Underwater Panorama, East of Flores

The Seven Seas News - April 2015

East of Flores, 29th March - 10th April 2015

Trip Report by Marc Chamberlain. Photos by Jose Ignacio Gil Gonzalez and Simon Brownlow.

Have you ever spent an evening comfortably seated on a small dive boat watching the sky fill with color as the sun sets and darkness descends just beyond a small island festooned with a mangrove forest from which squadrons of flying foxes emerge? Well an evening spent at Ipet Island just beneath the Iliwariran Volcano with the crew of the Seven Seas east of Flores Island is the setting for a spectacle of swarming bats as they take flight for their nightly foray to Adonara Island to forage for food. As one sits in calm waters and gazes at a sky filling with color and a rising moon these magnificent bats rise up for their communal and nocturnal journey in search of fruit. The bats, the largest in the world at one meter in wing span, fill the sky in every increasing numbers and seemingly an endless flight of tens of thousands of individual animals. Like all bats, flying foxes are social mammals, have communal nests and form enormous colonies of which the Ipet Island colony is the largest I have ever witnessed. The bats silently beat their membranous wings 150-200 feet above you in an endless parade as they fly into sky painted in reds and pinks of a setting sun. This spectacle of large bats that live in colonies on uninhabited offshore islands with undisturbed mangrove forests swarming a darkening sky might forever change your perspective on sunsets and nature in a truly wild state.

Flying Foxes

Flying Foxes
Flying Foxes

Muck diving, a term and type of diving first introduced by Larry Smith of Lembeh in Sulawesi fame, refers to diving a site lacking in coral reef and rather instead is a waterscape of light or dark volcanic sand that gently slopes into deeper water and often with a nearby freshwater stream. What makes muck diving unique are the variety of animals found in these environs and often nowhere else. On the western side of Lembata Island in the Flores Sea is a small bay that qualifies as a muck dive. Our day of diving this site, aboard the Seven Seas, produced a number of specialty animals many only found with the assistance of our excellent Indonesian dive guides Jefri and Irwan as well as our host, Karl. A variety of octopus inhabit muck dive locations including blue ringed, long-armed and reef as well as the magnificent tigroid wonderpus. A panoply of scorpionfish reside on these sand meadows including several species of lionfish, stonefish, the bizarre Inimicus or New Caledonia stinger and the always elusive Rhinopias scorpionfish. There are a host of gobies including shrimp gobies and their cohabitating excavating workmen, goby shrimp. Pipefish, pipehorses and seahorses are numerous but like many of the denizens of muck dive sites are cryptic and challenging to locate as like all animals in this environment blend into either the sand or detritus that litters the surface of all muck dives and is a defining feature of muck dives. Muck dives are a splendid location to observe a variety of anemones often coassociating with commensual shrimp or clown fish. Sea pens and soft coral trees can be seen and often with multiple species of shrimp. Nudibranchs and their opistobranch allies are common in muck dives as are a variety of shelled mollusks. Most importantly muck diving requires patience and careful observation as only with deliberate and slow study will a muck dive reveal its treasures.

Sargassum Frogfish

The village of Lamalera on the south coast of Lembata has a multigenerational tradition of hunting whales. The community is Christian with two prominent churches in this small community of several hundred people. Whale hunting in this village has a long tradition and each new generation continues with this legacy. Approximately twenty hand-carved wooden boats, each distinctive in its color and painted bow symbols, are housed in separate thatched boat houses side by side facing the shoreline. The long boats are launched by hand and each contains distinctive hand woven nets as well as a crew member whose job on close approach to whales is to hand throw a harpoon into the whale from an extended bow sprit. The whales hunted are mostly sperm whales but other whales including dolphins are taken as well. The whales are towed back to shore and flensed on the village beach front. All parts of the whales are used and most whale flesh is hung to dry on outdoor drying racks beneath which are collection trays for capturing whale oil. The dried whale flesh is used as barter to obtain produce such as rice and corn which is not produced by this primarily hunting village. The whale oil is used mostly medicinally as well as a trade item. Whale hunting is the purview of the men of the village whereas women often produce a distinctive tapestry, ikats, on family owned looms. The ikats are unique for their designs which often have whales, mantas and an Indonesian nut, kenari, incorporated into these handmade long tapestries. The ikats are sold and provide yet another source of cash aside from whale products. The village of Lamalera is a peculiar mixture of the old and new, blending ancient traditions with more modern sensibilities. One can only speculate on how long whale hunting will continue as the new world politics increasingly descend on this small whaling community.

