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DIVER CONTRIBUTED ARTICLES



 

It is my pleasure to offer you my script /article of our documentary film adventure "Trailblazing the Sulawesi & Moluccan Sea" which we produced for Discovery Channel and Transatlantic Films.

The film we produced is maybe one of the first cruise exploration adventure films produced of it's kind to the region North Maluku and North Sulawesi and I am pleased to say that the regions we explored around North Sulawesi, Sangihe-Talaud Archipelago and North Maluku have great potential for live-aboard dive charters and dive adventure travelling in future. The dive cruise exploration documentary features underwater and marine related issues besides island life, traditions, describes the way of life of the indigenous inhabitants around the coastal areas of Ring of Fire.

(Islands surveyed in Indonesia: North Sulawesi, Sangihe-Talaud Archipelago, North Maluku & the Lembeh Straits)

Best regards,
Michael Smith - GM

Divex Indonesia
Jl. Walanda Maramis 14
95122 Manado
North Sulawesi - Indonesia
Tel. +62 431 846980
Fax +62 431 867667
info@divex-indonesia.com
http://www.divex-indonesia.com





TRAILBLAZING THE MOLUCCAN AND SULAWESI SEA

BY MICHAEL J. SMITH





Getting Started

I certainly never expected years ago as a dive travel agent in Europe, to find myself living in Indonesia, helping to launch a television film documentary for the Discovery Channel. The series "Trailblazer II"contacted me and before I knew it I was somehow, briefly in the film adventure business! They requested on-site dive support as well as someone to supervise and advise them about diving in Indonesia. The time was right for some real adventure and nothing could stop my irresistible and profound desire to make this unpredictable itinerary challenge become reality. Setting up and organizing a television filming expedition is something that doesn't happen everyday in our dive travel business.

As exciting as it may sound, there's a lot more to it than just packing your bags and going for it. When Peter Cannon, director of the Trailblazer II series, sent me an email inquiring about the possibility of organizing a TV expedition to the east of the Indonesian Archipelago, to the remote islands of Sangihe-Talaud, Halmahera and Morotai, I didn't think twice. Yes, I would get an itinerary together and confirm the trip as soon as possible. Having been affiliated with the dive travel market in Indonesia for over ten years enabled and eased my way in setting up a suitable and proficient program. We were ready to confirm the complete "Moluccan Sea" itinerary within hours of the inquiry.

The most invaluable requirement needed for this expedition was of course a seaworthy boat to get us around the islands. Peter Cannon requested they sail on a safe, reliable, traditionally built local boat. From that moment I knew the only one boat that could meet the demands and requirements for this four-week ocean-going job. It had to be Bianca. She's a fine traditional Buginese schooner with a spacious deck, restaurant and recreation area/bar, which during the cruise could be converted into a TV video equipment storage room. She has air-conditioned cabins, new navigation and dive equipment and a professional crew who know their sea charts and their jobs.

For centuries, the traditional ocean-going Buginese schooners have been used by indigenous Indonesian seafarers transporting spices, crops and people throughout the Indonesian Archipelago. The archipelago consists of over 18.500 islands and has over 57.716 km of coastline. After Jan and Nico Kuipers, Bianca's owners reconfirmed the charter dates and schedules, we all got very excited about the idea of setting sail to venture an unexplored geographical area. Due to its exceptional flourishing flora and fauna and underwater environment, the area is considered the most diverse marine ecosystem in the world. Having accomplished all the business formalities, we finally could commence our operation.

The first task was to get to know each other personally, important due to the fact that we had to live, dine, dive and explore together for the next few weeks. It was a beautiful September evening when I approached Bianca by speedboat in a small cove a few miles west of Manado, the provincial capital of North Sulawesi. Bianca's deck lights reflected on the sea's surface in romantic nuances, harmonizing with the tranquil weather conditions and a cloudless evening sky, exhibiting a brightly lit moon and a glowing infinite universe. With such serenity, the atmosphere was perfect for a meeting.

Finally on board, it wasn't a difficult task to distinguish whom the film director, Peter Cannon was. He's a genuine English gentleman with a wicked sense of humor. After Peter introduced Clive Carlton, the presenter of the film and his assistant underwater cameraman Hugh Faires, we spent the rest of the night over a few cold Bintang beers discussing the itinerary around the Ring of Fire.

