Article and photos by Maggie Russell, Underwater photographer and Trip Leader extraordinaire, about her experience on The Amira Liveaboard 2017 Group Safari.
Finally the time had arrived for the start of The Indonesian Banda Sea Expedition aboard the Liveaboard “Amira” We would be travelling by sea from the port of Saumlaki on Yamdena Island through remote areas of South-East Indonesia through the Banda and Ceram Seas arriving in Sorong Irian Jaya, Papua New Guinea. A distance of over 700 Nautical Miles. On the way we would be diving many sites that are very rarely dived due to their remoteness.
People had travelled from a variety of locations, most of the group arriving in Ambon the previous day for a short rest at The Natsepa Hotel relaxing and getting over some of the jetlag. Many of us already knew each other from a previous trip and it was great to meet old friends. The next morning we boarded the Garuda Airlines flight for the short 1 and a ½ hour trip to Saumlaki. The flight was delayed by a few minutes whilst waiting for a few passengers that had been travelling from Bali. Just as well as it turned out that two of them were on our boat!
Outside Saumlaki Airport after collecting our bags we were greeted by Ronan Debelius, the cruise director of The Amira, and his friendly staff and travelled by cars to the dock where we caught our first glimpse of our home for the next 12 days or so. The “Amira”, meaning Princess, is one of Indonesia’s newest purpose built dive vessels, built in 2010 in a traditional wooden construction design she none the less has the latest navigation and safety equipment on board. A good choice as we were travelling in areas that not many dive charters visit. The majority of the experienced crew were Indonesian and have been diving the waters for many years.
After a welcome drink and the obligatory safety, boat information briefings and paperwork we were shown our cabins, all of which are equipped with either double beds or twin beds with individual controlled air conditioning units and a fan, mini-safe, en-suite bathroom with a hot and cold water shower. A nice touch was we were all given a metal water container with a tag for our name that we could refill when we wanted. Plastic usage is kept to a minimum on this boat. Then it was down to the dive deck where our bags were waiting for us so we could unpack any diving gear at our individual dive stations before the crew carried the rest of our luggage to our cabins.
The Amira is equipped with one of the best camera dedicated areas I have come across on a liveaboard. Each camera station has its own fan, a 4 or 6 plug extension and mat. A cylinder of compressed air was available for drying the camera housings. For those with DSLR or larger cameras they could safely be left here for the duration of the voyage so long as the seas remained calm.
The ships bell rang for lunch which was a buffet with a choice of chicken, fish and vegetable dishes followed by fruit. Most people had everything. It was all delicious. Any person with specific dislikes and food allergies was also catered for and the kitchen staff were aware of who they were from the very beginning.
Even though our group had been travelling for over 24 hours to get here they were well rested having opted for a day off in Jakarta and/or Ambon the previous evening and so were eager to get diving. A quick word with Ronan our cruise director when I arrived on board resulted in us getting out of port with all the paperwork completed quickly and so a check dive was arranged for 16:30 that afternoon. Everyone busied themselves checking out their dive gear. The spacious dive deck allowed everyone to sort themselves out efficiently and quickly.
We arranged initial dive groups, 4 groups of 4 plus 1 group of 3, each group having its own guide and zodiac crew. After the dive briefing one group at a time went down to the dive deck at 5 to 10 minute intervals so there was no crowding, both on the deck and underwater. Wetsuits and dive gear on, a drink of water provided by one of the efficient deck hands, buddy checks and then it was onto the zodiacs. The crew carefully handing in cameras and fins. Once in the zodiac we put on our fins and sped off for our check dive at Vaiwar Island off the main Island of Yamdena. A gentle sandy slope with coral outcrops and rubble down to around 14 metres with little current, ideal for a check dive for us and our equipment. The visibility wasn’t great as the area was fairly sandy but we still managed to spot a variety of smaller reef fish, spearing and peacock mantis shrimps, nudibranchs, prawns, crabs, juvenile file fish in soft corals and blennies and gobies with prawns in the sand.
After the dive it was back into the Zodiac which were all equipped with ladders, with those that wanted being able to take their weights and BCs off in the water before climbing into the rib making it very easy. Then back to the Amira where we were welcomed with a refreshing cool drink whilst the crew took off our BCs and fins placed them by our dive stations and put our cameras into the rinse tanks. There were separate tanks for wetsuits, dive masks and computers and cameras. There was a dry towel waiting for us at each dive station. The deck was alive with the exiting chatter of diving and what people had or had not seen. Those with cameras took them out of the dedicated camera rinse tank and off to the camera room.
Once everyone was back on board and dried off the bell rang for dinner, this time a delicious starter of fresh fish sashimi, with wasabi and ginger relishes and soy sauce followed by beef rendang, prawns in red peppers and sweet and sour chicken, rice and vegetables.
After dinner Ronan got out his big chart and showed us where we were heading and what diving we hoped to do the following day. The Amira began its navigation to Nitu Island some 50 nautical miles further north. The sea was flat and calm.
