Whale Watching in Raja Ampat – Trip Report

Planet Deep & Oceanic Society Whale Adventures on El Aleph

We were delighted to welcome on board the team from Planet Deep in February to set sail for 10 incredible days of whale watching and reporting in collaboration with the Oceanic Society (the two days of emabrking and disembarking were less eventful so we shall skip them in this report). Also on board with us was Benjamin Kahn, who would be heading up the research and who is a renowned cetacean expert from Apex Environmental. Ben’s passion for and knowledge of whale and dolphin species is unsurpassed and a highlight of the trip will be him sharing his insights.

Under the watchful eye of Cruise Director Johannes Hennicke this 12 day Raja Ampat. Expedition is one that we have all been looking forward to! Read on to find out more about this epic adventure which would take us from Sorong, through the Dampier Strait and around Kri, Gam, Wofoh, Wayag, Alyui, Dayang, Batanta and Waigeo before returning to the Dampier Strait and saying our goodbyes back at our Sorong starting point.

(Trip report quotes courtesy of Rachel Mason, co-founder of Planet Deep)

Whale watching

Day 1: A Great Start with Whales and Dampier Strait Dives

“After a 6.30am start we moved off from the south coast of Mansuar, on the edge of Dampier Strait, away from the Pacific and into the Indonesian seas. Our first Bryde’s Whale was spotted before 8am and we had 1.5hrs of action, tracking and recording the behaviour, with Benjamin Kahn (Cetacean Expert and founder of Apex Environmental) explaining for everyone the species and the behaviour we were observing.

Soon it was time for the group to get in the water and divers were not disappointed with their sightings of mobula rays, an oceanic manta ray and a passing sea snake which was quite curious about Johannes!

The end of our first day blessed us with a couple of late Brydies passing by as we set sail into the sunset, heading to the cape of Mansuar and around the corner to West Gam”.

As the light started to dim it was time for everyone to settle in to the opulent comfort of El Aleph and enjoy some of the chefs tantalising creations while energetically reliving the days dives and sightings – Our Raja Ampat expedition was off to a great start.

Day 2: Bird watching and Dwarf Spinner Pod

“The early birds quite literally were up and about, with some 6am birding, off in the tenders to spot and photograph birds endemic to the region, under strict orders from Johannes to be back by 8am!

We were all in the water around 8.30am snorkeling in the mangroves at Yangeffo, west of Gam. Some lucky people managed to spot a black tip reef shark and we also saw Archer Fish, Hinged Shrimpfish, and Needle Fish, the coral growing in amongst the mangrove roots was incredible.

Whale patrol commenced as we set off west towards Penemu, and gave us a compact pod of approximately 60 dwarf spinner dolphins that were foraging; a couple came up to the bow, then as we quietly moved towards them they gave us the slip, doubled back and popped up behind us, so we continued on our path towards Wofoh, where we moored up and dived and snorkelled “Edi’s Black Forest”.

Sundowners this evening were on land, we took the tenders and had gin and tonics from the cool box and some pre-dinner snacks on the white sandy beach. It was a beautiful setting, surrounded by a myriad of lush green-topped islands, contrasting with the turquoise waters. El Aleph looked every bit of her majestic self as she sat moored in the distance with her lights twinkling as the dusk turned to dark”.

At the end of the evening El Aleph’s crew moved her off the mooring just after midnight to ensure a perfectly timed arrival at Wayag after a good night’s sleep. Everyone retired to their cabins feeling replete after another stunning day and looking forward to waking up and watching the sun rise over another scattering of Raja Ampat islands and tropical waters.

Day 3 – Exploring Wayag

Wayag is one of our many favourite locations in Raja Ampat. Wayag’s diversity and rich terrestrial and underwater wildlife is second to none. Here’s what Rachel Mason has to report on Day 3 of the expedition:

“Sailing into Wayag this morning was incredible, everyone found a vantage point either on the very top deck or upfront, drinking in the breath-taking scenery. The crew nestling El Aleph into position was astonishing; a tender was out making sure our position was spot on and gently manoeuvred us into place.

We spent the morning in the speedboats, weaving our way between the jungle covered pinnacles and crystal turquoise water. Our second breakfast was on the beach where we had time for some Frisbee fun and snorkeling.

