A History of Discovery in the Bird’s Head Seascape

Collaboration between the world’s leading scientists is crucial in order to combine valuable data and convince decision-makers to take action and protect our planet. Last week, a team made up from staff from CI, the New England Aquarium (NEAq), National Geographic, the Waitt Institute and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute set out to discover and explore seamounts — largely-unstudied ecosystems — in Indonesia’s Raja Ampat archipelago. Here is the most recent update from the water from Mark Erdmann — CI-Indonesia’s senior marine advisor — brought to you directly from the NEAq blog.

As you’ve now read for the past week on this expedition blog, our team is currently operating in the mega-diverse Raja Ampat Archipelago of West Papua, Indonesia. But where exactly, you might ask, is this fabled land, and why are we here? As the person responsible for Conservation International’s extensive conservation program in Raja Ampat and the broader Bird’s Head Seascape in which it sits, I’ve been asked by Greg Stone and Alan Dynner to write a short entry to put the expedition in its (bio)geographic context.

Raja Ampat means “the four kings” in Indonesian, in reference to the four large islands of Misool, Salawati, Batanta and Waigeo, which are situated just off the northwest tip of the island of New Guinea. Stretching over a 50,000 square kilometer (19,300 square mile) area dotted with an additional 607 smaller satellite islands, the Raja Ampat Archipelago has a rich history of early European natural history exploration. Three major French expedition ships (the L’Uranie, La Coquille, and L’Astrolabe) visited the region between 1818 and 1826; amongst the now well-known and widespread reef fish species they discovered and described are the blacktip reef shark, the bluefin and bigeye trevallies, the semicircular angelfish, and the sergeant major damselfish.

In the mid 1800’s, natural history luminaries including Alfred Russel Wallace and the Dutch ichthyologist Pieter Bleeker focused their attentions on this region, and the early 1900’s saw a third intense phase of research focused on this area when the Dutchmen Weber and de Beaufort published extensively on the coral reef fishes of the region.

The Bird's Head Seascape, which is located off of the northwest coast of the island of New Guinea.

And then things went quiet in Raja Ampat. Until the late 1990’s, when renowned Australian ichthyologist Gerry Allen visited the area under the invitation of the indefatigable Max Ammer, another Dutchman who had pioneered diving in the area and set up a small diving eco-resort in Raja Ampat. Gerry actually came to survey freshwater rainbowfishes in the area, but Max relentlessly pestered him to do some diving and give his professional opinion on the coral reefs that had attracted Max to settle in this area.

It only took Gerry five minutes of diving on these reefs and he knew Raja Ampat was globally unique; he immediately convinced his colleagues at Conservation International (CI) to fund a formal rapid assessment (RAP) of the coral reef biodiversity of the area (completed in 2001), and the rest, as they say, is history. The RAP team recorded the highest marine biodiversity ever, with single dives revealing up to 274 species of reef fish and over 250 species of reef-building corals — that’s more than 4 times the number of coral species found in the entire Caribbean Sea. Subsequent surveys funded by both CI and The Nature Conservancy (TNC) only bolstered the numbers: current tallies include 553 species of reef building coral and 1418 species of coral reef fish (we’ve actually picked up 5 new fish records in the last 4 days of diving). Many of the species in these lists are in fact new to science and considered endemic, or unique to the area — in the past 3 weeks we’ve collected 3 definite new coral reef fish species, and one of the fishes (a coral goby) collected on this expedition may well also prove to be new once we get the specimens back to land and are able to investigate them thoroughly.

The spectacular diversity of this area, combined with its low human population density (there are only about 39,000 people living in Raja Ampat) and generally healthy marine ecosystems, led CI, TNC and several local partner organizations including the Papua Sea Turtle Foundation and the State University of Papua to invest in a large scale marine conservation program in the region beginning in 2004. Over the past seven years, this program has expanded to envelope the entire “Bird’s Head Seascape” region of West Papua, bringing in additional partners such as WWF-Indonesia and extending its reach into Cendrawasih Bay in the east and the Kaimana region to the south and now covering 183,000 square kilometers of the most biodiverse seas on Earth.

Today, this program works closely with both the West Papuan provincial government and the Indonesian national government to help manage a network of 10 marine protected areas (MPAs) that in total cover nearly 3.6 million hectares (almost 9 million acres) of the Bird’s Head Seascape. Raja Ampat sits as the “crown jewel” of the seascape, with seven of the MPAs located in Raja Ampat. So far, we’ve visited four of these marine parks during the current expedition.

Over the coming week, the team will continue to focus on the multiple objectives that comprise this trip, ranging from exploring uncharted seamounts to documenting reef health and biodiversity. Given what I know of Raja Ampat, I’m sure there’s still a host of surprises awaiting us!

Read other blogs from the boat on the NEAq Global Explorers blog.

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