Ghost Goby on a Soft Coral
The Seven Seas News - May 2012

Shooting the Coral Triangle - East of Flores

An Expedition Report by Mark Heighes with Photographs by Benjamin Kahn

Two years ago, Lida Pet-Soede and Valerie Taylor hatched an idea to shoot a film about the world's most diverse marine environment; the Coral Triangle, covering Eastern Indonesia and surrounding island Nations:

"The Coral Triangle is the world's centre of marine life. It is home to 75 percent of all coral species known to science and more than 3000 species of fish, including valuable species such as tuna, groupers and snappers. Tuna produced from Coral Triangle waters is worth more than US$ 1.5 billion annually. Coral reef related fisheries in the Philippines and Indonesia alone are valued at around US$ 2.5 billion per year. Marine tourism in the Philippines and Indonesia combined is worth at least a billion US$ as well. So that's 5 billion reasons right there to preserve this area...

But the Coral Triangle is also home to one of the highest human population densities in the World, directly providing food and livelihoods to more than 120 million people in the area, and benefiting millions more worldwide. Seafood provides a third of the dietary protein of people living in this region. Over-fishing threatens this area and the jobs and food it provides to its people. A film showing the beauty and magic of this area could help millions of people realize what is at stake when this would all be lost. The work of governments and conservation groups needs to be supported much more by people who will say and show that they care to preserve this important place."

After several meetings in Australia with Wild Fury Productions, the necessary funding was secured to produce a three part TV series on the Coral Triangle, and a date was set for a filming expedition onboard the Seven Seas. The shoot was to begin in Maumere, Flores, and the expedition would be working its way East along the Northern shores of the island chain that forms the Nusa Tenggara Timor (NTT) Province. Well known operating grounds for the Seven Seas crew, which has spent years here developing our East of Flores itineraries.

Our Eastern most point for this May 2012 film expedition would be the island of Wetar, which is part of the Southeast Maluku Province and which is where the "Forgotten Islands" of the Southern Banda Sea begin… But that's another story for another time. From Wetar we were going to work our way back via the Savu Sea following the Southern coastline of NTT and finally back up into Maumere Bay.

Onboard we had a great film crew, consisting of a director and three cameramen, two underwater and one above. Sound man, editor, data logger and assistant producer were all there. The talent for the shoot would be aunty Valerie Taylor and my two good friends and shipmates over the last few decades, Lawrence Blair (Ring of Fire) and Benjamin Kahn, who is a marine mammal expert with many years of experience in Indonesia. My brother Jono being one of the cameramen, shooting above and underwater, also had a part in the film.

Valerie Taylor
Valerie Taylor

Benjamin Kahn
Benjamin Kahn

For added excitement, we were joined by a scientific deep diving team from the Bishop Museum, including John Earl, Richard Pyle and Rob Whitten. Their goal was to dive where no man has gone before in this region….100 meters down on closed circuit re-breathers and in search of new species of fish. A truck had to be sent to Maumere from Bali to bring medical grade oxygen, helium and the re-breather kits for this team. No problem for the Seven Seas team and we got it all on board in time.

We set sail from Maumere on April 30, after spending the morning shooting at the fish market. Our destination was the erupting volcano of Komba, which for the last 4 years has been producing a spectacular fireworks display for us. After shooting the crater by day we managed to find an anchorage upwind of the ashy fallout zone and get the Bishop boys down in a small cove at the volcanic slope.

Komba volcano by day
Komba volcano by day

Komba Volcano by night
Komba Volcano by night

It was somewhat nerve wrecking as every 15 minutes a loud explosion from the volcano could be heard followed by chunks of hot boiling lava, the size of Volkswagen cars, flying in our direction. After 3 hours of preparations, the boys were ready for a 3 hour dive in their cove, relatively protected from the somewhat unpredictable current. Everything went according to plan and night fell upon us so we moved around to the crater and captured the fiery show on film from ashore and onboard.

Once again I was relieved to see the inferno disappearing over the horizon as we headed for Alor after we finished what we came to do at Komba. We went to Alor to film local people interacting with the marine environment, specifically looking for the Bubu fish traps and spear-fishing activity. And the kids with their wooden goggles, which are always fun to have around out there.

Ben Kahn went out looking for whales and we sent the above water crew into the village on Pura Island with Lawrence Blair. The deep divers dove on Pura and had a good one. Ben found a blue whale close to shore, which was successfully captured on camera. That evening we sailed for the eastern most point of our voyage, the island of Wetar, where we hoped to capture salt water crocodiles underwater in the same location we shot them in 2010 during the forgotten island voyage of that year. At our first location we were unsuccessful in finding the crocs, however, I knew of another village nearby with plenty more of them, and where the locals believe it is taboo to interfere or harm them in any way. It all came together there as you'll see in the film.

Blue whale in Pantar Strait shallows
Blue whale in Pantar Strait shallows

Large male Sperm whale near Alor
Large male Sperm whale near Alor

We spent 2 days in Wetar and then headed back to Alor where we spent another day shooting people, raging currents and whirlpools. The deep divers had a great dive on little Ternate Island and found some cool fish there to study further on their screens. Jono went out with Ben and he managed to get in the water and film about half a dozen Sperm whales at close range. Plenty more marine mammals were sighted, including Blue whales, Bryde's and Pilot whales, Melon Headed whales, spinners, spotted and Fraser's dolphins, Rough-toothed and Bottle Nosed dolphins, Pygmy Killer whales and more… According to Ben, our expedition confirmed the importance of the Alor region as a multi-species migration corridor for the World's largest toothed and baleen whales; and also confirmed that the Alor region is an important breeding ground for sperm whales as well as a critical foraging area and nursery ground for these animals.

Next we went South into the Savu Sea to shoot critters at Beangabang. Then on to our new sites in Pantar where the deep divers had the most spectacular dives of the trip. We also shot the seaweed farms both above and underwater and a cargo ship at full speed racing through the straits between Pantar and Lembata. Overnight we then repositioned from Pantar to Lamalera, the village of traditional whalers. However there was no catch this time, as they did not launch the Pinas (traditional whaling boats) due to recent bad weather, so we moved on to shoot critters at the brewery, a very productive site in West Lembata.

On the 19th we shot local boats kite fishing for Tuna in conjunction with dolphins. This was an unexpected bonus. We also picked up Naneng Setiasih, the Coral Reef Alliance Regional Manager, in Larantuka. She is an Indonesian coral reef expert who joined the last 2 days of the shoot. We shot reefs damaged by blast fishing in the Maumere area with her and as the sun set on the last day I could not help but wonder what the future holds for the Coral Triangle. Especially those areas that are not marine protected areas, and which make up 99% of the Triangle waters... Anyway, we somehow had managed to keep everyone in the multi-functional crew busy recording footage for 12 days continuously. A truly unforgettable experience it was for everyone. The Seven Seas crew worked day and night, facilitating the production team and the whole voyage was a real adventure for all.

Mark Heighes,
East of Flores,
May 2012


Next:
Impressions of Filming TV Documentary "The Coral Triangle" Aboard The Seven Seas, by Lawrence Blair >

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