Circumnavigation of New Guinea - Voyage II: Raja Ampat & Asmat Villages
Published on Friday, May 09, 2014
Saturday, March 22, 2014 - Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea / Wewak / Embark Caledonian Sky: Our journey across the world had just begun and we were excited to meet our fellow travelers and join those already onboard our ship. We had a short tour in Port Moresby of the national museum and parliament house before boarding our flight to Wewak. Upon arrival at the Wewak Airport—a small cinderblock building with a short spit of a runway—it was apparent we were truly off-the-beaten-path. This evening we embarked the Caledonian Sky. Tired and happy to be in our well-appointed cabins, most of us went right to sleep!
Sunday, March 23 - Jayapura, Papua: Today we enjoyed our first morning at leisure onboard the Caledonian Sky. Many of us ate breakfast outdoors, with views of ultramarine waters and blue skies as we sailed for Jayapura. Our welcome in the port was a warm one—a troop of children danced in traditional grass skirts, beads, and bird of paradise headdresses, and smiled up as we watched from on deck alongside the pier. Our tour of Jayapura gave us our first taste of Indonesia, which proved to be distinctly different from what we had seen in Papua New Guinea. Motorbikes and scooters whizzed by our buses—the first we had encountered with air conditioning!—as we set out into the city. Some of us went to a local market and had our first tastes of siri pinang (beetle nut), snake fruit, and rambutan while others drove up to a beautiful lookout at Sentani, the former headquarters of General McArthur. The Natural History Museum gave us a peek of what was to come in the Asmat later on in our journey, and a surprise visit to a local school greeted us with more beautiful dancing and delicious local cakes. Exciting as Jayapura was, we headed back to our ship to set sail. In the evening, we all cleaned up for the captain’s welcome cocktail party where we met Captain Maalen and his team onboard the Caledonian Sky.
Monday, March 24 - At Sea: Our day at sea was blessed with glassy blue waters and clear skies. In the morning we passed a small pod of spinner dolphins playing on the horizon before Brad Climpson taught us about coral reefs in his lecture. Our Indonesian friend Leksmono Santoso gave us an introduction to his country, and we relaxed onboard and explored the vessel that would be our home for the next 12 nights. In the afternoon Giovanna Fasanelli gave us a lesson on photography and we geared up to use her tips on our upcoming adventures. Jack Grove spoke to us about identifying the fishes of New Guinea before the first of our daily recaps. As we sailed on, we learned that tomorrow would be a true expedition day at the islands of Pulau Pulau Su, which have never been visited by a passenger vessel before.
Tuesday, March 25 - Pulau Pulau Su: Calm seas greeted us this morning and some of us joined Shirley Campbell on the Panorama Deck for a meditative session of Yin Yoga. After a lesson from Jack on snorkeling and bandana tying, we were set to head out for our first day exploring the underwater world. We watched excitedly from our lunch tables on the Lido Deck as our scouting party zoomed around the never-visited islands of Pulau Pulau Su in search of premium snorkeling and diving, while above us, thousands of flying foxes circled the island and our ship. With reports back from our team of pristine sandy beaches, diverse corals, and plenty of fish, we plopped into warm waters to see for ourselves. Divers drifted gently along a sloping wall on the south side of the island and snorkelers drifted along the surface. We were pleased to encounter brilliant soft corals, blue-spotted lagoon rays, fusiliers, damselfish, butterflyfish, angelfish, and nudibranchs.
Those who strolled the island observed the enormous colony of flying foxes, which was captured in a fantastic video by our videographer, Kevin Freeny. Back onboard, a stunning sunset escorted us on our way to our next exciting destination, Raja Ampat.
