Indonesia: Raja Ampat & Asmat Villages

2016 Indonesia: Raja Ampat & Asmat Villages Field Report

Brad Climpson|January 5, 2017|Field Report

Saturday - Monday, November 5 - 7, 2016 - Singapore, Singapore / Jakarta, Indonesia / Manado / Embark Caledonian Sky / Bunaken National Marine Park / Siladeng Island

After a welcome from Expedition Leader Mike Messick, he shared that our charter flight to Manado had been canceled, and we were about to embark on a strategy that would deliver us all safely to the ship via planes, trains, and automobiles! We began our journey the following morning; upon arrival in Manado, we boarded the Caledonian Sky, and after a long day of travel, it was time for a great sleep.

We arrived at Bunaken, an incredible marine park just off the coast of northern Sulawesi, ready to get into the water for our first chance to explore the Coral Triangle! Those snorkeling saw pyramid butterflyfish, red-tooth triggerfish, hawksbill turtles, and various anemonefish. The coral cover was excellent and thriving, and there were great examples of soft corals and sponges enjoying the nutrients the currents in the area provided them. The divers were also able to enjoy two great dives, gliding along the reef wall. Others headed ashore to explore the town, and meet some of the locals. Kathy Robinson led a walk to the local church, mosque, and Muslim village, while Pepper Trail pointed out pink-fronted green pigeons, shining starlings, and olive-backed sunbirds. A tropical downpour greeted everyone during their time ashore, but the friendly locals offered shelter from the storm in their homes.

In the afternoon we repositioned to Siladeng Island for more snorkeling and another village visit. The snorkeling and diving was once again excellent with amazing fish life and coral cover, as well as huge examples of sponges and plankton-eating soft corals. Kathy and Pepper led the shore party, and everyone was treated to the local boat builders showing their wares and skillful abilities.

Back onboard, we joined Kathy for Ternate, Islam, and the Spice Trade, an excellent introduction to the area we would be visiting tomorrow. We gathered for Captain Hakan Gustafsson’s welcome cocktail party and mingled over champagne, as he introduced us to some of his senior officers, before heading off to dinner.


Tuesday, November 8 - 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. After our welcome, we made our way to the Portuguese fort of Toulkko built in 1540. We had spectacular views across the sea, as well as the dramatic volcanic cone towering above the city of Ternate. We then set off for Kedeton, the palace of the Sultan of Ternate, and made our way into a large covered area where we were greeted by the Prime Minister. We were welcomed very warmly before we were treated to colorful and vibrant dance performances that were accompanied by live music. We were able to taste some local delicacies, including a syrup drink made from nutmeg, as well as rice flour and banana cakes.

Pepper led a group to a residence that is reported to have been the house that English naturalist, Alfred Russel 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. The rest of us enjoyed a group dance and made a stop at the market to explore and chat with some of the locals before heading back to the ship for lunch.

In mid-afternoon, Pepper gathered us for his presentation entitled, Famous Finches and Flying Frogs: The Evolutionary Journey of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace; a very informative and pertinent talk about how the works of Wallace and Darwin led us to understand the evolution of species. This was followed by the news that King Neptune himself was outside as we were about to cross the Equator! We gathered on the Lido Deck to watch as King Neptune initiated the pollywogs among us with an Equator Cocktail along with waffles and ice cream. Later, Kathy spoke on Understanding Modern Indonesia, a great insight into how this amazing group of islands has evolved to become the nation we see today.


Wednesday, November 9 - Mingiman & Penemu Islands, Raja Ampat

Today was a true expedition day—a combination of looking at charts and Google Earth, as well as trusting our gut, led us to Mingiman and the Penemu Islands. Not content with treading over the same ground, it was decided we should lead the way and get off the beaten path. We woke to a beautiful morning and enjoyed breakfast as the Caledonian Sky inched towards the first of our unchartered destinations, Mingiman Island. After the team scouted the area, a snorkel site was set up and an island beach walk had also been discovered.

