For the final leg of this adventure, we headed to Indonesia for two weeks of diving off a liveaboard ship through The Forgotten Islands of the Banda Sea.
We started our visit in the town of Saumlaki on Yamdena Island in Indonesia. Not quite sure where this is? Neither were we. It took us four flights from New Zealand to get to this tiny island, and each stop seemed more remote than the last. Saumlaki is the capital of the Tanimbar Islands, a chain of islands on the eastern side of Indonesia separating the Banda Sea and the Arafua Sea.
This town is not on the beaten path whatsoever. The tiny airport is still being built, and when we landed we had to walk through a small building still covered in scaffolding. Later, as we wandered around the town, we were surprised by how untouched this place was from the western world. As we walked by the shops no one called out to us or invited us to shop. They just stared at us, curious and smiling. It was clear that tourists don’t usually come through town.
Soon we realized no one spoke a word of English, and it hit me suddenly—I hadn’t learned anything in Bahasa before coming. I felt so useless not being able to even call out a greeting or say thank you. Luckily we finally were approached by a young man named Augustine. He told us he was the English teacher in town, and would we mind if he walked with us to practice his English? We were both thrilled to have him as an interpreter and guide. His English was rough but good enough and we had so many questions. He walked us around town and down to the harbor, where many small boats were tied up for the night. He explained that they all came to shop in Saumlaki from smaller neighboring islands. As we walked along the harbor he noticed his uncle’s boat tied up. He and some cousins had traveled four hours to get there so they could buy basic supplies like rice and meat. They would spend the night at the harbor and then travel back the next day. They were just settling into “bed” on their little boat.
Later Augustine joined us for dinner and helped me make a basic primer for learning Bahasa.
Everyone else at the hotel was curious about us, too. The hotel was full of Indonesia government workers. We never figured out what they were doing there, but they all wanted to take pictures with us and teach me Bahasa. I made lots of friends there. It was my last day of being “connected” to the internet and so I was sitting on the deck trying to finish all my work, but I was constantly interrupted by all the men who wanted to know who I was, where I was from, etc. Of course I realized it was time to shut my laptop!
You might already know that Indonesia is primarily a Muslim country, and we did hear the call to prayer from the Mosque nearby.
But we soon found out that we were in the Christian part of Indonesia. During the two-week, 500-mile sail across the Banda Sea, every island we were on and almost every person we met was Christian. This part of Indonesia is dominated by Christians, which was another surprise for us.
After a night in Saumlaki we excitedly boarded the Arenui, our home for the next two weeks. The Arenui is a Phinisi, a classic Indonesian wooden sailing vessel built in 2007, designed to carry 16 guests and 22 staff through the waters of Indonesia for liveaboard diving tours. It’s the ultimate way to go diving, and we knew how lucky we were to be on board!
Here’s a day in the life aboard the Arenui. We wake up early and have a light breakfast in the dining room (fresh baked croissants, tropical fruit and coffee for me) and then put on our wetsuits and jump in the tender boat for the first dive with our guide and two other dive buddies. We dive in amazing waters full of crazy creatures and pristine reef. We jump back in the tender boat and head to the ship, where the staff take care of our gear (they even pull my wetsuit off my body) and hand me a warm towel. Then we wander into the dining room for “Big Breakfast,” which we ordered before the dive. I usually had fried noodles, eggs and pancakes. Mark was partial to the french toast and omelets. Breakfast is barely finished and it’s time to get our wetsuits back on and jump in the tender for Dive 2. Each dive is in a new location (the ship moves while we eat or sleep so that we never dive the same reef twice). Then it’s lunch, another dive, snack time, another dive. There may be time for a massage on the top deck or some down time to read or chat with guests, and then it’s dinner, which is a casual but elegant three-course affair under the stars upstairs in the Sky Lounge. Could we get used to this? Yes!
Mark and I were constantly giggling after each dive, thrilled and amazed at how fantastic every moment was. Neither of us got tired of diving, and Mark was one of only two guests who did every dive. (I passed on the final night dive. I was about to rally and “force” myself to go, but then I thought, “You’re only doing it so you can say you did all 42 dives.” That seemed fabricated, so I quickly opened a beer to disqualify me from diving any more that day).
