M/V Voyager Dive Report

Maiden Voyage of Kararu's newest Live-Aboard
February 18 - March 5, 2006

M/V Voyager - Photo copyright James Watt

Report by Tony Rubin Rhodes - Kararu Dive Voyages
Photography courtesy of James D. Watt - Wattstock.com

Copyright © 2006 -- All Rights Reserved

Voyager Report - Table of Contents
  • From Norway to Bali
  • Introducing Voyager
  • Challenging Itinerary
  • Flores and Alor
  • Maumere to Kawula
  • Whaling Village
  • Pantar Bay
  • Pura Rainbow
  • Snake Island
  • The Banda Sea
  • Ambon
  • Malukku
  • Nusa Laut
  • The Banda Islands
  • Banda Harbour
  • The Kararu Cup
  • Exploratory Diving
  • East Seram
  • Raja Ampat
  • Misool
  • Jeffam
  • The Bottom Line

  • Details and pricing for: Kararu Dive Voyages and M/V Voyager

    FROM NORWAY to BALI -- Phew! With 19,000 nautical miles and 96 sailing days under her keel, the new M/V Voyager finally arrived in Benoa Harbour, Bali on December 13th 2005. Having travelled all the way from Norway, she certainly looked like she had been at sea for a while. Nevertheless, it was a joy and a relief to see her motor into the harbour and come alongside our dock. Our immediate task was to convert her from a very capable deep-sea research vessel to a luxury passenger dive support vessel worth of the Kararu name. After an extensive two-month refit in Indonesia that involved adding a new accommodation block, increasing her cabins to 11, a new dive deck, two new tenders, an assortment of compressors and Nitrox membranes, water makers, cold rooms and various other essential additions, Kararu's new Voyager was ready for her first 15 night voyage on March 18th 2006.

    INTRODUCING M/V VOYAGER -- Voyager is 150 feet in length with a 30' beam. She was previously working on delicate seabed research in the Baltic oil fields off the coast of Norway. Not only is she one of the most seaworthy vessels of her size, but also adheres to some of the most rigid safety-at-sea standards in the world. Laid out over four decks with a boat crew of 20 and a dive crew of four, her first voyage in Indonesia would take her 1800 nautical miles east from Bali, to Flores, and on to Papua/Irian Jaya. At Kararu Dive Voyages we never back down from a worthy challenge, and we're always trying to set the quality bar as high as possible. Some had suggested that taking Voyager on this route, so far away from her homeport, was not the wisest business decision we could make. They were right, of course. Nevertheless, we were confident that we had a great crew and a special group of guests onboard who would help us to pull it off.

    CHALLENGING ITINERARY -- This particular itinerary is one of the most exciting that Kararu Dive Voyages offers. It covers two oceans, the Pacific and Indian, and four seas; Jawa, Flores, Sawu and Banda. It cruises near large island regions like Flores, Alor, Seram and Papua and numerous small ones like the Spice Islands of Banda Neira and the deep-sea volcano of Gunung Api. Surely no itinerary could be better to introduce Voyager to the warm seas and panoramic seascapes of the tropics.

    FLORES and ALOR -- Flores and the islands around Alor made up the first five days on our schedule. Prior to 1995, the diving in Maumere Bay was some of the most spectacular reef diving in Indonesia. The bay was then devastated by an earthquake and subsequent tsunami in that year and was dropped by many operators as a destination. Two years ago, Kararu believed that things might have come back in some way and decided to find out. We were not disappointed. In the last decade the diving has made a remarkable comeback both in coral re-growth and also wonderful critter spots like 'under the pier' in Maumere Harbour. There is also a very productive sandy-bottomed bay dive to the east of Maumere that offers harlequin shrimps, mimic octopuses, unusual nudibranchs and various species of rarely seen scorpion fish.

