by Jeanne Liebetrauand Peter Pinnock
Look after your engine and it will look after you. Check the fuel, oil, filters and water regularly and don’t forget to service it often.Haven’t we heard that from many a mechanic? The mechanical needs of a coral reef are similar. Sunlight and plankton are the fuel and oil; sponges and tunicates the filters and of course, there is plenty of water. Only the servicemen are different fish and critters that maintain the equilibrium by feeding on algae and corals and cleaning out the pests and parasites. In the Pacific Ocean Raja Ampat is an example of an exceptional, healthy engine.
Rich in diversity beyond imagination, scientists are constantly breaking records in this back of beyond destination. During a Rapid Ecological Assessment by Nature Conservations Indonesia Programme, renowned ichthyologist Gerald Allen broke the record for the most fish ever recorded on a single dive 283. His mate, coral expert Charles Vernon recorded more than 450 species of hard corals. What does this all mean to the average diver on the reef? Well- there’s a lot to see.
Located on the equator it has plenty of sunshine essential for rapid coral growth. The water temperature is a constant 28C and the human impact is minimal with only 48 000 inhabitants. Currents from the nearby Philippine, Maluku Islands and Australian seas converge bringing nutrient rich waters to fortify the reefs and it is protected from tropical cyclones by the mainland island of Papua (formerly Irian Jaya) lying to the east.
The Indonesian name Raja Ampat means Four Kings a reference to the four main island groups namely Salawati, Batanta, Waigeo and Misool. Even though there are over 15 000 islands in the area, there is only one dive resort and very few liveaboards.
The remote islands of Misool are a range of inhospitable limestone structures created in anger millions of years ago by the tectonic forces of Mother Nature. With precipitous cliffs, craggy spires and razor sharp rocks even the hardiest of trees battle to find root anchorage. Many small islands are carved into mushrooms by the constant gnawing of the currents. The only fresh water is donated by the heavens. Fishermen who venture south in their outriggers are frustrated by endless days at sea with land in sight but nowhere to beach. But the fish love it. They have only their natural enemies to contend with.
As we roll off the boat into the richness below the reef is vividly plastered with brightly coloured soft corals. Whoever nicknamed Fiji the soft coral capital hasn’t visited Misool. The dense soft coral meat. This hawksbill is safe from humans in Misool but where will its travels lead?
The islands near Batanta are not as inhospitable. Small primitive villages line narrow beaches against a backdrop of forest and palm trees. In contrast to the reefs of Misool, the island Wai has an enviable hard coral garden. Boulders of brain corals, pockets of mushroom corals and shelves of plate coral intersperse with green coral trees and long whip corals. The hard corals are not just the standard military browns but reds, blues and oranges. World War II wreck enthusiasts visit Wai to dive on a P47B plane lying in 27m of water. It’s one of seven planes that went down near Wai, another lies in 45m while a third is no longer recognizable in the prolific shallow hard coral gardens.
Energy resources are delivered to the coral reefs by currents. Between the islands of Gam and Waigeo rips a tidal current. The Passage, as it is known, has the impression of a river with its brownish tinged water and the cliff faces on either side of the 20m gap. Parrotfish, goatfish and shrimp gobies swim amongst seafans, clams and stony corals. Rays of sunshine filtering through the dense foliage cast a dappled light on the waters below. In the calm waters of the coves and bays archer fish swim parallel to the surface darting amongst fallen logs and seafans as they search for insects in the jungle overhead.
The liveaboard Ondina usually ends diving in the vicinity of Kri while Papua Diving, based at Kri Eco Resort, also operates in the area. These islands have the most diverse mechanics. Fish, crustaceans, nudibranchs and cephalopods all work the reef day and night. Sardine Reef is not named after sardines but for the feeling of being packed in a can. Mikes Point is famous for the huge schools of sweetlips and Mioskon has a bit of everything ranging from hard corals to soft corals and pygmy seahorses to giant trevally. At the correct tide the point of Cape Kri pumps with activity. Huge schools of surgeon fish block out the sunlight as they move down the length of the reef. Otto, Papua Divings guide draws our attention away from the circling barracuda and shoaling batfish. He points to the delicate strands of a hydroid. Something resembling reef dandruff purposefully drifts from one hydroid to another. It’s a pygmy seahorse no bigger than 5mm, yellowish body with a reddish head.Whhoop thwack sshooo. A pack of kingfish attacks some fusiliers overhead. One is singled out and with lightning speed they sweep in for the attack. A few scales drift down. The giant barracuda then settled in a hollow on top of the reef. A blue striped cleaner wrasse is busy grooming the scales of the largest barracuda. Three other barracuda wait their turn. This is weird stuff the big hunters being cleaned by fish that would normally suffice as hors oeuvres.
The most beautiful servicemen in Raja Ampat are the manta rays. On Manta Point tidal currents torrent over a shallow reef flat. This is the perfect spot for mantas to stop and hover. Here they can dine on plankton while having their wings and gills preened by diligent cleaner wrasse. Mantas large and small congregate to partake of the free service. More than 25 mantas can be seen visiting the station at once. As some wait for their turn in the wash bay they perform a manta ballet – circling and swooping gracefully through the ocean. Others perform aerial acrobatics as they somersault out of the water slapping the surface on re-entry to loosen parasites.
Raja Ampat is a booming healthy engine with a bounty of fish, corals and critters. The scientists completed their preliminary study in 2002 with recommendations to declare it a World Heritage Site. It is imperative that we look after the Engine of the Pacificâ.