Health Check for World’s Richest Marine Kingdom

Elyheart 07 EC B ReneeCapozzola 19 MSB

The Elysium Heart of the Coral Triangle expedition 2018 - By Michael AW (Photo by Renee Capozzola)

THE FIRST MULTI-DISCIPLINARY ART AND SCIENCE baseline survey of its kind in Raja Ampat with 49 expedition members of 15 nationalities.

In 2018, climate scientists confirmed with confidence that it is no longer a prediction, but a reality, that we have crossed the tipping point in regards to climate change. Thd pace of heat waves has increased with unanticipated rapidity and unprecedented wild fires are occurring around the world. Coral reefs are bleaching more frequently than in previous decade. Heatwaves are becoming the “new normal”, and climate departure in the tropics is predicted for 2020. We need to be prepared for this agmented reality. Even remote locations as environmentally isolated as Raja Ampat have started to feel the effects of climate change.

As stewards of our planet, we must pay attention and act to protect these final frontiers for future generations. However, in order to preserve biodiversity, we must first understand what is there to protect, and to conserve reefs, we need to establish their current state and condition. To this end, the purpose of the “Elysium Heart of the Coral Triangle Expedition” was to produce a baseline survey of the biodiversity of fish and corals, look for new species, record the state of the reefs and document current impacts of concern.

The area of focus for the report card, a health check, is of our world’s richest marine biological province, Raja Ampat in Indonesia. The expedition began in 2015. Three years in the planning and two reconnaissance expeditions later (2016 and 2017), three vessels with 49 expeditioners from 15 nations, including some of the world’s most influential photographers, scientists, and artists convened in Jakarta on 28th September, the start of a 12-day fact-finding and photographic survey.

The Expedition

We were equipped with state-of-the-art cameras in SEACAM housings and broadcast quality video equipment, neuston nets for surveying microplastic, two CCROV (remote operated vehicle) units capable of 100-metre depth and 4K video, Fourth Element wetsuits, and high powered Scubalamp LED lights. To top it all off, the entire expedition was made carbon neutral by CDL (City Development Limited). Unlike the two previous Elysium expeditions to the Antarctic in 2010 and the Arctic in 2015, where we were operating in the outermost regions of civilisation in extreme weather conditions, during this expedition we were operating in close proximity to villages with a  range of cellular services and were there at the best time of the year. So, what could possibly go wrong?

Well, things started to go wrong three months before the expedition commenced. Of the three expedition vessels, the most reliable, MSY SEAHORSE (a liveaboard I have used more than 10 times since 2008), was sold.  Fortunately, the owner honoured our arrangement by swiftly offering us a replacement – the still under construction, brand new, yet to be furnished, MSY Mola Mola. I was assured that all will be good as the ship will be completed early and will have undergone sea trials and at least three cruises in the Raja Ampat region before our expedition.

Disaster struck on 6th August: a 6.9-magnitude earthquake struck the northern part of Lombok, triggering a tsunami that careened an unattended Mola Mola into a reef, broke her keel and mangled her propeller shaft. By then, she had only six weeks for repair before heading off for her maiden voyage with us. This sounded like a bad idea, but with payment made in full for the charter, the only option was to pray and cross our fingers and toes.

29th September 2018

By 08:00 hours, 29th September morning, all expedition members and equipment promptly arrived at the Swiss Belle Airport Hotel in Jakarta. However, 19 pieces of 12,000 lumens Scubalamp V6 Pro did not. We needed these lights for our blackwater operation. Several calls and WhatsApp messages later, Jessie Shaw brought in five pieces from Singapore and Tae Peng from Prestige Scuba flew in with 12 pieces from Kuala Lumpur. It was far from ideal, but sufficient to get the job done.

