Banda Bound

From Ambon to the Forgotten Islands

Vast fields of staghorn coral define the underwater view of many of the dive sites throughout the Forgotten Islands.

Whenever someone asks me about diving in Indonesia, I think of the limiting factor of range, for there is no single dive experience there. Instead, dive operators have developed a subset of itineraries around the hub of a domestic airport, with seasonal considerations providing further refinement. The bad news is that the choices can be a bit overwhelming. The good news is that they are all good, albeit surprisingly different.

Airport locations determine Indonesian dive travel to a great extent. Fine diving is available throughout the country, but you have to get to it. Even if you plan to cruise by liveaboard, the logistical range is tiny compared with the vast expanse of the world's largest island nation, which spans about 3,200 miles east to west and about 1,100 miles north to south. The United Nations has verified the names of 16,056 Indonesian islands (out of the 17,508 total islands reported by the Indonesian government), but only a dozen of these have airports.

Most international flights land in either Jakarta or Bali, but from there domestic flights provide access to some of the most iconic regions of the Coral Triangle. You can reach Raja Ampat from Sorong, the Bunaken National Park or Lembeh from Manado, or Komodo by flying into Labuan Bajo or traveling by liveaboard from Bali.

Aerial shot of Run Island
For this Banda Sea adventure, we chose to fly into Ambon for its world-class macro opportunities, cruise along a route through the Forgotten Islands and depart from Saumlaki. This itinerary, which is best between October and December, gave us the liberty of sampling new reefs all along the arc of islands and a much greater cruising range as opposed to returning to Ambon for our departing flight.

The "Ring of Fire" appellation of this region came into sharp focus two weeks before our trip when a 6.5-magnitude earthquake struck on Sept. 26, 2019, with the epicenter just 26 miles northeast of Ambon. It damaged or destroyed more than 6,000 structures throughout Maluku, killed 41 people and injured almost 1,600 others. More than 1,000 perceptible aftershocks occurred in the following week.

Our group arrived on Oct. 10 and uneventfully transported from the airport to the boat. Only then did we learn that an earthquake occurred in Ambon earlier that day. The Indonesian publication Tempo provided the following details: "The series of shocks began after 13:30 local time when a size 5.2 earthquake rocked Ambon. Three minutes later, a 4.6-magnitude quake hit the city, followed by four more, weaker shocks. The streak of shocks prompted residents to leave their workplaces and schools in panic as they dashed and scoured for a safe place to take shelter. The quake-driven panic caused chaos as people scrambled to reach higher grounds. The situation caused traffic congestion in almost all central areas of Ambon City."

The serene view of the setting sun from a liveaboard heralds a stellar night dive.
While the serene view of the setting sun behind the hills of Ambon from the bow of the boat did not reflect the anxiety that residents must have felt, I had the weird sensation of feeling those aftershocks course through my body on our first dive at Ambon the next morning. I was set up to photograph a Rhinopias when the tremors came through. It felt much like distant dynamite fishing (which I have also regrettably experienced in Indonesia), except it was a brief series of shocks instead of a single one. The earthquake didn't affect anything for us at sea, and we didn't feel any more shocks while in the water after leaving Ambon. Volcanic activity, however, is both a way of life and proof of the geological youth of certain areas of Indonesia.

The macro life in Ambon is astonishing. In retrospect, I wish the dives here hadn't been the first few of the trip because we didn't expect the abundance of unique photo opportunities. We should have assumed that our first dive at Laha could not be business as usual after encountering weedy scorpionfish, ornate ghost pipefish, frogfish, thorny seahorses, juvenile emperor angelfish, wonderpuses, coconut and mototi octopuses, and my first-ever coral catshark.

Poison ocellate octopus (Octopus mototi)
It was a spectacular checkout dive. The visibility was about 60 feet, which is quite good by the standards of muck dives in general; when my world is little more than the 1 foot in front of my 100mm macro lens, however, the other 59 feet are just for fun. The diving was so good that we spent the day there and continued into a night dive.

We woke up to a day of diving at Nusa Laut, and this was our first glimpse into what would be the defining aspect of this itinerary for me: the vast and beautifully intact fields of hard corals. Unless you have seen the corals that you thought would be there forever vanish in a geological blink of an eye, you may not appreciate how revered these coral gardens should be. If your baseline is contemporary, you'll be merely impressed. If you established your baseline even a decade ago, you'd be grateful and even emotional when seeing reefs such as these.