Reef scene
Leaf Scorpionfish

Off the island of Rusa, just east of the Alor Strait, lies an exposed rock called Watu Balu. The island is approximately one third of a kilometer in length with the long axis of the island lying along the east/west meridian. The island rises 40 meters from the water surface and is a nesting site for crested terns and the occasional white-bellied sea eagle. The island is subject to swift ocean currents which bathe the island in nutrient rich water. Underneath the surface however the magic of this island becomes apparent. On the north side of the island are cascading Acropora table corals and leather corals above which hover literally uncountable Anthias facing and feeding in the prevailing current. Streaming in and through this parade of lyre-tail fairy bass are squadrons of fusiliers and unicorn fish. Hunting in the coral garden are banded kraits, sea snakes that hunt small fish in the coral interstices and which make periodic forays to the surface to breathe and descend again to continue the hunting. Very occasionally a dogtooth tuna or giant trevally makes an appearance moving through this riot of color with both attitude and an alpha predator swagger. The east end of the island which rapidly falls off into deep water is carpeted in small Clavelina-like cerulean blue tunicates. Along the south slope of the island are massive rocks that form huge boulders on which soft corals, both sea fans and small tree corals abound and are admixed with large colonies of orange Tubastrea creating a dazzling collage of color offset by the clear blue water. Diving Watu Balu is unlike any other tropical dive as the waterscape is unique for the idiosyncratic topography as well as the astounding abundance of schooling fish and colorful invertebrates.

Black coral
Pink Anemonefish

On the southwest corner of the island of Pantar, between the islands of Lembata and Alor, is a point called Tanjung Ikan Kotong, the site of a diving day aboard the Seven Seas. There we primarily dove a small island immediately offshore called Alcatraz Rock. The rock is relatively low profile, approximately eight meters in height and 20 meters in diameter, atop which a white-bellied sea eagle often perched surveying the ocean surface. Underwater the island was comprised of two steps with each step representing a small circumferential wall that girdled Alcatraz Rock. Coming off the east face of the island was a steep stand slope on which in 20-35 meters of depth was a small forest of dark purple umbellate soft tree corals. These Dendronephthya soft corals emerged from the sand 0.5-1.5 meters in height gently swaying with the predominant southern Savu Sea swell. Above, the encircling shallow wall of Alcatraz Rock was dominated by Acropora table corals and soft leather corals atop which a myriad of damsel fish and Anthias hovered feeding in the water column. Around and beneath these corals were small groupers and angelfish. Gracefully streaming in and out of this coral garden were large schools of fusiliers and surgeonfish. The next and deeper wall was comprised of soft corals, crinoids and sponges. In places the small soft corals, Scleronephthya, created a pale orange carpet punctuated by barrel sponges, wire corals and black coral trees. The massive barrel sponges served as perching vantages for small white and yellow sea cucumbers and crinoids of a variety of color. Cruising through this wall of color were schooling fusiliers and surgeonfish. With careful inspection many species of nudibranchs could be found including and notably nearly two foot in length red and yellow Spanish dancers or Hexabranchus. With the sun streaming through the surface and illuminating these coral walls, Alcatraz Rock was a truly magical underwater experience.

