The Spice Islands – April 2018

By Joseph Quiroz.

Jeffri, our dive master, eased his hand out in a lightly closed fist about 12 inches from the cloud of tiny yellow and black fishes hovering over a delicate spray of greenish coral. With a sudden flick of his fingers to an open palm, the fishes instantaneously dove for the cover of the indentations among the coral branches. There were no laggards. It was as if they were one single organism reflexing from an electric shock.

Einstein is quoted as saying that there are two ways to live your life. One is as if there were no such things as miracles. The other is to understand that everything is a miracle. He chose, and recommended, the latter.

Floating weightlessly above a coral reef in the Banda Sea may be one of the best ways to be reminded of the miracles of life. A trip to Banda and other islands in April 2018 comprised fifteen open minded explorers looking for the exceptional moment. And we found it.

Sometimes it was a pair of banded sea kraits dancing an intertwining ballet to the surface for a gulp of air. Another time it was clownfish darting in and out of their gracefully swaying anemone. And other times it was the moment of attention when a white tipped reef shark appeared in the distant gloom of the deep blue beyond the wall of coral.

These are the moments during which we forget everything else that is going on in the world beyond.

For most of us, the two weeks on the Seven Seas was unfairly brief after the months of anticipation. Generally, the seas were mild, the weather dry and warm, and the days full of interesting things and people.

We were lucky. Among our diving companions were two acclaimed marine biologists, Rodney V. Salm, PhD, and Charles Birkeland, PhD who brought with them perhaps a century of research, teaching, and diving experience around the world. This gave us access to a perspective that was more than just viewing beautiful underwater scenery. After so many reports of coral bleaching, smothering algae blooms, and horrific fish harvest practices involving toxins and explosives, we were prepared for anything. While in the Banda Sea, we saw evidence for hope, and reason for celebration of the recovery potential of nature when good conservation practices are used.

In 1988, the volcano Gunung Api (Fire Mountain) erupted, sending a lava flow down into the sea. Six years later, our shipmate Prof. Chuck Birkeland was in the Banda Sea meeting with other marine scientists from the US and Australia about coral around the world. Associated with that meeting the scientists had the opportunity to observe the recovery of corals on the Gunung Api lava flow. They expressed such astonishment regarding the cover and rapid growth of coral on the lava that three of the attendees published their findings in the Journal of the International Society for Reef Studies ( Chuck was excited to go back after 24 years (30 years after the eruption) to see what changes there have been. He had us all anxious to see how they may, or may not, have survived the heating and bleaching events that have affected so many reefs elsewhere. The verdict was of great relief and pleasure at seeing the exuberance of the corals covering the lava flow. In fact, just about everywhere on the multi island trip, we saw healthy, functional ecosystems.

We were hoping for paradise, and we saw it.

Dr. Rod Salm, former director of marine programs with The Nature Conservancy and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, and his wife Suze were our trip organizers. Their astute perception while in the water, constantly helped many of us see things that we might have overlooked. Rod and Chuck both helped us understand how significant is the resilience and health of these corals.

Suze observed: “You don’t have to be a diver to be mesmerized by the surfeit of underwater wonders. This trip provided particular snorkeling magic for me in many ways, but especially in the color changes of several fish. The most jaw dropping was the bumpnose unicornfish which went from a brown, to beautiful blues in an instant. The fish was slightly tilted so I wondered if it was being cleaned, but I couldn’t find a cleaner wrasse whisking away parasites and more from its skin. But, lurking about I saw another unicornfish, also in the blue phase, and so I suspect they were a’courtin’. The next wonderful surprise was watching a flutemouth, or cornetfish, change colors from basic grey to a barred pattern several times. It seemed to be flashing to attract attention and it certainly caught mine.”

Chuck commented: “The corals appeared so healthy, diverse and abundant, and in such large single-species patches, that I felt like I did when I first engaged coral reefs in the early 1970s. I had forgotten that feeling for decades.

“Although there were few large fishes, the bumphead parrotfish was common at several sites. This is remarkable because they sleep in groups in the open and are vulnerable to harvesting by scuba and lights. The bumphead parrotfishes have been extirpated from most sites in the Pacific and Indian Oceans and it was delightful to see they were still common in the Banda Islands.

“I especially appreciated Karl, Rod and the Captain going all the way to have us do as may dives as possible in the best places. Despite problems with weather and other factors, we dived every day. Although we were in Ambon Bay with just one day to go, the Seven Seas traveled 6 – 8 hours in the night to get us out to the terrific sites at Molana and Nusalaut for our last day, then traveled back the next night to catch our flights home.”

Rod also shared some thoughts about this trip: “Forty-five years is a long time ago in human terms perhaps, but in the life of coral reefs, and indeed even individual corals, it is a flash in the pan. I first passed through the Banda-blue seas in 1973 and have returned several times since, but never made it back to Manuk. Our trip there in April was a particular highlight: the seabirds were there in the thousands from low over the water to high above Manuk volcano, the fish and corals profuse, and the sea snakes abundant, as non-menacing as ever they were, but creepy for some nonetheless. Corals are considered the canary in the coal mine for reefs and climate change; the discovery of healthy communities is always uplifting.

“Kudos to Karl and Captain Wahyu for the right calls regarding weather and helping us avoid the aborted dive days and prolonged discomfort of rough seas that thwarted other dive boats in the area. Thank you Seven Seas!!!”

