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AD 2016 Q1


THE GALÁPAGOS OF THE EAST | TEXT AND PHOTOS BY MICHAEL AW A misty fog shrouds the Arfak mountain range. Silhouetted against an indigo sea, these mountains evoke the feeling of a place where time has stood still. An undulating landscape of waving palms, white sandy beaches, mangrove swamps and massive coral limestone cliffs embraces a peculiar wedge-shaped bay. Located in the eastern fringe of the Indonesian Archipelago, remote Cenderawasih Bay harbors secrets of the region’s geological past and tectonic evolution. The bay is easily recognizable on the map: It occupies the northeastern coastal area of West Papua and somewhat resembles the neck of a bird. Its huge assortment of marine life populates the various types of coral reefs found here: fringing reefs, barrier reefs, atolls, patch reefs and shallow-water reef mounds. The fringing reefs are the most abundant and have been scientifically documented as the last of the remaining pristine reefs in the world. Recognizing the bay’s significance, in 2002 the provincial government and Conservation International established Taman Nasional Teluk Cenderawasih (Cenderawasih Bay National Park) as a marine protected area, the biggest in Indonesia. The management plan for the park established 14 tourism zones. To date, human impact is minimal, as there are only few tourists per year and around 20,000 inhabitants. It’s possible to travel the entire length and breadth of the park and see only a few locals. Modern developments are almost nonexistent; there is no water sports center, Four Seasons or Hilton. But on the geological time scale, massive changes have occurred over the millennia. Between 3 million and 14 million years ago, slivers of land moved by unstable tectonic plates sealed the mouth of Cenderawasih Bay. These obstructions prevented the spread of oceanic larvae into and out of the bay. Thus the marine life in the bay evolved in isolation. Although the barriers eventually broke open, the shallow sill and sheer size of the bay limit oceanographic circulation, preventing planktonic larvae from reaching many reefs in the bay. Through the ages the inhabitants of Cenderawasih Bay swam in varying sea levels; fishes and coral species vanished and reappeared again. During the Pleistocene epoch, sea level plunged to 400 feet below where it is today. Inhabitants of the shallow reefs perished, and animals of the deep found themselves near the surface of the bay. As sea levels rose again, flooding the dried reef zone, these deepwater animals followed the rising sea to depths in the 6- to 65-foot range. Here these inhabitants enjoyed little competition due to the bay’s unique oceanographic properties, and deepwater species such as Burgess’ butterflyfish (Chaetodon burgessi), which are normally associated with depths of 200 to 260 feet, are commonly found here as shallow as 33 feet. Marine scientists have established that until recent times the bay was geologically isolated from the flow of the Pacific tides. This isolation consecrated Cenderawasih as an ancient sea with a high percentage of endemic fish and coral species found nowhere else on the planet. Ichthyologist Gerald Allen, Ph.D., a consultant for Conservation International, proclaimed the bay “the Galápagos of the East” based on documented findings of an “evolutionary cauldron” of new and unique corals, shrimps and fishes. Extensive surveys documented 995 species of fish and more than 500 species of corals — approximately 10 times as many as the entire Caribbean. Lured by the prospect of new discoveries, I made seven sojourns to this primordial sea in the last six years. There is something decidedly adventurous and exciting about flying through five airports in three days, hopping from a ginormous Singapore Airlines double decker Airbus A380 to an Xpress Air 18-seat turboprop, arriving in Nabire and being promptly whisked away to a quaint harbor beside a raucous fish market. My first expedition was arranged by a local fixer and used police boats and Navy dive gear. In subsequent expeditions I traveled on a modern liveaboard. Although my primary agenda was exploring sites that had not been seen before and capturing pictures 76 | WINTER 2016

Clownfish and other Indo-Pacific reef tropicals are common in Cenderawasih Bay. ALERTDIVER.COM | 77

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