By Tommy Schultz
‘Thar she blows!’
The old mariner’s cry that until now I used in jest, lowering my voice to a piratical rasp, channeling a cartoonish Ahab or Long John Silver.
This time was no joke.
I’m in a sea kayak in the open Savu Sea, paddling frantically as Peter and I try to keep pace with a pod of sperm whales.
Less than 100 meters away, we see the enormous back of a 10-meter sperm whale break the surface, a ghostly plume of vapor fading in the afternoon light and contrasting sharply with the rugged islands of the Indonesian archipelago.
‘You go first,’ Peter says, expertly positioning our tiny kayak in the path of the leviathan.
Too late to protest or double check whether Peter knows of anyone other than Ahab actually getting attacked by a sperm whale, I drop into the blue.
Pulse quickening as the enormous whale plows towards me, the sweep of its gigantic tail creating visible whirlpools beneath the surface of the cobalt sea. I rely on my reflexes as a photographer to keep the camera steady. I can clearly see the eye of the whale inspecting me as it passes just meters away, my camera capturing the entire encounter.
‘Woooooww!’, I call out, breaking the surface with an adrenaline-charged yawp. The otherworldly clicks and staccato buzz of the whales call still echoing in my head.
Did that really just happen?
It was the first time I’d been in the water that close to a whale and the experience was every bit as electric as I’d imagined.
‘Get back in the boat, there’s another one over here!’ Peter cries before I have a chance to fully process what just happened.
Over the course of the next half hour, we manage to get close to three more whales, each encounter as magical as the first.
And so it would go for another 25 days aboard the most epic, unforgettable adventure aboard the Seven Seas that I’ve ever been lucky enough to join.
A TRULY EPIC TRIP – THE BACKGROUND
With the Raja Ampat season approaching and the Seven Seas anchored in Labuan Bajo during the Covid lockdown, Captain Mark needed to move the boat to the eastern islands to be ready for guests joining the Raja Expeditions in December.
As he plotted the course of more than 1,300 nautical miles through some of the most epic (and unexplored) islands of the Indonesian archipelago, he realized that in the midst of the challenges brought by the global pandemic, an opportunity had presented itself:
‘The thought of steaming back empty across the Banda Sea, with no guests onboard, and only to wait in Papua for Covid to end, was not particularly appealing. As I was locked down far away in Australia, I could visualize all the tiny islands and reefs scattered across the Banda Sea like gem stones surrounded by the crystal-clear water we call Banda Blue.’
Captain Mark then resolved to make some good out of a bad situation and put together an expedition of fisheries scientists, marine conservationists, and professional photographers / videographers to join a once-in-a-lifetime mission of discovery and appreciation for the beauty of the Indonesian archipelago.
Thus, the Epic Trip was born.
With borders closed to international flights, Captain Mark assembled our team from a lucky few who were already in Indonesia and had been tested for Covid.
Having endured nearly 8 months of isolation, the idea of getting out of the house and joining a small team of committed conservationists on a trip of a lifetime on the Seven Seas didn’t require a second thought.
I signed on as quick as I could hit ‘reply all’.
Accessible only during the short seasonal gap of calm winds between the Southeast and Northwest monsoon, the Forgotten Islands (also known as the Southeast Moluccas) are comprised of an arc of islands stretching across 1,000 kilometers from Timor to West Papua.
Their relative isolation and the often stormy seas throughout the year mean that these are some of the least visited / explored islands in all of Indonesia.
The Seven Seas was among the first liveaboard dive boats to launch exploratory expeditions to this unique area, and due to the monsoon winds, the area is only available for one or two charters a year – sold out for many years in advance.
Captain Mark wanted to use the opportunity of the November 2020 Epic Trip to re-connect with some of the most far-flung communities. With the help of the scientists and conservation team on board, the plan was to create a community-based partnership that could protect some of the most vulnerable coral reefs of the Forgotten Islands and also document the spectacular beauty there (both above and below the surface).
The full team assembled for the first time in Maumere, embarking on November 1st for a trip beyond what anyone could have imagined.
