Exploring Raja Ampat

A Found At Sea Experience

Explore Raja Ampat with Found At Sea Experiences

Etoile Smulders was born and raised in China and South East Asia, and has spent the majority of her life diving and exploring the far east. Her passion for all things ocean has led her to become a technical deep sea expedition diver and marine conservation scientist. She has spent many years working as a marine expedition guide throughout Myanmar, Thailand and Indonesia. Her current work involves developing sustainable fisheries management plans for rural communities along with shark conservation initiatives in Indonesia. When she's not working, you can either find her spearfishing, or enjoying a bottle of red wine in her veggie garden with her dog.

She also runs Found At Sea Experiences (FASE), hosting multi-day charters around the pristine waters of Raja Ampat. We sat down with Etoile to find out more about this region and how to join her on her next island adventure.

What inspired you to start FASE and offer a multi-day boat trips in Raja Ampat?

I've worked in Raja Ampat as cruise director on luxury liveaboards for many years, whilst spending my free time exploring the remote corners of the archipelago on my own. Most liveaboard boats available in Raja Ampat are painfully expensive, cater to scuba divers, follow the same 'tourist route' and miss all the hidden gems. Even worse, the tourism that is generated from these liveaboards does not benefit the locals of Raja Ampat, and this did not sit well with me.

I started these trips so that my friends could join me in Raja Ampat without breaking the bank and experience the best of what the region has to offer without needing to scuba dive, all in an authentic way that supports local communities wherever we can. We stop at various villages around the archipelago and ask permission from the chiefs to have access to their beaches and reefs, and the money that these trips generate goes back to the community and people of Raja Ampat. 

How do you best describe the trips you're offering?

Our trips are all about getting back to basics, immersing yourself deep into nature, connecting with locals and exploring Raja Ampat's remote wilderness. Living on a local boat for 7 nights, we explore the more remote regions of northern Raja Ampat with a maximum of 10 guests on each trip. The boat is basic but comfortable – shared open layout dorm-style rooms (4 people in each cabin) with no aircon or hot water. 

Most days will be spent snorkelling or freediving insanely stunning remote reefs  and hanging out on the most incredible beaches and islands you will ever see. Three delicious meals are served per day - mostly fish curry with whatever fresh fish we managed to source that day (yum, sashimi!), and always lots of fresh fruit and coconuts. Every day we head to a new island and reef destination, and there are many sunsets spent at the top of beautiful viewpoints sinking Bintang beers with the other guests. 

A highlight of the trip is when we reach the infamous Wayag Islands, a region so special it was featured as the opening scene in BBC Planet Earth 2. We spend two full days here exploring the beautiful lagoon. 

Why are the islands and underwater environments of Raja Ampat such a special place? 

Imagine Avatar land in real life - that’s what Raja Ampat looks like. Piercing tall karst island formations, the most stunning reefs you will ever see, and lush tropical jungles filled with iconic Birds of Paradise. Due to its location at the centre of the Coral Triangle, Raja Ampat is home to an unparalleled diversity of marine life, with over 1,500 species of fish and 600 species of coral living in its waters. It is often referred to as the “most biodiverse marine environment” in the world, and truly is the holy grail of tropical ocean paradise. A reef on Kri Island, which we visiton the last day of our trip, holds the record forthe most species of fish ever recorded on a single dive – over 374 different species!

What does a typical day on the boat look like?

Wake up in your boat cabin to a new island and reef destination every morning. Jump into the warm, crystal clear water for a quick swim, play with some reef sharks or just enjoy the insane beauty of the reef. Come back to the boat and enjoy a coconut and fresh tropical fruits for breakfast. Spend the day cruising around exploring new dive sites, hanging out with manta rays, sharks, and the local Papuan people of Raja Ampat. Afternoon sunset viewpoint hikes with some of the best views imaginable, sharing beers and good vibes with the rest of the adventure crew. Return to the boat to feast on fresh sashimi and local fish curry for dinner. Sleep under the stars on the deck of the boat, wake up and repeat.

How do the local communities live and interact with the underwater environments? Is it being protected and managed sustainably?

The local people of Raja Ampat play a vital role in conservation efforts to protect the area's unique ecosystems and promote sustainable resource management practices. Their traditional knowledge and active involvement in conservation initiatives are essential to ensuring the long-term health and sustainability of this unique part of the world.

Some locally-led conservation practices include the establishment of marine protected areas, traditional fishing rules, and taboos that restrict certain fishing practices and protect key habitats. The 'Marine Protected Area' is zoned into several different resource usage areas, so there are some areas where we are allowed to harvest our own fish (we target mainly pelagics and not reef fish), and others with a 'no take' enforcement.  Out of respect for the local people and their waters, we always ask permission from the governing village in the area we are in for permission to sustainably harvest pelagic species for food. 

Let's get down to the nitty gritty. What can we honestly expect from a trip and how do we sign up for the next one?

Our next trips are scheduled for February 2024. 

Expect to be salty, sun drenched and sweaty. It is hot. We will be spending most of our day in the sea. We will be very remote. Most days there will be no connection, but there are a few days on the trip where you can access 4G cell connection. There are no shops or conveniences in Raja Ampat, so bring whatever you need with you when we board the boat in Sorong. Prepare to fully disconnect, go back to basics, connect with nature, and live in the moment as soon as you step onboard.

If this seems like your vibe, then please follow us on Instagram at @foundatsea.raja.ampat and DM us to register your interest to join a trip. If Raja Ampat has always been on your bucket list, and you are down for adventure, we would love to have you join us.

You can also follow Etoile on IG @captain_smulders