaboards that frequent Raja Ampat’s waters

Other things to do in Raja Ampat

Other than diving, there is not a whole lot of other things to do in Raja Ampat. If I wasn’t a diver, I probably wouldn’t go through the hassle of getting there and spend the money for a visit honestly. There are two things worth doing though, a trip to Painemu and snorkeling.

Trip to Painemu

If you’ve ever Google-Imaged “Raja Ampat,” then you’ll recognize the picture below. It shows the iconic limestone islands that Raja Ampat is known for. They are located around the island of Fam, or Groot Fam. There is a look-out where you can enjoy the view and take some selfies.

Raja Ampat Islands

Source: www.hdnicewallpapers.com

Locally this place is known as Painemu, and it’s located on the western end of Raja Ampat, about 2.5 hours by boat from Wasai. To go there you’ll need to rent a boat for the day, which will set you back around 5 to 7 million Rupiah. Quite expensive, unless you’re with a big group. I preferred to spend my money on diving, so I passed.

Snorkeling


The Raja Ampat islands offer great opportunities for snorkeling. Most of the resorts have house reefs right in front of the beach, and so did Waiwo Dive Resort. Not a bad idea to bring your own snorkel and mask, as the resorts may charge you 150,000k for the use of their equipment. My dive shop let me use it for free though, as I spent a fair amount of money on diving with them.

Wasai Village

Map of Wasai Village

Click to enlarge photo

The village of Wasai is very small. It hosts a few hotels, a couple restaurants, a small supermarket and some smaller shops. The most interesting however is the food market, near the pier. You can get some fresh vegetables, fruits and fish there.

Wasai Village Market


TIP: if you get tired of the food that’s served in your resort, you can buy whatever you like to eat at the market and ask the chef to cook it for you. I’ve seen people having lobster for dinner, not bad!

How to get to Raja Ampat

Alright if this post has convinced you to visit Raja Ampat, here’s the information you need to plan your visit. I found it hard to find good information when I visited, so I think this will be very helpful.

The Raja Ampat islands are located off the north-western coast of West-Papua. The nearest major airport is in Sorong. From there, you have to take ferry to Wasai, on the island of Waigeo.

Getting to Sorong

To reach the islands in Raja Ampat, you have to fly to Sorong first. Daily flights from Jakarta and Makassar are available. 

Before you book your flight, plan your transportation from Sorong to your destination first. Check the ferry schedule so you can coordinate that you won’t have to wait too long in Sorong.

Not all airlines that service Sorong are listed on the major flight search engines like Kayak and Skyscanner, I booked my flight through Tiket.com.

All flights to Sorong from Jakarta are red-eye flights, leaving between 10pm and 1am and arriving early in the morning between 6am and 8am. It’s a four hour flight and Sorong is two hours ahead of Jakarta, so a direct flight leaving at midnight gets you in at 6am. Most flights have a stopover at Makassar airport though.


Getting to Waigeo

Sorong Pier

This is the pier in Sorong where the ferry to Wasai departs from

The ferry to Wasai on Waigeo leaves daily at 2pm and also on Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 9am. Most flights arrive in the morning around 7/8am, just on time to catch the 9am ferry. If you arrive on Tuesday or Thursday, you’ll have to wait until 2pm. You can board the ferry much earlier though, they leave the AC on so at least you’ll be cool and the empty seats allow you to lie down and catch up on sleep if you weren’t able to sleep on the plane.

Ferry from Sorong to Wasai

This is the VIP section of the faster ferry from Sorong to Wasai

The ferry to Waigeo takes about 1.5 to 3 hours, depending on the type of boat. Tickets are 110,000 (US$8) for normal seats and 220,000 (US$16) for VIP seats. I think the VIP seats are worth the extra eight bucks.

TIP: If your flight is delayed and you won’t make it for the 9am ferry, call them and let them know you’ll be late. It’s not uncommon for the ferry to wait for passengers.

Flying to Waigeo

Waigeo is the only island in Raja Ampat that can be reached by airplane. There is a flight operated by Susi Air. You can’t book a ticket, it’s first come first serve. Tickets are 300,000 Rupiah (US$22) per passenger and luggage allowance is 10kg per person. Excess luggage fees are 20,000 (US$1.5) per kg.


The flight goes almost every day, but you can’t know for sure when and even the times vary. I wanted to take it to fly back to Sorong but then they cancelled the flight because there were elections going on or something. You have to call the airport at +6285354426927 or +6285344802921 to double check. You can also contact Susi Air at +62265639851.

Where to stay in Raja Ampat

Raja Ampat is a very undeveloped area with little infrastructure. Resorts typically consists of a few wooden structures hidden in the dense jungle vegetation that stretches all the way to the beach. Expect no WiFi, limited electricity and no swimming pools or restaurants.

