Snorkelling and sailing adventures in Indonesia
With snorkel and mask in hand, John Borthwick sets sail on a 12-day voyage on a classic schooner.
With its soaring bowsprit and gaff-rigged sails,
Ombak Putih looks like a classic Bugis schooner that has just sailed out of a Joseph Conrad novel. Our good ship might seem like a traditional Indonesian
phinisi, but below decks she’s airconditioned with en suite cabins and twin marine diesels.
We set out from Gorontalo in northern Sulawesi on a 12-day voyage through the province’s eastern islands and then down towards the island of Flores and its Komodo dragons. Snorkelling is the main event on our agenda and our first plunges set the tone, notably at the curiously named Hotel California Reef. The ship’s two inflatable tenders shuttle us to the drop-off point and we are immediately immersed in an oceanic floorshow. Countless, nameless (at least to me) fish flit past in a phantasmagoria of clownlike finery or cunning camouflage.
The reef is a ballroom of the tides, a samba school with fins – and a place where similes come to die of inadequacy. But the memory is indelible. You can surface any time you like but you never quite leave. After an hour we swim back to the tenders, minds buzzing.
Ombak Putih (the name means ‘white wave’) cruises on to Papan Island where we visit a village of formerly nomadic Bajao sea gypsies who now live in overwater stilt houses. Excited kids come out to snorkel with us, wearing their homemade, wooden diving goggles.
After a long passage, under power, south to Central Sulawesi’s Banggai Archipelago, we reach the home of a unique species of cardinalfish. These islands are the only place on earth to see the Banggai cardinalfish in the wild and finding this exquisite animal is a Nemo-style quest among our 14 passengers. Our Indonesian guides soon locate a shallow reef,
where amid an angel’s maze of corals, we spot the tiny, fabled cardinalfish.
The seven-centimetre long creation is perfectly named. Black bands run down its cream body while its delicate swallowtail and fins are tricked out in pearly dots resembling a matador’s suit of lights. Sadly, this glittering creature might soon disappear because it is being collected for the aquarium trade faster than it reproduces.
Back on board, our Balinese chef Gede and his team keep re-fuelling us with steak, soups, gado-gado, fritters, salads and curries.
Ombak Putih has a sturdy wooden hull whose planks and ribs whisper to each other in the tongue-and- groove language that wooden ships have always spoken. Each night I drift to sleep while eavesdropping on their deep-sea gossip.
Every day we discover another reef’s wonder world of drop-offs, giant clams and morays.
Down below are colleges of surgeonfish, choirs of angelfish and brain corals. Epic reefs that we judge as ‘10 out of 10’ are soon eclipsed by the next numinous garden that scores 11, if not 12, out of 10.
Novelist Joseph Conrad, who worked these waters in the 1880s, the last great days of sail, wrote: “Suddenly, a puff of wind … laden with strange odours of blossom, of aromatic wood, comes out of the still night – the first sigh of the East on my face.” Some things remain constant. On the ship’s shaded upper deck we can laze from afternoon into dusk, looking up at times from a book or a cold beer to catch wildfire lightning twitching across a far horizon.
How to draw a line, I ask myself, under recording all these raptures? How can I not mention, for example, the three turtles I see suspended above a drop-off’s blue abyss like satellites adrift in space?
We draw breath above water long enough to visit more Bajao villages in the Padei Islands, and then cross the Banda Sea to South Sulawesi’s pristine Wakatobi National Marine Reserve. Here, on Binongko Island a blacksmith sweltering at his anvil endures our nosey cameras while he inverts the noble tradition of turning swords into ploughshares by bashing old truck leaf-springs into new machetes. The final leg of our cruise is to be a long
We visit a village of sea gypsies who now live in overwater stilt houses. Excited kids come out to snorkel with us, wearing their homemade, wooden diving goggles.
passage southwest from Sulawesi to Flores Island and its legendary Komodo dragons, but a trifecta of weather, technology fails and airline schedules conspires against us. Ombak Putih can’t make headway against the swell and we have to turn back to Wakatobi to wait out the weather, by which time completing our ambitious itinerary becomes near impossible.
Beyond here be Komodo’s dragons but, alas, not for us this time. Instead we change course, stay calm and carry on snorkelling.
Bound by the Bismarck, Coral and Solomon seas, Papua New Guinea is one of the world’s best marine tourism destinations. With about 45,000 square kilometres of reef systems, its coral gardens, wrecks and kaleidoscopic fish species are ideal for snorkelling.
1. Kimbe Bay, West New Britain
The huge marine reserve of Kimbe Bay, with over 400 varieties of hard coral and 350 of fish, is among the best snorkelling areas anywhere. Its Walindi Plantation Resort, famed among divers, allows equally rich options for snorkellers.
2. Nivani Island, Deboyne Islands, Milne Bay
Tiny Nivani could also be called ‘Nirvani’, so crystal-clear are its waters. Snorkellers here can easily reach a relatively intact World War 2 Japanese Zero fighter that lies in just three metres of water.
3. Nusa Island, Kavieng, New Ireland
Across the channel from Kavieng town, Nusa Island and its adjacent harbour waters boast extensive reefs with plentiful coral gardens, sponges, rays and a vivid pantheon of tropical fish.
4. Tawali, Milne Bay
At Tawali, near the easternmost point of the PNG mainland, a snorkel and mask are all you need for marine thrills. Clouds of fish flit beside a reef drop-off whose walls are layered with coral antler forests.
5. Simpson Harbour, East New Britain
For divers, Simpson Harbour has numerous World War 2 wrecks and reef walls to explore, while for snorkellers there are brilliant shallow reefs and an old Japanese submarine base at Tavui Point.
Full sail ahead ... the Ombak Putih (above right); overwater abode at Padei Besar (below right).
A rare sight ... the Banggai cardinalfish (left); an evening in quiet waters after a day of snorkelling (right).
Essential gear … homemade goggles used for snorkelling by local children. Fishing line holds the two pieces together.
Air Niugini flies from Port Moresby to Bali weekly. See airniugini.com.pg.