After acclimatizing and a few check dives searching some Dornier aircraft sunk in Lake Tondano during World War II, we at last set sail. The first location took us to Manado-Tua and Nain Island in Manado Bay. Both islands are part of the Bunaken National Marine Reserve, which covers an area of 47,000 hectares of beautiful islands and coral reefs. Here the underwater landscape consists of steep drop offs, caves, crevices and slopes all inhabited by abundant species of reef fish, critters and nudibranch and all embedded in a wonderful profusion of hard and soft corals and huge vase sponges. Being surrounded by such splendor it is quite easy to understand that divers from all over the world have been inspired to return to this celestial dive haven.

Historical Background


Manado-Tua, which in Indonesian means old Manado, was the first island to be inhabited by Chinese migrants around 1400. The migrants who came from the south Philippines, initially headed west to the island of Borneo, but due to the strong monsoon winds coming from the west and unpredictable current patterns during the monsoon season, they drifted off course sailing south-east in the Sulawesi Sea (formerly Celebes Sea). Having reached the islands in Manado Bay, they chose to settle down on Manado-Tua Island, from where they continued to migrate to the nearby mainland in the Minahasa Highlands. This was inevitably an ideal option, as all resources for survival could be found in the vicinity. The fertile volcanic soil, fresh mountain spring water and a climate enabling anything to grow in any season confirmed theirs was a wise and rewarding decision.

As rice cultivation progressed on the North Sulawesi peninsula, another ethnic group migrated south of the Philippines to the Sangihe-Talaud Islands, an island group spread out like gems between the island of Mindanao in the north and Sulawesi to the south. It was the Tagaroan seafarers who inhabited this region and who have been considered blessed with outstanding boat building and sea navigation skills. The Tagaroans have always been devoted to the sea. Until today, seafaring Tagaroans have settled down along all the coastal areas around Sulawesi and the North Maluku, committed to their professions as fishermen, boat builders and navigation crews. Apart from their outstanding skills, they also possess a charming character, full of joy and warm smiles, making them a preferred choice whilst selecting the Bianca boat crew.

Nain Island, Bajo's and Agar-Agar

One of the most captivating experiences for the Trailblazers on our trip to Nain Island was observing local Tagaroan fishermen fishing from their outrigger canoes off the southern reef outcropping. Besides using the traditional hook and line, they occasionally dive with self-made spear guns and goggles. Using no fins or scuba, they take only a deep breath and a few strenuous feet finnings to move forwards through the water! It was quite incredible to see how precisely they caught their catch with spear guns without causing any significant damage to the reef. After spearing the fish, it was taken to the surface whereby the fisherman would bite firmly into the fish head to ensure it wouldn't jump back into the blue again.


In general, scuba divers and environmentalists rightfully oppose fishing off a reef and any factors that may have a negative effect on the marine environment. And I personally am devoted to protecting the reef's extremely fragile and irreplaceable ecosystem. However, under certain conditions we must respect the practices of indigenous fishermen living on these secluded islands. Families living there have nothing else but fishing to ensure their survival. Bearing in mind that these practices have been going on for centuries, it is surprising to see, once one leaves the populous plastic-bag-draped harbor areas, how pristine these reefs still are. Moreover, we have heard no reports that due to the local traditional fishing techniques, the fish quantity or diversity has declined. We are very happy to see these people living in harmony together with nature and envy their outlook on life. The reefs around these populated islands are all world class and with very few exceptions all rank among the world’s best. One thing is definite, nowhere else on this planet will you find such a profusion of hard and soft corals and variety of fish species. Compared to many other uninhabited coastal areas in the world where extensive reef damage has been caused by by polution, marine exploitation, El Nino and related factors, the islands throughout Manado Bay remain exceptional and unique for diving.

Another seafaring ethnic folk, the Bajo's, have been living at sea as long as anyone can remember. In contrast to the Tagaroans, the Bajo's actually live on boats or in houses built on stilts at sea. During our filming, we heard that a small group of Bajo's had recently moved from their original settlement, a traditional housing complex off the northern tip of Mantehage Island, to the nearby island of Nain. We did notice seeing several Bajo outrigger boats off the southern reef of Nain Island which was unusual to see.

