Your Opinions on Comparing First Timer Coral Triangle Destinations?

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drrich2

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This topic may stir up rivalries or resentments at perceived misinterpretations or wrong assumptions, but may be useful to help divers new to the region decide amongst varied big name destinations there. I know this will involve over-generalization and probably not everyone will agree. I’ll narrow the parameters so we can narrow it down. I will hit you with a lot of text setting up what I’m trying to accomplish, but I think this thread has the potential to help some divers make sense of Coral Triangle trip planning options. I haven’t been there; I need input from those of you who have.

I’ve been researching Coral Triangle destinations for a hoped for one-time trip to a big name Coral Triangle destination, and after deliberation between Raja Ampat and Komodo, chose Raja Ampat, so my dive travel agent and I have been working on that. It took a lot of digging to get a sense of my options. For months I’ve had a stretched out map of the Earth as my 27-inch computer screen wallpaper, to get it in my head where these places are relative to each other. Reading multiple threads and other sources, I’ve gotten some 2nd hand impressions of how they compare to each other, but some of my impressions may be wrong!

It stands to reason other divers in my situation may face this problem, so I started this thread to help. Because I know divers hail from around the world, have different levels of experience and financial and time resources, different interests and goals, I’ll narrow it down to people like me, which I think speaks to a lot of the mainstream recreational diving population.

1.) Our diver is a North America-based recreational diver with PADI AOW or similar, probably 100+ ocean dives, has been on at least a few but probably several trips to the Caribbean and maybe Florida. He’s done some drift diving in Cozumel.

2.) Our diver is 45 - 65, chubby but in generally good health, fair fitness, the sort you see a lot on dive boats. He’s accustomed to air conditioning, soft beds, the level of amenities you find at Bonaire’s Buddy Dive Resort or a mainstream Caribbean liveaboard. On the other hand, he’s middle class, not loaded, and wants mid.-range budget. I’ll use ‘he,’ but sex probably doesn’t matter.

——So Wakatobi Dive Resort is probably not going to be the winner, but neither will a no air-conditioning homestay.

3.) He strongly values beautiful, lush coral reefs. Then large numbers of tropical fish, particularly colorful ones. Big animals are a big plus. Tiny macro subjects are neat, but this guy isn’t packing a big SLR rig with macro lens and a dome. Mantas and sharks win out over nudibranchs, but wobbegongs and blue-ringed octopi rock.

——In other words, Lembeh Strait is probably not going to be the winner. Don’t think muck diving is gonna win.

4.) We assume this may be his only trip to the Coral Triangle. He probably wants to go somewhere he’s heard a lot about on ScubaBoard, and maybe online and magazine articles.

5.) He’s gonna use a dive travel agent to handle the hassles of arranging airfare and overnight hotel stays.

Problem: Our guy sees a lot of talk about Raja Ampat, Komodo, multiple places in the Philippines, and rare but high praise reports of diving in Papua, New Guinea and the Solomon Islands (so why so few trip reports for those?). And sporadic mentions of places like Ambon, Alor, Bali, Banda Sea, Sulawesi (maybe he noticed that includes Wakatobi and Lembeh Strait), the Ring of Fire and the Forgotten Islands. Doubtless I’m missing some. Even if he picks a place, then there’s liveaboard vs. land-based.

Our guy wants to know the pro.s and con.s of these places as they relate to each other without spending a few years of intense study. Is there some comparative guide?

Going with what I see as the ‘big names’ by SB discussion frequency, I’m narrowing the list down to these:

1.) Philippines.
2.) Komodo.
3.) Raja Ampat.
4.) Bali.
5.) Papua New Guinea (PNG).
6.) Solomon Islands (a stretch - rare trip reports, but it’s in line with Raja and PNG, and maybe worth discussing anyway).

I left Sulawesi off because I figure Wakatobi Dive Resort is too expensive for most, and muck diving in Lembeh Strait won’t be somebody’s first and only trip choice.

Note: Some destinations are better or worse at different times of year. I’m skipping that for simplicity.
 
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drrich2

drrich2

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Here is the impression I got from reading about these destinations:

1.) The Philippines - large group of islands over a big region, similar to the Caribbean situation. Multiple options; I infer Puerto Galera draws the most attention as a first time destination, with good reef and variety diving? Tubbataha reef is available by live-aboard, but expensive. The Philippines reputation compared to mainstream Indonesian options seems to be ‘quicker to get to, often a cheaper trip cost overall, and diving almost as good’ (remember, I’m relaying the impression I got from others; I’m not dissing the Philippines!). At Puerto Galera, you can pay more for the Atlantis Resort (well-liked, make things easy) or save by using El Galleon.

Note: I’m aware a thorough breakdown Philippine options would be a huge project, and for somebody else.

