From the sun-drenched deck of Euphoria, Equator Island is a long line of soaring limestone sugarloafs. Their bases undercut by the limpid waters of the Indo-Pacific Ocean, a series of cliffs rise up sheer and high, pockmarked with caves and topped with headdresses of verdant jungle. As the Indonesian pinisi (a two-masted wooden sailing ship) approaches the shore, crescents of sand swing into view, while frigate birds perform languid circles overhead.
Those who visit Raja Ampat can expect such encounters on a daily basis. An equator-hugging cluster of more than 1,500 small islands, cays and shoals fringing the north-west tip of the Indonesian province of West Papua (the westernmost part of the island of New Guinea), its name, meaning ‘four kings’ in Bahasa Indonesian, describes the quartet of main islands – Misool, Salawati, Batanta and Waigeo.
Raja Ampat’s majesty is not lost on experienced kayaker, explorer and self-styled ‘expedition engineer’ Matt Edwards. Back in 2014 the Canadian was organising camping trips in the southern part of the archipelago when he learned about a more northerly island called Wayag which sounded like a paddler’s utopia. Edwards promptly hired a local fishing boat to take him there, together with four adventurous friends. When their exploration of Wayag was finished, the group spent the next two weeks kayaking back.
‘That return journey was thrilling but tough, with some extended sea crossings,’ says Edwards. ‘It was then that I began to see the possibilities of using a boat as a mother ship, sailing between the northern islands of Raja Ampat and then exploring each of them via kayak.’
So it was that the liveaboard kayak concept was born. Through his company, Expedition Engineering, Edwards now offers intrepid travellers the opportunity to island-hop through Raja Ampat aboard traditional Indonesian sailing ships. Wherever the vessel anchors, the kayaks are deployed.
In addition to kayaking, most liveaboard expeditions give passengers the opportunity to explore Raja Ampat’s submarine realm, an underwater world to rival its terrestrial counterpart. ‘Below the water, Raja Ampat becomes a truly special place,’ says Edwards. ‘I’ve travelled the globe and never seen a marine environment so teeming with life.’
Located in the Coral Triangle, the heart of the world’s coral reef biodiversity, Raja Ampat is a uniquely abundant place. Seventy-five per cent of all known coral species are found here, while scientists have counted more fish in the archipelago’s offshore waters than in any other marine environment of equal size across the globe.
‘Raja Ampat has some of the most pristine reefs I have ever seen in my career, which has involved over 700 dives in a dozen countries,’ says Kieran Cox, a PhD student at the University of Victoria in Canada specialising in marine biodiversity. ‘Ocean currents sweep coral larvae from the archipelago across the Indian and Pacific Oceans to replenish other reef ecosystems, so this is a site of vital global importance.’
Despite its relatively untouched nature, Raja Ampat, like most of the world’s marine ecosystems, faces considerable threats to its marine biodiversity and natural resources. Overfishing (especially illegal fishing), climate change, ocean acidification and land development are just some of the myriad challenges this area faces.
Measures are now being taken to combat these threats and boost the area’s resilience. In May 2007, Raja Ampat became the first Indonesian regency to establish a marine protected area (MPA) network. Due to the combined efforts of the local government, various Raja Ampat communities, The Nature Conservancy (TNC), Conservation International (CI) and WWF Indonesia (WWFI), the archipelago now boasts seven ecologically connected MPAs, encompassing more than 10,000 square kilometres of coastal and marine habitat. This represents around a quarter of its overall area and approximately 45 per cent of the archipelago’s coral reefs and mangroves.
‘This is an incredible effort by the Indonesian government and people and shows that Indonesia is willing to play an active role in protecting its marine resources,’ says Cox. ‘There is always the need for more protection, of course, but this is a great foundation.’
Raja Ampat’s MPA network has now been scaled up, with another five MPAs added in waters around the western end of Papua New Guinea as part of the Bird’s Head Seascape (BHS) initiative. Collaboration between CI, TNC, WWFI and regional governments means that the 225,000 square kilometres of the BHS – which encompasses Cenderawasih Bay in the east, the Raja Ampat archipelago in the west, and the Kaimana Regency and Triton Bay in the south – are currently home to more than 36,000 square kilometres of protected marine habitat.
