Un­der­wa­ter In­done­sia

Bucket-list bio­di­ver­sity, meet­ing a fu­ture king, crit­ters with­out crowds

Times of the Islands - - Departments - BY GLENN OSTLE

Travel can broaden the mind, but some­times it can be down­right mind-blow­ing. Such was the case dur­ing a re­cent dive trip to In­done­sia, the world’s fourth-most pop­u­lated coun­try. There, in the heart of the Co­ral Tri­an­gle, is an area called Raja Am­pat―which means Four Kings— that has been called the cradle of un­der­wa­ter bio­di­ver­sity. It ranks high on the bucket list of just about ev­ery se­ri­ous scuba diver and un­der­wa­ter pho­tog­ra­pher. This West Pa­puan ar­chi­pel­ago fea­tures more than 1,500 is­lands, cays and shoals that con­tain 1,400 doc­u­mented fish species, as well as three-quar­ters of the world’s known species of co­ral, seven species of dol­phins and eight types of whales.

Raja Am­pat is one of the best places in the world to see and photograph the big stuff that in­cludes sharks and gi­ant ac­ro­batic manta rays with wing­spans up to 15 feet and weigh­ing as much as a small car. While sharks and man­tas are be­com­ing en­dan­gered in many places, in Raja Am­pat they are pro­tected through the re­cent es­tab­lish­ment of marine sanc­tu­ar­ies.

SMALL STUFF

For un­der­wa­ter pho­tog­ra­phers who rel­ish the chal­lenge of seek­ing out the ocean’s tini­est crit­ters, a short flight to the is­land of Am­bon serves this pur­pose. One of the leg­endary "Spice Is­lands," it is known as one of the best “muck” div­ing des­ti­na­tions on the planet. Muck div­ing refers to search­ing for un­usual marine life that makes its home in the twilight zone of rub­ble and oth­er­wise in­hos­pitable con­di­tions; it is not un­usual to find a tiny oc­to­pus liv­ing in a clamshell or a bot­tle, as well as crea­tures so un­usual as to ap­pear un­earthly, such as spec­tac­u­larly col­ored nudi­branchs, strange-look­ing frog­fish, and har­le­quin and Cole­man shrimp . It is a great place to cross many strange crit­ters off your must-see-and-photograph list.

SACRED EELS

In Am­bon we meet a young re­sort staffer named Lafse who is in line to be­come king of his lo­cal vil­lage of Larike. He tells us of gi­ant eels that live in the lo­cal river here that in eons past were wor­shiped by the vil­lagers. This we have to see for our­selves.

Af­ter more than an hour’s drive along narrow dirt roads that cling to steep slopes along the edge of the is­land, we ar­rive in Larike and wind our way through narrow streets, past happy chat­ter­ing chil­dren, to the river that ob­vi­ously serves many pur­poses for the vil­lage, in­clud­ing fish­ing, wash­ing clothes and bathing.

As we wait in a shal­low pool, the large eels be­gan to ar­rive. They are truly im­pres­sive; 6 to 7 feet long and smooth as silk, which we dis­cover by run­ning our hands along their slip­pery sides. As they lack the back­ward-fac­ing teeth of

their ocean-based cousins, they pose lit­tle dan­ger, so Hafes and other vil­lagers han­dle the eels with a care­ful and re­spect­ful fa­mil­iar­ity.

Vil­lagers in ear­lier times be­lieved the eels em­bod­ied the spir­its of their dead an­ces­tors. To­day they have named a

THIS WEST PA­PUAN AR­CHI­PEL­AGO FEA­TURES MORE THAN 1,500 IS­LANDS, CAYS AND SHOALS THAT CON­TAIN 1,400 DOC­U­MENTED FISH SPECIES.

few, in­clud­ing the largest one that they have dubbed with the de­cid­edly un-In­done­sian name of Bruce.

At one point, Hafes demon­strates how the eels are gen­tle enough to be fed by hand, even by mouth, as he dan­gles a fish from his teeth and holds steady as a large eel lifts its head out of the wa­ter and gen­tly plucks it from his mouth. One of our party tries the same thing, thank­fully com­ing away un­scathed but with a great story to tell friends and fam­ily.

Wel­come to In­done­sia, where the un­ex­pected is the norm.

The bio­di­ver­sity and panorama of In­done­sia are un­equaled in the world. The area in the southwest Pa­cific Ocean is north of Aus­tralia and south of the Philip­pines.

Div­ing ad­ven­tures will amaze even vet­er­ans of the deep blue seas.

Writer Glenn Ostle and Pam Had­field (above right) share a spe­cial mo­ment on an In­done­sian ad­ven­ture that in­cluded pho­tograph­ing har­le­quin shrimp (from left), gen­tle eels and Larike's friendly kids. The pas­sen­ger ship Indo Siren (be­low) is an ex­cit­ing form of travel be­twee n the area's lush is­lands. Glenn Ostle is a free­lance pho­to­jour­nal­ist and reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to TOTI Me­dia who lives in Char­lotte, North Carolina.

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