Other than this glitch, everything else went as planned. Team leaders Cassandra Dragon, Andreas Jaschek and Jayne Jenkins, hosted meetings with their respective team members, and principal scientists Paul Muir PhD, Charlotte Young and Renato Morais staged sampling methodology for corals, microplastic and fish surveys. Even Brett Lobwein, our tech whiz kid managed to successfully test drive the CCROV in the hotel pool. Miraculously, everyone’s luggage arrived. Once mission briefing and logistics were finalised, the three teams, Alpha, Whiskey and Echo, began their preparation to fly out the same evening to board their assigned expedition vessels.

To cover the vast expanse of Raja Ampat and adjacent seas, MSY Damai would depart from Saumaki and head North, crossing the Banda Sea, sampling and surveying  its way into Misool, then continue the survey of South and Central Raja Ampat. GAIA Love would depart from Ambon, then follow an easterly course towards the Banda Islands, before heading north towards Raja Ampat to explore the western region of Misool and some signature sites of Cape Kri and Fam Islands.  The route for the MSY Mola Mola was perhaps the most exciting of the three. Starting from Nabire, the plan was to head north to document the whale sharks at Kwatisore, then proceed  with a survey of two atolls of Cenderawasih Bay before a two-day sail to document the reefs of North Raja Ampat. Cenderawasih Bay was once described by the legendary Shark Lady, Valerie Taylor, as the Galapagos of the East. But it was not to be.

At 2 pm, I received a call from  Cici Armayn, cruise director for the Mola Mola. The new vessel was underpowered, ambling at 4 knots across a fiery Banda Sea. It was still about 3 days out from Nabire, the boarding gateway for Team Echo! A decision had to be made if the team should proceed as planned, with a possible loss of three survey days, or if team Echo should start the expedition from Sorong, and focus mainly within Raja Ampat vicinity. Discarding Cenderawasih Bay was a very difficult choice but it was a wise one. I left the decision to Andreas Jaschek, team leader of Echo, upon boarding the  brand new sluggish Mola Mola.

Promptly at 20:30 hrs, I commandeered three tourist buses to send the three teams to the domestic terminal for flights to their respective departure cities. I boarded the plane with team members of Alpha on the flight to Ambon, alongside David Doubilet, Jennifer Hayes, Charlotte Young, team leader Cassandra Dragon, and the principal investigator for corals, Dr Paul Muir. As the plane lifted off runway 7R25L, I looked around for Paul, scanning the entire aircraft. Paul was not on board. Has he boarded the wrong plane? Cassandra, team leader for Alpha confirmed he was last seen at dinner. Did we leave him behind? Did he suffer a heart attack in the airport rest room? Not a good idea to lose a principal scientist at the start of the expedition. Turning the plane around was not an option and we had no way to contact him whilst in flight! It was one long, agonizing overnight flight.

06:00, 30 September, we touched down at Ambon Pattimura Airport. Seated alone near the conveyor belt, was a tall male in blue jeans, with an Einstein hairdo, smiling docilely as we approached. Our delinquent scientist had decided to catch an earlier flight without telling his team leader or any of his teammates!  Relieved,  with all Alpha team members accounted for, the Elysium expedition officially began. We started with a mad dash to shoot the mystical Holy Grail of fish - the psychedelic Ambon frogfish (Histiophryne psychedelica) sighted by the GAIA’s crew the day before we arrived.  Of course, that fish successfully eluded all 18 of us. Fortunately, I already had a picture of one in the bag during a reconnaissance trip the year before.

Over the next 12 days, we encountered the fury of the Banda Sea as we sailed towards Raja Ampat. On the morning we dived the first site at Raja Ampat, Tank Rock at Fiabacet, I descended into a sea of a zillion Silverside baitfish (Atheriniformes sp.) and I knew immediately we would have a successful expedition. We nailed it, right at the best time of the year to explore Raja Ampat. During the crossing over waters greater than 200 metres deep, we managed to do six blackwater dives. On the third attempt in deep water south of Wayil, we returned with the first ever captured pictures of the deep water Polka dot Ribbonfish (Desmodema polystictum) in the Indonesian sea. The blue water mangrove area at the north west of Misool is taboo to many liveaboard vessels due to two crocodile-related accidents in previous years. We were determined to include this very special habitat where expansive coral meadows are found just beneath the foliage of mangrove forests. With diligent reconnaissance for those amphibious reptiles, we efficaciously deployed our photographic and video teams for an afternoon survey. Everyone returned in one piece.    