The snorkeling provided a diverse array of corals with the soft corals proving to be very popular. A great coverage of the area showed the health of the ecosystem, with fusiliers, damselfish, and even a manta ray and some black-tip reef sharks! On shore, Pepper led an island walk revealing beautiful tropical forest with sightings of eclectus parrots and dusky megapodes.

After a great morning exploring new territory, we headed back to the ship for a tasty BBQ lunch and to relocate to our next expedition stop. Arriving at the Penemu Island group, snorkeling sites, dive locations, and a walk up to a lookout were all arranged. The snorkelers were again treated to a high percentage of coral cover and beautiful fish including red-tooth triggerfish, yellow-and-blue fusiliers, and trevally. The walkers enjoyed a stroll from a small jetty and up to a vantage point overlooking the bays. White-bellied sea eagles and brahminy kites were seen flying around, as well as frigatebirds soaring high in the sky.

The divers enjoyed a soft coral haven as they rode the currents along a beautiful wall that had the appearance of a picturesque garden. Upon surfacing, we were greeted by a downpour of liquid sunshine that kept the lush tropical vegetation a vibrant green.


Thursday, November 10 - Gam Island / Kri Island

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. With necks bent way backwards, we looked straight up towards bare branches in the canopy and watched the incredible show; the males flew in and out of the display arena, landing briefly to flutter and wiggle, all while flipping their two elongated wing coverts back and forth. Once a female arrived, we were treated to incredible displays including swinging upside down on branches with their feathers on show. 

On our way back we searched for other birds in the rainforest, including cockatoos, Blyth’s hornbills, eclectus parrots, friar birds, and the moustached swiftlet. Some of us wandered through the small village at the base of the mountain; the locals, many of whom were sitting outside their homes, were very welcoming and happy to gather for photographs. Those who remained on the ship for the morning joined us, and Leksmono Santoso and Kathy took everyone for a guided walk through the village. We visited the school where the children sang for us, and we returned the favor with The Hokey-Pokey—much to their laughter and delight!

Not wanting to waste any of this beautiful day, we quickly grabbed our snorkeling equipment. The Zodiacs whisked us out to a platform reef with amazing hard coral cover and a nice deep wall teaming with fish life. The divers took advantage of the great conditions as well, and dove along the wall, ending among the snorkelers.

After repositioning to Kri Island, we were ready to take in the beautiful scenery of 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 outside the Kri Resort, as well as a second location opposite the resort near a small steep-sided kaarst island. There were masses of lunar fusiliers along the wall and their gorgeous blue color was mesmerizing against the backdrop of the coral reef. Some were lucky enough to see green sea turtles and black-tip reef sharks, and the divers encountered green turtles, moray eels, and masses of damselfish and anthias among the beautiful coral.


Friday, November 11 - Misool Island, Raja Ampat

As we awoke this morning, we saw the beautiful kaarst scenery of Misool Island ahead of us. The snorkelers swam across an amazing array of hard and soft corals, teaming with fish including blue-green chromis, raccoon butterflyfish, threadfin anthias, and trumpetfish. On the deeper edges we found gold-spot trevally and barracuda lurking around for the chance that one of the smaller reef fish might become an unsuspecting meal.

For those choosing to stay dry, an amazing Zodiac cruise through the islands did not disappoint. Pepper pointed out Blythe’s hornbills flying overhead, along with various fruit doves, brahminy kites, and white-bellied sea eagles. Those of us diving dropped in on the wall of one of the little protected islands in the bay. We slowly made our way, encountering beautiful soft corals including sinularia, lobophyton, and many of the neptheids. As we made our way up, we found ourselves swimming over the top of huge gardens of echinopora, the hard coral species that looks like huge heads of cabbage spiraling out to catch the suns’ rays. What a remarkable morning!

