Sunday, April 22, 2007

Shark finning: One more victim

Barely two months ago I compiled "Shark finning: A soup story", an article about the meaningless extermination of sharks all over the world to satisfy the ever growing -primarily Chinese- demand for shark fin soup.

On the 8th of April 2007, while diving in Raja Ampat, West-Papua, Indonesia, I came face to face with yet another victim of this irrational hunger.

At the end of a wonderful dive along a pristine reef in front of Sauwandarek village on Mansuar island in Raja Ampat, West-Papua, Indonesia, something too white among the colorful corals caught my eye. As I approached and realized what it was, I was once again reminded of the dark side of humanity.

One more shark slaughtered for its fins and carelessly dumped overboard to slowly drown in the shallows.

Judging from its state this one was murdered very recently, probably just the night before by some poor bastard trying to make a living.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Sulawesi & Papua, Indonesia, March-April 2007

Indonesia is one of those destinations I always feel like going back to again and again...

For my fifth visit, I chose two ethnically & culturally very different regions: North-Sulawesi, an old favorite of mine, and West-Papua (former Irian Jaya), that I've wanted to check out ever since I first heard about it several years ago.

travel report

North-Sulawesi: Sahaung island

Blue Bay Divers is a small dive resort owned and run by Anke & Salmon on Sahaung island, a tiny private island right next to Bangka island in northern Sulawesi.

We only spent our trip's first week here, in order to acclimatize and do some warm-up dives, but I wish we could have stayed another week.

With max two divers per guide and max two groups per boat, the diving is as private as can be. The dive guides don't speak much English but know their sites inside out, pointing out anything you might have asked for and showing you again exactly what you saw afterwards in the many fish identification books available for study in the resort.

Sahaung island and it's big brother Bangka offer all kinds of diving, from shore to boat, from muck to reef, from easy to drift. And should that not be enough, the Bunaken National Marine Park and Lembeh strait are only about an hour away by boat.

Right in front of the resort, the small bay offers some pretty good muck diving: juvenile fish of all sorts, elusive mandarin fish, harlequin ghost pipe fish, translucent shrimps, small moray eels, plenty of lion fish of various kinds, reef & estuarine stone fish, crocodile fish, blue spotted stingrays, sea snakes, spiny sea urchins and many more.

Around Bangka there are some really nice spots teeming with soft-corals and huge sponges thanks to the nutrient rich currents, and critters are just waiting to be found: frog fish pretending not to be there, cuttle fish flashing their volatile moods, mantis shrimps scurrying around, orang utan crabs squeezed in bubble corals, squat lobsters hidden in crinoids, scale worms underneath cushion stars, etc. Not to mention the robust ghost pipe fish I found all by myself!

Just a short hop away, mainland Sulawesi's coast also has plenty of very good sites. Below the Paradise pier we found flounders, wasp fish, anemone porcelain crabs, juvenile cat fish all balling together in an ever moving swarm, nudibranchs, etc. And on a nearby reef we saw a winged pipe fish, a leaf scorpion fish and two stone fish, one of them completely dug into the sand with only its eyes and mouth barely visible.

In other words, enough to keep you diving again and again for more. Even though visibility wasn't too great while we were there, varying from 5 to 10m at most, we really enjoyed our dives in the 28°C water.

And in between, the place is just perfect to relax and enjoy the view. The bungalows, all facing the bay, are basic but spacious and clean, each with its own veranda and mandi style bathroom. The Indonesian food is finger-licking delicious. The people friendly and ever helpful. What more could you wish for?

West-Papua: Kri island

While by now there are a couple of seasonal live-aboards covering the region, Papua Diving, owned by Max Ammer, is so far still the only permanent dive operation in Raja Ampat, an archipelago of jungle covered islands just off western West-Papua.

Papua Diving actually consists of two different set-ups: Kri Eco Resort and Sorido Bay Resort, both located on Kri island, a 2-3 hour boat ride from Sorong, West-Papua's main entry point for visiting divers.

