Why did wild dogs vanish in Serengeti National Park? New answers are emerging. (Photograph: Per Harald Olsen)
It was the year when the Serengeti National Park’s music, or at least one section in its chorus-of-the-wild, died. In 1991, the twitters and whines of African wild dogs went strangely silent in Tanzania’s iconic protected area.
Scientists began tracking wild dogs, also called painted wolves, here in 1964. Over the next quarter-century, researchers watched as the wild dog population dwindled, then disappeared. Why did these canids effectively go extinct in a land where gazelles and other prey were plentiful?
Could the biologists themselves somehow be responsible?
An African wild dog in Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Conservation Area surveys its domain. (Photograph: Per Harald Olsen)
The blame game
It’s anathema to researchers to think their actions might cause harm to an endangered species like the African wild dog. But in 1994, Roger Burrows of the University of Exeter unleashed the controversial idea that it was indeed scientists’ actions that led to the dogs’ demise.
Wild dogs became stressed, Burrows stated, when researchers immobilized and placed radio collars on them. The stress suppressed the wild dogs’ immune systems, he said, allowing diseases they already carried to kill them.
Burrows’ hypothesis rattled biologists who had long depended on radio collars to follow animals, especially endangered species. The implications went far beyond the Serengeti, say ecologists Craig Jackson of the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research, Eivin Roskaft of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and colleagues at the Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute and Carnegie Institution for Science.
The team recently published a paper debunking Burrows’ thinking in the journal Ecology and Evolution. Serengeti wild dogs, the researchers found, weren’t the victims of science.
Wild dogs can roam onto Serengeti National Park lands. But they rarely do. (Photograph: Per Harald Olsen)
Life on the periphery
Although Serengeti National Park was, and is, without wild dogs, the dogs survived in the park’s outskirts. These outlier wild dogs have been studied since 2005. Many are outfitted with GPS collars; data show that the dogs sometimes briefly cross park boundaries. “Therefore, wild dogs could reside there,” says Roskaft. But they don’t.
There are now more than 100 wild dogs in 10 packs outside the park in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and Loliondo Game Controlled Area. Between 2006 and 2016, Roskaft and colleagues report, 121 wild dogs from these locations were handled by researchers, with 45 of the dogs radio-collared.
How many of the 121 survived for a year or more afterward? Some 87.6 percent, or 106 wild dogs. Scientists’ “interventions did not evoke disease outbreaks, and the high survival rate does not support Burrows’ hypothesis,” the biologists write in their paper.
Ecologist Craig Packer, a National Geographic Explorer and director of the University of Minnesota Lion Research Center, has studied lions in the Serengeti for more than three decades. Packer, who was not involved in the study, agrees with its conclusions. “This paper,” he says, “nails the coffin on the whole debate.”
Wild dogs face competition from hyenas at kill sites. (Photograph: Per Harald Olsen)
In: Hyenas and lions. Out: Wild dogs.
More than 25 years after wild dogs vanished from Serengeti National Park, none roam its grasslands. The answer, ecologists believe, is also the reason the dogs first faded away: hyenas and lions.
Rather than an extinction, Roskaft says, wild dogs’ disappearance was a shrinking of their range in response to increasing numbers of hyenas and lions. These carnivores often scare wild dogs away from their food.
The dogs moved out to the “far suburbs” — hillsides to the east of the park. The hills may offer safe places for wild dogs to den and raise their young.
With wild dogs out of the way, hyena and lion populations boomed. Any wild dogs brave enough to stay were left with slim pickings.
The evidence is clear, says Roskaft. “Increasing competition from hyenas and lions likely led to the downfall of the Serengeti National Park wild dog population.”
Packer and colleagues came to a similar conclusion. Between 1966 and 1998, the park’s lion population nearly tripled, they found, and wild dogs declined. Wild dogs once occupied park areas with low numbers of lions, which the dogs abandoned as lions “saturated” the region.
Serengeti National Park offers wild dogs – and other predators – plenty of prey. (Photograph: Per Harald Olsen)
A seesawing Serengeti
The picture was once very different. In the 1960s, Serengeti National Park was recovering from the effects of rinderpest, a disease of cattle that infected ungulates such as wildebeest and buffaloes – lions’ prey. The park’s lion population declined, and its wild dogs increased.