‘The idea behind the MPA network and promoting ecological connectivity is to ensure that key habitats and ecosystems, which are linked by the complex ocean currents, are protected against exploitation that could impact not only the Raja Ampat area but other parts of the Indonesian archipelago,’ says Nugroho Arif Prabowo, an ocean awareness and constituency specialist attached to TNC’s Indonesia-Ocean programme.
In 2013, the Raja Ampat government followed up its pioneering efforts by implementing legislation designating the entire area a shark sanctuary. This means that all harvesting of sharks is now prohibited in the area’s four million hectares of coastal and marine waters, while the declaration has also given full protection to a number of ecologically and economically important ocean species, such as manta rays, dugongs, whales, turtles, dolphins and ornamental fish species.
Home to 118 species, Indonesian waters boast the world’s highest diversity of sharks. It is also the world’s top shark-fishing nation and a leading exporter of their fins. While shark finning is illegal here, the country’s fishermen still caught an average of 109,000 tonnes of sharks every year between 2000 and 2011.
‘As top predators sharks play a crucial role in our oceans,’ says TNC’s Prabowo. ‘They help to keep fish populations in balance and maintain the overall health of marine ecosystems. They can also drive nature-based tourism, meaning a live shark is of far more financial benefit to local Raja Ampat communities than a dead one.’
Although the West Papua region is rich in natural resources, over 40 per cent of the people living here fall below the poverty line. Many local residents rely on coastal resources, particularly fisheries for income and food security.
While marine ecosystems in Raja Ampat are relatively healthy compared to many other areas of Southeast Asia, fish stocks in some areas are severely depleted. The unsustainable exploitation of natural resources, poor development practices, and rapid human population growth threaten these ecosystems and the local communities that depend on them.
‘One of the most common themes noted in recent studies of Raja Ampat and the wider BHS is that depleted fisheries continue to be overfished,’ says Prabowo. ‘So-called “shifting baseline syndrome” means that each new generation of fishermen is accepting a lower abundance of fish as normal and continuing to harvest at an unsustainable level.’
MPAs, which limit such overfishing, are an increasingly popular conservation measure. Their establishment has led to positive results in terms of protecting fisheries and biodiversity. Their ongoing success depends on the buy-in and understanding of local communities Such communities have long boasted strong cultural links with, and traditional claims of ownership over, marine areas. Guided by their intimate knowledge of the environment, many Raja Ampat villages have long practiced a system known as sasi laut (the ‘taboos of the sea’), which not only prohibits the use of destructive and intensive fishing gear (such as poisonous plants and chemicals, explosives and fine mesh nets), but also defines restrictions around the harvesting of marine resources.
While the 1990s saw the waters of Raja Ampat experience an overwhelming assault from destructive, industrial-scale fishing practices such as dynamite fishing and shark finning (which were typically carried out by fishermen from outside the area), the establishment of MPAs here has seen the practice of sasi laut reinvigorated in many villages. This process has been reinforced by the creation of local homestays. ‘The sea sustains us, and supports our growing tourism-based economy, so we must continue to live in harmony with it,’ says Corinus Orobata, chief of Saporkren, a village on Waigeo Island. ‘We know when and where different fish spawn, and never fish at those times and in those locations.’
Most of Expedition Engineering’s Euphoria crew are from Raja Ampat and Edwards stores his kayaks in Saporkren, paying a fee to the village for the privilege. ‘This money, together with the marine park entry permit, is all funnelled into Raja Ampat conservation and the support of sustainable livelihoods,’ says the Canadian. ‘A liveaboard kayak trip is a great way to tread lightly through this stunning archipelago. “Long live the kings” has always been our mantra.’
This was published in the October 2018 edition of Geographical magazine
Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox by signing up to our weekly newsletter and get a free collection of eBooks!