Eleven days ago we set off for Bali to kick off another bucket list adventure: a trip to dive with manta rays and see the Komodo dragons, aboard the luxurious vessel, Dewi Nusantara (we sailed round Raja Ampat on the Dewi 18 months ago and loved it so much we vowed to return!)
From Bali we fly to Bima, on Sumbawa, a rather sleepy, ugly rubbish-strewn port alive only with dogs and chickens, but there, in the harbour lies the Dewi, gleaming like a spaceship visiting another planet. We bound up the steps and are greeted by our Cruise Director and friend Andrea, and familiar faces from before.
We are a jolly bunch comprising one of the four investors Simon Day, founder also of Sea Sanctuaries Trust with his wife Eira, their two sons Max and Charlie and her sister Sara and her daughter Little Eira. Then there’s Swiss Mark, coincidentally a fellow Novartis employee from Basel and almost fluent in Indonesian much to everyone’s amazement and crew’s delight, American Mike from Seattle and Polish Janusz and Alicia Draminski who are professional photographers and kindly allow me to use some of their photos here! Check their FB page Underwater Indonesia too.
But the highlight for all of us is the company of marine biologist and co-author of the renowned Reef Fishes of the East Indies, Mark Erdmann, who is here to look for new species (more of that later). Latterly we are also joined by one of his PhD students, Sarah Lewis, who is researching mantas, but more importantly trying to educate the islanders of Lamakera, who slaughter both mantas and sharks to supply the insatiable Chinese desire for the mantas’ gill rakers and shark fins, on sustainable alternatives to hunting.
We start the trip in great excitement as some whale sharks have been seen in a nearby bay (not very nearby actually as we make quite a big detour, but it is a risk worth taking we feel). We chug all night only to find that the sharks are nocturnal and have disappeared into the depths for the day! So the first few dives are of the mucky variety, all small stuff in black volcanic sand. Not really my thing!
The islands, when we are near land, are spectacular, great upthrusts of verdant green volcanic rock, with visible craters, and active volcanoes dotted around, wreathed mostly in cloud. On the first night, with a crescent moon illuminating the reddening sky, we are startled by hundreds of thousands of fruit bats leaving for their nightly feed, flying very low due to the high winds. Poor Mark is trying to give us a talk on Reef Fish of Indonesia and we abandon him to look in awe at the spectacle.
It’s not all diving; on day two we pay a visit to an island where a whole community has decamped in order to build a huge boat, funded by a rich Singaporean. The village is dirt poor, with old crones and raggedy men sitting around, mouths stained with betel, a few black stumps dotting their cancerous gums. But they are pleased to see us – we bring instant noodles and biscuits – and manage to inveigle a couple of pairs of flip flops out of us as well.
Another day we get up early to visit Rinca island, to see the Komodo dragons. These are large monitor lizards which only exist on these few islands, whose poisonous bite is enough to kill their prey – having bitten the victim they simply follow it until it expires, which can take a couple of weeks. Humans can just about survive if treated quickly! I am surprised they are not larger – David Attenborough obviously deceived me – and saddened that the only ‘wild’ ones we see there are aggregating around the cook-house of the national park rangers who, despite saying the don’t feed them, I suspect throw them scraps and bones…
We walk up the hill and take in the spectacular views, posing for a team photo. The next night, however, we go for a boat ride and see three dragons basking on the sand in the evening sun, just like any lounge lizard. The effect is ruined by an oligarch from a nearby yacht buzzing them with a drone the entire time. We leave in disgust.
We spend a couple of evenings on Padar island: the first time the crew took an eski full of wine and beer and we wander over the spine of the island to the ‘pink beach’; Max on the way picking up a hermit crab which then dug so deeply into him that he had to rush off the the sea to encourage it to unclasp him; the crew hoot and howl with laughter and I think it gives them a talking point for a least a couple of days. They had brought a guitar and serenade us as the sun goes down.
A few days later we visit Padar again, this time walking up to the view point – a good 1.5/2 kms up a precipitous, stony path – Andrea goes barefoot much to our amazement. Cognizant of what goes up must come down, I decide not to go right to the top – just as well as Ross’s sandals completely fall to pieces and he is unable to provide much support on the way down! Luckily Andrea is to hand…
And then of course there’s the diving: Ross’s website goes into that in great detail with proper underwater photographs; I will cheat by sharing some of Janusz’s instead! The highlight was diving with mantas – on one dive we visit a cleaning station and hang on to the reef while up to 30 mantas swirl around us, the little cleaner wrasses and and remoras attached to them like glue, thrusting upwards in an elegant quadrille – maybe some sort of display ritual?
We see mantas on several dives, as well as masses of white-tip and some black-tip reef sharks – and of course all Mark’s tiny reef fishes. On our trip he thinks he may have identified as many as 13 new species, and some new habitats for some known species – a tally he is thrilled with. He is particularly excited about a new ‘playboy’ eel, some rabbit fish and several new varieties of blennies and other tinies (dotty back, triple fin etc). It is a real privilege to watch him at work, even if it does involve some murderous practices – stunning the fish with clove oil, then netting them and putting them in phials; for the bigger fish he has to spear them (away from the prying eyes of other divers who get very excited as you can imagine, not knowing that this is all in the interests of science!)
I have my share of excitements too: being bitten by a clown fish – Nemo is one of the fiercest inhabitants of the reef, and we also discover that they are one of two genus (genii?) of fish that CHANGE SEX, with the largest fish being the female, who bites the tails of all the smaller ones so they don’t overtake her, and then when she dies, another one takes her place and literally sets up a new pecking order!
I am also attacked by a cleaner wrasse, who must have thought I was a big black shark! Make no mistake though – some of the diving was damn cold – down to 23 C from 29C, and I wore: a rash vest (1 mm borrowed from Andrea); a 3 mm vest; a 3 mm wetsuit ; a 3 mm shortie (borrowed!); and a hood. And I was still cold!
But the beauty of the trip for me was that is was pain free – no tramadol, Panadol, oxycontin or even my new arthritis drugs. All the sun and the 3 x dives per day obviously did me a world of good. Plus the good food, fun company and blissful comfort of the Dewi and her fabulous crew. I am refreshed and revitalised and ready to re-enter the fray!
A big thank you once again to the Dewi team and our companions – and to Janusz for allowing me to use his photographs!
We are already planning another trip for 2018 – to see the Whale Sharks in Cenderwasih. Any takers?