As rinderpest was brought under control and ungulates returned, lions followed. Soon wild dogs were edged out.
“A large number of wildebeest and lions, however, is a more ‘natural’ state for the Serengeti than the conditions that once allowed wild dogs to occupy its plains,” says Packer.
The big puzzle, he says, “is why wild dogs are able to co-exist with lions in places like the Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania and Okavango Delta in Botswana. We suspect there’s something about the habitat that provides the dogs with ‘safe spaces.’”
With more answers needed, Roskaft is happy to put an end to the conjectures about radio collars. “Tools that help us understand endangered wild dogs and other species are important to protecting these animals,” he says, “especially in a world where carnivores are struggling in the face of a growing human population.”
No wild dog twitters and whines wend across Serengeti National Park. But, says Packer, “effective conservation requires multiple locations since species cannot always co-exist in all circumstances.”
To wild dogs traversing the Serengeti: at least for now, your melody is perhaps better sung in the savanna next door.
A wild dog in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area gazes across the savanna. (Photograph: Per Harald Olsen)
Giraffes, like these northern giraffes in Murchison Falls National Park in Uganda, are facing a conservation crisis. (Photograph: Julian Fennessy)
The steep ravine of Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania lies behind me. Ahead are the plains of the Serengeti, grasses reaching toward the far horizon in a wavering line that finally bends into the curvature of the Earth. It is June, and the Serengeti’s “long rains” have just ended. The air is washed clean by the storms of March, April and May. In this briefest of interludes before the dry season, the land is verdant. Grasses still sprout, not yet turned sere and golden.
I think of age-old migrations and thundering hooves across miles of savanna. What I don’t think of is right before my as-yet-unseeing eyes: giraffes, peacefully browsing flat-topped trees, their legs and necks nearly hidden in a copse of acacias.
With all our concern for iconic African wildlife species – lions, cheetahs, rhinos – somehow we’ve forgotten the quietly ambling giraffes.
“While giraffes are commonly seen on safaris and in zoos, many people – including conservationists – are unaware that these majestic animals are undergoing a silent extinction,” says biologist Julian Fennessy, director of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation, based in Namibia. “With a decline of almost 40 percent in the last three decades, the world’s tallest animal is under severe pressure in many of its core ranges across East, Central and West Africa.”
Human population growth poses the greatest risk to giraffes, says Fennessy. “Habitat loss and expanding agriculture and mining, illegal hunting, and increasing human-wildlife conflict are pushing giraffes toward extinction.”
Biologists report a steep decline in the overall giraffe population, from some 163,452 giraffes in 1985 to 97,562 in 2015. As a result, giraffes have moved from species of “Least Concern” to “Vulnerable” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.
But is that one giraffe species…or several?
Fennessy and other scientists argue in a paper recently published on bioRxiv that “mounting evidence of four giraffe species proposes a re-evaluation of the current IUCN giraffe taxonomy to raise the classification to a [yet] higher level of threat, and in turn increase conservation actions.”
Scientists have discovered that there are likely four giraffe species. (Graphic: Giraffe Conservation Foundation)
The four giraffes
Scientists had long recognized one giraffe species and nine subspecies. Then ecologists began an analysis of giraffe relationships. Giraffes, it turns out, are not one species, but indeed four. “The genetic differences among giraffes are at least as great as those between polar bears and brown bears,” says Fennessy.
He and geneticist Axel Janke of Goethe University in Germany led the research team. The unexpected findings highlight the need for in-depth studies of and greater conservation efforts for the four genetically isolated species, the biologists say.
“We were surprised at the results because coat patterns and other visible differences among giraffes are somewhat limited,” says Janke. “Giraffes are also assumed to have similar ecological requirements across their range, but no one really knows because they’ve been largely overlooked by science.”
Wildlife biologists tracked and collected samples from nearly 200 giraffes across Africa. (Photograph: Julian Fennessy)
The researchers looked at DNA evidence from skin biopsies of 190 giraffes. “The extensive sampling included populations of all nine previously recognized giraffe subspecies,” says Fennessy.
