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/
Wild Bird Trust presents the Top 25 Wild Waterbirds. Waterbirds can be particularly rewarding to photograph as waterbodies like wetlands and estuaries attract so many different species. In the past wetlands and marshes were often seen as wastelands that should be drained or transformed, but now we are recognising the value of these areas to birds and other wildlife. Wetlands not only support wildlife but also function as the ‘kidneys’ of our ecosystems, filtering and cleaning water that comes into them. They also protect humans by buffering floods and stabilising shorelines. Unfortunately our oceans, rivers, wetlands and estuaries are under threat from pollutants like pesticides and plastics as well as disturbance from humans. The good news is we can all play a part in protecting our waterways. We can pick up litter, reduce our plastic consumption and ensure that we discard of chemicals in a responsible way. If we all make these small changes, the positive impact on our waterways could be immense!
If you would like to submit photographs for our Top 25 contest next week, keep a eye on the Facebook page, the next theme will be announced on Sunday. Then you can simply submit your photograph to the Facebook page with species, location and photographer as the caption, good luck!
The African Jacana has a polyandrous breeding system, where females mate with multiple males and the males care for the young (Edwin Godinho)The Great Cormorant is the most widespread cormorant species, they are found from the arctic regions to the tropics (Soumitra Ghosh)The American Dipper lives along fast flowing mountain streams, here they prey upon aquatic invertebrates and small fish (Melissa Penta)A stunning habitat shot of Northern Pintails in Odisha, India (Subhamoy Das)this Baillon’s Crake and its perfectly captured reflection was photographed in Rajarhat, India (Shayan Bose)The Black-legged Kittiwake is one of the most abundant gulls in the North Atlantic. However their population is decreasing due to climate change. as sea temperatures rise, their zooplankton prey are affected which in turn reduces the gulls breeding success (Judi Fenson)Crab Plovers catch crabs by stabbing them with their bills open (Vishwas Thakker)Two Double-crested Cormorants with fish prey in San Fernando Valley, California (Leslie Reagan)The Eurasian Spoonbill breeds in central Eurasia and over-winters in southern Asia and northern Africa. there is also a resident population in India, like this one at the Dighal Wetlands (Vishesh Kamboj)Ferruginous Ducks are Near-threatened because their habitats are being polluted and disturbed by humans (Amit Kumar Srivastava)The Glossy Ibis uses shallow lakes and lagoons but they are also partial to ricefields, ricefields have allowed the population to expand their range in the Mediterranean (Kuntal Das)A trio of Great Cormorants in Bhavnagar, India (Unmesh Jadav)Greylag Geese form long term monogamous bonds, one pair was recorded together for 17 years! (Gaurav Budhiraja)The Large-billed Tern of South America makes use of freshwater rivers and lakes (Sharon Templin)A group of Lesser Flamingoes feeding in Surat, India. One of the main characteristics that distinguishes the Lesser from the Greater Flamingo is the colour of the bill, the Lesser Flamingoes have a much darker bill (Mukesh Mishra)The Mandarin Duck is native to eastern Asia but they have been introduced and have established multiple feral populations, including this one in California (Sandeep Nagaraja)Two Mute Swans on the Frozen over Staring Lake, USA (Deepak Sharma)Ringing records show that Northern Pintails can live up to 15 years (Asutosh Pal)Ruddy Turnstones experience two extremes every year. They breed in the sub-Arctic regions and then migrate to much warmer coastlines like Australia and Africa (Ashvij Putta)The name ruff, comes from the elaborate breeding plumage of the males which resemble the ruffs that were worn in the 17th century. This ruff is out of breeding plumage, quite drab in comparison (Asutosh Pal)A Mute Swan takes flight in France (Christian Bagnol)A Terek Sandpiper photographed on the coast of Perth, Australia (Ashvij Putta)When Ruddy Shelducks breed, the young of different broods will frequently join together, perhaps to keep safe? (Sayan Biswas Maitra)A Western Grebe photographed in Fremont, California (Sutapa Karmakar)Wood Sandpipers are monogamous but care of the young is primarily by the male (Kuntal Das)
Our mission is to build a global community around the freedom and beauty of birds in the wild as ambassadors for the natural ecosystems that they depend upon. They are the music, decoration, and character of every terrestrial habitat on the planet and have been around since the dinosaurs. They are the witnesses and ambassadors of the awesome power of nature. The wide availability of good, cheap optics has opened their world to us for the last few decades. Amazing, affordable DSLR cameras with long lenses are delivering brilliant digital bird imagery to online communities.