Waiwo Dive Resort

The resort I stayed at is somewhere in this piece of jungle

The resorts in Raja Ampat are spread out over all the different islands and pretty much all of them are located on the beach. Food is typically included in the price and consists mainly of chicken, rice and fish.

I opted to stay at Waiwo Dive Resort on Waigeo island, simply because it was the only mid-range option available. It’s one of the few places that have air conditioning, electricity and a private bathroom.

Waiwo Dive Resort

Entrance to Waiwo Dive Resort

The resort is also very close to the ferry pier and Wasai village, the only place where you can get any supplies. At around $100 / night including breakfast, lunch and dinner and a private beach right in front of my room, it is definitely the best value for money I’ve seen. Besides, they have a really cool dog named Waiwo.

Waiwo dive resort Raja Ampat

I have great memories of Waiwo, when I went kayaking he followed me into the water but after I pulled him onto the kayak he panicked and swam back to the beach

I was a little concerned as the resort has mixed reviews on Tripadvisor, but fortunately I had a great experience. You can book online here.

Another benefit of staying at Waiwo is that it’s located close to the only telecommunications tower in Raja Ampat that transmits a 3G signal. Since there is no WiFi anywhere, getting a local sim card with Telkomsel is the only option to use the internet. As you can imagine, that 3G won’t be very fast unless you’re in the vicinity of the
tower.

cuscus

I forgot to mention, a few more jungle creatures live at Waiwo resort, like this Cuscus

Other accommodation options

The only other options that you can book online are either very expensive or “homestays,” budget type accommodation with very little comfort.

If you have upwards of $200 a night to spend, go for the Doberai Eco Resort or the Agusta Eco Resort.

If you’re on a budget and want to spend US$50 a night or less, check out one of the many homestays in Raja Ampat.

Money

You have to bring a lot of cash if you visit Raja Ampat, as credit cards are not accepted anywhere. Other than Sorong, the only place where you can get cash is Waisai. There are two ATMs that accept foreign cards, Miniri bank and Beheri bank. Unless you’re staying on Waigeo island, you’ll have to get a boat to get there.

Credit cards are not accepted anywhere, you have to pay with cash for everything. Plan accordingly and bring enough cash to pay for all your expenses, including hotel, marine park fee, transportation, diving and other activities.

Marine Park Fee

All visitors are obliged to pay a fee for staying in the Raja Ampat area. The fee is 500,000 for locals and 1,000,000 for foreigners.(USD 35/70). The fee is payable at a local office right next to the ferry pier. There will be a guy wearing a Hawaiian type shirt waiting at the pier to direct the visitors to the local office to pay the fee.

I tried to escape him, but he kept following me around so I decided to be a good boy and pay the fee. However, I’m pretty sure a lot of visitors managed to avoid him.

Insider tip: Another way to avoid the fee is to take the plane, as there is no-one at the airport to collect the fee. This makes the plane much cheaper than the boat and pretty much a no-brainer.

Communication

You won’t find Wifi anywhere in Raja Ampat, it simply doesn’t exist. The 3G coverage is pretty good where I stayed. The reason is that right in front of the resort is a small island (Sonik) that has a telecommunications tower.

Sonik Island Raja Ampat

This is the reason I had a pretty good internet connection at Waiwo Resort

Get a local simcard from Telkomsel (you can buy these in Wasai too) and for about 100,000 (US$8) you’ll get 3GB of data. It was fast enough to make Whatsapp calls with my friends in the US. However, as you get further away from the tower, the connection rapidly deteriorates.

Health & Safety

Raja Ampat is very safe, but medical facilities are limited. If you go diving, know that there is a decompression chamber in Wasai, but several sources on the internet state that’s not in operating condition. Best to be safe and stay well within your decompression limits when you go diving.


As with any tropical destination, consult your doctor to see if you have all the recommended vaccinations. There’s conflicting information on the web about the existence of Malaria in the area. The locals told me they’ve never heard of Malaria cases and most travelers I’ve spoke to didn’t take pills.

Some did though, as recommended by their doctors back home. I didn’t take them, but I did make an effort to keep mosquito bites to a minimum by wearing long pants and shirts and using mosquito repellent. I spent most of the time underwater or on a boat anyway, which is a pretty good way to prevent mosquito bites.

Should you go? And when?

If you’re a scuba diver, you should go. As soon as possible. Right now Raja Ampat is a heaven for divers, but the word is spreading fast. I’ve heard rumors of the tiny little airport in Waigeo being expanded, allowing bigger airplanes to land there.

