Monday, September 24, 2007

Alor & Flores

Pictures and copy by RICHARD SMITH

Having been on the Komodo Dancer several times previously, I jumped at the chance to join a charter expedition that was heading to rarely visited parts of the Indonesian archipelago. Alor and Flores lie several islands east of Bali and Komodo and just north of Timor island. This places them right in the centre of the world hotspot for the highest species diversity of both fish and corals: the further you venture from this location the fewer of these species you will find. Indonesia also contains around 18% of the world’s coral reef area, making it the single most important country in the world for coral cover.

As this was new territory for the boat some of the sites were ‘exploratory’ although the experienced charter guide, from Bali based Diving4Images, had many gems tucked up his sleeve. The focus of the trip was muck critters although several of the dives were pristine coral reefs with beautiful blue water and amazing visibility. Whilst much of the diving was in calm sheltered waters the narrow straits between islands allow for very fast currents to develop that make the ocean surface appear to boil.

Flores was named by Portuguese sailors in the sixteenth century who were so struck by it’s beauty they named it ‘Cabo das Flores’ or Cape of Flowers. Flores is a large island that is situated in one of the world’s most geologically unstable zones. The island possesses fourteen active volcanoes and in 1992 experienced an earthquake measuring 7 on the Richter scale. This quake resulted in 10m high waves, devestating the principal town of Maumere. At that tAlor Bayime many of the reefs were also destroyed; although little evidence of this damage remains.

The two-week live-aboard trip began in Maumere in late November, which is technically the beginning of the rainy season that continues until March. There was little evidence of unsettled weather and with air temperature remaining at around 25-30°C and water temperatures of 27-29°C, conditions could not have been better. Having logged one of my more memorable checkout dives I was eager to begin the diving proper.

Having heard very little about the area prior to the trip I was uncertain as of what to expect. The unusual critters turned out to rival those found in Lembeh Straits, a well-known Mecca for such creatures. After a day of diving stunning walls and reefs around Pulau Lapan and Pantar we moved to critter habitat around the town of Kalabahi, which is situated far up a very sheltered bay inlet on Alor Island. It was at these sites that we came across four of the five species of Ghost Pipefish encountered on the trip. The most unexpected of these was a pair of Velvet Ghost Pipefish (Solenostomus sp.) that perfectly mimicked a small purple sponge that littered the bottom. Many Ornate, Robust and Halimeda Ghost pipefish were also found at the sites. Other notable finds among the rubble and sparse soft coral cover were Thorny and common seahorses, several species of snake-eels including reptilian and crocodile and a hairy octopus resting among the filamentous algae of a large rock. The amazing abundance of organisms at shallow depths allowed many dives to exceed an hour, or even an hour and a half!

During a well earned break between dives we headed ashore to visit a small fishing village. Due to the lack of tourism in the area we became the main spectacle and the entire community descended upon the main square to greet us. The elders boasted a huge anchor, which was found high up on the local hillside. Our guide attempted to translate the reason for the strange location of the anchor and it seems that a huge tidal wave had washed a ship up the hill and the villagers later carried the anchor down. Soon music began and the women of the village enjoyed showing us their traditional dances before we returned to the boat to either dive, sleep or eat.

From Kalabahi we moved to the famous ‘Valley of the Clownfish’ off Pura, an island between Pantar and Alor. Whilst the Indonesian guide had primed me for the ‘banyak ikan perawak’, or ‘many clownfish’, I was unprepared for the almost total coverage of the bottom by anemones and the scores of anemonefish inhabiting them. Due to the small settlement on the island adjacent to the site there were several large rattan-wicker fish traps ensnaring Fusileers and other larger fish for the local community. At one point I was surprised by a man swimming down to check his trap at some 10m depth. It was refreshing to see this non-destructive form of fishing compared to other parts of Indonesia where it is common place to hear dynamite bombs and see the unnecessary destruction it has caused.

From the clear blue reefs we moved to Pantar Island for further muck diving and critter forays. This was no less fruitful than Alor whilst harbouring an almost entirely different set of creatures. The slightly more exposed bay of Beang Beach had a coarse sandy gravel bottom with patches of red algae and many large sea pens. On our first dive at the site, a night dive, I descended almost directly onto a large red Weedy Scorpionfish (Rhinopias frondosa) in only 14m of water. It was perfectly mimicking the red algae, allowing it to rest motionless whilst awaiting an unsuspecting fish to ambush. Another smaller individual was found a couple of days later, also mimicking the red algae. Besides the ‘Holy Grail’ of critters we found many other exciting creatures such as Pegasus Seamoths, Tozeuma shrimp, seahorses and the very rare and unusual Gurnard lionfish (Parapterois hetururus). A pair of these strange fish was found in only 3m of water in a barren gravel area with fairly strong surge. When alarmed they fanned out their elaborate pectoral fins showing off their iridescent blue colouration. In addition to these bottom dwelling creatures the rich waters attracted many large schools of mackerel and even a trio of Pygmy Devil Rays.

The couple of days at Beang Beach had required much critter spotting concentration so it was decided to spend a day at some spectacular local wall dives. Whilst there was not the huge concentration of large pelagics that may be found at some other sites in Indonesia, several White and Black tip reef sharks were spotted along with large marble rays and a couple of Eagle rays. The coral cover at these sites was pristine and the number of small reef dwelling fish was bewildering. Gedong Point on Flores island yielded the fifth Ghost pipefish of the trip, the hairy or Irish setter, and a blue ring octopus.

The end of the trip was fast approaching, only one location remained and promises of mimic octopus beckoned. Ankermi House Reef is a muck dive site in a secluded bay with a small guesthouse and dive centre. I fear many of the travellers that do their first ever dive from their small beach would be very disappointed by the poor visibility and muddy bottom they encountered, but for the trained eye this was a treasure trove of unusual creatures. The muddy bottom was unusual in that it was covered in abundant small white heart urchins, known as sea mice that appeared to scurry along using their bristly spines. The mimic octopus, made its’ promised appearance although several legs short of an octet! Three large Hispid/Pompom frogfish inhabited a small boat wreck, along with painted and warty frogfish they made for a memorable dive.

At night the dive site really came alive with many creatures coming out of the soft sediment. Highlights included Blue-eyed stingfish, White-faced Waspfish, Bobbit worms and an unusual nudibranch called Euselenops luniceps that resembles a cross between a hammerhead shark and a flying saucer.

The waters of Ankermi Bay are unusually rich and during our two day mooring a Minke Whale was repeatedly seen, as was a large whale shark, although neither were seen on dives. The Ankermi Guest house would be a perfect spot to spend a day or two relaxing following a dive trip, as it is only 28km from Maumere and the domestic airport with connections to many Indonesian cities, including Bali. The basic double bungalows will set you back £2-3 and dives can be arranged through the owners.

So, no sooner than the trip had begun, it was over. Having known little about what to expect, I came away having seen many more critters than I could have dreamed. I am now left planning my next trip to this seldom visited corner of Indonesia.

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