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The Mission at Misool: Inside an extraordinary eco-resort

One enterprising couple has turned a shark-finning site on a remote Indonesian island into an eco-resort, which has become a world-class example of using marine tourism to support conservation

author icon By APB Staff | 26 August 2021

Sunset at water cottage

Sunset at a Misool water cottage

The Misool Eco Resort sits on a small island in remote southern Raja Ampat, in the middle of one of the world’s greatest hotspots for marine biodiversity.

This exclusive Indonesian dive resort and conservation centre, which has a house reef and overwater cottages and villas built from reclaimed woods, was conceived and constructed by British-Swedish husband-and-wife team Andrew and Marit Miners.

The Miners both share an avid passion for the ocean and adventure travelling, and were initially working as divers, with Andrew running a liveaboard dive boat.

The couple set to work in 2005 on building the resort, recruiting people from the nearby village and from as far away as Europe. The couple used meagre funds and a lot of labour to turn a spot previously used for shark finning into a way to help conserve the local marine ecosystem. In the process, they convinced local village leaders to let them build the resorts as a way of providing jobs and funding for a marine protected area.

The Misool Eco-Resort is built on a former shark-finning site on Batbitieru Island in Raja Ampat, Indonesia

The Misool Eco-Resort is built on a former shark-finning site on Batbitieru Island in Raja Ampat, Indonesia

Building the resort on a remote island with no facilities was a nearly impossible task. Andrew recounts a tale of taking a two-hour round boat trip simply to find water to build cement structures.

By 2008, after three years of tough labour and learning how to do everything on the fly, they were ready to welcome guests to Misool.

“The rangers patrolling the Misool marine reserve are drawn from local villages, and poachers are turned over to the local tribal chiefs who decide on punishment”

 

Launched in 2011, the Misool Foundation is funded principally by the profits from the Misool Eco Resort. It supports 18 rangers who patrol the strict no-take marine protected area of Misool, which now covers over 1,200 square kilometres, an area larger than the total land and sea area of Hong Kong.

The rangers patrolling the Misool marine reserve are drawn from local villages, and poachers are turned over to the local tribal chiefs who decide on punishment.

Today, the resort and foundation are supported by the likes of Silolona Sojourns, which operates two of the best phinisi yachts in Indonesia. The resort and the foundation together employ over 200 people from the nearby area, incentivising local participation in conservation.

By 2019, the Miners had achieved their dream by funding the ranger programme from the resort. However, the impact of Covid-19 and restrictions on travel have made the original mission much harder. With luck, 2021 will see visitors and donations return. We spoke with Marit in an email exchange to find out more about her experiences to date and her vision for the future of Misool as the world re-opens to tourism.

The Miners family

The Miners family (Marit, centre)

How would you describe the value (in biodiversity) of the Misool coral reefs? 

The Misool Marine Reserve is the jewel in the crown of Raja Ampat’s astounding biodiversity. In addition to over 700 species of mollusc, 1,623 described species of reef fish and over 75% of the world’s known coral species, the Misool Marine Reserve includes many critical habitats.

Black-tip reef sharks use the shallow lagoons here for breeding and pupping, and local saltwater mangroves provide critical habitats for juvenile reef fish and marine invertebrates.

There are cleaning stations frequented by manta rays, and this is also one of the only places on Earth where both species of manta (Manta birostris and Manta alfredi) can be seen at the same time, sometimes even interacting.

The north lagoon

The north lagoon

At least three marine lakes are populated with stingless jellyfish, and we also see anchovy aggregation and squadrons of mobula rays that follow and hunt the anchovies during the Southwest Monsoon.

There have also been sightings of pods of the rare Omura’s whale, possibly on a new migration pattern as they follow stocks of anchovy or krill that are recovering.

Additionally, 19 new species of ‘restricted range endemics’ – species limited in range to a relatively small area – have been described at least in part in Misool in the past 10 years, including the Raja Ampat walking shark.

As our oceans change rapidly due to rising temperatures, pollution, acidification, and overfishing, the Misool Marine Reserve is a bright beacon of hope for the entire Coral Triangle.

The Misool Eco-Resort took years of hard labour to create

The Misool Eco-Resort took years of hard labour to create

Raja Ampat’s corals have demonstrated themselves to be particularly resistant to temperature fluctuations. While many areas in the region have suffered from coral bleaching events, the reefs within the Misool Marine Reserve remain robust.

Ocean currents in this uniquely positioned area are believed to help to repopulate damaged reefs across the region. Located in the Indonesian Throughflow (ITF), currents push water from the Pacific Ocean into the Indian Ocean. This flow of water is the largest movement of water on the planet, washing the region’s diverse coral polyps, larvae, and eggs of some four thousand identified species, westwards. This movement effectively seeds not only the rest of Indonesia’s reefs but possibly even Southeast Asia’s.

Anthropogenic pressures threaten the entire ecosystem, and the health of the Misool Marine Reserve is critical to renewing our greater ocean reef system and returning it to its former state.

How did you discover the Misool?

In 2005, we were diving in this remote area when we discovered an active shark-finning camp on Batbitim island. The stark contrast between the tranquil haven we’d experienced underwater and the senseless destruction taking place at the surface jarred us into action.

This catalysing moment resulted in a mission to protect this exceptional ecosystem.