The following 11 days followed in a familiar pattern of: DIVE, EAT, SLEEP, REPEAT
Wake Up & pre breakfast – Dive Briefing – Dive – Breakfast – Relax
Morning Dive Briefing – Dive – Lunch – Relax
Afternoon Dive Briefing – Dive – Snack – Relax
Night Dive Briefing – Night Dive – Dinner – Charts out to plan the next day’s diving – Relax
Wherever possible we tried to get 3 dives a day plus a night dive and this called for an early start most mornings. Some days we were only able to do 2 or 3 dives when we had a long navigation but during the course of the trip we managed to fit in 38 dives into 12 days. There was no shortage of diving available if it was wanted.
Pre-breakfast was cereals, fruit and breads and spreads whilst the main breakfast was everything in the pre-breakfast plus eggs any way you wanted including omelette, pancakes and waffles or you could choose to have the Indonesian breakfast of mei goreng or nasi goreng. By the end of the trip I think I had converted almost everyone to the Indonesian breakfast. Fresh filtered coffee was also served.
After the first night the food was served buffet style for lunch with fruit to finish whilst it was an individual plated, restaurant style service in the evenings. The weather was kind to us throughout the trip with flat calm seas and we ate outside around the 2 massive wooden tables on the foredeck. There was a great variety with both Western and Indonesian dishes along with an Italian pasta and pizza evenings. The puddings were delicious and freshly baked as were the afternoon snacks ranging from cakes to doughnuts to baked potatoes with cheese. We were not going to go hungry. If you felt peckish there was always the jar of biscuits or nuts to eat your way through.
Tea and coffee and a jug of fresh juice was free whilst the fridges were well stocked with cans of soft drinks, mixers, along with a good selection of wines and beers and spirits to purchase once the diving had been completed for the day.
Throughout the trip we travelled in a northwest direction travelling from Yamdena to Nitu Island, Kalbur, Nitu Timor, Bui and Kurkap Islands then onwards to Koon Island before spending some time around Misool Island. We spotted pilot whales and dolphins in the late afternoons and early mornings on some navigations.
Quite a lot of the dives involved current to a greater or lesser degree and we were all shown how to use and were issued with a locator which was securely attached to our BC where it remained for the entire trip. Amira is the first boat in Indonesia equipped with the electronic emergency and location system ENOS, a particularly valuable safety measure when diving in strong currents. I would recommend that a reef hook and/or a pointer with some line attached is brought along as this made it very easy to hang in the blue and not move so the fish become used to you. The Amira did have a small stock which were purchased by those on our trip that had not brought one. Lots of the “fish” dives were at the 30metre to 18metre depth as well as shallower so I would recommend the use of Nitrox to help with the no-stop times especially as doing a lot of dives in a row.
Initially we were going to change groups but everyone seemed happy with their relevant buddies so it just never happened, however the guides rotated on a daily basis which proved to be very popular as some guides liked to spot the smaller critters whilst others loved the larger stuff.
The dive sites ranged from sandy bays and slopes with bommies to walls and seamounts and undersea ridges. The variety of corals was staggering. There was masses of staghorn, table corals, acaporas, brain corals, mushroom and other hard and soft corals. There were massive sponges and sea fans. Some of the sponges looked very like the Dali Type that are endemic to the Gorontola area in North Sulawesi.
When hanging in the current off some reefs and seamounts there was a “fish soup” of trevallys, jacks, tunas, schools of bicolour cleaner Butterfly fish, Angelfish and Moorish Idols and Emperors as well as pairs of Bannerfish. Occasionally a hammerhead along with grey and white tipped reef sharks were spotted. Once a group of around 14 Mobula were spotted. There were schools of fusiliers, open mouthed mackerel, snappers, sweetlips, oceanic and reef mantas.
The night dives proved interesting with a couple of very large Pleurobrancus grandis and other nudibranchs spotted along with an amazing variety of crabs and prawns along with the Epaulet or “walking” shark on 3 night dives, a real treat. After night dives we were welcomed back on board the Amira with hot chocolate and after the early morning dives we had hot steaming, ginger tea.
The visibility had improved after the first dive and was good all the way to Misool where it once again deteriorated as we left the Banda Sea and entered the Ceram Sea but where there is plankton there are lots of fish – you cannot have it all. It was a lot better in the Southern Misool area compared to the north however the visibility was a great improvement compared to the majority of UK dives, we were just getting spoilt!
We dived areas on our way to Misool that had only been dived once or twice over the last 3 or 4 years and so then we were using our eyes as much as the guides were. When we got back after a dive, the various identification books in the Amira library would be studied to see if anyone had found a “new” or relatively uncommon species.
I helped out a few people with odd issues with kit such as spare mask, fin straps, another guest had a spare regulator which he loaned out when someone else had a burst hose and a free flowing 2nd stage that would not behave itself. The toolkit aboard the Amira is excellent and there is really no need to pack any tools. They also carried some spares as well as an excellent supply of medicines including ear drops and painkillers for purchase. Along with trying to help some guests with a variety of photographic issues and questions I was kept very busy. In fact this was a problem, trying to fit in all the diving AND find time to relax in the spacious sundeck, foredeck, read one of the many books available or just chat in the meeting areas. It was a problem I was happy to live with. One thing we didn’t have to distract us was Wi-Fi or phone signals, there was a satellite phone for emergencies but that was it. So no Facebook or other social media, most people found this very relaxing.
