Forgotten Islands – Making them Count

By Alex del Olmo.

This last month, we were diving in the Forgotten Islands. A remote and isolated chain of volcanic islands surrounded by deep crystal waters, going from East Timor to Papua, in one of the deepest oceans on this planet. So deep and clear, the blue seems different there, some call it the Banda Blue.

Due to a short window of navigable weather, between October and November when the winds are auspicious, we can only do three trips per year in this location. And we make them count. In these deep and rarely explored waters we were hoping and expecting to make unusual encounters.

We started our first adventure in Maumere, East Flores, to end up in the faraway Saumlaki. At the beginning of this trip I was a bit surprised. After a couple of days diving around a few islands, I had the impression that there was less fish than when we were last there, a year ago, and less fish action than we used to witness. The big schools of barracudas in Dai, and the massive schooling jacks in some usual areas were missing. Although the trip was good in many senses, and the coral was its spectacular self, I was still wondering where the fish had gone.

Until we arrived in Sermata. During our second dive that day, we have been literally flooded by fish. I had never seen such an amount of fish with this incredible variety as on this mind-blowing and unforgettable experience -and I have been diving and traveling around the world since 23 years, so it says a lot. As soon as we jumped from the dinghy we found ourselves hovering over a school of hammerhead sharks. More than 50 individuals, between adults and sub adults, at a depth of 20-25 meters, not far from the reef. My heart was pounding and filled with happiness. I had been waiting for that moment for a while, and Mark was already making jokes about my “bad luck”, humorously saying that I would be under the same spell with the hammerheads as he had been with the whale shark: it took Mark many many years until he could finally see his first one, during our trip to Kaimana last year (in fact they were three), sharing this fate with Lawrence Blair, who, as unbelievable as it sounds, had never seen one either until that day.

So my euphoria came as much from the sight and vicinity of these marvelous creatures, as from feeling relieved from a spell, and it was just an appetizer. The wall was boiling with fish. And not small ones. As we drifted, streams of black snappers came our way., almost immediately followed by a kind of never ending river of schooling giant trevallies. Hundreds of them, so close to us, if I lifted my arm I could touch them with my fingers. They came to check on us, and suddenly we were in the middle of a tornado of a freaking big schooling giant trevallies. I had never witnessed such phenomenon at such a scale, not even in Komodo nor Raja Ampat.

And as we went further on the wall schools of blue fin trevallies came to us as well, and suddenly from a ledge the biggest grouper I’ve ever seen caught me by surprise. A giant as large as me, and I’m 6.6 feet… Watching us until it disappeared into a crack of also considerable size, to reappear 30 meters away in another crack. Then another stream, this time of big eyed trevallies. We all know that divers tend to increase numbers and sizes… but not this time… They were hundreds of them. And at the end of the dive, the school that never fails, the largest school of batfish I’ve ever seen as well. Twice as big -at least- as the one in Koon. This whole dive was mind-blowing. And I just could say thanks to God, Buddha or Neptune or whoever was in charge at that moment to let us being witness of this. Nature at its peak. This dive was just a prelude to what brought us to our second trip to the Forgotten Islands…

Our Saumlaki-Saumlaki trip explores a very remote and large area, focusing only on the Forgotten Islands. Before immersing us into the underwater world, it is worth talking about another main performer on this trip: the natural scenario above water. The red sunsets, the extinct volcanoes rising from the deepest ocean like dormant pyramids, their ancient caldera proof of a past intense activity from which sulfured smoke still rises, and the delicate scent of the blooming trees all over their slopes, the noise and activity of thousands of birds that colonized one of these, the tiny villages and their people, the pristine beaches… Forgotten islands trips is not only about diving, it is about the story and myths of the people who live on these islands.

We had wonderful weather during the whole trip, in some places the Sea shined like the surface of a crystal, so smooth and perfect you would fear to break it if you touch it. Flat calm, we could glide effortlessly until Manuk, one of the most isolated one. A volcanic island known for its soft corals and slopes and first of all for its abundant huge see snakes.

But before we could get there, we would hump from one island to the next, like connecting the dots that would lead us to Manuk, our first stop was bewitching Dawera. All the fish I was missing in the past trip was back again. Big napoleon wrasses, schooling of hundreds and hundreds of fusiliers their yellow and blue lights switched on, snappers, bumpheads… and although the usually peaceful village of Walora had been hit by a storm a few weeks ago, and sadly some of the hard corals had gone, the reef was thriving with life.

The schooling barracudas in Dai and the big eyed trevallies were punctual at the rendezvous with us this time. We saw them in every dive. Changing their shape from ball, to tornado, to cloud again, we watched them mesmerized, our startling eyes also bigger and bigger behind our masks. Every single dive fulfilled our expectations, and even raised them as we got “used” to it… We could even snorkel with a giant sunfish after finishing a dive. Irwan or one of the dinghy drivers spotted the unusual shape on the surface and the whole team prompt jumped from the tender boat into the water again to swim with this unexpected company. Sunbathing itself, living up to its name, the gentle giant stayed with the group for a while. How lucky!

In Sermata, the dive, although not alike the one on the previous trip, was still excellent, and suddenly something unexpected happened. Right in front of Seven Seas, it was not the usual dolphins jumping playfully around, their dorsal fin and shape were way bigger: orcas! Orcas jumping and singing while doing it! It was my first time as well… (Did I mentioned that during our first trip we spotted the misty spouts of blue whales?) How could an outstanding trip get even better? Because I can tell you it got better… The coral garden in Teun, simply outstanding, nothing to envy to Melissa’s garden in Raja Ampat, in fact, in my humble opinion is even better. An infinite variety in shapes and colors, the fish life, its healthiness… On our Forgotten Islands trip I experienced the best hard coral gardens I’ve ever seen.

But the best has yet to come… On our way to Serua, as we were already close we realized that there were already three other boats, with another one -besides us- that was still to come from Desperandum (where we saw a big oceanic manta – during this trip we had two encounters with them). The decision was quick, the weather being good, we decided to skip Serua first, steaming further until Manuk. We arrived in Manuk in the morning and would catch with Serua on our way back, hoping for more privacy. And so it was. When we headed South again we had the whole place for ourselves. We spent two days there looking for hammerhead sharks, The first day we spotted a few individuals, three at one time, five another time, etc. No schooling so far. But during the first dive, the crew on the speedboat got all excited, they were calling “ikan bodoh!!!” which means “stupid fish” which is the other Indonesian name for whaleshark. What?? Whaleshark?? They saw one at the surface, close to the dive site.

During our second dive of the day, surprise… Not one but two whalesharks. Some of our guests saw two individuals, crossing path and could even swim with one them. One big and another one small. Pinch me on the cheek and wake me up… As we stayed an extra day in Serua/Keke looking for hammerheads I was confident that we would have an encounter with schooling hammerheads. Timing was right and the cold upwelling was there. We started to see a few hammerheads, right at the beginning, and I could feel it in my bones, the huge school must be around… And almost at the end of the dive Irwan pointed to the blue… There they were. A large schooling passing by at around 25 meter deep and as close as four meters from some of our most intrepid and lucky divers. Outstanding!

This, without any doubt, was my best Forgotten Islands trip until date, and certainly not the last. We will have more, being already on the way there… Talk to you soon!

Alex del Olmo
November 2019

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