Beneath the surface
The island of Saumlaki is 200 nautical miles north of Australia.
It’s west of West Papua and east of Timor-Leste. Saumlaki, which receives probably no more than one domestic flight per day is our embarkation point for the 40-metre boat, Damai II. The vessel is a traditional pinisi, seven-cabin wooden dive boat and our home for 11 diving days at sea.
This is the first time for a few years that I have travelled to explore an area quite as remote as this one and I am psyched to be here. My diving explorations vary wildly from wrecks of the Baltic Sea, cold-water destinations on polar fringes, temperate UK and tropical destinations further afield. However, one thing that doesn’t vary is the discovery of plastic items I find in the ocean each time I go beneath the surface. From Philippine reefs lined with nappies and single-use plastics through to quaint English coves covered with fishing jettison; I have almost come to expect to see it in the water on every dive I now make and have collected a grim folder of images to prove its existence. On the flip side, I am interested to learn whether there are still some remote regions left on the planet, free of the visual plastic problem that dominates our social media.
The Indonesian Banda Sea and Missol and Raja Ampat marine reserves promise a wildlife experience of times gone by. There is a group of nine divers aboard the pinisi – a mix of photographers and videographers. Much of our travelling will be done at night, heading north and stopping to explore what’s beneath the waves and fabulous far-off places with adventurous names such as The Forgotten Islands, Manuk Island, known as ‘The Island of Snakes‘ and The Banda Islands, which is perhaps more widely known as The Spice Islands, famed for their nutmeg, mace and cinnamon and the bloodshed distributed by those seeking to monopolise on their global trade.
The boat crew reminds us that, for the most part, we will be quite alone while at sea with no rescue helicopter to call upon or any means of a quick evacuation should we have a serious problem. With this in mind we must dive well within safe limits. Don’t go deep for the sake of going deep and don’t stay there too long if you do. Land, with its plumes of agricultural land fires falls behind the horizon as we leave Saumlaki, the sea darkens to a foreboding shade of black and the tangerine sky fades into purple. We are just below the equator and night fall comes quickly here.
The Forgotten Islands sound so adventurous to me and, apart from the occasional live-aboard dive boat exploring this area, we won’t find evidence of any land-based tourism here. There are small villages that are peppered across some of these islands. The people there rely heavily on fishing for food and wonder what our business is here in their territory. These islands have no official police force – decisions are made by village elders and I suspect not much has changed in that way since people began to occupy these remote spots. When approaching islands such as these, two of our crew members take the tender to land in order to negotiate permission to dive with the village elders.
Pessimistically, I expect to see plenty of plastic in the water here, as I have done when visiting similar destinations around the world. Yet, we are somewhere in the region of 100 miles from the next major settlement and so there is a part of me hoping that these folk are not so reliant upon single-use materials. Instead of plastic, what I do discover during our first few dives in the area, is an ocean full off is fish and a healthy reef system packed with fabulous soft and hard corals. Filter feeding sea fans lean out from steep walls and into the current. Vibrant walls plunge down into the blue.
During our time at sea we stop beside Atoll Nil Desperandum, an oasis of sand and coral that barely breaks the surface in an expanse of blue waves. We explore its coral fringes with the drone from the air and its steep drop off reefs by diving them. Away from our boat and with the tender’s engine switched off in a flat sea we experience total silence. This area is pristine and we feel like we are the first people to have been here – certainly visually it appears that way.
We wake to the sulfur-spewing Manuk Island, having travelled at sea for ten hours overnight to get there. I believe that this is about as wild as an island can get. It’s occupied by the frigate bird and a lot of snakes – both in and out of the water. The Olive sea snakes almost rain upon the underwater explorer around Manuk Island; they’re inquisitive of us too and often swim over for a closer look once we descend into their underwater world. This is their territory and they are present everywhere, from the surface, where they gulp air, down to around 50 metres deep. The snakes have formed a symbiotic relationship with the trevally fish species and we often see this unlikely pair hunting together on the Jurassic-like volcanic reef. Everything is feeding underwater beside this island, from those critters living within the corals to those just above. In the middle of the water column shoals of silver baitfish subject to continuous predation and those predators are unfazed by our presence. A tornado of barracuda above us at times covers the sun like a living cloud of building weather. I see no evidence of human interference at Manuk Island, not on the reef or on the water’s surface – we don’t step foot on the island, which is free of human activity. For me, this place is as close as you can get to time travel.
Koon island, over a week into our trip and approaching a greater spread of populated islands, is where we really do cross defined, contrasting lines where pristine marine wilderness meets a sea of single-use materials, plastic pollution and currents transformed this into a washing machine of waste. Plastic bottles, bags and unrecognisable synthetic items float past on the surface, in ripping currents as we ready ourselves for our dive at Koon. On the reef the fish population and the reef itself is on the face of it healthy. I give up putting plastic bags in my pocket and even pull a bag away from a batfish feeding on one. The bag, more brittle than I first thought disintegrates in my hand and the fish tuck into the confetti of its remains.
Although social media feeds and online info, for those of us who follow such reporting, is brimming with talk and images of these kinds of examples, I believe that it is difficult to truly appreciate where our world has found itself with single-use waste until it is experienced like this first hand – watching a fish actually eating it.
The story is the same here as it is everywhere else in the world – single-use plastic is part of daily life in Indonesia with many using plastic bags, cups, straws, small packets of bathroom products and food packaging because it’s cheap. There is no solid land-based waste management in place at all; although in the UK we are in no position to wag fingers either, sending a quantity of our own potentially recyclable waste abroad to be dealt with elsewhere and unable to properly manage our own recycling schemes.
Despite these genuinely heartbreaking scenes on and in the water at some, but certainly not all of the islands we visit, inspiration arrives in the form of the strictly protected marine reserve of Misool several hundred nautical miles further north. Here, underwater we mix with a rich, concentrated quantity of marine life like I’ve seen nowhere else on the planet.
Misool as a marine reserve was established in 2008 and now home to more than rigorously protected dive sites. The story behind its birth and development is huge, a feature in itself and it is said that Misool is one of only a handful of places in the universe where biodiversity is improving rather than declining.
Yes, the sunscreen I am wearing is 80% organic, apparently ‘reef safe’ and I carry and refill my own water bottle where I can. I avoid anything single-use in my daily life, but in order to visit, enjoy and document such natural beauty, I too leave quite a carbon footprint in my wake. It’s not tangible or visible, lying on a reef or floating in the water column, but it is there. It would be hypocritical not to continually question my own environmental impact, especially when I have seen both beauty and the beast living in tandem while exploring underwater around the world. The plastic free, anti-single-use, save-our-seas style Instagram feeds are of course important in their message, but I believe probably appeal only to followers like me. Are we simply preaching to the converted? Probably. But when a society, whether that society is a remote Indonesian island village or Brighton, where I live in the UK, has been introduced to such convenience, used it for decades and is not equipped to deal with the resulting waste, we all will simply throw it ‘away’. I read recently that developing countries are ‘developed enough to receive such single-use products, but not developed enough to deal with its waste’. I say, that today this statement is true of anywhere in the world, ‘developed’ or not.
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