THE EPIC DAYS
Covering everything that happened over the entire 20-day Epic Trip would stretch this blog post into coffee table book territory, so for the sake of the Seven Seas webmaster, I’ll break down the adventures into these categories of highlights:
- The Communities
- The Spawnings
- The Sharks
- The Snakes
Located in the Southeast corner of the remote Banda Sea, the volcanic island of Serua is about as far from a big city you can get in Indonesia (which is saying a lot!). Home to a hardy community of fisherfolk and farmers, rough seas during the monsoon season sometimes prevent ferry or cargo boats from reaching the island for weeks.
Life here can be difficult, but the friendly people living here have built a tight-knit community with a commitment to preserving their natural resources for future generations.
Landing on the windswept beach halfway into our voyage, community leaders emerged from the shade of tall palm trees to greet our team. After introductions from Rili Djohani director of the Coral Triangle Centre (CTC), and fisheries expert Peter Mous, director of Yayasan Konservasi Alam Nusantara (YKAN), the villagers gave us a tour of their tidy village.
A grid of immaculate streets cris-crossed the beachfront, brightly-colored houses situated in the shade of fruit and palm trees.
Our walking tour finished at the cheery community center, where Peter and Rili outlined the details of a proposed conservation agreement. The islanders agreed to protect their beautiful coral reefs from overfishing or destructive fishing practices, reporting any illegal fishing in the area to authorities. In support of this agreement, Peter and Rili offered the resources and expertise of their organizations.
With wide smiles and hearty toasts, fiery glasses of tuak palm wine were passed around to celebrate the future of Serua’s reefs.
In an unexpected bonus, the community also agreed to help protect Pulau Manuk – an important migratory bird habitat and home to a thriving population of sea snakes (more about them later).
With a team made up of marine conservationists and fisheries biologists, there’s no polite way to say it.
We are fish nerds.
In between hurried meals before and after dives back on board the Seven Seas, Latin words often outnumbered English or Indonesian.
Plectropomus, Epinephelus, areolatus, you get the idea.
Our team had correctly predicted the likelihood of finding some extremely rare spawning aggregations of these (increasingly rare) fish.
Arriving at the Sermata Island group on the full moon, we found what appeared to be a ‘river’ of female groupers. The males caught up in the maelstrom, fighting for attention.
The fish somehow know to all arrive at the time of the full moon, returning to their home reefs for the rest of the month afterwards. These aggregations are an easy target for predators and fisherfolk, so the possibility of creating some sort of protection for these spawning sites could yield amazing results in the sustainable future of these species and should also lead to better results for the fisherfolk who sell the groupers into the live fish trade.
Even though they’ve been studying fisheries in Indonesia, our team was amazed at the show we witnessed on these spawning aggregation dives, often just choosing a sandy spot somewhere in the middle of the action and spending almost the entire time underwater anchored to one spot, witnessing one of the Coral Triangle’s most unique underwater spectacles.
Aside from the beautiful coral reefs and remote islands, the Banda Sea is also known as one of the best places in the world to find large schools of scalloped hammerhead sharks.
In-between the meetings with the Serua community we had a chance to try our luck at hammerhead diving at a rocky point nearby.
Many of the islands in the Banda Sea are the remnants of ancient volcanoes, rising like an underwater Mt. Everest from the seafloor thousands of meters below.
Perhaps because of the steep Banda bathymetry, the sharks tend to be deep – 35 meters and below.
The seasoned dive masters aboard the Seven Seas plotted the plan for our first dive. We’d drop on the upcurrent side of the tandjung (rocky point), plunging to 35 meters and then trying to stay for as long as our air (and legs) could hold out in the strong currents favored by the sharks.
I could feel the full power of the sea swirling around us as we dropped like base jumpers into the Banda blue depths. At around 30 meters we hit a patch of cooler water upwelling from below – a great sign.
Scanning the endless blue of the cobalt sea, a shimmering school of a few hundred jacks appeared, finning easily in the strong current while we tried to pace our air consumption while trying to keep pace with what felt like an underwater treadmill.
Divemaster Jefry forged ahead, ignoring the jacks with single-minded focus on finding the hammerheads. At 35 meters we would only have a few more minutes before we needed to start the return to the surface.
