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January 25th, 2015

Exploring Raja Ampat Indonesia – the archipelago of the Four Kings and its hidden treasures

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Photographer Li Westerlund takes us on her latest trip exploring sea life in Indonesia’s Raja Amput. Raja Ampat, or the Four Kings, is an archipelago made up of 1,500 small islands, cays, and shoals surrounding four main islands located off the island of New Guinea in Indonesia’s West Papua province.

Few destinations make me voluntarily get my bags ready and happily embark on a forty to forty-five hours flight mission with all the hassle and sleep deprivation it entails. Among those, some selective and still relatively unexplored dive areas remain, promising enthralling marine environments of a certain kind that cannot be found close to my home town of Half Moon Bay CA. Raja Ampat in Indonesia was one of these irresistible places to dive and photograph before its present-day remoteness, to some degree shielding it from the risk of environmental degradation, perhaps turns less inaccessible to more people. Simply put, I wanted to go there before it changes.

Raja Ampat diving is all about the small creatures and critters, the abundance of fish life, and most certainly its diversity of soft and hard corals. A marine biologist’s dream no doubt. This environment in many ways is the polar opposite of one of my other favorite escapes Cocos Island; the Island of the Sharks with its ferocious currents and large pelagic fish life which I wrote about recently on this blog.

Raja Ampat

Photo courtesy of Li Westerlund

Image courtesy of Li Westerlund

Photo courtesy of Li Westerlund

Though I love capturing the action of large pelagic marine life, I also think that macro expressions below the surface captured as photographic images are somewhat overlooked. With exquisite anemone species, the intriguing solar powered nudibranch and peculiar orangutan crab, a walking shark at night (or more like running when we spotted him), pygmy seahorses almost indistinguishable from their surroundings, and an explosion of color in soft corals and the magnificent hard coral, there was so much to explore. And I loved every bit of it.

Raja Ampat Blog images5 2408

Photo courtesy of Li Westerlund

Photo courtesy of Le Westerlund

Photo courtesy of Li Westerlund

Raja Ampat, or the Four Kings, is an archipelago of about 15,000 square miles, comprising over fifteen hundred small islands and cays surrounding the four larger islands from Waigeo in the north to Batanta, Salawati and Misool in the south. Instead of heading north as planned, we headed south towards Misool because of a typhoon over the Philippines stirring up the water. Though December is the monsoon season, we were lucky with sunshine and the calmest water I have experienced over the years living on dive boats for several days taking these types of trips. Nonetheless, the visibility was only fair at times and for macro captures the currents complicated matters when using the macro lens at its edge.

This time I experimented with lighting and focused on macro expressions. I wanted to capture the beauty I see in the marine life, the splendor which is surely there but perhaps only perceptible when you look closely. There is an intimacy so tangible in this environment, one that you can truly feel when you are down below if you take the time to appreciate and interact with what surrounds you. The trick is to focus on what you “see” and not merely on what it “is” directly appearing in front of you. In an endeavor to express the feeling I wanted to convey, I also used the depth of field differently from how I have previously captured the macro life.

Photo courtesy of Li Westerlund

I believe that people generally tend to care about what they see and what they can relate to. It is my hope therefore that images not focusing merely on epic wildlife encounters, including what to many would be experienced as scary imagery of large pelagic sharks for example, will spark an interest in the marine environment among people not otherwise aware of its wonders. Find my series “Amphimone” “Eudora” and “Amatheia” captured during this trip at


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