Monday, June 20, 2011

Looking back on the expedition it’s been tough work of long days in the field and long nights processing samples, but it has been immensely satisfying. We will return home with a computer full of data!

We’re very grateful to the great team at the TNC research station and at Papua Diving. They supported us in many ways and it was so nice to see how everybody got completely involved in the project – it clearly was not only an adventure for us, everybody got a kick out of discovering new lakes in islands that none of us had been to before!

If you’re coming to this blog for the first time and want to read the entries in chronological order, you’ll have to start at the bottom.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

TNC Misool Station

overview of lakes

The expedition has been a great success, we located over 40 marine lakes new to science!

Some lakes turned out to be impossible for us to reach due to treacherous cliffs surrounding the lakes. If we had real rock-climbing equipment we would possibly have been able to do it, but even then there’s little way of climbing razorsharp yet brittle karst cliffs that go straight up at a 90 degree angle…..

The diversity of lakes that we did get to survey is immense. Different colors, different depths, salinities, shaped, sizes, and lots of different organisms. On the whole sponges, algae and mussels were the most dominant groups.

Video from inside a lake of cliff and jungle surroundings

Marine lakes represent a geomorphological gradient of highly connected lakes to highly isolated lakes. The highly connected lakes contain water that is similar to the reefs and house mostly species from reefflats, sometimes even stony coral.

Video of coral in a more connected marine lake

The more isolated the lake is, the lower the salinity typically is and the more unique species it contains. In the isolated lakes of Misool we have found many rare species that are only known from a few isolated lakes in the world. Additionally we have collected at least 10 species new to science.

Video of sampling among mangroves in a highly isolated marine lake

Saturday, June 18, 2011


Video climbing through jungle to marine lake

Friday, June 17, 2011

not so undiscovered

The isolated water bodies of marine lakes are, like island systems, extremely vulnerable to threats from human activities. Particularly the highly isolated lakes could be irreversibly damaged. Some of the lakes near villages or the ‘resorts’ (camp accommodations north of Panah Panah for pearl farm workers) contained floating devices with cages. These were used to temporarily store recently caught fish. The introduction of fish or any other non-native marine species can radically change the diversity within the lakes. Introduced species can become invasive and dominant which could ultimately cause endemic lake species to go extinct. This actually also applies to us, so we always rinse all our gear in the evenings to make certain we do not unintentially bring in propagules of alien species.

Within Misool the most extreme form of exploitation was in a lake on the island Karwop. The whole lake had been transformed into an aquaculture containing fish such as tilapia. The density of fish was so high that the turbid water was literally bubbling with fish. The limestone rocks surrounding all lakes in Misool are porous and allow exchange of water with the adjacent waters. This means that the water from the aquaculture containing high nutrient concentrations and possible bacteria is a likely seeping to the surroundings, possibly causing harm to the coral reefs. It is a rather destructive practice that is also used in lakes of Vietnam; we sincerely hope it does not become common practice in Misool.

Thursday, June 16, 2011


On nice days we would select one of the many uninhabited islands with Bounty-advertisement-beauty as our lunch location. If we were lucky Romel had caught some fish while we were working in the lake. Grilled fish over a fire, add some rice and coconuts and life is good.

However this trip was characterized by rain, so soaked rice was more often than not the motto.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

shivering in the tropics

Ok, so you think about the tropics and most of you will think HEAT. And this is true. In part atleast. Yes the air temperature ranges between 35-40C and the sea between 28-30C. Yet for many a marine biologist doing fieldwork in the tropics means a lot of shivering cold. We spend most of the day on boats, exposed to all the elements, so no shortage of getting soaked by (cooler) rain and then being blown about for hours while remaining damp. Allright that may not be much of a convincer to some. The major source of shivering comes from the ages we spend under the water. 30C is pretty warm for seawater, yet it is still a good 7C lower than body temperature. When you spend 2 hrs diving, barely moving while you are recording data, even with a 5mm wetsuit, you can come up shivering. Well we do at least. If it’s sunny the shivering can subside soon enough, however we’ve had mostly rainy days so that meant quite continuous shivering. Sometimes I think I’ve never felt so cold as in the tropics….

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

shopping village

The winds have been extremely strong. This means that we’ve had some days that the waves were raging so fiercely that we could not go to sea. It also has meant that the shipment of food and drinking water has not been able to come to our station for over a week. Luckily Yellu is nearby, a relatively large village with a large green mosque and an equally impressive telephone mast. The village predominantly houses workers from the nearby pearl farm. The income of most people in this area appears to be from the pearl farms that stretch over kms. of sea. Yellu is where all the passing ships and boats stop to get supplies – and it’s amazing what you can get here in this middle of nowhere place. We would often stop by on our way back home mostly to pick up some water, some Oreos and mobile phone credit. SO everything is available, except fruit and vegetables and nothing is in definite supply. One day we went by to find that all stores were out of water, not a bottle to be found – a couple of big boats had just come by an hour before and cleaned them out….