In Banda Neira, Charlotte Young and her team successfully conducted the first microplastic trawl in the region. Over the course of the expedition through the islands, the Alpha team accomplished eight microplastic trawls, four fish surveys led by Jennifer Hayes, and 18 coral transects led by Paul Muir. By the time we pulled into the harbour of Sorong on 11th of October for a two-day debrief, team GAIA had completed 33 dives across a 7065-nautical mile voyage, consumed 960 eggs, 200 kilograms of rice, 90 chickens and 105 kilograms of watermelons. No one was injured, no cameras lost, and all our toes and fingers were accounted for.

Team Echo, though hampered by the sluggish expedition vessel,  completed their mission with astounding success. Upon boarding the vessel on 30th September, after consulting with the team and Cici, Andreas Jaschek made the decision to drop Cenderawasih Bay and confine their expedition within the Raja Ampat islands. It was a good call, as in the days that followed, the team discovered that MSY Mola Mola was not quite a waterproof vessel-- water leaked into both the cabins and common areas. Nevertheless, their team spirit was far from dampened with a combination of passion and commitment to the success of the mission. The myriad hardships brought out the best from each individual and as a unit, they excelled.

I was duly impressed when I visited the team in Misool. I did not hear a single complaint, no one whined, no one whimpered. Every single person was enthused with the outcome of the surveys and dives. Even with a flooded camera and housing, Alex Rose, team leader for fish surveys, was busy sorting out the species documented from the evening transect whilst several others were preparing for a black water dive at 10 pm, undeterred by the choppy sea and windy night.  Team Echo completed their mission with 34 dives, six microplastic trawls, 10 transects for corals and five fish surveys. If there were an award for excellence and camaraderie, team Echo would have won hands down.   

Expedition vessel Damai, carrying team Whisky, was a stark contrast to that of MSY Mola Mola and team Echo. Damai is a five-star boutique class vessel affording superlative luxury and service for those on board to achieve their mission objectives in comfort. Of the three, team Whisky was the most pampered and privileged. They get free massages on board, free flow of alcohol and even had a school of hammerhead sharks during their check-out dive.  On 2nd October, day two of the expedition,  team Whiskey arrived on a halcyon morning at Manuk to document the world’s second biggest congregation of sea snakes. Snakes were found in blue water, in every crevice and cranny. On day three, the Damai began crossing the rough Banda Sea, similarly encountered by the GAIA Love and Mola Mola.  But for Team Whisky, this inconvenience brought upon a surprise blessing.  Beneath a blue equatorial sky, the team literally bumped into two of our planet’s biggest animals - the Blue and Fin whales. The whales cooperated, giving the Damai time to deploy dive tenders for the team to acquire footage from the air, at sea level and underwater as well. The mission plan for team Whisky also included exploring the best kept secret of Raja Ampat, the Goa Keramat jellyfish lake. Team Whisky was bequeathed with unique opportunities that were not presented to the other teams. These were moments to die for, yet I heard plenty of whining and wailing about the 42-hour crossing to Misool. A mutiny maybe imminent!

I was relieved to find out that they too successfully completed their mission with 32 dives, 14 fish surveys, five microplastic trawls and six coral surveys. Team Whisky arrived at the Swiss Belle Hotel long after team Alpha and Echo.

From this expedition, we created a comprehensive and compelling artistic portrait of the heart of the Coral Triangle, and scientifically documented its current ecological well-being. We hope the fruits of our labour comprised of a magnificent collection of sights, sounds, and information will be treasured by future generations, and bring the beauty of this crucial region to the attention of the world, inspiring action to mitigate climate change and yielding vital baseline data for measuring future effects on the Coral Triangle.

