Travel Diary: Raja Ampat, where coral still grows

By Anne de Carbuccia

People often refer to what I do as environmental art, though I don’t believe in labelling creativity. I travel the world for my project, One Planet One Future, to document human caused threats to our Planet. As companions, I bring along an hourglass and a Vanitas, the two objects I believe represent best the passing of time, and the choice each of us makes when deciding what kind of life we want to lead. My quest is powered by a need to document and remember what our world has, what we are about to lose, and what has already been lost. To do this, I build shrines to the passing of time, and I photograph these in some of the most remote places on earth. This is the story of my most recent expedition.

The sea has always played a role in my life — I am originally from Corsica, I grew up with the sound of the waves beating against the shore. It was only natural that, while trotting the globe, I would venture below the surface and document the extraordinary treasures that exist just out of our reach. However it became clear, with each new dive, that the ocean I knew was a thing of the past, a beautiful memory that would remain just that. The colors were dimmer, the citizens of the sea harder to find, I’d never imagined an entire world could change so rapidly. In an attempt to prove wrong my worst fears, I traveled further, dove deeper, I tried to satisfy an implacable hunger with some form of hope, and yet as each new trip came and went, I wondered if the childhood memories had been the fruit of my imagination, for their proof was nowhere to be found.

My research came back to dry land, and at each conference I attended, I tried to pry some answers out of the marine biologists and oceanographers that came my way. “Where can I go to find coral that isn’t dying, but growing?” I would ask. Most gave me vague responses aired with sad looks. Clearly they were all just as worried as me.

Finally, someone mentioned the Coral Triangle.

Just thinking of the name, the Coral Triangle, reminds one of warm temperatures and adventure. Historically, travellersfrom all over would try to beat their odds to find it, navigating the treacherous waters of the Pacific and Indian oceans. In less romanticized terms, it is considered one of the most diverse biological habitats. It hosts more than 75% of all the species of coral known to man, not to mention the multitude of fish and other marine creatures that survive thanks to its existence. It is the heart of marine biodiversity.

Some months ago, I got a call from Sandrine, friend, ally, and collector of my work. She tells me about a place named Raja Ampat, a place she wants to visit, in the middle of the Coral Triangle. Apparently it’s a challenging journey: tourism in the area has only been possible for the past 10 years. I think of the adventurers that came before me, and it isn’t hard to make up my mind. “If I can work, I’ll be there.” Of course she said yes, she knows me too well.

Raja Ampat is in Indonesia, south of the Equator and West of Papua New Guinea. Historically it was a part of the Sultanate of Tidore, an affluent kingdom in the Maluku Islands, where the locals are believed to be descendants of the Mayas. British pioneers, inspired by the bird-like shape of the islands, christened Raja Ampat the Bird’s Head Peninsula. Until ten years ago, the only visitors to Raja Ampat had been the great explorers of the 1900s, scientists searching for the legendary Bird of Paradise and daring diving enthusiasts.

It’s far from everything, it is a place that has been lost to the world but protected by its anonymity. Like a perfectly kept secret, the area’s incredible biodiversity has been maintained quietly. And yet, its existence is monumental, loud, in its importance: Conservation International says its diversity far exceeds that of any other area in the triangle and suggests it is the most important spot for documented marine life on the planet.

Raja Ampat is an important example of the creative force of nature, and one cannot help but feel humbled in the face of such an essential and irreplaceable ecosystem.

There was no doubt in my mind that I’d found the perfect place for my next TimeShrine. Perhaps it would help me create a new narrative in my work, perhaps rather than focus on the passing of time, I could start telling people a story of resilience.

From Jakarta we landed in Sorong, on the western coast of Papua, a mandatory stop on our way to Raja Ampat. I’m told that the largest goldmine ever discovered can be found a couple of miles down the coast. I find out later that the same dynamic geological past that spawned the seascape marine habitat also created a strain of gold and other minerals, gifting the locals with a truly rich environment.

We hoist our sails and head to the Island of Matan for a much needed dip in the blue water. It’s Sunday and the beach is dotted by teens enjoying the sun. I go snorkeling, and on my first miniature exploration of the place I find a myriad of starfish so peculiar, they look like cartoon shapes drawn by the children.

It’s so rare to find so many starfish in the same place, it was easy to decide that this would be the location of my next installation.

Not many foreigners come through these parts and when I get out of the water some local girls ask me to take a picture with them; without judgement or reservations, they look at me curiously, their faces smiling and their eyes wide open, as if not to miss a thing.

The welcome, and the starfish, give me the feeling I’m on the right track.

At sunset, we set off for our own adventure. Our destination is the legendary island of Misool only accessible by boat in the months between September and April, when the thunderstorms cease and the sea is calm enough. The trip will take about 12 hours, and as we pass the strait of Sele, the lights of the Bagans, boathouses used by fishermen, shine on the water, creating the illusion of a string of bridges from one island to the next.

