The Seven Seas News - December 2015
Return to the Forgotten Islands
Trip Report by Mark Heighes. Photos and videos by Bill Snare (hammerhead video by Meity Mongdong).
It was great to be back in what must be Indonesia's most remote island region. Lost for years, this still largely unexplored group of islands lies in the south eastern outskirts of the archipelago. It is closer to Australia than and any other place in Indonesia, but coming from Sydney it still took me 3 days and a good number of flights to get there. The town of Saumlaki on the island of Yamdena is about as sleepy as it gets anywhere, and to fly in over the island was a treat. The Seven Seas rested at anchor below, recently arrived after a long voyage from Maumere, Flores.
We boarded eager to set sail only to find that the port clearance was delayed as the Bupati was in a meeting with the Harbor Master. To make things worse our shipment of food that left Bali 2 days ago was still sitting somewhere in Ambon. There are many challenges operating in remote areas like this. It is all part of the job and I find it exciting in that you just never quite know what to expect. From experience I know however, that most problems can be solved with a little patience and flexibility. Three hours later we had our port clearance and were on our way to a nearby island to play. The food shipment had been found and was due in the next day.
We are in the Tanimbar Group of islands that lie on the Australian plate then plunge down into the depths of the South East Banda Sea. The deepest sea for its size on the planet. That's where we are headed. But not without our food so we spent the next day diving a reef 40 miles from town. We left a speedboat and crew back in town and by the end of the day we had our much needed supplies and set a course for the island of Dawera 75 miles east.
If you have never been to Dawera it's a must. The island and its neighbor Dawelor sit on the South East Rim of the trench that is the Banda Sea. The place is extraordinary both above and below. A tiny Christian enclave with strong ties to the land and sea, the people are friendly and very proud. They have been good guardians of their islands and surrounding waters. As long as one reports to the village first you are free to play in their paradise. It is so refreshing to find a place like this and it really gives one hope for the future. Somehow they have found a balance here. What seems to be a happy balance at that.
It was all so good we decided to stay another day. That evening it got even better when the Kepala Desa (village head) came out to the boat and actually asked if he could get some under water photos from us. He then explained how he wanted to use them for an awareness program in the village. WOW! Hearing this just about blew me off by chair! I wanted to give him a big hug but settled by congratulating him profusely and telling him about how wonderful the diving was compared to other fished out areas of Indonesia.
I explained the village head how during our dives that day we had observed a very healthy population of Napoleon Wrasse and at one stage we were buzzed by a school of over 150 dogtooth tuna, which is something extremely rare now anywhere. The next day we proudly delivered footage, downloaded from the guests onboard, for their viewing. The women and children of the village were most impressed by the beautiful underwater world that they have never seen, for they never venture far from shore and fear the sea.
By the time we left Dawera we had an extra 3 world class dive sites on our list. We sailed a short passage of 3 hours to the island of Dai where the locals still hunt with bows and arrows. We went back to our favourite dive sites there and they were just as good as ever.
From here we pushed further West to the Terbang Islands. Terbang means flying. The two uninhabited islands are obviously named after the flying fish that are prolific in this region. Here we discovered another new site that was probably the best wall dive of the trip. We also had our first sighting of hammerhead sharks during a high speed drift along the west coast of the southernmost island. The guests wanted to stay but we had another 400 miles to cover and lots of stops along the way before reaching our disembarkation port in Ambon.
The island of Teun was our next stop. Teun is a small volcanic peak that rises from the depths of the Banda Sea This island has an open sulpher crater just above sea level, so it absolutely stinks if you are anywhere downwind. Here we met Alex Relmasira who is the village head and also the pastor. Fluent in English he told me how the village church was still under construction and had been since 1970. The Government told the people to leave in the mid '70ies as the island was unstable and could erupt at any time. Most of the islands population was relocated to the large island of Seram and only a few hardy souls stayed. Alex lived in Ambon and had come to finish the church as Teun had not erupted. He was too old to wait any longer and nothing had happened to change his island.
I learned from him that the poor people who stayed as guardians would give fishing rights to passing fishermen in exchange for salt and sugar. The problem with that of course was that the village people had no idea about the damaging fishing practices used by outsiders. He was obviously distressed and pointed out an area that had been destroyed by dynamite fishing 3 years ago.