    M/V Voyager Maiden Cruise - Photo copyright James D. Watt, Wattstock.com

    MAUMERE to KAWULA -- From Maumere the trip headed for the traditional whaling village of Lamalerap on the island of Kawula. The village sits on the south coast and faces out to the expanses of the Indian Ocean and further south to the Antarctic. This is a major migratory route for sperm whales and other pelagic life. Our group ventured ashore in some heavy surf to explore the village and beach area where sperm whales are hauled ashore and butchered for their meat and by-products, which they trade with neighbouring villages for foods that don't grow on the island. A whale had been caught the previous week and some of the blubber and meat were hanging on racks to dry, making a gory but nevertheless interesting photo opportunity. This is also a village where inhabitants pride themselves on their woven sarongs that often depict whales, mantas and other large pelagics that the village fishermen encounter on their hunts. These wares are laid out on the beach upon arrival of the infrequent visit of outsiders, along with whale teeth and other interesting items.

    WHALING VILLAGE -- Many Westerners consider all whale hunting to be cruel and unnecessary and they are right. However, this village practices ancient techniques that have been passed down from generation to generation for hundreds of years. It is purely sustenance fishing and not an industry. On the grand scale of things very few whales are caught and the village has lived this existence since time immemorial. The whales they catch are not on the endangered list and the village has a special mandate from the international community and is the study of many anthropological theses and doctorates. Whatever one feels about the practise of whale hunting one cannot but admire the bravery of tackling a 17-metre whale far from landfall on an 8 metre wooden outrigger using a traditional bamboo and iron harpoon. One man jumps from the bow of the small boat onto the whale, digging the harpoon into the whale's bony head. This is quite an act of bravery in anyone's book. Sometimes the village fleet is out for many days. When you see the injuries to limbs born by many of the older generations, you cannot help but respect the courage and determination of the men and the deep sense of tradition that purveys the entire community. Whatever one's opinion of the village's activities it is a fascinating place to visit the group all agreed.

    PANTAR BAY -- After a night dive on the reef that sits in the small bay of the whaling village, on which many expected to see tiger sharks but were treated to nothing more threatening than numerous strange crustaceans, we sailed to the Alor Strait and one of Kararu Dive Voyages' favourite bays on Pantar Island; Beangabang. Not only does this bay and small village have an enticing name, it is also a place of great beauty nestled in an inlet on the southeast foot of Pantar island at the foot of some dramatic volcanic slopes. On the northern side of the bay is a natural thermal spring where the water is sometimes so hot it is impossible to dip a toe. On this occasion the temperature was welcoming and after the first two dives guests went ashore to greet the fun loving children of the village and dip their toes in the water. It has been theorised that the effect of the hot, fresh water that mixes with the seawater has created a special haven for unusual critters. Whatever the reason; the diving never disappoints and always delivers unusual marine life encounters. On this occasion on the photographic menu were a rhinopia frondosa, a blue finned lionfish, boxer crabs, and numerous others critters.

    PURA RAINBOW -- From the southeast coast of Pantar our voyage headed north and out of the Sawu Sea and effectively out of the Indian Ocean, moving into the Banda Sea and what is the Pacific Ocean. This route took the Voyager through the famed Alor Strait, another landmark on the Indonesian diving map. Sitting dramatically in the strait between the two large islands of Pantar to the west and Alor to the east are three small volcanoes that have long been extinct. The largest of these, the verdant island of Pura, was our next destination. This is another centre for traditional weaving we found the Voyager was soon surrounded by dugout canoes heaped with intricately woven sarongs. The islanders here are Melanesian in ethnicity with dark skin and tight curly hair. While all our group was on the first dive enjoying a pristine reef known as the school house (named for no other reason than because it sits directly in front of the village school) the ladies of the village set up their wares on the side railings of Voyager creating a rainbow of colours along both sides of the vessel. Not only does Pura offer pristine reefs, each village protects the reef on its shores and practices a sustainable fishing system of traditional fish traps and spear fishing, but also the opportunity of seeing the spear fishermen carrying out their trade. The men and kids are a delight, diving down to 20 metres on occasion, to tend the traps or shoot a nearby reef fish. They also make willing underwater photo subjects. There are also great opportunities to take split shots of the small outriggers with the spear fishermen hunting below. However, when dusk sets, everyone with a camera changes to a macro set-up and prepares for the mandarin fish dive in the shallows in front of the village.

