As we continue from Raja Ampat South...
Day 6: Dive 17 at Melissa’s Garden with Abner. 70ft, 61min
After motoring all night, we’ve left Misool and are now in the Pyanemo (central) region of Raja Ampat, and this is our first dive in the area. You'd think no dive pioneer would name an unsightly reef after his own daughter, and indeed, this reef is home to some of the most beautiful hard corals we’ve yet seen. Small fishes darted in and out of the staghorns, and a school of spadefish lazed about a cleaning station, unperturbed by our approach.
Underneath one of the bommies we saw a WOBBEGONG for the first time!
We’re back with Abner, and no further mishaps for now.
Dive #18 at My Reef. 81ft, 49min
In preparation for the stronger currents yet to come, the divemasters had us practice a negative entry here (where we’d dump all the air out of the BCD before back rolling off the boat). We’re handed our cameras, and 1-2-3 go – no false starts and we all made it.
We stayed close to the reef and were fine, though at times it was hard to find a clean ledge to latch the reef hook onto – every bit of free space was covered in coral! Chewie found another sleeping wobbegong underneath one of the ledges.
Dive #19 Rainbow Reef. 63ft, 68min
Rainbow reef is a certainly a colorful one. We kept relatively shallow and spent most of the time drifting, along the way finding some shrimps and xenocrab on a whip coral, squat lobster inside a sponge, and a couple of spotted sweetlips. “Diagonal-banded sweetlips,” corrected Andy. And as we floated by the ledges near the end, Grace began to gesticulate wildly – she’s found a banded sea krait! Nineteen dives in, we’ve completed the first row of our bingo card!
On this dive Abner jumped in and forgot his mask. For a few seconds I thought he was just going to descend without one and be very, very impressed (and a bit alarmed).
Dive #20 Yeben Besar. 56ft, 68min
Chewie reports of a tassled – or was it banded? – toadfish sighting, along with a variety of squat lobsters. Abner found a bobtail squid, which apparently bury themselves in the sand, leaving only their eyes out to hunt.
I sat this one out for a massage instead. Deibby, the boat housekeeper, is a most excellent masseuse.
Day 7 Dive #21 Citrus Ridge near Yanggefo, with Coco. 67ft, 63min
At the dive briefing we’re cautioned that we’d be facing more current the farther north we go, and so we did; the first part of the dive was a slow swim in the sand channels (home to plenty of shrimp-gobies) from one ridge to another. Once we reached the shallows, there was life aplenty: we saw another wobbegong, octopus, a Papuan goby that looks like it’s missing latter half of its body, a Laing island flatworm, and plenty of bannerfish (with the occasional pair of co-schooling Moorish idols).
Dive #22 Batu Dalam. 95ft 47min
We had our first real negative entry here, a race to the bottom. The current wasn’t overpowering but enough to keep us finning throughout. Around 80ft down Coco found a pair of Bargibanti pygmy seahorses, and after blowing way too much of our air trying to photograph them we resolved to stay a bit shallower. But then Coco found another pair, this time Hippocampus denise, so to the deep we go… In the shallows all the lilac-purple corals hanging down from rocks reminded me of a wisteria garden.
Side note: for the entire duration of the trip Michelle, to our befuddlement, has been mixing up pygmy seahorses and nudibranches… it’s the word “pygmy.”
Also, someone wrote their PhD thesis on pygmy sea horses! We really didn’t think our lives through, did we…
Dive #23 Manta Ridge. 37ft, 68min
Here again we did a negative entry for a chance to see MANTAS! Along the leeward side of the reef we swam for about 10 minutes before arriving at the cleaning station. We hooked in and waited (with a periodic kick to the face by our neighbors in case we got complacent) … and out of the blue appeared one manta, then two, then more! We counted up to six at some point, including an almost entirely black manta, a Raja special. Andy had advised us to make eye-contact with them, though I’m not sure what that did, other than maybe encourage them to tail whip us some more. We'd forgotten to ask, do they have stingers??
We were wondering what on earth Matt was doing the whole dive. Turns out he’d read somewhere that some mantas liked to be tickled by diver bubbles in their underbelly…
These creatures are elegant (and goofy looking) as they are powerful. When they got close we could feel the currents move with each flap of the wing. Perhaps it was the eye contact – they seemed not to mind our intrusion, into what must be the most satisfying of spa visits in nature.
Dive #24 Arborek Jetty. 46ft 63min
This was a dive I almost sat out on but was so happy not to have skipped. We were just awash in signaling lights: in rapid succession Coco’s found a bobtail squid! A cuttlefish (or two?)! A blue ringed octopus! In our excitement we spent so long away from the jetty there that I thought we’d never actually make it there. But we did, and below it were schools of spadefish and juveniles, an enormous map puffer, and sundry other creatures. And then Chewie found more squids. By the time we saw a regular reef octopus, it was just yet another cephalopod. Oh another walking shark! Coco was on fire! We were the envy of everyone else’s group.
In his logbook Chewie scribbled, “most epic night dive!”
Day 8 Dive #25 Friwen Bonda with Andy. 68ft, 66min
Some more motoring overnight, and we’ve arrived at the Dampier Strait, famed for its strong currents and biodiversity (a very interesting article on the Indonesian throughflow here), and less so for the visibility.
After dropping in at the head of the reef finger we drifted along… a bashful shark here and there, a tangle of triggerfishes flitted by, and a small family of bumphead parrotfishes materialized from the murk. Enormous as they are they seem to be pretty wary of us.
Dive #26 Mioskon. 64ft, 64min
A beautiful drift dive full of life (and puri on the lee side), among the residents here are a tiny Moya’s dragonet, banded pipefish, more wobbegongs, and a slightly too teethy clownfish. To my delight we swam into a massive school of topsail chubs (!) mixed in with snappers, bignose unicornfish, and the occasional giant trevally. Back on the boat, Andy wryly remarked of the chubs: “I was hoping for a misidentification… then I was hoping one would get eaten.”
Dive #27 Yenbuba Village near Kri. 76ft, 65min
We floated, per a gentle current, with the utmost effortlessness for the first half of this dive. Then the current ended and we had to ahem, swim. In addition to regular – red tooth triggerfish, puri, chromis and anthias in the shallows – we spotted another peacock mantis and a white leafy scorpionfish.
Dive #28 Yenbuba Jetty. 47ft, 68min
This site was similar to last night’s dive at Arborek Jetty; we saw here more marbled shrimps, porcelain crabs, an ambiguously not very blue ringed octopus, in addition to an orange (!) mantis shrimp and white toadfish. Grace claims to have found a phantom bobtail squid that no one has any photographic evidence of. At the end of the dive a pelagic juvenile fish with a goofy face floated by.
Andy forgot to put batteries in his torch on this trip and had only a dim backup light, so we were largely left to our own devices. It seems like we did okay finding things!
Day 9 Dive #29 Sawadarek Jetty with Tamrin. 59ft, 71min
Unfortunately I’ve come down with a cold and sat this one out, which was probably the right decision but not made without immense regret:
Dive #30 Cape Kri. 62ft, 62min
This is the site where the ichthyologist Gerry Allen supposedly counted a record-breaking 374 species in one dive. By now we know what that means: currents. We got down quickly; however, Tamrin deemed this wasn’t the best day to stay put at the head of the reef, so off we went with the current, through a balled up school of jacks and giant trevallies eyeing us incredulously, into an extended blitz of parrotfish poo. As we surfaced, a small shoal of mouth mackerels darted about, their jaws comically agape.
Dive #31 Sardine Reef. 72ft, 53min
Like Cape Kri, Sardine Reef is one of the most famous sites in the Dampier Strait. This time, we worked against the current for a good 15-20 minutes to get to the “sweet spot” where fishes congregate. We were rewarded with sightings of quite few reef sharks, rock groupers and brown marbled grouper (“Nope, Malabar”), barracudas, moray eels, napoleon wrasse, a giant bumphead parrotfish, as well as a surprise visit from a free-swimming wobbegong! I wish the visibility were better, but this reef was resplendent with life!
Dive #32 Tapokreng Jetty with Andy. 47ft, 67min
For the New England divers among us, this site at first glance wasn’t unlike all the shore dives off of Cape Ann in Massachusetts: sandy bottom, rubble, with a good number of flounders. But look and listen a bit more closely, and suddenly the sand was staring right back at us with gleaming eyeballs, and tiny feet scuttled across the ocean floor. We saw so many critters here: hairy octopus (Matt, having missed it earlier, still hasn’t seen a blue ring), spotted flatheads, a white mantis shrimp, two giant hermit crabs eating a dismantled head of a hammerhead shark (how on earth did that come about?? Well the hammerhead technically is on our bingo card), a white mantis shrimp, a mated pair of red frogfish (that Chewie and Paula witnessed release an egg raft), a Bobbit worm on the hunt, and for all the waspfish I missed earlier they’re out in full force. And according to Andy I saw something rather special: a pair of slender errr Pegasus sea moths* that should’ve been on our Bingo card instead of, say, Rhinopias… that doesn’t live here.
Incidentally it’s the night of the super-blood-blue-moon. Lucky us, we were treated to a spectacular display of thick clouds and darkness.
Day 10 Dive #33 Chicken (Nugget) Reef with Abner. 76ft, 62min
Somehow our days have become all melded together: time flies when all we do is eat dive sleep and repeat. When is it going to end was a question I never wanted to ask, but alas this was going to be our last set of morning dives.
