Reefs of Indonesia

By Darryl Leniuk 14 September 2009
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The reefs of Indonesia, rich with marine biodiversity to lure divers, are depending on those very divers for conservation.

Exiting an undersea cave 30 m below the surface, I float toward the Blue Hole. A reef teeming with tropical fish and soft coral, this magnificent dive site is located at Farundi Island in the Raja Ampat archipelago, a remote group of islands in the easternmost part of Indonesia, and the country’s newest marine park. As I peruse amongst the coral, my attention turns to the divers with expensive cameras pressed against armspan-sized fan corals. They hover motionless, strobes flashing. Nyoman, the group’s divemaster, beckons and points to a branch on the fan. I press my mask in close but see nothing. Finally I spot it. A pygmy seahorse, the world’s smallest seahorse, is dwarfed by Nyoman’s fingernail. With the same knobby pink texture as the fan, it camouflages so perfectly I have trouble focusing my eyes on it, though it’s only inches from my nose. It sways in the current, its tiny tail coiled around the fan, its miniature mouth gulping invisible plankton.

It’s a small miracle of nature and one of the many wonders of this remote marine park, which was granted official status in August of last year. Situated at the heart of the Coral Triangle, the species-rich confluence of the South Pacific and Southeast Asia, 50,000 sq. km Raja Ampat has the highest marine biodiversity on earth; 1186 species of fish, 600 species of mollusks and some 550 species of hard coral – 75 percent of the world’s total. In 2006, a new species of shark, which walks on its pectoral fins, was discovered here and made headlines around the world. Scientists say Raja Ampat is a giant species factory. To adventurous divers its reefs rank as some of the best on the planet and are well worth the long journey to explore.

From the west coast of Canada it took three days to reach Raja Ampat. I booked onto an eleven-day live-aboard trip on Kararu Voyage’s MV Cheng Ho, a 49 m Pinisi-style, powered sailing ship, and departed from Sorong, an outpost in Papua Province, Indonesia’s territory on the island of New Guinea. Of the eleven guests, all were serious divers, including three pro photographers.

As I make my way up past the pygmy seahorses, I’m surrounded by schools of anthias, tiny orange and purple fish, that pulse in and out of the coral. A family of false clown anemone fish seek shelter in the protective tentacles of their host. The marine life is mesmerizing. Like most of nature’s beautiful places, Raja Ampat’s reefs are highly threatened. Indonesia’s growing population of 235 million people depend heavily on the sea. Destructive fishing practices, such as dynamite fishing and shark finning are rampant throughout the country and mining companies are seeking to excavate Raja Ampat for nickel. Without protection the reefs will be gone faster than a rainforest can be clear-cut.

Using divers to fund that protection, The Coral Reef Alliance (CORAL), a San Francisco based environmental NGO, and Virginia based Conservation International (CI), have set up a user-fee system that has been successful for marine parks around the world, from Bonaire to Fiji. The US$55 fee, collected from the approximately 2000 divers that visit Raja Ampat each year, is spilt between managing the park, and projects that directly benefit the local community. Mosquito nets to prevent malaria, water filtration systems and vitamins for pregnant women have been provided to the 89 villages in the park.

“Raja Ampat is a world-class destination on the scale of the Galapagos,” Rick MacPherson, CORAL’s Program Director, explains. “Divers were coming from around the world, but no one was compensating the locals for their reefs. We talked to the elders in the community about conservation and explained how dynamite fishing was destructive. They can make immediate money from slash and burn type practices or invest in the future through developing a marine park which will bring in revenue for years to come.” The Bupati, or village council, quickly signed on.

An advantage of marine parks is that they tend to act like nurseries, increasing fish populations outside their boundaries and boosting local fisheries, so villages benefit from better fishing and divers enjoy healthier reefs.

“Because of low population density, the reefs and fish populations are still in very good shape,” says Mark Erdmann, the marine biologist who heads up the project for CI. “The biggest threat right now comes from mining interests that are actively working to get permits to strip mine pretty much all of northern Raja Ampat for nickel. This is largely driven by China’s need for metals, and it is an uphill battle for us, though I’m pleased to say that the majority of the traditional leaders in Raja Ampat are very aware of the long-term degradation that will result from mining and are against these plans. This makes Raja Ampat a high conservation priority.”

The range of habitats in Raja Ampat is stunning. At Malangari Island, in the southern end of the park, I spent hours drifting through narrow channels of mangroves where coral grew below in clear, waist deep water. Small gorgonian fans, yellow feather stars and soft coral clung to the mangrove roots, which sheltered schools of juvenile fish. Sunlight shimmered through the canopy and waxy green leaves dipped into the water. It was as though diving through a flooded rainforest.

On the final day of the trip, we reach the port of Ambon, in the Moluccas Islands, where we depart the boat and fly back to Bali. The dive site is a rubble slope known as a ‘muck dive’. Here lurks the weird and wonderful creatures never seen on coral reefs. In January, a new species of frogfish was discovered here. Unlike other frogfish, this tan-and-peach striped fish is missing the typical ‘lure’ on its forehead used to attract prey and may represent an entirely new family of fish. I search intently for it. Instead I find a flying gurnard, a hand-sized fish with pectoral fins that resemble the wings of a small hang-glider, swooping over the rubble. A pair of tie-died mandarinfish swim loops around a discarded boot. Then Nyoman points out a melon-sized frogfish on a dead log. Its colour and texture matches the decaying wood it rests on. It’s a bizarre fish, a giant tadpole with tiny hand-like pectoral fins and a gaping mouth it uses to inhale its prey. It’s not the frogfish I’m looking for, but it’ll do.

The Essentials

» Getting There: Most divers fly to Bali, then fly domestically to Makassar in Sulawesi and onto Sorong.
» When to go: Diving in Raja Ampat is possible year round.
» Dive Operators: Kararu Dive Voyages: An eleven-day trip aboard the Cheng Ho costs US$3575 plus about US$400 in port fees and fuel surcharge visit the website or phone (international) +62 361 282 931.
» Papua Diving: A land-based resort on Kri Island in Raja Ampat. Seven days diving, meals and accommodation costs $1450. Visit the website, email or phone (international) +62 411 402 660.
» Further Info: Travel to Indonesia: Indonesia Ministry of Culture and Tourism (website); Conservation in Raja Ampat; Coral Reef Alliance (website); Conservation International (website).