Soft tree corals, Alcatraz
Spanish Dancer

The Savu Sea, a body of water contained within a deep oceanic basin, is located south of the islands of Komodo, Flores and Alor and north of the island of Timor. Because of the deep oceanic water, up to 3000 meters in depth, the Savu Sea is utilized as an international shipping channel as well a location where sperm whales are often found. Sperm whales, the largest of the toothed whales, are highly social animals and aggregate in family groups containing related females, subadult males and calves. The much larger male or bull sperm whales are solitary, feed primarily in cold temperate waters and only join these family groups for mating. These animals dive to 500-1000 meters for 40-60 minutes in search of large squid, their primary food source that they locate by sonar similar to bats. The underwater echolocation in sperm whales is produced by clicks generated by their mandible or lower jaw, is transmitted though the skull and the sounds produced are amplified and redirected through the spermaceti organ located in their massive heads. The spermaceti organ is an oil-filled gland that functions as a lens for sound production and as a kind of swim bladder for buoyancy control during their deep dives. When resting, sperm whales form small groups on the ocean surface, a behavior called logging. The animals when resting on the surface can sometimes be approached and very occasionally seen underwater by snorkelers. Frequently seen moving across the Savu Sea are spinner dolphins, small pelagic toothed whales, often found in pods numbering in the hundreds. These dolphins are amazingly acrobatic and frequently breech often with complex spins from which their common name is derived. Generally spinner dolphins unlike other species of dolphins are not bow riders and so only very occasionally approach a moving boat. Sharing the surface of this tropical sea are a variety of sea birds including red-necked phalaropes, brown and blue-footed boobies, great frigatebirds, crested terns, Wilson's storm petrels and little cormorants. The boobies are plunge feeders spying prey from above from which they make precipitous dives out of the sky and into the ocean sometimes reaching 5 meters in depth searching for food while swimming underwater. Frigatebirds, magnificent soaring sea birds, are dip feeders scooping fish near the surface by dragging their long bills into the ocean as the birds skim just above the water surface. Frigatebirds also indulge in a behavior called kelptoparasitism wherein frigates harass nearby birds on the wing forcing these birds to disgorge recently caught food. Phalaropes, small oceanic birds, feed on the surface of the ocean by swimming in tight circles and simultaneously generating small vortices beneath themselves by skulling with their webbed feet. These vortices bring small planktonic animals to the surface on which the phalaropes feed using a baleen-like filtering system in their bills. A visit to the Savu Sea often with a windless languid surface, is a wonderful opportunity to observe whales and sea birds in a tropical environment.

Non-divers often ask why would one want to voluntarily jump in the ocean at night? There are several reasons why night diving is so often undertaken by divers and night diving Beangabang Bay on the southeast corner of the island of Pantar illustrates wonderfully why night diving is so popular. First and perhaps most importantly, there is a profound change in the underwater fauna wherein animals commonly seen during the day seek refuge and another complex of animals emerge when dark descends on the reef. Beangabang is a classic muck dive with all the elements of a muck site including a shallow (3-8 meters in depth) sand plateau, a steep sand slope dropping into deep water nearly 50 meters in depth, a fresh water stream that empties into the site and small coral bommies scattered helter-skelter across the volcanic sand. The shallow sand plateau is covered in filamentous red algae amongst which at night and atop are uncountable numbers of shrimp moving about and easily seen by their distinctive reddish/orange eye shine reflected in our underwater lights. There are as well foraging swimming crabs delicately moving over the algae and shelled mollusks such as moon and tun shells plowing the shallow sand. Night is the best time to observe and photograph many species of crustaceans and mollusks which during the day have retreated into the reef. Several species of nudibranchs and their opistobranch allies appear at night such as the magnificent blue/purple ruffled bubble snail Hydatina, multicolored algae eating headshield slugs such as Philinopsis, the rapidly gliding dorsally compressed Cerberilla waving elongated oral tentacles and the orange and black striped predatory Arminia actively hunting sea pens. Probably the most sought after mollusks at night however are tropical species of octopus including the small and venomous blue-ringed, the common coconut, the gracile long-armed, the rare red white-spotted starry night, the poison ocellate with distinctive brilliant blue ocelli beneath each eye and the extremely rare diminutive hairy octopus with fine filamentous projections over the body thereby mimicking surrounding filamentous algae. In addition to octopus, night is the best time to observe related cephalopods such as the small bobtail squid, Papuan cuttlefish and bigfin squid that come into shallow water at night to lay eggs and hunt. There are several fish found at night only including the helmet gurnard with it enormous and colorful pectoral fins that resemble wings, flatfish such as the Ambon sole decorated dorsally with numerous white ocelli, sinister appearing snake eels and stargazers, ambush hunters that lie partially buried in sand with eyes located atop the head so as to watch the water column above for possible fish prey. There is as well at night a spectacular display of bioluminescence wherein each fin stroke elicits an iridescent blue swarm of minute lights that result from agitation of phytoplantkton and the production of luciferin, a protein that when enzymatically activated emits a burst of short-lived blue light. Diving at night is magical both for the peculiar animals that emerge and the bioluminescent light show that accompanies this panoply of night creatures.

