Indonesia: Raja Ampat & Asmat Villages

2013 Best of Indonesia Field Report

Rich Pagen|May 1, 2013|Field Report

Monday, March 11, 2013 - Manado, Sulawesi / Embark Clipper Odyssey: Those of us who had just arrived in Indonesia began our time here with a relaxing lunch, before we had time to wander the aisles of a local market, which sold everything from fresh produce to shampoo.

Those who were continuing on from the previous voyage embarked on a full-day excursion that began with a stop at the very colorful Tomohon Market. From there we visited Woloan Village to see traditional wooden houses, and then rode horse-drawn carts through rice fields. We arrived at beautiful Lake Tondano for lunch, and then went on to Lake Linau, a volcanic crater lake.

Late in the afternoon, we boarded Zodiacs for the trip out to our ship, the Clipper Odyssey. We settled in onboard before gathering for a safety briefing. Our expedition leader Mike Messick introduced us to the staff, cruise director Lynne Greig gave us an overview of the ship, and assistant expedition leader Mike Moore briefed us on Zodiac operations.

Following a wonderful dinner served in the dining room, we were well ready for a good night’s sleep.

Tuesday, March 12 - Bunaken National Marine Park: We chatted over breakfast as the Clipper Odyssey arrived at Bunaken, an incredible marine preserve just off the coast of northern Sulawesi. The scuba divers and snorkelers met for their respective briefings, before heading out on deck to make sure everyone was well stocked with masks, fins, and snorkels for the trip.

Some cruised in the glass-bottom boat or with a mask and snorkel to immerse ourselves in the coral reef ecosystem. We saw pyramid butterflyfish feeding on plankton, and anemonefish intently guarding their respective anemones scattered around the reef flats. Once the scuba divers familiarized themselves, they too explored the exciting marine life.

Others went ashore to explore the town, and meet some of the locals. A representative from the Office of the President of Indonesia happened to be in the village today, to acknowledge and support an effort to recycle, compost, and even collect and dispose of garbage that washes up on the beaches. It was very refreshing to see this effort underway in this remote outpost.

Back on the Clipper Odyssey, we joined Kathy Robinson for her lecture on Ternate, Islam, and the Spice Trade. It was an excellent introduction to the area we would be visiting tomorrow, and we left understanding the importance of spices (particularly cloves) in the history of this area. We gathered for Captain Allan McCarty’s welcome cocktail party and mingled over champagne, as he introduced us to some of his senior officers, before enjoying dinner and bed.

Wednesday, March 13 - Ternate: Colorful mosques lined the shore as we came alongside the pier in Ternate. We were met by an array of officials, musicians, and onlookers, who put on a welcome ceremony in celebration of our visit to their city. Before we knew it, we were on our way to Kedeton, the palace of the Sultan of Ternate.

With our shoes left outside, we made our way into a large covered area where we were greeted by the Sultan of Ternate himself. We snacked on some local delicacies while he made a speech welcoming us to his palace, telling us that he had flown back from Jakarta specially to welcome us.

After a dance performance with live music and fantastic costumes, we visited the residence that is reported to have been the house that English naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace lived in back in the mid-1800s. It was here that he wrote many of his observations on the differences in wildlife communities across the Indonesian islands. We then saw the Portuguese fort of Toulkko, with spectacular views across the sea as well as up to the dramatic volcanic cone towering above the city of Ternate. Finally, we stopped at the local market to explore and chat with some of the locals before heading back to the ship for lunch.

In mid-afternoon, Rich Pagen gathered us for his presentation entitled, Productivity on the Coral Reef: How Interspecies Relationships Have Built an Empire. Rich introduced us to many of the invertebrates on the reef, and highlighted some of the fascinating interactions between species living on the coral reef. This was followed by the news that King Neptune himself was outside as we were about to cross the Equator. We gathered on the pool deck to watch as King Neptune initiated the pollywogs among us with a swim across the Equator, followed by a celebratory shot of vodka.

Later, Jonathan Rossouw gave an excellent presentation, Raja Ampat: The Marine Riches of the Four Kings. This was followed by our first recap of the trip, and a leisurely dinner.

Thursday, March 14 - Kofiau Archipelago, Raja Ampat: In true expeditionary fashion, we arrived in an area that was a first for Zegrahm Expeditions: the Kofiau Archipelago. This scattering of islands, mangrove forests, and sea grass flats was just waiting to be explored and, after breakfast, we headed out to discover what the underwater realm had to offer.