Over lunch, we repositioned to a different area of Misool. Snorkeling and diving were once again options for the afternoon, with myriad tropical reef species to behold. The divers found a beautiful wall to glide along with caves and overhangs spanning the length. Once more, the wall was covered from top to bottom with every type of soft coral, sponge, bryozoan, and hard coral the mind could imagine. The Zodiac cruisers saw hornbills, swiftlets, and lesser frigatebirds, and got up close and personal to the limestone kaarst. Grapsid crabs were seen defying gravity and climbing vertically up the walls looking for detritus to feed on, and chitons held on tight to the walls, waiting to be covered again by the incoming tide.

A beautiful orange and pink sunset rounded out the day as the building clouds on the horizon provided a stunning outline for the colors to attach to.


Saturday, November 12 - Mommon Peninsula / Teluk Wap

We found ourselves in an uninhabited section of the Mommon Peninsula, completely stunning with turquoise waters lapping at the edges of limestone cliffs that support incredibly green rainforest. As we made our way along the coast, we came upon a waterfall; Mike instructed all adventurous souls to don their swimsuits! Zodiacs took turns taking us into the falls and getting doused; the area was filled with cheering and laughter as we all found out just how much water was pouring from the falls. We stopped back at the ship to collect our snorkeling gear, before boarding the Zodiacs again for our morning activities.

The snorkeling site was beautiful with huge forests of branching acropora housing damselfish and anthias. There were blue linckia sea stars and sea cucumbers interspersed around the reef, and feather stars clung to the reef with their arms swaying in the current collecting nutrients floating by. The divers found a gradually sloping wall and spent over an hour slowly cruising along finding giant clams, nudibranchs, and moray eels.

We repositioned to Teluk Wap, located further south on the Mommon Peninsula. Another fantastic snorkel site was set up among large porites, or boulder corals, and forests of branching staghorn. The visibility was great and angelfish, butterflyfish, and parrotfish were all seen moving through the underwater forests. Cleaner wrasse were also observed at their ‘stations,’ where other fish would come along for a full service clean.

Pepper headed ashore and spotted a magnificent rifle bird, a ‘lifer’ for him! He took us through the rainforest with vines and epiphytes growing off the large trees. Many fruit doves were heard calling, cockatoos were seen, and eastern reef egrets were observed fishing in the shallow waters near the shoreline. The divers enjoyed a long slow dive taking in myriad corals, huge schools of lunar and wide-band fusiliers, giant clams, and surgeonfish.

As a special treat, the hotel department had set up a cocktail bar on the beach! As the sun started to dip over the ocean, we watched a near full moon make its way over the impossibly green rainforest canopy into a twilight blue sky. The Zodiac trip back to the ship was unbelievable, as the clouds on the horizon allowed the setting sun to throw a kaleidoscope of color through them.


Sunday, November 13 - Triton Bay / Aiduma Island

Triton Bay is best served with a Zodiac cruise as the morning light breaks; as the sun rose, the beauty of the area was evident and hornbills flew overhead as cockatoos screeched to let the world know they were awake. Back onboard, we were in for a surprise—reports of whale sharks nearby! Leksmono and Mike scouted the area; while the chance of whale sharks appeared slim, they had discovered an amazing array of rock art.

Upon arrival, it was immediately clear that this was something incredibly special.; there were images of people with hunting weapons and animals, and a very real possibility that these paintings could be up to 40,000 years old! The caves have since eroded away and fallen into the sea, revealing the paintings to the outside world. The wet season downpours that have occurred over thousands of years have penetrated the limestone; when the bright sun shines on them afterwards, the heat draws the water back out by capillary action along with minerals in the rock. These minerals have coated the paintings and now protect them from the elements. A remarkable natural phenomenon that could now allow us to learn about past peopling events!

Ultimately there were no whale shark sightings; however we visited small bays, as well as Buganese fishing platforms which are Sulawesan in origin. Over lunch we repositioned to Aiduma Island. With the recent heavy downpours and a phytoplankton bloom, the waters had turned a little green, but we could still observe the multi-colored soft corals. Schools of fusiliers darted through the water, and feather stars were found in large numbers clinging to any surface, letting their arms out into the water to catch the abundance of nutrients being swept by. Those of us diving went to a site known as Bo’s Rainbow. Around an offshore rock were huge coral heads covered in magnificent soft corals, tunicates, and feather stars. 

