A healthy coral reef is a sight to behold. It teems with a variety of fish. It has a complex three-dimensional structure, rich in coral and sponge cover, and provides habitat for countless marine critters. It maintains minimal macro algae and sedimentation, helping to ensure clear water and sunlight for corals. It exhibits resilience and stability, recovering from disturbances and minimizing diseases or bleaching events.
Overall, a healthy reef is a well-functioning marine ecosystem that provides critical habitats, supports fisheries and tourism, and contributes to the health of the oceans. This report will present a collection of my favorite images from a recent trip to Raja Ampat, showcasing the underwater world of one of our planet’s healthiest reef systems.
What is Raja Ampat
Raja Ampat, aptly named “four kings,” is an archipelago located off the western coast of Papua, Indonesia. Its sheer size and breathtaking beauty make it a true wonder of nature. With a rich history steeped in folklore and legend, Raja Ampat encompasses a vast expanse of over 40,000 km², comprising around 1,500 islands and islets, the largest being Misool, Batanta, Waigeo, and Salawati, alongside smaller islands like Gam, Kawe, and Wayag. The easiest way to get there is to fly into Sorong, on West Papua, and from there travel by boat to the islands and reefs.
Due to its isolation from the rest of the world, only a short distance from Australia, the development of Raja Ampat has remained limited. Currently, modern infrastructure is mainly found on Waigeo island, particularly in Wasai, the regency’s compact capital. This sparsely populated area is characterized by uninhabited islands and small villages primarily engaged in traditional fishing. Historically, Raja Ampat was part of the influential Sultunate of Tidore, a kingdom from Maluku.
What truly sets Raja Ampat apart is its unparalleled marine ecosystem. Renowned as the world’s healthiest reef system, it boasts an astonishing array of marine life, making it a paradise for divers, naturalists and photographers. Located at the heart of the Coral Triangle; an area in the western Pacific Ocean that includes Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Timor Leste and Solomon Islands, the region is home to the most biodiverse marine waters on the planet.
Adding to its allure is the Wallace Line, a boundary that separates the distinct ecosystems of Asia and Australasia, resulting in a unique blend of species found only in this part of the world.
Raja Ampat owes its biodiversity to its tropical climate, strategic geographic location within the Coral Triangle, low human population, minimal industrial development, and, most notably, the Indonesian flowthrough. This massive ocean current passes through the Raja Ampat archipelago, comprising several smaller currents, with the largest being the Dampier Strait, located between Waigeo and Batanta Islands, at the archipelago’s center. These currents stir up nutrients from the deep sea, enriching the waters of Raja Ampat and fostering the growth of diverse atoll, patch, fringe, and barrier reefs.
As a result, Raja Ampat is home to an astonishing diversity of coral, with nearly 600 species, including 40 endemics (Veron et al., 2009). This is more than 30% of the world’s coral species, and 76% of all known hard coral species, found in just 1% of the planet’s surface, making Raja Ampat the most biodiverse coral reef system in the world!
Raja Ampat also boasts the richest coral reef fish populations worldwide. The region surpasses that of other notable locations such as Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea (1,109 species), and Maumere Bay, Flores, Indonesia (1,111 species) (Donnelly et al., 2003; Allen and Erdmann 2009). The most up-to-date checklist holds 1,320 reef fish species, distributed across 451 genera and 111 families, the most ever recorded for an area of this relatively small size. In addition to its high species diversity, the region exhibits a remarkable level of endemism, with a total of 24 fish species in 14 families.
Furthermore, nearly 700 species of mollusks, 15 marine mammal species, and numerous migratory shark species inhabit these pristine waters. Many species have yet to be formally described, adding to the awe-inspiring biodiversity.
In terms of reef health, the overall condition of the reefs in Raja Ampat is deemed very good. Unlike many other reefs around the world, which suffer extensive mortality due to severe stress events such as bleaching, disease, and storms, the reefs in Raja Ampat are relatively unaffected. Stressed reefs do occur, but they are much less widespread, and corals generally recover within a year.
The resilience of Raja Ampat’s reefs stems from various complex factors, but a key contributor is the reefs’ exposure to wide temperature variations, which helps them adapt to climate change. Since 2005, ocean temperatures in the Bird’s Head Seascape have been monitored. This research has revealed that certain reef areas in Raja Ampat regularly encounter cold-water upwellings, while shallow reefs endure daily temperature increases during low tide due to solar heating.
The findings are remarkable: Raja Ampat’s reefs experience temperature fluctuations ranging from 19 to 36 degrees Celsius (66–96 degrees Fahrenheit). Some individual reefs even endure a significant 6 to 12-degree Celsius (10-22 degrees Fahrenheit) variation within a 24-hour period. Despite marine biology textbooks suggesting that such fluctuations should harm corals, these reefs not only survive but thrive in these challenging conditions. Interestingly, anemones appear more affected by bleaching, and may have adapted less to these temperature fluctuations.
Marine Protected Areas
For many years, its isolation shielded Raja Ampat from heavy fishing pressure, but as the area’s reputation grew, so did the presence of fishing boats. By the year 2000, the situation became concerning as dynamite and cyanide fishing practices were noticeable. Recognizing the urgent need for conservation, efforts were initiated, starting with rapid assessments conducted by Conservation International and the Nature Conservancy, revealing the astounding biodiversity of the region. This knowledge led to the establishment of seven initial Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), eventually expanding to a total of ten, that now cover a total of 45% of Raja Ampat’s reefs.
