Friday, May 8, 2009

The Four Kings

Written and sent from Uranie Island, North Raja Ampat, Indonesia

Raja Ampat was always one of those mythical places we had only heard reverent stories about. Fittingly, the name is the stuff of legend and means "four kings". It is now well known because of the tremendous species diversity that resides here both above and below the water. Raja Ampat's reefs have been referred to as "a species factory."

Even the rocks are alive in northern Raja Ampat. Jagged sharp limestone islands are undercut by the consistent presence of the sea all around them. Trees cling to whatever soil and rock their roots can find on the seemingly inhospitable earth. As the swell gently rolls in, the rocks breathe, gurgling loudly with the intake of water and hiss violently as it is caught in air pockets and pushed back out.

Under the islands' lips hundreds of fish gather in the nutrient filled water. Currents meet here, bringing with them vast amounts of nutrients. This is why there are hundreds of sweetlips big enough to be on steroids staring at use with pursed lips, while schools of bumphead parrotfish move as an organized unit, gorging on the abundance of coral. Juvenile turtles and sharks patrol the reefs and butterfly fish the size of salad plates lazily meander by.

It because of these currents and this life we chose to visit Kri Island and eco-resort to dive. We motored 40 miles north of Sorong past fishing boats with long arms, through pods of leaping spinner dolphins, maneuvering through boiling currents and whirlpool eddies to arrive in the early afternoon with a current pumping against us at 2.6 knots. We passed back and forth in front of the resort searching for a shallow spot. Yet, we were told to anchor in 35-45 meters (110-135 feet) 250 meters off the resort, really deep for us. We debated trying it or abandoning our diving plans for Kri. We searched for anything shallower and found nothing.

So we committed and dropped all 280 feet of our chain attached our 300 foot piece of mega braid line and let 100 feet of that out and waited. The current was racing past DK's hull and I stared wide-eyed finger on the line hoping she would hold while Gar backed down on her hard. We'd never anchored this deep before or in current this strong. She held. The anchor jumped a few times against the bottom and then stuck, the line quaked as the sea rushed by if it was mirroring my own nervousness.

We stayed and swung for four days back and forth on our anchor in front of the channel leading to the resort where we were welcome to make our new home. Diving three times a day and eating scrumptious meals in between at Kri eco-resort we returned to DK only after dinner and the tide would allow us to escape from the channel we parked super dingy in. Did I mention how lucky we are.

If you look carefully through the nutrient rich water there are wonderfully beautiful and startlingly ugly creatures that make Raja Ampat home. Nudibranchs of every size, color, and pattern imaginable can be found on sand flats, in the arms of branching Acropora coral, and under the edges of rocks. I saw a baby pink scorpion fish the size of my thumb and we have seen three species of pygmy sea horses, stealthily camouflaged in sea fans. Mantas appear literally out of the blue like phantom angels. Walls are plastered with corals, tunicates, sponges, fans, and sea whips with colors and patterns so wild they would make Dr Seuss grin.

Leaving Kri we headed north back across the equator and to the islands that first called to us up in Wayag. The surface of the water glows in an otherworldly aqua green and quickly changes to midnight blue as we search for anchorages beside the deep craggy islands. A sea eagle has just stretched her white wings and landed in a snag above us while red parrots pass by squack squaking until they find a good spot to roost. Small birds tweet tweet tweet in the mornings and evenings and something whack whak whaks early in twilight of morning.

We spend our days getting up early to sand and varnish DK's weathered teak and try unsuccessfully to hide from the heat of midday. In the afternoons, at high tide we slip into the sea to search for whatever she is willing to reveal. Swimming through a sea of mirrors, schools of thousands of silver blue sardines and fusiliers we see blue spotted rays munching on critters hidden under the fine white sand. Spanish Mackerel, barracuda and giant trevally make elusive quick passes hinting at what lives deeper in the channels. After hours in this other world we return to Dream Keeper water logged.

At dusk the rain starts. It is not a normal rain as no none hits our deck but one that bubbles up from the sea. A constant gentle pitter patter of rain drops begins reliably at dusk and continues into the night even when the sky is cloudless and sparkling with the stars of the southern cross, Orion and the dipper. Fish really are everywhere in Raja Ampat; the rain comes from them feeding on the surface.

But all is not well with the Four Kings. While there is incredible species diversity here and it has been recognized by some big NGO's and the Indonesian government as a marine hotspot well worth protecting it is not immune to human impacts. Thick trails of trash ride in on the currents and a nickel mine is planned on one of the northern islands. Illegal logging threatens to choke the reefs and gas and oil prospectors visit the region searching for liquid gold. Let alone the pressures from local subsistence fisherman cyanide and blasting the reef and international fishing fleets that threaten to leave this kingdom destroyed and empty.

With hope to be recognized as a World Heritage site and efforts being made to protect the 3,500 square miles of newly formed marine protected areas we hope the crown jewel can be defended and will remain sacred so that Raja Ampat will not only be remembered in myths.

1 comment:

Skip said...

Excellent description, Nicole. We just LOVE reading about your adventures. Did we say, LUCKY?