Keeping change at bay
As the world’s marine ecosystems face unprecedented pressures, schemes able to balance the critical need for sustainability with the benefits of tourism have perhaps never been more important. In one corner of Indonesia business and community have combined to set up a future that looks as bountiful as its past.
The biodiversity encountered by Charles Darwin on a collection of weather-beaten rocks off the coast of Central America in the 19th Century enabled him to return home with his theory of natural selection. His book ‘On the Origin of Species’ would dominate the natural academic landscape for more than 100 years. What many people do not realise is that Darwin’s rise to become the toast of Victorian Britain was not so much down to the singular brilliance of his theory, but the speed with which he sailed it home. On the other side of the Pacific was another naturalist who had penned his own theory of natural selection, inspired by the bountiful waters and forests of Indonesia. The impossibly beautiful array of flora and fauna encountered by Alfred Wallace during his expedition proved to be both his inspiration and downfall – he tarried too long in the archipelago, allowing Darwin to return to London, and his publisher’s, before him.
Happily for Wallace, he did still leave his mark. In 1859, the same year that Darwin’s bestseller was first published, the Wallace Line was first drawn. This faunal boundary line indicates the change in ecozones between Asia and Wallacea (also named after Wallace), which is itself a transitional faunal zone between Asia and Australia. The discovery and acknowledgement of these lines and zones was – and still is – a clear indicator of the scale of biodiversity found in that particular corner of the world. It is one of the most bountiful places on Earth.
Experiencing that biodiversity as a modern-day traveller can be something of a conundrum. Life abounds in these places due to a balance that has evolved over millennia. Our presence, if not controlled, can be damaging, and because we live in a time when our world’s wild places have never been more accessible, both physically and financially, it has never been more important to interact with nature’s most beautiful spaces in a conscientious way. The world is, after all, a very different place now than when Wallace were alive. Happily there are places that have found the balance. Places where natural beauty abounds, respectful tourism works and local communities thrive.
Fringed by the Banda and Flores seas, southeast of the Indonesian island of Sulawesi in the Tukang Besi archipelago, Wakatobi National Park, is a 1.4 million-hectare protected area that allows 21st-Century travellers to experience the biodiversity that so enthralled Wallace almost two centuries ago. Named after the largest islands in the park – Wangiwangi, Kaledupa, Tomea and Binongko – the Wakatobi is a protected gem in the Coral Triangle, one that offers visitors the opportunity to revel in the area’s flora and fauna, before leaving without having impacted upon it. The park’s coral reefs and atolls host one of our planet’s most biodiverse marine ecosystems with more than 3,000 fish species and 750 coral species. These creatures make their homes in a topographically varied underwater world that consists of sea mounts, miles of precipitous walls and jutting reef platforms. As a keen traveller, journalist and professional underwater photographer, the allure of life below the park’s waterline has not dimmed after nearly 500 dives here.
Personally, it’s the continuing reveal of marine biodiversity that appeals to me as a photographer, but the park attracts adventurers and divers of many stripes. Founder of Wakatobi Dive Resort Lorenz Mäder is an expert rebreather diver who has explored the deep canyons that splinter the park’s undulating seabed and sheer walls. Others visit for the current-induced drift dives along the walls, kaleidoscopic reefs on view, the abyss below. Nature’s capacity to build intricate ecosystems of vast branching stony corals, rocky caverns with collations of human-sized tube sponges, is ever-present. Reefs are interspersed with pastel streams of soft corals. Habitats teem with fish ranging from sparring clouds of resident anthias and damsels to brazen pelagic species passing through.
The internecine wars, territorial rivalries and general Shakespearean comedies that play out on the walls and reef platforms provide endless entertainment – Wallace’s natural selection still in full flow.
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