We found a reef of staghorn and lettuce coral, blue-green chromis feeding on plankton, and a snowflake moray eel. In deeper water, a group of huge bumphead parrotfish chomped away on the hard stony coral to get at the symbiotic algae growing within the coral polyps.

The scuba divers dove along a wall decorated with both hard and soft corals. Colorful nudibranchs, two very large lobsters, and lunar fusiliers eagerly feeding on plankton just off the wall were highlights.

After lunch, we landed on a secluded beach where we saw a small wooden boat with two locals jigging for octopus. At the snorkel site, many of us got excellent looks at a bizarre black sea slug with peg-like knobs coming out of its back, as well as some striking white damsels.

Those of us diving dropped in on a sandy bottom interspersed with coral bommies, corals both soft and hard, exotic feather stars, and myriad reef fish.

During the late afternoon, we boarded Zodiacs to navigate through a narrow channel into a shallow mangrove-lined lagoon. There we sat quietly while eclectus and great-billed parrots flew overhead en route to their evening roost trees. We also encountered an unusual epiphyte growing on the mangrove trees, often referred to as the ‘ant plant.’ This plant has a swollen base that is used as a home by ants, and the plant benefits from the aggressive defensive behavior of its resident ants.

With a magnificent sunset overhead, we headed back to the Clipper Odyssey after what could only be described as an incredible day.

Friday, March 15 - Gam Island / Kri Island, Raja Ampat: With flashlights in hand, we landed at Gam Island well before sunrise to hike out to a known display tree used by the red bird of paradise. As we climbed through the darkness, accompanied by a number of guides from the local village, the morning bird chorus began in earnest around us. We arrived at the tree in early morning light and, with necks bent way back, we looked straight up towards some bare branches in the canopy and watched the incredible show. The 41 species of birds of paradise are best known for the elaborate feather plumage of the males, and the dancing displays they put on to attract females. The males flew in and out of the display arena, landing briefly to flutter and wiggle, all the while flipping their two elongated tail feathers back and forth. On our way back, some of us took some time to wander through the small village. The locals, many of whom were sitting outside their homes, were very welcoming and happy to gather together for photographs. A large group of children who came out on the dock to meet us were given the opportunity to pile into a Zodiac for a ride around the bay.

We repositioned over to nearby Kri Island, the site where marine biologist Gerald Allen counted 286 fish species on a single one-hour dive! We had the chance to do a drift snorkel along the reef slope, which had so many lunar fusiliers along it that we could see their gorgeous blue color even before we hopped in the water. We also we saw green sea turtles and black-tip reef sharks. Those of us diving went off to a tiny island with a swim-through arch that exited onto a steep slope. We came across a banded sea snake, as well as the tiniest false clown anemonefish most of us had ever seen, only one-quarter-inch long!

After lunch, the snorkelers drifted the wall again, admiring large groupers, foxface rabbitfish, and large groups of Moorish idols. Those on the glass-bottom boat headed out to where the strong current attracted bluespine unicornfish, sea turtles, and both blue-gird led and orange-masked angelfish. The divers dove along the wall as well, drifting with the strong current past snappers, anthias, and swarms of damselfish. This was Raja Ampat at its very best!

Saturday, March 16 - Misool Island, Raja Ampat: We awoke to the most surreal scenery of scattered limestone islands towering out of the sea. Cloaked in lush jungle with palm trees and pandanas, the islands were home to circling swiftlets and huge Blyth’s hornbills. After breakfast, we swam or rode the glassbottom boat over an extensive reef decorated with both soft and hard corals and a multitude of fish. Some of us found abalone snails there, and in the deeper water over near a channel between two islands, we saw more than a dozen four-foot-long barracuda waiting for unsuspecting small fish that might accidentally get caught up in the current. Those of us diving experienced great visibility and no current at all. A passing shark and a huge Napoleon wrasse were seen on the drop off, while tiny black-and-white humbug dascyllus foraged on plankton above small coral heads, darting back among the branches of the coral for protection.

Over lunch, the ship repositioned to a new spot and we spent the afternoon snorkeling in the center of a maze of tall lush islands rising out of the sea. A group of squid hovered in midwater, while a large batfish made several close approaches to check us out. Up on the reef flat, we encountered a blood-red sea star, as well as urchins that had bored into the limestone wall, creating their own hiding place from predators.

