The Seven Seas News - December 2015
Into the Heart of El Nino: Banda Sea to Raja Ampat, December 2015
Trip Report, photos and videos by Hunter Lenihan
Denpasar - Makassar - Ambon:
The Ring of fire, Spice islands, Banda the land of nutmeg, center of marine biodiversity, on-going tragedies of man dominating nature, and the four kings (Raja Ampat). So far the adventure has gone as smoothly and calmly as the sea was to be for the next two weeks. Flying through Hong Kong, Denpasar, Makassar, and Ambon - 20 hours of dreamy flights - I arrived in a hot, steamy, green-blue mix of heaven and hell. Heaven in terms of the beautiful people and unimaginable marine life, and a bit of hell in terms of the poverty, pollution, and destruction of nature. I had previously never thought seriously about visiting Indonesia - what a mistake. I cannot imagine living a full life without seeing, feeling, smelling, and tasting this magical place.
It is ironic to have thought so much about ENSO (El Nino - Southern Oscillation) and travel to its heart, accompany The Queen of the Sea and her friends for a two week cruise to where this weather pattern begins. The breakdown of the Indonesian low pressure system disrupts a great vertical circulation cell which normally sucks a great mass of warm water westwards in the Indo-Pacific ocean. During El Nino conditions the winds cease and a great mass of western Pacific warm water, standing a full meter higher than in the east, flows back across the Pacific, spilling against the Central American land mass and pushing north along the CA coast and south to Peru (Fig. 1). This effect causes coral bleaching and storms across the countless islands and atolls of the Indo-Pacific but also brings storms as well as hammerheads and Mahi-Mahi back home in CA. What is left for Indonesia is a consistent high-pressure zone with doldrums, glassy seas, and hot (panas!) and steamy weather. Such is the heart of El Nino.
3 December 2015 - Ambon: The Seven Seas
Surrounded by rusting tankers and half-sunken seiners, moored just offshore of burning brush piles, silhouettes of coconut trees, and steep green hills, my new mates say this is a true Indonesian sunset. The Seven Seas, a burgundy and cream Indonesian phinisi schooner, is a beautiful site. Made to cut the chop and swell, fast like a pirate boat should be, and loaded with custom-designed skiffs, scuba tanks and nitrox, the Seven Seas is run by a crack crew of 15 able bodies ready to serve, joke, and share. Aboard they're all sporting their company polo shirts. It's a highly professional crew led by two highliner guides, Linda and Karl, who are ready and willing to teach us many things about marine life and life in Indonesia. As we prepare to pull anchor Karl remains calm amidst a flurry of last minute shopping requests, changing flight plans, lost baggage, and other forms of chaos expected of young people arriving from around the world.
We leave the tree-lined shore, floating garbage, and 9 yr old boys shooting off their potato-hair spray cannon for an overnight cruise to find hammerheads, bubble corals, flashlight fish, blue-ringed octopus, oceanic mantas, and crazy colored nudibranchs. Oh yes, and seahorses, the search for which is a passion aboard this boat. I am made to feel at home right away. It's already so different from a research cruise, where you learn the rules and petty quibbles of someone else's workboat. This will be a very well-catered, comfortable adventure. Dinner was delicious and after a few sips of Belvedere I landed hard on my soft, cool bunk below the foredeck.
4 December - Nusa Laut, Ameth Point
I suit up with my host for the first time and it is obvious she is an experienced diver, in control, confident, and thoroughly enjoying it all. Once underwater I see that she is a naturally good diver. And the sea life, oh my gosh! This coral reef is nothing like those in French Polynesia. Soft corals, anemones big as VW buses, giant hard corals, including Tubastrea (and other dendrophylids), huge favids, Acropora, Porites with 10-cm long polyps, but only a few pocilloporids, as there is little room for poor competitors on this reef. There are so many fish you cannot turn your head fast enough to see them all. Big bumphead parrotfish, triton triggers, Giant, big eye, and blue fin trevally, midnight and red snappers, dogtooth tuna, assorted sweetlips, fusiliers, soapfish, and blackfin and pikehandle barracuda. The two reefs rising from the white sandy bottom had peacock groupers, copper sweeper fish, painted spiny lobster, lionfish, and much more.
We saw a fairly large (60 cm long) giant clam (tiny compared to those we saw later in Raja Ampat!), a beautiful diagonal-striped sweetlips, black snapper, pipefishes galore, and anemones and soft-corals that remind me of Avatar.