Wednesday, March 26 - Gam Island, Raja Ampat: We arrived off Gam Island early in the morning; the stars shined brightly over us and the earliest risers star-gazed at Mars, Venus, and bright constellations as we prepared for our search for the red bird of paradise. Our scouting team returned just as dawn was breaking and 28 of us set out on a quest to see the bird for ourselves. Those who made the pilgrimage were not disappointed, with clear views of our sought-after subject displaying and dancing. On the way down, the birders joined the rest of our group in Gam Island Village where the school children sang us songs. We meandered through the village, exploring the church and meeting many of the local people. We were struck by the cleanliness and order of the community, which our anthropologist Shirley explained was a common trait in Melanesia. While our walk on land was pleasing, the dock where our Zodiacs collected us gave a sneak peak at what Raja Ampat is famed for—its extremely diverse and crystal clear marine habitat. Back onboard we quickly changed into our water gear and headed right back out for the snorkel and dive of a lifetime.
The waters of Raja Ampat were all we expected and more. Perfect conditions of sunlight and calm, warm waters enhanced the technicolor scene of soft and hard corals, flowing anemones, and millions of fish waiting for us on the reef. The scenes of breathtaking carpets and swaying soft corals only illuminated the hundreds of layers of marine life we were fortunate enough to explore. Wire corals and their symbiotic gobies and shrimp protruded from the reef like antennae, while beautifully-shaped sponges covered in small white synaptid holothurians (sea cucumbers) and delicate sea fans grew everywhere! All came back to the Caledonian Sky ecstatic and hungry considering we had completed three excursions before lunch; we dined on the Lido Deck as our captain repositioned the ship closer to our second snorkel and dive site. Again, we were struck by the most biodiverse marine habitat in the world. Divers swam through the shallow tunnel at Murph’s Rock, admiring the fuchsia-pink and orange tubastrea corals on the ceiling and bouquets of sea fans at the entrances. Everyone returned happy for yet another exquisite sunset on deck.
Thursday, March 27 - Mommon Peninsula: This morning we sailed through more amazingly placid blue waters and learned to look carefully at the reefs around us in Rich Pagen’s talk, Drama Like Your Favorite Soap Opera: Competition, Adaptation, and Deception on the Reef. We also learned about the culture and history of the region from Shirley’s discussion, West Papua: A Struggle for Independence. Just before lunch a surprise announcement from our Expedition Leader, Mike Messick, informed us of an impromptu Zodiac adventure under a scenic waterfall! Most of us hurried to the marina deck in our swimsuits, carrying only waterproof cameras or nothing at all. Screams of surprise echoed around the limestone islands as our Zodiac drivers made the most of the opportunity. Soaking wet and invigorated, we reboarded the Caledonian Sky again for lunch and soon arrived off the Mommon Peninsula. The afternoon was spent diving and snorkeling in more crystal blue waters for a look at healthy and diverse coral reefs where we saw coral bommies, nudibranchs, and reef fish of all descriptions, a few standout species being panda butterflies and yellowmask angelfish. Some of us swam or took a Zodiac shuttle to shore for an “island slog” with Rich into the dense rain forest, and our bar team came ashore with tasty coconut smoothies—a perfect tropical expedition afternoon.
Friday, March 28 - Triton Bay / Aiduma: Triton Bay seemed like a scene from a fantasy movie—hundreds of tiny limestone islands topped with palm trees made for a magical morning Zodiac tour. We zipped through crystal-clear waters around mushroom-shaped islands, which appeared to be uninhabited, and learned ribbons and bottles tied to trees were shrines to local gods. In the sky we spotted hornbills flying in pairs, and in the water below us we saw rays and turtles. The spectacular visibility in the morning made us all the more excited for our water excursions later in the day. Our snorkel adventures around and in the limestone cliffs, caves, and underwater tunnels did not disappoint! Among the many beautiful reef fishes and corals, many of us also spotted octopus and a mantis shrimp, which our Expedition Advisor, Patrick Kirby, filmed and shared with us at recap in the evening.
