Archive for March, 2008

Bob & Cheng’s Excellent Indonesian Adventure

March 31, 2008

Two years ago, Cheng and I accompanied our friends Janet and Jim on a dive trip to Bonaire. The occasion was to celebrate Janet’s 60th birthday. We had such a great time we decided to make it a tradition, and so as Cheng’s 60th birthday approached I asked her where she’d like to go. She said “Indonesia”.

Well, if you’re going to travel halfway around the world it makes sense to stay awhile. And so after contacting a dive operation in Bali, we started working up an itinerary that ultimately had us going for three weeks and making four stops – Tulamben, Bali, Komodo Marine Reserve, Bunaken National Park, and Lembeh Straits.

Tulamben

Arriving in Bali, we were greeted at the airport by representatives of Wakatobi … one of the dive companies we would be using during our tour. They took our paperwork, passports, and $25 USD per person and dealt with the Customs agents to get our visas. Then they walked us past the long line, through security, and directly to the front door where we were greeted by a driver from Aquamarine … one of the other dive companies we would be using. Right away I was seeing the advantages of working with local dive operations to make our arrangements. After a brief stop at Aquamarine’s headquarters to complete some paperwork, we were in a van and headed north for the 2-1/2 hour ride to Tulamben.

Tulamben is a tiny town, primarily there to support the diving. There’s a few dive resorts (nothing fancy), a couple of restaurants, a grocery store, and a dive shop. We were staying at the Mimpi Resort, which is located right on the beach.

That first morning I was awake before dawn, so I went down to the beach to watch the sunrise. Sitting in a chaise lounge next to the pool I watched as a crimson line on the horizon heralded the sunrise. As the sky grew lighter I noticed several tiny masts on the horizon … fishing boats out plying their trade. After a few moments I realized they were heading toward the beach, and as I watched they made an almost silent approach. Within minutes the south side of the beach was crowded with tiny, colorful outrigger boats. A group of people arrived to help offload the day’s catch, and within moments the beach was quiet again. It was time to go awaken Cheng and begin our day of diving.

All of the dives we did at Tulamben were shore dives, although there are some boat dives available nearby. There are three distinctively different dive sites right off the beach. To the north is a wreck. To the south is a wall. And in the center of the beach is a shallow reef called the Coral Garden. The diving here is extremely easy with minimal current and no need to surface swim. They even have porters to carry your gear to your chosen site and help you get into it. When your dive is over, they carry your gear back to the resort for you

Our first dive was the USAT Liberty … a WWII cargo ship that had been hit with a torpedo and was intentionally grounded on the north end of the beach to allow its cargo to be salvaged. Some twenty years after its grounding, tremors from nearby Mt. Agung … an active volcano and Bali’s tallest mountain at more than 10,000 feet … sent the ship sliding below the surface, where it came to rest in 20-120 feet of water. Today the skeletal remains of the ship are completely encrusted with corals, crinoids, sponges and other life that almost overwhelms the senses with color and variety. In fact, there is so much life on the ship that on this first dive we barely covered a quarter of the ship because everywhere we turned there was something else to take pictures of … many different type of nudibranchs, leaf scorpionfish, lionfish, a HUGE grouper, an even HUGER barracuda, and many other interesting and beautiful marine animals. It’s certainly a dive one can do over and over, and almost be guaranteed to see something new every time.

Our second dive was on the wall, or as they call it “The Drop-Off”. Gearing up among the fishing boats we swam out to a point, where the wall begins. The sandy area in front of the point shelters some interesting life all its own … I saw both my first cuttlefish and my first mantis shrimp there before we even got to the wall. What a treat those were! The Drop-Off offers much of the same type of life as we saw on the Liberty, but in a more spread-out environment.

