By Lauren Salm. Photos by Lauren Salm, Rod Salm, Byron Bishop & Wayne Angelucci.
My family reunited aboard the Seven Seas for a two-week dive trip around the Forgotten Islands, in celebration of my father’s 70th birthday and his retirement from a 50-year career in marine conservation, much of which was spent working in the waters of Indonesia and the Coral Triangle region. Although my sister and I essentially grew up underwater with masks on our faces, it was the first time in over a decade that we had been together again submerged in a tropical ocean rich with marine biodiversity and underwater spectacle. It was a particularly meaningful trip for me personally, as it was my first time returning to Indonesia after being born there and moving away at three-months old, thirty-three years ago nearly to the day.
We couldn’t have asked for a more memorable and enjoyable holiday. We had multiple encounters with spinner dolphins, pygmy blue whales (and swum underwater with them on one occasion, which has been a life-long dream of mine), spotted rays, sea snakes, napoleon wrasse, turtles, octopi, and an assortment of weird and wonderful sea creatures; a sighting by some snorkelers of a dugong mother and calf; a run-in with 6 hammerhead sharks; schooling trevally, giant trevally, barracuda, not to mention a tremendous variety of other colourful fish species.
The coral-scapes could be described by vast explosions of colour, highly varied textures and a diversity of form that proved testament to “nature’s infinity of design” (to borrow the words of my father, Rod Salm). Neon and “electric” colour are not often observed in nature above the surface of the ocean, and yet below they are so abundant they almost become mundane. I kept thinking how completely mind-boggling it would be to witness these colours for the first time had we not now become accustomed to seeing them given their synthetic generation in our every-day lives.
Always after a dive I think I will remember the specifics, details and chronology of events in relation to other dives and the progression of days. However, given the intensity of stimulation and mind-blowing encounters on almost every single dive, looking back everything seems to blend together. It is like time and space compress, creating what can only be described as an exceptionally rich experience that certainly forms a highlight among my lifetime of underwater memories.
The breath-taking diving was made that much richer by the spotless operation, friendly hospitality, overall comfort and delicious dining aboard the Seven Seas.
One particular stand-out day was October 27th, 2017 at Pulau Laut and Pulau Telang in the Maopora Island Group of the Banda Sea. It was the kind of day where it is hard to imagine that so much happened in a mere 24-hour period. We started our morning dive at 7:30 a.m. as usual, and were nearly immediately greeted by a pod of spinner dolphins playfully heading out to sea. As we approached our dive site we saw the snorkeler’s boat zooming off into the distance and later learned they had spotted sperm whales.
The dive itself was beautiful, with an abundance of colour and an incredible variety of both fish and coral life that would make even the most creative imagination envious. Then, as we neared 40 minutes of diving, our dive guide, Karl, expertly spotted five cuttlefish hovering over a coral head. You can always tell when the dive leaders have spotted something particularly spectacular, because the rapping on their scuba tanks is notably sped up and energetic with enthusiasm.
Of the five cuttlefish two were female and one of which was in the process of laying eggs in the coral. The largest male was acting as their guard, protecting the females from the other males and from other possible intruders, such as us. Because the cuttlefish were staying close to the site of the eggs, we were able to observe them for a good 20 minutes before we needed to surface. Luckily this theatre took place at around 5 metres of depth, so we easily fulfilled our safety stop with ample time and air to spare.
On multiple occasions I had the opportunity to hang out staring eye to eye with one of the male cuttlefish with no more than an arm’s length between us. I couldn’t decide if the gripping stares on the part of these alien-looking creatures were out of curiosity (just as I was fascinatedly observing them), or an intimidation technique, or simply a manoeuvre to keep me transfixed, as if in a sort of hypnosis, as a ploy to distract me from the egg-laying females. Whatever the case it was awe-inspiring to watch these creatures’ instantaneous ability to change colour and texture to camouflage with their surroundings, their great agility in reversing through the water or thrusting forward and spraying out their tentacles in displays of intimidation, curiosity or practical activity, and to witness what seemed to be an incredible profundity of silent and mysterious intelligence. As my sister so appropriately pin-pointed, the gaze of a cuttlefish is akin to that of an elephant’s in the great wisdom it seems to contain. Bearing witness to this wisdom inspired in me a deep sense of humility and respect for these noble, albeit totally bizarre, creatures.
The second dive of the day at Pulau Telang was a dive for silvertip reef sharks and nudibranchs. I saw around 9 different silvertips, which were quite distinct from blacktip and whitetip sharks in regards to their boldness approaching us. At one point two silvertips beelined towards me until it seemed they had sized me up sufficiently and decided the nearby school of trevally was far more interesting.
I also saw five different types of nudibranchs, including a huge Jorunna funebris that I estimate was at least three inches in length (the guidebook said they grow up to only 2 inches).
As we were heading back to the Seven Seas after the dive, the snorkelers called us over to join them, as they had spotted a big Triton Trumpet shell eating an even larger blue sea star. Apparently seeing a live Triton Trumpet (which is on the IUCN’s endangered species Red List) is exceptionally rare; seeing one devouring a sea star is even rarer still.
The third dive of the day back at Pulau Laut brought more cuttlefish (two this time) and we discovered farther along a coral head filled with golf-ball sized cuttlefish eggs. This was exciting, as I had been so mesmerized by the cuttlefish on the first dive that I hadn’t seen their eggs, so it was nice to get a sense of just how big they were and how the cuttlefish use the coral as a kind of protection barrier to keep them relatively hidden and out of sight from potential predators. This dive additionally brought a rich array of coral, fish and underwater creatures, which are always such a joy to the eye and spirit both.
The day concluded with sundowners on a tiny nearby island called Kital. The beach here had a delicate pink hue to it from pulverised red coral. This beautifully matched the pink streaks across the sky caused by the setting sun, both highlighted by the vivid turquoise water and pastel blue sky. We spotted two wild pigs in the bush here, and were entertained by the incredible assortment of washed-up abandoned shells that marked the shoreline. As we were getting ready to load back into the tenders to return to the Seven Seas, we noticed the blows of blue whales just to the left of the boat (our third blue whale sighting in five days), as if to help affirm the remarkable nature of the day, filled with incredible sightings, and to reassure us that there were still plenty more of such days yet to come.