After snorkeling we were met by crewmen Nico and Big John for cocktails on the beach at Molana, where a defunct café and bungalow business lay decaying in the jungle. After an hour or so a speedboat arrived carrying our mates, a son, a Russian beauty, and the two Boyz, one handsome and suave and the other a powerful, warm, and very funny. They all seem very cool and lots of fun!
5 December - Molana and Nusa Laut (Athem Point)
Got our team's routine down: coffee and fruit with yogurt at 6 am; Big breakfast after the first dive; another dive and then lunch; a rest followed by an afternoon or night dive, then cocktails and a delicious dinner. This is the life. Boy are we going to get fat!
Swam the deep channel to Molana after coffee. Giant fields of beige and brown anemones and soft corasl, and Porites with the dangling polyps. Saw whip corals for the first time, and a giant school of blue-streak fusiliers. So many species of butterflyfish that I could not keep up (by 13 December I had counted 23 species). Many different parrotfish as well. Onshore we played with the sand crabs, some of which were ripe with berries (eggs). The Boyz apparently had a successful check out dive and both seem like good divers. We found a hilarious laminated instruction manual left for guests of the shuttered resort, explaining many things in Indo-English, including that it was "Brohibited" to take your key when diving.
A bit murky (kabur!) because of strong upwelling. We saw a few blue seastars (Linckia laevigata) but feather stars (Comanthus sp.) everywhere. There was a sharp thermocline (Mid-80s to high-70s in about a 1 m of depth). Back on board the crew was trying to solve a serious problem of a broken gearbox on the starboard anchor winch. They soon fixed it by detaching the cable and using the port side winch to haul it up. They worked fast, quietly, and efficiently. Only highliners only on this boat.
Good dive with the team on two pinnacles where we saw basically the same fauna as 4 Dec.
Ditto. On the steam back to Molana a 6 ft wide devil ray (Mobula) jumped out of the water and backflipped twice. Dinner off the shore Molana and then a steam that night for the Banda Sea, "Ghost Island", and land of nutmeg.
6 December-Suangi ("The Ghost")
I woke up at 04:30 and sipped coffee with Capitan Wahyu. When the sun rose Gunung Api the volcano appeared on the horizon. Banda and the surrounding spice islands, sought for the nutmeg that grows on trees, and that was once as precious as gold and fought for in a bloody succession of colonial takeovers and rebellions.
We soon could see our destination, Suangi, the sugarloaf rock with booby and frigate colonies.
We saw several lionfish, huge bumphead parrotfishes, a large and curious dogtooth tuna, and played with a fearless hawksbill turtle. Giant vase sponges perched on the wall, which Jefrey seemed to enjoy, and fields of red, pink, white, and purple gorgonians along the vertical down deep. The walls had great encrusting communities, and Acropora fields above. We found a black spotted and moray eel living together in the same hole. Back on board while reflecting on the beautiful sea life I realized the faces of the crew were also beautiful. With coffee I was introduced to Amy Winehouse's music. Wow that girl could sing.
Dived on a pinnacle that rose to 60 ft, on the other side of the island. Truly giant sponges, giant Porites of several species, a big school of dogtooth tuna, a large blubberlip snapper, and 4.5 ft long Malabar grouper, who disappeared under a large tabular Acropora.
With brown and masked boobies flying above we swam hard and fast, seeing a big school of midnight snapper and big-eyed trevally, as well as triton triggers and at least six spp. of parrotfish.
We saw our first hammerhead but only a brief hint of its tail as it swam away. They are here. Another hawksbill turtle swam around looking curious. Zonation of the sessile fauna is clear- gorgonians deepest, sometimes with big sponges, hard corals at medium depths, and soft corals with anemones, poritids, and some favids in the shallows. I have not seen one stalk or frond of macroalgae, so there are plenty of herbivores keeping the algae at bay for the benefit of corals. However, all is not OK. The hammerhead is the first and only shark we have seen so far, and not many groupers either, as both are severely overfished in most places in Indonesia. Shark fishing boats have come thorough and killed all but a few roving schools of scalloped hammerheads - All for a few (needed) dollars for the local and wedding soup for the Chinese.