Finally we did the Coral Gardens, a shallow slope right in front of the resort. Here we found many varieties of colorful fish swimming about as though in a giant aquarium. Sunlight filtering down on coral heads made it easy to pick out the many types of crabs, shrimps and invertebrates that use these corals for shelter and sustenance. Anemones (or as we called them, clown fish condos) gently waved in the surge. Ribbon eels poked their heads out of holes in the sand. As with the other sites, it was enough to overwhelm the senses, and more than enough to satisfy anyone with a camera.

During our three days in Tulamben we did 11 dives. Perhaps the highlight was the dusk dive on the Liberty, when we were buzzed by a herd of perhaps 40 or 50 bumphead parrotfish. Some of these fish are much larger than humans, and to be swimming among them was quite a thrill.

Finally, it was time to bid farewell to Tulamben and move on to the second part of our Indonesian tour.

Komodo

We took an inter-island flight to the island of Sumbawa … some 200 miles east of Bali … where we would be boarding a liveaboard for a week-long tour of the Komodo Marine Reserve. Landing in the “city” of Bima, we boarded a bus for an hour-long drive along the coast to the port of Badjo, where the 115-foot long Pelagian awaited us. This was the first liveaboard experience for the four of us, and we couldn’t have been happier with our choice for that experience. The Pelagian provides everything anyone would want in a liveaboard … spacious quarters, excellent meals, a large and well-accommodated camera room, a thoroughly professional crew, and all the diving your body can take. The Pelagian is owned by the Wakatobi dive resort in southeast Sulawesi. It only does one Komodo trip per year, and we were fortunate enough to be part of it. Besides the four of us, the boat had seven other divers … a couple from Australia and five divers from Switzerland. There were also eight crew members and three dive guides aboard.

That first night at port proved interesting. It was evident that we were far from the usual tourist track, and that the local residents were unused to “white people” … it seemed like the entire town had turned out to come sit by the dock and stare at us and the boat for the evening. Dozens of people showed up to watch as we unpacked our gear and sat down for our evening meal. In some respects it was disconcerting to have all these people just sitting around staring at us … I now know what a fish in an aquarium must feel like. On the other hand, we represented a side of life that was completely foreign to these people, for whom the ocean wasn’t as a place to play but a means to provide food for their families.

After dinner we socialized a bit, getting to know each other, and then went off to bed. Sometime during the night, the boat quietly slipped out of its dock and made its way to our first destination … the island of Banta, northwest of Komodo.

The next six days went altogether too quickly. The routine called for an early dive, then breakfast, then another dive, then lunch, then two more dives, then dinner. Surface intervals were for downloading pictures, charging camera batteries, eating snacks, or just relaxing. All of the passengers proved to be very capable divers and a fun bunch of people to be around.

And oh … the diving was incredible.

Most of the dive sites were walls or steep slopes. A few were pinnacles. A couple were relatively shallow coral gardens, with curious sandy ridges in between. But if I had to choose one word to describe the general conditions, it would be … CURRENT! It could be steady, moderate, mild, wild, or washing-machine … but the water was always moving. It was this steady condition that made these waters so rich in life. Soft corals, crinoids, and sponges were abundant … providing vibrant colors and stunning contrasts that just wouldn’t find justice in a digital image, however hard we tried. Gigantic anemones provided homes for colonies of colorful clown fish, while hard corals sheltered moray eels, scorpionfish, lionfish, and massive schools of colorful reef fish of many different species. And nestled among all that color were the tiny treasures … colorful nudibranchs, tiny shrimp or crabs, and occasionally a pygmy seahorse, almost perfectly camouflaged inside a colorful gorgonian. Occasionally a turtle, white-tip shark, or napoleon wrasse would swim past. And on one lucky occasion, we were buzzed by a juvenile manta ray. It seemed that on every dive we would see something unique or special that would have us racing to our laptops afterward to download the image for a closer look.

