Our Journey on Leg 2 of Epic Trip 2

By Marc Fruitema & Ellie Lovett.

We received the call up from Captain Mark three weeks prior to boarding our flight for what was to become an incredible adventure. He informed us that there would be a continuation of the “Epic Trip” journeys launched the year before, and that we were invited to join an eclectic group of individuals united in a conservation related purpose. It was a no-brainer even though we mentioned we would sleep on it and get back to him. Meanwhile, our minds had already begun going through the list of tasks we needed to complete to ensure a timely arrival in Ambon on April 16th. Our itinerary had us crossing the expansive Banda Sea traveling south to the Lucipara Islands, westward toward the tip of Wakatobi, Southeast Sulawesi, onwards southwest into the provincial waters of South Sulawesi and a last hop across the Flores Sea to arrive in Labuan Bajo twelve days later. The nature of the schedule required us to show up, and enjoy the ride for what was to be an exploratory endeavour. Much to our delight, we would be cruising completely out of signal. Not only was this reflective of what we were in for, but it substantially aided in distancing us from previous daily demands, enabling us to quickly return back to the rhythm of life at sea.

Over the first few days, it became clear that this is a diverse group of people, from different backgrounds, stages of life and on different pathways within our work.

Top of the field consultants, advising on large world bank development projects, or on the management of data-poor fisheries
A Founder/Director and an ecological expert of an Indonesian NGO working to advance marine protected areas across Indonesia
Filmmakers and underwater photographers inspiring audiences with their artistic lens
A plastics fanatic raising awareness about marine micro plastics
Despite these differences, we find ourselves working towards the same outcomes. The lack of personal relativity was balanced out by our shared passion for the ocean, working with communities and progressing towards a more equitable world. We found ourselves in a microcosm of society, or an ecosystem, where we all have a role to play, and the value of diversity is experienced daily. The boat was enriched and dependent upon the diversity of its participants. Each bringing a different perspective and experience to share. Just as on the reefs that we dive, diversity is key to the health of the system.

Sometimes during the trip, we set intentions or an objective, only to fall short, or not achieve what we had in mind. On a beautiful day in Lucipara, after what was already our third dive of the day, we found ourselves hesitant, unsure of whether or not to join the fourth dive of the day. We are on a liveaboard after all, the opportunity to dive won’t elude us. However, we are also on a liveaboard, we are here to spend as much time on and under water as we can. Ultimately, it was the mention of the potential for ‘500 jacks’ in a parallel conversation that drew us in. With this intention, we set out on our fourth dive. Slightly tired from already having spent three hours underwater, but exhilarated at the prospect of being humbled by such a large school of fish we admire. As we dropped down on the wall and let the current take us along, we excitedly looked around, darting our eyes along, up and down the wall, straining to make out what we felt was the elusive school of 500 jacks. Presumably sitting just beyond our line of sight in these waters with incredible visibility. After a few moments, a gliding green turtle caught the eye, and drew the attention away as it emerged from its crevice and floated off the wall, through the water column, catching the sun’s afternoon rays. The afternoon light danced through the water, beautifully angled, synchronised with the noise of the reef. It captivated and awed me. It seemed to hold a hypnotic quality as it drew you in. The rest of the dive is spent in admiration of the afternoon light and how it playfully interacts with the top of the reef wall. All thought of the jacks that never appeared is forgotten, as the mind refocused on all that which there is to appreciate. This was one of many powerful reminders to focus on the experience and process, as much as the outcome. To let the desired outcome of the trip or a dive redefine itself as the situation evolves. And for us to remain responsive and present, appreciating all that we come across in this journey.

