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Indonesian

EXPEDITION Komodo to Raja Ampat PART TWO

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Adrian Stacey continues his epic odyssey on board a traditional phinisi-style Indonesian liveaboard travelling from Komodo to Raja Ampat WORDS/PHOTOGRAPHY ADRIAN STACEY

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was on a pilgrimage from Komodo to Raja Ampat, part of an expedition that would take 19 days and provide those on board a host of unique and amazing experiences both above and below the water. The first leg of the trip was from Komodo to Alor (see last issue), and we had left the small town of Labuan Bajo, the gateway to Komodo, seven days earlier and already there had been some fantastic dives, stunning topside scenery and even an exploding volcano. The second leg of our journey would take us from Alor, across the Banda Sea, to the Banda Islands. These relatively unexplored territories promised to provide even more wonderful sights and memorable encounters, especially as this was hammerhead season in the Banda Sea. Before venturing out into the wilderness of the open ocean, we had our first scheduled dry day. While the crew stayed behind to restock the boat with more fuel, water and provisions, we ventured onto land to soak up the local culture. Located east of Flores, the Alor archipelago is beautiful. Villages dominated by domed mosques or spired churches are perched sporadically on steep tree-covered slopes. The inhabitants, especially the children, are always happy to meet new visitors to the area. They would paddle out to where we were diving in tiny carved-out wooden canoes. Some would duck dive under the water and stare at us through unusual homemade goggles while others would wait until we popped up from our dives before greeting us with wide smiles. The locals are still very reliant on fishing, but it seems to be carried out in a sustainable way and the intricate wooden traps they use sit on top of the reef looking like extravagant decorations.

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The reef gets much shallower here and the currents pick up - after hurtling through at a rate of knots we were finally spat out into a stunning coral garden where we were joined by several feeding mantas

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The diving in Alor is spectacular. It is not yet as wellknown as it more famous neighbours, Komodo and Raja Ampat, but I think it will be in the not-too-distant future. The reefs are varied and pristine, and the currents can be every bit as strong as Komodo. There is also a rich diversity of marine life in the area, ranging from rhinopia to thresher sharks and occasionally even mola mola. At Arch Wall, we found a beautiful wall boasting numerous overhangs, colonised by sponges, sea fans and whip corals. Large gatherings of fusiliers hung out in the blue, while schools of redtooth triggerfish stayed close to the safety of the reef. My favourite dive was at the stunning Clown Valley Boulders. A slope covered in hard coral leads down onto an immense plateau littered with pinnacles, and every inch of its substrate is covered in hard corals, soft corals, whip corals and sponges. Fighting for space in among this profusion of growth are literally hundreds of anemones with resident clownfish. Great visibility, schools of fusiliers, tuna and a multitude of small reef fish contributed to the sensory overload. Fish Galore provided more stunning reef and a close encounter with a thresher shark. The night dive showed off Alor’s critter credentials with a variety of nudibranchs, scorpionfish, decorator crabs and many other weird and wonderful nocturnal creatures.

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Laying on the sun deck of the Jaya with a cold beer in hand and watching a volcano explode every 20 minutes was a mesmerising experience that I will never forget

There are about 46 known species of frogfish worldwide in tropical and temperate seas. The frogfish swims by jet propulsion. It uses backwardfacing, tubelike gill openings that propel it along rather than using a tail like most fishes.

The next three days would be spent island hopping across the Banda Sea, diving by day and travelling by night. The first island we reached was Pulau Wetar, followed by Pulau Nyata, Pulau Mitan, Pulau Damar and Pulau Terbang Utara. At each of these destinations we had some amazing dives along sheer, plunging walls, all with their own characteristics and all teeming with fish. At Wetar, the walls were scarred with deep crevices and decorated with sea fans and sponges. Nyata boasted soft corals and whip corals along with a beautiful hard coral garden on the fringing reef. Mitan’s walls were home to several species of nudibranchs and were infested with feather stars, as was the shallow, bommie-covered plateau that sat on top of this spectacular drop-off. Damar offered a great mixture of hard and soft corals, while Terbang Utara was covered in thick, bushy black coral. Due to choppy seas hindering our progress on some of our night-time crossings, we were only able to dive twice a day on this stretch of our journey. However, a close encounter with a huge fin whale and her calf, a visit to a beautiful palm-fringed beach and an ill-fated attempt to snorkel with a large pod of pilot

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whales, more than made up for the two dive days. Not to mention that it gave us the chance to relax, off gas and simply enjoy the fact that we were cruising through a beautiful and remote part of the world. With only two days left before arriving at the Banda islands, we reached the huge, submerged reefs of Dusburgh and Nil Desperandum. Karang Dusburgh (Karang is the Indonesian word for reef) was our first port of call. Hiding only a few metres under the surface, a vast plateau sits on top of steep walls adorned with sea fans and barrel sponges. Blacktip reef sharks patrolled the shallows and large schools of shy humphead parrotfish grazed relentlessly on hard corals - reef conservation was clearly not a priority for them! Out in the blue was a frenzy of activity as massive tuna torpedoed through the ranks of a large school of the constantly picked-on fusiliers. Then gliding along the reef came the creature we had all been hoping to see and what this reef is well known for - a hammerhead shark. The moment was fleeting, but it was a good start to the day. Three hours northeast was our next site, its topography and marine life are very similar to that of Karang Dusburgh but

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Top 5 dive si tes

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out of the two, I preferred Karang Nil Desperandum. The reef was just a little bit prettier, the marine life a tad more prolific and the action slightly more frenzied. Not to mention it has a much cooler name. Translated Karang Nil Desperandum means Do Not Despair Reef. We dived twice on this fabulous reef, and where Dusburgh had provided a great start to the day, Nil Desperandum gave us a fantastic finish with at least four hammerhead sightings throughout our final dive. The privileged feeling, mixed with a hint of smugness, which accompanies such sightings soon evaporated upon hearing that a few days earlier another liveaboard had seen a school of hundreds of these unique creatures. The final destination before our next restock and land visit day was the amazing Gili Manuck. This small volcanic island in the middle Banda Sea looks like something out of a Jules Verne novel. Its steep slopes are covered in thick forest which is home to hundreds of noisy sea birds. They endlessly circle the island, occasionally plunging into the water to search for food. While we were there we rescued two frigates and a boobie that had injured themselves on entry - their fishing techniques clearly needing a little more practice. But what makes this place really special is beneath the surface. On a single dive we encountered at least 50, sometimes quite large and often over-friendly, sea snakes. Completely unfazed by our presence they would swim between our legs or creep up stealthily from behind, materialising just in front of our masks.

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It was great fun to watch when it happened to other divers, but a little scary being on the receiving end. We had three dives here, all of them superb. The snakes were the undoubted stars of the show, but by no means the only stars. We had a fleeting glimpse of a hammerhead, several encounters with eagle rays, a huge marble ray and for the macro enthusiast, there was a good smattering of large, colourful nudibranchs. The reefs themselves are also beautiful and varied. There were plunging drop-offs and huge plateaus, littered with coral-covered boulders and bommies that sat in warm volcanic sand. Massive barrel sponges and huge patches of plate coral engulfed some areas of reef while ridges of jagged black rock supported abundant soft coral growth. Gili Manuck really is a magical place - unless you have a phobia for snakes, then it would be just terrifying. After a 12-hour night time crossing, we arrived at the Banda islands. On this leg of the expedition we had travelled over 500 miles, enjoyed 16 dives and had encounters with hammerhead sharks, eagles rays, whales and of course plenty of sea snakes. n

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