The Bird’s Head Seascape… Located on the north-west tip of the West Papua province of Indonesia. The area known as the Bird’s Head Seascape is widely considered to have the highest concentration of marine biodiversity in the world.
The area consists of four main regions – Raja Ampat, Cenderawasih, Kaimana and Missol. And, because of that phenomenal biodiversity, the Bird’s Head is renowned for its scuba diving.
Particularly so for the Raja Ampat region, which has become one of the best known diving locations in the world!
The name “Bird’s Head” derives from the shape of the area on the north-western tip of West Papua. The peninsular was christened by the early explorers of the area because of that shape.
While the term “seascape” came about as the underwater diversity of the region became apparent. Numerous people were involved in that work but the marine scientists Mark Erdmann and Gerry Allen, together with underwater photojournalists Burt Jones and Maurine Shimlock stand out.
Working with Conservation International, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and the WWF they have identified an amazing total of more than 1,800 species of coral reef fish. Plus over over 600 species of coral and 17 species of whales and dolphins.
The Bird’s Head Seascape – The Coral Triangle
In many ways the Bird’s Head Seascape is the very core of the Coral Triangle, which in itself is regarded as the most biodiverse region of the world.
Covering the tropical waters around eastern Indonesia and Malaysia, all of Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, the Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste studies of the Coral triangle have identified more than 2200 species of fish and 76% of all known coral species in the world.
All in an area that covers just 1.6% of the planet’s oceanic area. And, quite incredibly over 90% of all those species are present in the Bird’s Head Seascape!
The Bird’s Head Seascape – Why So Biodiverse?
Good question… so why is the Coral Triangle so biodiverse? And, why is so much of that biodiversity found in the Bird’s Head Seascape? The answer is incredibly complex, but the fundamental catalyst for it all is the Indonesian Throughflow.
The Throughflow is one of the largest movements of water on the planet and an incredibly powerful force of nature. So much water flows that a special measurement had to be developed to quantify it – the “Sverdrup.”
The basic mechanism behind the Indonesian Throughflow though is quite basic. There is a difference in sea-level between the Pacific Ocean to the north and the Indian Ocean to the south.
The massive disparity is created by the trade winds and associated oceanic currents. Which act in opposite directions in the northern and southern hemispheres.
But the overall result is that massive movement of water. Which flows south through the Indonesian archipelago and east towards the Solomon Islands
And carried with it are the eggs and larvae of the Indo-Pacific region marine life. Along with the detritus of the sea, rich with nitrogen and phosphurous nutrients, swept up from the deep offshore basins.
Those eggs, larvae and nutrients are the the life-force of the Coral Triangle. And one of the very first places they touch land is the Bird’s Head Seascape!
The Bird’s Head Seascape Pioneers – At Sea…
Just as the Baliem Valley, high up in central Cordillera of West Papua was a kind of “Lost World” when it was found in 1938. The underwater world of the Birds Head was also a source of wonder when it was discovered. And the first area to be really explored underwater was Raja Ampat. Which had to be done by a self-contained liveaboard, as there simply was no infrastructure available on land at that time.
The Pindito was constructed over a 10-month period in 1991 at Laut island on the south-east tip of Kalimantan in Indonesian Borneo.
To design and build Pindito, Edi had to learn how to use both AutoCAD and the German Lloyds approved Indonesian BKI marine standards.
The boat was successfully launched in early 1992 and there is a short video available on YouTube about building the Pindito. It makes really interesting watching and starts with a huge hole being dug by hand to create the dry-dock where the massive keel is laid.
By the mid 1990’s Edi was operating regularly in Raja Ampat, discovering many of the sites that are still amazing dives to this day. How incredibly exciting it must have been though to be the first to enter the water and experience that “lost world”…
You can read more about Edi and his incredibly adventurous life on this link to Edi Frommenwiler and Pindito.
The Bird’s Head Seascape Pioneers – On Land…
While Edi Frommenwiler was busy exploring the greater Raja Ampat area and pioneering liveaboard diving. Another European adventurer was taking the first steps towards land based diving in the Dampier Strait.
Dutchman Max Ammer first arrived in West Papua in 1989. In his early 30’s at that point in time, Max was earning an interesting living from finding and then trading WWII wreckage and artifacts.
He had come to Indonesia in search of a huge cache of US Army Willys jeeps. Rumoured to have been dumped on the remote island of Morotai, to the north of Halmahera. From there he went to Raja Ampat to look for the aircraft wrecks he had heard of!
Max kind of stumbled on the diving in Raja Ampat in the pursuit of those wrecks. Having learned to dive in the military, diving itself was just a way to check out the wrecks. Until the realization dawned that what was underwater in Raja Ampat was really something very special!
Max’s focus was on the Dampier Strait – the large body of water that separates the island of Waigeo from the actual “Bird’s Head”.
