Indonesia’s ‘Magic Mountain’ Majesty

Indonesia’s ‘Magic Mountain’ Majesty

It’s no secret that Indonesia beholds some of a diver’s most coveted spectacles. Raja Ampat, or the Four Kings, is no exception. Raja Ampat is an archipelago of four major islands – Salawati, Batanta, Waigeo, and Misool – off the northwest corner of the Bird’s Head Peninsula in West Papua, Indonesia. The Raja Ampat islands are part of what is referred to as the “Coral Triangle,” which boasts arguably the richest marine biodiversity on the planet.

Those looking for professional diving facilities, a secluded environment, and to enhance their knowledge of sea life will find pure bliss on the Misool Eco Resort. Misool is known for being a marine life preserve and haven for some of the sea’s more endangered species. Diving at Misool ensures you are diving in a site that is as nature intended it to be.

The “Magic Mountain”

Raja Ampat Misool is most renowned for what is called the “Magic Mountain.” The real “magic” to be found is a submerged meridian and well-known cleaning station for Manta Rays. The pinnacle itself is about 7 meters and just 20 minutes away from the resort. In an extremely rare occurrence, smaller reef ‘Manta alfredi’ and giant oceanic ‘Manta birostris’ manta rays report to the same spot for fish to remove parasites from their skin.

Both oceanic and reef Manta Rays are a “vulnerable” species (just one step below endangered), according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. Manta rays are hunted around the world for their gill plates, which are cartilage filaments that help the manta feed by filtering plankton out of water. The remainder of the animal is discarded as it is mostly inedible. Magic Mountain is a Manta Ray temple that remains untouched by human hands in order to stimulate and encourage activity. The site is completely exposed to oceanic currents, which push plankton and other proteins rays (and other fish) feed on towards the summit. The more zooplankton, the more Mantas. Misool Eco Resort’s awareness and care for the species has easily made it one of the best – if not the best – place in the world to view Manta Rays.

Manta Rays are often compared to their distant cousin the Stingray due to the wide wingspan, lower body gills, and famous “smiley” mouth on its bottom. Manta Rays do possess these qualities, with a couple exceptions and additions. Manta Rays do not have a stinger, but do have an unusually shaped head with curved fins at the snout that act as steering mechanisms. Inside this head, Mantas have the largest brain of all fish. Giant and reef mantas are anatomically similar, however the “giant” Manta has its name for a reason. Oceanic Manta Rays are two times the size of reef mantas, their central disk alone reaching colossal lengths of up to 9 meters. You can’t miss them!

Other than behemoth size, Manta Rays large and small(er) are known for their docile nature. They present no threat to humans and actually avoid contact. This enables many to get up close and truly capture their graceful movements. Mantas are the “lone wolves” of the sea, only crossing paths when mating, feeding, or migrating. Solitary behaviors coupled with increasingly declining numbers make mantas an invaluable diving sight.

Other Species

Manta Rays are not the only species that benefit from the area’s conservation efforts and complete exposure to currents. Large schools of pelagics come ‘round the mountain to feed on the abundant amounts of plankton that populate the area from currents. Between the countless fish and coral, the area is an organic menagerie of colors you simply will not get at an aquarium.

Magic Mountain is also a nursery for White Tip Reef Sharks and a love nest for Napoleon Wrasse. Napoleon Wrasse is an enormous, blue coral reef fish that grows over six feet long and has a prominent bump on its forehead. You can find them on the reef scouring for hard-shelled prey like mollusks, starfish, or crustaceans, which is unusual for a fish. Napoleon Wrasse also happens to be one of the most expensive reef fish in the world, and thus are illegally hunted frequently throughout the Coral Triangle at destructive lengths. Live reef fish trade in Southeast Asia continues to be a huge problem that many local governments are addressing with new regulations against poaching.

The White Tip Reef Shark is one of the most populous sharks in the Indo-Pacific. It is extremely slender, growing up to eight feet long and only 44 pounds. The shark is known for its characteristically irregular swimming patterns, piercing eyes, and trademark white-tipped dorsal fin. The White Tip Reef Shark, like endless others, are threatened by shark finning. Shark finning is hunting sharks solely for their fins. Poachers cut the shark’s fins off and discard the carcass back into the ocean, all while the shark is still alive. Not being able to swim, the shark sinks to the ocean floor where it is fed on by other fish. This happens to hundreds of thousands of sharks regularly.

Presrvation Efforts

The damages caused by illegal fish pilfering and shark finning are lasting. Not only does it make it potentially dangerous for divers, but it disrupts the “circle of life.” Sharks are often viewed and portrayed as bullies because they are top-level predators with considerable size and strength over the majority of fish. In reality, they help maintain balance.

Reef sharks are the “caretakers” of the reefs: they eat leftover and decaying fish, which keeps the coral reefs and seagrass beds lean. As primary predators, they impact where their prey tend to settle. This affects the feeding strategies of other species in the mix as some populations of fish increase, while others decrease. In the sharks’ absence, larger predatory fish take control and feed on herbivores. Having less herbivores leads to more microalgae that expands over coral and shifts the ecosystem to algae-dominant instead of coral-dominant. The reef system’s survival is then put into question.

What is Misool doing?

Raja Ampat Misool is one of the first areas to implement no finning, catch-and-release zones. Local authorities have been taking direct action against pirate ships, on which upwards of 200,000 shark fins have been found. Ultimate Dive’s own Ken Scarbrough has seen absolute improvement thanks to no finning laws. He himself hadn’t seen sharks in the amounts one should for up to 15 years; now, there is a definite difference. The reefs are experiencing a resurgence and revitalization that is healthy for the islands.

Misool also has its own foundation called the Misool Manta Project. The association’s focus is manta population and behavioral data collection in order to make better decisions regarding the protection, education, and study of Manta Rays. Satellite technology is even used to examine migration patterns. In addition to vital research, the Misool Manta Project teaches Misool visitors and engages local community members on ways to preserve the manta species and its habitat.

On top of this, the resort has been developed to foster an understanding of the many species that call the area home. There are nearly 60 sites within a 1-hour radius of the resort that have all been inspected and explored by Misool’s staff. The House Reef, on the other hand, is mere steps from the resort’s water cottages so the brilliance of the ocean is never far away. All cottages have their own spacious diving kit storage area in the communal Dive Center. In the 48 square meter dry area are computer stations, lounge chairs, and a monitor to view to the day’s images. Finally, there’s a sunny veranda for drying out between dives and enjoying picturesque, topside views.

Interested in this exclusive diving experience? Ask Ken about how the Misool resort is making each diving experience as “magical” as it can be.