We saw black trevally, a big moray eel, a large school of dogtooth tuna, and a giant blue stalked anemone with pink clown fish. Lots of Acropora robusta, red-toothed triggerfish of Rea's favorite color aquamarine. Blue-streak fusiliers, red face pufferfish, gorgonians (Plaxuridae), many favids and stalked anemones (Heteractis, Stichodactyla, Edwardsia, Aipastia, Amplexidiscus, and Melithaedae). Also cup corals (Balenophyllia), Tubastrea which looks green underwater to the naked eye but which appears orange in a flash. Also Turbinaria (which I thought was an algae!) and Calcoxonia.
In the late afternoon some of us hiked the island and the Boyz kayaked around it. We had a great fresh fish dinner afterward.
First night dive went pretty well. Saw flashlight fish in caves, and a big painted spiny lobster.
8 December- Banda Besar (Batu kapal- "Ship rock")
Epic dive, my favorite so far. Two amazing pinnacles with hundreds of thousands of juvenile red toothed triggerfish and juvenile pyramid butterflyfish. There was a big sculpin, several morays, my first banded sea krait.
Visited Pulau Pisang (Banana Island), which is home to about 30 families, and located on the way into Banda harbor near ship rock. There is a few small mosques, one being painted pink, and a big sound system that the kids were enjoying, especially when they saw me dancing in my crazy style.
We went into Banda Naira in the evening for a tour from local guide Jeffery. Docked next to a freighter that was offloading but also dumping garbage from the deck into the water. The dock was located next to a classy, famous hotel, where Mick Jagger once stayed. We toured the small museum where the story of Banda and its tragic history is told, but where you learn that the people remember with their heads but not with their hearts. We hiked through Fort Belgica surrounded by Bougainvillea, which also had a great view of the town and nearby volcano, as well as bats sleeping in the cool barracks. Here we saw the spices that were once so intensively sought after. Also checked out the new Club Bintang VOC, and strolled through the streets buying hot corn on the cob and a cool fisherman's hat.
9 December - Banda and back to Hatta
We said goodbye to the Boyz who were scheduled for an early fast boat to Ambon and then off to various parts of the globe. It was great to meet and travel with them, as we heard many good stories about their fast, fun, and full lives. We waved goodbye and headed for the island of Ai, on the way enjoying a large pod of pygmy killer whales and a small family-pod of pilot whales, the male of which was really big.
On this dive we dropped right off a sheer wall right on top of a very large scalloped hammerhead, swimming at about 65 ft. Crap, it's the first dive I did not bring my camera! What a beautiful beast, so majestic and powerful. Others saw a school of about 30 in deeper water where they said the babies swam beneath the adults for protection. Folks chased them down to the nitrox limit of 130 ft. A little farther along a school of dogtooth tuna swam around us, and then another massive school of red-toothed triggerfish juveniles. Up top and heading back to the Seven Seas the sea state, smooth glass everyday so far, began to get choppy in a stiff SE breeze.
Well my camera did us in - no hammerheads on this dive. Instead, we saw more gigantic sponges, beautiful hard corals and soft corals, as well as what looked to me like four wise men in the mantle of a honeycomb oyster. I must be narked!
At about 19:30, with the boat running full speed in open sea, we felt a great shuddering from beneath the ship. The captain cut power and the crew dove right away beneath the hull looking for what we all thought might be a ghost net caught around the prop. Nothing there. The Captain said it felt like an earthquake, which I thought was ridiculous. Well I soon learned not to question him anymore. He called Banda on the Sat phone and learned that a 7.1 Richter scale quake happened deep in the middle of the Banda sea. The quake shook the water such that we felt it intensely aboard ship. Amazing. Also learned that it was terrorists who shot up the community center back in San Bernadino. I am glad to be out here away far from that insanity for a while. We enjoyed cocktails that evening on a small cay near Roon, where the Belgians marooned the last of the English soldiers who they had soundly defeated.
10 December - Dove Ai and sailed all night to Koon
Great dive for huge sponges, gorgonians, the biggest moray eel I have ever seen; also lionfish and batfish, a swim through cave, and a very big malabar grouper.
Another great dive in very clear water with amazing sponges, some of which were being eaten by several species of fish. Also saw quite a big group of Maori wrasse in the cloud darkened shallow water.
