"Wobbegong!" Saka screamed as he rose to the surface to tell me there was a shark. I hurriedly put on my snorkel and jumped into the katingting (wooden boat) into the sea.
After swimming about 25 meters, I saw four of my friends diving 4 meters deep, surrounding the shark.
The shark was lurking beneath the coral, hidden by the white sand. Not content with the view from the surface, I decided to dive for a closer look at the tasseled wobbegong.
At a distance of 1 meter, the shark stayed motionless with only its broad tassel-swathed head showing from behind the coral. It was a rare moment.
With some prodding by Saka, the 1-meter-long shark came out of hiding.
My four peers soon surfaced, faces shining with pleasure at having seen and photographed this unusual shark.
TV presenter Riyanni Djangkaru poses with "the Ugly Face" Wobbegong. (Panji Laksmana)
"At last, I got to see the Ugly Face!" cried Riyanni Djangkaru, host of an adventure program broadcast on a private TV station, as she described the wobbegong with a hearty laugh.
Saka, our diving guide from the Maritime and Fisheries Office of Raja Ampat, Papua, was also beaming. We all celebrated our successful encounter with the shark on board with laughter and applause. The shark made up for our previous dive trip, when we found nothing but a whale squirting out its breath near our boat as we left Waiwo for the Friwin dive spot, Raja Ampat, northwest of the province of Papua.
From Batu Lima, the place where we spotted the wobbegong, Saka asked boat owner Pak Ibrahim to sail to Mioskon, just a short trip away.
There was a rather strong current in the waters 10 to 20 meters deep. I followed the sea flow along with thousands of gold-banded fusiliers and some parrotfish.
Later Saka took me to shallower waters, where sunlight and crystal-clear water enabled me to see through a distance of more than 30 meters.
Kicking my fins, I trailed the Biak native until a spectacular view appeared. It was a fascinating stretch of reefs with soft and hard coral and a myriad of exotic fish dancing around, as though in a welcome ritual.
There were clusters of Acroporidae, Alcyoniidae and others forming 1 to 5 meters of coral mounds. Gorgeous fish species such as goldies, cardinalfish, angelfish, butterflyfish and surgeonfish were playing on sea anemones and coral.
The whole setting presented a panorama of very beautiful and peaceful marine life. It made me realize that through this particular spot, Raja Ampat shows its class as a haven for divers across the world, even a snorkeler like me!
Back on board the boat we continued to admire the underwater natural beauty and hoped for yet more thrilling sights as the boat was heading for the next spot, Chicken Reef, in half an hour. On arrival, the sea was as still as a stretch of carpet, and Saka startled us with a sudden dive to check the water currents, leaving us laughing.
"Barracuda!" shouted Saka, the Mike Tyson look-alike, as he surfaced. While my friends were preparing to dive, I plunged right away to witness swarms of barracuda at a depth of 4 meters.
In this spot there were also giant clams and clownfish having fun on the anemones.
A Giant Clam is spotted in Raja Ampat waters. (Panji Laksmana)
Satisfied with our diving activities in three spots, we took a break on an islet to fill our stomachs after feasting our eyes on the surrounding landscape. The second day of the diving and snorkeling trip wound up in the Cape KRI spot.
This spot offered us the sight of flying rays flapping their fins around 1.5 meters above the water surface.
"Manta...rays!" I cried out as I noticed the fish jumping not far from the back of my friend Panji.
Then I plunged again into the sea current while watching from the surface my friends diving 15 meters below. From slanting drop-off rims I dived down to a depth of 5 meters to take a close look at marine biota, such as golden and brown Faviidae corals forming seabed domes. The silvery reflection of trevally fish exposed to the sun added to the charm of the sea and the specialness of every corner of Raja Ampat.
After breakfast, we set out on another diving trip amid rather strong winds. The waves were quite high with a strong enough current following the night-to-dawn downpour in the area.