Mozaic octopus
Banded Krait
Anemone shrimp

Diving in the narrow Pantar Strait, a body of water between the islands of Alor to the east and Pantar to the west, with clear nutrient rich cerulean blue water is another wonderful diving experience on the Seven Seas diving liveaboard. The water through the strait races between the flanking islands of Alor and Pantar on both the flood and ebb tides such that diving during the slack between tides is necessary. Interrupting this rapid exchange of water are the small volcanic islands of Pura to the south and Reta to the north. Multiple villages are found along this waterway, some offering marine themed ikats, beautiful hand-made tapestries woven by women on family looms. Increasingly the strait is used for mariculture with several large pearl farms populating the shoreline. Traditional spearfishing, using primitive hand-made slings, is performed and offers an opportunity to photograph underwater young Indonesians free diving in search of fish. Reflective of the bounty of this water passage, numerous species of whales can often be seen including the pink-bellied Fraser's dolphin and so called blackfish, small toothed whales such as melon-headed and false killer whales. Most diving in the strait is along walls characterized by a shallow hard and soft coral garden replete with a myriad of hovering orange and purple Anthias that drops off into colorful walls adorned by barrel sponges, red gorgonian sea whips, yellow Acabaria sea fans and small yellow and purple soft tree corals, Scleronephthya and Siphonogorgia. Swirling above and through this riot of color are schools of fusiliers and surgeon fish. Beneath undercuts and around coral bommies found on the wall are numerous species of butterfly and angelfish that use the reef both for refuge and a source of food. On one distinctive reef south of Pura Island, was an amazing sloping reef completely covered in anemones and apropos was named Anemone City. There were a variety of anemones including the distinctive bulb tentacle Entacmea, carpet Stichiodactyla and purple tipped magnificent Heteractis. Large schools of red toothed triggerfish, blue fish with lunate-shaped tails parade over the reef and added another dimension to this multicolored tridimensional underwater panorama.

Anemone City

A large bay along the east end of Alor, Kalabahi Bay, offers shelter from the enormous tides that sweep through the Pantar Strait. Located at the terminus of Kalabahi Bay is the city of Kalabahi, home to some 50,000 people of Muslim and Christian faiths that live together in harmony and respect for one another notwithstanding differing religion and political perspectives. A daily occurrence in the city is a large open air market where these cultures merge as local vendors sell fresh produce, fish, clothes and spices. The market teams with mopeds, the predominant form of transportation for individuals as well as families, and women and their preschool age children who are the primary sellers in the market. Amongst the throng of the market are many individuals who chew beetle nut, a mild stimulant that stains the soft tissues of the mouth and teeth a distinctive red. Children of all ages attend school and can be seen walking the streets of Kalabahi. School is 6-days per week, Monday through Saturday, with classes only in the morning. Each student wears a distinctive government provided uniform with the color of each uniform indicating the age and academic level of the child. The standard uniform each student wears creates conformity independent of social status; a similar system of dress to the schools in England. Within Kalabahi is a small museum that contains ancient tenun ikats, hand woven tapestries from Alor and nearby islands as well as an enormous collection of moko, brass drums from Vietnam that were traded when Indonesia was a Dutch territory. These drums still today represent wealth and may be used as a dowry for prospective weddings or as ceremonial musical instruments. Much larger brass drums called nekara, again originating from Vietnam, are also on display often with etched elephants and tigers adorning the drum column. Near Kalabahi along the north shore of eastern Alor is a small mountain tribe, the Aboi that continue to live in a traditional manner with bamboo and thatched multilevel houses with open fire cooking surrounding a village center dominated by a white mahogany tree. Traditional dances are performed, mostly by the village elders, replete with ikat sarongs, hand woven baskets, brass anklets and feather adorned head pieces. The music that accompanies these dances is predominantly vocal with male elders providing the lead and women filling the song with harmony. Cheerfully running amongst the adults engaged in ceremonial dance are numerous children playing soccer with stones of a variety of sizes. At the conclusion of several dances, the village joins together to offer a small market where colorful ikats, bead necklaces, shells, wooden hair combs and small carvings are offered for purchase. Visiting the Aboi village is akin to time traveling wherein one has the opportunity to see a simpler and environmentally harmonious way of life isolated from modern world complexities.