11 December: Cabot Sacale ("Too many fish)"
The crew likes to sing a song to the tune of "No woman no cry" - which they have changed to "No current, no fish". Well the current was ripping across the reef and around the point at Koon, where we waited in the hot steamy morning haze for the Blue Manta's divers to finish up. This location does have loads of fish- an incredible amount of biomass - in large part because the local community controls the fishing rights, which apparently has reduced the overall catch. There are many big fish swimming around us, including a school of batfish. We found a crocodile flathead on the bottom.
I began counting the number of butterflyfish and angel fish (13) that we observed, as it is astounding how many there seem to be. Lots of small coral trout here as well, which I think is a good sign. Lots of babies indicate enough adults. We also saw many different triggerfish, including a very aggressive one protecting it's nest in the sand, a big goliath grouper, and two stoic scorpion fish - can you see them both? That night we sailed for Raja Ampat!
12 December: Boo Island - Boo Wall
Wow, Raja Ampat is more beautiful than I could possibly have imagined. Boo Island is located near Misool Eco Resort, an ecotourism resort that has done a great deal for conservation, particularly in the large region that it leases (for 25 yr periods). No one is allowed to fish, extract, or even dive without permission. The result is an amazing abundance and diversity of animals, including many very large old individual fishes and invertebrates. Based on this example it is clear that effective conservation is critical form maintaining some akin to a natural state of affairs. We learned that when the large NGOs protect areas the effort works well in the short term but protection soon dissolves when they are forced to return the zones back to government, who return it to local control. Without continued support and protection the areas are soon fished hard again. Most places we have visited have far few grouper than we have seen so far in Raja Ampat, and those that we have seen are small juveniles. Here at Boo there are many large adults of different species, including several goliaths, one of which was at least 6 feet in length. The Misool reserve area is huge and works well as a private company, employing a flotilla of sea rangers on guard 24/7, and equipped with speedboats deployed from strategically located islets. This is another example that supports the hypothesis that privatization of marine resources is an answer to many conservation challenges. However, aside from the one school of hammerheads, we still have seen only two sharks. They have been hunted nearly to local extinction by the roving shark finning boats funded by the Chinese, and have yet to recover even in this protected area. To decimate these 250 million year old marvels of the sea, just for the sake of wedding soup, is one of the world's great tragedies in my opinion. The problem must be dealt with at the root so hopefully the stories we are beginning to hear about involving Chinese youth turning the tide against shark destruction are true. My friends who visited Raja Ampat in 2009 mentioned massive shark populations. Indonesia suffers from dire poverty so the nearly $200 USD per kilo for shark fin they can get on the black market is ample incentive to break the law. That is almost the per capita yearly income of the country. The answer to this environmental problem is complex but surely begin at the source, stemming the demand through top-down control of markets, and by providing alternatives.
Millions of bait fish, a barramundi eating a sponge, and a turtle eating soft coral. This was a great wall dive where, among other things, I found my first vermetid gastropod.
This is the famous window dive that adorns the cover of many books about Raja Ampat. Before we passed through window we saw painted spiny lobster, beautiful benthic communities, and I learned a little more about Irwan!. Like Jefrey, he is keen on finding seahorses, like this salmon seahorse living on gorgonians.
We went for a cocktail on the beach that evening, where we saw relatively recent turtle tracks and nests, and enjoyed great snacks and enjoyed a beautiful sunset.
13 December: Misool Fiabacet (Whale Rock)
This site had an incredible density and diversity of fish and sessile animals. In fact the biodiversity was beyond comprehension. We saw the highest number and largest fish so far on this trip at this site. Larval and bait fish by the millions, three species of barracuda, wahoo, tuna, narrow-banded Spanish mackeral, millions of bait fish, and several nudibranchs, including this Chromodoris elizabethani.
Misool - Nudi Rock
Named after the many nudibranchs on the reef, and its distinctive shape, Nudi Rock provided a great time, as both the day and night dives were exceptional.
As expected we saw a suite of nudibranch species, another several species of pufferfishes, including a blue-spotted puffer, along with big a small school of pickhandle barracuda resting on the bottom at 90 ft, and many smaller reef fish up shallow.
Irwan and Jefrey were very excited about the Santa Claus seahorse that we found. They spend a substantial amount of time, when possible, looking for pygmy seahorses but are also experts on nudibranchs. So for all the pointing and pontificating about large fish in the water column this crew also has their eyes and minds on interesting benthic animals, especially rare and colorful fascinating invertebrates. We walked on the underside of the huge submerged ledge before we surfaced.