    Snake Island Encounter - Photo copyright James D. Watt, Wattstock.com SNAKE ISLAND -- After an entertaining day of diving, bargaining and socialising, Voyager headed north to the Banda Sea and it's first call on the long crossing to Ambon; Gunung Api. This is a volcano that's summit breaks the sea's surface by 800 feet yet which has its base on the seabed some 13,000 feet below. The island created by the volcano is 120 miles from the next nearest landfall and is therefore home to the reef fish that populate it's steep drop offs and walls, occasional visiting pelagics, and extraordinarily an uncountable population of Banded and Olive sea snakes. These marine reptiles have found a sanctuary here among the warm volcanic vents and reef fish that live in the area. It is truly a unique spot that never ceases to amaze divers. In some shots there are over thirty snakes in the frame and they make inquisitive yet docile subjects.

    BANDA SEA -- After four dives on 'snake island' the cruise headed north to a remote archipelagic atoll named Lucipara. These atolls are also surrounded by a seafloor that is 13,000 feet below. Consisting of three large islands and a few tiny reefs that just break the surface the islands offer divers vertical walls and visibility of over 120 feet with very mild currents. They are also home to a population of the largest sponges that Kararu has ever seen in Indonesia. Some barrel sponges can swallow a diver in their orifice without difficulty. It was a shame that we had time for only three dives. The final leg crossing the Banda Sea needed to get underway with the destination of Ambon programmed into Voyager's autopilot.

    AMBON -- Ambon holds an important place in both the rich history of Indonesia, and as one of its best diving destinations. The island was conquered by the Portuguese, later the Dutch, and is speckled with the occupying forces old forts, some of which date back to the late 15th Century. It is now the capital of the southern Malukkus and has a diverse mix of cultures and ethnicity. Our group was excited to visit the area being that we would be the first time a liveaboard had done so since 1999. Ambon was taken off the tourist map by the government for six years after unrest between two ethnic groups led to turmoil in the city. After the unrest subsided, the army was sent to keep the peace and help repair infrastructure. This was a great shame for the Ambonese, a welcoming and hospitable people, that are proud of the history and beauty of their island as well as the fantastic diving found around their shores. Ambon harbour is a long, deep harbour surrounded on both sides by steep, verdant volcanic slopes. It was breathtakingly beautiful to sail down the mouth of the harbour in the early morning with the mist still hanging around the lower shores. A true sense of history overcomes one; imagining the great seafarers like Magellan, Cook and others sailing down the same bay's mouth. One gets the impression that the area cannot have changed much since the days of these great explorers.

    MALUKKU -- We were welcomed by a new resort owned and operated by Malukku divers. They have taken over the reigns from previous occupants who were forced to leave the island in the late 1990's. It has now been operational for about a year run by an American anthropologist and his partner. We had let them know of our arrival before we left Bali and they were kind enough to lend Voyager two of their very experienced divemasters for a few days, showing us the gems hidden underwater. One dive site needed no introduction. Two of our group, Burt Jones and Maurine Shimlock, had helped pioneer the site during their trips to the region in the mid-90's on Voyager's sister ship the Cehili. The site is under a pier close to the Ambon airport and has the boasting rights of being able to call itself the first great muck site in the world. Once they knew Ambon was on the itinerary, 'Under the Pier' was high on everyone's list of priorities and all were keen to dive there as soon as possible. This site did not disappoint us; in fact it had even more muck than ten years ago according to Jones/Shimlock and all the critters they remembered including a rare sighting of an Ambon scorpion fish. Many fishing boats were tied up along the pier making the dive both noisy underwater and not exactly safe. For this reason we postponed the dusk dive for another visit. While most of the group were 'under the pier,' Jim Watt and a local dive guide went to explore a 200-foot shipwreck that sits further into the bay. He came back with a report that this was one of the best and most pristine wrecks he had ever dived and that it was covered with hard and soft corals, lots of fish and was resting upright in relatively shallow water. It was a shame no one else could make this dive, for we had an invitation to attend a beach barbeque hosted by Malukku divers and a gaggle of local dignitaries, with a promised feast of both food and local dancing. At the end of this wonderful night of festivities, we were not disappointed to have missed the shipwreck. It will be there for us on another visit, with even more coral and fish. What a treat to watch the Ambonese dance in their traditional costumes, something they obviously enjoy sharing with our group of rare visitors. Their warm hospitality and delicious fare set the perfect mood, amongst the group, for the second part of the Voyage to the Banda Islands and Raja Ampat group in Papua.

