By Mark Heighes
Every once in a while Seven Seas is contracted by a film production company. This time the shoot will take place in West Papua, formally known to me and many of you as Irian Jaya. It was Irian Jaya when I first visited a spectacularly wild and beautiful place named Triton Bay in 82. Now we plan to return with a small production team. We now have a trip on our hands that enables us to dedicate much more time to record and explore a region that I think holds some of Indonesia’s last secrets to be unlocked. I can’t wait!
The production shot list included everything from wrecks, villages, mangrove areas, jellyfish lakes, rock art, and caves, to big animals like Whale Sharks, Oceanic Mantas, Crocodiles, Wobbegongs, Giant Clams, and strange unusual marine life.
The film crew arrived in Sorong. They hailed from South Africa and had the cameras rolling even before we boarded the Seven Seas. This 3-week voyage in Raja Ampat and finish in Triton Bay 400 nautical miles to the south and east. François Odendaal led the team and was also the presenter. I met François onboard during a previous trip 2 years prior and immediately liked each other. He was the only one of the team I had met before.
The first thing François wanted to record was a World War II plane wreck so we motored out to a site I hadn’t visited in 14 years. Took us a bit of time but we finally located the plane, a P47 lying in just over 30 meters of water. A stark reminder of the perils of war. What a waste of life and resources.
The South Africans are a hardy bunch so we had a quick gear check dive, and then I threw them straight onto the site. I was out of bottom time as a result of the search and I remember thinking to myself the poor buggers had flown straight from the other side of the earth, they were more than likely to be exhausted, dehydrated, and now narced out of their minds in 32 meters of water. Not what we would normally do with our guests first dive, but these guys were working and we had already lost a week due to a delay issuing the film permit. If we could get good shots of the plane on Day One, we would save a day so that’s what we did. We got a nice shot of the plane sitting upright on the seabed, heavily encrusted with growth and surrounded by schools of fish.
Next on the list was mangroves and there is no better place than the blue water mangroves of Nampele in NW Misool. We had not been back there since a croc took a rather unfortunate diver as he was surfacing around 10 years ago. Fortunately the diver recovered and lived to tell the tale thanks to his buddy who heroically went to his aid and pounded the beast with a weight belt as the croc held the diver pinned to the bottom. It still makes me shudder when I think of this as I had my own two boys aged 6 and 9 in the water at this site just 3 weeks prior to the attack.
We arrived after a long overnight steam and some much needed sleep. These mangroves differ from most in that there is constant flushing of clear water making the mangroves excellent to film underwater. The roots are beautifully clad with colorful soft corals. The day went well with no mishap or interference from crocs so we moved overnight to Lenmakana Lake in East Misool to swim with and record jellyfish.
Alex, our cruise director, had been visiting the lake during previous trips leading up to this voyage. He informed us that the best time to get the jellys at the surface was to visit early morning as the jellyfish migrate from the bottom to the surface and back twice a day. By 7am we were scrambling up the sharp cast limestone ridge that forms the lake. It’s not a walk, it’s a climb and we had to lug all the camera gear. This was complicated by the fact that it was raining and slippery. Once inside we immersed ourselves in the jelly filled water. If you have never been in a jellyfish lake it’s a strange feeling, one can only describe it as like being suspended in some sort of strange inner space.
During the lunch we moved a short distance to a stunning rock island area. François was truly fascinated with the rock art we showed him there. We sat for hours filming from the speedboats trying to interpreted tales from the past. We then cruised through the natural beauty of small abstract islands scattered throughout the area like a maze until sunset.
We had to get to the South 140 nautical miles and quickly. It was already 2 days after new moon. In order to guarantee whale sharks one need to work the moon cycle. There are a number of locations throughout Indonesia where whale sharks are attracted to Bagans. Bagans fish at night with light. The strange craft are like a square fishing platform than a boat. Many permanently moored have no engine. Bagan fishermen like it dark so they fish a week either side of new moon as the full moon cycle simply produces too much light that interferes with their own lights and the fishing practice. Bagans attract squid and anchovy like fish. The Anchovy they catch attract whale sharks as they haul in the nets.
We had lost a week. It was a toss up between the Giant Clams we know of to the north or the whale sharks to the south. One had to go and it was the clams so the next day we stopped briefly in South East Misool. We filmed baby black tip sharks in the shallows. We didn’t know it at the time but these would be the only reef sharks we would see over the next 3 weeks. We dived on the now famous dive site Boo Windows before leaving for the long 140 mile haul to the Bagans of Semai Island. Semai is located just off the Fak Peninsula of mainland Papua.
