If it's a given that the best moments of a journey happen spontaneously, then the Expedition Stop day on a Zegrahm itinerary is surely serendipity in its finest hour. In our brochures, among the carefully crafted day by day descriptions, those words dangle a tantalizing lure to those of us easily reeled in by the promise of adventure.
I recently had the pleasure of joining my first Zegrahm voyage-Brunei to Bali-aboard the Clipper Odyssey. First times to any part of the world are remarkable in themselves, and Malaysia and Indonesia-gentle, spellbinding, and soulful-are about as seductive as destinations get on the planet. The itinerary, from opulent Brunei to Sabah, from Komodo dragons to Balinese temples, from the exuberant Dayak people to the ancient rituals on Sulawesi and Sumba, is enough to satisfy all five senses. But add to all of this the Expedition Stop experience and magic happens.
On the morning of Day 6, a curious contingent of us stood on deck watching the enigmatic Expedition Stop process unfold. The itinerary header for the day read Islands of the Celebes Sea, conjuring up romantic palm-fanned beaches and waters a color Crayola has yet to name. As our captain maneuvered the Odyssey-one of the first expedition vessels ever to visit this remote archipelago-among the stunning islets of Maratua Atoll, the imagined became real. With seamless choreography, Zodiacs were lowered and a team of marine biologists zoomed off in different directions to test currents and perform reconnaissance on underwater sites.
In less than an hour the rest of us were on the pool deck, snorkel and dive gear in tow, ready to board Zodiacs and the glass-bottom-boat. The skies were overcast and we weren't expecting anything beyond an enjoyable first foray into the sea. But one by one, as we slipped into the deliciously warm waters, we lifted our heads up long enough to shout out a Thesaurus- defying WOW!
Indonesia embraces about 33,000 square miles of coral reefs-about a third of the world's total-which are home to 25 percent of the planet's fish species. We gathered around our two marine biologists who, as we pointed to various spectacular corals and fish, surfaced to identify them. The edge of the reef dropped off steeply, creating a magnificent wall and we could see the divers far below photographing the sights. As we floated above them, a seemingly endless variety of schooling fish performed perfectly synchronized movements-like bits of bright glass inside a kaleidoscope. Back on board, we excitedly compared notes and between us tallied close to a couple dozen species of hard and soft corals and about 80 fish species, moray eels, pufferfish, and green hawksbill turtles among them. As we left the isles in our wake I looked back at the inscrutable waters with the sense of possessing a secret jewel, and deposited it in my memory bank.
Later that day... Just as we were settling in for an afternoon of leisure, Mike Messick, our expedition leader, announced an unplanned second Expedition Stop. With great excitement he told us he had just learned, from local fishermen, of a nearby island with an amazing lake at its center. You won't want to miss this, he offered as just the right motivation to get us back into the Zodiacs.
We stepped ashore on uninhabited Kakaban Island fringed in golden sand and backed by gargantuan-leafed plants, palms, and vines. From a half-built wooden platform a couple of stories above the beach, a planked walkway disappeared into the forest. A couple of handy staff members quickly constructed a rough ladder and we followed our fearless leader into the magnificent old growth forest serenaded by a high-decibel insect chorus. Within minutes a lake appeared at the edge of another platform where Mike, with a kid-sized grin and the sweep of an arm, directed us to just jump in. Heeding the because it's there voice of our inner adventurer, we did.
After millions of years of total isolation, an oddball sequence of evolutionary events transformed the resident jellyfish of this landlocked lake into a species both stingless and sightless, needing only the photosynthesizing energy of the sun to sustain it. As we swam out from the shore, our tiny glass windows opened onto a world of imagination- defying wonder. At first we encountered hundreds, then thousands of these creatures, pink-tinted bubbles ranging in size from thumbnail to fist, surrounded us, propelling themselves with sublime grace in perfect, rhythmic movements. We were like atoms in that universe, suspended in an eternal moment of cosmic delight.
Our voyage continued southward, a revelation of natural beauty, of dazzling ceremonial welcomes, of the bridges built by the reach of a local child's hand as they invited us home.
In these times of easy mobility, it only takes a passport, a boarding pass, and an anchor aweigh to put us in another world. Behind the scenes in our Seattle laboratory, a few other key ingredients bring a region to life. A little smidge of the map, a worthy ship, a hearty dose of tide and port logistics, a finely sifted team of naturalists and culturalists, a dedicated in-house staff, and, along with a few creative incantations from the marketing department, a Zegrahm expedition is born. As for discovering the magic key to the Expedition Stop day on your brochure itinerary, let's just say you have to be there.