I throw back a melatonin to fight the oncoming jet-lag and get into bed. Though we’re supposedly gliding over the water, I barely register the movement, and I fall asleep easily.

Within two hours, a very different feeling wakes me: we’re in the middle of a storm, the doors in my cabin swing open and then shut again, out of control. I look outside and see an unforgiving sheet of rain. Finally, the elements leave us alone after ten hours of steady badgering. The boat, and everyone on it, look like they’ve survived a brutal attack. Our guide is just as shocked as we are, “in 20 years I have never seen anything like this.” He sounds surprised, but I return to the old feeling of melancholy — it seems the effects of climate change have followed me all the way to this end of the earth.

As the day breaks and some rays of sunlight struggle through the dark clouds, we find a sheltered bay to spend the next night. In these waters, there’s no need for online weather reports, the information is passed along from one boat to the other, like gossip.

Since the dawn of time, nature has respected the changing of the seasons, and yet that very evening we find ourselves sailing to get away from a furious new storm, one that promises to be just as brutal as the first. We all joke at the table, debating over Apple TV and what chimney is best. We’ve all come a long way to witness the legend of the Coral Triangle. I watch the daredevils around me, who chose to postpone work and put off real life for the sake of a new experience. Despite the smiles on their faces, I sense a hint of worry: are the storms going to hide the Coral Triangle?

After another night on the move, I awake in the bay of Lusa, a beautiful bay near the island of Misool. I notice the bay is shallow, and I get ready for my first installation. I rely only on natural light for my pictures, so when working under the surface, shallow waters are my best friends.

I jump into the water, armed with my camera, my hourglass, and my Vanitas. Within seconds thousands of small fish surround me, creating a school of blue and silver light, they are my guide. The bay overflowing with corals, I discoverspecies that I’ve never seen before, of shapes and sizes I could’ve only imagined. I feel like a mermaid tending to her garden. (foto demoiselles)

The fish around me have multiplied, I’m trapped in a cloud of their color. I stop shooting, and feel the hope this sight has sparked within me. I am small, I am humbled. I recognize I have entered a world where humanity is only a spectator, not a destroyer.

The Misool sanctuary and the foundation that supports it were founded by private individuals, whose efforts over the next ten years managed to involve the local population in the preservation of their own sea. They eradicated fishing with explosives and the poaching of manta rays, and increased turtle breeding, creating an important experiment of conservation of natural resources.

The revenue generated from ecotourism in the area has also created economic opportunity for the island locals. The equilibrium struck between the needs of the population and those of the environment is an example, a small masterpiece of conservational strategy.

I work under water for nearly three hours — I can’t help myself, every direction I turn I discover something unique and extraordinary. When I resurface, I ask to know the name of the bay for reference, and I’m told the bay has no name, only GPS coordinates: S01 58.323 E130 31.820. Everything here has yet to be discovered, and I feel like the trip has become a true exploratory experience. (foto installation)

We decide to visit the small homestay settled on the other side of the bay (photo). Rocky walls protect small houses on stilts, a sheet of carnivorous plants decorate the old rocks. Backpackers passing through can be guests of paradise for $25 a night. Tourism, a recent addition to the economy, is sustainable and almost exclusively handled by the local population. It’s accessible to all, from the new age eco-resort to the small guest house.

I finish out the day with a swim in a lagoon across the bay (photo), and I send up my drone to shoot some scenes for my upcoming movie about the ocean.

Having spent far too much time under water the day before, my ears make me bear the consequences on the second day of our adventure. As the rest of the group go on their own exploration of Magic Mountain (GPS S02 15.549 E130 38.883), I decide to remain closer to the surface, and swap from scuba diving to snorkeling. I grab my camera, just in case. A few minutes later, I find myself ignoring the ringing in my ears, diving without oxygen, following and filming the most majestic manta ray I have ever seen in my life. White spots that look like intricate tattoos dot her back, and for an hour my camera and I remained hypnotized by the aquatic dance of the creature.

The third day finds us anchored in front of the Ranger’s post of Yellit, supported by the Misool foundation. I am excited to meet the new generation of Ocean protectors. After all, it’s also thanks to their efforts that Misool boasts such biodiversity.

On the shore, I am greeted by Nomen and Dannisa, two 23-year-old rangers in training. Both of Indonesian heritage, they are without a doubt a part of the unofficial league of guardians of the planet. They dedicate their lives to the protection of their earth, working for the foundation. With little compensation, their work is motivated by their thirst for knowledge and their instinct to protect.(foto)

As I interview these impressive women (foto), I notice dozens of baby sharks near the shore, and my curiosity gets the best of me. I ask them if the area is a shark nursery, they smile and say, “of course! Since the foundation started we have 25-times more sharks. Before we arrived they used to practice finning on these little guys, cutting off their fins, hundreds each day.”

