I’m at five metres, clutching a rock outcrop on the seabed when the manta ray fixes me with its gaze. I’m free diving so there are no distracting bubbles – just the undulation of wings – four metres from tip to tip – as it passes close enough to touch, with a look that feels…nuanced. We stare at each other for a couple of moments before it wheels round, showing me a white belly scattered with dark spots and a couple of remora fish hitching a ride. Being that close to a manta is thrilling – but it’s the look that stays with me.
An archipelago of 1500 odd islands scattered over 40,000 square kilometres off the coast of West Papua, Indonesia, Raja Ampat is a great place to see manta rays – and indeed sea creatures in general. For one, these waters are home to more marine species than anywhere else on the planet: there are single reefs in Raja Ampat that contain more species than the entire Caribbean. And then there’s the fact that the entire region was declared a sanctuary for sharks and rays back in 2010 – a move that four years later led to the whole of Indonesia becoming a manta ray sanctuary – easily the world’s largest.
A few hours later I’m sitting down to dinner with two of the guys who can claim credit both for identifying Raja Ampat as the world’ epicentre of marine biodiversity and helping establish it as a shark and ray sanctuary. One is ichthyologist Gerry Allen, a leading expert on tropical fish species, the other is his friend and frequent collaborator, Mark Erdmann, vice president of Asia Pacific Marine Programmes at US N.G.O Conservation International (CI), himself a leading marine biologist and coral reef ecologist. With them is a small, highly skilled coterie of marine experts hailing from Indonesia, Singapore, Fiji and the UK.
We’re on board the Rascal, a Phinisi schooner whose interiors resemble a five-star boutique hotel more than they do a typical live aboard vessel – even those at the opulent end of the scale. I’ve been a guest on research trips before, but not like this one. Not only do I get to explore some of Raja Ampat’s most beautiful and least visited seascapes with a group of experts uniquely qualified to describe their ecology – but I’m doing so in the lap of luxury.
Rascal Charters, which currently runs cruises to Raja Ampat and Komodo National Park, has teamed up with CI to support scientific research and conservation efforts – a partnership they hope to continue as they expand their fleet and their portfolio of destinations over the next few years to include the likes of the Maldives, Myanmar and Cambodia.
Our mission on this voyage is twofold – to seek out new species and to gather more data on Raja Ampat’s manta ray populations. My manta moment takes places at our first destination, Dayan in a sheltered cove off the island of Batanta, smallest of the ‘Four Kings’ – the islands that give Raja Ampat its name. Using his drone, Erdmann spots a cleaning station that’s new to the research team. Cleaning stations are like underwater spas for sharks and rays – they head to these locations to have their skin, teeth and gills cleaned by wrasse and tiny crustaceans.
Erdmann and his colleague Sarah Lewis from conservation NGO Manta Trust anchor Go Pros in the middle of the cleaning station to capture footage of all the mantas that pass through. Over the course of an afternoon, they log more than 25 new manta rays, five of which are tagged with acoustic tags that emit signals picked up by strategically located listening posts when the mantas are in range.
Meanwhile, Gerry Allen has been busy with the small fry – literally. His main focus this trip is small tropical reef fish and he has his eyes on one family in particular -the goby, among the tiniest and most abundant fish in the ocean. While the manta team hung out at the cleaning station, he’d been hunting his much smaller quarry alongside Fijian marine scientist Semisi Meo.
“We’re always looking for new records and that’s the number one objective when we come on a trip like this,” he tells me. When Allen first came to Raja Ampat back in 2001, the region’s species count stood at fewer than 200. Today that number has swelled to well over 2000, thanks in large part to his own efforts. “The bonus is finding new species – I have my shopping list that I take with me on every trip – there’s a little goby I photographed that I’m really hoping to find this time!”
The following morning, I emerge from my cabin and find the Rascal anchored in a tranquil lagoon surrounded by sheer limestone karsts clad in iridescent green foliage. This is Wayag – a far flung outpost six hours north of Waisai, the biggest of the four islands. It’s also one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited and has rightly become one of the icons not just of Raja Ampat but of the entire Coral Triangle bioregion. A few of us find time to climb one of the karsts to take in a panorama that gives Halong Bay in Vietnam a serious run for its money.
We’re not here for the views though – CI discovered a manta ray nursery here back in 2015 – the first of its kind anywhere in southeast Asia. The shallow lagoon provides a relatively safe environment for vulnerable juveniles. The manta team manage to spot a previously unidentified baby to add to the database.
It’s not just science that drives these research trips but conservation too. It’s difficult to accurately estimate manta ray populations, since they’ve a fondness for both solitude and migration. But they are listed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) as vulnerable. Being able to track their migratory patterns can tell us if thy travel through areas where hunting is known to occur (mantas may be protected across Indonesia but enforcement across an archipelago of more than 17,000 islands is a mammoth challenge that is still just getting underway). It also helps with tourism management – “understanding where and when we might need to give the mantas a bit of a break from the bubble makers!” as Erdmann puts it.
That night we head to Ayau, an even more remote island group that is close to the tiny island nation of Palu. Few if any tourist boats make it this far north and research trips are rare. Despite their isolated location, however, the people of Ayau enjoy the highest rates of university education anywhere in Raja Ampat. What’s more, their diligent management of their Marine Protected Area (MPA) has seen previously depleted fish populations rebound.
We visit the tiny village of Abidon and discover an interesting custom – people prefer to sleep on a layer of very fine sand, which they spread across their bedrooms to a depth of few inches. The head of the village assures me that it is both cooler and more comfortable than a regular mattress! Meanwhile the manta team have been able to confirm that populations from further south don’t migrate as far as this- which also means the isolated archipelago is home to an entirely new group of mantas.
On our way back from Ayau we stop at one of Raja Ampat’s more famous dive sites, Blue Magic – an isolated sea mount that’s a magnet for big pelagic species, including oceanic mantas that can grow to seven metres from wing tip to wing tip. I descend with Rascal Charter’s Cruise Director Garry Phillips – a hugely experienced dive master who has already taken me on some exploratory dives. As we reach the mount, an enormous manta hoves into view. The current is ripping, so I grab a rock to maintain my position. A white tip reef shark cruises past and I spot a group of barracuda. A few minutes later I hear Gary tapping his pointer on his tank and turn to see him gesturing excitedly at a rock. I fin across to him and peer underneath it to discover a tasselled wobbegong shark ensconced in the shadows, its distinctive “beard” of branching dermal lobes clearly visible.
Allen and Erdmann invariably find new species every time they come to Raja Ampat and this trip is no exception: they add two new species of Goby to their tally. One of them is of the genus Grallenia – a group that Japanese researchers discovered and named after none other than Gerald R Allen!
The trip provides a solid proof of concept that a drone is a highly effective tool for actually finding manta rays. It also gives us a bird’s eye view of an enormous pod of dolphins speeding just below the surface as we cruise away from Blue Magic. They dart among each other, breaching suddenly and swimming in tandem with their bellies touching – a behaviour that the scientists can’t immediately explain. Whatever they’re up to, it looks like a lot of fun.
We spend our final day back at the Dayan cleaning station where there are more up close and personal encounters with manta rays. Again, there’s an uncanny sense of being recognised, which as it turns out is not mere anthropomorphism, as Sarah Lewis explains to me. “Manta rays are incredibly intelligent – we know this from their brain size, but also studies have shown that they actually recognise divers.”
Perhaps my shared moment wasn’t as fanciful as I thought.
Johnny Langenheim travelled to Raja Ampat as a guest of Rascal Charters.