We arrived at 4 am and proceeded to check the Bagans for sharks. The news was not good. No sharks for two nights were the reply from the fishermen. My heart sunk as I had been counting on the sharks, as they were high priority for the production. We spent the day exploring and some locals directed us to an old burial site on a ledge in the forest that was marked by a skull and other human remains. We also visited a village of friendly folk. As we approached the church surrounded by excited children I noticed something strange about church bell. On closer inspection ironically it proved to be the casing of an old World War 2 bomb now a symbol of peace and unity apposed to death and destruction.
At the end of the day I did not hold much hope of getting a shark here. We stayed till midnight, bought fish and chummed from a Bagan…nothing! So our only chance now was to push on another 200 miles towards Triton Bay before the week was up. We still had a good chance there. On both trips there last year we were successful finding whale sharks in that area.
Rather than loose another day at sea we planned to dive the next day and cover the distance in two overnight passages. Momon is the site of a spectacular waterfall. A high volume of crystal clear water charges out of the forest into the ocean. On a good day it can be seen from 7 miles away. The waterfall would have to wait. We were looking for the Oceanic Mantas, biggest rays on the planet. There is an offshore reef nearby where these oceanic giants can be found visiting cleaner stations The Oceanic Mantas were number 2 on the shot list after the Whale shark, the biggest shark on the planet.
The weather was perfect and we managed to anchor in deep water close to the isolated reef from which we could see the white column of water from the waterfall just over 5 miles away. I figured the best way to film these graceful giants was to spend as much time in the water as possible. We split the team into two groups. As one group got out the other group got in and so on. After 7 hours. we had nothing. Disappointed we decided would have to come back later. If we stayed longer we would loose the moon phase for the whale sharks in Triton Bay.
At 4am the next morning we arrived in Triton Bay and sent the tenders out into the dark to check if any of the Bagans had sharks. “no but we had them 2 nights ago” was the reply from the fishermen. Our spirits took another blow. Three days we had been unsuccessful. I was now seriously concerned that we would not encounter any of these two giants at all. Each night the moon was getting bigger and brighter meaning our chances for the whale sharks was getting slim. Once the Bagans stopped fishing the whale sharks would disperse and it would be like trying to find a needle in haystack.
We spent the day filming rock art and visited the village of Maimai. That night I decided to put a crew on two Bagans that were anchored 8 miles apart. We could not afford to lose another night. Then 10.30 pm we had a radio call confirming that one of the Bagans had a large whale shark. Yes our spirits lifted! All we had to do now was keep feeding it anchovy till dawn and the shark was ours for the day.
I remember waking later that night. It was raining and blowing hard. The guys on the Bagan took shelter and by dawn it was all over but the shark had vanished. The feeding had stopped during the storm and the shark had lost interest and was nowhere to be seen. I couldn’t believe our luck! The other Bagan had nothing all night. Only thing to do was check all the other Bagans in the area. One after another nothing until Bingo! We found a Bagan with 2 giant whale sharks beneath lurking around in the dim morning light. Yes we had them! I felt as if the weight of the world had been lifted from my shoulders. We stayed with the sharks all morning and got everything we needed at one stage we had dolphins swimming with the sharks and us
Finally I could relax ,….but not totally. We had to go back to try and get the Oceanic Mantas. We had lost a lot of valuable time. We were due to go into the port of Kaimana to refuel and take on fresh provisions. It was scheduled to be a 2-day turnaround but in view of the circumstances we cancelled the fuel and took on some food . The crew worked tirelessly and 5 hours later we were back at sea steaming all night back for 100 miles to the site of the Oceanic Mantas. This time we had to get them.
As we approached the reef early the next morning I had my doubts. The conditions were perfect. Calm and Sunny on a crystal clear ocean. Then as the Seven Seas was coming to a stop, to our joy and amazement we were greeted by an Oceanic Manta breaching right in front of us. They were here! We scrambled to get geared up and before we entered the water one of these majestic giants glided under the tender like a great black shadow passing underneath.