Kri Eco Resort caters to the more adventurous and budget conscious divers, who prefer basic close-to-nature non-AC accommodation and don't mind a cold mandi shower. Whereas Sorido Bay Resort is for rich people who can't stand the tropical climate and need to be cooled down and pampered to feel well. Guess in which resort we stayed for two weeks :o)

The diving of course is the same for everybody. Except that the rich people get shaded boats and the poor people get free extra time in the sun while sailing to the various dive spots in the vicinity.

Kri Eco Resort is well managed by Maya, Mayse & Nikson. Maya and her assistant Mayse take care of the general administration and organization. Nikson, in charge of the diving, plans and organizes the daily trips and also briefs the divers about each dive site, as unfortunately the junior guides barely speak any English and are rather shy about assuming control.

We stayed in a naturally aired hut on stilts above the water and were pretty happy about it - despite being rudely outboard-noise awakened and exhaust-gassed out of bed each morning as the dive boats moored nearby to refuel and load the scuba tanks :o(

The food was kind of alright, but not as tasty nor as varied as I've come to expect in spicy Indonesia. And considering the number of people who got sick, in both resorts, I'm afraid the hygienic conditions in the rather primitive kitchens are not as strict as they ought to be, especially in a hot climate.

Contrary to the Sorido Bay Resort, Kri Eco Resort enjoys an unencumbered view to the west, meaning we got fabulous fire-in-the-sky sunset shows almost every evening right from our little pier.

As for the diving... is it really worth all the trouble to get here? Well, read on and make up your own mind.

Raja Ampat: Epicenter of marine biodiversity

Scientists have recorded over five hundred coral species and more than one thousand fish species while diving around Raja Ampat. Thereby justifying this small region's claim as the epicenter of marine biodiversity.

Dr. Gerald R. Allen actually counted a record number of 284 fish species in just one dive... So, if you ever wanted to find and name a new fish after yourself, this is probably a good place to start looking - once you've memorized and can keep apart all those already known to science.

Not being a great marine biologist myself - I'm already happy when I can tell which family a fish belongs to - I can't really say that I actually noticed any reef fish that were new to me. What I did notice though is how vast and vibrant many of the reefs still are here. Boasting fabulous pristine coral gardens swarming with fish of all kinds. Indeed, I've never seen so many beautiful reefs nor such an abundance of fish in my 14 years of diving.

One of the reasons for this incredible biodiversity, is the unique conglomerance of various habitats: small protected bays, shaded sheltering mangroves, sun-soaked shallow reefs and nutrient-rich current swept channels offer ideal conditions for a wide variety of aquatic life forms.

Most of the dive sites (e.g. Cape Kri, Mike's point, Mios Kon, Sardines, Sleeping barracuda, Surgeon fish slope, etc) are within a 10km radius from Kri, and require at most 15' to get there. To reach the more remote spots (e.g. Fam island, Jellyfish bay, Manta station, Mansuar island, Passage, Pulau Dua, the P47D Thunderbolt bomber, etc) may take 30-60' and costs 20-60 Euro extra per diver for fuel.

Cape Kri & surrounding reefs

Cape Kri is definitely a top spot with plenty of fish action - especially when there's a bit of current!

Expect schooling jacks, giant trevally, shy groupers, yellow-tail barracudas, swarming unicorn surgeon fish, groups of sweetlips, a couple of human-wary black & white-tip sharks, hawksbill turtles and of course also the area's most spotted shark: wobbegongs.

On one dive we were even so lucky as to see one of these bearded carpet sharks lazily swimming off from underneath its shelter to settle itself again just a few meters further away in the open.

Not to mention another very famous favorite of the region: pygmy seahorses! Alas not always that carefully pointed out by the guides.

While currents were mostly rather mild during our stay here, we did experience some of nature's water moving power at nearby Sorido wall. Luckily we had our reef-hooks ready to hold on to - for unlike the fish which just hung around there without apparent effort, we wouldn't have had a chance against the surging current flowing over the reef that day.

