The tip led him on what would become a four-month diving expedition across several archipelagos, consulting local fishermen along the way.
During his trip, one place stood out from the rest: Raja Ampat, in the Indonesian province of West Papua.
Located in the heart of the Coral Triangle, the Raja Ampat Marine Protected Area Network covers more than 4 million hectares and includes approximately 1,500 islands.
Credited with the richest marine biodiversity on Earth and a relatively remote location that allowed it to escape mass tourism, it’s no surprise that Raja Ampat is often marketed as ‘the last paradise on Earth’. It is home to over 1,600 species of fish, while being home to about 75% of the world’s known coral species.
“There are endless beautiful areas and many hundreds of beautiful coral gardens,” Ammer says.
One of the most successful conservation projects on Earth
Often referred to as ‘the last paradise on earth’, Raja Ampat is known for its rich marine biodiversity.
Dive Resorts in Papua
Raja Ampat has not always been a conservation success story, showing that real change is possible with the right approach.
“A lot had to be done in collaboration with different stakeholders to turn this around.”
“Since the initiative started, fish populations have recovered; poaching by outside fishermen has decreased by about 90%, coral is recovering and long-term food and livelihood security for local communities has improved,” said Irmadhiany.
Enticing local communities to become active members of the conservation effort was key to its success.
The parks employ the locals to survey and protect the areas. They preserve the local indigenous knowledge, values and traditional practices such as ‘Sasi’, which refers to the age-old local tradition of sequestering areas to allow ecosystems to recover.
“You have to start with communities and make sure your solutions meet their needs. The goal is to support their self-determined commitments to protect their place, so the solution is sustainable and benefits the local population and biodiversity,” says Irmadhiany.
Organized by Marine Conservation International and approved by the United Nations, the annual award recognizes marine parks around the world for meeting the highest scientific standards for conservation effectiveness.
Shark fin camp converted into an eco-resort
The Misool Eco Resort is located in a “no-take zone”. All fishing and hunting activities are prohibited in the 300,000 hectare marine reserve.
Her relationship with Raja Ampat started as a love story. While traveling in Bangkok in 2005, she met fellow diving enthusiasts and her future husband Andrew Miners.
On their third date, he invited her to dive with Raja Ampat.
“My first visit to Raja Ampat in 2005 was life-changing,” Miners told DailyExpertNews Travel. Born in Sweden, she studied anthropology before discovering her passion for diving and yoga in Thailand.
“It was unlike anything I’d ever experienced before, both above and below water.”
While the reefs off Batbitim Island, where Misool is now, were great, miners were annoyed by the former shark fin camp.
“I hadn’t seen a single live shark before,” says Miners.
Biodiversity had yet to recover from years of commercial fishing practices. It led the couple to establish Misool Foundation and Misool Resort in 2005, not long after their first visit – the latter a way to financially support wildlife conservation.
They then reached an agreement with the local communities to convert Misool Marine Reserve into a “no-take zone”, meaning all fishing and hunting activities would be banned within the 300,000-hectare area. Since 2007, they have hired their own ranger patrol to guard the waters.
As far as the resort itself is concerned, sustainability is always at the forefront of business operations.
For example, solar panels reduce the use of fossil fuels. Rainwater is collected to produce drinking water. The on-site gardens provide organic food. The foundation’s waste management programs include purchasing ocean waste and plastics, which they sell to recyclers.
Sharks and other sea creatures have returned to Misool.
Meanwhile, marine life is returning to where “dead finned sharks were once left in the shallows” and the richer marine life has become more attractive to divers.
“Since 2007, fish biomass (at Misool) has increased by an average of 250% and shark populations have recovered. A healthy, vibrant ecosystem is great for tourists to experience, but also essential for local people who depend on the reefs’ abundance for their livelihood,” says Miners.
She notes that involving local communities is essential to Raja Ampat’s continued success, as a well-protected marine environment requires collaboration and long-term commitment.
“As ecosystems recover, their abundance becomes more attractive to those who want to exploit them. Threats evolve and diversify over time… It is unrealistic and risky to assume that a problem has been solved permanently.”
It therefore takes commitment from the community, local regional governments, scientists, business owners, nonprofits, schools, financiers and influential local and international supporters, she adds.
“This holistic approach gives the best chance of success. It takes a lot of mind and energy, which can be found here in Raja Ampat,” says Miners.
Cape Kri and other must-visits at Raja Ampat
Ammer has also seen positive changes in his two Papua Diving resorts.
“When we started, there were a lot of very harmful practices all over Raja Ampat: bomb fishing, potassium cyanide fishing, shark fishing, logging,” Ammer says.
“That has all been slowly eradicated. In our case mainly by creating other opportunities to live on. When we gave turtle poachers, shark fishermen, (loggers) jobs in the resorts, they no longer have to be involved in the damaging practices.”
Papua Diving’s two sites are built in areas that had already been disturbed; both were former coconut plantations, meaning no virgin forest was destroyed.
They were mostly built with local materials, while the addition of stainless steel extends the life of the wood. Roofs are made from traditional thatched palm fronds harvested and purchased from local communities.
They have designed catamarans that are more economical, built by local people. A new catamaran currently under development will be fully electric and autonomous when it hits the water.
Papua Diving’s two resorts both have conservation and diving centers, with approximately 90% of their staff being locals.
When asked about his favorite dive spots in Raja Ampat, Ammer says the list is almost endless.
“I’m often still amazed when I look around during a dive. I wonder if I’m dreaming it all,” says Ammer, who has named many of the dive sites in the area himself.
In addition to Papua Diving’s famous house reef, Cape Kri, Sardines Reef is said to have “so many fish that they sometimes block the sunlight”.
There is also plenty to see above water in Raja Ampat.
“The water is dotted with little mushroom-shaped outcroppings, draped in pitcher plants and wild orchids,” says Misool’s Miners.
“The largest terrestrial arthropod, the coconut crab, can be found among the undergrowth and unusual bird species such as the sulfur-crested cockatoo, the Blyth’s hornbill and the brahmin kite are often sighted. Thick mangroves act as nurseries for young fish and as a hidden refuge for flying foxes or fruit bats.
“On land, there are walks that reward you with extraordinary views of the iconic karst islands and blue lagoons.”
“learn from us”
Papua Diving founder says employment alternatives have helped eradicate once-harmful fishing practices.
Luis Kabes, a local dive guide at Papua Diving, tells DailyExpertNews Travel that to have the best experience at Raja Ampat, travelers should also “visit a local village and spend some time at the local school.”
“Tell us about your country and learn from us. Eat together,” says Kabes, who is from Sawandarek Village on Batanta Island, one of the main islands of Raja Ampat.
He says he is proud that Raja Ampat is now such a famous place and is proud to be a dive guide.
After spending three decades in Raja Ampat and visiting more than 400 World War II aircraft there, Ammer agrees that the biggest attraction is the people.
“Interacting with people. Everywhere,” Ammer adds, “you might fall in love with them too and never want to go home.”