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February 2018    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 33, No. 2   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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KM Blue Manta, the Banda Sea, Forgotten Islands, Alor

a thousand miles of pristine Indonesian diving

from the February, 2018 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Indeed, the Banda Sea and the Forgotten Islands have an air of mystery to them, enough to lure me to sign up for a one-way 1000-mile westward journey from Ambon to Maumere, aboard the luxurious Blue Manta, a 142-foot (43m) steel-hulled liveaboard powered by twin engines. However, it would only be after an arduous 32-hour trip to Jakarta, where I napped at my airport hotel before my overnight flight to Ambon.

Blue Manta is equipped for open ocean voyagesAfter being picked up midmorning and delivered to the boat, we had an early lunch and checkout dive. Sure, I was exhausted, but my adrenaline kicked in! Ferreting out treasures among trash in the muck was an exciting challenge. Two blue and yellow ribbon eels contrasted brightly with the sand. Snowflake, yellowhead, and fimbriated morays partially emerged from recesses. A psychedelic-colored stonefish swam in a graceful arc from a rock to the sand. A two-foot juvenile pinnate spadefish brightened the area. It was quite the checkout dive.

Even so, a few divers grumbled. A month before, Blue Manta switched its departure from Saumlaki to Ambon. Some divers had to change their tickets, at no minor expense and inconvenience. While they would be reimbursed for additional costs, no one enjoys reworking complicated flight plans at the last minute.

I had joined 18 other experienced divers for the 12-day/11-night cruise. The Blue Manta's interior and the 14, 200 sq. foot cabins convey a modern, bare-bones design, without nods to Indonesia culture and art. (It's owned by a Singapore businessman.) The galley, dining room, lounge, and a few cabins fill out the main deck. The deck below has cabins, outdoor dining, and bar, and additional cabins are below decks. Mine, on the main deck, had two large windows (below-deck cabins have portholes), efficient air conditioning, plenty of storage, a safe, even a desk with a chair, and a sizable head. The upper deck, mostly covered, is for kicking back. As you might imagine, she's an expensive boat; I paid $6650, including a 10 percent single supplement.

Indonesia Dive MapFrenchman Cedric Lesenechal, the cruise director, dive instructor, and go-to guy for questions, guided my assigned group of four (a couple from France and an American woman), the standard guide-to-diver ratio. Before each dive, he showed us the location on Google Earth, and then cleverly constructed the reef with Kleenex boxes, saltshakers, and ketchup bottles, which he covered with towels to emulate the topography. At the dive site, when we were ready to backroll off the dinghy, he would say, "Go in, and come back." We all did. Every time. Underwater, his superb hand directions made his intentions clear; if we encountered a current, he would signal, "What do we want to do? Go around the corner and face it, or return how we had come?"

Finding the esoteric was his forte -- for example, sea snakes at Bubble Reef in the Manuk area. I watched a toxic golden sea snake, broad in body, approach. Though the critter is extremely unlikely to bite, Cedric had warned us not to react if they came close, so when one circled his torso and rubbed against his fins, I calmly watched. Smaller, black-banded sea kraits also appeared. Below, the sandy bottom surrounding this volcanic island was too hot for me keep my hand in it for more than a few seconds.

Cedric constructs an improvised model reefThe Blue Manta carried two substantial fiberglass dinghies with good ladders and two inflatables for shuttling the five groups of divers to the sites. After the first round of divers suited up on the sizable dive deck, the next round would follow. The helpful crew checked our nitrox -- it was a steady 32 -- and loaded our tanks and fins into the dinghies. While gearing up, I had two minor incidents -- my whistle broke off my alt-air hose, and the lanyard holding my Galileo dive computer snapped. Not to worry. Crewmembers immediately solved the problems. After the dives, they helped me pull off my wetsuit, gave it an antimicrobial rinse, hung it to dry, and I would rinse off in one of the showers.

Each night we motored 8 to 12 hours in calm waters to reach the premier spots along our route, making three to four dives daily. There were few takers for the two night dives. Half my dives were greater than 90 feet (27m), often in strong currents, so this is a trip for experienced divers, especially since the nearest chamber is in Bali, 24 hours away.