One morning we opted to forgo our morning dive in favor of taking a land tour to see the famed komodo dragons. We chose to visit the park on the island of Rinca, which is a bit less developed and touristy than its counterpart on neighboring Komodo island. Our skiffs ferried the group in to the dock, nestled among mangrove trees. We debarkd and followed a dirt path that led us to a tiny group of huts where, apparently, the few families of the park caretakers live. To our surprise, laying on the ground among the huts were several komodo dragons … giant lizards up to eight feet in length that look like something straight out of Jurassic Park. It was there that we met our guide for the morning who, picking up a forked stick about the size of an industrial-strength broom handle took us on a 2 kilometer stroll through the jungle. Along the way we encountered more lizards, as well as some monkeys and a very large water buffalo. In each encounter we would step off the trail, yielding right-of-way to the animals for whom this park is home. It was a nice experience, but after two hours of hot, dusty, sweaty walking we were all eager to rejoin our boat and get in the water for our next dive.

Finally, after six days on board, our boat arrived back in Badjo. The next day we would be flying back to Bali, and from there to Manado in North Sulawesi. Our final week in Indonesia would be split between the Bunaken National Park and Lembeh Straits. Inter-island flights in Indonesia are notoriously unreliable, and due to delays and odd schedules our day was a very long one. Our flight arrived in Manado at 1:15 AM the following day, and by the time we were checking into Tasik Ria it was 3:30 in the morning. We were scheduled for our first dive briefing in four hours.

Bunaken National Park

Of all the places we visited on this trip, Tasik Ria offered the least level of diving freedom. The boats left at 8 AM and stayed out all day … you either went with them or you didn’t dive that day. With the whacky flight schedules, this meant we had to choose between diving on 2-1/2 hours of sleep or missing a precious day out of our diving itinerary … there is no shore diving available, and even the “house reef” is a boat dive. Cheng and I chose to dive. Janet and Jim decided to sleep in and use the day to relax.

The Bunaken National Park is about an hour’s boat ride from Tasik Ria, during which time we were able to set up our gear and get the debrief on how the boat was organized. It was a pretty comfortable setup, and we were able to get some “relax” time in the cabin or the open-air upper deck on the way out to the dive site.

The dives themselves were spectacular. Massive, current-swept walls provided impressive structure and scenic vistas that attracted bountiful amounts of marine life. Occasionally a shark, turtle or napoleon wrasse would come swimming in from the deep blue toward the reef, giving us a larger subject to take pictures of. Otherwise it was much like the reef life we had experienced in Komodo.

And although the dive sites were pretty, I was surprised to discover that there is heavy fishing activity inside the park … and that the local idea of trash disposal was to dump it into the sea. There was a lot of floating garbage at most of the sites we visited, which I think detracted a lot from the scenery we had come to enjoy.

Tasik Ria was very nice. We had a lovely cottage on the beach. The lodge features one of the nicest pools I’ve ever seen, although Cheng and I didn’t make much use of it. And the dive operation … Eco Divers … made sure we had a great time on our dives.

On our second evening, the lodge had planned a beach party. This was a big event, requiring all day to set up and featuring a barbecue, local musicians, and a troupe of young people to perform local dances for us. We arrived early to claim a table next to where the dancers would be performing … to assure a good place from which to take pictures. Long tables were loaded down with an incredible assortment of food, especially desserts, and we quickly settled in for a delightful meal. But within just a couple minutes I felt a raindrop … than a couple more. Hmmm … I suggested to Jim that he and I should go back to our cottages and grab some umbrellas … just in case. Fortunately we did, because we no sooner got back to the tables than the rain turned into a classic tropical downpour. The musicians dispersed, tables were quickly covered, and the guests made a beeline for shelter … except for the four of us. We sat under our umbrellas and continued to eat in a torrential downpour that, quite literally, we could feel beating down on our umbrellas as though threatening to collapse them. But it didn’t, and we continued laughing and taking pictures of each other eating a feast under our umbrellas. At one point the resort manager ran out to inform us that we were welcome to stay as long as we liked, but that they were moving the party inside, to the restaurant. But we were having too much fun to move, and continued eating and laughing and taking pictures of each other until our meal was completed. Sometimes it’s the unlikely things that you enjoy and remember the most about a vacation, and this seemed likely to be among them.

