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March 2011    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Vol. 26, No. 3   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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The Raja Ampat Debate

from the March, 2011 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Undercurrent webmaster Dave Eagleray has lived in Bali for more than a decade. I asked him to weigh in on our Raja Ampat article, then asked our correspondent for a response. Here's Dave's take:

I disagree that "diving is better on Sulawesi" whether northeast or southeast -- and so would everyone else I know here who dives around Indonesia. I've been to all those places and many more, including four trips to Raja Ampat and another 15 or so trips to Bunaken, Lembeh, Wakatobi, Halmahera, Banda Sea, Komodo, Flores, Alor, east Nusa Tenggara and Bali. Raja Ampat is not a strange critter haven, nor one with lots of pelagics or big fish -- it has just tons of fish and corals, many different kinds of fish and corals -- it's mind-blowing and outdoes any other place on that front. Look at any of the studies by marine-life gurus like Gerry Allen, Roger Steene and Mark Erdmann. They're the ones most excited about it, mostly because of the sheer numbers of different species that can be found there, as well as the brand-new species discovered. But for critters, go to Lembeh Strait or Komodo and the eastern Sundah Islands. Big stuff in Indonesia is relatively rare, but found in some places. Diving there is good to great almost anywhere you go but different people have different tastes. And diving any place always depends on conditions at the time, with some fabulous spots appearing ho-hum if conditions, such as currents, aren't right. In any event, that's why Raja Ampat is so popular with divers who've been to many parts of Indonesia, and that's why there are more than 30 boats operating there, plus a number of resorts (Grand Komodo has a resort there now, Max Ammer has two and more are coming).

Our correspondent's reply: Obviously your webmaster has more Indonesia diving experience than I have; however, I've run this idea by a few folks with lots of Indo diving experience, and they agree with me. But Dave's point about the number of fish is a good one. Although there are some wonderful fishy sightings in Sulawesi and Bali, I did see lots of fish in Raja Ampat, though rarely anything very unusual. Raja Ampat is touted as ground zero for coral speciation, and a top area for fishes and critters as well, but how many of us dive in order to tot up taxonomic lists of corals? The experience of diving isn't just about counting things, it's about seeing, floating, being enchanted. Hence, my respect for the speciation of Raja Ampat abides, but I don't think it equates with magical diving. The other guests on the boat had recently come from a trip to the Andamans, where they thought the fish count (and the weather) was mind-blowing, but their minds were not blown by Raja Ampat, though they enjoyed it. They just didn't think it was as good, particularly considering the trouble of getting there.

Then there is a generational issue. For those of us who have dived places like the Solomons, Papua New Guinea, Cocos, Palau, Galapagos, Australia, Fiji, the Red Sea, etc., before the advent of intensive shark-fin fishing and trawling, seeing lots of fish was expected, not unusual. It's possible that those divers who never experienced the glory days before commercial and illegal fishing swept oceans of their apex predators are delighted by a big school of jacks or fusiliers. I yearn for swirling clouds of tuna and barracuda with swordfish darting through. Tragically, those days are over, so younger divers who see the schools at Raja Ampat are thrilled, whereas those of us lucky enough to have dived before the mid- 1990s recall what a really fishy site looks like. The fish at Raja Ampat don't register in that timbre, a timbre gone forever.

Dave is correct about seeing big stuff in the Lombok Strait off east Bali but even there, it's a few at times rather than the "tons and tons" he cites in Raja Ampat. I don't want to put on my old fart hat, but will anyway. If you knew the oceans before aggressive fishing, your expectations of diving are different (just like I remember 25-cent gas). I believe one reason the focus of much diving has changed toward macro and the weird and wonderful is because it's still there -- commercial fishing has no use for a wonderpus or inamincus or frogfish. Maybe the real issue is rising acidity hasn't hit the seas around Raja Ampat too hard yet, and it's not as highly fished as some areas, so the fish one does see look terrific by contrast to other places.

For someone already living in Indonesia, crummy flights for six hours between islands isn't that bad. For someone who has blown $10,000, is worn out from 24 to 30 hours of multiple flights, jet-lagged and weary, the addition of more flights and a short yet slightly hairy overnight makes you want diving that blows your mind, the mind that recalls seas filled with fish blocking the sun. Even after a few days of pampering in a nice hotel, your butt isn't ready for the pain of Indonesian airlines.

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