    M/V Voyager Maiden Cruise - Photo copyright James D. Watt, Wattstock.com

    NUSA LAUT -- However, first Voyager had an important call to make to a small island called Nusa Laut just east of Ambon. I had heard of Nusa Laut many years before, from two of east Indonesia's famous diving pioneers, Larry Smith and Edi Frommenweiler. Larry had said it was his favourite reef in the entire eastern region of this great archipelago and I wanted to see why. Wow! I am at a loss for words when trying to describe the dive but definitely agree with Larry that this was the best reef I had ever dived. We had to drop our two dive guides here so they could make their way back to Ambon. One went ashore to check on transport and returned with bad news. Before we were allowed to dive the reef on the northern shore of Nusa Laut we had to pay the village a relatively large amount of money. The charging for dives by villages is becoming common practice in Indonesia and to a certain degree I applaud it if the money is actually going to help conserve the reef. I sent Tommi, our guide, back to tell the villagers that we would pay after we had dived. So often one pays the village to find that the reef has been damaged and there is minimal or no protection being enforced by the village. How wrong I was this time. I kept thinking this as I ogled the beauty of the untouched corals that swarmed with reef fish. Upon my return from the dive the village chief and a few of his consorts were on the bridge. The Chief was armed with an ancient handgun and had a naturally gruff demeanour enhanced by his old clothes. I was concerned that I had overstepped the mark by diving without permission. It is still a wonder and constant delight to me that wherever one travels in Indonesia the manners with which strangers are treated are always absolutely without reproach. After a few quick pleasantries I told the chief how magnificent his reef was, that I was sorry to have dived without permission but we had done so because of our tight schedule and that I was so taken with the reef and his efforts of conservation that I wanted to double the money he was asking for. I told him that we were often charged for diving by villages that did not use the money to protect the reef and we were sceptical of the practise because of this. He sympathised and explained that this had been a major dive destination in the past, but had not had tourists visit for some seven years. Nevertheless, he had been protecting it from outsiders who wanted to bomb the reef or cyanide fish, on the belief that tourism would return. He then pulled out the ancient handgun that was slipped down the side of his sarong and started waiving it around in an aggressive way to demonstrate what any unwelcome visitors receive as a greeting. It was funny but admirable at the same time and I commended his courage and integrity and promised him Voyager would be back. We were all disappointed to leave, but we still had an itinerary to keep.

    The BANDA ISLANDS -- The 70-mile crossing south and east to the Banda Islands was uneventful until the last few hours, when the wind and seas began to pick up. Voyager took the weather easily but I was perplexed about the change in conditions. We entered the safe anchorage of Banda Neira and carried out our first dive on the edge of the bay on a recent lava flow. Banda, like Ambon, has an important place in Indonesian and world history. The story of the islands has filled many books so I will keep my synopsis brief. Dominated by a 2500-foot active volcano, for more than three hundred years these tiny islands were the centre of wealth for the Dutch colonies. They were the only source of the rare spices of nutmeg and mace for centuries and the Dutch, after capturing them from the Portuguese, guarded them jealously from all comers including the English. For centuries, a kilo of these spices held more value than the same weight in gold. To get the full story guests will need to come aboard and experience the islands themselves. Suffice to say that the islands' rich history is reflected in its architecture, population and the culture. The diving is also full of surprises. There are some exceedingly good reef dives on the east and north sides of the islands, but the real gem is under the pier and in front of a small hotel's sea wall. Here not only marine life treasures such as pipe fish of all varieties, frog fish of many varieties and colour variations, and a plethora of juvenile fish seeking sanctuary in the calm waters, but also the least bashful and largest mandarin fish I have encountered. These colourful gems are out of their hiding places all day and are in such shallow water that they can be seen from the pier. The vessel takes advantage of the sleepy harbour by being alongside the pier. This is when Voyager's heritage as an old roll-on roll-off car ferry is put to use by lowering her stern ramp to create a swim platform. This enables divers to come and go as they please all day long. Many of the group logged upwards of six or more hours of bottom time that day. To entice people into the water even more on this occasion, there was a group of large squid, up to 4 feet in length, which had come into the shallows to mate and lay eggs. They made willing photo subjects for the entire period Voyager was in harbour, disappearing only at night to reappear the next day.

