Dodging Sea Snakes In the Heart of the Coral Triangle

In the remote village of Sawinggrai, on Mansuar Island, Indonesia, a mass of people and filmmaking gear spill out of the jungle onto an ancient pier whose wooden legs look like they’ll buckle if a bird lands on it. On a makeshift platform high atop the rickety structure, three crew members set up a shot as the entire village looks on. A group of 12 local kids are poised to jump off the pier into the aquamarine water that veils the colorful corals in the shallow cove, while an underwater film unit waits in the water below. The kids giggle with excitement.  It’s all they can do to hold still. Suddenly, the clouds shift and sunlight bathes the pier.  A voice cries out, “Action, action, action!”  The kids explode into motion, whooping and singing at the top of their lungs as they leap off the edge of the dock.

We are here in Raja Ampat, Indonesia—the heart of the Coral Triangle—making an IMAX documentary about the reefs of the South Pacific. We might as well be on Mt. Everest.  An archipelago of 1,500 small islands located on the northwestern edge of the West Papua province, Raja Ampat is one of the most remote locations we’ve ever filmed in more than 40 years of filmmaking.  Almost none of its 120 villages have electricity, phones or internet, and most of the islanders speak no English.  Even radio communication is temperamental among this labyrinth of islands.  Here, word travels by boat.

We arrived here after five flights, an overnight boat ride, and 65 hours of travel that took us from Los Angeles to Sorong through Taipei and Jakarta, and finally to our base of operations at the Raja Ampat Dive Lodge, a surprisingly modern resort that caters to dive tourists.  With us are five camera crews, 17,000 pounds of filmmaking gear, and enough insect repellant to serve a small army.  The equator is near, and I feel like a carrot in a slow cooker: 101 degrees, 90% humidity, and its only 6am.

As the Indonesian kids pop up from their jump to the reef below, underwater cinematographer Howard Hall surfaces.  He’s got the shot.  The kids had nailed it, landing right in the middle of his camera frame.  Although our filming has just begun, we’re already amazed at how in tune these kids are with their environment.  They are completely at ease in the water and exhibit a keen connection to their aquatic world.  Something we’re trying to capture on film.    

We chose to film in this spot because Raja Ampat is considered the most bio-diverse marine ecosystem in the world—a treasure trove of exotic marine life.  To picture what it’s like, imagine the ocean centuries ago, before human encroachment: an underwater kaleidoscope of reefs teeming with life, giant colonies of sharks and manta rays cruising for food on nutrient-rich currents, thick schools of fish darting from sea grass to reef.  This is what Raja Ampat is still like today.  Its isolation and sparse population have helped keep the reefs here thriving and wild, and it is home to more than 500 species of hard coral – more than in the entire Caribbean – and 1,300 species of fish.  Everything here is superlative, from the brilliant waters brimming with sea life, to the unusual birds and plant species, to the colors and beautiful settings of the local villages.

But in recent years, outside threats have impacted the region’s rich marine resources. Overfishing and poaching have taken a toll.  The locals here are countering by setting up marine reserves and building a growing eco-tourism industry. They are educating their youth about the importance of conservation. This is the positive story we hope to capture on film.  That although the struggle to deal with shrinking ocean resources is not unique to the people of Raja Ampat, perhaps their unique solutions can offer a model for the rest of us.

As the kids swim back to the pier to prepare for another flying leap in front of our cameras, a chorus of voices pierces the air.  “Ular!” they shout, “Snake!”  A white- banded sea krait s-curves through the water, following close behind the last kid.  Its deadly bite can kill you in an hour.  It barely misses the boy’s feet as he scrambles up the dock.  Safe on the pier, the kids begin to laugh hysterically – they’re used to these sea snakes. Some kids have even been known to throw them at each other in a risky game of dodge ball.

Since we have the shot, we decide there’s no need to tempt fate, or the sea krait.  The crew begins to dismantle the cameras while the kids skip up the pier.  Not a bad start to our first day of filming.

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