Expedition Report Card - Summary

  1. Successfully conducted the first multi-disciplinary art and science baseline survey of its kind in Raja Ampat with 49 expedition members of 15 nationalities.
  2. Conducted 99 dives, 40 line intersect transects for corals, 16 trawls for micro plastic and 23 fish surveys over 12 days with three expedition vessels in Raja Ampat.
  3. First expedition to conduct black water dives in Raja Ampat.
  4. First to sight and capture pictures of Polka dot Ribbonfish (Desmodema polystictum) in Indonesian water.
  5. First to document presence of Paper nautilus (Argonauta) in Raja Ampat’s waters.
  6. Twenty-one sites surveyed.
  7. Hard coral cover varied from 3.5% to 97.7% and averaged 34% over the 40 transects surveyed.
  8. High levels of plankton and particulate material were noted at many sites and have been reported for the region. These are likely to be related to upwelling from deep ocean currents surrounding the many islands of the region.
  9. Ninety-four percent of trawls conducted contained some form of plastic debris, with only 6% yielding none.
  10. The most abundant form of plastic found in trawls were filaments, with an overall 285 individual pieces identified.
  11. Team Echo collected more plastic (n=306) than the other two teams during their trawls, followed by Team Alpha (n=144). The least amount of plastic was identified by Damai II (n=94).
  12. The most polluted area sampled was Manta Sandy (n=76) (S0 34.798 E130 32.534) located in the Mioskoon area of Raja Ampat, west of Sorong, New Guinea. The second most polluted site was Sardine Reef (n=75) (S0 32.066 E130 42.977).
  13. A total of 16 trawls were conducted, a relatively low number in comparison to other studies, meaning that the dataset collected may not have been representative enough to truly answer the question.
  14. Damselfishes (Pomacentridae) were the most abundant fishes found throughout Raja Ampat and the Banda Sea, comprising over 83,000 individuals per hectare. They were followed closely by fusiliers (Caesionidae) and cardinalfishes (Apogonidae), with almost 50,000, and over 40,000 individuals/ha-1, respectively.
  15. High biodiversity, high fish biomass and an important contribution from planktivores are some of the features that summarise Raja Ampat’s coral reef fish assemblages. Regional species richness seems to increase more steeply with sampling effort here in the Coral Triangle compared to the adjacent species-rich Great Barrier Reef.
  16. A total of 347 species were identified in the 19 fish counts. *Gerry Allen PhD recorded 374 fish species at Cape Kri off Sorido Bay in 2014.

Science Report: Microplastics (excerpt from the official expedition report)

By Charlotte Young – Plastic Team, Principal Investigator

Raja Ampat is characterised by fast moving and rapidly changing currents, which could explain the widespread and random distribution of plastic. However, ocean currents were not incorporated into the experimental design. Overall population densities in all areas sampled were relatively low in comparison to neighbouring islands. Despite the low population densities, the presence of humans may explain why more plastic was present in near shore habitats as these sites were closer to potential sources of plastic waste.

Interestingly, the most polluted site (Manta Sandy) was not the closest to civilisation (Ambon Bay) and is considered a sparsely-populated site with a low population density within a 30-kilometre radius (3.0-19.9 population/km2). Manta Sandy is also widely known to be a cleaning station where species such as mantas visit. Recent studies have shown that filter feeding marine megafauna such a Mobula rays have a high potential to ingest microplastics suspended in the water column (Germanov, et al., 2018), making this a concerning find.

