Saturday, June 21, 2014

Raja Ampat - Supposedly the Most Biodiverse, Pristine Snorkeling on Earth

I have been wanting to snorkel in Raja Ampat for several years.  Obstacles were of course, time and money - and work schedules.  I finally made it a number one priority for 2014, and I'm glad I did.  Before I get into underwater photos from the trip, I thought it would be helpful to describe the ship and the area a bit.

Not many companies currently offer trips to Raja Ampat.  We went with Wilderness Travel, which has been offering trips for several years in the area.  Now, World Wildlife Foundation is offering a trip (as of this year) and I expect many will follow.  Raja Ampat is undergoing rapid development.  The nearest airport, in Sorong, Indonesia, is growing rapidly (though it still has no lights, so you have to land during the day!).  An eco-resort opened recently in the area, the Misool Ecoresort, and other resorts have been and are being built.  The area is very popular with divers, but it offers fabulous snorkeling - with fish and coral VERY close to the surface in many places.  There is a lot of current, and a lot of food for organisms.  The area is rich with soft and hard coral and more kinds of sea life than I could ever adequately describe.  It was, as promised, by far the best snorkeling I've ever done, or can imagine.

Our guide for the trip put a map together of where we ended up going - we focused on the Waiego Islands area.


The area was gorgeous and remote.  While traditional villages were visable on a few islands, most are uninhabitated.  Each stop offered different things in the way of fish, coral, etc. There were some lovely walls, some underwater caves, mangroves, and shallow, mid-depth and deep coral shelves and fringing reefs.  Here is a photo of some of the islands, taken from a hike on one of them.


The boat, Shakti, was comfortable.  Though we didn't have the sails up until the last day, here's the boat:


My favorite aspect of the boat, however, was the resident dog, Shanti.  She lives on the ship and barks to alert whenever any fisherman or others approach the boat (which is obviously quite rare!).



Here's a sunset view from the ship:


I'd love to go back some day and snorkel the Misool area of Raja Ampat.  In the coming weeks I will try and sort through and share some photos of the great underwater life that we were lucky enough to get to see.

As amazing as this area is, and as remote and pristine and diverse, I can't help but mention three very depressing facts.  First, there is trash in the ocean and on the beaches.  Not much, in the areas we were in, but most every beach has a line of plastic bottles and rubbish where the tide line is.  There was trash every now and then in the coral or on the sea floor - it is horrible.  Mankind has ruined so much.  I hope that we can start to reverse the process, but there is no question the amount of plastic and trash in the ocean is shocking, even here.

The other appalling thing is that, while this area is in part protected, there are still fisherman "bomb fishing" in places, where they literally blow up part of the reef, killing everything, to fish for food.  This is no short sighted - with decades of coral being destroyed in an instant.  It's a staggering loss each time it happens.  I can't believe this is still going on.

Finally, shark finning happens here, as everywhere.  Fins are cut from sharks which are then tossed back and left to drown - unable to swim.  It's repulsive and cruel - and driven by a market for shark fin soup.  I am never going to understand what could make a person do that to such a beautiful and elegant creature as a shark....or any creature for that matter.  I did see sharks in Raja Ampat - they move fast - and I can't blame them.  I sincerely hope this practice can be stopped as well as bomb fishing.

Setting aside these harsh realities - this area is very much a paradise.  If you have any desire to go, do it as soon as you can.  It is being "discovered" all too fast.

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