We are in a day-and-age during which more bird species are threatened with extinction than ever before. The Wild Birds! Revolution aims to publish the “Top 25 Wild Bird Photographs of the Week” to 1 million people every week by the end of the year. That is a revolution that will change the world! Join thousands of other weekend naturalists, photographers, birders, experts, hikers, nature-lovers, guides, scientists, conservationists and artists that share the thousands of wild bird photographs submitted to the Wild Bird Trust website and Facebook page. Thousands of wild bird enthusiasts are going out every day to photograph our planet’s beautiful birdlife. Pick up your camera, fill your bird feeder, open your heart, and join the Wild Birds! Revolution!!
As someone whose been involved in conservation in many different corners of the world, its easy to see how people might feel removed from the important work that’s happening, particularly in the arctic and equatorial regions where the scenery feels unfamiliar. However, the most important piece of land that you can help protect is your own. This blog seeks to show what conservation looks like in a local setting
To some people it’s a small, fluid compound composed of two hydrogen molecules and an oxygen molecule. To most people it’s life. Fisherman rely on it for fish, farmers rely on it for crops, coastal communities rely on it for tourism, and we all rely on it to provide food, clothes, and –of course– water for our families.
Photo by Bob Arkow. Visit his gallery here: http://www.bobarkowphotography.com/ A curious Humpback comes in for a closer look at a surfer just off of Long Beach.
There are many different ecosystems on Long Island, each of them diverse and unique in their own ways. The most important one, in my humble opinion, are the southern bays that stretch all the way from Brighton Beach and Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn out to Montauk. Not only are these bays home to a unique collection of human communities, these bays are also home to a complex system of marshes which act as nurseries for all types of fish and also as a home to an incredibly diverse amount of sea birds. These marshes also act as a first line of defense in storms, slowing down the punishing tide from destroying our homes. In the winter, you’ll be able to spot our seasonal residents the seals, and during the summer if you look out just offshore you’ll be able to spot whales jumping and pods of dolphins cruising the shoreline. All these species rely on the marshes to spawn the bait fish they feed on.
Full disclosure- I grew up exploring the southern bays. I’ve been fishing for years, unintentionally monitoring the species that live here and have watched fish species disappear over time. When I was a kid going after snappers on mid-August afternoons I used to catch puffer fish, needlefish, and young weakfish, too. These days it seems even the snapper’s numbers are low. This isn’t to discount the work that many groups on Long Island are doing, and in fact there are many who are improving them every day. In the past few years we’ve had a major increase in the number of whales and dolphins in our offshore waters, and that’s a direct result of the improvements being made in the southern bays. But with all the work being done, there’s still a lot of work to do.
Photo by Bob Arkow. Visit his gallery here: http://www.bobarkowphotography.com/. A Humpback whale takes a go at a school of bunker, a local baitfish.
I recently spoke to Helen Roussel, the enthusiastic Conservation Chair for the Long Island chapter of the Sierra Club. She points to over development of coastlines and marsh lands as their main issue out in the eastern bays. “See, there’s no rule saying that when you develop land, you need to install hedgerows to give birds a place to nest,” Mrs. Roussel explained. “Now, since they’re also destroying the marshes, which in turn destroys the dragonfly’s habitat, water puddles up and that’s the perfect breeding place for mosquitos. Since there’s no hedgerows and there’s no marshes, birds and dragonflies aren’t there to keep the mosquitos in check.”
The knock-on effects of this are mind blowing. Since there’s a mosquito problem, the local government has taken to using pesticides, specifically the larvicide methoprene, in the waterways to control the mosquito problem. According to the National Pesticide Information Center out of Oregon State University, methoprene “…can prevent normal molting, egg-laying, egg-hatching, and development from the immature phase (i.e. caterpillar) to the adult phase (i.e. moth). This prevents the insects from reproducing.” In the environment, methoprene is moderately toxic to some fish and low in toxicity to others and can accumulate in fish tissues. Due to the biomagnification, where pollutants become more and more concentrated in animals as they go up the food chain, small trace amounts of methoprene in bait fish can become extremely high in predatory animals. Its slightly toxic to crustaceans such as shrimp and crayfish, and highly toxic to freshwater invertebrates. When these predatory animals die their remains sink to the ocean floor, where scavengers like crabs, shrimp and crayfish will eat them. The highly concentrated pesticide is then reintroduced to the food chain at a lower level, gradually accumulating more as it heads back up. Studies done on dogs show that when given 10g of methoprene per kilogram of animal, the dogs showed signs like vomiting, dilated pupils, changes in behavior, breathing, and body movements.
To help deal with the mosquito problem, and to help bring back our first line of defense, the marshes need to be brought back to their original state. This, however, is not so simple.