    BANDA HARBOUR -- Banda harbour also has many man made treasures to find in its sandy bottom. With over 400 hundred years of trading, there are many coins, bottles and artefacts to search for in the depths and our guests took advantage of this on their dives coming up with an assortment of trinkets and old objects to be washed off and admired. We had planned to stay for a night and two days but the weather reports outside showed an unusual tropical depression with winds of over 30 knots. This explained the strange change in sea conditions as we entered port. When some large container vessels and an inter-island passenger ship slipped into harbour that evening to seek refuge we decided to delay our departure by a day and weather out the storm in this delightful retreat. There are two forts on Banda, one dating back to the early 1500's built by the Portuguese and a larger Dutch fort dating from a century or so later. There are also colonial houses, some of which have been turned into museums, many shops selling artefacts such as bronze cannons, coinage and musket balls and a few welcoming coffee houses. Of course there are signs of the spices that dominated island life for so many years and still form a major source of income for the small community. A favourite of the crew and guests is the nutmeg jam that is made daily by a few enterprising shopkeepers.

    M/V Voyager Maiden Cruise - Photo copyright James D. Watt, Wattstock.com

    The KARARU CUP -- Another highlight was a race we had set up with the town's people on one of our previous visits. Banda still has many becaks, a form of three-wheeled pedi-cab where the cyclist sits behind and pushes a two-seated carriage. This is a throw back to colonial times and can be found in many of the more traditional regions of Indonesia, and especially on the main island of Java. Kararu initiated a timed competition between the champion of the village and that of the boat a few years ago and donated a cup, The Kararu Cup, to be held by the winner of the race until the next visit. Kararu, by the way, has never won and the cup has remained in the small Mawlana Hotel since the race's inception. Since we were delayed another day we set the race up again for that afternoon. We lost…again. This time to a becak driver from the town who couldn't have been taller than 4'8" and who weighed no more than 120 lbs. For consolation, we told ourselves that it's not about winning, but about the competition.

    EXPLORATORY DIVING -- The next day we enjoyed exploring the town further and doing some more diving while setting our sights on departing late that afternoon. There were still many vessels of all sizes taking refuge in the harbour. We felt that the winds had died somewhat leaving us with exactly the kind of sea conditions Voyager had been built to tackle. We set off in the twilight hours and were greeted just outside the mouth of the harbour by 25-knot winds and 10-foot swells. Thankfully the sea was coming from the stern quarter of the vessel and Voyager took them easily and without complaint from ship or passengers. Our heading was Koon Island, some 10 hours away. This is a low-lying island that has a dive site on its southern tip called 'too many fish'. It is, in the right conditions, one of the fishiest dives in Indonesia. However, due to the minimal protection offered I didn't hold out much hope that we would be able to dive the site. At 6:00 a.m., and still a few hours away, we could see that the wind and swells would make the site too difficult to dive and we turned Voyager onto a different heading for a more protected area. This is when exploring comes into its own and you get the charts out and think okay, where is it protected, where may we find reasonable underwater and topside topography, etc? You tell the guests the change of plans, make sure expectations are not too high, bite the proverbial lip and go for it. On this occasion we were heading along the east coast of the large island of Seram with a final destination north to Misool in Raja Ampat in our sites. There was, however, no reason to believe that this area might not be a hidden gem. This coupled with the fact that we had nothing to lose lifted our spirits and wet the group's appetite for exploring.