Back onboard we enjoyed recap followed by an Indonesian BBQ dinner extravaganza. The hotel staff had outdone themselves again, and after a great meal we were entertained by the crew and some of the expedition staff singing. We danced the night away and celebrated our journey, ready for our next amazing installment, the Asmat!


Monday & Tuesday, November 14 & 15 - At Sea / Jaun, Jufri & Komor Villages, Asmat

With a day at sea, our lecture series was in full swing: Rich Pagen discussed productivity on a coral reef; Kathy shared insight into the people of the Asmat; and Rich and Brad Climpson had a fish and coral ID. Later, Brad presented on mangrove ecosystems. At afternoon tea one of our guests, Dorothy Jacobi, played the piano and we played ‘Name That Tune,’ and Pepper discussed the unique bird life found on New Guinea.

Early the next morning, the super moon was still up and presented an amazing sight for those of us on the sunrise Zodiac cruise. We headed to separate parts of the river and looked for signs of birdlife; we soon saw rufous-bellied kookaburras, spangled drongos, dusky lorikeets, red-cheeked parrots, sandpipers, and imperial pigeons flying overhead.

We proceeded upriver to Jaun and Jufri villages, where many people dressed in traditional costume were waiting for us. From a side tributary, wooden longboats shot out from the shore, paddled by men dressed in skirts made of sago palm. They surrounded us while chanting and led us ashore and to a welcome ceremony. We were allowed special entrance to the Men’s House where we learned about the people of the villages, and even saw traditional masks that are used for private ceremonies; no outsiders had ever seen these before!

After lunch it was time for an epic 19-mile Zodiac ride up to the village of Komor; a new stop for Zegrahm, this village had not received visitors for seven years! The journey was going great until a tropical storm completely soaked us; undeterred, we approached the village, once again with a huge number of Asmat lining the shores. A fantastic display was put on as the men chanted and splashed water at us with their paddles. 

What happened next was truly extraordinary; these amazing people from Komor sought us out and chose us to be part of their families! They lavished us with elaborate headdresses and other gifts to let us know we were now part of their family within the tribe. The chief and his people had taken us in as one of theirs and to finish the ‘adoption’ ceremony, we were offered sago worms, considered a delicacy. It was then time for us to return the favor; we gave hats, scarves, books, and shirts to our new families as a thank you; the gesture was not lost on the Komor villagers.


Wednesday, November 16 - Owus Village

This morning we woke to gray skies and drizzling rain, but nothing could deter us! We anchored offshore in the Arafura Sea and took Zodiacs into Owus Village. We were in the smallest of the rivers we had traveled so far, and the scenery was stunning with the rainforest coming right down to meet the mangroves. We saw double-eyed fig parrots, dusky lorikeets, and imperial pigeons, and a pair of brahminy kites. We came to the turnout at Owus Village; people in traditional dress lined the shores in front of the Men’s House as the chief waved to us from a small jetty, and the largest group of war canoes we had experienced so far made its way toward us.

The men, painted in red and white ochre, their loud chants booming through the river, paddled and splashed toward us. They formed a circle around us and put on a performance not to be forgotten! Once ashore, Leksmono explained they were going to perform a Bisj Pole ceremony for us, which was very special as they were using the real poles they would use in an actual ceremony.

The canoe fleet paddled downstream and sang and chanted as the ladies called them home. Once ashore the men ran wildly through the crowd and were chased by the women who hit them with sticks and palm fronds. The men carried the Bisj Pole out and erected it on a platform that had been built for it. Once the ceremony was complete, they took the pole inside the Men’s House; the pole is never to be left outside during this ceremony. We joined the men inside as Leksmono explained how lucky we were to be invited into such an important ceremony; for the first time they allowed us to go into their secret room where special carvings are kept; no Westerners had been allowed to do this before!