Alex was curious about the underwater world surrounding his island. I told him that it was better than Banda and that he had a very special place here. He was very happy to hear that and quite amazed at the same time. I told him the fact that his island was still mostly intact and in great shape. We had experienced schools of barracuda, giant grouper, and got buzzed by a good sized hammerhead shallow over a stunning coral reef just off where the Church is being built. He did however pause and think when I told him about the underwater grumbling we heard from somewhere down in the depths. I felt a little helpless by Alex's almost hopeless situation. Stay and be blown to pieces by a grumbling stinking volcano or leave and have it blown to pieces by outside ruthless fishers.
Alex has land and plantations of nutmeg which he showed me but no one to help him farm. A half built Church and not a lot of options. He had been relocated with most of his people to a far away island, waited for 40 years for the big bang and it never happened. As we sailed that night I could only hope that Alex can finish his Church and be once again the guardian of his remote island home.
Next stop was Nila. Alex had told me much the same had happened there. Sure enough only a skeleton population had remained. Nila is much bigger than Teun and is also scarred by a large sulphur crater in the side of the island. Here we had a full day of exploration and found some good stuff to add to the diving menu for our cruises here. We dived the mouth of the lagoon and had some great action with mobulas and eagle rays. I tried to get to the village but it was low tide and fringed by sharp exposed reef.
Another overnight steam through glassy waters had us in Manuk island. Manuk sits in 4000 meters of water and the island is the home of seabirds only. Red tailed tropic birds, boobies, frigates and terns. Manuk actually means Bird. Underwater however, it's a different story. The island has a most unusual population of sometimes very large and at times, extremely curious, seas snakes.
It often happens that guests will not dive here and on this trip one unfortunate bloke had developed a back problem and was unable to dive upon arrival here. The diving at Manuk can be very fishy and at one stage in blue water I could see nothing but large pelagic fish everywhere. Later on giant groupers in deep caves, schools of jacks, hammerheads and there was one count of 43 Sea Snakes on a single dive. The diving was great and we also managed to land a good sized wahoo on departure which was turned into some well deserved sashimi.
The following Day we arrived at the fabled Spice Islands of Banda and felt we had returned back to civilization, even though we were still at a pretty remote island group. Fortunately a day's rest had been the perfect remedy for the back problems of our guest, and we were all back on deck. The great thing about the Banda Islands is that there is just so much to do. It was good to get ashore and catch up with old friends. A tour of the town, museum, market and fort followed by a dive on the lava flow had us covered till lunch. A short rest and we went out to dive an old favorite site named Ship Rock, which has some great honey comb moray eels on it and school of pyramid butterfly fish and fusiliers all around. The next morning it was up at 4:30 and a trek up the volcano for two of the group. The rest visited the village of Lontor and hiked up to the Nutmeg plantation.
Over lunch we repositioned a short distance to the island of Hatta in the south of this mini archipelago. Here I planned a relaxing afternoon wall dive followed by a night dive on the same site looking for flashlight fish. What I had not planned for in this afternoon dive was a huge school of close to a 100 Hammerheads buzzing us at 25 meters. It was the most exciting relaxing dive that any of us had ever done. We had great action from the flashlight fish that night to top off one more amazingly good day.
We visited Ai and Run on our final day in the group and had more hammerhead encounters on both islands. Run was the best with a large hammerhead up in 10 meters. He hung around for 10 minutes or so, and we had three good close encounters with this extremely handsome shark.
Nice way to wrap it up as we set sail towards the island of Nusa Laut in the northern Maluku Islands, which would also be our last before flying from Ambon the day after that. The sunset was a stunner as the Banda Islands group sank into the horizon behind us. I guess we all had a lot to think about as the trip drew to an end. What does the future hold for these endangered remote regions. For Banda Neira, the main island in the Banda group, it has been a downhill slide since I first visited in 1981. The big fish are almost gone from here. The harbor was full of trash on our arrival.
On the outer more remote islands that we visited during this trip, it is still good and there are still new surprises to be found. It has become obvious to me that the only way to protect these areas from pillage is to support the dwindling populations on these islands. Only they can be the true guardians. We will plan more focused awareness programs for these villages on our future trips, and will be making a presentation that can shared with everyone ashore and perhaps help to install even more pride and determination. Let's hope there is still a fighting chance for what little marine wilderness there is left in these Forgotten Islands.
Banda Sea, November 2015
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