Once the masses start flocking to Raja Ampat, I’m not sure how long those Manta Rays will stay. I have a feeling they may just decide to move a few islands further down the ocean. In addition, tourism has a negative effect on the health of the coral reefs.

Raja Ampat Papua

Raja Ampat, I’ll be back!

I’ve already made up my mind. I’m going back soon! If you want to see the Manta Rays, the best time to go is November to March. During the rest of the year the Mantas migrate elsewhere.

Found this post useful? Please share and comment below if you have suggestions or questions. Thanks!

Eight Reasons to Visit The Philippines

Eight Reasons to Visit The Philippines

People often ask me which countries they should visit in South East Asia. Most of the time, they have Thailand, Vietnam or Cambodia in mind. I often ask if they’ve considered the Philippines. Most of the time the answer is “no.”

I’ve been to the Philippines almost ten times and I’m not sure why the Philippines isn’t on the top of the list of countries to visit for most people, but I definitely think it should be. Here’s why.

ONE : AMAZING BEACHES

Malapascua Island

Being one of the largest island groups in the world, it’s not surprising that the Philippines is home to an incredible amount of awesome beaches. Some of the more well-known ones are the beaches in Boracay, Alona Beach in Bohol and the beaches in El Nido. But other places like Siargao Island and Malapascua Island also offer great beach options. In fact, it’s hard to go to The Philippines and NOT run into an awesome beach.

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TWO :THE PEOPLE

Filipinos Happy

The Filipinos are some of the happiest people in the world, as reported by many reports including on by the Business Insider. They say “a problem is only a problem if you make it one,” and this seems to be firmly hard-wired into the Filipino brain. Any inconvenience or issue is swiftly laughed off and countered with an “it’s ok” or “it will be fine.” With an average yearly income of about $5,000 and under the constant threat of some of the world’s most powerful Typhoons, the Filipinos deserve praise for their positive attitude towards life. They have personally inspired me to complain less.

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THREE : YOU CAN SPEAK ENGLISH

In most countries outside the western world, English is only spoken in the touristy areas. For those who are looking to spend a week relaxing, reading a book at the side of a resort pool, this is not a problem. However, as any seasoned traveler knows, to learn and understand a countries culture it’s essential to be able to communicate with the locals, not just with the waiter at the hotel. In the Philippines, English is widely spoken across the country. Even in the most remote places, the basics are generally understood. This really helps when you’re looking for local information as well.

FOUR : AMAZING NATURAL BEAUTY

Chocolate Hills

The Philippines is home to a wide variety of majestic landscapes and natural beauty, such as the Chocolate Hills in Bohol, the Rice Terraces in Banaue and the world’s second longest underground river in Palawan.

FIVE : A SCUBADIVER’S PARADISE

Balicasag Diving

Few countries on our planet can compete with the Philippines as a scuba destination. If big fish is your thing, Apo Island, Apo Reef and Tubbataha Reefs offer a variety of Tuna, Sharks and schools of Jacks and Barracudas. For beginners, Boracay and Puerto Galera are great spots. Malapascua Island is one of the few places where the Thresher Shark can be seen, while Coron is famous for it’s WWII Japanese warships, making for excellent wreck diving.

SIX : ADVENTURES & ACTIVITIES

Longest Zipline In Asia

The Philippines offers a wide variety of awesome adventure opportunities. The city of Butuan (on the island of Mindanao) is home to the longest zipline in Asia, stretching for over 1300 meters. On the same island, nearby the city of Cagayan de Oro, you’ll find great white water rafting opportunities.

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You can go snorkeling in the tropical, crystal clear waters almost everywhere in the Philippines. On the island of Cebu, near the village of Cebu, you can even snorkel with Whale Sharks. For a stunning hike, climb Mount Apo in Davao, the country’s highest peak at 9,689 feet, or trek Mt. Pinatubo in Luzon. This famous volcano erupted in 1991, producing the second largest terrestrial eruption of the 20th century.

The wonderful island of Siargao has some of the best surfing on the continent. As the island is quite remote and relatively unknown, you’ll have more waves for yourself than other surf spots like Bali and Thailand.

Siargao surfing

For kite-surf fans will love Boracay, which is constantly mentioned as one of the best kite-surf spots in Asia and the only spot to make it to this list of best kite-surf locations in the world.

SEVEN :AFFORDABLE LOGISTICS

Cebu Pacific Route Map

With the nation’s low-cost carrier Cebu Pacific serving most major cities in Asia, it’s very easy and affordable to get to the Philippines. The airline also has an extensive domestic network in place. Domestic flights often go for as little as $20 – $50. If you’re on a budget, you can often also get somewhere by ferry, or, for the shorter distances, by a local “banca.”