The analysis shows that the four overall groups of giraffes don’t mate with each other in the wild. As a result, the scientists believe, giraffes should be recognized as four distinct species: northern giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis); southern giraffe (Giraffa giraffa); reticulated giraffe (Giraffa reticulata); and Masai giraffe (Giraffa tippelskirchi).
Why did giraffes separate into different species? Rivers, mountains and other geographic barriers may have kept populations apart long enough for new species to evolve, Fennessy says.
All giraffes are quintessential African savanna animals. That savanna, however, is vanishing. It once covered an area one and one-half times as large as the lower 48 U.S. states. Along with the grasslands, giraffes are disappearing.
Northern giraffes, for example, number fewer than 5,000 in the wild. “That makes them some of the most endangered large mammals in the world,” says Fennessy. “Giraffes have become islands in an ever-shrinking savanna.”
On the good news side, according to biologist Sam Ferreira of South African National Parks, southern giraffes are holding their own in South Africa’s national parks. Over the past five years, southern giraffe population increases have ranged from 0.1 percent in Marakele National Park to 17.9 percent in Mapungubwe National Park.
Fewer than 8,700 reticulated giraffes still exist in Africa; this one is in Samburu National Reserve in Kenya. (Photograph: Julian Fennessy)
Epicenter of giraffe species
Twiga, kanyiet, tiga. Lenywa, ndwiya, iment. In the dialects of Kenya, all are words for giraffe.
“Kenya is likely the epicenter of giraffe speciation [the formation of new species],” says Fennessy. “No other country has such a diversity of giraffes.”
The animals meander through open grasslands, woodlands and scrublands. There they chew on acacias and other trees. The browsing promotes new growth, according to GCF researchers, ultimately making leaves easier to find.
Giraffes once ranged far afield in their search for food and mates. Now fragmented habitat is hampering their walkabouts. “The lack of long-distance movement limits access to suitable forage and to natural gene flow between populations,” Fennessy says.
Across Africa, giraffes like these in northwestern Namibia are being crowded out by humans. (Photograph: Julian Fennessy)
Two giraffe species and one subspecies live in Kenya: the reticulated giraffe, which roams northern and eastern Kenya; the Masai giraffe, which inhabits the savanna and woodlands of southern Kenya; and the Nubian giraffe (formerly Rothschild’s giraffe), a subspecies of northern giraffe that’s reduced to small, scattered populations in western and central Kenya.
The Masai is Kenya’s most abundant giraffe, with some 12,000 animals, followed by the reticulated giraffe, with no more than 8,700 individuals. The Nubian giraffe numbers a paltry 400.
In the last two decades, Masai giraffes have declined by 50 percent and reticulated giraffes by some 70 percent. Nubian giraffe numbers have been going down for at least 50 years, mostly due to civil unrest in countries such as Uganda and Ethiopia, Fennessy says. “The turmoil has led to loss of giraffe habitat as people are displaced, then move into areas formerly occupied by giraffes.”
Nubian giraffes are being reintroduced in their native range, however. From east to west in Kenya, for example, small numbers are now found in Mwea National Reserve, Giraffe Centre, Kigio Wildlife Conservancy, Soysambu Conservancy and Lake Nakuru National Park, Nasolot National Reserve, Mt. Elgon National Park, Ruma National Park and Lake Baringo National Park.
Safari-goers visiting these and other protected areas can help, says Fennessy. “They can search for giraffes across the continent and let us know what they’re seeing. Many people, including guides, don’t realize that giraffes aren’t the same animals throughout Africa. When you look at the four species of giraffes alongside each other, they do in fact have different features, such as color, pattern and size.” The GCF website, https://giraffeconservation.org/, has detailed information.
It’s high time, Fennessy says, “to stick our necks out for giraffes.”
The sun goes down on Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park. Missing in this picture are its giraffes. (Photograph: Wikimedia Commons)
The Chenchu tribe think of the tiger as their brother. They understand their forest and its wildlife better than anybody else and have shaped, nurtured and protected this environment for millennia. Yet their lives are being destroyed by government efforts to conserve this animal. Survival International researcher Fiore Longo spent time with them in Amrabad and Nagarjunasagar-Srisailam Tiger Reserves, in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh States, India.
“Our ancestors taught us only one thing: Love and respect the forest and it will take care of you. Here we don’t need money to eat and to live. This forest is our breath and our life.”
