RAJA AMPAT MARINE PARK, INDONESIA: The Heart of the Coral Triangle
Text: Andreea Lotak; Photographs: Justin & Andreea Lotak • 10 min read
There aren’t many places left on Earth with ecosystems as healthy as those in the Raja Ampat Marine Park. There are over 1,700 species of fish here — with a few dozens of them found nowhere else — swimming among what represents 76% of the world’s coral diversity. The park’s crystal waters protect an area stretching across 35,000 sq km (13,500 sq mi), where large gatherings of manta rays, sharks, whales, mollusks, fish and other aquatic organisms are attracted by the rich nutrients brought by strong oceanic currents. Among all this natural beauty there are roughly 50,000 residents living in villages, settlements and the small town of Waisai, surrounded by limestone cliffs shooting from the turquoise waters and by dense forests where the loud birdsong creates a perfect musical background for a tropical paradise.
The Coral Triangle is located at the confluence of the Western Pacific and Indian Oceans, spread across the waters and coastlines of six countries: Indonesia, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Malaysia, Solomon Islands and Timor Leste. Raja Ampat Marine Park sits almost in the middle of this region and is one of the best protected areas within the Coral Triangle. Now a true paradise for scuba divers and snorkelers, Raja Ampat has experienced its share of destruction from modernization and industrial development up until recently. Luckily, in the past decade and a half, international and local coalitions have been working on protecting this breathtaking place, and its biodiversity has improved significantly. Despite the rough times of cyanide fish collecting, dynamite fishing, wildlife poaching, and mining, Raja Ampat remains an underwater marvel. Above the water its beauty is equally as mesmerizing and the local cultures are just as fascinating. Nowadays the park still struggles with population growth, unregulated tourism and some plastic pollution (relatively small compared to other coastal parts of Indonesia or the world, but growing), however restrictions and control have improved significantly. Responsible tourism has played an important part in bringing more sustainable alternatives for locals to make a living, especially with the involvement of many of the scuba diving resorts which made a commitment to invest in the protection of the marine park. More recently, a project called Stay Raja Ampat has gathered under one online “roof”; guesthouses and homestays in the archipelago that subscribe to certain sustainable practices are giving visitors a way to interact directly with locals and to be sure that their tourism money offers real opportunities to residents.
Papua diving — kri eco Resort
One such resort dedicated to the improvement of the lives of locals and to the health of Raja Ampat’s ecosystems is Kri Eco. It’s part of the Papua Diving organization, the first scuba diving project in what would become the Raja Ampat Marine Park over a decade later. We partnered with them to produce a short film based on the interview we did with its founder, Max Ammer, who also received an award from Conservation International in recognition for his involvement in marine conservation (our film is now in the production phase). The resort is built with sustainability in mind: they plan on adding more solar panels to be completely independent from any fossil fuels, have built all the infrastructure with respect to local traditions and minimal impact on the natural habitat, educate the guests regarding best practices and conservation, have founded the Raja Ampat Research & Conservation Centre (RARCC), employ 90% local staff, build their boats and kayaks on site, and plan to introduce solar-powered boats to diminish the impact of pollution on wildlife. We spent one week at Kri Eco in early April and were lucky to explore the beauty of Raja Ampat with some of the best trained local guides.
Emerald Tree Skink (Lamprolepis smaragdina)
Although the underwater beauty of Raja Ampat is what stuns most visitors, the fauna and flora of the rich tropical forests on the islands can be just as impressive. On every walk we took across the hill from Kri Eco to Sorido Bay on the other side of the island, we were surrounded by magical bird calls and colorful critters.
rufous-bellied kookaburra (Dacelo gaudichaud)
Rufous-bellied kookaburras are a common presence in the dense rainforests of New Guinea and off the coast of Queensland, Australia. Their haunting calls resembling a strange laughter resonated across the entire island, especially at sunset. The choir of all bird calls was a highlight of our stay on Kri Island.