Some guests opted to miss the odd dive and just chill, there was no pressure to do all the dives. Sleep was not a problem for the majority of people as the beds proved very comfy, some loved the creaking of the wood and other sounds from a wooden ship settling them into sleep whilst others found it very annoying! The upper cabins are less noisy than the lower ones but then if it is rough the upper cabins have more movement than the lower ones, swings and roundabouts. A couple of our guests opted to sleep under the stars the odd night The Milky Way at night and The Southern Cross looking great early in the morning just before sunrise.
After one of the dives we went out in the Zodiacs and landed on a beautiful island with soft white sand and had a lovely walk around it before watching the sun sink below the Amira on our way back.
Misool proved to be as full of life as our previous dive sites, as well as everything we had seen before pygmy seahorses became more numerous as did turtles, ghost pipefish, cuttlefish, octopi, as well as Dartfish, sea snakes, baby painted frogfish and a host of other reef fishes, sand eels and morays. We started spotting wobbegong sharks. Again the reefs were beautiful with some massive sea fans. Fiabacet Island allowed us again to hook off in the current, once more hearing the sonic boom as a school of mackerel turned as one, with a white tipped reef shark hunting. At the end of one dive we came across a Hawksbill turtle, single handedly demolishing some soft coral, not the least bit interested in the 4 divers around him. At Nudibranch Rock there were a school of barracuda, anemone fish and then 3 different types of pygmy seahorses on various sea fans. There were Pipefish, prawns in bubble coral, orangutan crabs, however it was the colours at the end of the dive as it shallowed under the characteristic mushroom shaped rock. Amazing
Magic Mountain lived up to its name with mantas, one being cleaned and staying with us for over 30 minutes. There were some very interesting topographical dive sites with underwater windows and coral formations. Wayil Island and the dive site Four Kings, (Named after Raja Ampat) saw us drop in over a black manta. That dive we ended up seeing reef and oceanic mantas as well as a pair of mobula and a giant grouper.
After the diving we took the opportunity of a zodiac ride round the islands, very scenic. Fruit bats, herons, hornbills and orchids were spotted amongst the lush vegetation on these famous mushroom shaped islands.
All too soon it was our last full day of diving, this time at Sagof and Balbulol Island. Smaller critters were again the order of the day with Mantis shrimp, pregnant pygmy seahorses and other small reef fish including some beautiful magenta and yellowfin dotty backs. Another tasseled wobbegong was spotted under a rock. The current proved too strong to get to other side of the island where there were more sea fans with loads of pygmy seahorses but overall they were still good dives. You got the impression that in better visibility the sites would have been stunning. The next day we managed to squeeze in one dive in the morning at Farondi Island and 3 Sisters/Razorback Rocks for those that wanted it.
Looking back we did some fairly deep dives and there was often a lot of current dives which could be quite challenging but normally we were dropped off in the right areas to get to the sweet spots although occasionally it didn’t quite work out if the current changed whilst we were underwater so sometimes a dive turned into aa good exercise workout before hooking off and hanging off the reef walls for a breather. Often after 5 minutes or so whilst hooked on the fish would get used to us and appear in ever greater numbers and you began to feel at one with them even jumping when a “sonic boom” occurred as a massive school of fish turned as one when they were being chased by trevallies or jacks and the odd shark trying to get a snack. Definitely one for the memory banks.
For the couple of occasions where there was a big Navigation such as the one from Koon to Misool Daram, a distance of over 100 nautical miles whilst we used the spare time to catch up with photos and write up dive logs the crew kept busy organising sundowner parties instead. The guides showed us that not only were they good at diving and guiding they could sing and play a variety of instruments and dance as well. We found that 2 of our guests could play the bass whilst 1 was a very good drummer. A talented bunch. There were cards and cake for 2 of our guests for special birthdays as well as a cake on another evening for divers that had reached milestone dives of 100, 500 and 600 respectively.
Whilst on board I was informed that the return flight from Sorong to Jakarta had been cancelled. However a couple of phone calls later via the satellite phone to Ben at DiveSafari Asia I was informed he had sorted it all out with our agents in Indonesia and we had all been booked on another flight.
After our final dive the crew rinsed and hung everything out to dry as we began our navigation to the port of Sorong. Then the crew set the sails and we all went out in the zodiacs once more to take photos. On the way back those that wanted to had a tour of the engine room, generator room, water desalination units and Nitrox mixing equipment. We arrived in port late evening and there followed a final night of eating and drinking and dancing before disembarking the following day for our respective flights back home. Somehow we had all found half an hour spare to pack our bags and dry dive gear. The majority of us travelled home via Jakarta back to the UK but 2 lucky people went onto Manado and another weeks diving at Bunaken Island and Lembeh whilst another couple had a couple of days stopover in Singapore.
Overall a truly memorable diving expedition.