We arrived at Manta Point after more than an hour to start the third day. Two speedboats had arrived earlier, one of which carried Miss Universe 2006 runner-up Kurara Chibana.
As we shifted our gaze from the beauty queen of Japanese origin to the ripples left on the surface of the water by tiny jumping fish, a small dark fin was seen emerging and moving around, followed by several other fins.
"Manta... Manta!" yelled Saka. I also hurried to the water with my snorkel along with the other divers to approach the manta rays.
I got overexcited seizing the opportunity for a close glance. Five mantas were swimming down there, tussling for plankton with numerous gold-banded fusiliers.
The mantas were scattered all over, which made it difficult for us to swim closer to them. So we had to find out where they were heading and screamed at each other when any of us noticed their positions.
My great desire to snap mantas at close quarters separated me from my peers. I kept praying while trying to find the right strategy to approach them and photograph them safely. All I could think about was how to avoid what had befallen Steve Irwin -- "The Crocodile Hunter" of a TV program -- some time earlier.
As I was preoccupied with the search for the fish, a manta was moving toward me. My heart was pounding and I was overwhelmed with admiration, fear and the urge to take pictures. There was no way of withdrawing as the moment would mark my first underwater photos.
"It's the right time!," I thought, pressing the shutter release. The manta was drawing closer to me ...
The flap of its 3.5-meter wings prompted me to refrain from disturbing it and risk infuriating it. I finally lowered the camera as it was even closer, with our eyes meeting and holding.
Moments later I saw its mouth open wide to suck in plankton. When it was only about 3 meters from me, it turned away.
"Alhamdulillah," were my words in praise of God while again photographing the manta before it swam even farther.
After dinner I intended to go fishing because I felt something missing in Papua without this activity. Moreover, I'm a sports-fishing buff myself and three of my friends would be diving to find bamboo sharks. But as it was forbidden to fish in the resort area, I was going to head for the open sea by hiring a fishing boat.
In fact, the area around the jetty was teeming with the fish the locals call Bobara (giant trevally), weighing 1-3 kg. "If only the Seribu Islands that could be like this," I thought, an impossible wish given Jakarta Bay is now virtually the septic tank of the capital city.
By starlight, I followed my three friends diving from the jetty to start a bamboo shark hunt. Though I previously thought that sharks were mostly ferocious, further tips indicated that this species was not aggressive, which encouraged me to join the search.
As I shone the flashlight around, my eyes got fixed on a light brown fish in desert soldiers' camouflage pattern. "It's a shark!"
It was unbelievable to have found this shark in such shallow waters.
Sadly, though, the fish began to move to the left and right quickly in a frightened manner. I kept calm so as not to make it panic even more. Yet the shark was now going farther away from me, which spurred me to chase it but it dodged very fast and disappeared into darkness as I got closer.
The sight of the bamboo shark failed to quench my desire to observe blue spotted rays. Earlier in the day, several of these rays were frequently seen roaming around the jetty. This was the ray species that had reportedly killed Steve Irwin.
And my Raja Ampat trip proved to be rewarding.
The one I was looking for moved toward me, perhaps attracted by my flashlight. But the ray finally paused at a distance of about 3 meters from me, leading to another two-way stare.
Despite my composure to avoid any disturbances that might cause panic, the ray withdrew after a while. So the shark and ray wound up my night snorkeling.
The dive spot on our last day was Mike's Point, which only took a short time to reach using the Maritime and Fisheries Office's speedboat. Here we did the same diving routine before the groups accompanying Kurara Chibana arrived at the spot.
After a cameraman and two divers from the groups went underwater, Kurara and her partner followed. I had the opportunity the photographing the shooting of this film about ecology starring Kurara before my camera housing was affected by fog.
Diving in Raja Ampat's different areas gave us a lot of pleasure and impressions. The natural splendor of the island group will tempt everyone to return for more excitement.
"It was fun! I'll come back next year for my vacation!," the Miss Universe 2006 runner-up assured everyone at the end of her diving adventure in Raja Ampat.