Wayne (Oceanic Society’s Director of Conservation Travel Programs) gave a really interesting talk about marine debris. It was unplanned but inspired by the items he collected from the very beach we were on. Wayne had stumbled across a child’s bag, a handbag, bottle tops, a very odd Popsicle snake thing, fishing equipment, lighters and the hook from a clothes hanger. He talked about birds’ ability to regurgitate food and that chicks do that for all the remnants of what they have been fed by their parents e.g. squid beaks, eyeballs etc. Sadly, nowadays, often when that process happens it is mostly plastic they regurgitate. Being in paradise and seeing this plastic pollution, so far from anywhere really struck a chord with everyone.

Back to the boat for an incredible lunch of fresh fish, the crew are delighted that they are able to provide delicious food for all the guests, and cater for a variety of dietary requirements but excluded shrimp, lobster and any reef fish from the menu, from all expeditions. We would much rather be looking at those in the ocean!

Diving and snorkeling this afternoon was along Wayag slope closely followed by late afternoon birding, paddleboarding and we had a swim by from two juvenile black tip reef sharks”.

After a long day, El Aleph’s generous, luxury cabins were eagerly sought out for an early and restful night as she glided through the waters on to our next stop.

Day 4: Raja Ampat Vistas and Vibrant Dive Sites

After a solid night’s sleep the mood on board this morning was one of excitement and expectation as we were on our way to climb Mount Pindito by 7am. El Aleph’s Cruise Director, Johannes knows the islands, peaks and summits of Raja Ampat like the back of his hand and he certainly made an excellent choice when it came to rewarding and breath taking views at the end of our 30 minute climb.

Rachel Mason reports, “It was an incredible achievement for everyone and although it was a ‘scramble’ at the top, the view was absolutely worth it! The circle of islands, lush green contrasting the crystal turquoise water and the occasional white sand cove.

One by one we made it down, diving into the crystal clear water in the bay after the sweatiest climb ever is just the most amazing feeling, cool silken water on already salty skin!

Before lunch there was plenty of time for a leisurely snorkel and dive with the snorkelers reporting beautiful coral and big schools of fish, Yellow Tail Fusiliers, thousands of tiny Silversides, Moorish Idols, and a Blue Spotted Ray.

The divers did the ‘Figure Eight Rock’ and were treated to Nudibranch, Unicorn fish, Giant Clams and a man size bump head parrotfish at the end of the dive followed by a visitation from 11 black tip reef sharks at the back of the boat over lunchtime, with accompanying Remora.

After lunch we headed out for a second dive before Wayne delivered a great talk on coral ecology before dinner; an educational piece around the different types of coral, their interaction/competition for space, zoozanthelli and bleaching. It was clear to see that it really changed people’s perception of coral and in particular it reinforced to everyone that corals are in fact animals. Listening to Wayne was enlightening and definitely changed how we see the underwater landscape”.

After such an active day it wasn’t long before the comfort of the lounge was exchanged for comfortable beds!

Day 5 – Cockatoos, Coral, Critters and Colour!

Our crew on board El Aleph are experts in the flora, fauna and birdlife of Raja Ampat and for keen birders, Raja Ampat is a mecca – and it certainly didn’t disappoint today!

“The birders went out in the speedboats at 6am and they came back grinning from ear to ear. They had seen quite the haul: the crested Palm Cockatoo (apparently of rock star proportions!), thick billed parrot, osprey, white bellied sea eagle, juvenile raja kingfisher, olive honeyeater, reef heron, bromine kite and flying lorikeets.

Once the birders were back and had shared their story, it was time to hit the water for what was going to be one of the best snorkels of the trip. Starting out from the mangroves we spotted archer fish and big eyed cardinals before we floated and finned for about 3 miles (Wayne and Ben went even further!) over a shallow reef with a stunning drop off. Along the way we added sightings of nudibranchs – Robustra and Nembrotha and also a pair of the Chromadoris Annae sitting next to a mantis shrimp’s burrow.

There were big eels and a reef top Pipefish. The colour and diversity of the coral was just incredible and the drop off was amazing. Hawksbills, large schools of silversides, rainbow runners, yellow tail fusiliers and even a crocodile fish were spotted among countless others. Ben commented that it was almost like a jungle snorkel, swimming almost under the trees of the mangroves, keeping your ears above the water being able to hear all the sounds of the activity going on in the foliage, and seeing the underwater activity at the same time.

Johannes and Rachel completed a successful search and recovery mission for Hal’s mask – more rescue than search! It was exactly where it was last seen so we were delighted to find it within about 2 minutes of being down there!