EIGHT : CLIMATE FROM HEAVEN

With average daily temperatures ranging from 25 to 28 degrees Celsius (78 to 83 F), the Philippines has a very pleasant tropical climate. A light breeze is usually around (as on most islands) that prevents you from overheating. The best time to go is November to April. Expect a lot of rain from May to October. This doesn’t mean it rains all day though; most days it will just pour down pretty hard for an hour or two while the rest of the day it could be clear skies.

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Utila Honduras – A Scuba Diver’s Paradise

Utila Honduras – A Scuba Diver’s Paradise

Turquoise waters, reefs teeming with life, friendly locals, and vibrant food. If you’re looking for an awesome locale with excellent diving, look no further than Utila, a small island in Honduras.

The entire economy is centered around hosting divers from across the globe. The destination offers a wide range of accommodations and a healthy nightlife to boot.

If you’re (a) an avid diver, (b) an extroverted socialite, (c) a proud foodie, or (d) all of the above, you simply must check out this paradisiacal oasis.

The Accommodations

There is a gamut of housing options on Utila; some cater to tight budgets, while others aim to provide a luxurious experience. Nonetheless, compared to worldwide standards, all options are reasonably priced to say the least. I stayed at an amazing spot called the Laguna Beach Resort, an establishment owned and operated by the newly elected mayor of Utila.

For $750 flat, I stayed for seven days in an awesome cabin overlooking a quaint lagoon. Oh, and by the way, all of the dives were included. That’s right, a total of 20 dives were part and parcel of the original package. And did I mention the food? Three home cooked meals per day were included as well.

Laguna Beach Resort Utila

Photo: Laguna Beach Resort

For breakfast, we had an assortment of standard items like eggs, French toast, pancakes, tropical fruits, and basic cereals. For lunch and dinner, we were served wonderfully prepared meals that included steak tenderloin, oven roasted turkey, homemade chicken fajitas, and freshly caught lobster tails.

The Laguna Beach Resort is away from the city center, so you are nicely insulated from the loud nightlife and daily bustling in the downtown area. But, if you would like to venture into the belly of the beast to explore the bar scene, all that is required is a five minute boat taxi (which the manager at Laguna Beach Resort will gladly arrange for you).

The Diving

The reef surrounding Utila is buzzing with activity. I saw an array of colorful fish, large tortoises, octopuses, sea horses, stingrays, lobsters, and a handful of small sharks. Each dive was an awesome adventure replete with stunning colors and interesting landscapes. I even got to go on my first night dive!

If you have your own equipment, that’s terrific, but if you don’t, everything is available at the resort for a very reasonable price. My wetsuit and booties were only $5.00 per day. The equipment is in excellent condition and continuously renewed to ensure top quality.

Utila Honduras Diving

The dive masters at the resort were terrific as well. Our boat was led by Mags, a British national who left a fancy corporate job to pursue her lifelong passion of diving professionally. She was extremely nice and very helpful when we were under water. She constantly pointed out cool sights as we glided across the ocean bottom. If it wasn’t for her, I would have likely missed one of the coolest sites on the trip: a massive crab hiding under a shipwrecked vessel. Absolutely amazing.

The City Center

As much as I loved my resort, my only regret is that I didn’t spend more time roaming through the downtown of Utila. Granted, it is quite small, but it is alive with activity during the day and night. The bars are laid-back and super fun.

I stopped to have a drink at two well-known establishments: The Jade Seahorse and Skid Row. Firstly, you simply have to go to The Jade Seahorse. The decor is stunning. The layout is beyond cool, and the place gets pretty interesting once the sunsets.

Jaded Sea Horse

Skid Row is more of a typical dive bar, but really fun as well. Believe it or not, it caters to a lot of New Orleans Saints fans. So, if you’re from the great state of Louisiana, this is the bar for you. Another cool spot I checked out was Driftwood. I asked a bunch of locals where I could get a good plate of seafood.

Utila Sunset

I got two recommendations: Big Mama’s and Driftwood. Unfortunately, Big Mama’s was closed, but Driftwood certainly met my standard for an awesome holiday lunch. I got the seafood platter, which consists of a delicious assortment of beer battered shrimp and fish. The food was incredible. Combine that with a couple of Salva Vida beers, and you have the perfect ingredients for an awesome afternoon.

The Prices

One of the prime reasons why this island is such a treasure trove is because of its affordability. Beers are between 1 and 2 dollars at most bars, and a good meal will usually cost around $5.00… $10.00 if you want something on the fancy side. I ordered a round of four rum and lemonades at Skid Row, and the bill was less than 10 bucks… pretty damn reasonable if you ask me.