When the boat from Sorong finally did come containing our order of freshness, we were thrilled with happiness. After ten days of Indo-Mie, rice and salty dried fish for every meal, vegetables and fruit never tasted so good!

Saturday, June 11, 2011


Just got back from Misool and once again within the reaches of the internet. We've put up some posts about the fieldwork and will add more in the next weeks when we have a better connection.


Wednesday, June 1, 2011

lake entries

Equipped with coordinates and distant aerial pictures, we never quite know what to expect when rounding the last corner before the estimated entry point of an unexplored lake. More often than not, after gliding over gorgeous shallow water coral reefs, our boat comes to a halt in front of a seemingly impenetrable wall of sharp limestone covered in thick rainforest. Undeterred, our trusted guides Jams, Ali and Hassan go out to scout the area first, machete in hand, to find out how realistic it is to access the lake, having gained a good impression of what we ladies are capable of. After anything from a few minutes to almost an hour, they suddenly resurface out of the jungle. The ensuing conversations usually consist of a variation on the following themes:

  • “bisa?” “bisa!” (can? can!)
  • “bisa?” “tidak bisa... too high!” (can? can’t... too steep!)
  • “bisa?” “mungkin bisa. jau sekhali... setengah mati!!” (can? maybe can. very far... half dead!!)
  • “bisa?” “bisa... tapi air tawar.” (can? can... but it’s fresh water.)

Once it has been established that a lake is accessible and marine, we start our ascent into the unknown. Each lake entry is a different adventure with its own character and challenges. Some come with muddy slopes or sharp lose rocks, others require advanced climbing skills, some make us feel like Tarzan’s Jane as we swing from one tree to the next, while others have us mildly worried about the diseases we might be exposing ourselves to while wading through smelly swamps.

But as the lakes come into view we are always rewarded with magical sceneries, each lake beautiful and peaceful yet unique. In some cases we are probably the very first people to set our eyes on a particular lake, and this knowledge raises a strange feeling, suddenly being struck again by how privileged we are to be out here.

Our scientific instincts soon take over, and we start scanning the edges to determine what type of fauna and flora dominate the lake. This includes critically examining every log-like object from a distance, and hoping that everyone agrees that it is “kayu” (wood) and not “buaya” (crocodile). Indeed, although we have been made aware of emergency procedures in the not completely unlikely event of a crocodile attack (they like hanging out in brackish waters), we would rather not find out whether we are any good at hitting a crocodile on the nose with a miniature rake, poking a dive knife into its eye or even safer hopping onto its back.

Once we are confident enough that the coast is clear, we slowly slide into the water in order not to stir up the sediment. Each of us will spend the next few hours completing their part of the lake survey, such as tracking its shape and dimensions, performing sponge community surveys or recording water parameters. More on this in another blog entry.

Lisa and Cat

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

lake exploration equipment

Lake exploring, in line with most other outdoor adventure activities, requires highly functional, specialised and technical equipment. Needless to say, this equipment has to be extremely versatile, as it must not only be optimal for snorkelling, but also for lake entries through very treacherous terrain, such as climbing over limestone cliffs and carving a path through the jungle. After years of research and development, Becking Inc. is proud to present the ideal outfit that fulfils these highly varied requirements:

  • dive booties, preferentially with sturdy anti-slip soles for these slippery slopes and rocks. However, no sole is infallible, so one needs to have handhold security as well. This is why the next piece of equipment is:
  • gardening gloves. Ideal for climbing on razor-sharp limestone cliffs, but also to grab onto these vines that may just turn out to be snakes, and to be able to confidently hold on to the next tree that is more often than not covered in aggressive ants. Further protection against the creepy-crawlies is provided by one of the most crucial elements of the lake-explorer-equipment:
  • the wetsuit. No mosquito can pierce through this barrier, and the padding ensures that the only consequence of an unfortunate slip is an ugly bruise, and not a deep cut that could rapidly turn into a dreadful infection in tropical environments. Obviously, the wetsuit also provides protection against hypothermia (for these long hours spent in the waters of the lake), against marine stingers (one is never cautious enough when entering unchartered waters) and against sunburn. The wetsuit unfortunately does not yet provide protection against overheating during those strenuous jungle hikes, so one should never forget to bring a water bottle. This will fit into the next piece of equipment:
  • the backpack. Bash-able, wet-able and scratch-resistant, the backpack needs to have a capacity of about 40 to 50 litres, to contain the rest of the snorkelling equipment, all the research equipment, and the photographic documentation equipment. Ideally fitted out with specially adapted fin-attachment devices, one must also be able to somehow attach a floating ring to it, to minimise physical exertion during those long hours spent exploring the waters of the lake.

Many optional add-ons are available, e.g. hats and hoods, machetes and dive knifes, ropes and homemade ladders, as are variations on design and colours. For further information do not hesitate to contact Becking Inc., or consult the illustrated 2011 catalogue (excerpt below).