A few days later, we found ourselves out at Pulai Mai, three small islands 20nm south of the main Lucipara islands. An atoll raising straight out of the deep blue, bringing with it the beautiful shades of blues, greens and white, as the shallows and plateaus of the islands hold promise and potential. The islands and colorful reef flats mesmerise all. The mind was drawn to wonder what lies below the surface as well as on land. This pocket of land in the middle of the Banda Sea offered familiarity in a sea of unknown. In the shallows and the sand, we recognise and find that which we know. In the dark blue and vast sea we are left only to assume. So much we don’t see, hear, feel or will ever know. Kayaking back to the boat over the shallow lagoon of Pulau Mai, we were absorbed in the mystery and intrigue of the island, of the potential that exists and swims beneath our Kayak. Until we approach the dark blue frontier that is the drop off. Contrasting so strongly with the beautiful turquoises of the lagoon, this dark line represents many things at once: Mystery, fear, beauty, life, movement and more. It was the convergence of the deeper colder water and the sun drenched lagoons, the pelagic and the reef, the banda blue and the turquoise, the sea and the island. A convergence that offered so much. Sharks, jacks, turtles, tuna, triggerfish, snappers.

Sliding into the water, we take care not to disturb what may swim below, assuming that is even possible. This is their environment after all. We are merely guests. Ellie is immediately greeted by a blacktip reef shark that had probably been there just below us all along. As soon as it swims off, three more appear in its place, as if to reinforce that this is not only their lagoon, but it is also dusk, their hour. Lucipara will always have a special place in our hearts. We did not even know of Lucipara’s existence prior to this trip and its remoteness compounded the uniqueness of this remote island chain.

“I had logged five dives prior to boarding the Seven Seas. I was newly certified, and ready to fully immerse myself within the underwater world via the diving experience. I felt immediately at ease while exploring these previously unchartered depths as we clocked up three to four hours underwater each day. It was more so the familiarity with the equipment and physics which required my attention as I grew accustomed to the routines of this practice. It is an abnormal amount of time to be spent in an environment we are now not physiologically built for however, perhaps once previously evolved from. I knew I was in good hands – the Seven Seas have been responsibly pioneering Indonesia’s reefs, atolls and outer islands for decades now plus the safety standards on board coupled with the team building exercise of diving together with my buddy built confidence into my underwater experience.”

“Having been diving for the last 14 years, I have been fortunate to dive in many diverse contexts, for pleasure and research, from the Indo Pacific to the Caribbean. However I have never dived on remote coral atolls as much as on the Epic3 trip. Diving so consistently on walls gave me a whole new perspective and appreciation for this type of diving and the unique species you encounter, from the magnificent sponges to the varied fish found along and on top of the wall. What stood out in particular is the wall dives in Moromaho, Wakatobi. Along the reef wall we swam and we drift, the currents at times strong, pulling us up, down and along. A wall of mystery, lots of ledges, crevices and holes that draw attention. Potential for eels, critters and whatever else that lies in hiding. This was unlike any dives I’ve done before, sponges and sea fans larger than us. It felt like everything was larger than normal, or we have shrunk down in size, now dwarfed by these structures hanging off the reef. Soft corals aplenty, purple, lavender, orange, white, red. Their colors subdued until you are close enough or the sun makes its way down to land on its foliage. The closer you appear, the more beautiful they are in revealing details of coloration, texture or shape not previously noticed. Then as you ascend towards the top of the wall, the sunlight rich and hard coral covered top being host to a range of interesting species The beautiful fire dartfish, sitting just above the reef in pairs, darting away to safety if you get too close. Or the bubble coral shrimp, hidden amongst the delicate looking bubble coral, so intricate and mesmerizing to watch. The Anthias dancing around a coral head, a dash of yellow as a pair of butterfly fish swim by, or the shrimp goby diligently keeping watch while its shrimp roommate clears debris and sand from their burrow. The reef is a landscape full of life, interdependent relationships and colorful wonder. Slowing down and allowing your eyes to pick out the detail, allows the reef to reveal itself and its many inhabitants.”

From exploring the turquoise lagoons, drifting along deep walls, watching the sun set over an empty oceanic horizon, this trip was a platform for reflection, exploration and discovery. A journey that took us past countless remote atolls, deep walls and beautiful reefscapes. With the ship and the diving operations run seamlessly like an extremely well oiled machine, we had the luxury of just focussing on being present and enjoying the various islands that we visited. An experience we hope to repeat again soon!

Marc Fruitema & Ellie Lovett
June 2021

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