Although further assessment would be needed, this suggests that areas of high importance to biodiversity may be substantially impacted by microplastic, and as a result, species which frequent these waters are exposed to higher proportions of this pollutant. Given our findings, it should be of paramount concern to local officials and policy makers to consider the implementation of better waste management strategies throughout The Coral Triangle so that the flow of plastic into the marine environment can be stemmed. Another important step would be the introduction of educational and outreach projects in both urban and rural communities so habits change and people understand the impacts of their actions. Ultimately a shift towards non-plastic alternatives needs to be adopted worldwide so that the volume of plastic waste produced annually is curbed.

Coral reef fish assemblages of the heart of the Coral Triangle

By Renato Morais, Fish team Principal Investigator - (excerpt from the official expedition report)

High biodiversity, high fish biomass and an important contribution from planktivores are some of the features that summarise Raja Ampat’s coral reef fish assemblages. Regional species richness seems to increase more steeply with sampling effort here in the Coral Triangle compared to the adjacent species-rich Great Barrier Reef, a similar pattern as found by Barneche et al. (2019). Also, the average total fish biomass in the three surveyed sub-regions (3.5 to 4 ton.ha-1) is at a similar magnitude as has been described for isolated coral reefs in the Pacific Ocean with no, or only limited, human population and exploitation (e.g. D’agata et al., 2016; Friedlander and DeMartini, 2002; Sandin et al., 2008). Furthermore, the high abundance of planktivores matches expectations that currents are a significant provider of nutrients and food to coral reefs here. Although current intensity was not a factor distinguishing fish assemblages among surveys within the region, it is likely that the strong currents observed have a stronger role in determining fish assemblages here when compared to other regions. This is further supported by benthic organisms that significantly rely on plankton for their nutrition, such as gorgonians, which are very abundant. Taken together, these findings suggest that Raja Ampat’s reefs are thriving ecosystems, highly valuable both from the perspective of their biodiversity and the abundance of life that they are able to sustain.

However, some quantitative evidence arising from the data collected on this expedition suggests caution in the evaluation of how healthy fish assemblages in Raja Ampat are. For example, we noticed some indicators traditionally associated with continued fishing activities, such as the relatively low abundance of large-bodied fishes and low abundance of large predatory fishes, such as big groupers, giant trevallies and, especially sharks (Cinner et al., 2018; D’agata et al., 2016; Robinson et al., 2017). Three possible explanations exist for this pattern. First, it is possible that these represent natural conditions for the reefs investigated that do not match the traditional perception of what a truly healthy reef should be. This is supported by recent research showcasing how different combinations of benthic and fish assemblages can exist in both healthy and degraded coral reefs (e.g. Donovan et al., 2018). Second, it is possible that reef communities have not yet recovered from destructive or unsustainable fishing practices known to have occurred in Raja Ampat in the recent past (e.g. Ainsworth et al., 2008a; Varkey et al., 2010). And third, it is possible that destructive or unsustainable fishing activities continue to happen throughout the archipelago, maintaining a constant state of relatively low abundance of large predatory fishes. Further research attempting to evaluate these scenarios is urgently needed and would ideally involve a comprehensive spatial and temporal sampling coverage. Furthermore, data collected on this expedition can serve as a baseline against which to evaluate potential future data collection initiatives.


By: Anna Oposa  (excerpt from the official expedition report)

As a key marine biodiversity area at the heart of the Coral Triangle, Raja Ampat can only be described in superlatives: the most biodiverse, the craziest currents, and the best visibility. No two dives were alike, even if we dived at the same site or same areas.  As part of the Plastics Team, I helped our Principal Scientist, Charlotte Young, conduct surveys almost daily. We were surprised – but also pleased – to find relatively little plastic. The results could have been affected by the season, currents, and tides, but we were nevertheless happy to report that we did not collect a lot of plastics. Among the specimens collected, microfibers were relatively high, which made me reflect on the clothes we buy and wear, and how what is invisible to our eyes can still affect the seas. What made the journey more memorable was the mix of characters on board Gaia Love: conservationists, artists, photographers, and scientists, all united by our love for the sea. We were all storytellers and students of the seas, and I left Indonesia a bit more hopeful for the future for our blue planet.