After swapping our swimsuits for some dry clothes, we hopped back in the Zodiacs for a tour of the cluster of small islands. We found an empty giant clam shell up on the shoreline, and were amazed at how heavy it was. The sun dipped down low in the sky, illuminating the sharp and eroded limestone formations. With the Zodiac engine off, we drifted through narrow channels admiring this incredible part of Raja Ampat.

Sunday, March 17 - Kokas, MacCluer Gulf: The wind was calm this morning as we took a Zodiac cruise, ducking around one large island to have a look at some ancient rock art painted on the walls of an undercut in the limestone cliff. Red dye from ochre had been used to paint circles, hands, and other symbols just above the waterline. It’s unknown exactly how old these pictographs are, but similar ones have been found in northern Australia that date back to over 16,000 years ago.

We shared stories over breakfast while the Clipper Odyssey maneuvered among the islands to arrive in the vicinity of the village of Kokas. When we arrived, the pier was crowded with locals who had come out to greet us. We were welcomed ashore by dancers and led through the village past vendors selling durian and other local produce. We arrived at a palm thatch-covered seating area where we watched a performance of dance and music. We also explored the town, stopping in some of the old bunkers from the Japanese occupation during World War II.

We ate lunch out on deck as the ship repositioned to Barat Island. Some of us headed out to do some snorkeling where we spotted sea cucumbers, shrimp in burrows in the shallows, and several types of tiny nudibranchs. Others cruised by Zodiac into a lagoon where we landed in a protected forested cove with a gorgeous beach to explore just across a narrow isthmus. On the lagoon side, mudskippers perched out of water on mangrove roots, foraging on algae.

Monday, March 18 - Mommon Peninsula: We awoke to a view of a misty jungle broken only by a raging waterfall cutting its way to the coast. While some of us went ashore early to explore a remote beach, many of us opted for a hike through the primeval rainforest. Despite the rain that poured down, we walked up through moderately open forest beneath towering buttress trees. Some of us traversed a swollen stream to reach a beautiful lake that we hopped in to cool off, while others went on a nature walk, admiring myriad fungi, scurrying lizards in the leaf litter, and a tiny frog that sat perfectly camouflaged on some downed wood.

After rinsing off the mud, we swapped our long pants and hiking boots for swimsuits and snorkels, and went off to inspect the coral reef fringing the coast. Despite the earlier downpour, the visibility was excellent and many of us spent considerable time watching a species of goby keeping watch over its hole in the sand. Those of us diving headed into a small bay with superb visibility and healthy corals. We glided gracefully across the reef, inspecting all the macro life that this magnificent reef had to offer. Highlights included the largest giant clam any of us had ever seen, which we estimated it at 5 feet in length and 2 to 3 feet wide, and two spotted eagle rays.

We returned to the ship for lunch and repositioned to the southern end of the peninsula, where we spent the afternoon exploring. Highlights for the snorkelers and glass-bottom boaters included a group of garden eels, their heads sticking curiously up out of the sand. We also encountered a magnificent giant clam, and had a brief look at a mantis shrimp patrolling the area outside of its burrow. The divers dropped in the channel and were rewarded with views of massive moray eels, a cuttlefish, and some large pufferfish.

Back on the Clipper Odyssey, we washed up and put on anything we could find that had an Indonesian theme to it, and gathered outside on the pool deck for a fabulous buffet of local cuisine.

Tuesday, March 19 - Triton Bay / Aiduma Island: Morning light revealed a landscape of forest-cloaked mountains tumbling down to the sea. We boarded Zodiacs to explore the maze of waterways, and to sit quietly to take in the morning bird chorus.

Back on the ship, we sat out on the pool deck over breakfast, admiring the incredible scenery around us. We then boarded Zodiacs for a secluded bay where some of us opted to land on a gorgeous palm-lined beach, while others plunged into the aquamarine waters to have a look around. Christmas tree worms of every imaginable color protruded out of some of the coral heads, while cardinalfish hovered beneath large table corals awaiting darkness when they come out to feed. The divers dropped down on a gentle sloping reef, offering some great sightings of turtles, nudibranchs, scorpionfish, and lionfish.