If you’re on a budget and don’t want to stay at a plush resort like Laguna Beach, there are many hostels and moderately priced hotels near the city center. In addition, if you’re looking for a lengthier stay, apartments are extremely cheap as well. An American woman I met on the island boasted that her two bedroom, two bathroom flat was only $400.00 a month. Not too shabby.

Closing Remarks

Whether you’re going with a gang of buddies or your romantic partner, Utila is an ideal location. You won’t be bored, you won’t be hungry, and you won’t go broke. Whether you’re a seasoned master diver, a newbie looking to get certified, or simply someone who wants to sunbathe and snorkel, the island will more than fulfill your needs. Enjoy.

About the author: Big Law Rebel quit his career in Law to pursue his greatest passions: writing and teaching. He writes about his transition from working at a law firm to being an entrepreneur on his blog, Big Law Rebel.

Diving at Balicasag Island

Diving at Balicasag Island

Imagine having a close encounter with more than a handful Sea Turtles, a giant school of Jackfish, a few Frog fish, a Moray eel and a Sea Krate in a time-span of less than an hour. This dive has certainly been one of my favorites!

Balicasag island is a 30 minute boat ride away from Alona Beach, located in the province of Bohol in the Philippines. The best diving that Alona Beach has to offer is around this island.

Shortly after getting in the water, I found myself surrounded by Jackfish. I had never seen such a big school. The fish weren’t afraid of me and I was able to swim in the middle of the school, really cool!

Just a few minutes later I spotted a fairly large Sea Turtle. This friendly creature was having lunch at the time. The menu featured a juicy platter of fresh sea grass. As you can see, the turtle enjoyed this healthy meal and didn’t mind having a spectator!

The Frogfish has to be one of the weirdest fish I’ve ever seen. A master of camouflage, it’s hard to spot this underwater predator. They are quite common around the Philippines, I’ve seen one on almost every dive I did during my three-week trip.

Next up is this juvenile Moray eel, hiding between the coral formations as they usually do, waiting for unsuspecting prey to swim by.

My last encounter on this dive: a Sea Krate. I love spotting these highly elusive and venomous inhabitants of the ocean. Although carrying enough venom to facilitate a very abrupt end to my life, there is no reason to be afraid of these creatures: the Sea Krate’s teeth are located somewhat to the back of it’s mouth, making it extremely hard for them to deliver the poisson. Besides, they are super friendly and gentle.

If you’re a scubadiver and you’re ever in the Philippines, I highly recommend to check out this diving spot. You can easily get to Alona Beach by taking a ferry to Bohol from Cebu city (which has an international airport).

Did you ever go diving in The Philippines? I’d love to hear about it, please leave a comment below!

Diving with Thresher Sharks in Malapascua Island

Diving with Thresher Sharks in Malapascua Island

The main reason I came to Malapascua Island was to dive with the Thresher Shark. The island is the only place in the world where Thresher Sharks can be seen pretty much any day.

I really enjoy diving with sharks. It’s quite a thrill to see these scary looking predators swim towards you, turning away only after coming almost within a few meters. For some reason I’m not scared of sharks. I get so excited when I see one that I forget that they could kill me if they wanted to.

Near Malapascua is a sunken island called Monad Shoal. The Thresher Sharks gather here early in the morning at a number of so-called ‘cleaning stations.’ The small fish that reside here eat the dead skin, parasites and bacteria from the shark’s body. The sharks prefer to be in the deeper, dark waters so when it gets too light they leave. The best time to see them is around 4.30 – 6am.

During my first dive I was unlucky and didn’t see any. The next day I got up at 4.30am to give it another go. After entering the water, we went down to the top of the sunken island at 15 meters deep. From the edge we could see the cleaning stations that lie at 25 – 30 meters deep. Since you can’t dive that deep for the full duration of the dive, it’s best to scan for the sharks first and go down when you spot one.

At first we didn’t see any, so after a while we descended to the edge of one of the cleaning stations. To not scare away the sharks, a rope has been put up to mark the edge of the area where the sharks gather. It’s best to quietly sit down on the sandy bottom and wait for them to show up.

Monad Shoal Cleaning Station Malapascua

After we waited for a while I saw my dive instructor pointing at something. I quickly swam towards him and in the distance I saw a vague, large figure swimming towards us. I quickly pulled out my Gopro to witness this:

I was very really happy to see this majestic creature swim so close-by! It swam in circles for a couple of minutes, making three rounds after which it disappeared into the darkness. Mission succeeded!

The Threshers aren’t the only cool sea creatures you can find on this dive site. After seeing the Thresher Shark we went back up to the top of the shoal to search for other marine life. Pretty soon we found another interesting inhabitant of these waters:

This underwater statue you have just looked at is a Frogfish. Certainly a strange looking creature that is very hard to spot if you don’t know what you’re looking for. Frogfish are masters in mimicking. This one tried to look like a piece of coral and it did a pretty good job! It was waiting for it’s lunch to swim by.