At high tide it's possible to snorkel along Kri Eco's pier, built atop a very nice reef, and if you're very lucky you might even get to see a small cat or epaulette shark!

Chicken bay & surrounding reefs

While we didn't get to see any evolution defying poultry here, Chicken bay nevertheless is a great spot to get up close and personal with yellow-tail barracudas hovering above sandy patches, bat fish playing domino together, humphead parrot fish crunching away on hard corals, or just hang around and mingle with some grazing surgeon fish.

I even found a sleepy wobbegong, for once facing outward from its lair, hidden behind a curtain of swirling glass fish.

On a smaller scale, we were shown a tiny barely 2cm large octopus trying hard to look like a piece of coral rubble and a small winged pipe fish.

Manta station

Manta station is one of two possible manta sighting points barely 25' away from Kri island. Whether mantas are there when you are of course requires a bit of luck. But lucky we were.

On our first dive here, we briefly saw a white bellied manta passing by shortly after we submerged and then witnessed a black bellied one getting thoroughly serviced for 40' right in front of us bubbling divers.

Every now and then flying above each one of us as it turned around and around its cleaning station. What a wonderful sight!

Five days later we tried our luck again for some more. And this time got two mantas circling together around a cleaning station, a smaller black bellied one and a bigger white bellied one.

Nearby, a yellow leaf scorpion fish acted as colorful back-up entertainer should any diver get bored with the main black & white dance show. A big stingray whirling up clouds of sand in its frantic search for food never got much of a chance besides its acrobatic cousins.

To top it off, as we went for higher grounds towards the end of the dive, four mantas suddenly appeared out of the misty blue right in front of us, gracefully veering off just a few meters away. Whow!

Mansuar island

Mansuar is a large island west of Kri with various good dive spots, like Sauwandarek slope on its south coast and Cape Mansuar on its western point.

Even though it lies right in front of a small village, Sauwandarek slope has a very beautiful reef top. And while visibility elsewhere was rather poor - especially after full moon, we enjoyed relatively clear water here.

Unfortunately I'll always associate this spot with a very sad sight: that of a recently finned shark lying dead in the shallows :o(

Cape Mansuar is home to a special variety of whitish pygmy seahorses known as Hippocampus Denise. A pretty rare find compared to the much more common Hippocampus Bargibanti, to be found both in pink and yellow in this area.

Just off the cape is the channel, a site packed with schooling fish, sweetlips hanging around under table corals, bands of yellow-tail barracudas waiting for launch time and even a couple of patrolling black-tips keeping a safe distance.

Mike's point

Topographically probably the most interesting site in the neighborhood. Offering walls & overhangs covered in soft corals, slopes overgrown with leather corals, swim through rock formations and shallow hard coral gardens.

Several of the gorgonians here host pygmy seahorse families. Sweetlips hang around in small groups. Scorpion fish lie in wait for food to come their way. Sea snakes wave by. Nudibranchs patiently pose for any wannabe National Geographic photographers.

Pulau dua

We were so lucky as to have Nikson with us when we dived here. With over 10000 dives, he definitely knows the area inside out, and especially the sites around here, as they used to be the main spots when Papua Diving was still located on nearby Wai island.

Not so good though is that as we approached Pulau Dua, Nikson asked us to disembark asap, in order for him to chase some fleeing fishermen, to check whether they'd been dynamite fishing - an utterly devastating practice unfortunately still too common even here :o(

During the dive we had a big marble stingray flying by and coming around again for a closer look, and we spotted two wobbegongs, one of which was perfectly posed on top of a coral, begging for a cover photo.

We did not get to snorkel with mantas, nor do some whale watching near Wai island, as supposedly is possible every now and then. But Nikson spotted some floating sargassum sea weed and plastic trash on the way back, among which we got to swim with several small sargassum frog fish (5-8cm) - a first for me!

Surgeon fish slope

Loads of schooling surgeon fish, gangs of yellow-tail barracudas, a family of humphead parrot fish, hawksbill turtles, big moray eels, bat fish getting cleaned, giant trevally, black-tips passing by, ...


