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By Electra Gillies
At the ends of the earth off West Papua lies Raja Ampat, a group of paradise islands, almost unimaginable in beauty. Raja Ampat means ‘The Four Kings’ after the majestically stunning four main islands of Misool, Salawati, Batanta and Walgeo. Misool Eco Resort is nestled in the southern part of this archipelago, amongst idyllic uninhabited islands and in the most biodiverse marine area of the world within the Coral Triangle. Scattered over the island of Batbitim, it is a paradigm of barefoot luxury and natural perfection in green hills, soft white sand and glittering crystal azure waters.
The property is encircled by their own 1220 square kilometre Marine Protected Area, which is within the vast 46,000 square kilometres Raja Ampat Shark and Manta Sanctuary that Misool Eco Resort helped create. Twenty kilometres from the nearest village by boat and over a hundred to the nearest port, this really is the ultimate eco escapism retreat into one of the last great unexplored seascapes. An ethical adventure destination has been created to combine comfort and discovery.
Scattered across the velvety sand are a selection of secluded villas or over water bungalows floating above the clear azure water where you can watch the rainbows of the myriad of tropical fish darting around below. For pure Robinson Crusoe chic, retreat into Villa Kalanme, hidden away on the private South Beach of the island and accessed by water taxi. There are three large sustainably built large suites utilising hardwoods and traditional thatched roofs. All centred around open air living areas dotted with hammocks and relaxing nooks a mere metres from the clearest turquoise sea ever imaginable. With stunning views from all the rooms out across the seemingly endless ocean, this is the most serene and stunning rustic escape.
Waking up in a water cottage to the lapping and sounds of waves below you on the stilts of your room is a melodically magical way to start the day. Suspended over the sea in your hammock or jumping straight from bed into the blue, these eight rooms are perfect for ocean obsessives who love to be as close to the water as you can get. A short stroll to the diving school or the outdoor restaurant packed with fresh dishes from locally sourced products. Indulge in some homemade biscotti whilst watching swirling baby sharks in the lagoon.
This is naturally a scuba divers oasis with a new underwater excursion so spectacular every day it is hard to believe the beauty of Mother Nature can be so perfect. There is a fully equipped dive centre and a scheduled three dives a day as well as sunset or night dives, however for groups bespoke itineraries can be booked in advance.
Raja Ampat is home to the world’s most biodiverse reefs. In an area equal to two football fields in this area, there are more species than in the entire Caribbean Sea. There are over 1400 species of fish, a plethora of soft and hard coral gardens and new species being discovered all the time, the most recent being the ‘walking’ epaulette shark that is frequently spotted on the resorts reef during night dives. The island is surrounded by a 828 square kilometre No Take Zone (NTZ) meaning inside that all fishing, cyanide and dynamite fishing, shark finning and the harvesting of turtle eggs and shellfish is prohibited. This ensures the reef will continue to grow and be safeguarded for generations to come.
There are over sixty incredible dive sites that have been explored around the island and twenty-five are within a fifteen minutes of the resort. Magic Mountain is about twenty minutes from the resort and is a Manta Ray cleaning station, for someone who has never witnessed this phenomenon it is one of the most ethereal and elegant sights in the world that plays out like a submerged ballet. The rays glide in flapping their magnificent wings and patiently wait to be cleaned by the cleaner fish who pick off parasites and clean their mouths and gills in a perfect sub aqua symbiotic symphony.
Boo Windows is an island also around fifteen minutes away and has two mysterious and dramatic swim through ‘windows’ that have been hewn through the reef over time, hence the name. With a through current on the south west corner this is a great spot for meandering sharks including the secretive Australasian Carpet Shark. Head off towards the pinnacle swirling with schools of fusilier fish and batfish and then turn to towards the plateau and behold the sunlight streaming through the natural wondrous windows in the rocks. Float through this water wonderland teeming with all the richness the oceans could possibly offer.
Misool Eco Resort firmly believes in the mutual benefit of sustainable tourism and community based conservation. Their Indonesian Registered charity is called Misool Baseftin that means ‘Misool – we own it together’ in the local dialect. The foundation maintains an all encompassing approach to conservation, combining environmental, social, and educational elements. One of Misool Baseftin’s main projects is operating the Ranger Patrol and protecting Misool Eco Resort’s No-Take Zone (NTZ). The resort also hires over 120 people from the surrounding community benefitting many families in the area.
The ten rangers patrol the entire 828 square kilometer NTZ in two patrol boats and through diligence have managed to greatly reduce environmental damage such as cyanide fishing, shark finning and the other threats to the delicate ecological balance of the area. In 2011 the Misool Manta Project was launched where a database was established using markings and other distinctive markings of the rays from the cleaning station. This helps monitor them and track breeding and interaction with other species in order to put forward a case for conservation in the area. Guests who are passionate about Mantas can join the ‘Manta Researcher for a Day’ programme to track and note down data.
The Raja Ampat Shark and Manta Sanctuary was launched in 2010 after a petition of 8500 signatures were collected and presented to the Raja Ampat Government. In collaboration with Shark Savers the government was persuaded to create a sanctuary for the entire 17,000 square miles of the archipelago, by proving the economic value of these species was worth more by preserving them and avoiding ecosystem collapse from the extinction of the top predators in the food chain. All the conservation programs are supported by increasing the ranger stations and slowly helping to restore the previous reef damage.
Within the community, apart from providing employment for many families, the property has also built a kindergarten in the Daram Islands within the NTZ. They also pay the wages of the schoolteachers for six villages and created a mobile library, the brainchild of Head Ranger Razak Tamher, and now two permanent libraries. Guests can donate easy to read English books when they visit.
Eventually it is hoped that all the dive guides will be drawn from the local community and currently a couple are on their way to being qualified. Free PADI Open Water courses are offered to all the staff at the resort. By immersing the local people in the ecosystems they are trying to protect it really becomes part of the conservation ethos for a generation and many to come.
In this magical archipelago far far away Misool Eco Resort is an amazing eco hideaway and pioneering property bringing new levels of preservation and ecotourism to not only an island but to a whole community and ecosystem. This is truly the ultimate in barefoot luxury and natural beauty.
For more information and reservations, please click here.
Electra Gillies runs the travel website The Eco Gypsy.
Photos Courtesy of Misool Eco Resort, Calvin Beale, Kevin Korpics, Juergen Freund, Steve Jenkins & Tobias Zimmer
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