We also ended up seeing a Orang Utan crab, an Octopus and a juvenile Moray eel. All-in-all a very successful dive! A special thanks goes out to the guys at Sea Explorers who really didn’t a great job making this possible.

Malapascua Diving: The Best Place to See Thresher Sharks

Malapascua Diving: The Best Place to See Thresher Sharks

This month I’m doing a tour around Asia. After a short visit to Hong Kong to catch up with friends I flew to The Philippines, starting off in Butuan, where I flew like a bird on Asia’s longest zip-line.

I have now arrived in Malapascua Island, a small island located just north of Cebu. I wanted to go to this island for quite a while. In Malapascua diving is the main activity and for a good reason: it’s one of the few places where you can get a close encounter with the Thresher Shark.

But there are other reasons to visit this pristine island in the Philippines. First of all, I always love being on small, tropical islands. I guess it gives me this feeling of being away from it all. I prefer islands with little infrastructure, not to crowded, with a nice beach and clear, warm water ocean water offering a way to cool down from the heat.

Malapascua Island fits this description pretty nicely. There is nothing better than to wake up, put on my swimming trunks, cross the 30 meters that separates my hotel room from the sea and go for a quick morning swim.

Malapascua Island Beach

Secondly, I was hoping to dive with Manta Rays here. Unfortunately, I found out it will be unlikely that I will see any. The rays are seasonal here and September is outside the season. I forgot to check this before planning my visit.

Fortunately, there is another majestic creature luring beneath the ocean surface near Malapascua Island: the Thresher Shark. This type of shark is characterized by it’s long tail, making up about a third of it’s body.

Diving in Malapascua with the Thresher Sharks

Malapascua Island is the only place in the world where you are almost guaranteed to see the long-tailed predator. There is a so-called ‘cleaning station’ nearby, a place where large pelagic fish go to have smaller fish remove parasites from their skin. The Threshers visit this place every morning.

Thresher Shark

Photo : Sven Hewecker

Threshers are early birds, so I’m going to have to get up at 4.30am to see them. In anticipation, I’ve been shifting my sleeping pattern towards waking up early in the last few days. That way I will hopefully be able to keep my eyes open when the sharks are swimming around me.

It will be worth it for sure. In fact, the Threshers are the main reason tourist (mainly divers) flock to this little islet in the first place. So, I’m not leaving this island before I’ve seen them!

*update:

On my first dive I was unlucky and I didn’t get to see the Thresher Sharks. On the second dive I was more fortunate. I spotted the majestic creature in the distance and waited patiently, Go-Pro in hand, for it to swim by. And it did, as you can see in the video below!

What does “Malapascua” mean?

On a final note, I’ve just learned what the island got its name from. In the 16th century, a Spanish ship got stranded here just before Easter. The sailors had to spend this holiday away from their families on the isolated island. They clearly did not enjoy it too much, as they named the island “bad Easter,” or “Mala Pascua.”

There is a little controversy over the name though, as “pascua” also means “christmas” in the local Cebuano language. So maybe it was the Christmas holiday that the Spaniards missed out on. Either way, I thought it was a funny story.

Have you been to Malapascua Island? I’d love to hear about your experience, comment below!

A visit to Vanuatu: The Espiritu Santo Dive Getaway

A visit to Vanuatu: The Espiritu Santo Dive Getaway

One of the things that I love most about traveling and an independent lifestyle is that it enables me to jump on adventurous options when they present themselves. During my stay in Australia’s Gold Coast, a friend told me about an island group in the South Pacific called Vanuatu.

He informed me about a special four-day dive getaway to one of the islands, Espirito Santo, that was on offer. It was organized by Air Vanuatu, dive shop Aquamarine, and The Espiritu Hotel.

The deal was for Vanuatu residents only, but after a few phone calls and emails I was allowed to take advantage of the deal. A few weeks later, I was on my way to go diving in a country that I didn’t even know existed!

Air Vanuatu

There are two dive sites of particular interest near the island of Espirito Santo, Million Dollar Point and the SS Coolidge wreck.

Million Dollar Point

During World War Two, the US had quite a lot of military equipment stored at a military base on Espirito Santo. Following the war, their efforts to sell it off were unsuccessful, so they decided to dump everything in the sea, just off the coast of the island.

Ever since, hundreds of jeeps, trucks, bulldozers, trailers, tractors, forklifts and unopened boxes of clothes, tools, and other types of material have been lying on the bottom of the ocean. The material is scattered over a vast area, starting at just a few meters below the surface to around 30 meters deep. This makes for an unique dive site that is very accessible to beginners.

