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May 1997 Vol. 12, No. 5   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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At the Edge of the World on the Pindito

A big ship for a few good divers

from the May, 1997 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Several live-aboards that have exclusively catered to European divers are trying to lure Americans. It seems, however, that we Yanks are more demanding than European divers. These boats have gotten by without hot water or air conditioning, and -- would you believe -- diving only twice a day. The Pindito, our featured boat this issue, operates in some of the most incredible waters on this planet. Now it is attracting American divers at a fee rivaling the pricey Caymans: airfare from LAX and 11 days of diving for $3,500. Our correspondent gives us a firsthand look.

Dear Fellow Diver,

As if the two mantas executing balletic somersaults weren't enough to hold my attention, a dozen or more mobula rays, or lesser mantas, shot past below, engulfing as much plankton as possible. Drifting motionless on the surface, I was utterly alone in the open water. Edi, our boat captain, had taken the Zodiac back to the Pindito with the other divers. The incredible ballet of mantas and mobulas was mine alone.

The Pindito doesn't promise a show like this every time. What it does offer is splendid diving off some of the world's more remote islands. Built to the specs of energetic managerskipper Edi Frommenwiler and launched in 1992, the Pindito is a 120-foot, twin-masted motorsailer. She usually cruises on diesel power with her sails tightly furled. With a beam nearly 30 feet, she is a remarkable stable and seaworth craft.

A Wealth of Exotic Life

Eastern Indonesia

Eastern Indonesia

My October cruise departed from the town of Sorong, Irian Jaya (on the eastern tip of New Guinea), and headed northwest for the Waigeo Islands. Among the most isolated and remote in all of Indonesia, this aweinspiring complex of uninhabited jewels rises vertically from the water; pure limestone spires on eroded karst structures. Despite undercutting by wave and tidal action, many islands boast gemlike pockets of white sand beaches. All are densely festooned with thick tropical growth alive with sea eagles, parrots, and giant birdwing butterflies. Speeding between the islands in the Zodiac, knowing that we were the only humans around, was memorable indeed.

Here, among a wealth of hard and soft corals, on my 22 dives, I encountered Napoleon wrasse, humphead parrotfish, snoozing nurse sharks, two big stingrays, a school of 60 to 70 bannerfish in formation, barracuda, trevally, rainbow runners, and snappers -- in addition to the wondrous assortment of reef fish. Invertebrates are prolific, with hordes of sea pens, hares, and cucumbers, brittle and sea stars, sea fans, and crinoids.

. . . One watery
chamber has a
ceiling perhaps
200 feet high,
dominated by a
single, massive
central column
rising from the
water like a set
for the Phantom
of the Opera.

On the dive when I saw the pirouetting mantas, schools of small needle gars hugged the surface while yellow-tailed grunts crisscrossed the ray-infested channel. On the afternoon dive, our Zodiac met a pair of mating turtles.

The Pindito moves every day or two, depending on the dive sites and weather conditions. Heading south to the large island of Misool, we anchored off an archipelago even larger and more majestic than the Waigeos. Within the limestone towers lie amazing caverns, some accessible by Zodiac, others by hiking. One watery chamber has a ceiling perhaps 200 feet high, decorated with stalactites and flowstone and dominated by a single, massive central column rising from the water like a set for the Phantom of the Opera. Flying foxes roost in many caverns. So unaccustomed to humans are these animals that the confused bats flew into our shoulders, bouncing off like leather jackets on a carouseling clothesline.

Eastern IndonesiaFurther out in the archipelago lies a small island attached to a subsurface pinnacle named Ikan Muda -- "small fish" -- for the two-inch-long, bluish-silver fish whose swarms blot out the sun. Here, I saw Spanish mackerel, a school of trevally, a giant trevally, and, soaring overhead, five graceful mobulas. I found a dozen humpheads feeding on the reef, titan triggerfish, schools of damsels and chromis and basselets, rare Gorgonian seahorses (try finding them on a purple seafan!), and boxfish, triggerfish, angelfish and bannerfish galore. Hard and soft corals -- perhaps the most beautiful I've ever seen -- include yellow-gold and bright orange among the more plebeian maroons, blues, greens, yellows, reds, and whites.

An exploratory dive elsewhere yielded juvenile batfish (outlined in bright orange) and a free-swimming flatworm that was a strip of black ribbon outlined in white and dusted with gold specks. Visibility? Less than 30 feet some days; more than 100 other times.

. . . Avoid the
aft cabins --
they abut the
Indonesian
crew's quarters,
and the guys can
be talkative.

Despite her size, the Pindito books only 16 divers in eight cabins with headroom and bunks (four have double beds) that easily handle sixfooters. Each cabin boasts a large, easily opened porthole, wash basin, and en suite bath with toilet and stall shower. There is ample storage space and four in-line electrical outlets (twin-prong, 220V). The cabins are air conditioned -- from 8:00 p.m. until breakfast. A die-hard believer in AC, I found it at times, below decks during the day, more like a sauna than a cabin. The crew makes the beds with fresh linen daily and supplies clean towels. But there's no hot water, and for the tropics, the water could be downright chilly at times.

The best cabins -- the widest are in the middle, where the beam is widest. Avoid the aft cabins -- they abut the Indonesian crew's quarters, and the guys can be talkative. But they're competent and perform their duties unobtrusively. The compressor, on the stern, is relatively quiet. The Pindito has plenty of room to move around. The main salon, where meals are served family style, is high, roomy, and relatively comfortable with a TV and VCR. The lack of AC was never a problem here. Except for guidebooks and fish identification tomes, most of the Pindito's library is in German.

