Irian Jaya - Untouched Diving Paradise
Mary Jelliffe - Summer 2002
When friends with a pioneering spirit of adventure invited me to join them on an exploratory dive trip to Irian Jaya, I didn't need to think twice. Enticing tales of massive schools of fish and undiscovered reefs were unnecessary. This would be my first venture aboard a purpose built dive boat, known within the diving industry as a "Liveaboard" I had all the usual novice's apprehensions about lack of [personal space and my capabilities as a seaman,but these minor concerns were swept aside by powerful instinct to get off the beaten track.
Irian jaya (Papua Barat),Indonesia's western half of the island of New Guinea,remains largely unexplored,above and below the waves.We were to sail around the Raja Empat Islands,in the far northwest of Irian,a remote area of wild beauty that is rarely visited by foreigners,and where the opportunities for exploratory diving are endless.
Our crew, emanating from many of Indonesia's multi cultured islands,shared an enthusiasm for being at sea that was contagious. Brought up in a country with more sea than land, Indonesians refer to their homeland as tan ah air kita-our land and sea. Good seamanship and love of the ocean are in their blood. Our spacious Bugis schooner the sea safari lll boasted three separate decks with a total os 12 cabins 10 below deck and two bridge deck staterooms-all air-conditioned with en suite bathrooms and hot showers.
Our group of 11-16 men, five women-ate like there was no tomorrow with four good meals a day-plus hot drinks,cookies and cakes always available. Diving makes you hungry!An air-conditioned dining room seats 24.In addition,there's library,TV and video area,gift shop, satellite phone and laundry service. It's luxury home away from home. And we were off first stop!.
Word War ll Wreck
Wai island,a night sailing from Sarong's Airfield,where I joined the sea safari lll,provided a sheltered spot in which those who don't dive regularly could become accustomed to being back in the water.We plunged in. There are three known and many more reported,WWII aircraft wrecks around the island.We descended 25 metres to investigate an American torpedo bomber perched on the edge of the sloping reef.
The wreck, now completely encrusted with marine organisms,is almost intact,and we could easily identify the stainless steel machine guns in the wings. We were told that three American pilots needing somewhere to crash land singled out Wai Island,with its idyllic white sand beaches and palm trees. All three pilots survived, later rescued from their tropical island paradise by a passing submarine. I suspect has been embellished and romanticized over the years.
A tasseled wobbegong,a shark common to these waters,studied me from a ledge,like a bearded old man watching the world go by,as I photographed the plane.Its mottled camouflage,like desert army fatigues,hid it from my view until I was out of film,but we would see many more wobbegongs in the following days.
Breath In; Breath Out
The most striking feature of diving the Raja Empat Islands is the extraordinary quantity and diversity of fish life.Reef after reef,we plunged into water saturated with schooling fish curtains of trevally,surgeon fishes and snappers spilled from the reef crest and folded in upon each other,like converging flows molten lava. Lines of sergeant majors and yellow tailed fusiliers marched in from left and right,above and below. Groups of rather more sedate sweet lips huddled behind barrel sponges and coral overhangs,tucked away out of the current.
Patches of lime green lettuce corals overlapped each others,like cabbages in an overgrown vegetable garden.The reef top pulsed with hundreds of thousands of fairy basslets.
Turquoise blue damselfish darted into the safety of their table coral each time I breathed out,returning to the open water as I breathed in it was like watching a heartbeat pumping fish in and out of the coral table.
A team of researchers from Conservation International recently conducted a survey of the Raja Empat Islands.Dr Gerry Allen,author of marine fishes of Tropical Australia and Southern Asia,broke his own record the numbers of fish species recorded on a single dive he identified 283 species of coral fish on one dive in these islands!Incredibly,on the same survey,researchers also broke the world record for the number of the coral species on one dive.John Vernon,scientist at the Australian Institute of Marine Science said"never before in the world have researchers found 400 coral species in one dive." The Raja Empat Islands look set to be declared a Unesco World Heritage site.
Meteor of Light
Such expansive bio diversity also exists above sea level. Over 40 different species of the endangered bird of paradise still survive in small areas in the northwestern islands .Since the 14th century the long (some up to 80 cm) tail feathers of this exotic bird were highly sought after in the millinery industry.at the height of the trade,before it was banned in 1924,Irian Jaya and Papua New Guinea combined were exporting as many as 80,000 plums per annum.