By: Jacqueline Lam  (excerpt from the official expedition report)

When I signed up to be on the Elysium team, I was full of excitement to be part of Raja Ampat conservation efforts. This was the biggest scientific diving expedition that I had seen, with three boats and over 50 team members.  This Expedition brought together a collection of scientists, artists, and people who genuinely cared about the marine environment. On the MSY Mola Mola, we had a winning combination of passion and dedication to the cause, which helped the team soldier on when adverse weather conditions resulted in a change of route plans.  The scientific teams were able to complete all planned surveys, and had positive findings on coral as well as fish biodiversity. The microplastic surveys also went well, with the team diligently trawling for samples. Working as a team, we helped to efficiently conduct the scientific surveys, share the boat's small stash of alcohol, and generally keep each other’s spirits up with antics like the equatorial crossing ocean jump and dining table climbing contests. I could not have asked for a better bunch to spend a week out at sea with, and would work with the group again in a heartbeat.


By: Sam Shu Qin (excerpt from the official expedition report)

The committed efforts by the Indonesian authorities and communities to protect their reefs were evident in vibrant reef communities and healthy coral especially in marine protected areas (MPAs). As we move further away from the MPAs, we undoubtedly encountered damaged and degraded reefs due to the adverse impacts of human activities such as pollution and unsustainable fishing practices. Through this expedition, I believe that enforcement, research and education form the three main pillars of marine conservation and more efforts have to be made in community engagement to encourage a greater sense of public ownership in their natural heritage. After working alongside so many talented expedition members from diverse backgrounds, I was intrigued by the possibilities of integrating science and visual arts to convey conservation messages in creative ways to inspire positive change among individuals. It was a joy to lead the coral team for surveys, documenting coral species, live coral cover and extent of reef damage for some dive sites. Even though it was initially a challenge to turn marine science and research diving into fun tasks for the volunteer photographers, the scientists were deeply encouraged by the team’s enthusiasm and willingness to share marine science in their own ways of storytelling. Understanding fish behaviours and attempting to identify marine animals through photographs and videos gradually became part of our after-dinner team activities. The experience has undoubtedly provided me valuable insights to develop more programmes to inspire marine stewardship. The exchange of knowledge and best practices among the team made me a better scientist, diver and photographer.

The Expedition Teams

Team Alpha

Jessie Shaw : Kiki Tokizawa : Quinan Zhang : Tyler Wang : Paul Muir : Michael AW : Arica Hilton : Rui Wang : Jennifer Hayes : David Doubilet : Cassandra Dragon :

Kitty Trandoann : Emily Chan : Charlotte Young : Anna Opposo : Richard Meng : Stuart Ireland :Lim Yew Kuan : Fabian Schorp

Team Whiskey

Jayne Jenkins : Tracey Jennings : Renee Capozzola : Sabrina Inderbitzi : Sam Shu Qin : Virginia Bria : Ernie Brooks : Sally Vogel : Deon Viljoen : Linda Thomas : Brett Lobwein : Sarah-Jo Lobwein : Renato Morais : Emry Oxford : Josh Phua

Team Echo

Alex Rose : Rebecca Ziegler : Marco Steiner : Andreas Jaschek :James Clarke : Gillian Clarke : Levente Rozsahegyi : Aaron Halstead : Jacqueline Lam : Yizhen Ong : Mary Sayre : Lindsey Dougherty : Matthew Smith : Lauren Thomas : Alexander Finden : Juan Romero

Expedition Sponsors

City Development Ltd – principal: Carbon Credit Sponsor   Ocean Geographic – main expedition sponsor

Fourth Element – Micro Plastic Sampling sponsor  SEACAM – supporting equipment

CCROV – supporting equipment  Nikon – supporting equipment  Scubalamp – supporting equipment

( book and Exphibition soon to be available )  Michael AW and the Elysium Team ( OG 48) 

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