The Biosphere Foundation’s crew aboard S/V Mir recently spent ten days working on reef restoration and education projects on the island of Mansuar in Raja Ampat. While there, we were reunited with some very special people. You might even call them heroes.
Pak Ketut Sutama is a self-motivated, grassroots, ocean conservationist, which in my book makes him a hero. Those of us who are lucky enough to know him simply call him Sutama; Pak being a formal title of respect for a man in Bahasa Indonesia — similar to “sir” in English — and Ketut is the name of every fourth child born into a Hindu family in Bali, where Sutama is from, which means there are a lot of Ketuts out there, so Sutama it is.
Sutama comes from northwest Bali, near the Hindu holy island of Menjangan. He is a dive master who cares deeply for the health of the reefs around his home, and he translates that care into both direct action to conserve them, as well as an undeniable charm that infects those around him to want to do the same. And not only is Sutama a true ocean hero, but he even looks the part: he has the hair of an ‘80s rockstar atop a broad, strong face with an always twinkling smile. His physique is that of a muscle-bound twenty-something, and his energy is youthful and seemingly endless, so I was astounded to learn that he is twice a grandfather; if anything, Sutama makes me feel like the one who’s the grandpappy whenever I’m trying to keep up with him on a scuba dive.
When Gaie Alling and Laser Van Thillo — the founders of the Biosphere Foundation — first met Sutama in northwest Bali in 2012, they immediately noticed how passionate he was about ocean conservation, and knew that they wanted to collaborate with him and support him in every way they could. They’ve been working together ever since.
All of us aboard Mir have had the immense pleasure of welcoming Sutama aboard the ship for the past month; he flew from Bali to Raja Ampat in early February, bringing his expertise and energy to the world-renowned reefs of this far-off corner of Indonesia.
Friends of Mansuar
The Raja Ampat Dive Lodge is located on the island of Mansuar in the heart of Raja Ampat. Mansuar is a long, eel-shaped island; it rises steeply on both sides to a high ridge that runs across its narrow spine, and the entire island is as thick with virgin forest as it is with morning bird song.
Our team aboard S/V Mir was invited to visit the Raja Ampat Dive Lodge by an old friend of the Biosphere Foundation, Pak Astawa, who manages the lodge, and who, like Sutama, is both Balinese and a Ketut. Before relocating to Raja Ampat a few years ago, Astawa previously managed a resort in northwest Bali where he met and collaborated on conservation projects with the Biosphere Foundation. Both Astawa and Mir’s crew were eager to reconnect in Mansuar to continue working together.
We spent ten days anchored off of Mansuar where with the help of Astawa and Sutama we were able to get to work. Implementing the same techniques that have been so effective on other reef restoration projects led by the Biosphere Foundation in both Bali and Moyo Island, Sutama led us in constructing small mooring buoys to help keep fishing boats from anchoring on reefs, and in transplanting broken corals back onto substrate using cement where they can continue to live and grow. But most importantly, Sutama used his contagious spirit — his greatest gift of all — to inspire and educate others about the importance of conservation, as well as passing along simple and inexpensive methods to protect the beautiful reefs around Mansuar Island and beyond. Sutama trained the local dive leaders of the lodge in both mooring buoys and coral transplants, which they all showed a great interest in learning, prompting the Biosphere Foundation to formally create a “Friends of Mansuar” project, just as we previously created “Friends of Menjangan” in Bali, and “Friends of Moyo,” each of which comes with a promise to return with Mir for future collaborations.
On one of our last days in Mansuar, our team visited the grade school of the island’s largest village of Yenbekwan, a town of only eighty families that sits quietly on a flat spot between shockingly turquoise water on one side, and steep green jungle on the other. The most dominant feature of Yenbekwan is the nearly-completed, massive, blue and white church with two sharply pointed steeples rising three stories into the air. The town’s newest attribute stands out garishly against the otherwise small and unassuming tin-roofed houses and storefronts, many of which rest on stilts jutting out over the water with finely shaped fishing boats tied up beside them. This new house of worship was built directly beside the old church, which better matches its surroundings being that it’s about a quarter of the size of the new one, and which also happens to double as the grade school where we made our visit.
Led by Sutama and Mir crew members Dolphin Cooke and Nadia Low, our team entered the church early in the morning where we were greeted by the waiting eyes of fifty schoolchildren in matching beige and brown uniforms. We started our presentation with Dolphin sharing two of his catchy, original songs about protecting and celebrating our oceans, both written in a mixture of Bahasa Indonesia and English (links to both of the music videos for these songs can be found at the bottom of this post — check them out!). After Dolphin’s songs, Sutama gave one of his impassioned, funny, and impactful talks about the importance of every person doing their part to preserve our reefs, and Nadia led an excellent presentation on plastic pollution. We then put on a skit for the students where, amongst many other things, yours truly played a sea turtle who eats a plastic bag that he mistook for a jellyfish and then needs to be saved by “Nature Man,” who of course is played by Sutama (told you he was a hero), and much to my stage-shy relief the crowd went wild when I ended up surviving the ordeal.
After the grade school visit we next went to the local high school where we organized a trash clean-up of the village and beach. Thanks to the wonderful attitudes of the high schoolers combined with the charms of Sutama, as well as those of Dolphin and Nadia who are also possessed with a vast capacity to inspire, I had never seen a group of teenagers so excited and eager to clean something.
While the government of the United States still squabbles over whether climate change is even real, and while governments the world over sell off their land and resources to the highest bidder, humanity cannot afford to wait on our “leaders” to protect our environment. Though it may be only a drop in the bucket, the Biosphere Foundation strongly believes in promoting grassroots stewardship of our oceans by local peoples in the hopes of creating a groundswell of activism and awareness. The more people like Sutama and Astawa in this world, the longer we can slow the bleeding while our elected officials come to a consensus — and to their senses — about what the threats to our biosphere even are, and then figure out how to address them on a global scale. Until that happens, we at the Biosphere Foundation will be out here supporting and promoting heroes like Sutama so that they may continue to inspire and support other future ocean heroes.
When we were leaving the grade school in Yenbekwan that day, Nadia overheard one of the children say to their mother, “Mom, we can’t throw our plastic bags in the ocean anymore.” It’s a small thing, but you never know when you may have just inspired the right person, and by planting that little seed, who knows what might grow?
Keep following along on our voyage here, and if you feel so inclined you can support our work here: https://biospherefoundation.org/donate-2/
And to watch Dolphin’s wonderful music videos, both of which were directed by crew member Nadia Low, click here: