By Susie Erbe
Arriving by flight from Bali we eagerly boarded the Damai II Dive Liveaboard, which was to be our home for the next 12 days as we cruised from Ambon to Kaimana across the Banda Sea of Indonesia. Joined by fellow diving enthusiasts from the UK, Austria, Germany, Australia and the US we geared up ready for the first “muck dive” in Ambon at “Air Manis”. This shallow dive site consists of a dark sand slope and pier supports encrusted with corals and rope debris where we were to find 11 giant frogfish, ghost pipefish, octopus, devil scorpionfish, cuttlefish, crinoids squat lobsters, moray eels and nudibranchs during our afternoon and night dives. This spectacular start to the trip was just a small taste of what lay in store for us.
The next morning – at not too early o’clock – we backrolled into the warm 28C water at Twilight Zone, so named for all the weird and wonderful critters that can be found there. The dark sand slope was littered with marine debris and trash from old shoes to 80’s style cassette players, amongst which were anemones, algae, soft corals, whip corals and sponges. The whole makes up an excellent place for critters and juvenile fish to hide and hunt! During our 3 long dives we found paddle flap rhinopias, ribbon eels, frogfish, thorny seahorses, Zebra and Xeno crabs, juvenile box fish and ceratosoma nudibranchs. The highlight for me was however the 2 delightful harlequin shrimp that were found busy carting their sea star prize home for breakfast. Also of note were the mating squid which put on an impressive display but the final cherry on the cake was a sighting of a blue whale just as we left the Ambon Bay!!
The Damai II cruised overnight to Banda Islands where we would spend the next three days diving the spectacular coral reefs and visiting the islands famed for their nutmeg plantations and rather brutal history of colonial rule. Our sites included Soangi Island, Pohon Miring, Mandarin Village, Hatta Reef, Pulau Run, Batu Kapal and Lava Flow, where the path of the lava from the most recent eruption of Gunung Api can clearly be seen from the summit to the water. Destroying everything in its path, it is surprising how quickly the underwater life has recovered but a lack of competition has meant the entire area is full to brimming with impressively sized hard acropora corals and abundant with juvenile fish. Other sightings included octopus, bumphead parrotfish, eagle rays, schooling big eye barracuda, turtle and of course the ever colourful mating mandarin fish. To everyone’s delight dive guide Salim spotted a rather lovely Spanish Dancer, complete with different variations of emperor shrimp, swimming down to the reef at Batu Kapal whilst in the swim through at Hatta Reef two bright pink leaf fish were spotted cuddling up next to a sea fan.
A gentle but long overnight crossing brought us to Pulau Manuk, our last volcanic island in the inner ring, famous for the abundance of sea snakes. Perhaps it’s due to the heat of the volcano that these snakes do so well here but whatever the cause we saw olive sea snakes and banded sea kraits beyond count and more than once a diver, including myself, had a close encounter. We spent the day gently drifting over the coral laden ridges and dark sand slopes around the tiny island spying hawkfish, gobies, shrimps and nudibranchs. Bigger residents included tuna, snapper, turtles and schooling barracuda.
Crossing from the inner to the outer ring, Captain Anang and the superb crew brought us to the sea mounts an hour from Pulau Bui. Here the corals and sponges are so pristine its really mind blowing, but when you add in sightings of a hammerhead shark and an oceanic manta ray you’ll always have dives to remember! Pulau Bui provided a sheltered anchorage and the opportunity for Christian to try his hand at stand up paddleboarding. He did superbly well for a beginner, that was until he was scuppered by the wake of the dive tender. Two years ago a huge fishing net had engulfed a large section of reef but today it is covered with corals, sponges and algae and plays host to numerous small critters and numerous reef fish species. Just Andrew and I made the night dive and were delighted to find a tiny frogfish, pygmy cuttlefish, squat lobsters, electric clams, microscopic juvenile squid and a whole array of decorator crabs… 60 minutes did not seem long enough but steak and red wine were calling so we surfaced to join our buddies at the table.
West Papua was our next port of call, making some exploratory dives at Momon Seamount and Batu Cantik (Pretty Rock). The untouched pristine reefs were full with fish from schooling midnight snapper and bumphead parrotfish to schools of barracuda and even a manta ray was spied breaking the surface. The bommies were so encrusted with soft corals that it was hard to spot all the wondrous critters but our keen eyed dive guides were as impressive as ever – finding flatworms, pompom crabs, frogfish, cowries and a black ribbon eel.
The final days of our 12-night trip were spent at the stunning reefs in Triton Bay. Rolling in at “Little Komodo” I was instantly amazed by the abundance of black coral bushes and the ease with which we divers could approach the golden spotted sweetlips. These silvery fish sheltering amidst the coral bushes, coupled with swathes of tiny silversides provided a scene reminiscent of a forest in winter. The current gently pushed us around the reef, then at the corner the pace quickened and some strategic finning was required to keep close to the wall and avoid being swept off into the channel; great fun and wonderful to see the cup corals open ready to absorb the passing nutrients. There are numerous sites dotted around this wide strait with tiny islands and rocks popping out of the sea, capped with tropical forests. Each had stunning coral life and amazing macro from tozuema shrimps and crinoid cuttlefish to ornate ghostpipefish and a hairy octopus. Wobbegong Shark were also spotted resting under coral outcroppings whilst schools of fish happily milled about.
Finishing up the trip was a fabulous whale shark experience at the Bagans in Namatote Strait. A first for 2 of our group, the huge juvenile shark was covered in remoras and feeding hungrily at the surface. With low visibility the photos were not that great but this did not diminish the smiles on our faces; a fabulous way to end an utterly superb trip.
The only thing left is to say how superbly we were all looked after whilst on board. Our crew could not do enough for us. The food has been amazing and the sleep easy to come by on our calm crossings. Looking forward to the next one!
Many thanks to my fellow guests for sharing these great photos; Manfred Wakolbinger, Rita and Christian Heine, David Jackson and Andrew Brien.
Both of these trips include the Forgotten Islands in the itinerary.
Please visit our Triton Bay gallery