Pianemo/Pyainemo lookout on Fam Islands
This scenic cluster of islands is one of the most touristy places in Raja Ampat. A fairly long boat ride away from Kri Island, the trip to Fam also includes diving or snorkeling at one of the most amazing and colorful spots: Melissa’s Garden, a rich coral garden abundant in soft and hard corals, where hundreds of species of fish live. The bay, the boardwalk and the stairway leading up to the Pianemo Lookout are busy with tourists, a lot of them visiting only this site for the day and not doing any scuba diving or snorkeling. This is also a place where you’ll likely see locals trying to sell coconut crabs which are considered a delicacy. This type of terrestrial hermit crab is the largest land-living arthropod, weighing up to 9 lbs (4 kg), and whose populations have been steadily declining. In Indonesia it is considered rare and therefore benefits from protection, but locals continue to collect them nonetheless as long as tourists continue to buy them and the law is not applied. At this pace it’s likely that the population on Fam islands will go extinct, as has happened on other inhabited islands in the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
reef Manta Ray (Manta alfredi)
Diving or snorkeling at Manta Sandy is one of the highlights of the whole Raja Ampat experience: while there you may get lucky to witness the otherworldly beauty of reef and giant oceanic mantas, the two largest species of rays in the world. Manta Sandy is one of the cleaning stations in Raja Ampat to which they return daily between late October and early April. Boats from resorts and homestays will bring divers and snorkelers to this spot and wait for their slot in the schedule to take their group to the cleaning station. If done with respect for these magnificent animals, manta tourism can be a tool for conservation: in 2014 Indonesia became the largest manta ray sanctuary in the world partially thanks to conservationists and scientists assessing that the value of a living manta ray from tourism money is over $1 million, while dead they only bring $40 to $500. It may not be ideal that a monetary value needs to be put on wildlife in order for the government to protect it, but it seems to be a efficient method. However, scientific studies have also urged governments to pass stricter regulations for manta tourism since uncontrolled increases in numbers of visitors to certain cleaning stations have been observed to cause severe disturbances in the manta rays’ behavior.
tasseled wobbegong (Eucrossorhinus dasypogon)
Several organizations persuaded the government to declare the waters of Raja Ampat a shark sanctuary, referring to the sharks’ importance in the ecosystem as apex predators and to their economic value for tourism. Since 2013 shark fishing has been completely banned in the archipelago. While many species of shark can be found in Raja Ampat, the wobbegong is definitely a highlight. Living mainly on the sea bed, they rest during the day, usually hiding under rocks and in underwater caves, and at night they come out to feed. Although they seem lazy, blending in the environment and pretending to be a rock or a piece of coral, these sharks are actually very agile and have been known to attack humans, even apparently unprovoked. There are 12 species of wobbegong, with a majority living in the waters around Australia and with only two in Raja Ampat: the tasseled wobbegong and the the ornate wobbegong. These strange-looking fish are part of the same order of carpet sharks as the much larger whale shark. During the first day of diving and snorkeling, our guide who was a local from Raja Ampat came to us filled with excitement and yelled: “wobbegong!”, while dragging us quickly to the spot where he had seen it. It took a few seconds for our minds to get used to the idea that what we were looking at was not a rock covered in coral, but once registering the sight it became much easier in the days to follow to spot these beautiful bottom dwellers.
Located between the Waigeo and Gam Islands, this underwater canyon has some very strong currents which make you feel like you’re swimming in a fast-flowing river. Below its green-turquoise waters lies a dazzling diversity of very colorful soft corals, dizzying walls covered in bright yellow and purple gold-mouth sea squirts, thousands of fish, sea horses, and nudibranchs. Above the water you’ll find the most amazing landscape of mushroom-shaped islands covered in tropical forests, where little homestays are nestled in hidden bays. Scuba diving in The Passage is not for the unexperienced due to strong currents, while snorkelers have to be strong swimmers or use a pool noodle since standing on the bottom to rest is not an option due to possibly damaging the corals.
yellow-lipped sea krait (Laticauda colubrina)
This snake, known more commonly as the banded sea krait, is a common presence in the waters of Raja Ampat Marine Park. Although they are known to be highly venomous, they rarely choose to attack humans, even when provoked. Despite the fact that it’s a sea snake, this species spends a substantial part of its time on land or hunting in shallow waters along the shores and needs to occasionally find sources of fresh water for drinking. Banded sea kraits are widespread in the Western Pacific and Eastern Indian Oceans, and studies done in Fiji have shown that they develop an attachment to their “home” islands to which they always return for mating, digesting and sloughing (skin shedding).
This species of dorid nudibranch is commonly found in the Western Pacific region, a sea slug and marine gastropod mollusk with bright purple dots and edges. They feed on sea sponges, and seeing them is a major part of the Raja Ampat scuba diving experience. There are currently close to 3,000 known species of nudibranchs competing for the title of the strangest, most strikingly colorful and beautiful alien-looking beings. And although most of them are harmless to humans (though they should obviously not be touched and left alone), some pack strong toxins and poisons that can cause plenty of pain, typically collected from jellyfish, sponges or corals upon which the nudibranchs feed.
Arborek island and village
This island is probably the most popular among visitors that aren’t looking to spend time in a diving resort and want to explore a bit of the local culture, as well as for visitors from within Indonesia. The little charming village has several homestays and bars serving cold drinks, while the area around the jetty is a great snorkeling site. Arborek is included on a list of tourist villages promoted by the Indonesian government and offers better than average amenities, especially for a place with under 200 permanent residents. Here you can also find traditional souvenirs created by the women on the island. A common stop after diving or snorkeling at Manta Sandy, the jetty was quite crowded when we got there. Bring some shoes or flip flops if you want to explore around during your stop, because both the boardwalk and the paths through the village get really hot.