The Bajo catamaran boats consist of two dugouts connected by a strong weather and strain resistant bamboo mesh. At the rear end of the catamaran, you can find a small hut offering the boat owners’ protection against weather. Otherwise, there is little that they posses apart from a few fishing utensils and personal belongings. As we were told, the group of Bajo's moved from the island due to the enduring strong west winds, bringing in huge waves and swells over the reef flats hampering their houses and boats. We took a closer look to assess the situation in detail and made an interesting discovery, which may have played a vital role in the Bajo's decision to make an island move.

When we approached Nain Island with our boat, barely a mile north of Mantehage, we noticed something was glittering on the surface of the sea around the island. Looking closely, we saw thousands of floats tied to strings and ropes spread over the entire reef flats around the island. What was actually happening was that the locals were growing seaweed in the reef shallows for foreign companies who produce cosmetics and pharmaceutical products. Their seaweed crop enables them a fair income compared to fishing and other traditional income sources. The nearby Bajo's obviously saw new lucrative business opportunities and took their chances and moved island. Taking a stroll through Nain village, we weren't surprised to see that people were living well and it seemed that the majority all had some business affiliated with seaweed, which they call "Agar-Agar"! We were pleased to see people content with their everyday lives. When we decided to walk down their narrow main village street, apparently the only one on the island, there was a sudden huge influx of excited children coming from everywhere. Curious parents and families wanted to have a look at what these white strangers were doing on their beautiful island.


We encountered everyone gathered in the village center where a mosque was putting on a fund raiser. Here, the pounding sound of Dangdut (a modified dancehall version of Indian music, very popular in Sumatra and Java) filled the air and accompanied the entire lively event. Trailblazer's on-camera host, Clive, couldn't resist his urge to mix with the locals and dance in the crowd, which was very amusing especially for the villagers. The atmosphere on Nain Island was incredible; it was yet another gratifying experience to meet these people.

We did however, have some concerns over the effects of the new seaweed processing techniques on the reefs. We made a small investigation and found out that the ropes that secured the seaweed was hanging high over the coral, well away from the reef and nothing was touching or deteriorating the coral and environment below. As a matter of fact, the seaweed growing system is actually preserving the reef from damage. Due to the amount of lines and floats in the water, it would be an extremely exhausting task to get anywhere near the island by boat. There is only one string and rope free channel leading directly to Nain Village beach. Here the inhabitants have free access to and from their island. The seaweed farmers also access their locations via small outrigger boats well off the reef.

Another adventurous day was coming to an end. It had been a pleasure making these positive experiences with the Bajo's and Nain inhabitants, who were courteous and friendly, typical of remote islanders we have met in this part of the world. It was time to discover and venture more, so we continued our voyage around the tip of North Sulawesi to the natural harbor of Bitung in the Lembeh Straits. We thoroughly enjoyed cruising, captivated by wonderful sunsets on the distant horizon exhibiting grand multitudes of exotically eccentric colours and shades.

Bitung and The Lembeh Straits

Having arrived in Bitung, we filled Bianca's water tanks at Air Perang, which is located approximately 2 miles north of Bitung at the foot of the inactive Dua Saudara volcanoes. The very pure water here derives from the depths of volcanic rock, high in mineral content. However, we used the freshly refilled spring water on the boat for showering and washing ourselves. The spring at Air Perang is surrounded by dense tropical forests making it tempting to make a short stroll up a path into the jungle. Here, on the outskirts of the Tangkoko National Reserve, one can encounter endemic animals such as the Tarsius Spectrum, cuscus bears, and anoas. Red hornbills and sea eagles are among the local bird species. We tied our boat securely to rocks and trees close to shore only a stone's throw away from the jungle. No need for stereophonic sound here. We were permanently surrounded by serenades of exotic chirping tunes emanating from the densely vivacious ecosystem in the vicinity.

