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Banda Sea, East Indonesia

by Anthony Holley

Reproduced from in focus 69 (October 2002)

A message on the UW Photo Forum woke me up one cold February evening; 'I'm going on a trip to Indonesia on a live-a-board for 21 nights in the Banda Sea. This is a special charter, dedicated to photography and visiting some remote spots that have not been dived for 5 or more years. There has been a last minute cancellation of one of the group, so there is ONE space available at a heavily discounted price.'

Frantic e-maiIs back and forth to the USA and by 1 arn I was almost certainly going. So, it was only ten days away - no problem. Problem was booking a flight to Bali as it was Chinese New Year.
At least Qantas was no hassle with all my luggage so I made it to the Bali hotel at 1 arn for a 9 arn flight to West Timor. Unfortunately there had been delays with vital spare parts, and the start of the cruise was delayed. A few days later we duly flew out to Eastern Indonesia with rather a lot of excess baggage. Divers carry a lot but ten photographers go rather mad. Yes we were charged a modest amount for some of the excess. Once on board the 37m Sea Contacts I and settled in we headed northeast to Alor before heading out into the Banda Sea.

Nexus housings predominated (7), mainly with the Nikon F4 inside along with a couple of F90s. Not surprising as the US importer was on board along with several friends. Mine was the only Subal/F90 but there was another F90 in an Ikelite. This suffered the only housing leak due to a rushed port change trapping the O-ring. A brand new F5 in a Sea and Sea made an interesting contrast to a large old Canon FI/Aquatica combination, well used by a major San Francisco UW photo shop owner. Everyone made extensive use of the fantastic 105mm lens, with a couple on NW15mms making a charge to the housed 16mm for wide angle. Rather a lot of expensive equipment.

A typical day was up with the sun at about 6 am for a light breakfast of cereal or Danish pastries before a 7 o'clock dive. We were welcomed back with a full individually cooked breakfast as ordered beforehand. Out again before lunch, dive afterwards, snack and dive again. Depending on travel arrangements we sometimes had a night dive, either before or after dinner. Many evenings we left for the voyage to the next island, which was sometimes a ten or more hour trip. We covered over 1500 miles in eighteen days

We were all very experienced divers so (after a good briefing at the sites they had dived before we were allowed to dive as we wanted to. We also did some exploratory diving at unknown sites. When conditions allowed, a time limit of 70 minutes was requested. Being photographers, most of us preferred to dive on our own, which they were quite happy with, spread out over a reasonable area. No problems of possibly getting lost as we were picked up where we surfaced.
Incidentally a different idea for the RIB9 they used - how about filling the tubes with polyurethane foam and covering them with fibreglass with an added non-slip top surface. Not as bouncy, but much more reliable in the tropical climate.

Their systems were excellent with tanks filled in place in a long bench along one side of the boat, from a large air bank, and then loaded on to the relevant RIB along with your fins and cameras. These were well looked after with dedicated fresh water barrels for soaking. The starboard side of the boat was set up with camera cupboards with non-slip surfaces and charging points. Everything was unloaded by the crew after the dive and put away, while we used the deck showers and waiting towels. At the end of the cruise they thoroughly washed and aired everything for us.

One of the highlights was the incredible aggregations of sea snakes at Gunung Api, an isolated island in the west of the Banda Sea. Rather than repeat myself I refer you all to Dive magazine for a full article.

Another fantastic site had a pair of blue ribbon eels, lots of dragonets, mantis shrimps, juvenile scorpion fish and lionfish along with a pair of ornate ghost pipefish and all the usual tropical fish. We did seven dives here, finding different creatures every time. Looking around after admiring some little orang-utan crabs hiding in corals I spotted a large 15cm/6in nudibranch feeding on hydroids. It is described as being rare with a bizarre shape, having sheaths protecting the base of the gills and rhinophores and a pointed head. I showed this to one of the others who took more photos of it before scanning the surrounding area and spotting another movement. This time it was an amazing green ghost pipefish matching the Halitneda algae perfectly. None of us had seen anything like it before so there was a rush to photograph it on the next dive. Imagine our surprise to find a smaller skinny male lurking nearby.

West near Komodo Island were bright red sea apples. These are very colourful sea cucumbers with a large mouth of feathery tentacles - another new species for me. They were everywhere, but hiding on just the odd small fan corals were tiny pygmy sea horses. Less than an inch long they matched the pink nodules of the coral perfectly. Larry and Mik did a great spotting job, finding fifteen on one fan and holding a light on ones that we wanted to photograph. They were down below 25m, with lots to see on the way back up, crowned off with tiny golden Wentletrap Shells on a small wall at about 6m. This innocent looking shell is both very clever and very ruthless. It feeds exclusively on the lovely orange tube coral, by inserting its long proboscis into the coral polyp. While feeding it also lays its eggs beside the polyp in yellow whorls, mimicking the stinging tentacles as a protection for the eggs.

We also saw a whale shark under the boat, spinner dolphins cavorting, leaping marlin and melon headed whales. A pair of sperm whales made a dramatic finale with majestic flukes raised as they dived.

These comments actually apply to two cruises as I stayed on for a second shorter one, as the first was so fantastic. An unspoilt area with amazing diving and great creatures.

Reproduced from in focus 69 (October 2002)

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