Crossing the Banda Sea is one of Indonesia’s most epic liveaboard experiences. Simon Marsh explains the spectacular diving to be found along the way, as well as the fascinating history of the tiny Banda Islands.
Banda Islands © Chris Mitchell
Diving The Banda Sea – Dive Happy Episode 24 Show Notes
- My previous chat with Simon about what’s it like being a liveaboard cruise director
- Damai – the liveaboard boat for which Simon was cruise director – also my favourite boat
- Raja Ampat to the Banda Islands – my trip report from 2016
- Banda Islands scuba diving – my original guide to each of the main areas in the Banda Sea from 2008
- Nathaniel’s Nutmeg – recommended book if you want to know more about the history of the Banda Islands
- Banda Islands history – Wikipedia gives an excellent summary of the history of the islands and their importance within world trade
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Diving The Banda Sea – Dive Happy Episode 24 Transcript
[0:00:34.9] CM: Hello, and welcome to Dive Happy, the podcast about finding the best scuba diving in Asia. I’m your host Chris Mitchel and on this episode I welcome back Simon Marsh, former cruise director of the Dive-Damai Liveaboards, and now works as a cruise director on superyachts across Indonesia.
[0:00:22.7] CM: Simon, welcome back.
[0:00:24.4] SM: Hi Chris.
[0:00:26.0] CM: Yes mate, the reason I thought of talking to you about the Banda Sea is because when we last spoke, when we did “what’s it like to be a cruise director” podcast, you eluded to your favorite place to dive was the Banda Sea.
[0:00:39.4] SM: Yes, I love the Banda Sea, it’s great diving. What I love about it is you get big stuff, you get some beautiful underwater seascapes, and it’s also combining with some really wonderful history, which I’m sure we’ll get into later, in the Banda slands.
[0:00:54.2] CM: Yeah, that’s right It’s kind of special as well because there’s actually a fairly limited window when you can dive in the Banda Sea each year. It’s not just something you can show up and do anytime, isn’t that right?
[0:01:06.2] SM: Yeah, absolutely. The thing with the Banda Sea is it’s a very large area of water. It’s around 800 miles north to south, and east to west about the same. It’s very large, there’s very little in the way of shelter. If the wind and the waves are kicking up, it’s very hard and in fact dangerous to be there. A couple of years ago, in fact, a liveaboard that was out there at the wrong time of the year, took on too much water and sank quite quickly. So it’s very much a seasonal type of thing.
Seasons basically happen when the wind changes. In Indonesia, we have the north-west monsoon, which blows around five months and then we have the south-east monsoon blowing for around five months. In between, we have what are called shoulder seasons. The shoulder seasons are where the winds in the process are changing but hasn’t kicked in yet, and it’s actually quite calm, and that’s really what we can go.
[0:01:57.1] CM: Okay, roughly, what months? Because this happens twice a year that this sort of window opens up, so what kind of months are we talking for that?
[0:02:06.3] SM: The seasons for Banda are generally acknowledged to be April into May. We’re just coming to the end of that now. And then from October into November.
[0:02:15.4] CM: Okay, I’ve been lucky enough to do the Banda Sea several times, and the thing that always blows my mind about it is it feels quite different to anywhere else in Indonesia, or anywhere else I’ve ever dived, because it really feels like frontier diving. You’re out in the middle of nowhere, there’s no one else around. You always have to pay attention to the weather, like even as a guest on the boat, you’re aware that the weather is a big issue in terms of what you’re going to do and where you’re going to go. You’re just surrounded by the sky and the sea.
I mean, it’s stunning, and it’s also that beauty of emptiness which is – because you’re not seeing the land for several days at a time or whatever, and that to me is what makes it remarkable. The thing I was thinking with, what we should talk about in terms of definitions is that we talk about a Banda Sea trip but is actually two kinds of things isn’t it? There’s the Banda sea crossing, and then there’s like a Banda Sea itinerary. The crossing is when boats make the transition from one area of Indonesia to the other, whereas a Banda sea trip is actually just doing a run between different areas in the Banda Sea. Could you explain a bit more about what happens there with the transition trips?
[0:03:28.7] SM: Sure. As you said, basically, what happens is twice a year in accordance with the wind, the boats want to move form the south to the north. So in other words, talking generally, we’re talking historically moving from Komodo up to Raja Ampat, or moving from Raja Ampat down to Komodo. [Inaudible 0:03:45] Could be the boats which are going to Bali or Alor, basically, the Nusa Tengara islands in south there, or moving up to the West Papua area.