Our first night dive of the trip was at the Fuel Jetty and it was extraordinary. Johannes has it as one of his top 5 night dive dive sites in Indonesia. Five minutes into the dive Rachel saw the tail of something just lurking behind a bit of hard coral and followed the tail, and then all of a sudden realized it was absolutely massive. Johannes took some persuading to swim come over, and it turned out to be our first Wobblegong Shark sighting – they are incredible, almost prehistoric looking.

We also saw a massive decorator crab, using an upside down jellyfish as its decoration, other critters included hermit crabs, orangutan crabs, ghost pipefish, oscillated octopus, banded toad fish, flounders and an interesting sea cucumber feeding”.

After a day out on and under the water the El Aleph crew are always ready to welcome guest back on board with the promise of yet another exquisite dining experience. After dinner, El Aleph’s sumptuous lounge made the perfect space to kick back and enjoy a few games of Clue while re-living the stories of the day before bed.

One of the most valued features of an El Aleph cruise is that she can glide to your next location during the night while guests enjoy a sound night’s sleep and wake up to stunning new horizons the following morning.

Day 6 – Recharging on Board

The day started early with a morning dive at Dalton’s Secret 17. There’s nothing like a little early morning current to brush the cobwebs away, and if that didn’t wake everyone up then the number of turtles certainly did!

After such an active few earlier days and an early start, today guests took the opportunity to enjoy a more relaxing day with more time spent on board enjoying El Aleph’s five star luxury and extensive living areas.

Dinner was on board and once again the team in the galley did not disappoint. The evening was rounded off by a talk from Ben about MPA’s (Marine Protected Areas) and not long after everyone was comfortably sleeping while El Aleph cruised on to our next locale.

Day 7 – Manta Action and a Magical Evening

“Feeling rested and energised, plans were afoot to be in the water by 8am today. Johannes checked conditions at the site at 7.30 and found that there were already two 4m mantas at the cleaning station (and no current, which is rare!). As soon as everyone heard the news they scooted into action again dived in.

The mantas swooping and circling around in front of us was incredible, so graceful, and so huge, almost like spaceships gliding through the water. Mesmerising!

Whale patrol began once we got back but with no sightings in the morning we opted for to snorkel and dive. The coral was incredible, lots of foliose and branching, incredibly pretty and not an inch to spare.

During our afternoon patrol we spotted some marine debris floating on the surface – both natural and man-made and we spotted a manta ray swimming through it – which was an important piece of data to record.

Wayne gave us all a reef fish talk in the afternoon and then we had the most idyllic evening on the island for dinner. The crew had headed out before hand to set up in advance and had created a driftwood doorway with candles, set out chairs and loungers, a bar and BBQ. This is something that surely only the El Aleph crew would put together – it was exquisite. There was lots of singing, and music and even some dancing. It was truly a night to remember”.

Day 8 – Behold Batanta and Pilot Whales Ahead

“This morning started with some early morning birding off Batanta followed by whale patrol back out into the Dampier Straight. Johannes’ keen eye spotted some black specs way out on the horizon, and so we stayed on course to investigate what it might be.

As we got closer the Whale Bell was chimed and Ben began to explain about cetacean species identification. The whales’ behaviour is monitored, recorded, GPS tracked, and dive times and surface intervals noted – all as Ben and Johannes work with the Captain to carefully glide El Aleph as close as possible to these cetaceans without scaring them off. As we drew closer the whales were identified as Pilot Whales, and they seemed pretty relaxed about us being around.

Ben waited to see how the Pilot Whales behaved for a while longer and then made the decision that everyone was secretly hoping for – that we are going to attempt to get in the water with them. Quick change for everyone, masks, fins and snorkels, and headed off into the speedboats. Rachel and Wayne stayed on board with the walkie-talkies to guide the speedboats to where the whales were.

A couple of hours and some sunburn later, along with the whales and a shark sighting close to the group, the action was over and it was an incredible encounter for all!

After the excitement of the day we had an early dinner and night dived Tapokreng on Waigeo – another of Johannes’ top 5 night dive sites, which he found years ago and named ‘Oh Yeah’, for very good reason!

The chatter as we surfaced, comparing all that we had seen was wonderful. What an incredible night dive!”