It is always time to dive again in the Lembeh Straits, to get carried away by the infinite beauty above water, is equally the case below water. All divers describe feeling overwhelmed by the abundance of reef and muck critters and biodiversity here. Among the fish and critter species we could identify were unique samples of frogfish, devilfish, leaf fish, ornate ghost pipefish and Ambon scorpionfish. There are crocodile eels, flamboyant cuttlefish, mandarin fish, yellow mantis shrimps, Pegasus sea moths, stargazers, and fingered dragonets. There is a fantastic variety of nudibranch and flatworm species, as well as red and yellow pygmy sea horses, a very minute inconspicuous and highly rare sea horse species generally found clinging onto sea fans. The pygmy sea horses found in the Lembeh Straits are about 1.5cm in size and have adapted a skin structure and colour similar to that of the gorgonian fan surface they inhabit. They are completely camouflaged so you need sharp sight to discover them.

Other fishes sighted here are schools of mouth mackerel, jacks, barracudas, fusiliers, (usually sighted north of Lembeh), batfish, cockatoo waspfish, decorator crabs. There are also red waspfish, crocodile eels, crocodilefish, yellow lionfish, ribbon eels, pearl-eyed moray eels, jawfish, the bizarre black coral crabs, crab-eyed gobis, fuzzy squat lobsters, the elusive mimic octopus, besides countless other critters and reef fishes, plenty of which can be found in the shallows.

Other recommended dives in the area are on the wrecks in the Lembeh Straits. Some sank during the Second World War like the Mawali and Bimoli wrecks, while others have found their peaceful rest via other unknown means. Nevertheless, the dives on the wrecks are great and there's plenty of soft corals and good numbers of fish, nudibranch and critters to see. The visibility is sometimes decreased due to the plankton. After heavy rain
showers in the vicinity bringing silt down Lembeh Island and the mountains surrounding Bitung, sediment content in the water increases. However, the visibility is always good enough to indulge and experience some phenomenal diving! The Lembeh Straits offers over 30 good dive sites spread out mainly to the north of Bitung and all around Lembeh Island.

Sangihe-Talaud Archipelago: Celestial Dive Sanctuary in the Ring of Fire

Having refilled the boat with water and spending a few nice days algae and crinoid critter diving, it was time to head north to the beautiful and tranquil archipelago of Sangihe-Talaud. Leaving the giant silhouette of Mount Klabat and the exuberant verdant rain forests and virgin beaches of North Sulawesi behind, we were heading to Bangka Island, which was only a few hours from Bitung by boat. The dive sites here are equally renowned and
considered the best in the locality. Here we made two exceptional dives. We sighted some of the region's most beautiful soft corals, not to mention the abundance of pelagic fish who frequent the place. The dives were made, and before we realized it we were back on deck heading for the neighbouring islands of Biaro and Ruang. It would take approxiumately another 4 hours to get to Biaro, so we had sufficient time to out-gas our bodies ridding them of the residual nitrogen. There was also time to enjoy a few cold after-dive Bintangs.


The Sangihe-Talaud Islands spread down from Mindanao, south of the Philippines to the North Sulawesi peninsula with the Sulawesi Sea to the west and Maluku Sea east of the archipelago. They cover an area of 44.000 square kilometres of sea and 2.263 square kilometres of land. Hundreds of thousands of years ago, we can posit that these islands were a landmass connecting the Philippines and Indonesia together. Due to the proximity to deep seas both east and west of the islands, the currents emerging out of the deep bring plenty of plankton and nutrient rich water to the shallows, allowing the entire region to be blessed with a prolific and intricate pristine underwater habitat. The underwater landscapes vary from steep drop-offs with crevices and caves to sandy slopes with sporadic coral overgrown rocks and pinnacles, to slopes of volcanic rock originating from former lava flows off the islands. They are usually lined with an ensemble of huge gorgonian fans, vase sponges, sea whips, and most impressive staghorn, lettuce, table and mushroom corals. Now and again temporary moderate to strong currents, altered our dive profile into a drift dive, surprised us. The dive modification however can be quite some fun and very rewarding. Stronger currents attract big pelagic fish such as barracuda, jacks, sharks, eagle rays and other celestial species. If you have a lucky day, you may encounter whalesharks and humpback whales that roam the waters of Sangihe-Talaud and adjacent islands. During the cruises dolphins merrily displaying their acrobatic abilities along the bow always accompanied us. For no apparent reason they would all of a sudden completely descend into the deep crystal clear sea, leaving us with only appreciation and a few moments of gratifying memories.