To get across the Banda Sea, obviously, the weather window is when the boats want to do that and it didn’t take them very long to figure out that you don’t want to just upsticks and sail 1,200 miles with no-one on board, it gets quite expensive. Why not run some trips? That’s really how it started, was just trying to make good use of their fuel. This is for the transitional trips, and let’s say we’re going from south, so we finished trip maybe in Komodo or Alor or somewhere in that area, and the boat does a 12 day trip heading towards Ambon.
We head up north, we follow the southern headings, we go a little north, but also quite a lot to the east, follow what are known as the forgotten islands along the bottom, and then we turn up into the Banda sea, following what’s known as the Ring of Fire. It’s basically, it’s a line of active volcanoes which rule up around the northwest.
[0:04:52.8] CM: That transition is pretty epic in terms of you have to be moving most of the time, in terms of what you’re doing, don’t you? The boat is on the go pretty much every night?
[0:05:04.0] SM: Yes, pretty much every night. Depends on the length of your itinerary obviously, but many of these places, you know, the volcanoes, most of them are still active. There are volcanoes that are sticking up out of the water. There’s big drop offs, hundreds of meters of water around them. First of all, there’s very little in the way of anchorage, so it’s very difficult to stay the night, even if you’ve got the time and secondly, most of the places that we go to are around 80 to 90 miles apart, which almost could have been designed for a liveaboard. That’s very easy distance, or that’s a good distance for a liveaboard to be traveling each night so sort of 6:00 in the morning, ready for another full day’s diving.
It’s almost like someone designed it, it’s very nice in that, but you do have to keep moving. That’s very little or no night diving on the actual crossing unless you’re actually somewhere like Banda where you can, because you’ve got to keep moving. It’s 10 to 12 hour crossing’s each line.
Don’t expect to be tied up or anchored at a nice mooring every night because it’s not that, it’s a lot of movement. And if the wind kicks in as well, if there is a bit of wind, or a bit of swell, or a bit of chop, it can be little [inaudible 0:06:08]. I’ve had some interesting experiences in the Banda Sea.
[0:06:17.9] CM: Right, you just mentioned the Banda islands, would that be the – let’s assume you’re not doing a transition trip, but let’s just assume that you’re running from say, Ambon down to Maumere. You’re doing the crossing through the Banda Sea, but it’s not the hard yards to get all the way up to Sarong. Ambon obviously is in itself a fantastic macro destination, but let’s leave that alone for now because that’s probably a whole separate podcast.
Would you first hit the Banda islands once you leave Ambon?
[0:06:50.3] SM: Not normally, not directly. It depends on how you are for time and how far you you’ve got to go. You certainly can. Around 110 miles from Ambon or the entrance of Ambon Bay down into the Banda islands but, usually, what we would do is we’d head a little bit to the east and go to a little island just off the south side or the south east side of Ambon, which is called Nusa Laut. Nusa Laut is a couple of very nice dive sites that all very well known for their hammerheads. Also, there’s schooling fish though as well. They’re good dives, a couple of good dives there. Usually, we head out to Nusa Laut and we do a couple of dives in Nusa Laut first, which is more directly north from the Banda islands.
That’s where we usually start the trip and do two, three dives there. Sometimes a night dive because you do have a bit more time in Nusa Laut but after that, it’s running south.
[0:07:41.0] CM: Right, you just mentioned hammerheads. I’ve noticed while I was googling around, looking at different Banda Sea itineraries and the way that different boats talk about the Banda Sea. Hammerheads come up quite a lot as something that you know, there’s several possibilities and maybe seeing them. I mean, what’s your view – I know obviously, it’s not an aquarium, there’s no guarantees, but what’s your view on that? I mean, do you think it’s quite lightly you’ll see hammerheads in Nusa Laut or is it just a real luck of the draw?
[0:08:09.6] SM: Yes, absolutely. It’s more than possible, and it’s more than possible at that many of the islands heading south. In fact, let’s say that the likelihood of seeing hammerheads has increased in the last eight years that I’ve been diving in Indonesia.
[0:08:22.5] CM: Wow, why would you say it’s increased?
[0:08:25.0] SM: It could be because of a reduction in fishing or reduction in long lining. One thing that’s overlooked greatly is the beneficial effects of having recreational dive boats visiting these areas, because, it’s very hard for illegal fisherman to show up and start throwing long lines in the water or start throwing dynamites in the water.