Misool - Barracuda Rock
We went looking for the walking shark which we found but also seemed to scare half-to-death. We saw several painted spiny lobster, a long-nosed snapper, and I believe, a very pretty juvenile scorpion fish.
14 December: Karang Bayangan - Seamount near Misool
Karang Bayangan is a seamount that rises from several thousand feet to about 30-35 ft depth. It is located perhaps 12 km from the nearest island. The feature is known to be very rich in large fish and as a cleaning station for many species, including oceanic manta rays. We arrived early in the morning but like many places in Raja Ampat there were several other dive boats on site, so we had to wait in the queue for our turn. It was well worth the wait. This was one of the best dives of my life.
The seamount was surrounded by many very large fish, including dozens of Maori (Napoleon) wrasse, humphead parrotfish, red snapper, huge schools of big eye and blue trevally, oceanic triggerfish, incredibly big giant trevally, who turned black like many fish when they wanted to be cleaned, yellow snapper, a white tip shark, a grey reef shark, redfin anthias and midnight snappers on the reef, four lion fish in one sponge, yellowtail and batfish fusiliers by the millions, schools of dogtooth tuna, batfish, and much more. It was very exciting. And then it got better! The reef was visited for next 5 hrs by two oceanic mantas, one a very large black female (~6 m in width) and the other a smaller mainly white (albino?) individual (4 m). They circled over and over, and occasionally hovered over the reef to be cleaned. This was an awesome experience and the first time seeing mantas for some of us. We left for our next adventure in the Dampier Strait all very happy and awestruck. The passage through the northern light islands that late afternoon, once again on a blue glassy sea, was beautiful and serene.
15 December: Dampier Strait, M. Sandy Atoll
This area contains the only atoll in all of Raja Ampat, and perhaps Indonesia, and is well known as another large conservation area and cleaning station this time for reef manta rays. Again there was a traffic jam of dive boats waiting their turn, so Karl made yet another good decision by delaying our dive to see more "black and white" things and instead led us to the jetty at Arborek, a very well kept and conservation focused village/island. Here Barefoot Ecologists are hard at work, in part helping to conserve mantas. The story of mantas is another tragic Indonesian tale with roots in China, where thousands of miles to the north one village processes the manta's gill rakers for Chinese medicine. What insanity! There is one island village in Indonesia that illegally harvests Mantas, as well as whales, and Karl said the chief/leader told him he and his people will stop only when all animals are gone. They dry the manta meat and sell it to poor villages in the Indo hills, and then ship the rakers to the Chinese village where it's processed. This barbaric folkloric business is wiping mantas out. Indonesia, pushed by many conservation programs, is trying to step up to end the fishery.
We dropped down right onto the largest giant clam (Tridacna gigas) that I have ever seen, and probably ever will see. There were about 6 very large ones, all over 75 cm, but the largest one was well over a meter in length (actually, for bivalves, height!). We found 9 different species of nudibranchs, and among other interesting, tiny animals an anemone shrimp and baby painted spiny lobster, no longer than 15 mm, living on the pier pilings encrusted with specious invertebrate communities.
We jumped in very excited to see reef mantas at a cleaning station but saw nothing for quite a long time (>25 min), as no "Black and white" appeared. Instead, we poked around on a vibrant bommie community with 100s of thousands of small glass fish and juvenile orange sweeperfish. We examined the commensalism between the gobies who guard the nest, and the blind shrimp that constantly cleans their shared home. Then just as we were about to surface we spotted a manta at the cleaning bommie, just up current from us. It was another breath taking experience. The manta was probably about 8 ft across its wingspan.
16 December: Mioskon
We saw another very large giant clam, and after much hunting a wobbegong shark. What a trippy critter.
I now love diving on seamounts in the middle of nowhere. This dive was another exciting experience of seeing a few sharks, a huge school of bigeye trevally, hunting for seahorses with Irwan, and getting dive bombed, on for a few seconds by an oceanic manta. I loved the ascent and safety stop floating in mid ocean playing games with my new dive mate.
This was one of the greatest adventures of my lucky, lucky life. The Seven Seas crew and guides are the best in the world and incredible good naturalists. I loved them as people as well and feel as though I have made a set of new friends. I cannot thank them enough for all they have shown and shared with us. I surely cannot thank my host enough as well. Now for another big meal before I pack!
Banda Sea, December 2015
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