Sharon, an accomplished dive photographer said: “Having seen so much damaged coral around the world, It was heartening so see so much healthy, beautiful coral of so many types in the Banda Sea. The walls were beautiful, varied and filled with life. The corals springing from the black sand lava flow were particularly striking. It was amazing at shallower depths to zoom along with the current over seemingly endless fields of corals, well populated with sparkling flashes of color from anthias, butterfly fish, parrot fish, various damsels, and clown fish. Irwan and Jeffri were terrific at spotting frog fish, leaf fish, nudis and other creatures I might have missed on my own amidst the kaleidoscope.”

Sharon prepared and presented a beautiful video of still and motion shots of our trip after lunch one day. It is remarkable that although we were all still in the midst of the experience aboard the Seven Seas, it made us all stop and look again at how much we had already seen, and still had the opportunity to explore.

Sharon’s video was one of a series of presentations by various members of our group on topics from the origins of coral reefs, to new discoveries in heart attack treatment, to fresh water security. Thanks to Rod for organizing one of the most intellectually stimulating vacations I’ve been on.

Monty, who has dived around the world thought “The banded sea kraits were so impressive on several dives. Curious, beautiful, and deadly they scared the bejesus out of divers when they snaked their bodies right in front of us without warning; musta laughed their coils off when they saw the divers reacting. Then they had to go to the surface to get more air. I suppose coil laughing takes their breath away.

“The night muck dive was so scary only one brave soul dared enter. But it was fabulous; 10 morays of different kinds were out foraging and even the dive guide was impressed with the number of creatures found in relatively short order. The dwarf cuttlefish was extra special!”

June and Brian also from Marin, commented that “We met the most interesting, delightful people on this trip. Our fellow divers/snorkelers were so knowledgeable and fun to be with; the crew were great.”

As life has it, there are occasionally unexpected interruptions on adventure trips. One that affected all of us was that one of our shipmates, Alan, suffered an orthopedic injury that prevented him from diving. It was extremely painful but not life threatening. But it did cause us to divert our trip. I mention this because I wish to acknowledge the extreme compassion and unity exhibited by all of our divers and especially the crew of the Seven Seas. Brian, a physician, took charge of the situation and directed the efforts of all who could help. The crew sprang to action to facilitate transportation of Alan ashore in Bandanaira, back aboard, then transport to Ambon where the situation could be adequately resolved. Alan and his wife Ellyn remained ashore and then made their way back to Bali where some of us were able to rejoin them. It might have been an occasion for regret. Instead, it was one of relief and thanksgiving.

Captain Wahyu and crew the of the ship treated us like honored guests. Shipmate Don from California remarked “In the forty-four years since I first became a certified diver, I’ve been on many liveaboards, and the Seven Seas and her crew rank in the top five of all of those. We met the boat in Ambon after two short flights from Bali. The cabins are much roomier than most boats I’ve been on and made for comfortable sailing. It’s also big enough that there are two dining areas; one indoors and one on the top deck. All the diving was done from three fast skiffs. The crew took care of everything both before and after each dive, so all we had to think about were our masks. All of the divemasters (Irwan, Jeffri, Imam as well as cruise director Karl) were very competent and did a great job of leading us around. Karl was always able to find a dive spot that met our needs. Water temperature was usually 85 degrees and sea conditions were mostly calm throughout the twelve day cruise. There were some rough seas a couple of days. The food onboard was very good and Fitri, John, and chef Totok pampered us with excellent meals. Also were able to take a walking tour of the town of Banda where we went through the local museum, went to the top of the fort on the island, and sampled some of the spices there. It was a great trip and I would highly recommend the Seven Seas to anyone who would like to dive the Banda Sea.”

Now that we are all back home in the US with our brains having rejoined our bodies after half a day of jet lag, the memory of our fortnight together is a breath of gossamer. A very soft and comfortable one. Many of us are already thinking about the next opportunity to go back below the surface of the sea.

I owe thanks to the crew and owners of the Seven Seas who made my trip with my wife Andrea one of the most pleasant and memorable excursions I’ve ever been on. But mostly, I want to thank my shipmates and fellow divers for their kindness, good humor, and generosity of spirit for making the entire experience feel like something I would love to do again with every one of them.

Gay and Wyman, Alan and Ellyn, June and Brian, Louise, Sharon, Susan, and Rod all had shared many other trips together and were already good friends. They provided a reservoir of experience and wonderful stories. Don, Monty, Chuck, Andrea and I merged into the group with ease. I did not want it to end.

What remains in our minds are vignettes of special moments: Mesmerized in the gloom of the gathering dark with a flashlight illuminating a spot of rock. There, a tiny yet impossibly beautiful Mandarinfish waits for a potential mate. Then, the encounter. The spiral upward dance. It is the only thing in that moment. The only thing.

We will be back.

Joseph Quiroz

Postscript: It was with enormous pleasure that upon returning to Bali, we learned that our friend, Rodney Salm has been recognized by his scientific peers for a lifetime of achievement in research and conservation. The International Society for Reef Studies has established a Coral Reef Conservation Award. Rod is the recipient of the inaugural award which he has generously dedicated to the Nature Conservancy’s Indo-Pacific Marine Conservation Fund. We congratulate Rod and thank him for his enormous contributions to the conservation of our true gardens of eden.



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