WHEN, after two days of flying, one reaches the island of Bali only to realize that more days of travel lie ahead — from Denpasar to Makassar, then to Sorong in West Papua on one dodgy Indonesian airline after another, and finally a five-hour boat trip — a traveler begins to wonder whether a stay at an eco-resort on a remote Pacific Island will make all the jet lag, chaotic airports and carbon dioxide emissions seem worth it.
That was certainly my frame of mind when, after skipping over the Ceram Sea into a tropical sunset, the bow of our launch at last bumped against the sandy bottom of a lagoon. Under a darkened sky sparkling with stars like so much crushed glass, I stepped into the soothingly tropical ocean. As bioluminescence roiled around my ankles, I waded toward a white sand shore fringed with palms to where several thatched villas set in foliage awaited, and the travails of the long odyssey effortlessly evanesced.
Batbitim Island is one of the hundreds of islands that make up the Raja Ampat chain off the Bird’s Head region of West Papua, in the far eastern reaches of the Indonesian archipelago. My weeklong stay there was precipitated by a writer friend of mine who wanted to go to a “once-in-a-lifetime place” to celebrate her birthday with friends. And the Misool Eco Resort, the sole human settlement anywhere nearby, fit the bill. Waking in the morning to the sound of waves lapping on the shore, I did have the singular feeling of, at last, having escaped from whatever it is we are all endlessly trying to flee with our travels.
Except for a few outlying buildings on the west side of the island, the resort is arrayed around a breathtaking lagoon that boasts a sumptuously alive reef just outside the individual guest villas that are built out over the aquamarine water. There are five thatch-roofed beachfront villas on the west side of the island and nine “water cottages” stilted out over the lagoon and “house reef” on the east. One can enjoy open-air baths, hammocks suspended over the water and magnificent vistas, but all in the context of sustainable luxury.
Indeed, like a 24-hour smorgasbord, this “house reef” allows guests to nip down their own private steps into the water for an easy snacklike look below any time of day, or even night. And it’s really not about what’s on land here but what’s underwater that counts. To leave the banal and unrevealing surface of the ocean and enter this other marine world, all that is required is a face mask.
Dipping beneath the surface of the inviting water is akin to C. S Lewis’s children’s passing through his fabled “wardrobe” into the magical land of Narnia. In a single instant, you are admitted into another world, the vast and florid universe of the reef that goes about its own flamboyant affairs oblivious to the world above. Here in Raja Ampat, the flora and fauna that populate this infinitely complex marine civilization come in an abundance of brazenly colorful and bizarre shapes and sizes.
The resort ferries guests around in its launches with instructors and guides to the different reefs in the region. (It also offers diver’s training and certification.) Floating over this alternative underwater universe gives the giddy sensation of hang-gliding in a crowded sky over a large city. But, instead of planes of all sizes and descriptions circling at every altitude, there are wild profusions of different species of fish. The residents of this marine civilization have extravagant names like azure demoiselles, pewter angelfish, painted frogfish and saddle butterflyfish.
In their gaudy, Technicolor glory and exotic strangeness, these creatures outdo even the dancers of a Brazilian Carnivale. With their luscious coloration and pouting, parrotfish and diagonal banded sweetlips look like Botox jobs gone wrong; spine-cheeked anemonefish with white bands wrapped around their orange-brown bodies are like miniature war-painted New Guinea highlanders ready for a little cannibalism; and tasseled scorpionfish look like miniaturized crosses between Henry Kissinger and Jabba the Hutt. All are darting around, nibbling on succulent polyps produced by the hard-working coral, and not infrequently taking bites out of each other as well.
Not to be forgotten are the surly crustaceans, heavily camouflaged octopuses, evil-looking moray and endlessly beautiful and much under-celebrated nudibranchiae. A far cry from the black turdlike species of sea slug with which Chinese hosts tirelessly terrify Western banquet guests, Raja Ampat’s nudibranchiae are the superstars of the slug family, as magnificently colored and adorned as Peking Opera masks.
And then there are the vast neighborhoods filled with fabulous Frank Gehry-like coral structures that make these submerged metropolises such architectural marvels. With evocative names — cabbage leather coral, table coral, brain coral, staghorn coral, etc., they all seem to impersonate something in the world above: someone’s medulla oblongata, a satellite dish, an internal organ, even a giant ear fungus.
