We Will Never Forget These Islands

By Lida Pet-Soede​. Photos by Foued Kaddachi, Tommy Schultz and trip participants.

​”We will never forget these islands.” That is how we all felt, truly, after this EPIC trip…

Oxford Dictionary: “Epic” – (adjective) relating to or characteristic of an epic or epics which – in turn – are long poems, typically derived from ancient oral tradition, narrating the deeds and adventures of heroic or legendary figures or covering an extended period of time.

While I did not feel particularly heroic at the start of our EPIC trip into the Forgotten Islands of Eastern Indonesia, especially because I was a bit worried how I would deal with the relative lack of communication that we would experience during most of the voyage, I was surely going on an adventure covering an extended period of time.

And how EPIC it turned out to be:

A full month aboard the Seven Seas, how lucky we felt. The crew and all travelers were double checked and found healthy, the Seven Seas has survived the few months of laying at anchor remarkably well, the seas promised to be calm and the weather would be sunny so we were ready to go. More importantly, perhaps, Mark had put a small team of seasoned travelers and photographer/cinematographers together to capture the beauty of the forgotten islands and its people. Last but not least, a mix of young and weathered marine conservation and fisheries experts would join me to try and initiate a few conservation agreements with some of the people living in villages near some outstanding reef areas, that Mark and the Seven Seas had come to know over the decades.

The first week the Seven Seas crew led by Captain Rivai (“Pai”) and expanded with Gustaf assisting Nico in the galley, was with just a tiny team in and around Komodo National Park. Joining Jos and I, we had Foued Kaddachi, a well-known member of Seven Seas family, guiding some of its cruises, and a very accomplished photographer, with an outstanding style and the skills and remarkable ease that allow him to sneak up all non-expecting marine life in the shallowest and deepest (!) waters! The tiny team further included Peter Mous, who leads the very significant Indonesian fisheries program of Yayasan Konservasi Alam Nusantara (YKAN), an Indonesian conservation group and affiliate of The Nature Conservancy. Lastly, the Komodo team included Tommy Schultz, who is a professional photographer, and creates amazing photo-stories with some of the world’s most famous surfers and about people and culture from some of the most remote parts of Asia. The three of them share a big passion for free-diving.

Upon arrival in Labuan Bajo, we were glad to see old friend and Komodo park ranger Mr. Saleh who has been patrolling the park against blast fishing for several decades now. With most other live aboard vessels in port, we were the only divers at each site. While we saw several fishers operating in the no-take zones of the park, and we got the feeling that there was less large fish around on the dives, the corals are generally in good condition and we swam with lots of turtles who were not in the least bothered by us. I did most of the early morning dives and during the day I was able to facilitate a virtual workshop or two and get a lot of work done in my ‘office with a view’.

After we picked up a few more travelers in Maumere, which is proudly pronounced a COVID green zone as we learned from the officers who came to the boat to check our health papers, the exploring could begin. Lucky for us Seven Seas fearless cruise director Alex Del Olmo Ramon joined, his first trip back after becoming a daddy of beautiful baby Juliette with his wife Delphine. This time Alex would focus much on his other passion – videography – to add to his already impressive collection of footage created over the years, and which is being used by a famous Spanish producer for a series of new documentaries in the new year! Some of his work from this trip will surely feature in the next newsletters. Rili Djohani who leads the Coral Triangle Centre (CTC) joined and was keen to visit some of the Marine Protected Areas and communities that CTC works with in the Banda sea. She came along with her colleague Purwanto who may have lost count of the number of dives under his belt but remembers diving with Jos studying grouper spawning aggregation sites (SPAGS) as it if was yesterday. Nandana Godjali completed our team, he is a fisheries technician working with Peter for YKAN engaging fishers and businesses towards improving practices and management for snapper, grouper and tuna fisheries throughout all of Indonesia.

After passing a few more islands where some of the villages seemed to spill over the island footprint, the water turned clearer and the reefs started to drop to immense depths.

Covering more than 1300 nautical miles, we had a lot of sea to survey, and when you pay attention and are not distracted by internet access, you see a whole lot. Huge pots of dolphins, pilot whales, marlins or small groups of sailfins who jump around a school of baitfish to scare it into a bait bowl and then charge through it feeding, the tiniest birds flapping diligently for miles between land masses, hovering close to the water for efficiency, Fish Attracting Devices (FADs) and the occasional container ship at the horizon.

Around Abang Komba volcano, we stopped at a couple of FADs, turning them effectively in TATs (Tourist Attracting Devices) to have a look what collects under these. Anchored in waters of hundreds of meters deep, these floating rafts, usually made of bamboo, attract small fish, which in turn attract larger fish coming in for a feed. Fishers use these FADs to reduce the time needed to search for schools of tuna or other pelagics and we talked with a couple of them who work with YKAN recording their catches. They had caught some beautiful yellowfin tunas with hand lines just before we arrived. I was glad that Rili was bobbing next to me in the big blue, as we saw a lot of different fish hang around these FADs and I did feel a bit exposed. Young grey reef shark, Mahi-Mahi and I saw my first ever underwater free-swimming Wahoo’s! The fishers told us that due to COVID its very hard to get a good price for their super fresh high quality tuna, as their buyers’ blame lack of transport logistics. We bought a bunch of fish for the pre-COVID prices and enjoyed the best yellow-fin tuna Sashimi and Sushi prepared by Nico and Gustaf for the next few nights.