2.) Komodo - great diving almost as good as Raja Ampat (people differ, but that seems to be the majority opinion), known for currents and at times strong so not for beginners, south has cooler water and lower viz. due to nutrient levels but north and south are both popular, and you can do a land tour on Rinca or Komodo Island to see the dragons. A bit easier to get to than Raja Ampat.

3.) Raja Ampat - one of the ‘best coral reef diving in the world’ destinations, along with PNG (and maybe the Solomons?). Edges out Komodo, some dives have significant current but not as strong as often as Komodo, viz. pretty good but not consistently as great as Cozumel, a bit harder to get to and a bit more expensive than Komodo. Seems to be ‘the one’ to hit. There are a lot of liveaboards here.

4.) Papua New Guinea - topside sounds like a National Geographic ‘ends of the Earth’ kind of place. Diving on par with Raja Ampat, plus WW 2 wrecks. The economy of the regional isn’t as focused on the dive industry, expensive, may not consistently cater to American tourist amenity level preferences, and one person said it isn’t part of the Indonesian through flow current that brings big animals (though you may see sharks and mantas) so it’s not quite like Raja Ampat or Komodo (another poster said it’s got big animals). Isolated - you won’t be crowded. Port Moresby is said to have ‘extreme wealth disparity’ and can be rough.

6.) Solomon Islands - consists of 6 major island and > 900 smaller ones, said to be good for both reef and wreck lovers (it’s got WW 2 wrecks), one person commented it’s expensive. Saltwater crocodiles are a ‘thing’ here. Does have the liveaboard option. One person commented on how ‘sharky’ it was.

7.) Bali. An Indonesian island province with estimated pop. 4,362,000; tourism-related businesses make up 80% of the economy. Well-known internationally as a tourist destination. Has extensive temples, volcanoes, cultural attractions, sand beaches, and a range of topside cultural attractions. Bali seems to appeal to people who desire a strong cultural topside offering, for themselves or non-divers they have in tow.

Note: I know I’m ignoring Palau, the Maldives, Fiji (‘soft coral capitol of the world’) and other places.

What do you guys think? What did I miss or get wrong? What would be helpful for divers considering a first (and maybe online) trip to a Coral Triangle destination to know? How would you help them pick one over the others?

Thanks in advance for all your help.
 

Centrals

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I will try to share my own experiences on Indonesia, PNG and Philippines.
I have very limited diving experience in PNG but the dives were very good at Madang. Port Moresby is nothing when compare with Mt Hagan. I did not feel very safe even on broad day light. There were so many small group of peoples walking aimlessly on the street and looked at me!!
Indonesia has better diving than Philippines but the logistic in that country is awful. No such problem in Philippines.

Indonesia: R4 + Komodo
Philippines: Tubattaha(LoB).
 

Dan

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Easy choice for me. Since this trip will be your only chance, a lifetime sort of trip (until you get bit by the local dive bug I suppose), don’t contemplate too much, take the 10-day liveaboard trip to Raja Ampat.

Easy flight. Fly to Jakarta & get domestic flight to Sorong. No big deal. Really.
 

tursiops

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Dan seems to have been everywhere, so I suspect his comparisons are quite valid...but it DOES depend on the kind of diving you like to do.
For me, the places to go back to are Raja Ampat and Tubbataha; the latter is one of the best trips I've had.
Also consider one of the repositioning trips some of the liveaboards do, for example the Mermaid from Ambon to RA. A lot of variety and biodiversity.
I have no desire to go back to Komodo.
By the way, Richard, there are lots of places in Sulawesi other than Wakatobi and Lembeh! Take a look at the stuff in the north, in the Bunaken National Park area, or ner the Bangka islands.
 
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drrich2

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take the 10-day liveaboard trip to Raja Ampat.
Thanks. That's what I decided. I don't have the time (to be away from my wife and our little girl), money (I'm retired and this is a splurge) or inclination to pursue added topside cultural excursions (the topside is usually that stretch between the plane and liveaboard for me). If blessed to go, I don't want to spend the rest of my life thinking I 'settled.' And while I've done drift diving, Komodo sounded like it'd be pushing it for me. I've had to fight current before often enough to know I am not good at it.

I hope this thread can help others make sense of the options, too. For me as a solo traveling diver oblivious to the topside (except it would've been cool to walk on Rinca or Komodo and see the dragons), it was pretty much Raja Ampat vs. Komodo. Going a place my kid and other people would've heard of, and hear of off and on through life, plus seeing the dragons had an appeal, but between the seeming consensus Raja Ampat's diving was that little bit better, and concern Komodo's currents would be a bit too much...I chose Raja.
 