Saturday, May 21, 2011

mapping out the lakes

The day after the flight we sat down with Max to thoroughly review the aerial pictures together with the video images that Max took of the flights and compare these with the available maps and Google Earth. The flight turned out to be no unnecessary luxury as neither the Indonesian nautical maps, nor the old dutch maps showed any of the complex detail of Panah Panah – the cartographers sufficed with indeterminate blobs that had little correspondence to the actual complexity of the island’s coasts. As for Google Earth, the satellite images available were of low resolution providing little accuracy as well. Luckily with the videos Max was able to draw an estimate of a coastline – so does this mean we may be the only ones who have a truly representative map of Panah Panah?

Taking lake by lake, we made a database of coordinates and access pictures per lake, drawing the optimal entry paths from sea and over land. It took a whole day, but it meant that we have all we need to let the lake hunting commence!

Friday, May 20, 2011

aerial survey

Right after the 9 hour boattrip (see previous entry!) from Kri to Misool I jumped into the bright yellow lightweight water airplane with Max Ammer - still soaked and shivering from the boat, but thrilled to have the chance to fly again in Raja Ampat. This flight was made possible by a generous donation of 2 hours flight time by Conservation International in order for us to survey the Misool area for lakes. We took off right in front of the TNC Misool station in Harapan Jaya village, flew north to the Selat Panah Panah (the Strait of Spears), then made a circle crossing east over the 100s of scattered islands that make up Panah Panah & Wagmab, south to the island of Warakaret, west over the islands of Kalig & Karawob, then back up again to the TNC office. It was a magnificent flight, what a spectacular view! The open airplane gives you a true feeling of being part of it all.

The jutting karst landscape so typical of this part of the world, never ceases to amaze. Every island is a different shape, some just specs of land shaped like mushroom heads appearing to float on the water. This kind of heterogeneous topography with many hills, bays and depressions inland is the ideal place to locate lakes. And indeed we couldn’t believe our luck, the lakes never stopped coming during the flight, Max was continuously pointing them out – it was hard to keep up with the recording. I record the lakes by marking the location on a GPS when we fly over one, then make as many pictures as possible of the lake and particularly of the surroundings, after which I make a picture of the GPS to facilitate the linking of the coordinates with the lakes. The pictures of the surroundings are important in order to figure out the best was to access the lakes by boat and subsequently by land. That will be the job for tomorrow. For now I’m still riding on the high of the flight, the trying boat ride from Kri almost a distant memory.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

the night before...

Plans. Oh plans. You always make them, but a golden rule for fieldwork in Indonesia is that nothing EVER goes as you planned it. This doesn’t mean that things don’t work out, in fact I would even dare say that things often turn out better than expected – just not anywhere near how you planned to expect it. Yet in spite of this rule, one still always plans, you can’t help it, it gives a pleasant sense of security I suppose.

After Yogya we flew to Sorong and headed out to Raja Ampat. Here we met up with Feby, an enthusiastic student from Papua University who has volunteered to help in our project. The initial idea was just to stay a day on the island Kri, where Papua Diving is located, to pick up a boat and figure out logistics. However the forces of nature once again proved stronger than mere human plans. The heavy stormy weather kept us at Kri for four days. Luckily a marine biologist is never bored, so we filled the days by doing surveys of the sponge diversity in the reefs of the area (more about these surveys will come at a later entry!).

Tomorrow, weather permitting, we will truly make the long cross over to Misool. This evening after dinner, Max Ammer – the owner of Papua Diving and director of the Raja Ampat Research and Conservation Centre, and without whom this whole expedition would be a meager attempt at a success – asked me into his office to discuss the final logistics for the trip. We had already organized the boat, the food and water for the remote location. The plan is that we will head out first, then Max will catch up with us later in the day with his water airplane to meet us in Misool. The whole trip should take about 4-5 hours. As we were reviewing the maps for a suitable meeting point, it became apparent that none of his boatmen had in fact ever made the trip from Kri to Misool before and as a consequence no one actually knew the way there. “It will be up to you to navigate…” What, really? I have navigated boats to specific research sites in the past, but this is on a completely different scale, i.e. a trip of over 150 km with a large stretch in open sea. That put matters in a rather different perspective! This needed yet more planning….On Google Earth Max indicated the route we should take (see image). From Kri, first to go to the western tip of Batanta (indicated as Route 1 on image) and then head directly in a straight line south to Northern Misool (Route 2) across a stretch of over 80 km of open sea sprinkled with treacherous coral outcrops. Considering the dark cloudy days of late, this is mildly concerning. As we were discussing this, Jams our boatman came in with another Papua Diving staffmember named Romel. It turned out that Romel had worked in a big pearl farming company in Misool for over 12 years. SO the good news is that he knows the specific area well, the bad news is that he couldn’t point it out on a map and has no idea about the long way from Kri to there. Together we decided that we will meet Max at the island Sate, near where Romel used to work.

It was late in the night when all the plans had crystallized, all the coordinates were in the GPS, and we finally could go to bed to catch a few hours sleep before the 4:30AM departure. In all honesty I’m more than a little excited about the trip tomorrow. I guess Papua is, as all the guidebooks indicate, indeed the final frontier of adventure….