Paradise found – places and birds

Oct 2022

At Sea/Wayag Island, Raja Ampat/ Waisai, Waigeo Island, Indonesia

Today started slowly as the morning was to be spent sailing, and I started the day as I finished the day before, watching brown boobies fly around the trying to catch the flying fish which was pretty amusing.

I also enjoyed another morning coffee with my favourite naturalist Rod, before a couple of interesting lectures.  The first from our local guide Abraham, who gave us an introduction to the “Birds Head Seascape”.  This is located in the West Papua/Papua province which is where we are heading over the next few days and it is one of the most underdeveloped regions in Indonesia, despite it’s mineral, oil and gas wealth. 

This part of Indonesia has over 2,500 islands in a 225,000kmarea which is home to 600 species of hard coral, 1850+ species of fish and around 20 species of marine mammals – it is truly a pretty special place.

Although it was not mentioned in our talk, it is important to note that this region is still part of a territorial dispute stemming from it’s incorporation into Indonesia in the 1960’s.  Many Western Papuan’s believe that the area should not be part of Indonesia but an independent country as it’s neighbour to the south, Papua New Guinea is. 

Next up was a talk about Birds of Paradise which we will hopefully see in a couple of days’ time.  Neil Nightgale gave this talk and let me just remind you that he is the man responsible for many of David Attenborough’s natural history programmes, a few of which are about these incredible birds.   It was great to learn more about these birds, who have evolved due to the lack of mammals (e.g. monkeys, squirrels) in their ecosystem that might share the same food source.

Today was the day we were to cross the equator.  Did you know there is a seafaring tradition that must be followed when you cross the equator by sea for the first time?  King Neptune emerged from the pool to grant permission to cross for those who have never crossed before – our event included being slapped with a fish and then jumping into the small pool on the top deck.  I had crossed before (in the Galapagos Islands), so was grateful not to have to be slapped by the fish but did enjoy the celebratory spicy rum shot as the captain did a countdown and sounded the ship’s horn as we crossed from the southern to northern hemisphere.

After lunch we finally arrived at our destination, Wayag, in the Raja Ampat Regency of West Papua.  Words can barely describe the tropical paradise that awaited us when we disembarked and headed into the lagoons, surrounded by jungle clam limestone pinnacles.  In all my travels, this has to be one of the most beautiful tropical locations I have been to (and that is saying something)!

I decided not to scale one of the limestone pinnacles so just enjoying the snorkeling from the beautiful white sand beach, but I have included one of the photos from a friend who braved the climb as it really shows just how stunning the place was. 

After some beach and snorkeling time, we set off on a zodiac cruise around nooks and crannies around the incredible landscape.  I had unfortunately found my way on to the ‘birders’ zodiac.  Now, I like birds and used to consider myself a bit of a bird spotter, but I am nothing compared to some of these people … I had to remind our zodiac driver (also the ‘bird guide’) that we were supposed to be ‘cruising’, not stopped in one spot for an hour lol. (I must note, as great as the photos look, I honestly don’t think they do this place justice – it was paradise!)

I had a terrible night’s sleep, partly because the room was so hot, but I also think partly in anticipation for the early rise the next day – 3:45am to be exact, which gave us time for some food before jumping in the zodiacs and heading to shores of Waigeo Island under the stars.  

When we arrived on the shore in the town of Waisai,  capital of the Raja Ampat Regency and home to just over 8,000 people and were greeted by a line up of 15+ SUVs which we jumped in and drove through the town as the early morning call to pray echoed around.  It seemed like we must have had at least half of the decent cars in the town lol. We quickly left the town and headed into the hills to start our walk through the jungle in search of the elusive bird of paradise.  Again we were greeted by a large welcome banner than had clearly been set up and prepared well ahead of our arrival.

Today I had had to make a really difficult decision – whether to head to search for the Wilson’s Bird of Paradise or the Red Bird of Paradise, both endemic to two islands in Indonesia.  Although both were in a similar area, with the time we had, and the fact that dawn was the peak display time for both species, it was only going to be possible to see one of the two.   I had decided in the end to look for the Red. 

The walk to both birds started along the same track and although it was not particularly challenging as far as tracks go, it was made more challenging by walking it in the dark and many people did not have torches and our local guide quickly disappeared into the darkness so I had to keep stopping to ensure people behind me without torches could see the way.  We final got to the hide around 5.45am and despite the early hour it was so hot and humid – I am not sure I have ever sweated so much in my life 🥵🥵.

The male red birds of paradise can be up to 72cm long, including their ornamental red plumes and black corkscrew shaped tail wires – those wonderful plumes that distinguish them from other birds. 

The 3 story hide gave us a great view of the birds display area, or lek, and fortunately for us (and the people who built the hide lol), they display at the same place most days and it was not long before we started to hear their calls, and see the birds appear, three males in total.  Two of the three put on a short but impressive display, shaking their colourful plumage and jumping around – just want we had come to see.  Unfortunately for them, no females appeared but it was such a special thing to see. 

Annoyingly, I had my camera on the wrong setting (somehow it had flicked from automatic focus to manual) so I got no decent photos of the event, just a poor quality video on my phone, but I was thrilled to see it.  (The terrible photo is mine, next to someone else’s good one so you can actually see what it we were looking at.)

The walk back down in the light seemed much shorter than the walk up and it was a nice surprise to be greeted by tea and freshly fried banana fritters brought by a number of local families.  Sometimes the simplest of foods in the most amazing locations are the best!

We were back on the ship by 9.30am and although we had hoped for another activity, the day was to be spent sailing across the Pacific Ocean, along the northern coast of the Birds Head Peninsula on Western Papua.    The rest of the day was spent relaxing, reading, napping and a lecture on Indonesian Conservation by one of our local experts.