It was then time to make our way down the stunning river back to the ship as the people of Owus bade us farewell. Our time in the Asmat had come to a conclusion, but the memories we created will last forever. We had witnessed so much in the last two days and were incredibly fortunate to be involved in many firsts for the area; true expedition stops!

After relaxing on board and afternoon tea, Kathy presented her talk, Why is New Guinea Divided? This very informative talk answered a lot of questions on the political structure of the island of New Guinea and what has shaped it to become the island it is today.     


Thursday & Friday, November 17 & 18 - At Sea / Thursday Island, Australia

After a leisurely breakfast, Brad discussed the importance of our ocean currents; Kathy followed with a talk about Thursday Island and how it fits in to the Australian region. We viewed the David Attenborough documentary, Birds of the Gods, and later, Rich spoke on the marine mammals of the Indo-Pacific. During sunset, the Zegrahm Expeditions cocktail party was in full swing before we made our way to dinner, a traditional Filipino feast cooked and served by the wonderful crew of the Caledonian Sky.

The following morning we awoke in the Torres Strait, located between Northern Australia and the Island of New Guinea. Tom Hiney presented a lecture about UNESCO, after which Brad spoke on the interesting and unusual creatures we find on tropical coral reef systems. After lunch, we made our way ashore to start our exploration of Thursday Island, the capital of the 17 inhabited islands of the Torres Strait. We were split into three groups for an island tour by bus; our guide took us up to Green Hill Fort where we had a great view of the island, as well as its neighbors including Wednesday, Horn, and Goode Islands.

The Japanese cemetery is adjacent to the local cemetery and honors the many Japanese people who lost their lives during the early days of pearl diving. Thursday Island was once the premier location for collecting the South Sea oyster shell, Pinctada maxima; the shell was collected mainly for the mother of pearl which was used to make buttons, knife handles, and other ornate artifacts. Thursday Island pearls are still some of the most sought after pearls around the world.

At the cemetery those keen on birding were lucky to spot blue-winged kookaburras, pied imperial pigeons, helmeted friar birds, and yellow-cheeked honeyeaters. In the mangrove forest across the road we found black flying foxes hanging upside down sleeping through the heat of the day. These are the largest of the flying foxes in Australia with a wingspan of over three feet. 

After a great tour, some of us wandered around town to look in a few of the local shops and to end the afternoon with a cold beer in the northernmost pub in Australia, the Torres Strait Hotel.


Saturday & Sunday, November 19 & 20 - At Sea / Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea / Disembark

As we made our way across the Coral Sea towards Port Moresby, Kathy presented a lecture about Islam; Pepper discussed his work in animal forensics; and Mike Murphy presented on his history in the dive industry. During afternoon tea, the expedition team presented a final recap to share their favorite memories from the expedition. This led into Captain Hakan Gustafssons’ farewell cocktail party before our last dinner aboard the Caledonian Sky. Then Michael Moore presented his photo slideshow of our trip, a great way to relive an epic adventure that started only two weeks ago in Singapore.

In the morning we said our final goodbyes to those leaving us for the post-extension trip. The guests staying on for Faces of Melanesia were whisked away with Rich to Varirata National Park to look for wildlife. Everyone flying out later in the day came for a morning tour to the Cultural Museum and the Port Moresby Nature Park. Perhaps one of the greatest displays was that of the Kula Ring Canoe which was, and is still, used in the Kula Ring Trading throughout the Trobriand Islands.

The nature park was fantastic and we could all get up close and personal with birds of paradise, eclectus parrots, yellow-faced miners, Victoria crowned pigeons, cassowaries, and even tree kangaroos and crocodiles. A wonderful lunch was presented to us all, after a walk around the grounds with the flying fox colony screeching in the background. Soon it was on to the airport; we said our final farewells before everyone flew off to make their way home. 

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