Nestled around the remote coastline of West Papua, Indonesia, thrives the most biodiverse reef on the planet. Concentrations of species richness unseen anywhere else in the ocean have caused many marine scientists to call this place a "cauldron of evolution." And now, for the first time ever, virtual reality technology is allowing people all over the world to dive into its teeming, crystal clear waters.
The Bird's Head Seascape contains more than 2,500 islands and reefs that make up the archipelago of Raja Ampat, and covers an area roughly the size of Great Britain. It's home to 75 percent of the world's coral species, 1,765 types of fish, and provides sanctuary to beloved species like whale sharks, manta rays, and sea turtles. To visitors and locals alike, Bird's Head is a paradise on Earth.
But just one decade ago, this pristine ecosystem was nearly unrecognizable. Around 2001, the Bird's Head Seascape was a hotbed of commercial fishing, mining, poaching, and unregulated natural resource extraction. According to global NGO Conservation International, the region was almost completely destroyed by an illegal practice called "blast fishing" that employs the use of explosives directly on top of healthy reefs. By the early 1990s, fisheries were reporting declines of up to 90 percent, and many Indonesians who depend on subsistence fishing to survive suffered at the expense of unsustainable exploitation.
Debuting today at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, the VR film "Valen's Reef" follows the conservation and rehabilitation of the Bird's Head Seascape through the eyes of local fisherman and marine scientist Ronald Mambrasar and his young son, Valen. (Disclosure: VICE Media provided distribution support for "Valen's Reef" as part of its interest in sustainability initiatives.)
The underwater documentary was produced by Conservation International, which has worked with Indonesian villages to enact strict environmental policies and sustainable development practices that have nearly restored the ecosystem to its original state. The NGO reports that in recent years, poaching has been curbed by 90 percent, coral reefs are on the mend, and populations of sharks, whales, and rays are beginning to flourish again.
"Our oceans are under severe threat but we know one method—community-based conservation—can and does make a measurable difference," said Dr. M. Sanjayan, Conservation International's Executive Vice President and Senior Scientist. "In 'Valen's Reef,' we use the immersive power of virtual reality to transport you to the most biologically diverse sea on our planet, and one of the greatest conservation success stories of our time, to inspire love and support for our oceans."
Today, the Bird's Head Seascape is one of the only "bright spots" among 6,000 reefs around the world that are currently going dark due to coral bleaching. As Motherboard editor Kate Lunau wrote last week, ecosystems like Bird's Head are "punching above their weight," and boast higher numbers of fish than conservationists ever expected—and it's mostly thanks to the wise resource management of local communities.
All of the footage in "Valen's Reef" was filmed by VR production company Vrse.works, and shadows Mambrasar and his eight-year-old son as they monitor the health of Bird's Head reefs.
"'Valen's Reef' is a powerful illustration of the creative potential for storytelling and impact in virtual reality," said Patrick Milling Smith, a co-Founder of Vrse.works. "The central character is the planet, the natural world around us. This is cinematic VR at its most arresting and visceral with an important and urgent environmental message to the world."
The film will be showcased at Cannes through June 24, and can be viewed on YouTube in 360-degrees and VR.