A red path lines the edge of the shoreline and serves as the sidewalk for Bay Drive, a beautiful road that’s flanked on one side by homes and the other by Reynolds Channel. While Long Beach is known to most for its amazing beaches on the south side, the north side is bordered by the bay, separating the barrier island from an intense maze of marshes unique to the southern bays of Long Island. This beautiful scene is broken up, if so slightly, by an inconspicuous cement block just off the other side of the channel. That cement block has been a point of frustration for many Long Beach residents.
After watching this video taken by local resident and highly visible environmental activist Scott Bochner, it becomes clear why the cement block is so controversial. That block contains a pipe, and that pipe is connected to Bay Park Sewage Treatment Plant.
Opened in the 1940’s with the population boom on Long Island, the plant has been subject to years of neglect and failed maintenance. This has lead to the plant spitting out 55 million gallons a day of water that should be treated, but due to the status of the plant, is not. This water is brown and is made up of biosolids, or “sludge.” What sludge really is, is whatever has been sent down a drain. This could be shower water and dirty dish water but is also urine and fecal matter.
Besides the fact that it’s just gross, this constant pumping of untreated sewage inundates the water with undissolved nutrients. This includes nitrogen, which in low levels is vital for the success of ecosystems, but in elevated levels is very toxic.
Scott Bochner owns a house on Bay Drive, where the video was taken. Since 2010 he’s been actively involved in cleaning up the local waterways, co-creating an environmental group called the Sludge Stoppers and working with groups like the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, Operation SPLASH, and The Nature Conservancy. Bochner and the rest of the groups have made major progress in cleaning up Reynolds Channel and thanks to these groups and their advocacy they’ve been able to bring the Bay Park plant back to code and raise enough money to re-route the pipes out to the deep ocean.
One of the advances they’ve made has been getting scientists in to do studies on the water. One of them involved a study by Stony Brook University. “The nitrogen levels, it’s like right here,” explained Bochner, pointing at a graph. “This is like the dead zone of dead zones. So, what happened was they put nano robots in the water for 30 days, and then they would follow the stream. They would send out 100 of these things a day and maybe 13 would make it out of the inlet, and the rest would come back in and shoot up all into the back bays, so nothings flushing.”
Graphs comparing nitrite, nitrate, ammonia, and ulva (seaweed) coverage. Notice how its all centered around the area where the pipe spills into the bay.Pathways of the nano robots, or water parcels, released by Stony Brook University researchers.
The effects of this on the channel and the greater bay ecosystems could not be more obvious during low tide. During
low tide you can see a unique phenomenon where the mud underneath the marsh grasses should be solid but is actually falling out like a cliff, and the roots from the grasses are poking out the side.
These roots should be growing straight down, anchoring the mud to the earth, and keeping the land in place. However, these roots are growing sideways into the water reaching for the nitrogen because it’s a fertilizer, and this change in direction means that it doesn’t hold onto the earth as well. When a massive storm comes, it easily rips the marshes from their place and makes it easier for the storm to tear into our communities.
Fisherman at the Magnolia Pier, only a few hundred yards from the cement block.
A study done in 2017 and published in the journal Scientific Reports, the open-access part of Nature, has come up with the final conclusion that “…these results show that coastal wetlands provide significant risk reduction services even where their distribution has been heavily impacted by human activity. Furthermore, these ecosystems provide additional benefits such as fish production, nutrient cycling, and carbon sequestration which will increase the economic value of these habitats. However, across the northeastern USA, development over wetlands together with rising sea-levels place critical facilities and infrastructure at great risk. Rising sea-levels will further influence, and in many cases threaten, the future of these natural defenses.”
If concentrated levels of pesticides and human waste in the water we swim in and the fish we eat makes you feel sick to your stomach, there are things to do.
Back out east, Helen Roussel from the Sierra Club says to get involved. There’s plenty of citizen science projects and clean ups to join on with the Surfrider Foundation and the Sierra Club. If you live or own property on the water you can plant phragmites, a common reed that anchors really well to the ground and is great at sucking up nitrogen. “Although it’s not native and can dominate natural species,” says Roussel, “the benefits outweigh the consequences. If my house is in front of the ocean I want this plant there, because this will help stop the surge and help stop erosion.”
For Bochner the answer lies in everyday choices. “Start carrying your own bags, stop using straws, stop using plastic, start washing wash cloths again. Everyone has to take responsibility for themselves in order to help keep Long Beach clean. Everyone has to take care of themselves.”
So, there it is. When these ecosystems hurt, we hurt.
All graphs retrieved from https://www.citizenscampaign.org/PDFs/WesternBays%20Presentation%20FINAL%2012-7-11.pdf