A few minutes later I saw Jefry’s body language change dramatically, arm pointing excitedly into the open blue water. Like magic, a wall of about 100 hammerheads came into view, many of them swimming sideways to get a better view of us.
We followed the sharks as they continued to dive deeper, allowing cinematographer and cruise director Alex within about five meters (check out his video here). Further below, underwater photographer Foued shot a great sequence of photos (check them out here).
A few minutes later, we began our slow ascent to the surface, rising together out in the open blue water as a safety precaution so the tender boats could spot us more easily.
We’d only been down for a total of 20 minutes and had managed to see perhaps 100 scalloped hammerheads.
(Video by Alex del Olmo)
Watching the original BBC ‘Planet Earth’ series, I was amazed to watch the footage of banded sea kraits hunting in the ‘Shallow Seas’ section of the film.
Writhing swarms of deadly sea snakes team up with shoals of yellow goat fish and trevally to hunt together in what has to be one of the most unusual communal hunting behaviors in the natural world.
I’d always wondered where in the world the filmmakers created this unforgettable documentary scene.
Turns out it was on Pulau Manuk – one of our stops on the Epic itinerary.
Arriving at the island itself, the opening score of ‘Jurassic Park’ was playing in my head.
Manuk is an active volcano rising from the cobalt colored depths of the Banda Sea. Literally smoking with the sulfurous gases from the geological pyrotechnics simmering in the earth’s crust, the primeval cries of frigate birds and boobies pierced the air above the island.
It wasn’t hard to imagine the cackle of a velociraptor in there as well.
I’m not particularly scared of snakes, but the deadly poisonous varieties definitely get my attention. And while sea snake bites are exceedingly rare, their venom is so potent that if one bites you, your chances of living to a ripe old age are limited to an intervention from the almighty.
And even though I’d seen the BBC documentary with Sir David’s reassuring baritone narrating the nightmarish scene of 30 sea snakes in formation, nothing really prepares you for the feeling of having one (or more) up close and personal.
On the first late afternoon dive at Manuk, we dropped in to a sloping ridge that cruise director Alex wanted to check out as a possible future dive site. The golden light of the late afternoon sun shone through the crystalline water, perfect for photos.
Twenty meters away, the sinewy form of a large banded sea krait scythed through the water. Suddenly, I realized the snake had ‘locked’ on to me, changing direction and heading straight at me. They don’t seem particularly aggressive, so I wasn’t terrified, but I have to say I wasn’t super relaxed as the distance between us rapidly closed.
15 meters. 10 meters. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.
The krait never slowed down, perhaps focused on the reflection of itself in the dome of my fisheye lens. I caught a glimpse of its forked tongue as its nose bumped into the plexiglass, feeling it brush my leg as it swam down to inspect my fins.
I’d gotten some great shots of the approach, but at this point, honestly I wanted the snake to continue on its merry way and allow my heart rate to settle back to normal.
My wish didn’t come true.
As I turned around to see where the rest of our dive group had gone, I literally screamed into my regulator at the sight of FOUR more sea kraits all in formation and locked on to me just as the first one was.
In hindsight, I can only guess that the first was a female and these were her suitors arriving to claim their queen.
If one snake was manageable, four was cold sweat nightmare territory.
I just tried to cover my extremties, hover in place, and hope that one didn’t get stuck in the bcd or somehow tangled in the cables of my camera.
The medusa’s quartet of ropey snakes searched for the female, at one point gathering to swarm around my fins. I’m told that I accidentally kicked one, but at this point I was just trying to put some healthy distance between me and the snakes.
Maybe it’s the feeling of going into a haunted house for the fun of scaring the bejeezus out yourself, but those Manuk snake dives were pure adrenaline, and some of my favorite photos from the trip.
And like Indiana Jones says as he opens the Well of Souls in ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’:
‘Snakes, why did it have to be snakes?’
More stories to cover from the epic trip, but at this point I’ve overshot my wordcount (as usual).
Check out the great account from Dr. Lida Pet-Soede on the blog, the amazing video by cinematographer Alex, the deeper story behind the trip by Captain Mark, and the gallery of photos by photographer Foued.
I also did a few videos from some sunset jams with the Seven Seas guitar – click here for those.
Tommy Schultz (tommyschultz.com)