We cruised, dived, explored, filmed, interviewed and discovered new cruise routes, exceptional dive sites, beautiful islands and a tremendously helpful crowd of indigenous Sangiherese. Our cruise route took us from Bangka Island to Biaro, Ruang, Tagulandang, Siau, Mahangetang, and Kahakitang and finally to Sangihe Besar, the main island. All islands have several common characteristics especially in the geological formations, structure and vegetation. Most islands in the "Ring of Fire" are exposed to volcanic activity above and below sea level and there is still plenty of evidence of former devastating volcanic eruptions which has left a trail of destruction behind on several islands we visited. Most of the volcanic islands are covered with dense tropical jungles fringed with palm trees and beautiful beaches. The nearly submerged islands are covered with mangroves and palm trees and usually have large flat reefs extending far out into the sea.

One of the islands hit most severely by eruptions in the past is the island of Siau. It was here in 1974 when the volcano Karangetang (1800m) last erupted causing severe casualties among the population and significant damage to the surrounding environment. When we arrived in Ulu, the island1s main town and harbour, we spoke to several islanders and asked why they hadn't followed the regional government1s advice to leave the area due to unpredictable possible earthquakes and eruptions. Most of them replied that their families have been living on the island for generations and that they have sufficient income and are happy with their lives as they are. They would take the risk into account without compromise.

For centuries, the Sangihe-Talaud Islands have been renowned for spice trading achieving it's highlight during the Portuguese and Dutch colonial occupation. The main spices that were shipped to Europe were nutmeg, mace and cloves. Today, spice trading continues to be a vital lucrative income source enabling a high standard of living and prosperity for the Ulu community. The fact that the island is covered with extremely fertile volcanic soil in an ideal climate for growing basically anything, hasn't encouraged or motivated the islanders to extend their land cultivation practices to become self-sufficient. To our surprise the opposite is the case. All essential food supplies such as rice, vegetables, fruits, chicken and meat are brought in daily by ferryboats from Manado, which can be an 8 hour boat trip away. The profit gained from nutmeg, mace and cloves has made many of these people obstinate. The only farmers we found on the enchanting island of Siau with very few exceptions only, were nutmeg farmers. On Siau no one is inclined to give up nutmeg farming or leave the island, even if they became the last endangered species on the verge of the Ring of Fire.

Ulu today has very few remnants of the past that give evident conclusions of how the Dutch or Portuguese may have lived or functioned here in former times. However, with the help of the local town mayor, we were fortunate to find a sea navigation mark of the Dutch East India Trading Company called V.O.C. The site in the vicinity of the harbour area could be easily seen off shore. The sea navigation mark was a stone obelisque; approximately 2 meters tall carved with the Dutch trademark insignia V.O.C. Other scripts carved into the obelisk hadn't survived the over 400 years of nature's obliterating weather and had become illegible.

According to Clive, our Trailblazer presenter and marine connoisseur, two obelisks were lined up at a certain distance behind each other; the obelisque furthest away from shore was positioned at a higher level. Dutch merchant ships coming into the harbour would position their vessels so, that both obelisks would synchronize to a straight line. They could then sail safely into the harbour. We also assumed that the Dutch seafarers used
telescopes while their boats were far off shore. Vessels coming in at night were guided in safely via burning torches on shore using the same method. The only Portuguese heritage we found was old fortress walls only minutes walk from the Dutch V.O.C sea navigation mark. Having no significant historical value to the locals, the landlord had decided to build an animal sanctuary on top of the Portuguese antique relic. However, to our relief we were quite pleased to find these small traces of history and are sure there's plenty more to be discovered and revealed.

Mahengetang...The Underwater Volcano

Venturing volcanoes is exciting but it reaches its peak underwater. We were curious to find out more about volcanic activities in the subterranean sea and what impact it had on the maritime environment. We made some very interesting discoveries. When diving in the vicinity of underwater hot sulphur vents or volcanic springs, we noticed that the profusion of hard and soft corals surpass that by far compared to other locations not being
affected by the volcanic sulphur and thermal factor. We noticed that marine habitats exposed to the sulphurous substance were far more diverse, colourful and in some terms more eccentric and abstract in shape and forms, sometimes well beyond imagination. At these locations the biodiversity is so immense that underwater photographers and marine biologists could write complete new chapters on uncatalogued critters and other marine life.