Early morning armed with binoculars and rivers of mosquito repellent,we set off in search of these now rarely seen birds.The brightly coloured males display the magnificent plumage during spectacular mating dances in regular places of courtship, known as"singing trees".
We followed our guide through old cocoa plantations skirting untouched rainforest. We walked in silence,but the forest buzzed with our anticipation. Shafts of early morning sunlight squeezed through the upper canopy,high above us. The silence was broken by the low,guttural calls of noisy hornbills flying overhead.
Crouched on a carpet of fallen leaves at the foot of a" singing tree " we strained our necks upwards in the directions indicated by our excited guide. Flashes of startling crimson,white and yellow darted among the lush green foliage " like a meteor whose body,cutting through the air,leaves a trail of light ".
In the spellbinding atmosphere of dense primal jungle,we shared the excitement and enchantment inherent in this description,written over 150 years ago by Rene Lesson,the first naturalist to observe birds of paradise in the wild in 1824.
Patchwork of colour
Back on board,we sailed north through a wild,surreal landscape of steep sided coral pinnacles covered with equatorial rainforest.Well off of any beaten track,the only signs of human habitation were villagers who occasionally paddled alongside in their dugout canoes to trade bananas and coconuts .I was beginning to appreciate one of the clear advantages of traveling by boat.How else could you gain access to such remote,untouched beauty?
Vertical walls hung with gaudy patchworks of florid tunicates,sponges,soft corals and crinoids. Nible hawkfish flitted among the sea squirts and feathers stars like busy sparrows nesting in brightly painted hedgerows. Trails of glassy sweepers weaved in and out of large red and yellow gorgonians.The boat crew had no names for these unexplored sites.One wall was so densely covered with huge bushes of deep purple-red soft corals,this site earned itself the name smoke on the water,after the song by deep purple!
A movement in the water above me caught my attention. Sheets of hundreds of thousands of tiny sardines swept in waves along the reef edge. I drifted through them. Blankets of glistening silver flipped and switched to shiny metallic blue,as they swooped and rose and fell in all directions around me .I had seen films of massive schools of sardines moving in this way,but nothing had prepared me for the magical beauty of this shimmering mass of silvery blues gliding in unison.
Pulau Wayang was the furthest north we sailed.We crossed the equator into the northern hemisphere. Wayang was originally charted by the Dutch as one big Island.It is,in fact,a mass of tiny islands,surrounded by shallow turquoise water and deserted white sand beaches.
We climbed to the top of one of these peaks and looked down on a stunning panorama of raw beauty,as spectacular as any dive We'd done. Hundreds of lush green " oases " floated like icebergs in a watery desert of different hues of changing blues.The water was so clear we could see the dark shapes of some big fish,possibly reef sharks,in the shallows far bellow us.
We took one of the smaller motorboats and twisted through the maze of coral fingers zigzagging up narrow channels between near vertical walls,we were in the perfect set for a James Bond movie. Carnivorous pitcher plants hung out from the sides of forest clad islets,waiting for passing insects.we stopped to snorkel with stingrays in pale aquamarine shallows.
Someone spotted a pod of at least twenty pilot whales traveling through a fairly narrow channel.Their shiny square charcoal grey heads pierced the calm surface as they came up to breathe,then sank again below the blue.Up and down,up and down.like the regular beat of a ticking clock.we followed and watched for 30 minutes,mesmerized by the easy rhythm of their sleek curved bodies swimming towards the open ocean.
The numerous islands that make up the Raja Empat archipelago shelter countless calm microhabitats,which provide ideal conditions for the reproduction of diserve fish and corals.Among the profusion of reef fish and vibrant corals,we found many other interesting creatures that were firsts for me.
A sandy slope off Waigeo island was host to dozens of fiery red Asthenosoma urchins.They wandered along the seabed in slow motion.like venomous red and purple hedgehogs.
From a safety distance,We searched their psychedelic spines for resident zebra crabs and coleman shrimps,which seem able to live in their highly poisonous spine forest without harm.
Hidden within the flat green disc shaped" leaves " of the halimeda algae,a decorator crab had not only evolved its body shape to mimic the green discs of algae,but had stuck pieces of his algae home onto himself to create a perfect comouflage.