A 12 hour overnight ferry from the Togeans to Gorontalo in the north of Sulawesi followed by a 6 hour car ride finally got us to the "major" city of Manado. I think one of the reasons the diving in the Togeans is still so good is that it takes you at least 2 days of uncomfortable travel to get there, thus keeping out the rif raf. Now Manado is primarily used as a jumping off point for diving in Bunacan & has a fairly decent airport but no one really comes here to stay, but we needed a break. We were pretty beat by the days of travel, diving, hut living, & decided to treat ourselves to the nicest hotel we could find......The Quality. Think of a 4-star hotel in the States where people open the door for you, pull out your chair at breakfast, are super helpful and friendly, free internet, amazing free breakfast buffet, and with very nice rooms & bathrooms (this was huge after no hot water for a week), all for the very reasonable cost of $55/night. The next 3 days where spent enjoying all the comforts of the Quality, exploring Manado's huge number of malls (of all things), $4 haircuts that included a shampoo & scalp massage (que ganga!),Indo teenagers posing with me so they could take pictures, & except for a random night out with 3 sisters in some weird smoke filled club, we generally took it pretty easy while planning our next move. Jake took off for Cambodia leaving Josh, Pat, & I to figure out how to get to Papua & the Raja Ampat Islands next to Papa New Guinea.
We had heard the diving in the Raja Ampats was not to be missed as some scientist had set the record last year for greatest number of different species of fish recorded on one dive, 283, and that parts of the area are a protected national park which helps as well. Upon further research, we learned that many people that visit Papua usually charter a live-aboard boat for at least 7 days in order to access the outer islands and more remote areas you wouldn't be able to do from a land-based dive operation. The cost was a little out of our price range ($3K minimum) so we decided to just go and figure out where we would stay on the fly (pretty much our MO so far). The flight over was pretty amazing as you get to see all these tiny green islands set in the middle of the ocean, some inhabited & some not. One small island even had a volcano smoldering with a town built directly at its base. You really get a sense of how vast Indonesia is with its 1000s & 1000s of islands spread out everywhere and one could easily spend a year exploring as many as possible.
A quick nights sleep, another ferry, & a short boat ride found us at Raja Ampat Dive Resort and another bungalow. Now this bungalow was a little nicer than those in the Togeans but still with all the familiar characteristics of an Indo island bungalow: mosquito nets, limited eletricity, insufficient fan, toilets flushed by pouring a lot of water from the tub next to it, cold water/no water, set 20 feet from a small white sand beach on a fairly deserted tropical island in the middle of nowhere. We arrived and immediately set off to squeeze in a sunset dive as it'd been about a week since our last submersion (heaven forbid!). Saw some cool fish and reef sharks but it was getting a little dark as we came up at the end and we were fairly close to small island & cave from which small, dark, shapes kept exiting. After a few mins we realized that the hundreds of winged-creatures were bats coming out at sunset to start hunting. We had a goddamn batcave on our hands & these things were all headed straight to the main island (our island) to wreck havoc for the rest of the night.....perfect. Our dive guide was unfazed and didn't really even seem to notice and I couldn't help but think, "Poor bastard, wait till he sees those goddamn bats."
Anyway, we were only sharing the resort with one other guy, a Swede in his early 40s so we had plenty for dinner and the food was better here than in Togeans. Its a little weird to actually have to wait for dinner or lunch and not eat when you want to but you get used to it and they were very generous here as we were pretty much the only guests. 2 more dives the next day saw a school of 15 devil rays, some sweet eels, 6ft reef sharks, lunch on an awesome tiny beach on some random island, & stories from the Swede about diving in & out of cages with Great Whites in South Africa and being on a mission to swim with schools of Hammerheads (guy was gnarly). Now the nights here were similar to those in Togeans due to the fact that there is some shit going on. Basically there is always something falling and hitting your roof or some aninal shrieking or fighting with something else. A bright yellow lizard fell out of a tree and almost landed on Pat's head as we were heading back to the bungalow one night. The locals blame most of the noise on something they call "Couscous" which they described as "a monkey, but not a monkey".....way to clear that up. We asked about the possibility of setting up one of these "Couscous" to take a break from its busy, nocturnal, fruit-throwing regiment to fight a couple of the bats we'd seen earlier but the locals didn't seem to get the appeal.
We dove Manta Point the next day and, you guessed it, there were Manta Rays! We chilled on a sandy bottom and watched 3 big Mantas (maybe 7ft across) slowly "fly" around us. They got about a 1ft away from Josh and he was able to get some pretty amazing video. Very majestic and just so cool to watch especially when you're so close. There are also smaller "cleaner" fish that swim directly next the Mantas & remove dead skin, parasites, etc. Because we were so close, they also started messing with some of the divers......the Swede got bit twice in his ear and Pat swears one of them shot air into his ear & messed it up for the next dive, haha. We also found a decent sized octopus and chased him around for awhile until he squirted a couple clouds of ink at us, changed colors from purple to black, and peaced out under some rocks. Another animal that is fairly bizarre looking and really fun to watch. We surfaced to a decent rain storm and took refuge on an island to do our safety spot between dives, lunch consisted of cookies (pretty standard really), and then back in the water. The next site had huge schools of decent-sized Jack & Barracuda mixing together, always impressive, as well as some big eels swimming around which was very cool as they are usually hidden in rocks and only a small part of them is visible. Pat also found some weird looking type of frog fish which we really couldn't find in the Fish Book and so dubbed the new discovery the Sultan Dong Fish.....look for it soon in National Geographic.
It was still raining on the way back and as luck would have it, we ran out of gas about 3 mins from the resort. The dive guys didn't bring enough gas! We had to sit in our wetsuits, trying to stay out of the rain, while they attempted to reach one of their guys on a cell phone (reception is horrendous out here & half the time people don't pick up anyway). Luckily it only took them an hour to get it figured out and send out another boat with gas and we chocked it up as just one of the travel experiences.........stuck on a tiny dive boat, at sunset, with no gas, no food, in the rain, praying some guy picks up his phone. That night at dinner, one of our dive masters told us he'd seen 3 smaller crocodiles swimming in front of the resort about 2 months earlier as well as a diver the previous year at another resort having a croc bit his head while on a dive and his buddy having to stab it in the eye until it left! I guess there are worse things than running out of gas.