Even within the Coral Triangle, the region stands out as home to the highest marine biodiversity on the planet. More than 1,400 species of fish. More than 550 species of hard corals. A dizzying array of multicolored sea slugs, which seem dressed for Carnival. Pygmy seahorses, incredibly small and well camouflaged, clinging to gorgonians. Manta rays more than 2 meters [6.6 feet] wide. Everything, sometimes in the same place. In Raja Ampat, you can spend hours underwater without a single second of boredom.
The most famous dive site in the region is Cape Kri, a submerged peninsula of the island of the same name, discovered in the early ’90s by Dutchman Max Ammer, the pioneer of tourism and conservation in Raja Ampat. In 1997, he opened the first hotel in the region, the Kri Eco Resort — a handful of bungalows, a pier and a dining hall, built in traditional Papuan style, of wood and straw.
In 2001, Ammer invited renowned biologist Gerry Allen to make a scientific assessment of the biodiversity of Cape Kri. “Everyone kept saying it was a special place, that it was different, so I wanted to make sure,” he says. Everyone was right. On March 27, 2001, a team of ten scientists, led by Allen, identified 273 species of fish in a single dive at Cape Kri. A world record, which put Raja Ampat on the map of recreational divers and marine scientists worldwide. [Editor’s note: this expedition was conducted by CI’s Rapid Assessment Program team.]
Since then, Ammer has built a second resort on the island and is about to open a marine science center, equipped with laboratories and accommodation for at least six researchers.
The only foreigners out of the nearly 100 employees of the company are Ammer himself and the Briton Ross Pooley, who runs a pilot project of coral farming. All others are natives of Papua, trained by the resorts, from the maids to the dive guides. Nothing gives more pride to Ammer, who originally came to Papua seeking war plane wrecks, but fell in love with the people of the region and never went back.
“When I came here I knew nothing about tourism, and I had no experience with recreational diving, but I thought this would be a good way to help the local population,” says the 50-year-old Dutchman. “The most important is to create employment and income generation opportunities for the Papuans. The people here are very poor. You can talk all you want about conservation, but people still need to eat, they still want development.”
In Yenbekwan, one of the villages near the hotels, fisherman Hans Watem, also 50 years old (more or less, he is not sure), think it is a little strange that tourists will spend so much money and come from so far away just to see a coral reef. But he understands perfectly the importance of this ecosystem. “Everyone here understands now that the reefs are essential to our lives. So nobody fishes with nets or bombs anymore,” he says.
Compared to other regions of Bali and Indonesia, the reefs of Raja Ampat are in excellent condition. But they have been much better too. Until a few years ago, fishing with bombs and other destructive methods was also common here. Now the region is under the care of seven marine protected areas (MPAs), established in 2007 by the government of Raja Ampat, in partnership with nongovernmental organizations.
The bombs stopped exploding, and the reefs are silently returning to their original state. The final result: more fish for the fishermen to eat, more fish for the tourists to photograph.