The antler corals were extraordinary, with multiple species of staghorn covering the reef slope and large schools of goatfish swimming above. Divers who took the time to explore the sand and rubble channels separating the football-field-sized coral aggregates found robust ghost pipefish, hawksbill and green sea turtles, leaf scorpionfish, pegasus seamoths and even reclusive garden eels in abundance.

Schooling yellow goatfish (Mulloidichthys martinicus) at Nusa Laut
As a change of pace, we left the reefs along the outside of the island for a night dive on the Nalahiya Jetty. I anticipated pilings draped in soft coral, so the marginal visibility and lack of decoration were underwhelming. As we were set up for macro subjects, finding octopuses, nudibranchs, cowries and multiple species of shrimp blunted the disappointment. Still, as night dives go, this was not the most productive.

By our third day of diving we had progressed to the dive sites at the offshore islands of Run and Nailaka near the island of Banda Neira. Between Run and Nailaka is a shallow reef and a vertical wall adorned with large barrel sponges and sea fans that became a luxuriant canvas for wide-angle shots with a lionfish foreground and diver background, an often-presented opportunity. The lush foregrounds combined with the exceptional visibility here to emphasize the "Banda blue" found in select regions of this itinerary. While visibility here was easily 100 feet, other areas were more like 50 feet. Our briefings included whether the dives were more about cryptic macro critters or wide-angle vistas washed by clear water, so we were prepared with the optimal optic on each dive.

On our second dive off Run, we encountered a large school of bumphead parrotfish. I've rarely had good luck getting close to large schools of bumpheads until earlier in 2019 while diving Sipadan Island, where bumpheads are common. The more acclimated to divers they are, the closer you can get, so I was surprised at how relaxed this school of bumpheads was since it isn't likely they see many divers in the course of the year. The cruising season is only a few months long, and not many liveaboards pursue this itinerary. Sipadan allows 120 visitors per day, so maybe 40,000 divers per year. Here there might be only 300 to 400 divers per year, so our close encounter with bumpheads was fortuitous.

Bumphead parrotfish swim near Run Island.

Marine Life in the Banda Sea
While on this cruise I gathered general observations of marine life. I was surprised to note that the catshark on the night dive was the only shark I saw the entire week. There are hammerheads in the Banda Sea, and many divers come here just to see them and are prepared to make deep dives to do so, making it a highlight of their itinerary. Just because I didn't see them doesn't mean they weren't there. I concentrated on the shallow reef, rarely diving below 90 feet.

Here I was reminded that "remote" is not the same as "protected." Anywhere we can go in Indonesia on a dive boat, a fishing boat from the Philippines or China can go as

Juvenile emperor angelfish (Pomacanthus imperator)
well and likely has already. The local villages, for the most part, do only sustenance fishing, so the lack of large grouper, snapper and sharks is more likely the impact of the fishing protocols of larger factory fishing boats with their indiscriminate nets. Indonesia has very successful marine protected areas, complete with patrol boats for enforcement, in Raja Ampat, Triton Bay, Cenderawasih Bay and Komodo, among others. The islands dotting the Banda Sea don't have the same protections.

The smaller reef dwellers were abundant, and the macro opportunities were sublime. Unusual creatures such as sea snakes are evocative of the region. If you expect to see a plethora of medium or large fish, you may be disappointed. This itinerary will deliver spectacular reefs with extraordinary coral cover as well as wonderful opportunities for portraits of colorful reef dwellers. You might see a manta ray or a whale shark, but other areas of Indonesia are slam-dunk locations for those. For sheer density and diversity of coral reefs, however, the Banda Sea is hard to beat.

Honeycomb moray eels (Gymnothorax favagineus)
In the afternoon we dived a reef slope choked with corals — mostly branching coral such as staghorn but also massive lettuce coral colonies — just off Banda Island in the flow of a volcano that last erupted in 1988. The explosion of coral growth in just 31 years, from the time molten lava scarified the seafloor until today, where there is no place to set an errant fin tip, speaks to water quality and the lack of destructive fishing practices such as dynamite or cyanide. To float in 30 feet of water with 120-foot horizontal visibility and see nothing but pristine coral within your field of view is a magical moment indeed.

This cruise didn't offer a lot of land tours, but we made one that afternoon at Banda Neira. During a visit to the local museum and a hike to Fort Belgica, which overlooks the harbor, we learned about the nutmeg harvest that was the economic driver of this region in the 16th century. The Spice Islands, as they came to be known, were the only places to find nutmeg and mace. Arab and Asian traders tried to keep the islands a secret to preserve their exclusive access to these sought-after spices and their control of the European market. The Dutch eventually located the islands, gained control of the nutmeg plantations and killed or enslaved the Bandanese population to work the plantations. The English and Dutch fought over the islands throughout the 17th century. In 1677 England relinquished the claims they had made in the Banda Islands in exchange for New Amsterdam, which they renamed New York. The real estate in Manhattan might be more valuable today, but the diving is still better off Run Island.