Pindito, IndonesiaThe Pindito sports a well-equipped repair shop; you can leave wrenches and other tools at home. Next to the shop is a separate room for hanging wetsuits, and the aft deck holds aluminum tanks and three Zodiacs for ferrying divers to the dive sites. Eight full sets of gear, plus camera equipment and computers, are available for rent, but no E-6.

Pindito, IndonesiaThe foredeck is roomy enough for divers to assemble their gear without banging into one another, and has benches, deck chairs, and freshwater tanks. Relaxing here, unassailed by drying wetsuits (a diveskin was enough for the 80-degree-plus seas) or frantic divers, is one of the Pindito's great pleasures. Each day, before the equatorial heat becomes intense, the crew unrolls a heavy tarpaulin for shade.

Hot Plates

Food is Indonesian, with occasional Chinese touches. Lunch and dinner usually feature three main courses -- usually fresh-caught fish, chicken, and a beef or vegetable plate -- served with white rice. Sodas, wine, beer, and liquor are included in the fare. The morning meal is meager, ranging from thin sandwiches and mild grilled cheese sandwiches to an occasional scrambled egg. This apparently suits Europeans, but I expect something more substantial. Oddly, no fruit juice is available. Nor were there fancy desserts. Just fruit. However, the cook's hot coconut-and-fruit popovers (served after the afternoon dive) are both filling and delectable.

The Dive Routine

. . . The belief
is that everyone
knows what he's
doing and should
be treated
accordingly --
if he didn't, he
wouldn't be on
the Pindito in
Irian Jaya.

Edi and Peter Wiesendanger lead the dives, of which there are three daily (all from the Zodiacs): morning, noon, and night. Edi is a stocky, thoughtful Swiss who looks as though he should be working behind a counter in Zurich bank -- and hating every minute of it. Peter is younger, tall and slim, with a serious dedication to his work. When not leading a dive or handling the pre-dive run-through, he can usually be found in the shop repairing someone's broken equipment. On day one, they assign each diver a plastic gearstorage crate on the foredeck. The crew carries fins, gear-equipped tanks, and camera and strobe setups to the waiting inflatables, reached via drop stairs on both sides of the ship. Divers carry only their masks. Because we were usually surrounded by high islands, we never dived in rough seas, fortunate indeed since descending the side steps, even without gear, could be awkward.

. . . The
Pindito is one
of the few liveaboards
offering
enough
diversions to
make it
attractive for
one-diver
couples.

The checkout dive was easy and shallow (C-cards are checked; logbooks are not). After receiving the onboard dive profile and dropping off the Zodiac, divers are either on their own or may take a guided dive with Edi or Peter, both of whom go on every dive. Choices are offered at some sites (would the group like to dive deep, or stay shallower and longer?). Most of my dives were around the small rock islands with walls that plunged steeply to a bottom at 100-150 ft. I'd follow the current around the island, watching the great soft corals and small stuff clinging to the rock wall on one side wihile keeping an eye peeled off into the blue for the schooling pelagics. Recommendations are made as to length and depth, but are not rigidly enforced. The use of computers is highly encouraged. The belief is that everyone knows what he's doing and should be treated accordingly -- if he didn't, he wouldn't be on the Pindito in Irian Jaya. Of the 13 passengers on my trip, 11 were divers. All three Zodiacs were on site when divers were down. In 11 days of diving, we never had a diver drift out of sight, and we never had to wait more than a minute or two for pickup.

A Connoisseur's Dive Boat

Is the Pindito for you? I'd say she's for the diving connoisseur who has done the Caribbean and at least part of the Pacific. I'd rate the diving a little under PNG, more like Fiji, but with zero crowds.

Because it's only a three-tank-a-day operation, it's for people who seek more than nitrogen saturation. The two Swiss nondivers? They came to enjoy the extraordinary scenery and isolation, as did I. I took Zodiac rides through the incredible karst island terrain, into beautiful caves, some of which meander all the way through an island. The limestone islands are riddled with caverns filled with stalactites, stalagmites, draperies, popcorn, and other fantastic speleothems. At one site, hikers can climb over a hundred feet up into huge caverns containing freshwater pools and bathe in the cool, clear water. Edi knows the region well.

The Pindito is one of the few live-aboards offering enough diversions to make it attractive for one-diver couples. With one or two possible exceptions, the diving is not difficult, so even a novice would be comfortable. You have to put up with a lot to get there -- but I'd sure be pleased to give it another go.

G. A.

Ditty Bag

The Pindito offers three separate itineraries. May to October: the largely
uninhabited islands off Irian Jaya. October: one cruise to her home
port of Ambon. Late October to March: the south Malukan isles of the Banda
Sea. Book it through Maluku Adventures (415-731-2560 or 800-566-2585). . . .
Pricing is in Swiss francs, which may be more or less than the specified price in
dollars; I ended up paying several hundred bucks less.(how did he do this?) My
all-inclusive cost for the 12-day expedition was about $,500, including roundtrip
airfare from LAX to Bali, overnighting (do they pick you up and take you to
the hotel?), then next morning take Merpati Air to Ujung Pandang (formerly
Makassar) and on to Ambon, where you get a flight to Sorong. Merpati flies
Fokker F-28s, the staple of long-haul, short-runway, third-world travel; they have
absolutely no leg room. If possible, sit in the first or last row.

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