At Aiduma the divers enjoyed two of the best dives of the trip, and possibly of a lifetime! Bo’s Rainbow featured a shallow swim-through tunnel cutting the small islet in half; around its edges lay an extraordinary soft coral wonderland crowded with huge grouper, sweetlips, and angelfish, all utterly fearless. Later, a rip-roaring dive in a 4-knot current swept our divers over carpets of bright yellow and purple soft corals. All of us would enjoy a video of this dive later, in the safety of the lounge—we watched our friends fly through the underwater world, and heard our divemaster Giovanna in the background squealing with joy!
Saturday & Sunday, March 29 & 30 - At Sea / Asmat Villages: Eager for our upcoming arrival in the Asmat, we took Saturday’s opportunity at sea to dry out our ears and attend lectures from our team of experts. We learned about Living with the Ancestors: The Asmat and The Tropical Marine Ecological Fringe; attended the Buyers Guide to the Asmat; and were educated on The Wildlife of New Guinea.
The next day we started early, with a sunrise Zodiac cruise along the muddy swamps and mangroves of the Asmat; muddy banks melted into muddy waters moving with mudskippers and crabs. Some of us enjoyed a clear view of two perched crowned pigeons; while it was amazing to see this rare and beautiful bird, perhaps the most peculiar thing we saw this morning were human footprints deep in the mud along the slippery banks—a prelude to the warriors that awaited us.
As we approached Agats Village, the thumping of paddles on canoes and husky chanting of the Asmat warriors set a tone remarkably different to anything we had heard so far. More than 50 warrior canoes circled our flotilla of Zodiacs and swept us to the edge of the boardwalk. In the village of Sjuru, we found an extreme example of an ancient culture shocked by the introduction of modern life. As warriors sprinted from the muddy waters with the sacred Bis Pole and everyone around us fell into a trance of shaking, dancing, screaming, and chanting, we were reminded we were indeed in Asmat country.
Muddy, sweaty, and exhilarated, we returned to the ship for lunch, but it wasn’t long before our Zodiacs were out again en route to Ewer Village. As we rounded a bend in the river, we were ambushed by another convoy of Asmat warrior canoes. In Ewer Village we were privileged to watch the locals unveil two new canoes—and three of our fellow travelers unknowingly became part of the ceremony! Afterwards, many of us climbed into the men’s house where Leksmono explained what we had just participated in. Eventually we boarded our Zodiacs for the journey back to our ship. Along the way, we found cruise director, Lynne Greig, waiting for us in a tributary among the mudskippers with smoothies and fresh cold towels! Some took the opportunity to explore more mangrove marshes before a sunset Zodiac ride back to our ship.
Monday, March 31 - Asmat Villages: Yesterday’s excitement was just the beginning, as we still had a full day left in Asmat country. A small group of us took the opportunity to further explore the mangroves on yet another early morning Zodiac cruise, and those who did were rewarded with a very close, almost too close, crocodile encounter! Later in the morning our flotilla of Zodiacs set out again for the villages of Jaun and Jufri. Again, chanting warriors met us en route, this time shooting arrows over our heads! With great excitement, the warriors welcomed us warmly into their tiny village where they were celebrating the “bone house feast,” a ceremony that celebrates the spirits of the recently dead as well as the coming of age for young boys. We walked across the wobbly boardwalk into the men’s house where we were privileged to see the spirit canoes, known as wuramon, which are ceremonial carvings in the form of supernatural vessels. Here we met the chiefs of both villages and donated school supplies in return for their generous hospitality. Leksmono explained the significance of the sprit canoe and some of us bought small versions of these unique carvings to take home. Later, a few took a short walk with Rich around the villages, navigating the very tricky boardwalk, which had more missing boards than not. Rich treated us to a local fruit called jambu, which was rather tasteless but said to be a powerful aphrodisiac. After all that excitement we headed home to the Caledonian Sky. We had the afternoon to reflect on the people we met and experiences we shared as we left the muddy waters of the Asmat for the deep blue hues of the Arafura Sea.