The following day was Cheng’s birthday … the underlying reason for our trip to Indonesia. Once again we had three memorable dives out on the walls of the park, then adjourned to the resort restaurant for dinner. Unbeknown to Cheng and I, Janet had made arrangements for the staff to present Cheng with a birthday cake after our meal was done. We had an enjoyable celebration, then went off to work on the day’s pictures and eventually to bed … the next day we would be transferring to Lembeh Straits for our final four days of diving on the trip.

Lembeh Straits

The next morning after breakfast we packed our bags and boarded a van for the 2-hour ride across the tip of north Sulawesi to Lembeh Straits. Prior to boarding the van we were informed that the folks at Kunkungen Bay Resort (KBR), where we would be staying, were holding a boat for our arrival … we would be checking in and immediately begin our diving day. Ah … my kind of people.

We arrived at KBR and were quickly taken to our rooms … lovely beachside cottages on stilts right next to the dock. After quickly getting into our bathing suits we adjourned to the dock, where the dive staff were already setting up our gear on the boat. We met our dive guide for the day, got a quick briefing, and within 45 minutes of our arrival we were backrolling off the boat for our first dive of the day.

Our first dive at Lembeh was a real eye-opener. I couldn’t help but think that God must’ve been in a seriously weird mood when He created this place … it was like an underwater Jurassic Park, with some of the strangest creatures I’ve ever seen. The dive site …which was called “Hairball” … was a featureless desert of black sand, with occasional oases of sponge or coral … more often trash or a pile of derelict fishing net … scattered here and there. Hiding in the sand or among these places of shelter we found frogfish, scorpionfish, lionfish, puffer fish, snake eels, moray eels, sea horses, devil fish, and some of the strangest looking crabs I’ve ever seen with tiny bodies and large, jewel-like eyes. Our dive guide performed virtual feats of magic as he would point to a seemingly innocuous bump in the sand … only to have it transform on closer inspection into a scorpionfish or stargazer.

Strange looking “winged” fish (that I later learned were called flying gunnards) were running back and forth on the bottom like chickens. Tiny little stonefish scuttled along the sand like squat sidewinders. And occasionally a banded sea snake would wander by … everyone instinctively gave them a wide berth. But perhaps the strangest of all the creatures we saw were schools of large, black urchins that scuttled along the bottom like little bumper cars. These were impressive creatures, not only because they were moving more quickly than I thought urchins could move, but because shining a light on them brought out these colorful patterns on their back … brilliant red and blue reflections that reminded me of the lights in the alien city from the movie “The Abyss”.

Now, Lembeh Straits is famous for its muck diving … and rightfully so. But there’s also some really nice reef diving to be had there too, especially along the northern part of the strait. Beautiful slopes and colorful pinnacles host massive fields of corals, and some of the best visibility we experienced anywhere on our trip. Colorful blue starfish cling to brilliant red and orange gorgonians. Tiny black-banded toby’s hide in the shelter of soft corals. And all too often, a nip on the hand or tug on a leg indicates that we’ve swam within the territory of a family of clownfish protecting their anemone. Once again the dives guide perform their magic as they peel back the fringes of a crinoid to point out a tiny, perfectly camouflaged shrimp … or gently touch their metal pointers to what appears to be the tip of a soft coral only to have it morph into a tiny coral crab or a pygmy seahorse.

