Damai II Liveaboard – Forgotten Islands, Banda Sea & Raja Ampat, Indonesia

Introduction

Raja Ampat is one of the world’s top dive destinations for good reason. The abundance of colorful fish, beautiful hard and soft corals and interesting critters is hard to beat. Throw in a few large pelagics such as mantas and hammerheads and you have an unforgettable diving experience.

The 12 day trip on the Damai II, a luxury dive boat, embarks at Saumlaki and runs an itinerary through the Forgotten Islands of the Banda Sea and ends with several days of diving in Raja Ampat before disembarking in Sorong.

Starting south of Raja Ampat in the southern Banda Sea affords numerous equally impressive dive sites with few other boats around.

I cover the trip in 4 posts. The first 3 posts discuss the dive sites and other excursions. The last post talks about life on the Damai II; diving logistics and getting to Saumlaki, the embarkation point.

Trip Date: October 24-November 4, 2023

Damai II Livaboard – Saumlaki to Sorong

The Damai II

Common Areas

The spacious wooden boat has 7 guestrooms accommodating 14 passengers. There are 2 large lounging decks, one that is mostly in the sun and another that is mostly shaded. In addition there is an interior living area next to the dining room. All the lounge areas are furnished with comfortable furniture and are pleasant places to hang out.

In the interior living area there is a coffee station and a water cooler with cold and hot water. Cookies and peanuts are always available for snacking.

Guestrooms

The 4 bedrooms downstairs, rooms 1-4, are nearly identical. Each is wood paneled with a queen and a twin bed. The rooms are also furnished with a couple of shelving unites and a closets for a few hanging items.

The bathrooms are huge for a boat, with a good-size shower and a sink without much counter space but it does have shelving below for personal items.

While there are a couple of outlets in the room you are not supposed to leave electronics unattended and should charge them in the living room or camera room.

Generally the rooms are quiet and dark but it can be a bit noisy when the engine is running or waves are lapping against the hull.

Services

Services include massages, laundry and Star link internet.

Meals

4 meals are served each day – first breakfast, second breakfast, lunch and dinner with a snack between lunch and dinner.

First breakfast is a light self-service meal of fruit, yogurt, croissant and toast. There is a self-serve coffee machine and hot water for tea.

Second breakfast is individually prepared and is a choice of Western and Indonesian dishes – egg dishes, potatoes, fried rice, fried noodles and most anything else you might want.

There is a set menu for lunch and dinner but you are always free to choose something else if you don’t want what is being served. Tofu and tempeh are available for vegetarians. Dishes offered are a combination of Western and Indonesian fare, such as roast chicken with mashed potatoes, pork chops, grilled fish and eggplant in an Asian style sauce. There was not much difference between lunch and dinner except at lunch fruit is offered for dessert and for dinner they have a prepared dessert such as blueberry cheese cake, chocolate mousse or banana split.

Cookies and peanuts are always available on the living room table.

Dive Schedule

Generally we did 3 dives a day plus a night dive when it was possible, which was 5 nights out of 11 days of diving. The schedule was sometimes adjusted because of travel time between sites.

6:00 – First breakfast
7:00 or 7:30 – First dive
9:00 – Second breakfast
11:00 – Second dive
12:30 – Lunch
3:00 – Third dive
4:30 – Snack
6:30 – Night dive
7:00 – Dinner – no night dive
8:30 – Dinner – after night dive

Dive Deck and Logistics

The spacious dive deck has individual stations for each diver with a tank slot, personal water basin for cameras, a cubby hole and a shelf above. Each person is given a big fluffy deck towel that is dried between dives.

Wetsuits, skins, bathing suits and other clothing items are hung to dry between dives. Bathing suites are dried every night and put in the dry box, so you never start the day with a wet bathing suit.

The boat uses 2 tenders to get the 3 groups, generally 4 divers per group, to the dive site. Back roll entry into the water. You suit up on the dive deck before heading to the tender. The crew puts your tank/BCD, fins, weights and camera on the tender. You are only responsible for your mask.

The attentive crew will help you put on and take off your skin, wetsuit, socks and booties.

Before the dive Putu, the cook, passes out glasses of water to everyone.

A short briefing is given on the dive deck just before loading the first group of divers on the tender. Groups switch dive guides and the order they head out each day. There is 1 dive guide for each group. The dive guide generally heads up when the first person gets low on air or after 60 minutes. Divers can stay down longer with their buddy if they want to and have air to do so. At the tender at the end of the dive, you can take off your tank in the water and pass it up if you don’t want to haul it up the ladder.