After we repositioned to Aiduma Island over lunch, we stepped ashore on a white sand beach tucked inside a large bay. Some of us snorkeled or cruised in the glass-bottom boat along a limestone cliff, admiring bright purple sea fans and bright yellow feather stars. A large school of batfish curiously approached us from deeper water, while tiny algae-eating bicolor blennies darted in and out of old worm holes. Out at the point we rode a bit of a current along tucking in around the outside to a glorious soft coral garden that looked like something out of a Dr. Seuss story. Purple sea fans were anchored next to pink tree corals next to green leather corals. It was a sight unlike anything we had seen on the trip thus far!

Those of us diving went to a site known internationally as Bo’s Rainbow, which many later said was the best dive we had ever done, one that none of us wanted to return from. Around an offshore rock were huge coral heads covered in magnificent soft corals, tunicates, and feather stars. The water was teeming with marine life including huge schools of black snappers, and five species of large groupers.

Back onboard, we mingled over cocktails out on the pool deck with a perfect sunset as the backdrop.

Wednesday, March 20 - At Sea / Agats, Papua: With occasional groups of dolphins or feeding fish breaking the sea surface, some of us joined Shirley Campbell for yoga before breakfast and Peter Zika’s presentation, Island Biogeography. Shirley followed with a fascinating lecture on The Asmat, an introduction to the culture and people of the region we would be visiting over the next few days. Later, we anchored at the “Outer Buoy” and joined Jonathan for his lecture, Cuscu to Cassowary: Wildlife in New Guinea. Jonathan highlighted the incredible array of wildlife found on this second largest island in the world! After lunch on the pool deck, Rich and other members of the expedition team were on hand to help answer some of our fish identification questions, as we cruised through Flamingo Bay. A fun surprise, our local guide Leks Santoso, came aboard with several traditionally dressed Asmat warriors. We were in awe while watching one of the men remove and then replace his huge shell nosepiece, before heading to bed.

Thursday, March 21 - Agats / Ewer, Asmat: Some of us began early to tour a small wild tributary through the mangroves. Mudskippers flopped along in the mud, red-flanked lorikeets fed en masse, and a pair of rufous-bellied kookaburras perched on a low branch.

After breakfast, we all proceeded upriver in a flotilla of Zodia cs to a small village called Syuru. As we approached, the village seemed quiet, but then without warning, wooden longboats shot out from the shore, paddled by men dressed in sago skirts. They surrounded us while chanting, and led us towards a rickety pier where we headed into the village on foot. We watched a bisj pole ceremony, where they raised a large carved wooden monument representing a deceased ancestor, chanting and dancing all along. From there we walked into the larger town of Agats, where we visited a museum with an incredible collection of Asmat art, as well as a Christian church that exhibited an interesting blend of cultures.

After lunch onboard, we visited Ewer Village, where we witnessed a ceremony celebrating the completion of two new canoes. The chanting and drumming was contagious, and we all danced along with the locals.

Friday, March 22 - Juan / Jufri, Asmat: The sky brightened over flooded lowland forest as the early risers among us headed out on Zodiacs for some early morning nature exploration. Common sandpipers foraged for insects, while flock after flock of imperial pigeons flew overhead. In a small tributary, we sighted a massive palm cockatoo perched up in a dead tree, its screeching call echoing across the forest. After a hearty breakfast, we boarded Zodiacs for an upriver run to the villages of Juan and Jufri, two small communities connected by a short boardwalk. There, we were met by a fleet of wooden canoes, and it seemed that the entire community was waiting for us on the shoreline, eager for our arrival. Once ashore, we watched a spirit mask ceremony, during which several people dressed in beautiful full-body costumes known as jepae, were led out into a central open area to dance. These costumes each represented a particular deceased ancestor that the community was commemorating.

After a leisurely lunch onboard, we joined Rich for his talk, The Tropical Marine Ecological

Fringe: A Transect from the Coast to the Blue Water. Rich talked about the mudskippers and fiddler crabs of the mangrove mud flats, the sea turtles that nest on exposed sand beaches, as well as the community of animals that make their living in the largest habitat on our planet, the open sea. The festive evening recap consisted of an Asmat Q&A session with Shirley and Kathy, as well as a show-and-tell of some of the incredible artifacts some of us purchased during our time in the Asmat.

