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Understanding the beauty and diversity of Raja Ampat, aka 'Underwater Eden'

Romeo Gacad / AFP - Getty Images

Rock formations are seen in Kabui Bay in Raja Ampat, eastern Indonesia's Papua region, in October 2011.

RAJA AMPAT, Indonesia — Throughout time, explorers have combed the farthest reaches of the world for that one shot of discovering new life.

Dr. Mark Erdmann has taken that shot 89 times.

Since coming to Indonesia in 1992 as a young Ph.D. student from the University of California Berkeley, Dr. Erdmann has been deeply immersed in the exploration and conservation of the underwater worlds of Indonesia and South East Asia, helping to discover 89 species across the region.

His interest in Raja Ampat — an archipelago of over 1,500 small islands in Western Papua — started while living in a small fishing community in South Sulawesi, where his local fishermen neighbors regularly came back from fishing trips speaking of reefs teeming with fish and sharks.

Conservation International works with Indonesian children to help them learn how to protect the most diverse underwater region in the world.  NBC News' Richard Engel reports.

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In 2002, he finally got his chance to visit Raja Ampat when he was sent to assess the marine biology diversity of this mysterious region and determine if it was worth conservation.

What he found floored him.

PhotoBlog: Raja Ampat archipelago: The world's last paradise


Romeo Gacad / AFP - Getty Images

Starfish on a bed of sea grass in the waters of Raja Ampat's Mansuar Island. Called the last paradise on earth, Raja Ampat's largely pristine environment is considered as one of the most important sites of marine biodiversity in the world.

With more than 600 species of coral, 42 fish species native to the region and an astounding record of 374 fish species identified on just one dive, Raja Ampat was a veritable gold mine of exciting new marine life.

Earlier this year, NBC News joined Dr. Erdmann, now the senior advisor to Conservation International’s Indonesia marine program, as he plunged into the waters of Raja Ampat to discover his 89th species — a local snapper — and to survey the stunning seascape many have dubbed an “Underwater Eden.” 

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He took time to answer questions about the scientific significance of Raja Ampat, his experiences as a marine biologist in the region and modern conservation strategies.

Q: Why is Raja Ampat so ecologically important? 

A: I’d say that anyone that dives here recognizes immediately after just a couple days that there is a tremendous variety of habitats here. Every dive site looks different, every habitat has its own unique suite of species and that makes this just such a unique place.

It is the global epicenter of marine diversity in the world. This region has over 600 species of coral. By comparison the entire Caribbean Sea has only 58 species. So you are looking at 10 times the number of species in a much smaller area. Raja Ampat has 1,669 species of fish recorded to date and that total keeps rising every couple weeks. That number is far greater than the Great Barrier Reef, which is also a much larger area.

There is simply nowhere else on the planet that has this many species, so that’s certainly one very important aspect. But another factor that we think is also very important is our research here has shown this coral is also pre-adapted to climate change. They are regularly subjected to variations in temperature from 19-degrees to 36-degrees Celsius, a 17-degree range, which by any textbook no coral survive.

But if you look at the coral here, they are obviously quite happy. That says to us that the coral here is naturally adapted to massive fluctuations in temperature that are far higher than the ones predicted by climatologists over the next 50 years.

As such, we look at Raja Ampat as a coral bank which we anticipate we will be able to one day reseed reefs in the surrounding regions that aren’t quite as adaptable and eventually succumb to climate change.

Q: Why should people outside of Raja Ampat and scuba enthusiasts care about this place?

A: As the epicenter of marine biodiversity, Raja Ampat is essentially a giant repository for the raw material needed for adaptation to global change, so it’s actually really important. We have coral here that will survive climate change and they will be able to reseed coral areas that are not as lucky and don’t adapt to the coming changes in climate.

We have sponges, coral and other marine organisms that may very well hold the cure to anything from AIDS, to malaria to tuberculosis. The biomedical potential here is tremendous and totally untapped. The thought that you would allow that to go extinct or go through complete decimation before we have seen what it’s all worth, is not a prudent way forward.

This is absolutely a global priority from that perspective. By simply protecting Raja Ampat, you protect 75 percent of the coral species. You can’t do that from anywhere else in the world.

Q: You’ve been in this area for 21 years; do you still feel like there is something new to be discovered? Is the best yet to come?

A: The number of new discoveries here has definitely stabilized. If we started to push deeper, the number of new species would start to increase again. Also if we started to expand into other regions around Raja Ampat and Eastern Indonesia that have not been surveyed as well, I think we would absolutely pick up a number of new species there too.

Q: Can you talk about some of the discoveries you’ve have made here?

A: The snapper we found on this trip is No. 89 in terms of new fish species I’ve discovered in Southeast Asia, many of them in collaboration with Dr. Gerry Allen. In Western Papua (where Raja Ampat is located) alone, I discovered 56 of those species.

