Are we there yet?
And so, at long last, we found ourselves on Da Boat.
I won’t burden you, curious minds, with much minutiae about the Archipelago Adventurer II and her wonderful crew. Saudio (Mike S) did a fine job of reviewing the boat and its amenities, as part of an ambitious group trip report, put together after our first trip to the Banda Sea on this fine live aboard vessel in 2008. To read his detailed report, please follow this link.
Suffice to say that, on this outing, the boat and her crew continued to live up to their fine reputation. We have been very fortunate that we have been able to do several live aboard trips in our diving travels, and the AA II continues to be our favorite gig. The crew, the cabins, the ample living spaces, the dive platform, and the food are all great, and set a very high bar for other ops to aspire to.
On this trip, our Cruise Director was Dan. He had big fins to fill, following in the wake of the incomparable Simon Buxton, who was our fearless and friendly leader on the last outing, and who will always hold a special place in our hearts as a fellow believer that every tank is good to the last breath ;^)
Dan did a fine job, especially considering that he was faced with our rather, er, headstrong, diverse and gregarious group ;^) We are a gaggle of experienced divers, united in our great expectations for some boffo (as Doc Vikingo is wont to say), non-restrictive diving, with a great group of people. Many of us enjoy underwater photography, a few of us are non-camera wielding keeners, and one of us is a video dog.
After bagging an afternoon dive in Ambon Harbor, the boat set sail (okay, we weren’t really under sail – although the AA2 does have sails, they were not deployed on this trip) for an overnight crossing to a small group of islands off the northeast coast of Ambon. This was the roughest crossing of the trip, and not many slept well as the boat, which is a tad top heavy and so has a tendency to wallow in rough seas, rock ‘n rolled for the duration.
When we staggered bleary-eyed out of our bunks the next morning, we were treated to the usual “first breakfast” (coffee, baked goods, fruit). Some of us commiserated over the creaky (and for a few of us, leaky) crossing – heavy overnight rain dripped on a couple of beds, but was all fixed up the next day by the responsive crew.
After a quick briefing, we were dropped in the water for the first of only two dives offered this day. After that, hot brekkies, another dive, and then once again the AA II would haul anchor, and off we went, this time for a long, sixteen hour crossing to the Misool region of Raja Ampat. I am happy to report that the seas were calmer for this part of the journey.
Some of us capitalized on the diving hiatus by catching up on some jetlag and rough night navigation sleep deficits, while others watched movies in the salon, tweaked photo gear, imbibed spirits, and/or caught up with each other, as many of us had not seen each other for two years – not since our last group trip to Banda.
And then, the next morning, the “real diving” began – four dives a day – three day dives and one night dive offered, with generous surface intervals between. Glorious, fishy, colorful sites were on the menu - Kaleidoscope and Neptune’s Fans and Boo Rock and Three Sisters and Nudi Rock and Black Rock and Caves and Melissa’s Garden and Mangroves and the Manta Dives (amongst others).
We had one full day of muck diving offered later in the trip, in a remote bay that gave the photographers some relief from the agony of deciding which lens for reef diving.
Post Script Side Story:
Anyhoo, the bay dive was mostly about muck diving, with a beautiful coral garden off to one side for relief from the sandbox for a bit. There were numerous groovy macro subjects:
The muck diving bay was the only location where dive time was unlimited – basically the gate was open for the entire day – go when you want, come back when you want, with panga drivers on patrol to pick up divers when they surfaced. Many of us bagged some bodaciously long dives – I personally did over seven hours underwater in four dives. Magic.
Post Script Side Story:
I conveniently forgot to mention the Wonderupi (two different animals) that were spotted here. But sadly, not by me. The Wonderpus is an incredible little octopus and is a critter mecca for any Indo diver. I have seen the Mimic (in Lembeh) which is a close relative, but I was pretty bummed that the other two groups each saw one, and our group wuz skunked. Reasons to return...
Every day had become a blur of eat, dive and sleep, and with each passing day, the diving, impossibly, seemed to get even better. The area around Misool was particularly beautiful – luscious, colorful reefs and clouds of fish which delighted us all, and gave us hope that the seas, even in a part of the world where conservation does not appear to be a consideration, are not doomed. Passing brigades of bumphead parrotfish were spotted on several sites, defying cameras with their usual diver wariness and schools of grunts and batfish showed themselves on some of the sites.
Sharks were not abundant, but we were treated to two different sightings of the frilly Wobegong Shark – this is a large (approximately 6 feet long), bottom dwelling shark with a handsome ruffle under his chin.
Topside, steep green islands poked up out of the sea – for those who had been to Palau, they said the islands were reminiscent of the topography there.
One afternoon we were treated to a panga ride to explore a “secret” inlet running into a network of islands. It was reminiscent of a scene from Pirates of the Caribbean – winding our way through a tight little passage overhung with trees that spilled us out into a gorgeous lagoon. After the amusement ride, we landed on a small island where we offloaded onto the beach and made a short climb up to a pretty viewpoint to take in the views and enjoy an afternoon snack.
A quick tour of the Misool Eco Lodge was offered one day – unfortunately, I had some sort of lightening flu bug that k.o.’d me for 24 hours, and so I did not have a chance to visit. I know that Doc and some of the others went ashore, and no doubt have some feedback about it. What I do know is that the dive sites that are a short ride away are fantastic – unfortunately I was flat out for at least four of them, and so missed out on some of the gorgeousness.