Million Dollar Point Vanuatu

President SS Coolidge

The SS Coolidge was a luxury cruise liner that was converted into a troop transport during World War Two. In October 1942, she was scheduled to deliver several thousands of American troops to the military base on Espirito Santo. Upon entering the harbor, she ran into a mine field that had been placed in the sea to protect the harbor against Japanese submarines. The captain hadn’t been informed of the mine field, and the ship was quickly evacuated before she sank to the bottom of the ocean.

SS President Coolidge

Ever since, she’s been resting at a depth of 20 to 60 meters, providing excellent opportunities for divers to explore. The wreck is still almost completely intact, making for one of the best wreck dives on the planet. Given its gigantic size of over 200 meters (600 feet) in length, there are over 20 different dive sites inside and around the wreck. Most dives are more than 20 meters deep, so an advanced diving certification is recommended for these dives.

SS President Coolidge

Both dive sites are located close to the main town of Luganville, where most visitors will end up staying. I stayed at The Espiritu Hotel, where I was welcomed by Simon, one of the Australian owners. Simon helped me a lot with advice about restaurants and local highlights.

Aquamarine is the best dive shop to go with. It is conveniently located in The Espiritu making the hotel an excellent choice of accommodation for divers. Aquamarine owns the land that gives access to the SS Coolidge dive site, so it’s the only dive shop that doesn’t require you to go on a boat to do the dives. The owner Rehan knows every corner of the ship, and his dive shop has guided over 30.000 divers. You’re in good hands with them.

The Espiritu

For more information about diving in Espirito Santo, check out the websites of The Espiritu and Aquamarine.

Do you enjoy scuba diving? I also went diving in the Philippines and I did a liveaboard to the Similan Islands.

*Disclosure: I received a discount on this trip but I never sacrifice my integrity in exchange for a favourable review.

Similan Islands: A Diving Adventure

Similan Islands: A Diving Adventure

I was traveling in Asia when I met up with Christophe, a former colleague and good friend. He had taken three weeks off to join me for a trip to Thailand and Malaysia.

Christophe shares my deep passion for scuba diving. Accordingly, the question wasn’t if we would go diving, but (1) where and (2) for how long. I had heard enchanting stories about a group of islands in the Andaman Sea, just a few hours off the western coast of Thailand: The Similan Islands.

The Similan Islands are a group of nine tiny islands, all with white sandy beaches and surrounded by some of Thailand’s richest waters. In order to explore most of the 20 dive sites, we opted to go for a four-day dive safari, also known as a “liveaboard.”

Similan Islands Liveaboard

Our boat was conveniently equipped with sleeping cabins and a specially designed dive deck, making for easy access to the water. Because our boat was determined hit as many dive locations as possible, we were on a pretty tight schedule. We started each day bright and early at 6 am. After a piece of toast and a cup of coffee, we were in the water by 7 am for our first dive. What a great way to start the day.

Liveaboard Diving

Another three dives would follow, each one followed by a lovely meal served by the friendly staff. Food tastes so much better after an exhausting swim in the ocean! We had opted to combine our dive trip with the Advanced Open Water course, which meant a few hours of studying per day as well. Some might find this disruptive on a holiday, but I rather enjoy melding education with pleasure.

Advanced Open Water Studying

The underwater scenery was absolutely stunning. Hard corals cover the steep slopes, and the high visibility allowed us to fully absorb the colorful scenery. Huge granite boulders peppered the sea floor, providing the various sea animals with a plethora of cracks and crevasses to hide in. Soft corals were scattered everywhere near the bottom, swaying calmly in the slow current, mesmerizing all of us with their rhythmic movements and bright colors.

Soft Corals Similan Islands

One of the things I love about diving is that I always discover something new. This particular trip was no different. I saw a number of creatures I had never seen before, including a Leopard Shark, Garden Eels, and the tiny Sea Dragon.

Sea Dragon

To give you a good impression of what the underwater world looked like, I’ve created this video:

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GAOOt-jneDY[/youtube]

After the last dive of each day, we would change back into our comfortable clothes and sit atop the deck as the sun began to set. As we watched the breathtaking landscape amid excited conversations about the day’s adventure, the staff would quietly pull up a cooler full of ice cold beer. This was pure bliss. Enjoying a cold beer, chatting with new friends, and exchanging dive experiences, all while watching the sun drop beneath horizon… I can’t think of many things more enjoyable than that. Around 9 pm, I would head back to my room, read a few pages of my book, and eventually fall into a deep sleep.