The Chenchu can recognize five different types of bees that produce five different types of honey. “We leave the larvae so it will recycle again; by looking at the way a bee flies we can know where the honey is”.
Outsiders think that tigers and humans are a threat to one another, but the Chenchu, who live with the animals day to day, have a different perspective; “We love them as we love our children. If a tiger or a leopard kills our cattle, we don’t feel disappointed or angry, instead we feel as if our brothers have visited our homes and they have eaten what they wanted”.
Evidence proves indigenous peoples manage their environment and its wildlife better than anyone else. Yet like other tribes in India’s tiger reserves, such as the Baiga and Mising, the Chenchu are being threatened with illegal eviction from their ancestral homelands: “We will shed every single drop of our blood to protect our rights and our forest. This forest is our home. The flora and fauna of this forest are part of our family. Without us the forest won’t survive, and without the forest we won’t survive.”
Under Indian law, to conduct a relocation of indigenous peoples from their forests, evidence must be provided to demonstrate that the community is irreversibly harming the flora and fauna, and that coexistence with wild animals is impossible. Then, if the community gives its consent, they should be offered one of the two options of the resettlement package that the authorities are obliged by law to provide: either receive cash (Rs 10 lakh per family, around 14,500 US dollars), or move to a resettlement village. This is not what is happening in reality.
This woman is from Pecheru village, which was evicted in the ’80s. Of the 750 families that used to live in the village, the Chenchu told us that only 160 families survived after the eviction took place. Many starved to death. “The thought of that frightens us – we don’t want to see it. We won’t get the safety we have here anywhere else. Most of us would die of depression, unable to cope with a new life, and the rest of us would die slow, horrible deaths.”
“Among ourselves we have pure love and strong relationships. But outside it is not the same. Everything is related to money. If you don’t have money there is no food and no water. No money means no house and no clothes. It’s a shameless world out there, where nothing is pure. From the air we breathe to the relationships we establish, everything is impure there. We won’t get the safety we have here in the forest anywhere else.”
The Chenchu have released a letter demanding to be allowed to stay in their home: “Since our ancestors’ time, we have been born in this forest and we have died and will die in this very forest. This forest is our breath and our life. This forest is our right and no one can take this right from us and break our bond. If anyone tries to do this, we shall fight against it till our last breath. We will shed every single drop of our blood to protect our rights and our forest.”
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Shortly after sunrise on April 2nd we successfully navigated Mir back to her mooring in Banyuwedang Bay in northwestern Bali after over three months at sea— a three months that brought us clear across the Indonesian archipelago and back, covering over 2,500 nautical miles along the way, all in the name of adventure and conservation.
Calm day on the Banda Sea. Photo by Sam Keck Scott, Biosphere Foundation
Did That Really Happen?
The crew aboard Mir made it safely back to Bali, and our long-anticipated voyage to Raja Ampat has sadly come to an end. As can happen with any slice of time, this adventure is already beginning to take on a dreamlike quality in my mind — did that really happen? Was I truly just traveling through the most biologically-diverse marine ecosystem on the planet on a 108-year-old ship? The surest way for me to verify that it wasn’t all just a dream is by closing my eyes and reliving some of the moments from these past three months, knowing full well that my imagination could never have conjured these otherworldly visions on its own — visions of looking up from eighty feet below the water at thousands upon thousands of fish circling above me in such perfect unison they appeared to be one single, gargantuan, cyclone-shaped, super-organism. Visions of standing on the bow as we slowly approached a remote island at sunrise and expecting to see pterodactyls swooping off the turrets of stone as the land came into focus to reveal steep, jagged cliff faces speckled with broad-leafed plants overflowing out of any little spot that could hold a cup of soil. Visions of being on watch late at night and looking over the side of the ship at long ribbons of bioluminescence streaming and twisting away from Mir’s hull as she cut through the otherwise pitch-black waters. And one especially wild vision of diving in a tidal “river” between two islands where the current was so strong that when everyone else grabbed ahold of a boulder to stop themselves, and I missed it, I had to dig my hands into the sandy bottom where I was dragged away from the rest of the team while “gusts” of water threatened to tear my mask from my face and it felt like I was on a gravity-free planet about to get blown into outer space, never to be heard from again. But of all the things we saw in Raja Ampat, the most spectacular was what we went there to see in the first place: the vast trove of healthy coral reefs, all of which hosted a chaotic profusion of sea life on and around them.