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drrich2

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For me, the places to go back to are Raja Ampat and Tubbataha; the latter is one of the best trips I've had.
The Philippines seem to be a mainly land-based destination with a rep. for being budget friendly (except Atlantis), except for Tubbataha, which is a liveaboard with a rep. for being expensive (or so I gleaned). How do you think a liveaboard trip to Tubbataha stacks up to one in Raja Ampat? Let's say a mid.-range liveaboard in Raja, like the Indo-Siren of Samambaia. What would move you to choose one over the other?
Also consider one of the repositioning trips some of the liveaboards do, for example the Mermaid from Ambon to RA. A lot of variety and biodiversity.
Interesting you say that; I've read somewhere a recommendation to avoid repositioning trips on the grounds the diving's better in Raja Ampat than out beyond it en route somewhere else. Do you prefer that to one that just stays in Raja Ampat?
I have no desire to go back to Komodo.
What did you find less desirable about Komodo?
By the way, Richard, there are lots of places in Sulawesi other than Wakatobi and Lembeh! Take a look at the stuff in the north, in the Bunaken National Park area, or ner the Bangka islands.
True. In my notes I've got this blurb compiled:

Ken Kurtis, owner of Reef Seekers and contributor to Scuba Board, has led 9 trips to Sulawesi & Lembeh spanning July, 2000 – July, 2019. In his 2019 Trip Report, he noted they used Murex Dive Resort in NE Sulawesi, and offered travel insights. He noted their general dive areas were Bunaken (a national park with spectacular vertical walls), Manado Bay (muck diving – and a house reef with muck + coral), Bangka Island (known for soft corals) and Lembeh Straits (world famous muck diving).

Sulawesi Dive Trek operates out of Baubau and Wakatobi (the area, not Wakatobi Dive Resort), with a dive center on Wangi-wangi Island, and one of their people has been posting on ScubaBoard recently.

I kept to a destination list I think people considering a first time (and maybe only) trip will use. I wonder how many 1st timers do hit Sulawesi locations? I imagine there are some.
 

JohnN

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Here is the impression I got from reading about these destinations:

1.) The Philippines - large group of islands over a big region, similar to the Caribbean situation. Multiple options; I infer Puerto Galera draws the most attention as a first time destination, with good reef and variety diving? Tubbataha reef is available by live-aboard, but expensive. The Philippines reputation compared to mainstream Indonesian options seems to be ‘quicker to get to, often a cheaper trip cost overall, and diving almost as good’ (remember, I’m relaying the impression I got from others; I’m not dissing the Philippines!). At Puerto Galera, you can pay more for the Atlantis Resort (well-liked, make things easy) or save by using El Galleon.

Note: I’m aware a thorough breakdown Philippine options would be a huge project, and for somebody else.

2.) Komodo - great diving almost as good as Raja Ampat (people differ, but that seems to be the majority opinion), known for currents and at times strong so not for beginners, south has cooler water and lower viz. due to nutrient levels but north and south are both popular, and you can do a land tour on Rinca or Komodo Island to see the dragons. A bit easier to get to than Raja Ampat.

3.) Raja Ampat - one of the ‘best coral reef diving in the world’ destinations, along with PNG (and maybe the Solomons?). Edges out Komodo, some dives have significant current but not as strong as often as Komodo, viz. pretty good but not consistently as great as Cozumel, a bit harder to get to and a bit more expensive than Komodo. Seems to be ‘the one’ to hit. There are a lot of liveaboards here.

4.) Papua New Guinea - topside sounds like a National Geographic ‘ends of the Earth’ kind of place. Diving on par with Raja Ampat, plus WW 2 wrecks. The economy of the regional isn’t as focused on the dive industry, expensive, may not consistently cater to American tourist amenity level preferences, and one person said it isn’t part of the Indonesian through flow current that brings big animals (though you may see sharks and mantas) so it’s not quite like Raja Ampat or Komodo (another poster said it’s got big animals). Isolated - you won’t be crowded. Port Moresby is said to have ‘extreme wealth disparity’ and can be rough.

6.) Solomon Islands - consists of 6 major island and > 900 smaller ones, said to be good for both reef and wreck lovers (it’s got WW 2 wrecks), one person commented it’s expensive. Saltwater crocodiles are a ‘thing’ here. Does have the liveaboard option. One person commented on how ‘sharky’ it was.

7.) Bali. An Indonesian island province with estimated pop. 4,362,000; tourism-related businesses make up 80% of the economy. Well-known internationally as a tourist destination. Has extensive temples, volcanoes, cultural attractions, sand beaches, and a range of topside cultural attractions. Bali seems to appeal to people who desire a strong cultural topside offering, for themselves or non-divers they have in tow.

Note: I know I’m ignoring Palau, the Maldives, Fiji (‘soft coral capitol of the world’) and other places.

What do you guys think? What did I miss or get wrong? What would be helpful for divers considering a first (and maybe online) trip to a Coral Triangle destination to know? How would you help them pick one over the others?