Similan Islands Sunset

This trip was one of the best experiences of my life. The liberation from technologies like mobile phones and the internet combined with a complete immersion into fresh ocean air, the stunning scenery of the islands, and the beauty of the underwater world made for a truly unforgettable experience.

View more pictures of the Similan Islands and its marine life! Also check out my other diving stories: diving with a very loyal turtle and diving one of the world’s biggest wrecks!

A Turtle’s Tale: Diving with Uncle Bob

A Turtle’s Tale: Diving with Uncle Bob

I met up with my buddy at Manila airport. We share one passion: deep sea diving. Our final destination was Sabang, a little dive resort in the municipality of Puerto Galera. To get there from Manila, we first had to take a 3 hour taxi to Batangas, a village located at the southern point of the island of Luzon. From Batangas it would be another 2 hours on a Banca (typical Philippines boat) to Sabang.

Upon arrival, a very familiar scene unfolded. As soon as we stepped off the boat, a circle of locals entrapped us, offering all sorts of services such as carrying our bags, helping us find a good hotel, locating a massage parlor, or simply trying to be our friends.

Arriving in Sabang

A warm welcome by the locals

The dive shop was run by Bob, an old man who was originally from California. Well into his seventies, he is probably the most experienced diver I’ve ever met, having started his diving career in 1956. With thousands of dives under his belt, he had a lot of stories to tell. During our trip, we grew quite fond of him and started calling him Uncle Bob.

Mermaid Divers Sabang

Uncle Bob instructing some divers

As we were heading to our first dive site, he told us how he his friend had battled a great white shark off the coast of California. The tale was horrific. After the shark began its attack, Bob’s friend swam vigorously towards the boat. Struggling against the great white, Bob’s friend was able to sling his right arm over the side of the boat as the shark clung to his leg. Bob pulled as hard as he could, fighting against the powerful animal.

He nearly fell into the water, but held steady on the boat, and finally yanked his friend out of the water. He was overjoyed by this small victory, but quickly dismayed once reality set in. Despite Bob’s heroic effort, his friend’s leg had been mangled by the shark’s crushing clench. Bob would spend the next 20 minutes watching helplessly as his dear friend bled to death on the bottom of the boat.

Diving in Sabang

Getting ready to go down!

I could tell Bob was emotional when retelling this story. Even my eyes began to well up. But once the story was over and Bob’s mind returned to the present, my palms started to sweat. I don’t think it was on purpose, but the story made me nervous, especially since we were about to dive in a region known as “Shark Cave.”

The water was calm near the jumping point. We anchored the boat and began to put on our equipment. I was eager to try out my new goggles that I had bought a month earlier in Thailand. As soon as I hit the water, I felt an overwhelming sense of relaxation. It was so warm that I nearly nodded off while waiting for my friend to jump in. We checked to make sure our equipment was functioning, and without further ado, began our descent into the crystal blue unknown.

Clownfish hiding in a Sea Anemone

Clownfish hiding in a Sea Anemone

The visibility in the water was fantastic! I saw a symphony of beautiful sea creatures dancing around the colorful coral formations. It wasn’t long until I saw one of my favorite fish: the Clownfish, hiding in a Sea Anemone! As I was twisting my head from side to side, not wanting to miss a single part of the show, I suddenly noticed that we were being followed. Bob’s previous story came to mind, and felt a panic crawl over me. I slowly turned my head to see what was stalking me, and immediately let out a sigh of relief. It was a gigantic sea turtle.

Normally, sea turtles are quite shy, swimming away as you approach them. But not this one. He was inquisitive, bold, and strong. Basically, the turtle version of myself! :). He seemed to enjoy our company a lot. Perhaps he felt a kinship because we were also lugging around a hefty outer shell. I also noticed he was missing part of one of his flippers. When we got back to shore, I asked Bob about the turtle’s strange behavior.

Hawksbill SeaTurtle

A Hawksbill SeaTurtle

Uncle Bob had actually met the creature years ago when he saw it trapped under a rock. Turtles can’t breathe under water; they have to surface every few minutes to breathe in air. Uncle Bob knew that the turtle’s oxygen was limited, and tried everything to free the turtle from its precarious position. The rock was immovable. As the turtle started showing signs of suffocation, Bob realized he had one option left.

He took out his dive knife and cut off a section of the turtle’s flipper. He then dragged it up to the surface where it was finally able to breathe. He brought the turtle aboard his boat, treated his wound with his first aid kit, and released him into the sea. Ever since then, whenever uncle Bob would come back to the dive site, the happy turtle would follow him around. It was its way of saying thanks. And Uncle Bob was surely happy to know that his turtle friend had survived and flourished.

Check out my other diving adventures and my other posts about The Philippines!

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