Fish tornado. Photo by Sam Keck Scott, Biosphere Foundation
Voyage Back to Bali
We left our final anchorage in Raja Ampat on March 10th to begin our long voyage back across those big blue spots you may have seen on maps of Indonesia. Although we were sad to leave a place we had come to love so much, our adventure in no way diminished once we did; on one of our first nights underway between Raja Ampat and Sulawesi, an electrical storm came so close to the ship that the thunder was already clapping while the lightning was still spiderwebbing pink and welding torch-white across the skies beside us, causing us to throw our hands up to our ears. The four of us who were up at the time all thought the power had gone out on the ship before realizing we had each been momentarily blinded by the flash.
We saw many of these eerie, floating fish attractors in the seas around Sulawesi. Our presumption is that these scarecrow-like paddle people have a double purpose: 1) to keep birds from landing on them so fish aren’t dissuaded from gathering below, and 2) to make them easier for the fisherman to relocate. Photo by Sam Keck Scott, Biosphere Foundation
After spending a few days diving in Wakatobi National Park off the southeastern coast of Sulawesi, we continued on to the small island of Moyo, where the Biosphere Foundation has an ongoing “Friends of Moyo” project. There, we were reunited with our hero, Sutama, and his wonderful and hilarious wife, Wayan, who flew in to meet us from Bali. We spent a week in Moyo transplanting broken corals, and adding many small moorings to the beautiful reefs off the coast of the island. Sutama led us in these efforts, while also training the local dive leaders of Moyo who are eager to carry on the critical work of protecting their reefs from anchor damage, destructive fishing practices, and pollution.
From left to right: Sutama, Dolphin, Wayan, and Nadia. Photo by Gaie Alling, Biosphere FoundationSutama and Wayan Chandra transplanting corals near Moyo Island. Photo by Kitty Currier, Biosphere FoundationLaser and Sutama tying a mooring buoy line to the rocky substrate. Photo by Nadia Low, Biosphere FoundationSutama certifying local Moyo divers: Chandra, Herwin, and Arif as Biosphere Foundation Coral Reef Stewards. Photo by Gaie Alling, Biosphere Foundation.Gorgeous waterfall on Moyo Island — it felt incredible to swim in fresh water after months of salt. Photo by Sam Keck Scott, Biosphere Foundation
While in Moyo, we also visited a local school where we met with nearly 150 students, teaching them about the detriments of plastic pollution and the importance of healthy coral reefs. We sang and danced with them, and performed the same skit that we put on in Mansuar, where once again I played a sea turtle who nearly chokes to death on a plastic bag that I mistake for a jellyfish. In Bahasa Indonesia, jellyfish is “ubur ubur,” and apparently my pronunciation of the word is so hilarious that now every time I see one of my Indonesian friends, they yell: “ubur ubur!” in a drawn-out and exaggerated accent and then burst into laughter. Just now a boat filled with Balinese dive leaders spotted me where I’m typing this and all shouted “ubur ubur!” in unison and then nearly fell overboard with delight.
Schoolchildren of Labuhan Aji village on Moyo Island, Indonesia. Photo by Gaie Alling, Biosphere Foundation
On the Horizon
We’re living at a critical moment not only for humanity, but for all life on Planet Earth — a moment when many say it’s already too late to steer us off our current crash course with environmental destruction. Coral reefs are a strong indicator of overall ocean health, and alarmingly, they are projected to be nearly gone in the next thirty years if ocean temperatures continue to rise at current trends. After seeing the spectacular underwater ecosystems of Raja Ampat, those of us aboard Mir are more motivated than ever to not sit idly by as our elegant biosphere slowly fades out, and whether it’s too late to change our species’ destructive course or not, the truth of the matter is that these reefs still exist today, and that means there’s still hope. If we lose our reefs for good, there’s no getting them back, so now is the time to act; our grandchildren won’t be given the same opportunity if we do nothing.