On our second to last day of diving, the plan was for two morning reef dives (Melissa’s Garden and another) and then during lunch we would motor over to the mangroves for an afternoon and night dive. Melissa’s Garden ended up being a blowy current dive, and when the dive guides revealed that the second reef dive (a fairly compact site) had even more current on it, there was some discussion whether we as a group were up for it. And this was when Doc issued the words I never thought I would hear from such a diehard, fit, dive animal: “ I’m too old for this sh*t”. This is a guy who has probably dived Barracuda on Cozumel (an often ripping dive) more times than Jesus himself, and whom I’ve high fived at a buck fifty (and beyond), not long ago. I almost fell off the boat laughing my arse off, and sincerely regret that this epic moment was not caught on videotape.
As a group, we decided to blow off the second current reef dive, and head for the Mangroves to do the remaining three dives of the day there instead. There are “blue water” mangroves in the north part of Misool – they have traditionally been a feature of the regular Raja Ampat itineraries of the live aboards that go there. As we were further south on our “transition” cruise, the mangrove dives that we were offered were slightly more turbid and brackish water than the ones to the north. But, added bonus, no crocs have been sighted in the south. In the north? Some poor diver was attacked there. He did live to tell the tale.
The mangroves are very cool – the trees drop their roots into the shallows, and coral grows close to the surface, allowing trees and coral to be inhaled in one eyeful. Archer fish lurk in the shallows, occasionally launching a jet of water from their mouth to knock down insects, which they are quick to consume. Adjacent to the mangrove was a pretty dive site, but alas, we hit some current there too, on both dives, much to the chagrin of the many photogs who spotted interesting subjects, but had a heck of a time capturing them in the breeze.
What is that saying about saving the best for last? Our last two dives were to be at a manta cleaning station, located six or so hours from Sorong. These kinds of dives (I’ve done a few in different parts of the world) are always a crapshoot. If the big animals come in to be cleaned, it is magical. When the guests don’t make an appearance, they are great expectation dives that ultimately disappoint.
But we were not disappointed on this occasion. The mantas came – fleetingly at first, perhaps wary of all the bubble blowing critters lined up just off of the bommies where they get cleaned. But, after a while, all bets were off, and in they careened – thrilling us all with close fly bys, often arriving as a squadron. Some of the mantas were bigass, and there was one black manta that was especially cool – something I had not seen before.
The manta dives were long flat dives, and by the end of the second outing my (conservative Suunto) computer was telling me off, even when diving 30% EANx. Time to offgas, as we would be flying out the next day.
We were offered a walkabout tour of a charming island village, where smiling children met us as we pulled up to the dock and walked with us as we toured their pretty island. Kiddoc and his delightful wife Amy brought some soccer balls as gifts for the kids – a wonderful idea. The balls were gobbled up and hoarded by a couple of boys, and then poof! – the balls and their possessors vanished, not to be seen again ;^)
We watched the village women, squatting in the shade, making beautiful woven hats. Nearby, little toddlers giggled and lolled in the shallow water. It was seriously humid on the island, and so these lands shots are a little foggy:
And then, unbelievably, it was over. We had one last night on the boat in Sorong harbor where the crew fired up the bbq and served us a fantastic feast, and then serenaded us with quaint Indonesian tunes.
The next morning we were transported to the airport - the crew had checked us in earlier in the day, so fortunately we were dropped at the curb with our carry ons and boarded the aircraft a few minutes later. Sorong Airport is a non-air conditioned hellhole, and we were grateful not to have to linger there.
Many of us were booked on Express Air, a marginal Indonesian scareline that takes cabin density to a whole new low. Unfortunately all of us booked on this flight were seated in the last couple of rows of a beat up 737 - where we suffered a lack of overhead bins for our copious camera gear carry ons, and the unspeakable stench from the aircraft lavatories just behind us. We were not happy passengers, especially as the chockablock full aircraft took a scary amount of time to get airborne. In the previous group trip report from 2008, I had written that to get to many of the great dive locales of Indo, you are going to have to "suck it up buttercup" and get on these scarelines - something tel52's wife Kriss reminded me from her seat just aft of mine.
Some of our group journeyed to Bali to spend a day or two there relaxing before the long flights back to the US. Gunard (Cindy) and Robert journeyed to Lembeh to continue diving at Nad Resort. Mr G and I had scheduled a short overnight in Jakarta before our flights out - even though there was a connection possible the same day, we have flown in Indonesia enough to know that the local flights are not reliable, and a missed connection to an international carrier would be a major issue.
On a previous layover in Jakarta, we stayed at the Sheraton Bandera Jakarta Hotel - a very nice property with lots of amenities (including a nice spa), that is only minutes from the airport. As we had a very early departure the next morning for Singapore, we elected to stay at the Jakarta Airport Hotel, which is actually in the international terminal - it was clean, quiet and very convenient. Pismodiver and Sppplash were also overnighting at the same hotel, so we sat over beers and a light dinner, and reflected happily about what a great trip, and what a great group of people, we had just enjoyed.
And so, gentle reader, here ends the epic tale of some adventures in Asia. I hope you enjoyed the journey.
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