After the dive when the tender returns the divers to the boat, you are only responsible for your mask. The crew brings up the other gear. The crew will help you take off your wetsuit etc. There is a shower on the dive deck which is often hot but sometimes not. I never did quite figure out how to get hot water. Putu will have a glass of water for you or hot chocolate after night dive.

One of the crew Benny was in charge of cameras and will blow dry your camera and put it in the camera room for you. I usually left my camera in my water basin between dives when my batteries and SD cards were still good.

Overall they have a high level of service and efficiency with plenty of space for everyone. This is a classy operation. My only issue was that it is difficult to check your tank before it goes on the tender if you are in the first 2 boats. Sometimes there are only a few minutes between when your tank is filled and when it is put on the boat. This generally isn’t a problem because they are supposed to check the air before the tanks are loaded, but on one dive one person in our group did have a tank that was only ¾ full.

All the crew is attentive and helpful and work hard to make your experience amazing. Mika the Cruise Director was the best I’ve seen at keeping the guests happy and everything running smoothly. Any issues that arose were dealt with immediately. Although he is Austrian, he has a love of the area, both land and sea, that shines through. He ate his meals with the guests and was knowledgeable and happy to answer questions.

Staying on Saumlaki

Let’s face it Saumlaki, the start of the Forgotten Islands, Banda Sea & Raja Ampat trip, is a pretty obscure travel destination for Western travelers. If you are like me and want to get to the embarkation point the day before the boat leaves you’re going to have to accept a bit of hassle. When I first started looking at possible Saumlaki hotels I could find no way to book anything online. Later, a few months before departure, I found Hotel Bukit Indah which I could book through Hotels.com. Great, looked like a reasonable place, not fancy, but clean, just a mile and a half outside of town and they had a restaurant.

Later I discovered, and I was not surprised, that they do not speak English. They did not answer my WhatsApp messages to arrange an airport pickup. I tried calling and got nowhere. The only thing they could say was “no English”. I then had someone at the hotel in Ambon call for me and they easily arranged the pickup for me. Problem solved.

Restaurant

Once on the property there is still very little English and they don’t use a translate app like I’ve seen used elsewhere. I used Google Translate to ask simple questions and to translate the Indonesian only menu. Worked fine. I ate lunch, dinner and breakfast at the restaurant. They serve only Indonesian food but it was prepared to order and tasty. You may need to wait a bit but not too long. At dinner I was the only one in the restaurant. I had a fresh hot plate of lightly dusted fried fish and another of batter fried eggplant with chilies. Both were excellent. The eggplant was a tad greasy if you don’t like fried foods.

Google Translate to Read a Menu

In the app, download the language you want. You need an internet connection for this. Tap the camera icon.  You can then hover the phone over the menu and see the English translation on your screen.

Room at Hotel Bukit Indah

The room at Hotel Bukit Indah was as advertised – not big but nicely furnished and air conditioned. They provide a water boiler with instant coffee and tea. The bathroom was clean and spacious and I had a quiet night’s sleep. The Wi-Fi connection went in and out but was reasonably fast when it was working.

I would not hesitate to stay here if you need to stay in Saumlaki for a night, just be prepared to use some kind of translation app.

Note that the Saumlaki airport is about 30 minutes outside of town. The flight from Ambon does not go to the Oliet airport shown on the Google map but to the Mathilda Batlayeri Airport further out.

Staying in Ambon

To get to Saumlaki you will most likely have to fly through Ambon and since the flight from Ambon to Saumlaki leaves early in the morning, you will most likely have to stay the night. Ambon is known for muck diving, so some people stay a few days to get some diving in before they head to Saumlaki. I decided to just stay the night.

Spice Island Divers

Spice Island Divers, the diver resort recommended by the tour agent at Equator Diving, is conveniently located 10 minutes from the airport. A great location for the 7:25 a.m. flight to Saumlaki.

The villas are spacious, clean and rather ordinary in their furnishings. The room had 2 wardrobes, a desk and a sofa. Amenities included a water boiler with instant coffee and tea and a charger extension strip for charging electronics. The bathroom was equally spacious. You need to flip a switch for water pressure, which worked fine but there was not much hot water. A common theme I’m finding in Indonesia.

Meals

I had lunch and dinner at the resort. Both were reasonably good but basic. They have a fixed menu with some choice of proteins. I particularly liked their starter salad of shredded vegetables in a light dressing.

Diving

I did not dive but other divers I talked to were impressed with the diving. It’s mostly muck diving so the dive sites are not picturesque and I heard that there can be trash in the water as well. What they liked was the variety and frequency of interesting creatures, especially frogfish.

The evening I was there they had a guest speaker, Nigel Marsh an Australian, who has written a number of books on dive photography and was there to find specific creatures he was interested in photographing.

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