Just outside of the channel between Wetar and the small island of Reong, we saw a large pot of sperm whales, mothers with calves. They appeared to be resting, or ‘logging’. I was told that ‘logging’ females indicate that as a group they take turns watching over the calves who can’t dive for so long, while some continue the deep feeding dives to catch squid. Having done this one time earlier, we knew to get into a kayak and carefully approach them in order to be able to get in the water near the whales. What an experience! Moving up close you realize how large the females are and as they sometimes simply sink a few meters under the surface – perhaps not sure what you are or why you are there-, it’s amazing to witness the elegance and smooth control with which they drop their huge masses without hardly rippling the water. As the sun sank, we moved on east.

Cruising on, for our next stops we planned to search for some grouper SPAGS. The moon was full and so should be the reefs where different species of grouper gather for a few days of short fights (the males) and parading (the females) resulting eventually in fish spawning after which the females return to distant reefs for the rest of the month. Typically, grouper spawning sites are found near high-current points on reefs around an island, or sea-mounts. Especially when those points are closely located to large island masses, a huge number of groupers can show up “from the hinterland” and protecting such places makes a lot of sense as it would support renewal of the populations of these high-value fish. How lucky we were: we found several quite significant SPAGS at the Sermata island group, and a few smaller SPAGs later in the trip at ‘Ultimo Fronteira’, a seamount, at around 15-20 m depth. At most of these SPAGS, however, we also met with a couple of fishers. Fishing legally with hand lines, they pull up the fish carefully to keep them alive in their boats, to be sold into the live reef fish trade. Purwanto got some great video footage of what looked like a ‘river’ of female groupers moving through the area packed with males vying for their attention. Too special to just have that sit somewhere in Purwanto’s archive, we both figured out how to edit a clip together using some super-simple software and adding some cool music. Because of decimated grouper stocks, following decades of targeted live grouper fishing, this footage is quite unique and will help Rili and Purwanto to tell a great story through their work at the CTC.

Next, we headed further to check out some of the alleged hammerhead shark dive sites and nearby villages to see if the interest, that was related by villagers to Mark Heighes in recent years to establish some conservation agreements, was still alive. About to get ready at Dai island for a dive, we learned that the community did not want any outsider near them and so we moved on to the next island group. Daiwera was very rewarding: I saw my first solitary hammerhead shark and Peter and the Indonesian experts met with the community of Welora village to discuss a conservation agreement. The reef of Welora is an absolutely spectacular dive site, with healthy hard corals and a site where endangered squaretail coral trout and Napoleon wrasse school for spawning. How motivating that the team was invited to come back later in the afternoon to sign the initial plan to collaborate to protect the SPAGS and surrounding reef!

The next few days we spent looking for scalloped hammerhead sharks and did we see some! The guys in the team went off-reef into the blue and found hundreds of these amazing animals swimming slowly, almost hovering, at around 35-40 m depth just at some hundred meters away from the reefs. It’s not easy to find them and you don’t have a lot of time to stay with them if you do, so the photos by Foued and the video by Alex are outstanding and quite unique! While Rili and I stayed on the reef, we also saw a hammerhead or two! The solitary greater hammerhead does come onto the reefs sometimes and several of them managed to get our adrenaline levels – and that of a snoozing green turtle – spike a couple of times!

The people in the village or Seroua also were keen to work on a conservation agreement, basically confirming what they had tried to do for the past couple of years in order to preserve the quality of the reefs around this special area. The highlight of Serua is a deep reef with schooling scalloped hammerhead sharks. Serua village also claims use rights on nearby Pulau Manuk, which has breeding colonies of frigate birds and boobies. The reefs around Manuk furthermore feature a unique population of sea snakes. Peter, Rili and the Seven Seas team returned from some very good community meetings with another signed agreement! The conservation agreements document that the villagers will take good care of their reefs, and that Yayasan Konservasi Alam Nusantara and the Coral Triangle Center will assist where necessary. Under the umbrella of this agreement, the villages will disallow fishing on the most biodiverse parts of their reefs, and they will report to the authorities any illegal fishing that may take place in and around the conservation area

Then it was time to visit some places where communities had already agreed to protect their reefs with some other Indonesian conservation groups. Koon, where WWF works with communities to protect the hugely abundant reefs and SPAGS, Nusa Laut where the USAID funded SEA project supports the community who have implemented strict conservation over their amazing reefs since years, and the island of Run, which is one of several islands where CTC works with communities to establish MPAs.

On the way and in between these MPA and community visits, we stopped at Manuk where we saw frigates bump into the boobies to give up their catches as they came home. With their bellies filled with fish for their young, several boobies dropped in the water next to the Seven Seas with their wings broken. I felt it is rather unfair, when not fittest but the meanest survive. We also stopped at Bui, which must be the prettiest uninhabited island I have ever seen. Splashing in the clearest water for a while, we started wondering where Tommy and his drone had gone, only to see him walk towards us with a scrawny cat by his side. We had a beautiful afternoon with ‘Friday’, the cat, who did not like drinking Pocari Sweat but was appreciative of the ‘breakfast-scads” surrendered happily by the Seven Seas crew. Just when we were about to return to the Seven Seas we saw a gentleman wearing a yellow safety cap come over from the next island. Claiming he was the one watching over the island and keeping it clean, captain Rivai paid him something only to learn that the amount of fish this man and his fellow fishers pull off the reef brings them more money than a mid-level bank employee!

And then, sooo many other things to write about, the most stunning sun-sets – every sunset, the best sashimi, the deep-belly laughs with friends and crew, the stress about the US presidential elections, toasting to Joe, the rush from high current dives with gazillions of fish, the mesmerising drifts over endless stretches of colourful reefs, the Pulau Run nutmeg colada’s, the guitar in the evening, the crew, the crew, the crew!

Thanks Mark and all of the Seven Seas family, it was EPIC indeed!

Lida Pet-Soede​
(December 2020)

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