Thanks in advance for all your help.
Strangely enough, I've had a twice-postponed trip to do almost exactly this.

My itinerary:
Fly from PDX to Jakarta
Jakarta to LBJ (Komodo)
LOB Komodo (Moana) 6 days
LBJ to Sorong (SOR)
SOR to Kaimana (KNG)
Boat transit to Triton Bay (land based)
Triton Bay 6 days
KNG to SOR
Boat transit to Papau Explorers (land based)
Papau Explorers for 6 days
Boat transit to Sorong
Sorong to Jakarta
Jakarta home
 
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drrich2

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I've had a twice-postponed trip to do almost exactly this.
What time of year did you pick? I ask because from what I read, optimal time of year varies by destination. From my notes:

Despite being variably near equatorial, Indonesian diving is seasonal by region. You may read different specifics on what good and best times are for a given region. Luko (Post #20), with > 20 trips, reported his impressions:
  • Oct. – April: Better suited to easternmost Indonesia – Raja Ampat, Ambon, Maluku/Banda.
  • April – almost Nov.: Bali & Nusa Tenggara (from Bali to Alor, including Komodo, Kalimaya), Kalimantan, North Sulawesi (Mando, Bangka, Bunaken, Lembeh) and Weh.
  • His personal favorites: Raja Ampat (best Feb. – April), Alor, Komodo (best Sept. – Nov.), Ambon & Maluku (best Feb. – April), Bangka & Lembeh (best April – May), Bali (best end of Aug. – Oct.).
Of Raja Ampat, I had this compiled:

Live-aboard trips offered Oct. to May, the prime diving season; less rain, calmer seas & better viz. Mid.-June – Mid.-Sept. monsoon season – some live-aboards don’t go; south gets inaccessible but north and central parts remain accessible. Dan (Post #5) opined Dec. is the best time for Raja Ampat; he said (Post #17) good live-aboards usually fill up about 12 months ahead. Darnold9999 (Post #4) recommended one avoid repositioning trips (e.g.: from Komodo to Raja Ampat), as outside Raja Ampat’s marine park you’ll see a number of dynamited reefs.

For Komodo, I compiled this:
  • Komodo National Park – 3 Major islands (Komodo, Rinca & Padar) + many smaller islands. Divided into North Komodo (warm, better viz.) and South Komodo (colder water – low 70’s, more plankton, lower viz. – 20-50 feet, rich life). Known for strong currents and drift diving (not recommended for beginners). Per BWDT: North always warm, South often colder (warmest & clearest Nov. – Jan.). Viz. 49 – 131 feet. Some divers use reef hooks. Per Aggressor Fleet, low 72 in South to high 84 in North.
  • Island excursions to see Komodo dragons are apt to be on Rinca in South Komodo.
  • Most trips depart from Bali, Labuan Bajo or Bima. You’ll internationally fly into Bali, then can fly to Labuan or Bima.
  • For best access to all sites, BWDT recommends March to May, and again Sept. to Nov. From mid.-May to early Sept., SE winds make some southern sites inaccessible – but it’s the best time for northern sites! Mid.-Nov. – Jan. is optimal for southern conditions, but most northern sites are exposed.
  • Best all access: March – May or Sept. – Nov.
  • Best Northern: Mid.-May to early Sept. Best Southern: Mid.-Nov. – Jan.
 

tursiops

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How do you think a liveaboard trip to Tubbataha stacks up to one in Raja Ampat?
Raja Ampat wins. It will cost more. Tubbataha was great; like I said, I'd go back. i don't say that about all places.
Interesting you say that; I've read somewhere a recommendation to avoid repositioning trips on the grounds the diving's better in Raja Ampat than out beyond it en route somewhere else. Do you prefer that to one that just stays in Raja Ampat?
Depends on what you are looking for. There is a lot of variety available (topography, diversity) on a good repositioning trip.
What did you find less desirable about Komodo?
Nothing memorable for me. Been there, done that.
I kept to a destination list I think people considering a first time
Your approach has the danger of simply being a popularity contest rather than a curated list agains peific criteria. People have heard Komodo (e.g.) a lot more than they've heard Tubbataha; that does not make Komodo a better destination.

You like big animals. Here is the Scuba Diving Magazine Readers Choices for 2022, for big animals:

Pacific and Indian​

  1. Hawaii
  2. Galapagos
  3. Palau
  4. Mexico
  5. Fiji
  6. Indonesia
  7. Australia
  8. Philippines
  9. French Polynesia
  10. Costa Rica
So, for your Coral Triangle trip, why not Palau? And Indonesia beats the Philippines.

The problem is, this is just a popularity contest....with a bias toward the places that lots of people go. For example, Bonaire comes out as the #2 spot in the Caribbean and Atlantic region for "advanced diving." Really? And Mexico is #1. Drift diving in Cozumel, I guess.
 

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