One of the more memorable dives we did there was a dusk dive to see the mandarin fish. These are tiny, and very colorful, fish that come out at dusk to mate. And they’re shy, which means that you have to make very judicious use of a dive light when trying to find them. Most of the dive involved hovering over a large bed of broken staghorn coral waiting for them to make an appearance. Eventually you’d detect movement among the coral, and suddenly two of them would rise up and embrace … belly to belly … in a mating dance. After a few seconds, they’d disengage and dash back into the coral … only to do it again a few seconds later. As it gets dark, their mating ritual complete, they disappear. We spent the rest of the dive looking at other, more ordinary reef critters such as anemones, nudibranchs, and cuttlefish.

Over a four-day period we managed 13 dives in Lembeh Straits, alternating between the strange creatures found on the muck dives and the beautiful ones found on the reef dives. And some were both strange and beautiful, forcing us to spend part of each surface interval poring through ID books trying to figure out what we had seen. One of our special treats was a type of octopus known as a “wonderpus” … long-legged and with a narrow torso.

One of our favorite sites was rightfully called “Nudi Falls”, just south of the resort. The main part of the site is a sloping rubble field where it was easy to find one of our favorite creatures … the rainbow mantis shrimp. The slope hosted both hard and soft corals, which provided shelter for a variety of fish and invertebrates, including sea horses and frogfish. And the shallows terminated in a mini-wall that gave the site its name, as it was festooned in colorful nudibranchs. The nooks and crannies also hosted a variety of other interesting creatures such as banded pipefish, emperor shrimp, horned blennies and a host of other tiny creatures. Because the wall it so shallow, it’s easy to spend a long time here, exploring every nook and cranny.

Our final dive of the trip was the KBR “house reef”. One simply giant-strides off the resort dock and submerges into a brilliant wonderland of corals, sponges and gorgonians festooned with life. A small boat sits at about 45 feet, just out from the dock. Because it is generally a very shallow dive, we managed an hour and 45 minutes on this dive … and could easily have stayed longer had we the air for it. It was a wonderful way to end the diving part of our vacation.

Overall, I really enjoyed KBR. Because the dive sites were all so close, the boats went out and came back in for each dive. So if you wanted to skip a dive, or just dive the house reef, you could easily just not get on the boat for that dive and still be on board for the next one. The boats went out four times a day … three dives during the day, then either a night dive or a mandarin dive just before dusk. The accommodations were, in my opinion, a cut above what we experienced at both Tasik Ria and at Mimpi … our first destination in Bali. The restaurant was situated right on the water, and was open 24 hours for snacks or coffee. Overall both the diving and the resort afforded a kind of freedom that appeals to me.

At last, the diving portion of our trip was over. We were leaving early the next morning for our flight back to Bali, where we would have two days of sight-seeing before heading home.

Back to Bali

The next morning we were up at 2:30 AM for our van ride to Manado. Once again the whacky inter-island flight schedules had us up at uncivilized hours. It promised to be a long day. As we were loading the van with our luggage for the ride to the airport, the wonderful staff at the restaurant prepared for us a carafe of coffee, another of hot chocolate, and four breakfast sandwiches for the ride. We arrived at the airport at the ungodly hour of 5:15. Our flight would take us first to Mankasar in southern Sulawesi, then on to Denpasar in Bali.

We spent the next two days going to the usual tourist places in Bali … visiting the fish market at dawn, driving through the countryside to see the terraced rice fields, eating lunch at a restaurant overlooking one of Bali’s active volcanoes, taking a stroll through the monkey forest, sightseeing at several picturesque temples, watching a Balinese barong dance … and fending off the ubiquitous street vendors at every stop.

Our final day was a long one … nearly 40 hours due to crossing the date line. We left Bali at 4:30 PM on Sunday, March 30th, flew to Taipei, Taiwan and after a modest layover, flew back to Seattle … arriving at around 7:15 PM on the same day.

During the 23 days of our trip we had flown more than 25,000 miles, visited seven islands, dived 17 days, and logged a cumulative bottom time of nearly two and a half days. Overall it had proven to be just what we had hoped for … the trip of a lifetime.

You can see more pictures from our trip at …

http://photoshow.comcast.net/watch/wI9RD4RE

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