Huge sea fans dominate the wall off Hatta Island, one of the more iconic
wide-angle dive sites in the Forgotten Islands.
By our fifth day at sea we were off Hatta Island. The images from that morning were remarkable for the cobalt-blue water and astonishingly lush growth of large sea fans, a signature of the dives at Karang Hatta. Just as I wished I had known how unusual the macro dives were at Ambon relative to the rest of the itinerary, I wish I would've known to expect the impressive, colorful filter feeders here. Now you know to take your 100mm macro lens, and don't miss a dive in Ambon, just as you should take your fisheye lens and favorite dive model to Hatta and shoot, shoot, shoot. It's just as well I didn't know what I would find here, because I probably would have spent the day on wide angle at Hatta and would have missed one of the best critter dives of the trip that afternoon at Lighthouse Reef.

This was a shallow reef marked by, no surprise, a small lighthouse. The underwater view was isolated bommies hosting a wide variety of fascinating marine life. I went to one coral head because I saw opal sweepers swarming a small crevice and lionfish awaiting an opportunistic meal. Upon closer inspection, the crevice also contained a pair of large black-spotted moray eels, so big that I had to back up much farther than was ideal to fit both of them in the field of view of my 100mm macro lens. Later I applied the dehaze filter in my image-editing software to improve the visibility, and I ended up with a fine image. This dive also revealed leaf scorpionfish, hawksbill turtles, dogtooth tuna and a regrettably elusive Napoleon wrasse.

Mandarinfish (Synchiropus splendidus)
At dusk we were all in the water at Banda Island for the signature macro dive. Unlike many areas of the world where I've tried to photograph mandarinfish in their nightly courtship ritual, the substrate here was not the coral rubble that provides so many nooks, crannies and crevices for these outrageously colored (but diminutive) fish to hide from view. Instead, it was a mostly rocky bottom in only 10 to 15 feet of water, which made it easier to find a male and female pair on which to concentrate. The seafloor hosted a significant hazard though: It was dotted with long-spined sea urchins. While any ecologically enlightened diver has learned to bemoan the loss of the Diadema urchins throughout the Caribbean and Florida Keys for their role as algae-grazers, a few urchin spines poking through the knees of my wetsuit reminded me why I wasn't all that distressed upon first learning of their demise.

Banda Island has one of the world's great mandarinfish dives, even though there are plenty of them throughout the Coral Triangle. It's not that the fish are any different or the behavior at all unusual here, but the sheer quantity of mating pairs and the relative lack of concealment ramps up the productivity for this encounter.

Banded sea kraits (Laticauda colubrina)
The sea snake is another signature Banda Sea creature. Prodigious numbers of olive sea snakes and banded sea kraits dwell at the Tanjung Kelapa and Red Cliff dive sites off Gili Manuk, an isolated volcanic island. When two different dive skiffs return from different parts of the island, you can be certain that the other group saw more sea snakes than yours did. Divers from the other dive skiff claimed to see a dozen sea snakes in a field of view the size of a small bedroom, while my group saw one or two intertwined in a field of view the size of a serving platter.

Many other dive sites offered random encounters with sea snakes, but Gili Manuk provided the greatest concentration of them. My favorite sea snake shot of the entire trip came a few days later at Tanjung Kelapa (Coconut Island) with a single banded sea krait on a flyby. Fortunately, it happened along a very lush coral reef, and my photo-aware dive guide helped me by posing in the background to provide a sense of scale (see the cover of this issue).

At the beginning of this trip I had asked the crew for over/under photo opportunities anywhere on the itinerary — locations with something of interest in very shallow water and some bit of landscape in the view above. Knowing that these are places they might not usually dive and are best when photographed at low tide and in calm conditions, I like to plant the seed for an opportunity that might evolve organically at a later time. Locations with pristine corals and some level of topside attraction in the background are ideal. Some trips deliver no opportunities for this elusive wish-list item, but the Banda Sea provided several.

Over/under at Nyata Island

The first was at Terbang Utara. We spent the final 15 minutes offgassing in 15 feet or less (5 feet for the over/under shots) surrounded by spectacular coral. Nyata Island was our second dive dedicated to a shallow coral garden with lush branching corals that rose almost to the surface. This site was the best and delivered stunning split shots for all who ventured forth with a wide-diameter dome port and a fisheye lens. We had pristine corals for the under and an ideal over with the verdant island in the background.

