Scuba Diving the Spice Islands

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Streams of trevally pass beneath swathes of pyramid butterflies. This is the best, most outrageous, most prolific, marine-life screen saver.It has long been an ambition to dive around the Spice Islands. The mystique of these far-flung but historically important islands has always captivated us, but a couple of planned trips were aborted due to the civil war in the 1990’s. The region has now settled into an easy calm and divers are paving the way for tourism to return.

Banda Sea

Our trip started with a flight to Ambon, via Bali, then an overnight sail to Lucipara Atoll. The long, and sometimes arduous sea journey was instantly rewarded by some of the best wall diving we have ever seen in Indonesia. This isolated atoll is marked by three tiny, palm-ringed islets, their idyllic appearance reflected beneath the surface where the reefs lie undisturbed. We saw no damage, no evidence of fishing and perhaps the best soft corals in the country.

The colours were outrageous, the walls lush with clashing shades of red, orange and pink. And there were masses of fish, schools so dense that seeing through them was simply not an option. Pelagic species like tuna and trevally made continual appearances and, as an extra treat, a school of pilot whales came to visit between dives. We were told that they are seen on most trips and we had the briefest chance to snorkel with them.If those first days were any indication, this was going to be quite some trip. In just two days we had already decided that even if we saw nothing else, Lucipara had made the long wait to see the Banda region worthwhile.

The Spice Islands

Our second scheduled stop was at the actual Banda Islands, the destination we had wanted to see for so long. Arriving by boat was breathtaking; the liveaboard slid gently past the steep slopes of active Guning Api and then into the harbour at Banda Neira. The lie of the surrounding islands creates a setting rather like an inland lake yet the tides that pass through this channel have created a rich marine environment. It’s not a pretty area, with little coral in the lagoon like bay, but there is the most incredible up-tempo muck diving right below Banda Neira Pier.

From the shallowest point down to quite some depth, the slopes are strewn with weird creatures. Yet strangely the filefish, razorfish and Colman’s Shrimp faded into insignificance at dusk when the resident mandarinfish appeared. Fondly described as mandarins on steroids, whole colonies of these beauties emerge every night at dusk for a mating session or several. There are pretty walls and coral reefs nearby as well.

Nestled right beneath Guning Api, and just outside the channel, is the newest of new reefs where a thick table and staghorn corals have covered the broad scar caused by Guning Api’s last explosion, just a couple of decades ago. And nearby, Batu Kapal has got to be one of the most impressive dives anyone is likely to see. At 38 metres, fan corals have grown to over 5 metres high and wide. Both areas were as thick with schooling fish as we had seen at Lucipara, and we spent too much time just hovering among them.

A Dutch Past

For too-short a morning, we decamped from our floating palace and allowed diving to take a back seat to the islands fascinating history. Once, these were the richest on the planet, being the sole source of a commodity worth more than gold – nutmeg. Banda has some beautiful, if faded, colonial architecture, a small museum and several forts as the islands were fiercely fought over by many colonial powers until there was a final battle between the Dutch and the British. A deal was eventually brokered, with the British conceding Banda in an exchange that left them with the “poor relative”, another small and seemingly insignificant island that is now known as Manhattan.

Nusa Laut

After a week in the luxurious Banda waters, we headed back towards the larger islands near Ambon, stopping briefly at Nusa Laut. This island hovers over an underwater promontory, which attracts lots of large animals – bumphead parrotfish, eagle rays and reef sharks. However, the main attraction was the resident schools of jacks, some of the most enormous we have ever seen. There were probably two or three clusters, huge swathes of silver that wafted through the water in a slippery dance.

One shoal would split in half and then merge into another, the new group would move together for a few minutes then split again, some returning to the first gang, others creating a new one. It was a spectacle that eclipsed the pretty reef and the number of smaller creatures in the shallows.

Macro Critter Diving

Finally, we headed to Ambon to spend time in that most famous of critter regions, Laha. Its past reputation is well deserved. The diving is not dissimilar to that in the Lembeh Straits with a dark sandy landscape punctuated by everything from scorpionfish of the genus Rhinopias and Inimicus to seahorses. There were frogfish and cuttlefish, pipe horses and even a shrimp that we simply could not identify.

Ambon Channel also has a great wreck dive – the visibility is low but the life is excellent – and the dives on the outer edge of the channel are a great mix of craggy wall and small creatures. Yet we kept asking to go back to the messy and unattractive slopes to see what else we could find. Laha, in all its guises, is a treasure trove of rare and unusual.

Ambon city though is an odd sort of place. There is plenty of evidence of the past religious strife with many derelict buildings contrasting with those that have been repaired and are glaringly new. A small museum sits on a pretty hillside above the town and the markets near to the docks are bold and vibrant. Tourism is something of a lost resource here and few divers stay.

Diving the Spice Islands

Our trip more than exceeded any expectations we had. It was a surprise to discover that this diving was quite different to that in other parts of Indonesia we have seen and was definitely as good as not Irian Jaya.

Being so close, the two areas are bound to be compared and perhaps there are slightly fewer species in this sea but who will know until the same amount of research is done?

However, the conditions of these reefs appear to be much better, the muck diving is definitely superior and we felt we had seen far more fish – more than almost anywhere else.

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