If there’s one, two liveaboards around the divers in the water, in fact, they just won’t come. These guys, we believe, I believe, my friends believe, that the presence of liveaboards is reducing the effects of illegal fishing in areas and Banda islands is certainly – the Banda Sea, it’s one area that’s certainly benefitting from that.
[0:09:06.6] CM: Awesome. That’s really great that there’s an increasing chance of seeing hammerheads. Let’s just save Nusa Laut as an example. What would be like the kind of profile of the dive? I mean, do you have to go deep and just hang out and hope they turn up, or what would you do?
[0:09:22.7] SM: Sure, on Nusa Laut, there’s the main site for hammerheads. You drop in, follow down the sand channels to around – it’s not shallow, probably around 30 meters. I’ve been down 40 looking for them, and go for a little bit of a dive, keep your eyes open. If you don’t see anything, actually, the best thing to do is to turn your back to the roof and swim out because they’re there.
It’s quite possible that you can swim out for no more than a couple of minutes away from the reef and you’d actually find yourself in the middle of a large school of hammerheads. Just hanging out. Certainly I’ve seen them swimming up the slope towards me, swimming past me as I’ve been on Nusa Laut. Certainly that happens but swimming out is the most reliable way to find them.
[0:10:04.6] CM: Right, have you ever managed to get some decent photos? Do they ever come that close?
[0:10:09.3] SM: Not really, not there. I have it other places that we’ll talk about later but, yes. I haven’t actually at Nusa Laut. The visibility can suck there, as it comes and goes everywhere. Obviously the better visibility, the better and easier they can see enough from the further away they are. I haven’t actually got any from Nusa Laut, but yes certainly Manuk I have, yes..
[0:10:29.3] CM: Okay, so yes. So then from Nusa Laut where would you head onto?
[0:10:35.4] SM: From Nusa Laut it is about 90 miles due south down into the Banda Islands, and really the Banda Islands is the jewel in the crown. It is what it is all about, as far as I am concerned. My favorite place, by far my favorite place in Indonesia, for all kinds of reasons.
[0:10:50.1] CM: Yes, it is not only drenched in history but it is fantastic diving, and it is also a wonderful place to spend the day wondering around on land as well. I mean every time – I’ve been there three times, I know you have obviously been there many times, and I am always kind of blown away by how beautiful it is.
[0:11:08.7] SM: Yeah completely, there is any number of walks that you can do, varying in length, up to see old forts. You can even climb the volcano that is right there. Personally I have never done it because I don’t fancy getting up at 4:00 in the morning to do it, but it is quite climbable I’m told. Most of the islands have got something worth going to see. It is actually a group of seven islands. So on most of the islands you can get off and go for walks, see villages, climb up to a 17th century Dutch forts, you can see that the nutmeg and other spices just basically growing like weeds by the side of the streets.
It is a really amazing place, and the people there as well. They are not Indonesian and they’re not Papuan, but they are a huge mix because for around, probably 700 years before the Europeans got there they were already trading with the Arabs and the Chinese. So there is a huge variation in facial features as you can see.
Ranging from the Arabic to the Europeans, and the Chinese to the Indonesian. They are an amazing mixture of people. It is a real campuran, as we would say in Indonesian, meaning mix.
[0:12:19.6] CM: Right, I mean yes that is fascinating, because for such a tiny, tiny little place – I mean when you look on Google maps for the Banda Islands, unless you actually have typed that in as what to find, it is barely visible. It is literally a speck in the middle of the ocean, and yet that place has become this huge – or it was this huge battle ground between all of the world’s great powers and, like you say, long before the Europeans turned out the Arabs and Chinese were trading for hundreds of years previous to that.
So it is really funny how the Banda Islands was kind of the fulcrum of the world for a while for hundreds of years.
[0:12:58.5] SM: Absolutely. You know, Christopher Columbus was trying to find a westerly groups to the Banda Islands when he found America. So it had many, many knock on’s as well in terms of navigation and mapping and that sort of thing. So incredibly historically rich area, very, very interesting.
[0:13:18.0] CM: Yeah, as far as I understand it – so, the reason why the Banda islands attracted so much attention and became such a center of world trade and commerce was because of nutmeg. The Arab and the Chinese traders for centuries before, like I said, before the Europeans turned up had discovered nutmeg, and it was very common through India and the sub-continent, and then the Europeans somehow discovered it and it became a very – well it was actually a very fashionable thing.