Tuesday, April 1 - At Sea: Our restful day at sea was appreciated. We fumigated and packaged our Asmat goodies and attended more lectures from our expert team. Shirley told us about the people of the Torres Strait Islands, and Brad taught us about residents and visitors on ocean reefs. In the afternoon Sergey Frolov shared his stunning images of the White Sea and Russian Far East, further whetting our curiosity for rarely visited lands, and Cassie O’Connor told us about the World Wildlife Fund’s projects in Papua. After dinner, many of us went up to the Panorama Lounge for a night of 50s and 60s music with the ship’s crew.
Wednesday, April 2 - Thursday Island, Australia: The waters and landscape around us had changed drastically yet again, and we had calm brilliant green seas this morning en route to Thursday Island. During our morning at sea, we listened to Jack’s presentation Marine Biodiversity and Why it Matters. We anchored just off the pier at Thursday Island, and took Zodiac shuttles into town where we were able to explore on foot quite easily. Our tour was honored to use the island’s only bus, however we had to schedule creatively around the school hours as it was also needed to transport the island’s primary students home from school! We visited the Green Hill Fort and Lookout, the Torres Strait Museum, and ended at the visitor’s center and island gallery. Some of us also took the opportunity to do our own walkabouts in town, where we shopped at the pearl store and met up with our friends and expedition team at the northernmost tavern in Australia!
Thursday, April 3 - Torres Strait / Ashmore Reef: The Australian waters stayed green and bright as we sailed on to our next stop, Ashmore Reef. In the morning Giovanna enlightened us to the true nature of sharks in her lecture, Sharks: Magnificent and Misunderstood, and Rich followed with a lecture on the marine mammals of the Indo-Pacific.
Off the ship, another sublime excursion was waiting for us at Ashmore Reef, a fully submerged reef that extends across the northernmost end of the Great Barrier Reef system. Its distance from human habitation has allowed the marine life to flourish, even beyond our high expectations. With no beaches or land to set foot on, we spent our time snorkeling and diving. We enjoyed visibility of around 80 feet, which gave us good views of brilliant healthy corals and brightly adorned reef species such as unicornfish and blue-streak fusiliers. We also spotted white-tipped reef sharks, dog-tooth tuna, and manta rays in the distance. A truly stunning snorkel and dive session had many in the water until the very last minute. For many of us, returning to the ship was bittersweet. Our expedition was drawing to a close and our Circumnavigation of New Guinea, the world’s second largest island, was nearly complete.
Yet we didn’t have much time to be forlorn—or to pack!—as our final recap and captain’s farewell cocktails and dinner were all on the agenda for the evening. Recap held heartfelt favorite moments and lessons learned from our expedition team and good friends, the highlight of which was a surprise performance of It’s Good to Be in West Papua—Yay! produced by some of our fellow passengers and set to the tune of the YMCA. Our party moved to the beautiful Panorama Lounge where Mike Messick and Captain Maalen said their goodbyes, or rather, until-next-times. The crew of the Caledonian Sky had one more treat for us—a beautiful rendition of You’ll Never Sail Alone, conducted by our musician, Rene. We dined well before heading up to watch Rich’s slideshow of our voyage—and what a journey it had been! True to form for our unique group of travelers, many showed up in bathrobes and togas for the viewing and one last party among friends in the lounge.
Friday, April 4 - Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea / Disembark / Brisbane, Australia: This morning we arrived in Port Moresby. We said our goodbyes to the ship’s crew and did our last-minute packing while we were cleared back into Papua New Guinea. Some of us visited the Port Moresby Nature Park and saw cassowaries, tree kangaroos, and the botanical gardens, while others headed straight to the PNG Arts Shop and Gallery for last minute artifact shopping. We returned to the Airways Hotel for brunch and flew to Brisbane for a final dinner together and overnight at the Brisbane Novotel. The next morning we would all part ways back to our homes all over the world. The days had passed all too quickly. Some boarded flights with extra crates of Papuan treasures, and some had thousands of pictures to sort through, but we all left with memories of a truly incredible journey.