The underwater volcano Mahengetang exhibits such an exorbitant flourishing pristine marine habitat. Some marine biologists who have formerly surveyed and explored this site are convinced that there are more fish and coral species here within one square kilometre of sea than in the entire Caribbean Sea. Actually, we were all are convinced that the scientists were exaggerating until we saw it ourselves! This location is undoubtedly one of the most unprecedented pristine marine habitats we have ever come across.

The underwater volcano itself is located just off the island of Mahengetang with the volcano crest submerged only 2 to 3 meters below sea level. There is no volcanic crater vigorously churning out lava from the earths core into the sea. However, there are huge sulphur covered rocks, which resemble a crater type formation. Small intermittent outbursts of volcanic gasses can be seen everywhere making their ascent to the surface as bubbles. Between the rocks, small hot vents cause a hazy atmosphere due to the ambient temperature difference in the water. Rocks at depth may be hot at times conducting the earth’s heat to the surface. There are no confined areas here, just a sheer mass of sulphur-covered volcanic rock gradually sloping into the deep, occasional grossly formed rock pinnacles. A few crevices are exposed to the open sea surrounded and inhabited by a gorgeous marine botanic. Visibility was always above average to exceptional, which enhanced our diving motivation and enjoyment.

Morotai - Off the Charts Diving Locations

We continued our voyage cruising smoothly eastwards to the island of Morotai in the North Maluku Archipelago. In the first light, we approached Daruba, the main port of Morotai. In September 1944, American soldiers under General MacArthur came ashore here overrunning the Japanese forces. A handful of Japanese soldiers retreated into the mountain forests. In 1959, 9 soldiers came down from the forests to surrender. In 1974, 30 years after the war had finished, a Japanese Sergeant walked out into the modern world. These islands are a forgotten corner of the world. But for a few months, they played a vital role in General MacArthur1s Pacific Campaign. We encountered plenty of Second World War heritage found in the locality of Daruba.

It was here that the Americans started their allied invasions against the occupied Philippines and South Pacific Islands. General MacArthur resided on a small island close to Daruba from whence he planned and coordinated countless air strikes, sea invasions and counterattacks against his enemies. The American-built Daruba Airfield has seven runways and can still be sighted today. Due to the enormous amount of explosives, ammunition and guns still to be found in the shallow waters, the island remains out of bounds for the majority of foreigners who want to travel, survey or dive here. These had been abandoned by the armies who occupied the territory around the coastal areas of Morotai. However, we were always fortunate in that we were always able to penetrate into areas where very few had been before.

Just south of Morotai on the island of Halmahera, several Second World War wrecks can still be explored in Tobello Bay. These sites are really off the map and beaten track locations and totally unexplored, predestined for all devoted adventurers and dedicated wreck divers. Apart from that, the region offers an unparalleled "Robinson Crusoe" atmosphere, as there is absolutely nothing apart from beautiful coral islands and pure nature.

Bangkas Last Mystery

Our last encounter on this Trailblazer voyage was a wreck, identified as a B17 bomber, which was shot down by a Japanese patrol boat during World War II. It was downed in the vicinity of Likupang approximately 50 kilometres north of Manado. The wreckage lay at depth of 25 meters. We followed precautions for diving on a military site. Locate, observe but do not disturb. The wreck is scattered across the sandy sea bottom and sharks were making their inquisitive rounds around the fuselage. A huge stingray lay undisturbed under the rear tail wing. Coral and fishes inhabit the bulks of metal.

The rest of the story about the aircraft we found out later from the islanders. Soon after the plane crashed, the bodies of two American airmen were washed up on the nearby beach. The day their bodies were found, a young woman on the island gave birth. She named her child Lexy Leo after the name on one of the dead airmen's dog tags. Whether other airmen survived the crash is not known. After getting back to Manado we did some more checking. The story of the wreck is still a mystery. American Military Officials have no record of a Lexy Leo, missing in action. But his legacy, along with the rest of the crew is all too real. It lies undisturbed, at the
bottom of the Molloccan Sea.

On a voyage like this where so many gratifying moments accompany one's ventures, it is always a melancholy occasion to say farewell. One thing was sure, we would be back again soon. Every inch we had seen so far would justify any and every effort to return.


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