My favorite discovery here was a tilefish I found in 2006 that I still remember fondly. This tilefish was a beautiful deep-water species that builds these massive rubble mounds that can be up to a meter high and 2.5 meters across. I remember well it was a deep fish, living at about 60 meters.

I saw the fish and knew it was a new species, but I didn’t have any way to bring proof to the surface because I didn’t have a camera with me. So I found Gerry Allen at the surface and I said to him “I found this beautiful tilefish with tiger stripes!” He looked at me very skeptically and said back, “I think you’re imagining these stripes, sometimes they look like that underwater. “   I told him there were definitely stripes and he basically responded that he wouldn’t believe me until I speared one.

We were only in this area for one day and I really didn’t want to make another dive. But I wanted that fish, so I went back down and speared it, which isn’t easy because they are quite small. The problem though was that as I was coming up to do my recompression stop, I looked down at the fish and it was dying, making its stripes and colors disappear.

Without the stripes, it looks like a more common species of tilefish that Gerry had mentioned.

So there I was, trying to keep this fish alive so that the stripes wouldn’t go away before I got to the surface. I finally made it, Gerry saw the stripes and we decided to name the fish after me.

Q: Is Raja Ampat under threat? By what?

A: It is absolutely under threat. The main threats used to be marine-based — cyanide and bomb fishing — but increasingly as we have brought those problems under control, the threats are coming from land-based developments, including coastal mining (predominantly nickel) and irresponsible construction of “roads to nowhere” that hug the coastline with no buffer.

For example, if the local government is building a road and they come across a little stream, they don’t build a bridge, they just plough over it. That generates a lot of mud that gets dumped into the ocean when it rains. They also build these roads on impossibly deep slopes, which often when finished even a motorcycle can’t get over.

The roads and mines create an incredible amount of sediment that gets into the ocean and smothers coral reefs, killing them. Once you kill this coral, it’s very hard to bring it back. It would literally take multiple massive storms to clear the sediment from affected areas.

As far as marine-based threats, there is still some bomb fishing going on. Though the shark sanctuary created here has largely been successful in revitalizing the shark population in Raja Ampat, it has also turned this area into an increasingly hotter target.

Right now there are more sharks here than anywhere else in eastern Indonesia, so Raja Ampat is where people want to go to shark fin.

Q: Conservation International is involved in a number of conservation programs here in the Raja Ampat area to deal with such issues and to educate the local population. Can you talk about your presence here and what you do?

A: We’ve been working intensively in Raja Ampat since 2004 and currently have just over 100 staff members based here. They are strongly focused on setting up and running this network of marine parks around Raja Ampat. They are predominantly ethnic Papuans that we have recruited from the local population here and we have done our best to train them to become professional conservationists and marine park rangers.

The vast majority of our efforts go into maintaining these parks that include the community patrols and a number of economic livelihood programs such as helping villages transition from sea turtle catching to raising pigs.

Another important aspect of our program is the Kalabia marine conservation education program. The Kalabia is a floating education center that travels from village to village around Raja Ampat to basically educate the elementary school children in this area on marine conservation issues.

In the class we teach the kids lessons like why bomb fishing is such a horrible thing, why shark fining is bad for the ecology, how badly designed roads kill coral and how to properly dispose of trash in these areas where there is no governmental trash disposal system.

We also do engagement with the tourism sector to promote the expansion of sustainable tourism in Raja Ampat.

Q: Helping fishermen transition from turtle hunters to pig farmers, educating Raja Ampat’s youth — to a certain extent aside from your role as a marine biologist and conservationist, do you also view yourself as a social engineer?

A: When we talk about conservation, the public frequently thinks it’s about saving species, but in reality conservation is about changing people’s behavior. So unquestionably, if you are going to successfully do conservation, you have to be a social engineer.

The threat to these species has always been human based, so you need to focus on the humans. You need to understand what’s important for these people and then try to design a program that will change their behavior but one they will be happy with.

Absolutely, livelihoods are an extremely important element of what we do. We need to be concerned about the state of the local population’s economy, health care and food security because assisting with these factors are absolutely critical to gaining the support of locals for conservation.

So whatever we do, we need to address those aspects that most concern the local communities. It’s only by addressing those issues that we are going to get to conservation going.

Q: Is there room for another young aspiring Mark Erdmann in Raja Ampat?

A: Absolutely! It’s time for another one. It’s good to come to a program like Conservation International’s with a good marine science program. But you need to realize that if you really want to do conservation, it’s increasingly more and more about real social engagement.

We urgently need people who have a strong scientific background and understanding, but at the same time are interested in working with the local communities to help them better manage their natural resources like reefs and forests.