    EAST SERAM -- Jim Watt and Burt Jones joined me on the Portuguese deck in front of the bridge with binoculars trained on the coastline looking for telltale signs of what might be a reasonable muck dive. We had blown off the idea of finding an interesting reef because the topography had been incorrect on the charts and the ship's depth sounder was showing shallow drop offs and not walls as the charts had indicated. In addition, the coast was very lush with large volcanic slopes and abundant vegetation with many streams flowing into the ocean. With the recent heavy rains these rivers and streams had washed lots of mud and detritus into the ocean creating large brown smudges around the river mouths. It seemed our best bet was to try and find a muck site. This generally means looking for human habitation and a few other secret ingredients; a good mosque for instance or place of worship as a landmark, a river nearby but not too close, a sandy and rocky beach and the essential 'magic log' on shore. Don't ask me why but these are all on our list when looking for a new muck dive. We had all of these in one place on Seram and decided to stop the vessel, suit up and try the site. We jumped in and were not disappointed. Kararu's dive crew can find almost anything if it is there to be found. On this occasion there was good critter life, many nudibranchs, but there were also some beautiful coral outcrops with small reefs running to a depth of 70 feet teaming with life. It is always a pleasure to find areas like this, off the beaten track, where there is still good diving.

    Pygmy Seahorse - Photo copyright James D. Watt, Wattstock.com RAJA AMPAT -- However, weather conditions were still less than ideal and we all voted to move on early to ensure a timely arrival for the last few days of diving in the Misool area. Once you pass north of the island of Seram you enter the Seram Sea in which sits Misool at two degrees south of the equator. This entire region is one enormous ancient limestone basin. All the islands of Raja Ampat are limestone as is the seafloor. Those who have travelled to Palau can picture these little tropical islands covered in pandana, other palms, with steep sided walls where wind and sea has worn the rock away. The islands, or islets, are uncountable. The larger ones, like Misool itself, have canyons and lagoons speckled with white sand beaches ideal for tender boat rides. One can spend hours exploring and never see the same bay. It really is a place of great beauty both above and below the water. It's rightly being considered by the Indonesian government for national park status and by the United Nations as a world heritage site. Below the water there are over 1100 species of fish and over 450 different species of corals making the area one of the most diverse marine habitats in the world.

    MISOOL -- The group was keen to get in the water and for our first day we picked the small group of islands that run in a line west to east a few miles south of Misool. Underwater there are walls and pinnacles where not an inch is left uncovered. Enormous sea fans rise to the surface, reef fish abound, and the reefs are adorned in every shade of soft coral. This area has also won fame for being a prolific habitat for pygmy seahorses and on most any dive the guides can find all three species. The visibility was reduced on this occasion due mainly to the strong seas over the past few days that stirred up the shallow bottom. The deepest part of the seafloor in this area is only about 200 feet down. Comprised of limestone, it has lots of sediment that can reduce visibility. Usually this is the perfect area for wide-angle shots of the reef but the visibility discouraged most of the group who all concentrated on critters and pygmy seahorses. The day of diving was spectacular and very productive. Nudibranchs, of which there had been a strange dearth of up to this point in the cruise, were prolific and this made everyone's day. However, the last day of diving was ahead of us so we motored that night towards the island of Misool.

    JEFFAM -- Our last two dives were on a beautiful wall on an island called Jeffam. Both dives were spectacular although the last was in a strong current with limited visibility. Nevertheless, the cruise was winding down and the group was keen to spend some time after lunch exploring the inlets and straits that make up Misool. In particular a deep cave secreted in one of the inlets that has enormous stalactites hanging from the roof and a resident colony of small bats. After an hour or so exploring the island by tender boat everyone returned to Voyager, to be welcomed by sets of dive gear carefully washed and hanging to dry.

    THE BOTTOM LINE -- A mood of accomplishment pervaded the crew and guests. The maiden voyage had certainly been a shakedown, during which our crew were getting used to new systems for diving and operations. We had travelled across 1800 miles of seas, tested Voyager's safety and comfort, and dived a wide variety of different regions. We had tested the food and catering systems and found them to be up to scratch as well. All in all I felt very satisfied that we had the maiden voyage under the keel and I looking forward to spending many a happy day of diving aboard Voyager. She is everything I had hoped she would be, and I am confident that she will earn a firm place amongst the world's finest live-aboard dive vessels.

    Sunset over Irian Jaya - photo copyright Ken Knezick, Island Dreams

    Report by Tony Rubin Rhodes -- Kararu Dive Voyages
    Photography courtesy of James D. Watt -- Wattstock.com

    Story and Photos Copyright 2006 - All Rights Reserved

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