Mir crew, 2018. Photo by Woody Heffern, Biosphere Foundation
Though our expedition to Raja Ampat is now behind us, the work of the Biosphere Foundation is only gaining momentum; as of this week, Sutama officially became the head of our NW Bali Marine Stewardship Program where he will continue to develop programs to educate local people — including officials from the local Nature Parks, and Indonesia’s National Parks — in simple, yet effective, methods to protect their oceans. Also on the horizon is the Biosphere Foundation’s new educational center that will soon be built in northwest Bali where both local and international students can participate in our land and sea environmental stewardship programs. We hope you’ll join us.
Sailing S/V Mir through remote Raja Ampat has been like traveling back in time to a wilder, less-peopled world.
Underwater in Raja Ampat. Photo by Gaie Alling, Biosphere Foundation
I spend a lot of time imagining what this planet was like even just a few centuries ago, before people began altering Earth’s living systems on a global scale. Human beings have been leaving their mark on the lands they inhabit for millennia, even causing extinctions, but it wasn’t until recently that the long reach of mankind has begun to affect nearly every corner of this globe, including the oceans, which were once thought too vast to deplete.
When I hike near my home in coastal California I often imagine scenes of what it used to look like there: scenes of stumbling upon an entire pride of mountain lions bent over an elk kill, their golden faces wet with blood. All around the cats are bald-headed California condors, shaggy in their oversized coats of black feathers, hopping and grunting and looking comically-huge as they wait with impatient eyes for a chance at the spoils. I imagine the Central Valley when it was still a vast wetland, and how the temperature must have dropped when the sky went black with migrating birds in the spring and fall. I imagine the lowland grizzlies that could get fat all year round without ever needing to hibernate in those temperate climes, lolling on their enormous woolly backs on a beach after a feast of elephant seal. Those bears must have been mythically huge.
By 1924, grizzly bears were completely eradicated from California. It’s disturbing how short a time it took people to tame this world, leaving only vapors of its original wildness. I seem to always be on the lookout for that untouched place, that glimpse into what this planet was like before our species watered it all down, and I’ve perhaps come closer than ever before to finding traces of that old world this past month as we’ve sailed Mir across remote Raja Ampat.
After leaving our friends in Mansuar, the crew aboard Mir headed towards the island of Wayag in northwestern-most Raja Ampat. Along the way we crossed the equator, and in the matter of a millimeter we sailed from summertime right on into winter.
Wayag is stunning and otherworldly — a vast and meandering mass of uplifted karst limestone islands surrounding countless bays and brilliant turquoise lagoons. The islands are green with vegetation, some are long and peninsular and steep, while many are small and stand alone, their grey bases all pocked and jagged and eroding into the shapes of mushrooms where they meet the ever-gnawing seas. Some are pointed in the likeness of arrowheads, and many are circular and rounded, like gumdrops.
Wayag Island. Photo by Nadia Low (and her drone), Biosphere Foundation
On one of our first mornings in Wayag I paddled for hours through a vast shallow lagoon that was full of young black-tipped reef sharks, presumably enjoying a respite from the big, bad ocean beyond. The lagoon was also speckled with hawksbill sea turtles who would watch with calm curiosity from below as my paddleboard approached them, probably thinking it nothing but an average bit of jetsam. Once I was right above them they would rise to the surface with the utmost mellowness and poke their pointed faces above the waterline where they would momentarily gawk at me in bewilderment before darting away in a frenzied panic.
“Holy Tortuga, there’s an enormous sunburned monkey on that thing!”
Paddleboarding in Wayag. Photo by Sam Keck Scott, Biosphere Foundation
One evening, I paddled through the narrow opening of another lagoon, this one deep and emerald and surrounded on all sides by thick jungle and the eerie booms of spice imperial pigeons. It felt like I was paddling through a freshwater lake instead of a salty lagoon until I’d get close enough to the shore to see a blue-spotted stingray zip past me, or a coral bommie haloed in reef fish. Here, a glimpse into that untouched world I’m always searching for.
