Raja Ampat Scientific Expedition Uncovers New Manta Ray Data and Fish Species
By Christine Amour-Levar
Humans have identified some two million species of plants, animals and microbes on Earth, but scientists estimate there are millions more left to be discovered. On a recent scientific expedition to Raja Ampat in West Papua, one of the most remote corners of Indonesia’s vast archipelago, world renowned Conservation International Scientist, Dr Mark Erdmann and famed Ichthyologist, Dr. Gerry Allen, discovered new manta ray cleaning stations and two new species of fish – the Grallenia Goby (pictured below) and the Silhouette Goby, the names of which are yet to be decided.
Raja Ampat is considered the global center of tropical marine bio-diversity and is referred to as The Crown Jewel of the Bird's Head Seascape, which also includes Cenderawasih Bay and Triton Bay. It is home to more than 600 species of hard corals equaling about 75% of known species globally, and more than 1,700 species of reef fish which is the richest in terms of biodiversity comparing to the size of the region in the world. Endangered and rare marine mammals such as Dugongs, whales and dolphins including orcas inhabit Raja Ampat's waters. The area is also a rich nesting ground for sea turtles who travel from as far as Hawaii and various parts of the Atlantic Ocean to lay their eggs on Raja Ampat's pristine shores.
The seven-day expedition sought to fill in knowledge gaps in the population and migration patterns of manta rays in Raja Ampat, as well as survey coral reef fish biodiversity in some of its lesser-visited areas. Armed with a team of Conservation International and Manta Trust scientists, manta ray tagging equipment and cutting edge drone technology, the trip was a notable progression from Dr. Allen and Dr. Erdmann’s typical journeys, and offered the luxury accommodation and five-star hospitality from Indonesia’s luxury private charter vessel Rascal and her crew around the clock.
Dr. Allen shared: ‘Rascal was able to take us to Ayau — an area off the beaten path. The biodiversity in these waters is overwhelming, and even after 20 years of diving in Raja Ampat it still continues to amaze me. There is so much we have yet to discover and we are still finding new fish species on most expeditions to Raja Ampat.’
The expedition immersed the team into Raja Ampat’s fascinating unstirred waters, local environment, culture and sustainability. As a result, they made scientific headway with the underwater discovery of a new manta cleaning station at Dayan (off Batanta Island), identifying at least 25 new manta individuals, and another cleaning station in Ayau. The trip was also pioneering in terms of surveying technique, with the successful application of brand new drone technology to survey for feeding mantas, playing a vital part in the discoveries.
Dr. Erdmann explained: ‘Until recently we’ve used boats to survey for mantas feeding in new areas, but due to the nature of the species, this approach is frequently challenging and time-consuming; as mantas are black on top and white underneath, they can be quite difficult to spot cruising beneath the surface, particularly when the sky is overcast. From a vantage point 50-100m above the sea surface, a drone can see much further than the human eye and avoids the glare on the sea surface we frequently have to deal with when scanning from boats. By using them in our efforts, we can cover a large area of sea significantly faster and more effectively’. The drones also allowed for monitoring of manta ray feeding and cleaning behaviour in shallow waters. Conservation International is currently training Indonesian scientists to use this new technique during future manta expeditions.
Dr. Mark Erdmann and Dr. Gerry Allen are highly regarded for their contribution to marine biology. With twenty species of fish named after him and having described over 500, Dr. Allen, together with Dr Erdmann, were thrilled to discover at least two new species of fish whilst on the Rascal voyage. Additionally, they recorded seven species of reef fish not previously known to inhabit the Bird’s Head Seascape, proving once again that its waters are the epicentre for marine biodiversity. The area's massive coral colonies along with relatively high sea surface temperatures, also suggest that its reefs may be relatively resistant to threats like coral bleaching and coral disease, which now jeopardise the survival of other coral ecosystems around the world.
The Raja Ampat islands are remote and relatively undisturbed by humans. The high marine diversity in there is strongly influenced by its position between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, as coral and fish larvae are more easily shared between the two oceans. Raja Ampat's coral diversity, resilience, and role as a source for larval dispersal make it a global priority for marine protection.
Watch this short film about the expedition on board the Rascal:
By Christine Amour-Levar
The 33m-long Swiss research vessel Fleur de Passion, an old German World War II navy minesweeper which has been disarmed and redesigned for scientific research, reached Singapore on March 13, 2018 and docked at the Republic of Singapore Yacht Club.
The vessel and its crew are on a four-year Ocean Mapping Expedition around the world, retracing the footsteps of Ferdinand Magellan, measuring the impact of humans on the oceans and raising awareness for sustainable development - a project led by by Geneva-based Fondation Pacifique.
Magellan was a Portuguese explorer who set sail from Seville, Spain in 1519 and embarked on a voyage, which became the first recorded circumnavigation of the Earth. His arrival in Cebu, Philippines in 1521, would eventually lead to the Spanish colonisation of the Philippine Islands. Like Magellan, the research team set sail from Seville, Spain in April 2015 and hopes complete the journey by August 2019.
Working mainly with the authorities of the Swiss City-State of Geneva, the Ocean Mapping Expedition offers various educational and cultural programmes to the public.
Some of the scientific activities featured on the ship included the following:
20,000 Sounds Under the Seas
The 20,000 Sounds Under the Seas programme in partnership with biologist and engineer Dr Michel André records the sounds of the sea to assess noise pollution produced by human activity. "Marine noise pollution is recognized today as one of the greatest disrupters of marine ecosystems that threaten the natural balance of the oceans", said Dr André. "This pollution is little known to the general public because it is invisible and inaudible, at least for human ears,” he explained.
The Micromégas programme with the Federal Polytechnic University of Lausanne involves taking seawater samples at the ocean surface to evaluate the level of plastic pollution. The expedition also encourages education initiatives such as The Youth at Sea educational programme, which invites young people to stay on-board Fleur de Passion for up to two months to experience life at sea as full-time crew members. Over 34 teenagers have participated in the programme since 2015.
As part of an arts initiative, the ship also offers the Magellan’s Mirror cultural programme which invites cartoonists from Switzerland and other parts of the world to come aboard the ship and create illustrations to explain the expedition's mission and its programmes to a wider audience.
The Winds of Change
The Winds of Change programme, in partnership with the University of Geneva, launched in December 2017 in Mactan, Philippines. It monitors the methane and carbon dioxide levels in the oceans in order to better understand global warming. "Methane and carbon dioxide concentrations clearly rise near cities, approaching islands and shallow seas, in other words in areas that are influenced by human activities or experience higher algal growth", said Prof. Daniel McGinnis, Head of the Aquatic Physics Group at the University of Geneva and responsible of the programme on the expedition.
Established in 2007, the Fondation Pacifique has been carrying out educational, cultural, and scientific expeditions in order to help understand the human impact on the ocean. Fleur de Passion’s voyage can be tracked on their website and updates can found on their Facebook page and YouTube channel.
The sailboat departs Singapore on March 25, 2018 before heading to Jakarta, Madagascar, Mozambique and South Africa, where she is expected to arrive in Durban then Cape Town by the end of the year.