The Spice Islands were replete with colorful soft corals, currents and lots of fish. At Leaning Tree, a large seamount teemed with zillions of fish, including a seven-foot humphead wrasse (striking, with its blue head and yellow-green body), pufferfish being cleaned, bird wrasse, and spotted soapfish. As I ascended from 96 feet (29m), I had to stay tight with the wall to avoid being pushed down by the strong current. The guide of another group had to anchor a rope so the divers could pull themselves up.

One day Cedric gave us the choice of either diving or visiting the main city in the area. The previous night, I had joined others for drinks at a newly renovated resort, so I was eager to see more of the city and joined the tour. I was immersed in the pleasant aroma of nutmeg and cloves wafting in the breeze. I walked to the old Dutch fort for a great view, where bats were flying out of the structure, and the stench of guano assailed me.

Camera room aboard the Blue MantaI had great dives at Dawera Island on the southeast rim of the Banda Sea Trench. Sponges, soft corals and cabbage, table branching and mushroom hard coral covered the Napo seamount. In clear water, thousands of pyramid butterfly fish and fusiliers, giant grouper, and schools of jacks swam about, as did colorful blue-dotted peacock grouper, sweet lips, and coral grouper. Love Rocks sported a beautiful coral-encrusted wall with pink coral trees with white stalks, while barracuda swirled in the blue. I even spotted a tiny pregnant pygmy seahorse. While the water hovered around 82ºF (28ºC), I was pleased I had worn a 5mm wetsuit when I met the frequent chilly thermoclines.

The 20 all-male Indonesian crew kept the vessel spic and span, constantly scrubbing the decks and dinghies, cleaning off tables, and emptying cabin trash. Cedric announced dives and meals via an intercom, beginning each morning with gentle music followed by "Good morning everyone; it's a beautiful dive day. Time for a cup of coffee before the first dive." I never had to worry about snoozing through anything.

After the first dive, we were greeted with a breakfast of eggs, cereal, bacon or another meat. One breakfast included a chicken-based soup ladled over boiled eggs, onions, ginger, scallions, noodles, and spices -- it was delicious. Most days, they offered an outstanding light bread covering a hunk of chocolate. Buffet lunches included chicken, fish, or beef, vegetables, salad, and rice. Each evening, the staff served a five-course dinner, beginning with soup, followed by an appetizer, salad, an entrée with sautéed vegetables, and dessert. My favorites included sashimi, pan-fried dumplings, Indonesian rice, and seared fish. Mousse cups were a favorite dessert. The kitchen excelled with their soups, sauces, and bread baked daily. However, the meal quality could -- and should -- be more consistent given the trip's price.

The Blue Manta is a photographer's dream, with a fine camera room and camera tables with air hoses on the dive deck. About half the passengers were wanna-be-better photographers, led by Kerri Bingham of Got Muck. Queen among them was Erin Quigley, a master image editor who had her students individually edit the same photo and then showed them how to improve. The divers ranged from 35 to 78, with most older than 50. Three Thai divers kindly shared the spices they had brought to enhance their meals. A French couple joined me regularly for cocktail hour. Although there were some big egos on board, we all got along well.

KM Blue Manta RatingAfter spending six days at the Banda Arc, we headed west to the Forgotten Islands, where exploratory diving revealed mounds of soft corals. Schools of barracuda, jacks, and fusiliers flitted by. Once, as many as 40 humphead wrasses hung in the blue. At Nyata Island, a current carried us right along. I spotted a striking black and white Jorunna funebris, a dotted nudibranch and other critters, like a hairy pink squat crab, emperor shrimp on sea cucumber, and a pinktailed shrimp. Cedric entertained us by juggling some baseball-sized dead jigsaw maze corals. Afterward, we celebrated this great dive day with a beach party, complete with snacks, drinks, and music.

And then a glitch at Amortaun. As Cedric leaned over the dinghy to check the current, he inadvertently dropped his mask. He shouted to a diver who was prepared to backroll, "Dive now -- Get my mask." He hit the water, thinking it was a joke because Cedric had often reminded us not to drop our masks when rinsing them. He submerged and 10 minutes later, no mask retriever and no mask. His wife and the rest of us became worried. We radioed another dinghy, which had an extra mask for Cedric, and we backrolled in 15 minutes later. Soon, the missing diver found us. If this had happened the next day at Utara, this could have had a different ending. You see, there we dropped to 30 feet (9m) and hung on as the current made it impossible to kick forward. We surfaced, reboarded the dinghy, and found another spot where there was no current.

