The island of Penamu is a 7km straggle of limestone karst at the western end of the Dampier Strait. Steeply jutting rocks covered with tropical rainforest are undercut at the waterline, giving the impression that they’re floating slightly above the surface. Over time the elements have sculpted the limestone into spires, overhangs, chimneys, and ravines both above and below the surface. The winding coastline hides coves and lagoons, and rocky islets and outcrops dot the perimeter.
Our afternoon dive is at Kerou Channel. The reef here slopes steeply down to 35m and we peer way into the depths on our descent. We’ve just made our way north from the island of Batanta, where the water is relatively cloudy – but now we feel we can see for miles. Vividly coloured sponges and enormous gorgonian fans poke out at unlikely angles from all over. Bushes of (actually pale green) black coral extend into an eery looking landscape below. Lobsters wave antennae at us from out of their holes. We find pygmy seahorses in the sea fans. A squadron of dinner plate sized batfish patrol, and the silhouette of a massive Napoleon wrasse hovers on the peripheral.
From above the surface we explore in kayaks; paddling through the channel and around tall karst pinnacles and unspoiled white beaches; finally making our way back to the boat as the sun sets in a typical Raja Ampat riot of colour.
Loud sploshing sounds of tuna hunting next to the boat greet us as we emerge onto the deck the following morning. We watch them over our coffee; leaping over a metre into the air before tumbling back through the glittering surface.
Our first spot this morning is Harto’s Reef; a beautiful little section of sloping reef that swirls with great schools of silversides, fusiliers, and surgeonfish. Inspecting a single sea fan we find more pygmy seahorses, including one perfect example of a rare endemic Raja Ampat species – its tiny red body spotted with white, and looking initially like quite a convincing wisp of algae. Other finds include giant lobsters, tasseled pipefish, peacock mantis shrimps, several crinoid shrimps, crabs, snake-like mushroom coral pipefish, and numerous nudibranchs.
At midday we head out towards Melissa’s Garden. Here, long established hard corals have developed shelves around 3 small rocky islands, connecting in the middle and extending way out in to the blue. At this time of day the sunshine streams straight down onto the reef, lighting up intricate formations and dancing over a myriad of colour, shape, and movement in the shallows. A ledge swarming with golden sweepers disguises a tassled wobbegong as he waits patiently in ambush. A hawksbill turtle munches through a stack of coral. Damsels and antheas sway over the delicate substrate, various reef fish bustle around us, and black tip reef sharks cruise the perimeter. The big picture here is hard to believe. The overall effect is like swimming into a giant kaleidoscope, its difficult to know where to look.
We cruise north along the east side of Penamu and arrive at our third dive site. Batu Rufus feels like several sites in one. We began vertiginously suspended alongside a steep wall that drops straight down to around 100m, disappearing into the distance below. Investigating contours, crevices, and vast intricate sea fans we find more pygmy seahorses, pipefish, and lobsters. Schools of silversides follow our progress.
A big black tip reef shark passes below. Making our way from the wall to a gentler sandy slope, we round a point, and weave through small bombies towards a patch of stag horn coral. On our return we shallow up and find ourselves at a submerged window, around 6x3m, opening into a hidden lagoon. Sunlight pours through the surface from inside, illuminating a grove of coral and bouncing off schools of glittering fish. We hover outside taking in the perspective. Layer upon layer of colour builds from the bright distant pool, through the opening, and into our foreground. From inside the lagoon we turn back and see inky shapes in the blue; contrasting with their frame of bright delicate details. We end the dive in a second deeper pool; surfacing into a peaceful chamber – still squinting down through the ripples into the scene below.
Our final Penamu site is from land. Showered, refreshed, and ready for the next visual treat we jump into the dingy and enter the mainland lagoon. Navigating through beehive shaped rocks we come to a platform with wooden steps leading up into the trees. We clamber up and arrive, slightly sweaty, at another platform opening out onto a breathtaking panoramic view. The turquoise waters are studded with craggy conical limestone rocks topped with bright green. As the sun sinks behind us, the turquoise turns to a deeper blue green and we pose for another series of picturesque souvenir shots.
Truly a feast for the eyes, Penamu is a photographer’s dream – both above and below the surface. Bring all of your cameras, all of your lenses, and a patient buddy!