Bucket-list biodiversity, meeting a future king, critters without crowds
Travel can broaden the mind, but sometimes it can be downright mind-blowing. Such was the case during a recent dive trip to Indonesia, the world’s fourth-most populated country. There, in the heart of the Coral Triangle, is an area called Raja Ampat―which means Four Kings— that has been called the cradle of underwater biodiversity. It ranks high on the bucket list of just about every serious scuba diver and underwater photographer. This West Papuan archipelago features more than 1,500 islands, cays and shoals that contain 1,400 documented fish species, as well as three-quarters of the world’s known species of coral, seven species of dolphins and eight types of whales.
Raja Ampat is one of the best places in the world to see and photograph the big stuff that includes sharks and giant acrobatic manta rays with wingspans up to 15 feet and weighing as much as a small car. While sharks and mantas are becoming endangered in many places, in Raja Ampat they are protected through the recent establishment of marine sanctuaries.
For underwater photographers who relish the challenge of seeking out the ocean’s tiniest critters, a short flight to the island of Ambon serves this purpose. One of the legendary "Spice Islands," it is known as one of the best “muck” diving destinations on the planet. Muck diving refers to searching for unusual marine life that makes its home in the twilight zone of rubble and otherwise inhospitable conditions; it is not unusual to find a tiny octopus living in a clamshell or a bottle, as well as creatures so unusual as to appear unearthly, such as spectacularly colored nudibranchs, strange-looking frogfish, and harlequin and Coleman shrimp . It is a great place to cross many strange critters off your must-see-and-photograph list.
In Ambon we meet a young resort staffer named Lafse who is in line to become king of his local village of Larike. He tells us of giant eels that live in the local river here that in eons past were worshiped by the villagers. This we have to see for ourselves.
After more than an hour’s drive along narrow dirt roads that cling to steep slopes along the edge of the island, we arrive in Larike and wind our way through narrow streets, past happy chattering children, to the river that obviously serves many purposes for the village, including fishing, washing clothes and bathing.
As we wait in a shallow pool, the large eels began to arrive. They are truly impressive; 6 to 7 feet long and smooth as silk, which we discover by running our hands along their slippery sides. As they lack the backward-facing teeth of
their ocean-based cousins, they pose little danger, so Hafes and other villagers handle the eels with a careful and respectful familiarity.
Villagers in earlier times believed the eels embodied the spirits of their dead ancestors. Today they have named a
THIS WEST PAPUAN ARCHIPELAGO FEATURES MORE THAN 1,500 ISLANDS, CAYS AND SHOALS THAT CONTAIN 1,400 DOCUMENTED FISH SPECIES.
few, including the largest one that they have dubbed with the decidedly un-Indonesian name of Bruce.
At one point, Hafes demonstrates how the eels are gentle enough to be fed by hand, even by mouth, as he dangles a fish from his teeth and holds steady as a large eel lifts its head out of the water and gently plucks it from his mouth. One of our party tries the same thing, thankfully coming away unscathed but with a great story to tell friends and family.
Welcome to Indonesia, where the unexpected is the norm.
The biodiversity and panorama of Indonesia are unequaled in the world. The area in the southwest Pacific Ocean is north of Australia and south of the Philippines.
Diving adventures will amaze even veterans of the deep blue seas.
Writer Glenn Ostle and Pam Hadfield (above right) share a special moment on an Indonesian adventure that included photographing harlequin shrimp (from left), gentle eels and Larike's friendly kids. The passenger ship Indo Siren (below) is an exciting form of travel betwee n the area's lush islands. Glenn Ostle is a freelance photojournalist and regular contributor to TOTI Media who lives in Charlotte, North Carolina.