The marine life and creatures were superb. The Banda Sea is very different from the Caribbean, where we’ve done most of our diving. The diversity and health of the coral is striking. In the Indian and Pacific Ocean region there are over 1400 species of coral, whereas in the Caribbean there are about 70. Mark is going to post his own blog with his photos, but here are just a few to give you an idea.
The highlight of the diving for me was at Gunung Api, a volcanic island in the middle of nowhere known for just one thing: sea snakes.
These gorgeous snakes live on land but hunt in the ocean during the day, and if you jump in the water anywhere near the island, they swim right up to you. They are curious and want to check you out, and will even swim around your legs or through your fingers. Except watch out, they happen to be lethally poisonous. Yes, that’s right. I did a double-take when Edu said this to us, until he explained that their mouths are so tiny they can’t get their teeth around your finger. The snakes can bite you on the earlobes and between fingers, so everyone wore a cap on the first dive and kept their fists closed, but loosened up on subsequent dives
When we first got in the water we were all a bit hesitant.
But right away we loved how interactive and playful they were!
To really appreciate how beautiful and spectacular they are, check out some of the video that Mark shot:
A big part of the trip for Mark was falling in love (or shall we call it an obsession?) with underwater photography. He had dabbled in it before, but for this trip he bought a new underwater camera and housing set-up. He honestly didn’t know much about photography before this trip, but he definitely improved about one-thousand percent over these two weeks!
There were several experienced underwater photographers on board, including Edu, the cruise director, and all of them graciously took Mark under their wings and helped him learn at record speed. After each dive they would look over his shots and explain to him what he did wrong, how he could have done better, and within a couple of hours he was underwater again applying what he learned. He absorbed everything and I think that made his teachers want to work with him more. By the end of the trip they were calling him, “Daniel-San.” The highlight of his new found fascination with photography was the last night of the trip, when the crew voted on the best underwater shot of the trip. Mark’s sea snake photo won and I think it was a victory for Mark and all his gurus.
We also really enjoyed our topside time, getting to know the crew and the other guests. We made fast friends with Chris and Izzy, a couple from Temecula who were also our dive buddies. By the end of the two weeks they felt like old friends and we made plans to see each other again in Mammoth and Rosarito.
Ronald, our dive guide, was fantastic, too!
He was a master at finding tiny creatures. We would laugh underwater watching him comb through a sea anemone with his pointer, and then reach for a finer more delicate pointer, and then eventually reach for his magnifying glass. I don’t know HOW he found all the things he found, but here are some shots of some very tiny creatures!
We had a lot of fun with Edu and Nic, the cruise directors/dive masters, and Wawan, a younger dive master who we bonded with big time.
We really enjoyed getting to know all of the other guests on board, too. On the first day everyone was a bit quiet and I felt everyone checking each other out, wondering if the group was going to get along and mesh well. We knew it would be very close quarters for 14 days, and I think everyone was a bit nervous. But after about 24 hours we all breathed a sigh of relief–it was a perfect group that got along really well!
Mark and I both commented about how interesting everyone was to us. We learned so many different things from each of the guests. For example, Larry and Leslie from New York have been on dozens of liveaboards and had tons of experience diving around the world, so we picked their brains about all this and learned a ton. Jack and Chan from Malaysia were an eccentric, friendly couple who entertained us with funny stories (and Chan’s enthusiasm for the diving was contagious). Ken and Annette from Denmark were on their third trip on the Arenui, so they convinced us we had found the best ship. Though already in their late 60s, they impressed us with their adventurous spirit. After the Arenui they were off to Borneo to camp in the jungle with the orangutans. Keith and Mari were another sweet couple who happened to live not that far away either–Riverside! There was a honeymoon couple from Australia, Cheryl and David. Indrah and Youke, the couple from Indonesia, taught us so much about this part of the world. They were so kind and generous, and in fact, when we mentioned we were headed to Bali after this trip, they said, “You must stay in our villa!” They arranged for their cousin to pick us up at the airport and bring us there, too!
