Avid diver and Nature writer Rachel Mason is back with the final instalment of her thrilling series on the Underwater360 Expedition to the Banda Sea. After being teased by hammerhead sharks, the team are about to encounter a moment that will forever last in their memory:
Part Three: Hammer time
As if awaiting our arrival at “Hammer Island” a solitary hammerhead shark almost immediately emerges from the gloom, scoping the scene, about five metres long, muscular and powerful. He dips away from sight, and, apparition-like, over 120 hammerheads appear, schooling their way through the blue.
Everyone is hanging in the water, completely still, it is a staggering sight. We fin after them as they pass but they are gone as mysteriously as they appeared. I slowly turn back towards the reef and I am staggered to see the sentinel just three metres behind me, maybe five metres long. He weaves his way in pursuit of the school, for a heart-stopping moment appearing to come towards me as he snakes past. Huge dogtooth tuna, and big-eyed trevally follow, and I barrel-roll in wonder and look up and see the volcano 25 metres above me then sloping into nothingness, thousands of metres below; how tiny and insignificant we really are.
We take a trip over to “Hammer Island” and are given a hugely warm welcome by the villagers and chief. We donate some diesel, a radio, rice and some sugar. Tarpaulins are laid out with cloves in different stages of drying in the baking heat; this is one of the things these Spice Islands are famous for. The village has existed for around 150 years. They use traditional medicine from the plants they grow and their greatest challenge is lack of fresh running water. They fish the reef here, but are already doing this sustainably, only taking what they need for their people to survive. There is much that can be learned from them, and we have so many questions. Judi Lowe has some time with the chief of the village to ask him what the people want for their island and community over the next 15 years, whether they welcome tourism, and what that would mean for their community. This is all extremely valuable information for the Expedition and to continue Judi’s research (you can learn more about her research here at Asian Diver). The chief accompanies us back to the Samambaia ahead of our sunset dive, to say a prayer for more hammer sightings and sure enough some of us reap the rewards!
We have another opportunity to give back to the local community at the next stop, when the women who weave the beautiful ikat drift across the water to show us their wares. We are spoiled for choice with traditional cream and blue colours to bright turquoise and red.
Water-time with the whales
A solitary blue whale sighting the following day is out of character; evasive and elusive, and we soon lost him. The reason for this would become clear in a couple of days.
Huge pods of dolphins and melon-headed whales surround us and present us with an opportunity to get in the water with them. Award-winning filmmaker and freediving champion, Pepe Arcos, is hoping to film Dada interacting with the cetaceans, filming her on breath-hold, too. Sadly it wasn’t to be; as soon as we drop into the water, they flee. We have to be content with the bottlenose dolphins bow-riding the speedboat. The water is crystal clear and they appear almost like animation as they duck and weave and play with us.
Our final stop of the expedition is Pantar. It’s muck diving and critters galore – a thorny seahorse, mandarinfish and a jawfish with eggs in her mouth. An outstanding night dive with blue spotted rays, dwarf cuttlefish, bumblebee shrimp, emperor shrimp, dragon sea moth and many crab species, there was not enough space in my dive log to write everything down!
Our last long push now to Kupang, and the final opportunity for whale watching. After a quiet couple of days, we all hope we are going to finish the trip with something spectacular. Despite perfect spotting conditions, it’s all suspiciously quiet, even the hydrophone failing to identify a presence. Finally in the afternoon we hear the call of a sighting, “BLOW!”. It’s a species we have not seen before, and very soon the elusiveness of the last few days is explained when we realise that we are looking at orcas. The other species have been running scared! The orcas also quickly disappear; it’s a mere fleeting glance. We bob quietly in the water hoping to get closer to them, but sadly after an hour and half, we have to continue the last leg of what has been a truly epic journey.
I open my Facebook feed this morning, to a Doris Lessing quote: “Whatever you are meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible.” This expedition, as we start to put the Banda Sea on the map for dive tourism, sustainably, has been a very small part of a huge undertaking, but the time is now if we are to secure the long-term future of this truly breathtaking place, and the marine life within it.
Read more about the incredible UW360 Banda Sea Expedition in Scuba Diver AUSTRALASIA, coming to newsstands soon!