A lease agreement was forged with the local community in 2005, laying the groundwork for a privately managed marine protected area that has now expanded to 1,220 square kilometres, with Misool Resort at its centre. The resort was built on the very beach that had once been home to shark-finners!

SUP with baby sharks at Misool

Paddleboarding with baby sharks

What led you to create the Misool resort and the foundation? 

Our conservation initiatives were formalised in 2011 when Misool Foundation (a registered Indonesian charity) was established, taking a broad approach to conservation and sharing a joint mission with Misool Resort to safeguard the most biodiverse reefs on Earth through the empowerment of local communities. It provides a structure by which they can reclaim their traditional control of the reefs. At the core of the operation is our belief that sustainable tourism and community-based conservation are mutually beneficial.

Misool Foundation manages the patrol of the Misool Marine Reserve and a suite of other conservation and social initiatives. A community-based recycling program, called Bank Sampah in Indonesian, incentivises local villagers to properly dispose of waste by buying their rubbish. Misool Foundation then processes the materials and sells them to recyclers. Since it began in 2014, the programme has processed 2065 metric tonnes of waste.

Misool Foundation has also built a kindergarten in a local village, where 24 children are enrolled. The foundation’s most recent initiative was establishing the Djabatan Cooperative, which provides clean drinking water to the local community.

The Cooperative’s current project is producing and selling banana chips, which adds significant value compared to selling the raw product. Most of the members involved in this project are women. The economic empowerment of women is a key step towards poverty eradication.

Perhaps most importantly, the two organisations employ over 150 people, injecting much-needed capital into local communities.

A turtle inhabitant of the local lagoon

A turtle inhabitant of the local lagoon | Credit: Sabine Templeton

What was the main challenge in creating and maintaining a marine reserve around the Misool?

One of the critical aspects of creating the lease agreement with the local communities was ensuring that the community and fishermen understood why we were doing it and the benefits to them; new jobs and an increase in fish biomass, which leads to greater food security. The No Take Zone (NTZ) model was pivotal to accessing these benefits.

The boundaries of the lease area were drawn following a series of town hall meetings. It was agreed that the NTZ should be far enough away from the villages so that their traditional fishing grounds were still available, but close enough that artisanal fishers would benefit from the spillover effect of resurging fish populations.

The parties agreed upon an area that had historically been fished illegally by outside fishermen using long-lines, dynamite, and gill nets. The community lacked the resources and infrastructure to intercept the poachers who were decimating their natural heritage. By creating an NTZ with a locally staffed Ranger Patrol, the community could regain stewardship over their reef systems while growing their economy.

Now, our main challenges are ensuring that the marine patrol is funded. We are eternally grateful to our donors who continue to recognise the importance of our work, from individuals to corporate organisation and large private foundations.

Snorkelling at the reef

Snorkelling at the reef

Manta rays are a big focus of your conservation work. What have you discovered about mantas at Misool, and why are they so central to your conservation work?

Manta rays are one of Raja Ampat’s most famous species, and people travel from all over the world to see them: manta tourism is a multi-million-dollar global industry. Raja Ampat is a hot spot for mantas, and, in the Misool Marine Reserve, we have one of the only sites in the world where divers can interact with both species of manta at the same time.

The Misool Manta Project teaches visitors to Misool, engages local community members, and conducts critical research on both Oceanic mantas (Manta birostris) and Reef mantas (Manta alfredi). The Project provides robust population data to the government, NGO’s, communities and conservationists. This data has been leveraged to push the protection of mantas and ensure long-term survival for these charismatic megafauna and their habitat.

Juvenile batfish under the resort pier at Misool

Juvenile batfish under the resort pier

Please describe the problems you have encountered with boaters and visiting yachts? 

Sadly, there are quite a few problems to list. Of course, this does not apply to all visitors, most of whom are respectful of the local communities and environment.

Issues we’ve seen including boats anchoring on the reef, and boats dumping rubbish and black/grey water onto reefs. We also see boaters fishing. This includes both catch-and-release and spearfishing, both of which are banned within the Misool Marine Reserve.

There can also be problems when a crew fails to buy the Raja Ampat visitor permit from the local authority or fails to coordinate with our team at Misool Resort for diving planning. (We coordinate a schedule so that there is only a single boat on a dive site at any one time.)

As our oceans change rapidly due to rising temperatures, pollution, acidification, and overfishing, the Misool Marine Reserve is a bright beacon of hope for the entire Coral Triangle

Credit: Sabine Templeton

How can yacht owners responsibly visit the Misool and experience the corals and sea life?

Firstly, research the area you are visiting and familiarise yourself with the specific regulations of each area and follow them.

Broader guidelines for good conduct include using mooring buoys, practising good buoyancy when diving, hiring local guides to ensure that the local economy benefits from your trip and responsibly dealing with your waste.

In the Misool Marine Reserve, the pristine state of the reefs, which draw people from all over the world, is a direct result of 15 years of constant vigilance by the Misool Ranger Patrol. This comes at a cost. In 2020 alone – and this was during the pandemic – Misool Foundation spent US$350,000 on protecting and restoring the Misool Marine Reserve. We encourage visitors to the area to think about supporting Misool Foundation’s conservation work: a donation of US$1,000 will cover a week’s worth of patrols.

It’s up to us to protect this area for generations to come, and we all need to do our part.

To help the Misool Foundation, visit www.misoolfoundation.org/donate or email fundraising@misoolfoundation.org