for National Geographic News
Scuba divers, take note: The waters of the Raja Ampat Islands off
Indonesia's province of Irian Jaya may replace heralded Palau as the
most species-rich sea in the world.
An international team of marine biologists who visited the Raja Ampats recently to examine the reefs said they found what may be an unparalleled array of speciescorals, fishes, and mollusksincluding some species never seen before.
The reefs of the Raja Ampat Islands had not previously been explored in detail. The islands, which lie off Sorong on the northwest coast of sparsely populated and still largely undisturbed Irian Jaya, are extremely remote. Irian Jaya is the western half of the island of New Guinea.
Gerald Allen from the Western Australia Museum in Perth led the recent scientific expedition, which was organized by Conservation International. Allen, an expert on coral reef fishes, broke his own world record, twice, for the number of species he saw in a one-hour dive281 on one dive and 283 on another.
During the entire three-week expedition in March and April, Allen recorded seeing 950 different species of fish.
The scientists surveyed an area of about 3,700 square miles (6,000 square kilometers). Their results revealed what they said was an extraordinary wealth of marine biodiversity: 450 species of hard coral, more than 600 mollusk species, and possibly as many as 1,100 fish species.
Damselfish, one of the most abundant inhabitants of coral reefs, totaled more than 108nearly as many as those recorded for all of the reefs surrounding the entire continent of Australia, according to the team's coral experts.
Besides conducting an initial inventory of the region's marine life, the scientists had set out to assess the condition of the Raja Ampats' reefs to determine what conservation measures might be needed. One significant finding was evidence of damage to the area's corals from illegal "blast fishing."
"The Raja Ampats are amazingly rich in marine biodiversity, but the reefs are threatened by illegal fishing and other human activities," said Sheila McKenna, a marine biologist at Conservation International. She was a member of the expedition team, which also included researchers from the University of Cendrawasih in Irian Jaya's capital, Jayapura.
The Raja Ampats survey was preliminary, so whether the islands will surpass Palau as the place regarded as having the world's richest biodiversity is not yet known. Experts estimate that the Palau archipelago, which lies 600 nautical miles east of the Philippines, has 700 species of coral and 1,400 fish species.
Team member John Vernon, a scientist at the Australian Institute of Marine Science who is an expert on corals around the world, told Indonesia's Tempo magazine that the survey suggests Raja Ampats may have a higher density of species than the Palau region.
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