Aboi tribe border=
Aboi tribe

There are 178 active volcanoes in Indonesia and amongst these an offshore island called Komba, 25 miles north of the island of Flores, is distinctive for the volcanoes periodic eruptions of steam, ash and magma. Komba is 475 meters in height and approximately 3 kilometers in diameter surrounded by deep, 3-4000 meters in depth, oceanic water. The flanks of the volcanic island particularly on the south and northeast corners have rich shallow water coral gardens beneath which are small walls adorned with massive sea fans. Reflective of the volcanic origination of the island is black volcanic sand which covers the sea floor and from which emerge large colonies of garden eels. The shallow water coral gardens are comprised of both hard corals including plate Turbinaria, brain Leptoria, carnation Pectinia, staghorn Acropora, blue Heliopora and cauliflower Pocillopora corals as well as soft corals such as mushroom Sarcophyton, flat Sinularia, lobed Lobophyton, encrusting Briareum and cauliflower Nephthyea leather corals. Like many underwater coral gardens in Indonesia hovering over the corals are enormous numbers of orange and purple Anthias and damsel fish. Banded sea kraits, a distinctive sea snake, can be seen weaving in and out of the coral hunting for small fish while the occasional hawksbill sea turtle often finds refuge under a coral ledge. Komba during the day can be seen to have a large ash and basaltic scree slope on the south flank atop which is a disrupted volcanic rim attesting to an older more massive eruption. Near the rim on this slope are numerous vents from which frequent emissions of steam and ash can be seen with occasional magma bombs that slide and bounce down the steep incline producing puffs of ash and often terminating with a splash and sometimes a steam sizzle as these molten hot rocks strike and sink in the near shore ocean. However the true magic of Komba is evident at night when the glowing red of magma can be seen at the rim from which and with every eruption a pyrotechnic display of orange red magma bombs burst forth much like fourth of July fireworks. Ejected magma bombs glow as they slide down the steep slope often fragmenting into smaller pieces with each bounce. Observed from the safety of the Seven Seas, this display of the volcanic ring of fire makes an indelible impression not soon forgotten.

Komba erupting
Bobtail Squid
Irwan and Alor fish trap
Banded Pipefish

Pulua Babi or Pig Island off the north coast of Flores just east of the port city of Maumere was the epicenter of a massive submarine earthquake that generated a tsunami in 1992 and resulted in a near shore dive site called the Crack, so called for the numerous earthquake resultant crevices. Not as colorful perhaps as some dive sites in Nusa Tenggara, the islands east of Flores, but notable for large pink sea fans some harboring the diminutive Denise pygmy seahorse, Hippocampus denise. On flat coral rubble tables, the large ambush hunter crocodile fish could be found lying flat on the substrate awaiting non-suspecting passing fish prey. Hovering nearby was the largest cuttlefish in Indonesia, the broadclub, that shimmered with waves of colors and an ever changing skin texture. The cuttlefish would approach and lift its tentacles in a display of aggression or perhaps greeting. The peculiar velutinid mollusk Coriocella, a cowry-like animal with a shell completely covered by an iridescent cobalt blue mantle and adorned with peculiar rounded knobs, was challenging to differentiate between the head and the tail. Several species of bubble corals were on the reef some with symbiotic translucent shrimp decorated with brilliant blue spots, Periclimenes holthuisi. Amongst an occasional crinoid, with careful searching, small two-striped crinoid shrimp could be found. On the ocean surface, aggregates of the brown algae, sargassum, floated by with the prevailing current and contained within some of these small kelp paddies, sargassum frogfish. The frogfish use the algal mat as a refuge as well as a source of camoflauge so as to more effectively hunt small fish that are attracted to the sargassum. With the enormous biodiversity of marine animals, Indonesia has incomparable diving and a trip aboard the Seven Seas is lovely way to experience the splendor of a tropical ocean and as well enjoy a cultural experience of indigenous people found nowhere else.

Marc Chamberlain

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Divers on wall
Pygmy seahorse hippocampus denise
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