We spent much of the dive swimming in the current, directly against or orthogonally, as perhaps the SCUBA equivalent of “going to school uphill both ways, in the snow.” Here were the usual: barracudas, bannerfish, jacks, pyramid butterflyfish, and reef sharks, but even on the last day there are new fishes for me to learn: many-spotted sweetlips (it’s a pretty accurate name for Plectorhinchus chaetodonoides), and a grouper (possibly a strange-looking long-fin) that stumped even Andy. At the end we noticed a peculiar looking fish, leaf-like and swaying in the surf. “A juvenile rock mover wrasse,” duh!
Dive #34 Blue Magic. 88ft, 55min
Still thinking at point that our flights were 24+ hours away (should've checked for cancellations!), four of us, plus the Germans and Argentinians, all piled into one dinghy for the last dive. Our negative entries have increasingly taken on a sense of urgency, and this one no less so. We took a straight shot for the bottom (much like the stock market these days).
There was a bit of everything: a careless white tip reef shark came within striking distance before nope’ing out of my reach, a couple of mantas teased us from afar, all the while a hawksbill turtle blithely chomped on, completely ignoring our bubbles in the increasingly strong current.
And so ended a most magical trip. We’re thankful for many things, most of all the warm and welcoming crew of Samambaia (this entire time we thought it meant something in Indonesian, it’s actually the name of a Brazilian flower that the boat owner liked). There’s Zainul, who makes coffee every morning (and saved me from botching an instant Mie Goreng ramen or two), but spends his free time reading and re-reading the fish books, and nothing excites him like a snorkeling expedition. There’s the Javanese crew – captain Puji and his machinists (also doubling as musicians), Bono (from Solo) and Bethur – who have been working on the boat since November. While we slumbered they motored, sometimes through the entire night. There’s chef Akee, who conjured up beautiful meals in a kitchen the size of a bunk bed, and stuffed us like geese destined for foie gras. He notes everyone’s food allergies and preferences on a little white board next to where he plans out the menus. There’s Arfah, who, along the rest of the crew, welcomed us back from each dive with an enthusiastic “raaahhh,” and after things are squared away, liked to dance. There’s Deibby, who worked variously as housekeeper, kitchen helper, and masseuse, and is immensely proud of her entire diving family. Each of them – along with the rest of the crew – work long hours on extended trips away from their families for weeks to months at a time, and we could not be more grateful for their kindness and dedication.
We spent the last day on the deck listening to them belt out one Indonesian pop song after another. In the incandescent light of the late afternoon we got all the guides (our very own raja ampat) and the entire group together for a celebratory photo (or fifty) of jobs well done. We’d spent over 30 hours underwater, saw more fish and invertebrate species than... probably not 1,500 but many. We learned how to handle currents a bit better. (And might I say, I kind of like them?) How to do negative entries and use reef hooks. The mood was festive… but as is with every happy memory, tinged with a drop of bittersweet. So long, four kings!
Here are some thoughts on Samambaia, per Chewie (I tend to concur):
Our experiences were beyond spectacular. The boat itself is absolutely beautiful. The passenger rooms were spacious and comfortable, with strong AC and ensuite bathroom complete with an awesome rainfall shower that got seriously hot. Amenities on-board were seemingly endless with unlimited soft drinks, snacks, and espresso available 24/7. The deck was well-arranged with each diver having their own designated bin for equipment and separate rinse tanks for wetsuits/boots, masks, and camera gear. There were even on-deck showers for a quick rinse immediately following the dive. The camera room with abundant electric outlets and counter space made it very convenient to setup the dive photography equipment and keep things charged and ready to go.
The crew services were similarly well thought-out. Between each dive there was either a meal or snack. I don’t think we were ever hungry during the entirety of the trip. They even had glasses of hot chocolate waiting for us after our night dives! The crew carefully prepped all of our dive equipment, including cameras, and transported to and from the dive tenders for each dive. Needless to say, we felt pretty pampered. Each night, our wetsuits were washed and hung to dry for us and at the end of the trip they gave all of our dive gear a good rinse and dry.
We’ll be back.
We didn’t get a chance to meet the owner of the boat, Gian Paolo, but his wife Anita was an absolute delight. We’d been corresponding with her for months asking endless questions, and found out only shortly before departure that she was coming on the trip with us. Ironically, Anita doesn’t like anything to do with water – scuba, swimming, beaches, or otherwise, and we’ve no idea how she puts up with all of this. Always gracious and full of smiles, Anita has some incredible life stories to tell, should you meet her (and you should).
One more thing: Andy, whose wry sense of humor has grown on us, likes to understate and undersell everything from dive trips to bird-of-paradise treks. So in that spirit we’ll put in a plug for the new shop he’s opening in Alor. If you ever find yourself in that far-flung corner of the world, go see Andy Shingler. It’s called Lazy Turtle Dive. In his own words, “there’s no internet, electricity is unreliable, and there’s probably no running water.” But there’s plenty of fish, and he knows a fish or two.
*Corrigendum: It's less than 24 hour since this post went up, and Andy, true to form, has scrutinized our fish ID and found something amiss about that sea moth. What was that about having no electricity and internet in Alor?