The people of the local villages were the catalyst for his enduring fascination with West Papua. Where he established his relationships with them and their leaders. And would later draw his staff from as he built his business.
Initially that business was pretty basic – beach camps with adventurous divers keen to sample this new destination. Then in 1993 he started Papua Diving, the first land-based dive resort in Raja Ampat!
And the rest, as they say… is history. But a truly fascinating history if you like your underwater adventure with a conscience! You can read more about Max and the amazing things he has accomplished in Raja Ampat on this link to Max Ammer and diving in the Dampier Strait.
The Bird’s Head Seascape – Dive Tourism… (Page under construction from here…)
Tourism has grown dramatically in the Bird’s Head Seacape, but by far the biggest growth has been in Raja Ampat. So much so that it seems incredible that just over 20 years ago Edi Frommenwiler and Max Ammer basically had the place to themslves!
Their combined capacity back then was estimated to be about 300 guests per year. But, by 2011, there were 8 land-based resorts and over 40 liveaboards servicing around 6400 guests per year! While the resorts provide jobs and revenue to the local economy, apart from the purchase of supplies like fuel, water and food, the liveaboards don’t have the same impact.
To try and balance that out in 2007 and provide a source of local revenue in 2007 the Raja Ampat regency government developed a tourism entrance fee system. Initially that was set at 500k IDR (~ USD $55) and was valid for one calendar year. With 30% of that revenue utilized by the government for tourism management. And 70% fund conservation and community development programs in all 135 villages of Raja Ampat.
Since its inception, the fee system has accrued nearly USD $1,000,000 and has funded a nutrition program for pregnant and nursing mothers and MPA enforcement and turtle rookery guarding programs. Kaimana Regency and the Cendrawasih Bay National Park have recently commenced their own entrance fee systems.
The Raja Ampat government enacted legislation in July 2011 to establish the first marine tourism licensing system in Indonesia, setting an upper limit of 40 liveaboard dive vessel and 20 dive resort licenses for the regency while also stipulating strong requirements for environmentally-sensitive construction of resorts and employment of local community members in tourism operations. Both the West Papua provincial government and the Raja Ampat regency government have now explicitly recognized marine tourism as one of the main sectors for economic development of the regency, and increasingly this sector is providing benefits to local communities not only through entrance fee revenues, but also through direct employment in resorts and on dive vessels as well as through providing important markets for sale of handicrafts and of fish, fruits and vegetables harvested by community members.
The Bird’s Head Seascape – Marine Protected Areas
The Nature Conservancy and WWF — Conservation International. Created a network of 12 marine protected areas (MPAs) covering more than 3.6 million hectares (8.89 million acres). These MPAs employ local people to survey and protect coasts. Reefs and fish, helping communities to protect and sustainably manage their resources and their livelihoods. Since the initiative’s inception, fish populations have rebounded; sharks, whales and rays have returned; poaching by outside fishers is down 90%; coral is recovering; and ecotourism has flourished.
As of 2020, BHS MPAs cover 5.1 million ha across 23 MPAs. As expected, management effectiveness is steadily increasing in BHS MPAs—although newer MPAs face substantial capacity gaps. Tourism is rapidly growing—with an almost 3,000% increase in tourist visits between 2007 and 2018. Overall, hard coral cover in monitored BHS MPAs remained stable at 33% from 2010 to 2019, although trends in reef fish biomass were more variable. Given continued conservation challenges in the region, BHS MPAs are successfully preventing biodiversity loss while providing ecosystem services for local communities.
Over the past two decades MPA numbers and extent have grown substantially in the BHS—from three MPAs in 2000 to 23 current MPAs covering 5,169,905 ha (Figure 2a; Tables 1 and S1). After the first MPAs were initiated in the 1990s, there was rapid MPA development in Raja Ampat and Kaimana, with seven of the nine current MPAs in Raja Ampat and two in Kaimana initiated and established between 2001 and 2009 (Table 1). More recently, from 2015 to the present, a second wave of MPA establishment occurred—expanding the BHS MPA network into sub-regions previously without MPAs (Table 1). This second wave was driven by local communities proposing new MPAs—such as in Fam Islands, North Misool, Fakfak, Bintuni, and South Sorong—with the support of NGOs and the provincial government.
The Bird’s Head Seascape – Marine Protected Areas
Therefore, the current BHS MPA network consists of a patchwork of MPAs at various stages of establishment and implementation. Eight MPAs meet the E-KKP3K criteria for being “minimally managed,” six are “established,” four are “initiated,” and five have not yet been assessed by E-KKP3K (Tables 1 and S1). No BHS MPAs have yet met the E-KKP3K criteria for being “optimally managed” or for being “long-term self-reliant MPAs.” Individual MPAs range from 5,000 to 1,453,000 ha in area (Table 1), with 535,087 ha of no-take areas within the BHS (Table S2). Raja Ampat regency has nine MPAs—the most of any regency