If, like me, you are just a proletarian snorkeler, even swimming through the clouds of bubbles exhaled by the divers far below you is still part of the almost mystical experience. Where the cheerful, sunlit coral reef slopes away to the deep and welcoming turquoise waters suddenly yielding to a dark, colder green, another more menacing world begins. Here the larger pelagic fish, the barracuda, bonitos and sharks, patrol. When these killing machines sight a school of silver anchovies, they home in on them like combat aircraft closing in on an enemy squadron. Then there are the manta rays, the B-1 bombers of the deep, that glide menacingly through the water on graceful but threatening patrols, their barbed, poisonous tails always ready to lay out all challengers.
As beautiful as life on these reefs may appear from above, it’s actually like a crime-ridden neighborhood in which everyone is bullying, robbing, mugging, raping, murdering or cannibalizing someone else. And there are no cops; a citizen’s only protection is natural selection, which has led some creatures to generate limited means of protection: spines, camouflage, speed, poison and sometimes plain loathsome ugliness.
This abundance of marine life wasn’t impressive to just me, an occasional snorkeler who doesn’t dive. Scientists have been staggered by the more than 1,300 kinds of native reef fish and untold hundreds of kinds of hard and soft coral species (70 percent of all known species) living in the waters of Raja Ampat that the underwater photographer David Doubilet has called “ultramarine.”
Raja Ampat is considered ground zero by divers everywhere. “I’ve dived around the globe,” said Gerald R. Allen, an ichthyologist who was curator of fishes at the Western Australian Museum for 25 years, “and there is absolutely nothing else that compares.”
But what makes the pleasure of this underwater voyeurism all the more enjoyable is the knowledge that comfort awaits one back at the resort.
“This place is the way it actually is ‘in paradise,’ ” said Andrew Miners, an Englishman who worked on boats in the region for six years before deciding to build Misool. “But if it’s not at first actually paradise, then someone has to make it seem like paradise.”
And that is exactly what he and his wife, Marit, somehow managed to do.
The azure lagoon around which most of the resort — outdoor dining room, dive center, administrative office and main dock — is arrayed like a fan was formerly a shark-finning camp where fisherman did the grisly work of supplying the demand for shark-fin soup. When he first saw the encampment after stumbling on the island in 2002, Mr. Miners was horrified by the spectacle of this beautiful lagoon littered with half-dead and rotting carcasses of finless sharks.
Some time after that first visit, he dreamed up what he calls his “crazy endeavor” — to build a full-blown eco-resort that would “raise the benchmark for sustainable tourism by demonstrating that private enterprise is a viable path to conservation.” It didn’t hurt that the Raja Ampat islands have some of the most healthy and spectacular tropical reefs and best diving in the world.
By 2005, he had not only negotiated a lease with the tribal communities (which hold the traditional land-use and fishing rights to these islands), but also won their agreement to establish a pathbreaking 180-square-mile “no-catch zone” where commercial fishing, especially shark finning and fishing with dynamite and poison, are banned.
What is so astounding about Misool is that, despite its remoteness and thrifty eco-sensibility, it is built to the highest standards of craftsmanship. The resort, which is closed for maintenance but reopens on Sept. 23, is well run, serves good food and offers accommodations that are luxurious, but in an understated way that helps relieve guests of the guilt involved in living too high on the food chain.
It is to the preservation of the vibrant and stunning ecologies of marine life surrounding it that Mr. Miners and his resort staff have dedicated themselves. With the help of a Wild Aid-financed boat and three rangers, the resort now patrols the vast, newly established no-catch zone, so that commercial fishing has been essentially stopped. Gone are the days when sharkers could chum the waters with meat from slaughtered green and hawksbill turtles until the lagoon was filled with dying sharks. But the challenges keep coming. Because manta-ray gills have become a popular cure for impotency in Chinese medicine, fishermen have now turned to hunting mantas. So, Mr. Miners has now also underwritten a manta study and conservation project at Misool.
As I floated above Misool’s magnificent reefs, I found myself elated by the fact that here was a piece of the natural world that still cohered and was largely undisturbed by man’s predations. At the same time, I could not banish feelings of unease, even sadness, that grow out of the recognition that this glorious state once characteristic of the natural world almost everywhere has narrowed to a few remaining places on the globe. Here, at least for the moment, there was not only still wholeness, but also someone to watch over it.
“Thank you for coming here,” Mr. Miners said as our group prepared to leave. “If you hadn’t, we would never be able to do our ecological work.”
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