I mean if you had nutmeg then it proved you had money and you are a person of wealth and distinction. Then the Dutch and the English, it’s always the English, got into a right old fight over it.
[0:14:00.5] SM: Yeah. It was quite messy there for a while. As you say, nutmeg was one of the original commodities. I mean it was a real – per gram it was worth more than gold at one point. Maybe it is the difficulties in it actually being able to get it from the Spice Islands, where it was endemic, the Banda Islands, but also the smaller islands around it. So the fact that it was so far to go and get this stuff obviously added to its value and its desirability.
And yeah it was the Dutch and the English that really kicked off about it in the in the early 17th century. The Dutch showed up but the Brits were already there actually, and that was a bit of a set-to and a bit of a battle, and the Brits had to retreat to one of the more remote islands. It went backwards and forwards for a while until the British, eventually, were able to make a negotiated peace with the Dutch, or the Dutch make negotiating peace with the Brits, and they left.
But the story doesn’t really end there, because the Dutch were very keen to not just have an interest in the islands. They wanted to own it. They wanted lock, stock and barrel, the whole darn thing, and they took land from the Bandanese. There was a massacre there actually. They actually brought in a team of over a 100 Japanese Samurai and massacred a large number of Bandanesein retribution for the Bandanese killing one of their commanders a few years before.
So when you get into the history, it is a very violent and bloody history, and incredibly interesting to look at further.
[0:15:26.7] CM: Yes that’s right. That was a very good summary, mate. I think that was one of the things is that when you are there on a liveaboard and you step onto the island, and as we talked about, it is very pretty and very honestly, very sleepy. Then you go to one of the local museums and there is some incredibly graphic paintings on the walls of some of these things, like you say, like Japanese mercenaries turning up. It is real shocking stuff, and quite rightly, they they shouldn’t shy away from knowing this history, but it is a real contrast about how modern day Banda Islands and then this sort of blood soaked history to it.
[0:16:04.5] SM: Absolutely and the Dutch heritage, you know the Dutch left some great stuff as well. There is some beautiful buildings, the architecture is actually wonderful there. They left, when they did eventually leave, they left plantations. They left a lot of infrastructure there, which is obviously the Bandanese have subsequently benefitted from. The 17th century was a difficult time for the Bandanese when Europeans were there.
And of course, the left the famous settlement of land with the Dutch made upon the British in return for the British giving them one of the outer lying islands of Run, which is of course the island which is now Manhattan. So another interesting tie into a modern day, modern history and the way that it –
[0:16:46.2] CM: Yes, absolutely. I mean that trade is just incredible, isn’t it? An island amongst the Banda Islands for Manhattan, which just goes to show to your earlier point about how insanely valuable nutmeg was, and of course the great irony is that eventually, I think it was the British – I am not sure, I am pretty sure it was the British actually? – figured out how to grow nutmeg elsewhere in the world, I think particularly in Sri Lanka and Singapore – right and so that made the monopoly that the Banda Islands had a nutmeg collapse.
[0:17:19.9] SM: Yes, absolutely. It’s the British’s last laugh at the Dutch after handing over the Island of Run for Manhattan. They said, “There you go, have the island. We’re gutted to leave,” not telling anyone that they have taken a whole load of the nutmegs and seeds and planted them across their other colonies. I actually worked in Granada in the West Indies and that was one of the main areas. Granada is actually very close compared to these other places in the UK and it did absolutely destroyed the price of nutmeg, by making it very available and cheap to bring in. So I guess they kind of had the last laugh there.
[0:17:54.3] CM: Yes and also just to sort of wrap up us talking about the on-land part of the Banda Islands. The great thing is that you can essentially walk around the island, seeing the museum, walk up to the fort, which is just a brutal construction. It is a real proof of just how much fighting went on because this thing – well it is still there, and it looks exactly like it did 300 years ago. Then once you walk down there, you walk through the different nutmeg groves.
Usually you have breakfast there, which is like with fresh taro, fresh nutmeg. I forgot there is some kind of jam and tea as well but it is all straight off the trees and it is – sorry man, what is it?
[0:18:36.8] SM: It’s nutmeg jam. You can also buy a candied nutmeg, which is the fruit candied. Every part of the nutmeg is useable and the Bandanese have figured out how to sell it to the tourist and good on them, they should.
[0:18:50.9] CM: Yes, absolutely. Yeah so that is just a really nice sort of end to a morning’s walk because you are literally eating the food direct from the land so you can get more connected to what is going on than that.
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