Despite his many years here and his apparent concern for the environment, Max Ammer seems to neglect an obvious starting point: basic education of his people.

Some areas in particular are in serious, not to say desperate, need of improvement: hygiene standards for kitchen personnel, rules of conduct and basic communication skills for dive guides.

Having your dive guides (1) bending gorgonians out of shape to show pygmy seahorses, when not shaking the tiny little creatures into cardiac-arrest, just so as to please some eager photographer flashing away like crazy, (2) pulling wobbegongs by their tail out of their lairs for better viewing, when not outright harassing them into swimming away, or just (3) carving words into corals out of boredom, can hardly be justified in any way by anybody.

Guides should at all times behave in an exemplary fashion - even more so in an environmentally so unique area.

Not only that, they should also enforce safe and responsible practices to avoid accidents.

Indonesia: The dark side

⊗ It doesn't take much scrutiny to see through the tropical paradise illusion of tourist information brochures and travel advertisements. While at first sight a relatively peaceful country - only shaken up by devastating earthquakes and tsunamis every now and then - Indonesia does have some serious human rights issues and nature conservation problems.

⊗ The main island Java in effect is nothing but a greedy colonial power ruling and exploiting the surrounding islands with total contempt. Draining them from their riches (e.g. wood, gold, oil) without putting anything back into the local economies. All that of course with the hypocritical taciturn approval and even active help from industrial nations.

⊗ Entire marine ecosystems are continuously threatened by international mining companies dumping toxic wastes directly into the sea.

⊗ Destructive fishing practices are still all too common all over the archipelago: (1) dynamite fishing is causing a lot of long-term reef damage, (2) live fish trade is threatening the survival of endangered species like the Napoleon wrasse, (3) cyanide fishing is ruining already hard hit habitats, (4) finning is decimating the few remaining sharks.

⊗ Corruption in Indonesia unfortunately is standard modus operandi on any official level. Meaning you can get away with anything as long as the bribe is adequate.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Foreword about fish bombing

Fish bombing, aka dynamite fishing or blast fishing, is an extremely destructive fishing method used by fishermen in Indonesia and the Philippines among others.

When a school of fish is found, a primitive home-made bomb is dropped into the water. The longer the fuse, the deeper the bomb sinks before exploding. The shock wave literally knocks out any fish in the vicinity, some of which may float up to the surface, but most just sink to the bottom, their swim-bladders ruptured, their spines broken, to be collected at leisure by diving fishermen.

Besides being totally indiscriminate, bombing over shallow reefs also completely destroys the fish's natural habitat.

October 1994: Somewhere north of Boano island in the Moluccas, Indonesia, I personally witnessed the devastation caused underwater by this illegal practice. An otherwise pristine reef suddenly turned into an utterly deserted waste of dead coral rubble, without a single living creature in sight. As if an atomic bomb had been dropped there. A death zone for many years to come.

March 2005: While diving around Sipadan, Sabah, Malaysia, we felt several shock waves of distant underwater detonations. As if a very heavy object had been dropped into the water just above us. According to our dive guide, the explosions occurred somewhere in the Philippines.

March 2007: A good friend of mine was diving around the Banggai islands, Sulawesi, Indonesia, when he stumbled upon a recently bombed reef, still littered with dead fish. Below are his well argumented letter of protest and some of his photos as sent to the department of fisheries in Manado, Sulawesi, Indonesia.

April 2007: As we reached a dive site near Pulau Dua, Raja Ampat, West-Papua, Indonesia, our dive guide asked us to quickly disembark on a nearby island so he could chase some fleeing fishermen. To check whether they were bomb fishing... According to him it's fairly easy to tell whether a fish was bombed or not. However there's no effective control of any kind either at sea or in the fish markets. Fishermen who somehow do get caught red-handed, at most spend a symbolic night in jail, after which they can go on with their fishy business as usual. It's just a matter of paying the right amount to who-ever happens to be in charge that day.