We entered the water and within 10 minutes we had Oceanic Mantas dancing all around us. To our delight they stayed all day and played . They seemed to enjoy our company and were constantly checking us out as they visited a number of cleaner stations on the reef. For three days we swam with them, they effortlessly flew around showing off. We saw probably 20 different individuals in the time we spent there. Each day was different, some had finished the cleaning process and left and there were new arrivals. Each manta had a different personality some friendlier than others. One smaller individual had fishing line wrapped around its head. We tried to free it but did not succeed and the next day it was nowhere to be seen.
As the offshore reef is very exposed and a tropical low was developing in the Arafura Sea to our south, we decided to leave our new friends. We pulled anchor and prepared the Seven Seas for the long passage back steam back to the protected waters of Triton Bay.
Upon arrival we befriended to locals from the village of Maimai who guided us to a site where we spent a day filming the spectacular rock art. The primitive drawings are located on seemingly inaccessible ledges 10 meters above the sea. François wanted to get up for a closer look so contracted our new companions to build us a bamboo ladder that night. We returned the next day to scale the cliff face and entered the natural gallery. Very little is known or documented about this magical place that holds so many mysterious stories from the past.
That afternoon we relocated to the stunningly beautiful rock island area of Triton Bay. Then sent a team out to dive and they returned with great shots of a Leopard shark. We went out exploring the maze of mushroom islands and found two unexpected giants 2 swimming around the deeper section of the bay. They were Brydes Whales, a mother and calf. After radioing for the drone to be sent out we managed to get a great shot without disturbing then at all.
Vivid memories flooded back to me from 35 years ago when I first visited Triton Bay on a vessel named the Lindblad Explorer. I was 18 years old then and didn’t realize it at the time but I must have been the luckiest teenager on the planet. Today I felt like the luckiest bloke in his mid 50s on the planet. I was back in a magical dreamland.
That night as the Seven Seas lay at anchor well protected from the storm the subject of crocodiles came up. I explained how that when we first visited the area all those years ago we did not dare enter the water in fear of giant saltwater crocodiles. It took me 10 years to figure out that the crocs were not a threat and we finally entered the water during an expedition in 1992 at an island named Aiduma, not far from where there is now a small dive resort.
François was keen to try and find a croc and crocs like rivers and mud, so we searched the charts and discovered there was a river mouth not too far away near the village of Lobo. I have never been to Lobo but we could see from the chart that the village was situated base of a 1400-meter cast limestone mountain.
I must admit it was a breathtaking site as we rounded the point and the village came into full view. Vertical cliffs behind it that disappeared up into the clouds dwarfed the village. We went ashore and met Gitro who was the head of the village. He was a nice bloke who was genuinely happy to meet us. He told us the legend of the giant Garuda bird the once lived in the mountain behind the village. It used to come down and eat people from time to time until the Dutch came and shot the bird a few hundred years ago. There is a monument at the giant Garuda birds resting place not far from the village. When we asked Gitro about crocodiles he replied “banyak“ (=lots) in the river and he would be happy to show us early next morning.
So off we went early next morning in the tender with Gitro and his mate pointing in different directions. It was a scene of much confusion and ran aground, at least three or four times on the shallow knee deep mud flats, before making it into the mouth of the river.
Once inside the water was deep. Hornbills flew overhead and giant mangroves lined the banks of the river but no crocs were seen. François decided we should try again the next morning. We returned and had the same comedy of events getting into the river and then, sure enough, Gitro with a big grin on his face pointed to a 3 meter croc sunning itself on the river bank only 100 meters upstream. We actually got within 3 meters of the monster before it gently slid into the water and swam around the bow of the tender looking at us before disappearing into the muddy water. We got the shot we wanted and happily returned to the Seven Seas.
We thanked Gitro and said our farewells then relocated to Aiduma for some diving. This area the locals call Pintu Arus (“door to the current”). The best diving in Triton Bay can be found here. A rocky island named Little Komodo sits in the middle of the channel. There are 5 sites on the island and its a photographers paradise of colorful soft corals and teaming with fish life. The Underwater cameramen were very happy here and we spent 2 days diving both day and night.
Then all of a sudden our time was up and it was time to return to the outside world. For 3 and half weeks we had lived in a dreamland isolated in paradise far from the rest of the world and the march of the deadly Corona virus . The expedition had been like a dream you did not want to end. Stark reality sunk in upon anchoring in the port of Kaimana as health and quarantine officials boarded for a health check. Internet streamed in and we contacted our loved ones and learned of the all of the unprecedented events taking place in our homelands. Our voyage was over and it was now time to leave the dream land prepare ourselves the best we could for the long uncertain journey home.