Oblique-banded Sweetlips (Plectorhinchus lineatus)
A school of oblique-banded sweetlips mixing in with other fish species under the jetty on Kri Island. Jetties are a great spot for easy wildlife watching. Oblique-banded sweetlips become much more active at night, during feeding time, and are slowly swimming around during the day, giving you a good chance to take pictures of their beautiful patterns. Although they don’t have commercial value for fishing, they are sold in the aquarium business. The species doesn’t adapt too well to life in captivity and reaches maturity rather rarely. When it does, however, it requires a very large tank which is not normally accessible to most collectors. That’s why they are best seen swimming freely in their habitat, as is the case for all wildlife.
Titan triggerfish (Balistoides viridescens) next to what looks like a colorful checkerboard wrasse (Halichoeres hortulanus)
The titan triggerfish is the largest species of triggerfish in the Indo-Pacific region, with females becoming strongly territorial during the nesting period. Unaware divers or snorkelers may enter the nest territory and find themselves vigorously attacked by the titan triggerfish female, whose strong, big teeth can inflict serious injury. The adult checkerboard wrasse is likely looking for mollusks or crustaceans hiding among the coral or in the sand. Widespread in tropical waters of the planet, this species as well as many other wrasse species is a hermaphrodite, starting its life as a female and then turning into a male at maturity.
paddleboarding around kri island
Standup paddle boards are available at many resorts and can be a great way of exploring the shallow waters along the shores of the islands, since they are at times too shallow for swimming or snorkeling.
ocellaris clownfish (Amphiprion ocellaris)
Clownfish are one of the most popular residents of the Tropics, mainly due to the beloved Nemo character which has paradoxically spelled trouble for the species. With a spike in popularity, the aquarium industry has struggled to provide for the increased market demand for clownfish. A majority of the specimens found around the world in aquariums still come from the wild, as they do not fare so well when bred in captivity. These charming little ocean denizens develop a strong, symbiotic relationship with sea anemones, which they inhabit. Sea anemones produce a strong poison which kills a lot of the fish species that normally prey on clownfish: damselfish, wrasses, or brittle stars. In return, clownfish that take refuge in the sea anemone help keep it clean of leftovers from the poisoned and then consumed victims. Clownfish are very territorial and also get attached to the place they consider “home”: the shallow waters surrounded by mangroves where they hatched, and the sea anemone that protects them. When captured for the aquarium industry some species of clownfish change their behavior completely and become more aggressive toward their own kind, whereas in the wild they are gregarious and live in small “colonies” with a well determined social order.
A school of Chevron/ blacktail barracuda (Sphyraena qenie)
Barracudas are known for their quickness to attack and for their capacity to take on much larger prey. There are now about 28 recognized species of barracuda, some considered more aggressive than others. Despite their reputation, barracudas seldom attack humans if unprovoked.
green barrel sea squirt (Didemnum molle)
As with all tunicates, green barrel sea squirts are filter feeders, inhaling and exhaling the filtered water through two siphons.
One of the sea walls at Melissa’s Garden Dive Site
This amazing dive site, probably the best one of the whole week of scuba diving and snorkeling, was named after the daughter of the founder of Papua Diving, Max Ammer. There are two other dive sites in this region named after Anita, his wife, and after his son, Mike.
school of yellow and blueback fusilier (Caesio teres)
Yellow and blueback fusilier fish are colorful, medium-sized fish that feed on zooplankton. The intruder in the middle of them, with yellow thick lips, is an oblique-banded sweetlips.
ocellaris clownfish (Amphiprion ocellaris)
Playing peek-a-boo with curious and territorial clownfish. We could fill an entire photo story just with pictures of clownfish in their beautiful sea anemones. Did you know that they are hermaphrodites and that males can become females as they mature?
The boardwalk which leads to the jetty where we got our first introduction to Kri Eco upon arriving. Every evening around sunset the most relaxing spot was on the covered deck by the jetty, where we could swing in a hammock, looking at the bright yellow and purple colors of the sky and enjoying a cold beer.
Sunset over the dive center at kri eco
The view as we got out from our cottage to head down to the main boardwalk or to the restaurant. Returning to Kri Eco every day after scuba diving or snorkeling in the morning and in the afternoon filled us with such a relaxing, welcoming vibe. All guests were getting ready for dinner, the smell of delicious Indonesian food was in the air, and the sound of bird calls around us was so peaceful.
the restaurant at kri eco
Every day we were spoiled by delicious, freshly cooked Indonesian and western-style food, full of local flavor and enough to satisfy the post-diving appetite. Dinners were especially great because of the sunset show which kept us all marveling like children at the beauty of this remote archipelago close to the Equator. Luckily, the restaurant had perfect views of it.
pathway inside the resort
Out of respect for sustainability and conservation, the habitat within which Kri Eco was built was minimally altered, and trees and plants continue to encroach on the pathway, contributing to the feeling that you have arrived in a tropical paradise.