Fish bombing: A letter of protest

Att. Bapak George Ruata
Dinas Perikanan dan Kelautan Sulawesi Utara
Kompleks Perkantoran Pertanian
Jalan Manado Tanwangko, Desa Kalasey
Indonesia - Sulut

To whom it may concern,

My name is Bart De Ridder. I am a medical doctor from Belgium. As a passionate diver I have been so fortunate to discover the underwater beauty of Asia and in particular that of Indonesia, which has the richest reefs with greatest bio-diversity in the world, a pure treasure.

On my latest trip to North & Central Sulawesi (5-26 March 2007) I witnessed the horrible consequences of an illegal fishing method: "fish bombing" or "dynamite fishing". A technique that uses a bottle, fertilizers and a fuse. This "bomb" is then thrown into the water. The explosion creates an enormous shock wave, killing fish and destroying coral reefs. The explosion can be heard for many kilometres underwater. In the past I have seen many reefs destroyed, but on this particular occasion I dived a reef that had been bombed just minutes before.

Date: March 15, 2007
Time: Briefing: 8:45; Dive: 9:27 - 9:52. So the bombing must have taken place between 8:45 and 9:20.
Dive site: Labobo's Dream. The site is south of Labobo island (Banggai islands), in front of the village called Lipulalomo.
Coordinates : 01° 47' 637 S - 123° 41' 404 E.

I am probably not the first one to point out this problem to you and you are probably already aware of it, but it needs your urgent attention right now.

For so many reasons this is an unacceptable fishing method:

• It is a very destructive technique: the shock wave blows apart coral reefs, leaving nothing but rubble. The normal structure of a reef is destroyed and it is practically impossible for corals to re-grow on this rubble. Hence once a reef is bombed it will stay like a dead place for many years on end. Marine life disappears in these places.

• This technique seriously affects the future of the next generation of local fishermen: For the reason mentioned bombed areas remain dead for many years. So, if fishermen continue to use this technique their very own children will have no more reefs to fish on.

• It is a very non-selective method of fishing: As you can see on the pictures this technique kills whatever fish happens to be near the bomb: both adult and juveniles, both fish that are fit for consumption and fish that cannot be eaten. This technique disturbs the normal ability of reproduction as the juvenile fish do not have time enough to reach adulthood.

• It is a very dangerous technique for the fishermen: many get severely injured or may even get killed when a bomb explodes in their hands. After the fish have been bombed they need to be collected. Divers go down without proper dive training and without proper dive gear, instead they stay down too long too deep with just a hose connected to a compressor on the surface which supplies them with air. No wonder why so many fishermen suffer from decompression sickness and get crippled or paralysed at very young age.

• It is dangerous for divers: during my trip I got to know Dr. Alejandro Vagelli (Director of Science & Conservation of the New Jersey Academy for Aquatic Sciences↑). He is a world specialist on the Banggai Cardinalfish and established two protective, non-fishing zones together with the Indonesian Government. During his last survey in March 2007 Dr. Vagelli got almost killed because a fisherman was about to throw a bomb at the exact spot where Dr. Vagelli was diving and filming a big school of fish. Imagine what would have happened if that fisherman had not seen Dr. Vagelli...

Each and every reason above is by itself reason enough to condemn this fishing technique.

Fishermen who are caught in the act of fish bombing should be punished. There should also be enough and regular Police Patrol so that other fishermen are not tempted to try it again.

But punishment is not enough. Local communities and children at school should be educated about the richness of their sea and its reefs. They should be made aware of the horrible and long-lasting consequences of fish bombing. Education will help them to find alternative and better ways of fishing.

As a passionate diver I am asking you to protect the seas and the reefs, but on a much bigger scale it is your responsibility to protect the future of your Country and that of your children.
Please stop all other illegal and destructive fishing activities e.g. live fish trade (Napoleon wrasses, groupers), shark finning, etc.

Thank you for your attention and hoping that you will take appropriate action to protect your Seas and Reefs.

Yours Sincerely,
Dr. Bart De Ridder, M.D.