A voy­age through pris­tine West Pa­puan seas ends at an is­land that for­ever changed sci­ence


When a dive mas­ter grabs a diver by the shoul­der, com­ing cen­time­tres from his face to sput­ter a rep­ri­mand­ing col­umn of bub­bles from his reg­u­la­tor, it’s ei­ther be­cause some­thing ex­tremely good, or pretty danger­ous, is about to hap­pen. In our case, it’s the sec­ond op­tion: the diver is al­most out of air at the bot­tom of the sea near Ar­borek vil­lage, in the Raja Am­pat Marine Re­serve of West Pa­pua, just off the south­ern side of Waigeo is­land.

He had bet­ter as­cend to his safety stop, even though he has just spot­ted the first oceanic manta ray – wait, a group of three – of his life. Sin­u­ous, large things that look like a mix be­tween a flap­ping Mex­i­can som­brero and Bat­man’s iconic logo, they float above the ocean floor as if shut­tling in outer space.

What would you do, if you were that diver and had come all the way to West Pa­pua pre­cisely wait­ing for this very mo­ment? Heart­break. But no wor­ries be­cause the pain of leav­ing those crea­tures be­hind is short, for even out of the wa­ter this part of Eastern In­done­sia, so close to Aus­tralia yet so in­cred­i­bly for­got­ten, has plenty to im­press.

We are in the mid­dle of the Halma­hera Sea, rid­ing a wooden tiger across some of the world’s most pris­tine is­lands. Our ves­sel, Tiger Blue, a pri­vate Pin­isi char­ter, made out of wood, is a true In­done­sian blue blood: cus­tom-built in Bira, South Su­lawesi, in the boat­build­ing style of the indige­nous Bugis sea­men – an in­tan­gi­ble UNESCO World Her­itage as of late 2017 – it has deep red sails that give it the mean look of an old-world pi­rate ves­sel.

The schooner is the brain­child of Malaysian cou­ple David Wilkin­son and Re­becca Duck­et­tWilkin­son who, to­gether with two Bri­tish part­ners, de­cided to build Tiger Blue to ex­plore the exquisitely re­mote East In­done­sian seas at their leisure. When they are not wan­der­lust­ing, the boat is up for char­ter.

Con­ceived as an in­ti­mate live­aboard, the 34m-long Tiger Blue can host a max­i­mum of 12 guests and a crew of 10 in cosy en­suite cab­ins – a per­fect choice for the ad­ven­ture cruise of a life­time. Be­sides of­fer­ing itin­er­ar­ies in the pop­u­lar In­done­sian hotspots of Ko­modo Na­tional Park and Raja Am­pat Marine Re­serve, Tiger Blue just launched the ul­ti­mate East In­done­sian ex­plo­ration route: sail­ing from the pris­tine fringes of West Pa­pua to Ter­nate in the North­ern Moluc­cas, it re­traces the last recorded sea voy­age of 19th-cen­tury Bri­tish nat­u­ral­ist and ex­plorer Al­fred Rus­sel Wal­lace, one of the fa­thers of nat­u­ral sci­ence.

Tiny Ter­nate, an is­land that’s al­most all ac­tive vol­cano, is more im­por­tant to his­tory than its size sug­gests. Be­sides the prized cloves and nut­meg that fu­elled the colo­nial spice trade, it was here that, bedrid­den by a bout of malar­ial fever, Wal­lace mus­tered the ideas he jot­ted down in an ex­cited let­ter to his friend, Charles Dar­win, in Eng­land. When the fa­mous sci­en­tist re­ceived Wal­lace’s mus­ings and read about “evo­lu­tion by nat­u­ral se­lec­tion”, he rushed the com­ple­tion of his own sim­i­lar the­ory and or­gan­ised the Lon­don joint lec­ture that for­ever changed the face of sci­ence, link­ing the two men as its god­fa­thers.

There’s a dog-eared copy of Wal­lace’s The Malay Archipelago aboard Tiger Blue. “This new route mixes land ex­plo­ration and sea ac­tiv­i­ties, all based on Wal­lace’s maps and ac­counts,” says Re­becca Duck­ett-Wilkin­son, who also runs the Trop­i­cal Spice Gar­den on the Malaysian is­land of Pe­nang.

On the sec­ond day, Tiger Blue stops at Bes­sir, the vil­lage where Wal­lace spent a cou­ple of months study­ing the rare red birds of par­adise. Be­sides a few TV an­ten­nas and the church in­tro­duced by vis­it­ing mis­sion­ar­ies, not much has changed since the nat­u­ral­ist lived here two cen­turies ago. Shaggy-haired chil­dren in “Ye­sus I love you” shirts meet us at the wooden jetty, and chap­er­one us around the sandy roads lined with palm trees and their con­crete and cor­ru­gated iron homes. Many heads lift from their daily chores: we are like some sort of attraction as, with­out pub­lic fer­ries, very few tourists make it to these shores. On the next day, we set sail west for the 10-hour tra­verse that will take us through the Dampier Strait, past re­mote Gag is­land, and across the open sea to the south­ern side of Halma­hera – the big­gest of the North­ern Moluc­cas is­lands.

When we see Gag’s coast pro­file ahead, a pack of 20 black, curved fins raises from the wa­ter: pilot whales. But we barely have time to ad­mire them as, on the op­po­site side of the boat, a fleet of jeal­ous dol­phins starts flip­ping in and out of the wa­ter. One leaves the group and rushes ahead of the ship’s bow, ef­fort­lessly sur­pass­ing our en­gines, as if it wanted to clar­ify who are the fittest crea­tures in this deep blue sea.

It takes an­other cou­ple of days spent div­ing, kayak­ing in azure bays, and hop­ping be­tween vol­canic islets be­fore the ship makes its fi­nal stop in Ti­dore, and sets an­chor off Ter­nate’s coast. The two fac­ing is­land-sul­tanates are both dot­ted by ash-grey Dutch and Por­tuguese forts and shaded by mighty vol­ca­noes. From the top of Fort Tolukko in Ter­nate, the view over the two op­pos­ing twin bays, chis­elled by virid­ian crests, takes the breath away.

But the flanks of Ter­nate’s dor­mant Ga­malama vol­cano marked the end of Wal­lace’s trip, and so ours.

We won’t prob­a­bly re­turn Down Un­der mus­ter­ing the the­o­ries that will rev­o­lu­tionise the fu­ture of sci­ence but rest as­sured, we’ll bring back a bag of mem­o­ries to last a life­time.


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