By producing guidebooks for scuba divers, my husband and I have found a way to combine our love of exploring, photographing and writing about remote reefs with promoting sustainable marine tourism in one of the world’s most stunning underwater treasures.
A few years ago, our old friend and one of the world’s foremost ichthyologists, Dr. Gerry Allen, played matchmaker between us and Dr. Mark Erdmann, the manager for CI’s Bird’s Head Seascape program. Mark believed that marine tourism could become a viable economic alternative to destructive natural resource exploitation for far-flung Bird’s Head communities — but only if divers and tour operators knew about sites beyond the well-traveled routes. He hired us to explore Raja Ampat and to produce “Diving Indonesia’s Raja Ampat,” which was published in 2009. This edition sold out in two years and helped increase tourism in Raja Ampat by more than 20 percent. As a follow-up, we expanded the scope in a recently-released guide, “Diving Indonesia’s Bird’s Head Seascape.”
Again, one of our primary missions has been to discover new dive areas. Within these two guidebooks, we have directed divers to more than 200 sites — including more than 50 previously undived sites — which we believe will transform tourism into a feasible source of income for the seascape’s widespread coastal communities.
The Bird’s Head Seascape is arguably the most prolific tropical reef system on Earth. Each reef has its own special traits, so deciding which dive sites to recommend is a difficult task! When we accompany CI scientists on assessment surveys, Burt and I use powerful underwater scooters that allow us to survey 10 times more area than we could with fin power alone. We enter the water together but “scooter” in opposite directions in order to survey more reef. If we find an interesting coral formation or a place where schools of fish seem to aggregate, we’ll mark it and then return to document this potential dive with our cameras. Throughout the day we rarely stop except to charge scooter batteries and fill tanks, check our GPS readings and make careful notes about the sites and what we saw.
While surveying Cenderawasih Bay, our main target was locating and interacting with whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) that feed under mobile lift net fishing platforms called bagans. Finding animals as big as whale sharks was easy, but as we worked our way around their feeding grounds, we constantly saw fish that seemed out of place like the Burgess’s butterflyfish (Chaetodon burgessi) we photographed at 20 feet [6 meters] — an unusual sighting, as these fish are normally seen at depths over 100 feet [30.5 meters].
“That’s the beauty of this place,” Gerry Allen explained. “Eons ago, major tectonic plate movement repeatedly blocked the mouth of the bay. After sea levels dropped during the Pleistocene, shallow reefs died off and only formerly deep reefs survived, but now in shallower water! Normally deep-dwelling species like Burgess’s butterflyfish stayed shallow even after sea levels rose again because the bay’s size limits water movement and outside species recruitment, meaning little competition for the shallower niches.”
Finding deepwater species in shallow depths is just one of the Bird’s Head Seascape’s contradictions. This is a place where birds of paradise dance in trees; where sharks “walk” over coral; and where divers must learn to appreciate the rich planktonic soup that reduces visibility, yet provides crucial nourishment for more than 1,600 species of fish and the majority of the world’s reef building corals.
But for us, the most interesting contradiction has been introducing dive tourism to a culture that has no reference to people who go underwater for fun, just to look at fish. Currently, most seascape villages profit very little from their land’s natural resources even though they have tenurial rights to most of it; the long-term process to define which village owns which reef and how tourism dollars can be equitably distributed is just beginning. Through CI’s educational programs we try to engage local people with slide shows of their reefs, hopefully inciting pride of ownership in something very few actually see for themselves. In our books, we explain local customs and encourage divers to stop by receptive villages where casual contact can enrich both hosts and visitors.
One risk inherent in developing the Bird’s Head into a world-renowned dive destination is the chance that an increase in visitors will lead to destruction of the very place they have come to enjoy. Still, this risk seems minor compared to the environmental destruction already caused by overfishing and unregulated mining and logging. We have been fortunate to work with people like Mark Erdmann, who is dedicated to preserving the seascape’s astounding marine life while initiating sustainable economic alternatives to benefit the people who live there.
Maurine Shimlock and her husband Burt Jones are underwater photographers and CI consultants in Indonesia’s Bird’s Head Seascape.