Headlining Indonesia’s all-star lineup of diving destinations, Raja Ampat is 40,000 square kilometres of diving paradise that stretches over 1,500 islands straddling the equator. Lying just off of Indonesia’s West Papua province are the “Four Kings” that make up Raja Ampat, the islands of Waigeo, Salawati, Batanta, and Misool.

The breathtaking scenery both above and below the surface is made even more spectacular given Raja Ampat’s ranking as the most biodiverse reefscape on Earth, with over 1,500 species of coral and 500 species of fish, including several endemics. With untold numbers of dive sites still to be discovered, Raja Ampat is a destination that will continue to grow and develop as divers venture farther afield. We bring you five of the best areas to dive in the region, encompassing many of Raja Ampat’s most amazing dive sites.

Waigeo and Kawe

Waigeo’s dive sites include mangrove bays, a saltwater river, coral garden surrounded by white sand islands, and current-fed underwater ridges. The large Aljuie Bay is almost 20 kilometres long and features numerous macro opportunities near the resident Pearl Farm. The smaller island of Gam is separated from Waigeo by only a few metres and takes on a river-like appearance. “The Passage”, as this separator is known, is a shallow channel with overarching jungle and small eddies and bays that feature soft corals and caverns. Islets such as Wofo off Waigeo’s west coast are known for their picture postcard appearance above water and immaculate coral gardens below. “Black Rocks”, off Waigeo’s western neighbour, Kawe, is easily spotted by a group of jagged rocks slicing through the swells. Here, sea fans, soft corals and fish all compete for your attention when the current is running.

Waigeo Kawe

Mangroves framed against the sky, Waigeo and Kawe © Hergen Spalink and Kerri Bingham

Dampier Strait

The Dampier Strait separates the mainland of West Papua and nearby Batanta from Waigeo to the north and contains well-known sites such as “Sardine Reef”, “Manta Sandy”, “Aerborek Jetty” and “Cape Kri”. A large amount of water passes through the strait and is known as the Indonesian Throughflow. Due to the strait’s topography, this flow is constricted upon entry, causing currents in the strait to be quite strong at times. These currents are what set the reefs alight, bringing large numbers of schooling fish to “Cape Kri” and “Sardine Reef”, feeding vibrant corals and schooling scad around the pilings at “Aerborek Jetty”, and enticing the mantas to the cleaning stations of “Manta Sandy”.

Dampier Strait

A school of barracuda silhouetted against the sun, Dampier Strait © Hergen Spalink and Kerri Bingham

Jef Fam

Stretching out into the Halmahera Sea are the island groups of Fam and Penemu. Penemu’s small neighbour, Keruo, features channels with sea fan covered miniwalls and a coral garden at the southern tip that is unbeatable for over-under shots, especially at sunset. Just east of Keruo, “Melissa’s Garden” is a vast shallow reef plateau that spans the area between and around three large rocks that break the surface. The branching hard corals pulse with anthias and damsels as they rise and fall with the larger fish passing overhead. Several large clams hide amongst corals, many of which have grown so large they’ve collapsed onto themselves. Wobbegong sharks are common and often rest on one of the many large hard corals.

Jef Fam

Spectacular hard corals cover the shallow plateau of Melissa’s Garden in Jef Fam © Hergen Spalink and Kerri Bingham

Northern Misool

Encompassing the areas of Tamulol, which borders Misool’s lush green mainland, out to the islets of Farondi and Daram, the northern region is one of the most diverse in its underwater offerings. Near Tamulol lies one of Raja Ampat’s many marine lakes, with its thriving population of stingless jellyfish. Farondi’s “Three Sisters”, “Teardrop” and “Killer Cave” can be some of the most exciting and challenging diving, as the topography amplifies the currents that nourish the omnipresent soft corals and fish. Mobula rays are a common sight here, especially when the baitfish aggregate in October. Daram, the easternmost island group, has meandering reefs such as “Andiamo” and “Love Potion” that feature unforgettable mini-walls and shallows.

Northern Misool

Mobula rays send schooling silversides scattering as they pass through in formation, Northern Misool © Hergen Spalink and Kerri Bingham

Southern Misool

This southernmost island chain is home to some of Raja’s most iconic dive sites: “Boo Windows”, “Wayil”, and the trifecta of “Whale Rock”, “Tank Rock”, and “Nudi Rock”, which are connected by an underwater ridge. With similar topography, these sites all feature a small karst islet that has been undercut at the waterline by wind and waves and from which extends a pristine shallow hard and soft coral garden that drops to steep sea fan covered slopes. The soft corals and reef fish life in Southern Misool are some of the most prolific anywhere and begin just below the surface as soft corals appear at a few metres deep. Just offshore, the seamount of “Magic Mountain” is one of the best sites for oceanic manta encounters, as the roving giants come in for a cleaning on the reef top.

Southern Misool

Schools of fusiliers and silversides segregate themselves as they pass over the reeftop, Southern Misool © Hergen Spalink and Kerri Bingham

This article is an extract from “Waking Dream: An Underwater Photographer’s Guide to Raja Ampat” by Hergen Spalink and Kerri Bingham. Read the full article in Scuba Diver OCEAN PLANET (Issue 2/2016) and find out everything you need to know about photographing the fantastical underwater world of Raja Ampat.