I also dove into the language of Bahasa and found the challenge of learning it addicting and satisfying. It is a very simple language with minimal conjugations and no verb tenses and once I figured out the basics I was determined to master it. Ok, so I didn’t master it, but I really enjoyed trying! A couple of the crew members plus Youke and Indrah, our new friends from Jakarta, helped me fill my notebook with vocabulary, and I had fun making everyone laugh with my broken Bahasa.
Along the way we stopped at several villages. The first was on the super remote island of Dawera. Before we went diving the first day some of the crew went ashore to pay respects to the chief and ask for permission to dive near the island. This chief was surprised and touched that we had asked for permission. After a while he said, “You guys want to see lots of fish? I can show you a good spot.” So that morning the captain and the chief went out and marked the spot where an underwater pinnacle hovers under the surface at about 60 feet. A few dive masters popped down to check and it out and they were stoked to see so much life in this secret spot! We dove there that afternoon and it was amazing!
Visiting the villages was really cool. The first one on Dewara island was such a unique place. We were impressed by how orderly the layout of the village was.
The government had granted funding to build small paved road all the way across the island. It wasn’t wide enough for a car (which was fine since there weren’t any cars on the island) but it kept the island orderly and neat and the villagers road their bicycles up and down it.
On Alor island we visited another village. This is a bigger, busier island with lots of shopping and ferry traffic.
The Lateuvi village was awaiting us to perform a traditional show. It was a bit contrived, but I enjoyed the dancing and the singing.
I got to use my Bahasa with the women and had so much fun making conversation with them. They also got a kick out of Mark and I trying beetlenut (all of the other guests declined, but I laughed when I looked across the circle at Mark chewing it at the same time I popped some in my mouth). It’s sort of like chewing tobacco and supposedly gives you a high, though we didn’t feel anything. All it did was make our teeth red.
Another highlight for me was diving at Nil Desperandum, an island in the middle of the Banda Sea known for schooling hammerhead sharks. Now part of the excitement came from the build-up by Edu. Edu is a Spanish divemaster who spent many years diving in the Red Sea, where he became at expert at diving with hammerhead sharks. Hammerheads are not common in the Banda Sea except for this one tiny island, and the Arenui only passes by this island twice a year, so he was really excited to look for his “spirit animal.” During the dive briefing he gave us very detailed instructions on how to behave. We were not supposed to make any noise, no quick movements, and if possible, even lower our heart rates. The hammerheads would know we were there as soon as we jumped in the water, but it was up to us to be quiet enough for them to come by and check us out. The plan was to drop into an area with a lot of current, use a reef hook to grab on, and just sit and wait for the sharks. If enough hammerheads showed up, Edu would direct us to swim out to the big blue and if we were lucky, the hammerheads might school around us for awhile.
For some of the divers, this seemed a bit boring, especially because during the first dive no sharks showed up. We were all just literally hanging out waiting for them.
But there was something about the chase and the wait that I loved. We dove the same spot four times, and each time we were rewarded with a little bit more action. On the second dive a hammerhead swam by us just once, pretty far away. On the third dive two swam by, still far away. On the last dive one circled us for a good while, one time swimming right up to me, giving me the thrill of a lifetime. These guys are huge and very prehistoric looking. We never got a school to circle us, but I just loved every minute of the hammerhead hunt! Sorry, no good pics of this though.
For the last night I helped organize for a goodbye song to thank the crew. Youke helped me choose a traditional song in Bahasa, and Wawan and I practiced on the deck a few times to prepare.
I convinced the rest of the guests to learn the song and perform for the crew. It went perfectly with just one hiccup—I missed the party. I blame it on the tequila shots before dinner. Sadly I was passed out for the whole thing. It looked like a lot of fun, and the crew told me they were so touched by the guests singing that a few of them shed a tear. And apparently the crew’s goodbye performance was quite entertaining, too! (They took a bit of a different angle!)
It was definitely a trip of a lifetime, but hopefully our lifetime will make room for a few more trips like this one. Mark and I confirmed once again that life at sea is utter perfection, and we truly treasured every moment of our time on the Arenui.
Coming soon! Mark will write the next blog and include all his best photos with stories and descriptions. Here’s a sneak peek: