WARNING: Contains a lot of fish
We loved the diving here and the Wooky took some amazing photographs of some amazing critters, some beautiful fish (when they stood for long enough, which they rarely did), lots of moray eels, some beautiful landscapes and really weird stuff.
While I took a lot (and I mean A LOT) of GoPro footage and while I’ve deleted the rubbish clips I have yet to work out how to edit and stitch together. When I do I shall post a few short ones on our Facebook page but until then we have plenty of photographs to share.
Dive Blue Motion and SEA Ventures
A year ago Dive Blue Motion (DBM) moved their operation to Hotel Laguna (from Hotel Maulano) which was part of the reason we chose to stay there. DBM in Banda is run by Tuta, a German, and most of the guests at the Laguna are German who have turned up for the diving.
Tuta’s girlfriend, Mareike (also German) is a marine biologist doing (I think) a PhD at Jakarta University and she is also the joint driving force of SEA Ventures, an organization which runs programmes about ocean awareness. Elsa, an Indonesian from Jakarta, is her Indonesian partner and Elsa splits her time between Bandaneira and Jakarta. SEA Venture offer educational and volunteering programmes for anyone who is interested. Just check out their website.
DBM and SEA Ventures work in close alliance, share facilities as well as a philosophy. It also appears to work smoothly and to everyone’s mutual benefit.
DBM have a centre near the airport in Ambon Harbour and that operation is run by Tuta’s business partner, Mika, who we met in Saparua. Ambon Harbour is a place to go muck diving and by all accounts is up there with Lembeh Strait in north east Sulawesi (the muck diving mecca). While I like the little critters I’m not sure muck diving is for me as it seems you spend a lot of time poking around in sand and rubbish trying to find weird and wonderful tiny creatures. I prefer beautiful landscapes, lots of fish and lovely healthy coral and diving around the Banda Islands ticks all those boxes but more on that later.
Tuta and Mareike have lived on the island for about 4 years and as with many of the foreigners who have made Indonesia their home they are involved in the local community, teaching English to the local kids, helping to educate local people about the impact of on the ocean of trash and overfishing, and the effect of climate change.
The Dive Guides
Something else that Tuta and Mareike invest time and money in is educating their guides. Indonesian dive guides are generally like fish in the water but often only qualified up to Advanced Open Water stage. Tuta and Mareike go one step further to help them progress to Dive Master and beyond to Dive Instructor – this is no simple task as most of them have had a rudimentary education and struggle to understand basic physics.
They have to study and master this knowledge in English, their second language, and they are usually nowhere near fluent. The process requires determination and patience both on the part of the Indonesians and their instructor (who is often a non-native English speaker themselves!).
Three of the dive guides (Doan, Kiki and Billy) were originally from Manado and Toby (the main man) was local. All were experienced and were all you could wish for in dive guides. As well as knowing their way around the dive spots, being great at spotting some seriously weird shit, and just being generally reassuring underwater, they good fun to be around and very entertaining. This was particularly apparent on the dive boat where they would spontaneously break into song on the return journey from where we had been, earning themselves the collective name “The Manado Ladyboys”.*
The Rubbish Problem
Garbage is a problem throughout Indonesia and one which is starting to be tackled in places like Bali but in poorer provinces very little seems to be done about it.
Apart from trying to educate the islanders of the impact of actions on their seas, Dive Blue Motion arrange regular clean-ups of the bay area in front of the hotel inviting guests or divers to help out for a free dive. Rubbish is particularly noticeable after a visit from a large ferry or cruise ship. Theirs is only a small contribution to this massive problem but we have met a number of individuals making such small contributions in different parts of Indonesia and can only hope that these small efforts will combine to bring about real change before it’s too late, that education will foster awareness.
Education is at the heart of the vital revolution needed to combat this massive problem and it does seem that slowly a shift in attitude is taking place. Only time will tell but it is clear that in a country like Indonesia it is only with the coordination of local village and family heads, community and religious leaders, NGOs, local and central government as well as business that will make a difference. That in itself is a long, laborious and sometimes frustrating process.
Diving around the Banda Islands
We seemed to spend most of our time in the water so here’s a little about that.
We dived about 26 times each with DBM , diving many sites 2 or 3 times because we loved them so much. My GoPro came into its own and I was able to capture some fish and a turtle (among other things). Unfortunately, the Wooky was starting to have problems with his underwater camera but nothing that wasn’t remedied by a hard thump, for the time being at least. We managed to get both some lovely still photographs and a few videos which need editing.
Mira, the dive boat, was lovingly handmade by Tuta and was relatively luxurious by our standards with a lower deck for all the gear and a small area for water, tea and coffee, and a covered upper deck for lazing about drinking coffee, eating lunch, reading or just gazing out to sea while you motored to your dive site.
Although DBM have 3 boats in all, most trips are organized around a day trip heading out on Mira at around 8.30am. We would do two dives, one in the morning followed by a long leisurely lunch and another in the afternoon before returning to the hotel between 2.30pm and 4.30pm to afternoon coffee and snacks on the waterfront. It was all very well organised (as you would expect with a German run operation!).
Diving in the Banda Islands was amazing, and mainly lazy and easy diving with little or no current (my kind of diving). The corals were beautiful, visibility was about 30 to 40 metres and there were a lot of fish – maybe not so many big fish but the water was too warm (you can’t have it all ways). It’s the cold water that bring the big fish (sharks mainly) up into shallower water and although there was a rumour about a hammerhead, I didn’t see it so as far as I’m concerned it didn’t happen.
Most dives were wall or pinnacle dives except for the lava flow off the coast of Gunung Api. When the volcano last erupted in 1989 the lava flowed down the side of the volcano into the sea destroying everything in its path but since then soft coral regrowth has flourished as a result of the nourishing lava and it is an amazing underwater landscape with a diverse collection of reef fishes. We also saw eagle rays in this spot swimming past just a few metres away and it was magical.
My confidence in the water was growing particularly as I dived a few times without the Wooky who was struck down with some minor illness for a few days. I was slowly diving with less weight and generally feeling much more at ease in the water.
When we returned after a hard day’s diving, afternoon snacks were predictably pisang goreng (fried banana – a common snack throughout Indonesia) but on really good days we had doughnuts which led to the outbreak of doughnut wars between the two of us and some unfriendly German guests.
Coffee and snacks were waiting for you when you got off the boat and everyone usually sat down before heading off for showers etc.
The unfriendly Germans disappeared and didn’t seem to be coming back so after what we considered to be a suitable interval (it may have been as little as 15 minutes or as long as an hour, I honestly can’t remember) we ate their doughnuts. All of them. I think we had three each.
When the Germans returned up freshly showered and changed looking for doughnuts we wiped the sugar from our chins, finished our coffee and look our leave before questions were asked and accusations started flying about.
In the words of the Wooky, “it’s the quick or the dead”. They didn’t leave us alone with the doughnuts after that but in an effort to resume peaceful relations we didn’t scoff all the doughnuts again.
Mareika’s Shark Presentation
One evening towards the end of our stay in Banda the Wooky was unwell (again). We had moved to the Maulana Hotel but I had been invited to Laguna to sit in one of Mareike’s talks about the importance of the ecosystem, its vital biodiversity and a bit about sharks so I wandered down for a beer and to see whether I would learn anything.
Being a child of the Jaws generation sharks have always terrified me but since I started diving I have become fascinated by them. They are amazing creatures, often misunderstood (except perhaps the nasty Great White) and are vital to the oceanic ecosystem so aggressive hunting has a devastating affect on the rest of the food chain.
Mareike’s talk was fascinating, included information about the co-dependency of different marine areas and species within different parts of the ocean. Other hotel guests attended as well as the Indonesian dive guides who are encouraged to learn about the oceanic ecosystem (and seem to genuinely enjoy it).
When we were not diving
When the weather allowed (it was very hot and humid until sundown most days, and even then it was still stifling) we wandered around the town, discovered the little market, the ATM, and a few old historical buildings, including General Hatta’s house.
The mosque made itself known in the usual way and was remarkably well attended, particularly at evening prayer, which on special occasions lasted over an hour and was difficult to escape from. Most of the little eateries are a stone’s throw from the mosque so you have to time your evening meal quite well otherwise conversation is difficult to say the least. Saying that, we are both fond of the call to prayer. It structures the day and is part of the identity of the country and its people.
March 2016 Eclipse and the old Dutch fort Belgica
A total eclipse was scheduled for 9 March 2016 casting a narrow path across parts of Indonesia. In fact, Donggala on the west coast of Sulawesi where we started in December, was right in the middle of its path so would experience a total eclipse but in Banda we only viewed a partial eclipse (about 90%). We headed up to the old Dutch fort to see whether we would actually notice it.
While it was nothing like a total eclipse (like the one in Newquay in August 1999) the moon did cast a partial shadow across the sun which changed the nature of the light and there was a perceptible drop in temperature. But really you had to know it was happening or you wouldn’t have realised anything was going on.
While we were at the fort, its doors were actually open (they were closed on a previously attempt to visit and opening hours were random to say the least) so we took the opportunity to have a look around.
The fort has been restored but there is little information about in English. However, it was interesting that the Dutch had gone to such lengths by buildings these structures all across the Banda Islands to protect their nutmeg interests.
We wandered around the stone rooms and stood on the ramparts enjoying the view across the bay before heading back to the hotel before we melted away.
Fort Belgica overlooks another older fort, Fort Nassau, which was built on the foundations of an earlier by the Portuguese. Fort Belgica was larger and more strategically built on higher land and Nassau eventually fell into ruins and currently there is not much to see although apparently steps are being taken to restore it.
Nutmeg and Mace
No trip to Banda would be complete without someone pointing out a nutmeg tree. The night watchman at Laguna Hotel lived in a village just north of Bandaneira, where the three cemeteries were located (Chinese, Muslims and Dutch). He took us to a small family run spice plantation. We were quite relieved to finally find out what a nutmeg tree looked like. We were also shown how they were picked and then how the nutmeg and the mace were laid out to dry in the sun.
Other spices were also grown including cinnamon bark which is actually bark and we were shown how it shaved from the tree before also being dried in the sun to preserve and transport it. I don’t know why I was surprised it was actually bark but I was. A bit like the time on our last trip when we watched peanuts being harvested from the ground – I was convinced they grew on trees like most other nuts do but I had clearly been wrong all my life.
After we wandered around the orchard of spice trees we were provided with refreshments. We had cinnamon cake and cinnamon biscuits washed down by cinnamon biscuits and they were all delicious.
Time to move on
Even after a month it was hard to leave. We met lots of lovely people and had so many positive experiences, from the little Chinese lady in the shop who sold us some of her personal stash of honey to soothe our sore throats, to Paul having his bank card returned when he absent-mindedly left in in the ATM.
Now it was time to sail to the Kei Islands and we were duly braced for the obligatory Pelni experience.