The fundamental idea behind a Marine Protected Area (MPA) is to create designated areas where fishing activities are restricted to meet the local communities’ needs for sustenance and reasonable commercial purposes. By limiting fishing efforts, MPAs aim to prevent the depletion of fish stocks, ensuring successful breeding and the overall preservation of the marine environment. Although scientific validation is still pending, there are clear indications that the Raja Ampat’s reefs play a significant role as a larval source for reef systems, not only in Raja Ampat, but also other parts of the Indonesian archipelago and potentially the Coral Triangle.
Marine protected areas, local community engagement, and conservation initiatives have played vital roles in preserving the Raja Ampat’s biodiversity. Government support and regulations have also contributed to safeguarding the regions’s natural resources. Ongoing conservation efforts and responsible dive tourism practices are essential for maintaining the long-term health and sustainability of Raja Ampat’s marine ecosystem.
Diving Central Raja Ampat
Raja Ampat vast coral reef system offers some of the world’s best diving. The region can be divided into three unique areas; beginning with the Dampier Strait, which separates the islands of Gam and Waigeo in the north from Batanta in the south. This area is renowned for its legendary dive sites, such as Cape Kri, Sardine Reef, Blue Magic, and Mioskon. These sites are known for their abundant fish life and beautiful hard coral and sponge formations.
Another popular dive site is Sauwandarek Jetty, located at the local Mansuar Island fishing village which carries the same name. This snorkeling and dive spot is packed with a healthy corals and fish, including large schools of jacks, sweetlips, chubs, rabbitfish and pacific sergeants. The villagers here have established coral and giant clam gardening projects and work to raise awareness on the importance of marine conservation.
One unique and interesting aspect of Dampier Strait is its biodiversity hotspot known as the “Fish Soup.” This area, located within the strait, is renowned for its incredibly dense population of fish. Divers often find themselves surrounded by immense schools of fish. The sheer number and variety of fish species present in this concentrated area are truly remarkable and my favorite aspect of diving here.
Diving Northern Raja Ampat
Beyond the Dampier Strait, Raja Ampat extends northwestward to Waigeo Island, Kawe Island, Penemu and the Wayag Islands. While more challenging to access, this region has some stunning dive sites, including My Reef and Melissa’s Garden.
Sel Pele Bay is renowned for its diverse array of macro critters, from ghost pipefish and flamboyant cuttlefish to sailor shrimp, nudibranchs and pygmy seahorse.
Venturing further north, Kawe Island, an uninhabited island situated on the Equator, offers an opportunity to encounter magnificent manta rays, particularly at Eagle Rock. Additionally, sightings of wobbegong sharks are not uncommon in this area. The Wayag Islands, located at the northernmost tip of the archipelago, are often visited by liveaboards or can be explored on a day trip. These islands, designated as a national park, are known for their iconic conical formations emerging from the glistening blue waters.
The Wayag Ranger Station jetty is a notable spot where black tip reef sharks can be observed circling in the shallows, preying on the schools of small fish (and the occasional handout from the rangers). It’s easy to get up close and personal with the small sharks by exploring the shallows.
Diving Southern Raja Ampat
To the far south lies Misool, a large and remote island with its own unique underwater wonders. Misool Island is known for having an exceptional abundance of soft coral compared to other places in Raja Ampat. The region’s reefs are renowned for their stunning soft coral gardens, which cover vast areas and display a vibrant array of colors and shapes. It offers numerous dive sites, each with its own unique characteristics. Some popular dive sites include Boo Windows, Fiabacet, Yilliet Kecil, and Wayilbatan. These sites feature diverse underwater topography, including walls, caves, swim-throughs, and pinnacles.
Misool Island has been at the forefront of marine conservation efforts in Raja Ampat. In 2005, the Misool Eco Resort established a No-Take Zone, a protected area where fishing and other extractive activities are prohibited. This initiative has led to the recovery and preservation of marine ecosystems, contributing to the region’s biodiversity.
Often described as the “final frontier of scuba diving,” Raja Ampat remains relatively unexplored due to its remote location. Many areas of this mysterious archipelago, particularly the southern regions around Misool, continue to unveil new dive sites, making it an enticing destination for adventurous divers. Out of all the reef systems I’ve experienced, it certainly is my favorite, offering the ultimate blend of marine life color, abundance and diversity.
End Note: I was fortunate to get a last-minute spot on the world-renowned MSY Damai, from which all of these images were taken. This liveaboard has been operating in Raja Ampat since 2010 and knows these waters very well. It has comfy cabins, great food, comprehensive camera facilities and a highly trained and dedicated staff. With four dives per day and freedom underwater, I had more than I could ask for as a platform to explore and photograph Raja Ampat’s reefs.
Allen, G. R., and M. V. Erdmann. 2009. Reef fishes of the Bird’s Head Peninsula, West Papua, Indonesia. Check List 5(3): 587-628. doi: 10.15560/5.3.587
Donnelly, M., P. Erdmann, J.N. Carpenter, and C.R. Carpenter. 2003. Reef fish diversity in the northern Moluccas, Indonesia. Conservation Biology 17:1183-1197.
Indo-Pacific Images. (n.d.). Retrieved July 16, 2023, from https://indopacificimages.com/.
Veron, J.E.N., P.L. Harrison, and R.E. Randall. 2009. Corals of the World. Vol. 2: Biology and Field Guide. Australian Institute of Marine Science.
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