Saturday, March 23 - At Sea: We awoke to open sea in all directions, with some of us participating in Shirley’s yoga session. After breakfast, we met Kathy for her presentation, Becoming Papua: How Did it Happen? Next up, was Peter Zika with his lecture, Orchids: Liars and Cheaters. After lunch, we were treated to an ice cream social and a lecture by Shirley, People of the Torres Strait. She introduced us to the unique indigenous culture of the islands, as well as to early visits by Europeans to the area. At the evening recap, Rich had us using the Beaufort wind scale, Jonathan spoke about the migration of birds between the tropics and high latitudes, and Mike Murphy explained the importance of “looking good.” It was a hilarious evening, and some of us continued the fun after dinner at the bar.

Sunday, March 24 - Thursday Island, Australia: After breakfast, we sped ashore by Zodiac to start our exploration of Thursday Island, the capital of the 17 inhabited islands of the Torres Strait. We boarded a bus with a very informative local, acting as both guide and driver, and explored the island. We stopped at a fort used by the Australians during World War II, as well as a colorful cemetery. With rain coming and going, we stopped at a large bat roost along the coast. There, hundreds of large fruit bats hung upside down in mangrove trees, their large wings carefully wrapped around them to shed the raindrops.

Some of us wandered around the town on our own, or headed out on a nature walk with some of the expedition staff. At a cemetery we came across a blue-winged kookaburra perched on a termite mound, looking somberly down at a headstone. We also saw a yellow-spotted honeyeater going flower to flower for nectar, as well as masked lapwings feeding on a grassy lawn.

Some of us finished our exploration of the town at a corner bar with a large outdoor porch fronting the street. A cold beer was the perfect end to our day on Thursday Island.

Monday, March 25 - Ashmore Reef: We ate breakfast while admiring the wide-open views of Ashmore Reef, an atoll lying completely beneath the sea surface with no exposed land at all. We disembarked on Zodiacs to get to the snorkel site, where limestone rock with scattered hard corals was cut by sand-filled channels teaming with fish. Sixbar wrasses flitted rapidly around the reef top, while parrotfish moved in small groups chomping into the coral. From the glass-bottom boat, we looked down upon a white-tip reef shark cruising along the sandy bottom, and dozens of sea cucumbers. The divers encountered several species of triggerfish, and both white-tip and black-tip reef sharks.

We returned to the ship for lunch, catching a glance of an occasional passing sooty tern or brown booby. Our afternoon snorkel site was a steep wall, with feather stars perched upon prominent coral heads, and blue-spot butterflyfish feeding in pairs. Slingjaw wrasse, which project their jaws outwards in a most curious way when feeding, were spotted by several of us, while squirrelfish and soldierfish lurked in the shadows awaiting nightfall to come out and feed. Unicornfish picked at the plankton in the open water, and the divers explored a reef predominantly made up of hard corals, with huge patches of staghorn coral. The highlight of the dive was the sighting of seven gray reef sharks!

In the evening, we donned our finest attire to join our captain at the farewell cocktail party. We mingled over champagne and shared stories of our time in Indonesia, before heading downstairs for a superb dinner. While feasting on chocolate for dessert, we watched a wonderful retrospective slideshow of our trip, compiled by Jarda Versloot. The photos were amazing, and our experiences in Indonesia seemed both years ago and yesterday at the same time.

Tuesday, March 26 - Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea / Disembark: We set out this morning to explore the harbor city of Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea’s capital and largest city. We stopped at the Port Moresby Ecological Park, where we were given a tour by the park’s general manager. We were impressed by the work going on there, a good bit of it funded by a zoo in the Seattle area. We saw crowned pigeons with their brilliant red eyes, all three species of cassowaries, and even some tree kangaroos. But watching the hornbills hop along on the ground was a crowd favorite.

We stopped at a large open-air shop, where we could browse among masks, carved wooden bowls, and an assortment of jewelry. We also went to the National Museum, where there was an incredible exhibit of folk art and artifacts, and learned a lot about the geography, wildlife and history of Papua New Guinea. From there we stopped at Parliament House before lunch.

After lunch, those of us continuing on the ship headed north along the coast to visit a village called Hanuabada. The Motu people historically built their villages on stilts over the sea as a means of defense, and we had the chance to stroll out on one of the raised boardwalks stretching seaward over the low tide mudflats. The rest of us checked into the Airways Hotel where we all gathered for dinner one last time before transferring to the airport for our flights home.

We have reached the end of our exploration of Indonesia. The final days of this expedition have been dominated by reflection on all we have seen and experienced, and celebration of the friends, both new and old, with whom we have shared this journey.

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