Day 9 – Birds of Paradise at Dawn

“Our earliest morning yet with a 5am start to go in search of the fabled Birds of Paradise. An uphill climb in the dark at first, before we came to a clearing where we found a couple of these endemic species in the canopy above. We waited hoping to see his comical dance as the ladies appeared, but we weren’t in luck today. A white crested cockatoo was a hit with the birders, spied on the way back down into the village, where we walked for a while. Johannes brought the none-birders over from El Aleph to visit the village and the school. It was a real honour to meet the local people and children and to spend time with them in their village.

Afternoon in water activities included diving Blue Magic & Kri, another two firm favourites with Johannes and Ben. The current at Blue Magic was challenging for the less experienced divers and reef hooks were deployed so people could check out the amazing coral and wobbegong hiding underneath. As we made the safety stop, a beautiful marbled ray gracefully flew by along with a big Bumphead and a Trevally.

Whale Patrol during the day in between the dives was suspiciously quiet and the team are starting to suspect that this could be due to Orcas. If killer whales are in the area all other cetaceans duck for cover”.

Another amazing dinner, another evening of being superfluously looked after by the crew and another sound night’s sleep was had by all!

Day 10 – Final Dives and a Whale pod on the Horizon!

Sewandari Jetty, just off Mansuar, was set to be the expedition’s last dive and snorkel site and it didn’t fail to impress us. With amazing visibility, incredible coral, giant trevally, bumpheads, schooling sweetlips and a wonderful blue spotted ray it was a highlight dip in the ocean to seal the end of the trip – but little did our group know that the day had only just begun……

“As soon as we were out of the water, dried off and changed we were up on deck for Whale Patrol with a brief Brydie’s sighting in the first stint! Rain interlude and restart gleaned nothing until we were in sight of Sorong when we had a pod of around 30 spotted dolphins zoom in to meet us. The pod dived in the bow stream off and on for about an hour – what an awesome welcoming committee leading us home!

With Sorong’s green hills and port lights coming into view, we were pretty much resigned to another quiet afternoon on the cetacean front, but with less than 2 hours of our expedition left, Ben shouted across the observation deck “Rach! Huge Blow, 3 o’clock!” The usual routine of species identification was redundant with the very distinctive 45 degree forward ‘bushy’ blow. This was a bull Sperm Whale! We watched in awe at 3 surface intervals of between 9 and 15 mins and disappearances of up to 50 mins – with no big flukes before the whale probably wasn’t feeding and was just ‘passing through’.  The bull whale positioned himself and headed east – and try as we might we couldn’t quite manage to get near him for a close encounter but what a way to end to our expedition! As dusk drew in, we had to break off and head for Sorong”.

The final night on board El Aleph is the traditional “Captain’s Dinner” which is a feast of aromatic flavours and fresh ingredients all thoughtfully prepared to delight the taste buds. The expedition’s last night was no exception as the group enjoyed classic rending, satay, coconut salads, tempe, salmon (to name but a few) and all enjoyed with a glass of wine”.

Speeches were made, whale sightings summarised and due praise given to El Aleph’s incredible crew!

El Aleph and her team are dedicated marine and whale conservationists and we give our thanks to all involved in the expedition including all participants, those at Oceanic Society, Planet Deep (especially Rachel Mason for her trip diary), Cetacean expert Benjamin Kahn from Apex Environmental and of course, our crew!

Are you planning a private charter experience to whale watch in Raja Ampat? El Aleph is much more than just a liveaboard or any expedition boat built, she is a unique 5 star vessel built to be enjoyed by her owner who has a keen eye for detail, an appreciation of the finer things in life and who wanted to enjoy unprecedented luxury, space and comfort. As a result, El Aleph was built to the highest specifications possible, with no expense being spared.

El Aleph has been beautifully handcrafted in 100-year old teak and ironwood, every feature has been thoughtfully incorporated to ensure a lavish design and layout unsurpassed by any other Phinisi schooner ever built. From the polished wood finish to the state-of-the-art electronics and navigation suite no aspect has been left to chance in ensuring your comfort, safety and enjoyment during your exclusive Raja Ampat liveaboard. For more detailed information about El Aleph, view our full vessel specifications.

To enquire about our rates and availability or to book your Raja Ampat cruise on board El Aleph please contact us on: info@elalephcruising.com.

Please note that to ensure your privacy and an exclusive experience we only offer full charters and do not take bookings for individual cabins.

If you would like to know more about our conservation efforts, upcoming conservation trips or to get involved, please also send us an email to info@elalephcruising.com

Johannes Hennicke