Said to harbor the world’s greatest diversity of corals and reef fishes, the remote Indonesian islands of Raja Ampat have attracted conservationists and adventurers alike over the last decade. Now, a pair of land-based resorts are broadening the archipelago’s appeal.
Photographs by James Morgan
I’m woken at 4 a.m. by the labored chugging of the Monaco’s onboard engine. Despite the hour and the hard deck beneath me, I smile with relief: We’re leaving Sorong at last. I slumber until dawn, and then sit up to find flying fish skimming across our wake and the thickly forested coastline of Waigeo, largest of the eastern Indonesian islands of Raja Ampat, crouching on the horizon. A Papuan crewman named Ofni rouses himself and flashes me a betel-stained grin. After two days stuck waiting out rough seas in the dreary, dilapidated mainland port of Sorong—pronounce it “So Wrong” and you get the picture—he’s as elated as I am to be out on the open water.
“Monaco” is an improbable name for this unglamorous vessel. Top-heavy and juddering under the strain of her engine, she was once used to fish tuna, a role that has essentially been turned on its head by the boat’s current owners, Washington, D.C.–based NGO Conservation International. Today, the Monaco patrols the northernmost of Raja Ampat’s seven newly constituted MPAs—marine protected areas—in an effort to prevent illegal fishing. We’re heading there now, to the island of Wayag, where Conservation International maintains its farthest-flung ranger station.
Though I could have done without the delay in Sorong, I’m glad I was able to tag along for the ride. Ofni promises me that Wayag is one of the most beautiful places on the planet. No wonder he and his crewmates keep smiling.
Raja Ampat means “Four Kings,” a reference to the archipelago’s main islands of Batanta, Misool, Salawati, and Waigeo. All told, though, Raja Ampat comprises more than 1,500 islands and coral cays, strewn across some 180,000 square kilometers of ocean off the Bird’s Head Peninsula, which forms the northwestern tip of New Guinea.
Officially, Raja Ampat is part of the Indonesian province of West Papua. Unofficially, it lies at the very heart of what scientists have labeled the Coral Triangle, an equatorial region defined by its high concentration of reef-building corals. Encompassed by the Philippines, eastern Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands, the Coral Triangle harbors the world’s greatest diversity of marine life, with a far greater number and variety of species than are found in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef or the Caribbean Sea. And nowhere is it richer than in Raja Ampat, which has been dubbed an “underwater Amazon.”
“It’s been pretty much proven conclusively that this is the epicenter of marine biodiversity on the planet,” says American marine biologist Mark Erdmann, who has been managing Conservation International’s Raja Ampat program since it began in 2004. An astonishing 75 percent of all known coral species are found here, as well as over 1,320 fish species and, along the islands’ coastal fringes, a similarly diverse assortment of mangrove and sea grasses. One of the most rewarding parts of Erdmann’s job is tallying these species and discovering new ones; he’s personally recorded 42 types of mantis shrimp, some of them previously undocumented. “And who knows what we’ll find when deep technical diving begins in the area,” he adds.
Not that these teeming waters are entirely pristine; as elsewhere in the Coral Triangle, illegal commercial fishing and destructive fishing practices have become an issue, particularly with regard to grouper and shark populations. But Raja Ampat’s remoteness and relatively sparse population—some 32,000 people spread across myriad villages and hamlets—have offered a measure of protection, and now NGOs like Conservation International, the Nature Conservancy, and the World Wildlife Fund are working with local communities to enforce no-fishing zones and develop environmentally sustainable sources of income, including ecotourism.
According to Erdmann, this process has benefited from the fact that Papuans, who are of Melanesian rather than Malay stock, “are one of the few peoples that have a system of ancestral marine tenure, called sasi. That means they actually own these reefs, and therefore have a stake in protecting them as assets rather than exploiting them for short-term gain.”
Shortly after noon, the Monaco moors off the village of Selpele, on the western side of Waigeo. Faded wooden shacks with corrugated-tin roofs give on to a bone-white beach and water that is the blue of hot flame. Behind, the jungle gathers itself and surges skyward—thick, green, electric. The forest canopy here, I learn, harbors an impressive menagerie of its own, including the Waigeo cuscus, all manner of butterflies and reptiles, and a profusion of birds, among them Bruijn’s brush-turkey and two types of birds of paradise. It was the latter that drew British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace to Raja Ampat 150 years ago, a journey documented in his classic work The Malay Archipelago. Wallace stayed on south Waigeo for three months, much of the time frustrated, hungry, and suffering from a debilitating condition that he called “brow-ague.” He collected 73 species of birds here—a disappointing haul, by Wallace’s standards. But of those, a dozen were entirely new to science, and many others quite rare, including several specimens of Paradisaea rubra, the endemic red bird of paradise.
After helping the Monaco’s crew distribute protein-rich mung beans as part of a Conservation International–sponsored health program, I’m introduced to Lukas Ayello, an elder of one of Selpele’s four main clans. Between them, these families are the proprietors of a tract of ocean that extends far to the north, and that is now part of Raja Ampat’s growing network of MPAs. “Outsiders used to come here to fish,” Ayello tells me. “They destroyed coral, they used bombs and potassium. Before, we could not stop them. Now, we have help.”
Men here fish in small outrigger sailing canoes—not the sort of craft that can fend off big industrial fishing vessels. But now, thanks to organizations like Conservation International and the Nature Conservancy, there are “floating ranger stations” equipped with powerful engines to help expel trespassers from protected zones. Offenders, when caught, are processed according to adat (traditional) law, which essentially boils down to a bunch of grim-looking Papuans confiscating your fishing gear and sending you packing, after you’ve signed a pledge never to return. Here, in the northern reaches of Raja Ampat, the method is proving quite effective.
Selpele has also benefited from a landmark concession agreement with one of the world’s largest pearl producers, Atlas South Sea Pearl, which has set up a farming operation in Aljui Bay, a two-hour boat ride to the north. Apart from providing an alternate source of employment for the village’s fishermen (not to mention its first generator), Atlas helps police the area against illegal fishing. Pearl harvesting, I note while watching half a million dollars worth of lustrous orbs being packed into a waterproof case, requires vigilant security.