Western Pacific monitor lizard (Varanus indicus)
This lizard species is also known as the mangrove monitor and was a common presence along the trail leading to the kitchen and restaurant of Kri Eco. They can grow to 3.5 - 4 ft (1.1 - 1.2 m) and their tongues often stick out like those of snakes in order to collect scents.
common paradise kingfisher (Tanysiptera galatea)
When we first spotted a common paradise kingfisher nearby Sorido Bay on Kri Island it was hard to understand what we were looking at: the head and body were those of a kingfisher, but the tail was long and more similar to that of a motmot from the Neotropics, with which they are actually related. Like the other famous residents of New Guinea — the birds-of-paradise — these kingfishers have developed adaptations that seem to have more to do with aesthetics and mating displays rather than practicality. However, studies on other species of racket-tailed birds like the motmot show that they might also use the long feathers of their tails for communication signals.
sulphur-crested cockatoo (Cacatua galerita)
While these cockatoos are a common presence in the woodlands of Australia, they exist in Indonesia only in the Papua province and on some of the surrounding islands. Their loud, funny-sounding calls are hard to miss while walking through the forest. Our last day in Raja Ampat we took a short trip to the neighboring island of Gam to hopefully spot the intricate dancing ritual of the endemic red birds-of-paradise. While sitting in silence with the guide and the rest of the group at the lookout, waiting to see the display of the birds-of-paradise, the cockatoos kept making loud calls that would both startle and amuse us.
male red bird-of-paradise (Paradisaea rubra)
The red bird-of-paradise is endemic to Raja Ampat, on the islands of Batanta, Waigeo and Gam. All three islands are located in the vicinity of Kri Island, so we took the afternoon trip to hopefully see them on Gam. The local guide led us to a viewing platform built when Tim Laman, National Geographic photographer, and his partner Ed Scholes, a Cornell Lab scientist, were collecting footage and field information about the fantastic species of birds-of-paradise. The red bird-of-paradise chooses a display tree and returns to it early in the morning and at sunset to make its loud calls and do its mating dance in hopes of catching the attention of a female. This daily ritual happens high up in the tree canopy and is rather difficult to photograph, as the males are constantly moving. Tim Laman and Ed Scholes returned to New Guinea throughout an 8-year period to collect all the necessary footage and information which would become the impressive Birds-of-Paradise Project. However, Tim Laman confessed that during the first weeks of his NatGeo photo assignment in New Guinea, he was confronted with his hardest task to that date: after so many days in the field he had not succeeded in obtaining at least one good photograph that would be worthy of publishing. Although their website is now filled with the most incredible photos of birds-of-paradise, it is the result of many years in the field and many days spent climbing up the tallest trees. So don’t get too discouraged if you don’t get the perfect shot in one afternoon (though you might get lucky), and enjoy witnessing one of the most extraordinary displays of any species on the planet.
Sawinggrai Village, Gam island
After watching the red birds-of-paradise display at sunset, we strolled through the little village of Sawinggrai where our guide lived and where the boat waited to take us back to Kri Island. The whole community benefits from the funds paid by visitors that come here for the birds-of-paradise and take the 30-minute hike through the dense forest behind the village to reach the viewing platform. On our way back, as evening was settling in, the forest resonated with the calls of dozens of birds which sounded absolutely magical.
jetty in Sawinggrai, gam island
As we were saying goodbye to the elders of the village and to our guide, the horizon had turned a bright pink and orange, reminding us of how much we were going to miss this remote paradise at the tip of the Bird’s Head Peninsula in the West Papua province. Meanwhile the kids and teenagers in the village were out playing soccer, going in for a dip, fishing and having fun. People have lived in Raja Ampat for a long time in balance with the nature around them. Their vision and traditions protected the biodiversity of the area while at the same time providing for their needs. Although much has changed in the last two centuries, some sense of balance is returning to the region, and economic alternatives like responsible tourism can help communities benefit financially from the protection of nature.
If you’re planning to visit Raja Ampat you can read our online guide about four conservation areas in Indonesia, including this amazing marine park. Also, this resource is a good starting point to find out more about conservation in the region and about what organizations are working to protect its biodiversity and the seascape as a whole. And if you’d like to learn more about the Raja Ampat Research & Conservation Centre (RARCC) and support them, you can head here.