Thursday, March 17, 2011

Indonesia Expedition: Fit Four a King

This post is from Dr. Randi Rotjan, Associate Research Scientist, New England Aquarium.

Every time I visit a new reef system, my definition of a healthy coral reef gets slightly tweaked and re-calibrated. Of course, "healthy" is a loaded word. Every place is different, and so keeping each reef system in context is important. However, my view of coral reefs has been forever changed by what I've witnessed in the past two weeks: even as I objectively took data describing my underwater observations, emotive words like "awe" and "splendor" keep crossing my mind. It took enormous self-discipline to simply stick to my transect and not just spend the entire dive gaping at the beautiful reefs around me.

The spectacular hard (L) and soft (R) corals of Raja Ampat (Photos: R. Rotjan)

Defy, Erdi, and I managed to examine 17 sites in 2 weeks--no small feat for an expedition with so many different priorities and so much transit from site-to-site. Proud of our efforts, we have successfully gained a first glance at the diversity and abundance of corals, grazed corals, and coral-eating fishes. We have also gathered important information to support the monitoring efforts of Conservation International, and have assisted and participated in the autonomous and assisted technology efforts (see Erika's post about that here). Most importantly, our expedition group has successfully completed the first deep ROV dives in Raja Ampat, exploring seamounts and reef walls. An equally important accomplishment is the successful partnering of deep-sea and shallow-reef scientists on the same expedition: the links between neighboring deep sea and coral reef habitats are not yet well explored, and I am excited and confident that this expedition will be the first of many to examine the coupling of these ecosystems in synchrony.

Measuring coral health and corallivory in Raja Ampat (Photo: R. Rotjan)

The past few weeks have been intense as we've sailed around Raja Ampat. Literally translating to "Four Kings," we have visited reefs near the main four islands (Batanta, Misool, Salawati, and Waigeo), and some other more remote islands as well. The rich tapestry of organisms extends well beyond the fishes and the corals; many organisms were kind enough to traverse my transect line so that I could see them amidst my data-collecting pursuits. Among my favorite organisms were the nudibranchs and tunicates, which were both numerous and diverse.

Nudibranchs and tunicates abound on Raja Ampat reefs. (Photos: R. Rotjan)

It was also a treat to see organisms that we have yet to identify. One of the benefits of going home is access to an arsenal of books and scientific resources, which I will use over the coming weeks to help identify and understand what we've seen. For example, can anyone out there identify these strange invertebrates?

Oceanapia sagittaria - the puff ball sponge.
ID provided by Raphael Ritson-Williams; Photo: R. Rotjan

These expeditions are the result of months (and sometimes years) of planning. This particular expedition was organized by Dr. Greg Stone, our fearless leader, who deserves thanks and credit for his gargantuan efforts. Crissy did a fabulous job of acknowledging the support from everyone here, which I (and everyone) wholeheartedly echo: thank you to everyone! Terima kasih banyak!

Expedition Group Shot (Photo: J. Lepore)

We are also grateful for our safety. Raja Ampat was spared the impacts of the tsunami. As we re-enter the "real" world, we are all seeing the images from the recent tsunami for the first time. Our thoughts and sorrows are with our colleagues, family, and friends in Japan who have experienced great tragedy and loss. As yet another reminder of the fragility of life for both humans and marine ecosystems, we wholeheartedly wish for calm seas and safety for all.

A global wish for safety and calm seas from the Raja Ampat expedition team. (Photo: R. Rotjan)

As I start the long (4-day!) process of traveling from Raja Ampat to Boston, I know I have much to think about. Once again re-calibrated, my view of coral reefs has been forever changed by this magical place. The beauty and complexity of this habitat has inspired much science, but I hope it will also inspire continued conservation efforts here in Indonesia and across the globe. Places like Raja Ampat are increasingly few: even here, there is evidence of dynamite fishing, cyanide fishing, trash disposal, ghost gear, coastal degradation, sedimentation, coral disease, and bleaching on the shallow reefs. Threats to the deep sea are as unknown as the organisms themselves. Raja Ampat still glistens as the crown jewel of coral reefs, but human impact is still painfully evident. On-land actions make a huge difference underwater here, and everywhere on the planet.

Coastal marine habitats are directly influenced by their topside counterparts (Photos: R. Rotjan)

On behalf of everyone on this expedition, I think I can say that we are all hopeful for the future of both science and conservation here and in other marine ecosystems across the globe. As we strive to live blue, we hope we've inspired you to do the same. Hidup secara biru: live blue!



  1. Randi, what spectacular pictures you took. But I bet they don't nearly capture the actual experience...

    Jeff Lee
    Hingham, MA
    SCD :-)

  2. Hi Jeff!

    Thank you for the compliment, and thank you so much for reading the blog! Of course the actual experience is much more colorful and vivid - my photos do not do Raja Ampat justice, especially since they were taken very quickly amidst taking data. :-) Stay tuned for more photos from the expedition from Brian Skerry and Jeff Wildermuth (the professionals) that will be coming out eventually in National Geographic.

    Thanks so much for reading the blog and for all of your support and efforts towards the oceans (w/bls)... Randi