Cameron Maclean, the bluff Australian who manages the operation, takes us out on his speedboat to view some oyster-cleaning stations, where Papuan workers clad in boiler suits and balaclavas scrape barnacles from shells, long lines, and cages. There are about 800,000 oysters being cultivated here, so the work never stops. “We actually sell a lot of pearls at source,” Maclean says. “In fact, we’ve done US$2,500 in sales in the last 24 hours.”
Aside from its pearls, the farm also happens to have a world-class reef right off its jetty. Live-aboard dive boats—the mainstay of Raja Ampat’s nascent tourism industry—often stop by Aljui Bay on their way to Wayag. This year, Raja Ampat was visited by more than 30 of these vessels, mostly converted phinisi (ironwood schooners built by the seafaring Bugis people of Sulawesi).
It’s late afternoon by the time we’ve finished our tour, and the Monaco’s captain decides to tie up in Aljui for the night. Yet even out here, civilization manages to insinuate itself. After a galley-cooked dinner of salty fish and fried rice, I am lulled to sleep not by the lapping of waves and the hum of cicadas, but by a Jakarta chat show that the crew is watching on satellite TV.
We reach Wayag Island around midday after another early start. The sea is mottled cobalt and ultramarine and the beach, draped with foliage, would send a Maldives travel rep into an envious funk. But it’s the adjacent lagoon for which Wayag is best known: a maze of shallow channels and limestone karsts, which we negotiate carefully in a speedboat from the ranger station. This is where many of the famous aerial shots of Raja Ampat come from. With no seaplane to call upon, I scramble instead up the sheer, sharp slopes of one of these nature-hewn outcrops and am rewarded with a vista of mythical grandeur. This is the very boundary of the Western Pacific; there is one more island cluster beyond here, and then pretty much nothing until you hit Palau, 900 kilometers to the northeast.
Later that afternoon, I go snorkeling off the island’s northwest coast. It’s my first encounter with Raja Ampat’s famous coral gardens and I find myself transfixed by their sheer abundance. I spot a sea turtle and a coral snake among the more familiar reef species, as well as thick schools of pelagic fish and, in the deeper blue beyond the drop-off, sharks and barracuda.
“We do patrols here three times a week and monitoring four times a month,” says Hengky Dimalouw, a local MPA field officer, as we head back to the station. “But since 2008, we’ve rarely seen fishing boats from outside. Before, they used to come from as far away as the Philippines.”
Dimalouw is also upbeat about the prospects of building a guesthouse. For that, he is hoping for assistance from one of the conservation organizations working in the area, who view developing Raja Ampat’s ecotourism potential—village tours, trekking, bird watching—as part and parcel of helping communities manage their resources in a sustainable fashion. To get a sense of that potential, I visit a Dutchman who first came to Raja Ampat 20 years ago. The Monaco drops me off at his island on the way back to Sorong.
“I originally came here looking for military hardware left over from World War II,” says Max Ammer with a Boy’s Own–style gusto that belies his 48 years. He did well supplying collectors with vintage parts and other assorted relics salvaged from munitions dumps, shipwrecks, and planes—Allied and Japanese—that crashed during fighting here in 1944. But Ammer’s underwater treasure hunts revealed other riches, and he eventually diversified into dive tourism.
Ammer now runs Papua Diving, which operates a pair of resorts on the island of Kri, just to the south of Waigeo, and employs more than 100 staff, most of whom are Papuan. Opened in 2004, Sorido Bay is the more luxurious of the two properties. It features seven ocean-facing bungalows and a two-story building built in the manner of a traditional Papuan longhouse; the latter comprises an upstairs restaurant, offices, a kitchen, and a fully equipped underwater-photography center run by a South African couple. A 10-minute walk around a headland is Kri Eco Resort, Ammer’s first resort on the island. It is basic but beguiling, with half a dozen wooden cottages built on stilts above the water. Peering below its long jetty, I am lucky enough to glimpse a slender epaulette shark, a new species of which was discovered in the Bird’s Head area in 2006.
Kri also falls within a Conservation International–managed MPA, and Ammer, himself a passionate conservationist, works closely with both the NGO and neighboring villages to discourage destructive fishing practices. “Education—that will be the most important thing in the long term,” he says.
After lunch, I’m given a bird’s-eye perspective on protection from an altitude of 300 meters. It’s amazing just what you can see from up here; Ammer, who is piloting this two-seater ultralight, points out a dugong and a pair of reef sharks. Conservation International provided the plane with the proviso that Ammer clock a certain number of hours each month patrolling the MPA. “You see everything from up here—illegal fishing boats can’t hide from you,” he tells me over the intercom. In a moment of uncanny synchronicity, a dilapidated seiner appears in a cove, trailing an oily slick. We drop down to 20 meters to let them know they’ve been seen.
The following day we free-dive the Passage, a narrow, sinuous, kilometer-long channel that winds between Waigeo and the island of Gam before opening onto a picturesque gulf. Wallace sailed through here in 1860 aboard a native outrigger, recording that: “Every islet was covered with strange-looking shrubs and trees, and was generally crowned by lofty and elegant palms, which also studded the ridges of the mountainous shores, forming one of the most singular and picturesque landscapes I have ever seen.”