Sharks are fundamental for the ecosystem and for the maintenance of its equilibrium; finning has been one of the most damaging practices for the ocean. According to Wild Aid, 100 million sharks each year are mutilated by humans for their personal gain.

For two years I’ve been trying to work with these fantastic creatures to give them their own installation. The ones here are so young, vivacious and unafraid of a human presence, it’s meant to be. I sit myself down in 50 cm of water, surrounded by young sharks, and within a half hour I’ve got my shot — a picture that represents the resilience of the place I am exploring. As an artist, I cherish the places where I find inspiration just as much as the pieces I photograph.

Misool has become, in my eyes, the epitome of conservational excellence. At every corner, in each exploration and immersion I envision a multitude of installations, each so different from another, yet each shot within a few feet of another. The life below the surface looks like the imagery of a poem: crossing blue and orange canyons, under a strawberry pink arch, in front of a colorful underwater forest. I discover new shades of the color “peach,” and get lost in the intricate details of the coral surrounding me.

Thanks to its status as a protected sanctuary, the sharks, turtles, manta-rays and other underwater inhabitants are accustomed to non-violent humans, making myinteractions with them completely organic. I’ve never seen such a natural survival of species in a setting so open and untamed.

Misool breeds happiness but is also a small economy, a fair economy that thanks to its unique ecosystem creates wealth. We should all pay to see this happy world.. Until today it has been privately managed in cooperation with the regional Park of Raja Ampat; now the Indonesian Government seems very interested in its sustainable results, and the profitability of these results. The more Misool becomes a success the higher the risk that government bodies, far from its reality and its values, will try to take control.

After three days in Misool we set off towards the Equator and north Raja Ampat. We enjoy fourteen hours of storm-free navigation, and we touch land in Arborek, a place famous for its manta-ray population. The small island also operates under the model of sustainable ecotourism, and we take advantage of a quick pit stop to explore it for ourselves.

In 2016, Arborek won the Indonesian Prize for sustainable tourism (ISTA), inspired by the guidelines set by the International Global Sustainable Tourism (IGSTC). Thanks to the incentives created by the Homestay Association the local population has built traditional shelters to house their visitors and is preserving its own territory for generations to come. (stayrajaampat.com)

The village is very clean, the colors are varied and alive, the architecture is enchanting, a small school and a new pier, all of it seems out of a postcard. (foto)

A local tells us that they have just reintroduced a protection program for the Tridacna Gigas, the mythical hermaphroditic shell that is born male and dies female. It is the very shell that inspired Botticelli when he painted his Venus, and the most endangered species amongst large crustaceans. Though it lives deep underwater, where I imagine my camera will serve little purpose for lack of natural light, I don’t hesitate to go and take a look for myself. With my snorkeling gear I dive, and nearly choke from surprise: there, three meters below the surface, the Tridacnas are waiting for me. “They’re huge!” my mind yells. They rest in a quasi-perfect circle, the light of the sun reaches through the water and reflect off their mother of pearl backs in a pinkish hue. The grandest of ladies, they inspire me to make my own “Venus,” reinterpreted for my own project. (photo)

Of course my work is based on the artistic elements that drive it, yet there is also a dimension of documenting what I see and find: thanks to my travels, I have been able to witness and immortalize fragments of our times. I believe in our capacity for resilience, for it is the beauty of our species to be able to find and create new beauty where destruction reigns. It is our strength and our hope and this voyage has confirmed this belief for me.

Our last day we found ourselves only a few miles away from the Equator. In spite of the wonders I’ve already seen, I am once again drawn to the landscape around me for one last installation. I borrow from the boat some of the shells collected over the years of navigation along the Indonesian coasts. The theme of my last installation is an homage to the seven seas and the adventurers that have passed this spot over the centuries.

As I set up the shoot, I feel far from everyone and everything. The sea is calm, an enchanting color of deep blue and purple. The sand is soft against the soles of my feet, it reminds me of the smooth grains inside my hourglass.

Then, I feel something under my foot, something that doesn’t belong. It’s a plastic yogurt cup. I shift my gaze from the sea and the horizon to the inland side of the beach. There, evidently dropped off by the high tide, I see plastic bottles, old flip flops, plastic bags, toothbrushes…

In a quick turn of the head, my story takes a different course.

Everyone knows that plastic is taking over our oceans, it is no longer a secret that by 2050 plastic will outweigh fish in the water. As an artist, I’ve been trying to tell this story for years. Plastic is as much a part of the ocean as the corals, the fish and the plankton. We have entered the Anthropocene era, an era in which geological change is manmade. Even in such a sustainable environment, specks of the world’s biggest problem have found a way to breach the barrier of paradise.

I kneel and start picking up the sad trinkets deposited here by the tide, I collect them with care. On my shrine, I place a plastic bottle by the vanitas so that it towers over the ring of shells around the hourglass and faces the yogurt cup as the small waves rhythmically attack and retreat from the shoreline.