Most mornings we would randomly choose one of the nearby mushroom islands to scuba dive around, and we were never let down by our picks. The reefs were pristine and fanatic with sea life. We saw corals that looked like enormous bouquets of oversized roses, and others like thick, bony bramble patches. Some were huge brains with labyrinthine channels, and others opalescent fingers. There were vast areas of reef that resembled a thousand small fists raised proudly in protest, and coral bommies that formed underwater mesas and plateaus and buttes, and others that appeared nebulous as they waved and swished with sea fans and soft corals. All of them were engulfed in a profusion of fish life of every color and size and shape, some so wildly patterned it seemed only a nonconforming second-grader could have painted them.
Titan triggerfish. Photo by Gaie Alling, Biosphere Foundation
I experienced many operatic moments where I would be skimming above a reef with the sunlight feathering down all around me and tornadoes of fish above me and baby sharks darting through curtains of massive barracuda, and I would feel something that is becoming more and more elusive to me: hope. Hope that this world may actually be resilient enough to weather us humans.
Happy reef. Photo by Sam Keck Scott, Biosphere FoundationA wobbegong shark camouflaged against the seafloor and surrounded by reef fish. Wobbegongs are ambush predators, meaning they stay still and hidden until prey swims close enough for them to strike. Photo by Gaie Alling, Biosphere FoundationA many-spotted sweetlips resting in a coral. Photo by Sam Keck Scott, Biosphere FoundationHawksbill sea turtle and Captain Laser. Photo by Gaie Alling, Biosphere Foundation
We had a cookout on a small beach near our anchorage on one of our last evenings in Wayag. In the wee hours of the night I was lying on my back in the sand looking up at the stars; it looked as if the Milky Way had touched down to fill the entire channel of Wayag Bay with thick, woven starlight, so close it seemed I could reach up and swirl it with my fingertips. I paddled back to the ship that night beneath that frenzy of stars and with each paddle stroke the water around me burst with bioluminescence — that starlight of the sea — and I felt like I was rowing right through the cosmos. I finally understood how the Polynesians had been able to read the night sky like a map; a map that was not only above them, but that they were navigating straight into. Once again, even if only fleetingly, I had found another piece of that old world.
That’s not to say that this part of Indonesia is actually untouched — far from it. At times we’ve seen what look like flowing rivers of trash caught in narrow current lines that flow past our ship uninterrupted for hours: plastic bottles, flip-flops, bags, food wrappers, even an entire television. And though the coral is faring much better here than it is in many other parts of the tropical world, we’ve still witnessed plenty of anchor damage, signs of dynamite fishing, and corals that look unwell and stressed from disease, excessive nutrients in the water, and bleaching. Anyone who came here even thirty years ago would probably tell you it’s trashed now; three-hundred years ago and Wayag Bay must have been boiling up to its banks with sharks and rays and turtles. But even now, even in the year 2018, it is still sacredly beautiful here, and the ecology remains intact enough to act as a nursery to repopulate our depleted seas with corals and fish and sharks and turtles, if we could only just leave it alone, if we could only just let it be the blazing technicolor wilderness that it’s always been without mussing it all up.
Raining fish in Raja Ampat. Photo by Sam Keck Scott, Biosphere Foundation
After leaving Wayag we slowly made our way back to the town of Waisai on the island of Waigeo, where we are currently resupplying for our voyage back to Bali. Along the way the beauty continued: late one night in the Bougainville Strait we watched bottlenose dolphins riding our bow; their torpedo-like bodies completely encapsulated in electric blue bioluminescence. And one morning at sunrise, manta rays breached off our stern through the apricot-lit water as we weighed anchor in the Dampier Strait.
But it seems time has had its way with us — as it’s wont to do — and after all the planning, the researching, the imagining, and the effort, we’re already getting set to leave Raja Ampat. Luckily for us, we have a month to get to Bali, which means we can take our time and keep exploring along the way, as well as stopping at Moyo Island for a few days to visit the Biosphere Foundation’s “Friends of Moyo” project.
To anyone who has been keeping up with this blog and is curious, yes my back is better, and thank you for your concern — what a relief to have gotten well so I could go back in time in Raja Ampat and get a taste of a world that once was, and a world that I would like to see return.
Blue-spotted stingray hiding beside a heart-shaped Acropora coral. Photo by Sam Keck Scott, Biosphere Foundation
Please keep following along on the rest of our adventures here, and to learn more about the Biosphere Foundation, visit our website at: https://biospherefoundation.org/