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Wednesday, 15 May, 2002, 21:40 GMT 22:40 UK
Indonesian reefs excite scientists
Sallow coral reef Copyright Conservation International
Sheltered reefs fringe the islands
Coral researchers have described the location of what they think is the most valuable cluster of reefs in the world.

It is in a remote archipelago off Indonesia, close to the coast of Papua Province, in the Malacca Sea.

Goby fish hovering on the reef Copyright Conservation International
This goby is a newly discovered species
The scientists have just submitted a report which estimates that more than 1,100 species of fish inhabit the area, along with 600 species of mollusc and 450 different species of coral.

The diversity of sealife among the Raja Ampat islands is described by the study's lead researcher, Dr Gerald Allen, as staggering.

Diverse species

The Museum of Western Australia researcher identified a record 283 species of fish in a single dive.

And his colleague, who had just completed the authoritative three-volume work on corals of the world, immediately stumbled across seven new species at Raja Ampat.

Barrel sponge Copyright Conservation International
Sea stars make their home on barrel sponges

"As far as the fishes go, it was absolutely mind-boggling," Dr Allen told the BBC.

"Our survey ran for roughly two-and-a-half weeks and over that period I recorded 972 species, which is just phenomenal."

The extraordinary diversity of life in the area stems from the archipelago's position at the crossroads of oceans. The waters mark a meeting point for species from the Philippines, Papua New Guinea and western Indonesia.

Under threat

BBC correspondent Roger Harrabin, who this week dived among the reefs, says the area is also flushed with cooler waters that help to protect the corals from bleaching when temperatures rise during El Niņo events.

Giant clam Copyright Conservation International
The reefs are home to iridescent giant clams

But the scientists warn that even these reefs are coming under threat from illegal fishing and illegal logging, which leads to soil erosion and silts that eventually choke the living coral.

The charity Conservation International, which sponsored the Raja Ampat expedition, wants the islands made a world heritage site.

Images copyright of Conservation International

The BBC's Roger Harrabin
"Under the surface, a kaleidoscope of life and colour"
See also:

28 Mar 02 | Sci/Tech
Asia's coral reefs under threat
14 Feb 02 | Boston 2002
Ten richest coral areas pinpointed
20 May 02 | Sci/Tech
Map details coral vulnerability
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