We motored to Alor, not as abundant in coral, but with plenty of tropical fish -- bumphead parrotfish, humphead wrasse, and colorful anthias. Macro Market at Pantar, Alor Straight, provided our second macro dive and I spotted three Rhinopias -- well-camouflaged scorpionfish -- two yellow and one rusty red. Yellow-striped garden eels added color to the brown slopes, as did nudibranchs, mantis shrimp, and white frogfish. At Pura Vida, I dropped to 96 feet (29m), hitting several cool thermoclines around 75°F (24°C), in the otherwise-86°F (30°C) water. The short, dense coral coverage provided a nursery for rock mover wrasse and other juveniles. In tight formation, a large school of dark blue and white four-inch convict blennies mimicked striped catfish. On my last dive of the trip in Lembata, a hammerhead swooped in, the first I had seen that was not too distant to identify. I should add that Blue Manta had Andrei Voinigescu, award-winning photographer and filmmaker onboard to document the trip with two drones and underwater scooter. He filmed all reefs and locations, above-and-belowseas, and kept us well informed.

Drone view in the Forgotten IslandsAgain, a word about the meals. With good food, a glass or two of good wine is an essential compliment. However, on Day One in Ambon, Cedric told us that the local liquor store, where they buy their supplies, had no wine, just hard spirits. I bought a bottle of gin, as there were plenty of tonic and limes on board. Not until the next-to-the-last day did a minor miracle occur: the Damai liveaboard anchored nearby. One of our divers, Kerri Bingham, dinghied her way to the Damai with a most serious question: how many bottles of red wine can you spare? Of the 10 she returned with, I happily scored one for $24, which I shared that night when the chef prepared a tasty array on the lower deck grill: chicken, shrimp, lamb, sausage wrapped in bacon, salad, and pineapple. Afterward, the crew entertained with guitars, bongos, and spoons, and we divers joined them in song. Any lack of talent was overshadowed by everyone's great enthusiasm.

As we gathered on the last night to watch the sunset as we began on our 12-hour steam to Maumere, three juvenile blue whales followed for an hour -- a fitting end to a great trip. The Blue Manta is a substantial vessel with an outstanding crew. While the craft is not as sexy-looking as the masted phinisis, the typical liveaboard in the area, it is surely better suited as a dive vessel. Having been on 20 or so liveaboards, this is tied for first place on my list with the Andromeda in the Sudanese Red Sea.

PS: Only make this trip if you are up to the diving. One young American woman arrived with an "undiagnosed lung disease." According to her, she had been affected for a year. She struggled during the dives, often having to surface early, taking the instructor away from other divers. Cedric added her to our team for one dive, and while monitoring her, one of our divers lost us and surfaced by herself. Cedric advised the challenged diver not to dive with her breathing problem, and eventually, she went from her one-a-day to none. Did she not report this problem on the form, and subsequently get a physician's report? Diving not only endangered her life, but it also affected the quality of diving for other divers. Divers with such conditions should not be allowed on board.

-- J.D.

Our undercover diver's bio: J.D. says, "I began diving 15 years ago, quickly becoming obsessed with observing fish and critter behavior. A thousand dives later, with plenty of time to burn, I've made half my dives in the Caribbean and the remainder mostly in Indonesia, Philippines, Japan, Palau, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Turkey. Using the excuse of absorbing local culture, I've drunk kava in Fiji, penis soup in PNG, and spat betelnut juice in Palau. I'm convinced it helped my fish ID skills in those regions.

Divers CompassDiver's Compass: Blue Manta's prices put it in the top bracket for Indonesian liveaboards ... Wi-Fi was free, but when there were several users, it was very slow ... White Manta Diving also operates the Raja Manta in Raja Ampat, Indonesia. www.whitemanta.com ... Their website includes good dive site videos ... You can make reservations directly with White Manta (Max Hand, their operations manager, is efficient), or their U.S. partner, Explorer Ventures, to handle more complex details, www.explorerventures.com ... Nitrox was $100 for the week (don't you think for $6650 they ought to toss it in?), massages $35, liquor about $30 a bottle, beer $5, T-shirts $20, and the video $100 ... Charges and tips must be paid in cash ... Soft drinks and juices were free ... Jakarta Airport Hotel: $61

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