Nil Desperandum is a remote seamount in the middle of the Banda Sea that is exposed at low tide and completely submerged at high tide. The crew speculated that perhaps 300 divers per year have the opportunity to dive here; if so, I have to compliment them on their buoyancy control because the fragile corals showed no indication of diver damage. In regions like these, however, cyclones, crown-of-thorns sea stars, dynamite fishing or even a marauding school of bumphead wrasses are more hazardous than humans. But here nothing had impaired the health of the reef.

Satiated with wide-angle shooting, I went back to my 100mm macro lens at Karang Dusborgh and had good luck photographing coral crabs in soft coral, Halimeda ghost pipefish, and longnose hawkfish in crimson sea fans. There was even a Pontoh's pygmy seahorse in a fortunately benign posture in shallow water with no fragile corals nearby for me to impact while I immersed myself in a kind of macro-esque tunnel vision.

Soft coral crab (Hoplophrys oatesii)
For the next few days we continued to dive sites that would be good for either wide-angle or macro shots, depending on what our Banda portfolios might still need. Some of us went wide to cover the soft coral garden along Nyata Wall, the schooling batfish and midnight snappers at Kelapa Wall, and the massive sea fans at Tanjung Kelapa. Others went with a macro lens and came home with images of ornate ghost pipefish, zebra dartfish, Pontoh's pygmy seahorses and porcelain crabs from the Dewara Slope. Hairy octopuses, blue-ringed octopuses and crocodilefish at Vaiwar were other macro delights.

My takeaway from this trip, as compared with my other Indonesian itineraries over the years, was this is a marine wilderness that is remote yet not unaffected by humans. The absence of sharks was likely attributable to fishing pressure. Other large creatures, particularly planktonic filter feeders such as manta rays or whale sharks, may not find this environment to their liking. The sea snakes were particularly engaging, and the macro opportunities were quite fulfilling, especially when our eagle-eyed dive guides continually pointed to things too small or too well camouflaged for us to recognize otherwise. All of these reasons are enough for divers to want to sail from Ambon through the Banda Sea to the Forgotten Islands.

The indelible memory for me will be the corals — the bonus I did not expect and most appreciated. Seeing acres of pristine coral should not be so unusual. In a world of global warming that brings coral bleaching, human influences that contribute to nitrification from sewage and fertilizers, and the impacts of cyclones or crown-of-thorns infestations that can decimate the reef tract, pristine is good. Pristine is special. Pristine is something to celebrate.
How to Dive It
Getting there: Expect long days of travel to begin this sojourn. I flew from New York to Jakarta, and then I took an Indonesian domestic airline to Ambon, but I had to overnight in Jakarta to make the connections. Many combinations of international and domestic carriers can get you there, but plan for two full days of travel both coming and going. We used Garuda Indonesia for our domestic air travel; while the weight restrictions are onerous, remember to advise them that you are traveling with scuba gear. They offer a complimentary sports equipment allowance of 50 extra pounds, which when combined with the 66 pounds they already allowed meant that I didn't have to pay excess baggage fees on this trip — a fairly rare occurrence for an underwater photographer traveling to a remote destination.

As is normal for international travel, your passport must be valid for at least six months from the date of your arrival, and you need to have proof of return or onward ticketing. Your passport should have at least two blank pages.

This is a liveaboard destination; it is too vast to access from a resort-based dive operation.

Conditions: Water temperatures range from 78°F to 84°F, and visibility varies from 30 feet to 120 feet. The best time to plan a Banda Sea crossing is from September to November and from April to May. Much of the transit is in the open ocean without an abundance of sheltered bays for calm anchorage, so it's important to consider the likelihood of calm seas when planning your trip.

Most of the dive conditions were benign. It wasn't necessary to go particularly deep to find the best things to observe, and because most sites were adjacent to islands or seamounts, they were easy multilevel dives with convenient offgassing on the ascent. We experienced some mild currents at some sites, but nothing that required a reef hook to stay in place.

In a remote area such as this, a dive accident can be problematic. The boat will likely have to turn around in the event of major problems, and no airstrips are available throughout much of the cruising range to fly a stricken diver to a recompression chamber, so use conservative dive profiles. Every diver should carry DAN® insurance, because an accident could occur no matter how careful you are, and the cost of evacuation and treatment could be substantial.
Explore More
See more of Banda from both a macro and a wider perspective in Stephen Frink's online photo galleries.

© Alert Diver — Q1 2020