Superb North Mollucas

One word to describe this trip: SUPERB. It all started from a friendly buzz from Graham Abbott (Diving 4 Images) in early March, asking if I was interested to join an exploratory trip to Halmahera, North Mollucas. Truth to be told, I was quite hesitant as I was all set to Komodo or Raja Ampat or Banda for my next dive trip destination. Without much effort, Graham gave me an assurance that the North Mollucas exploratory trip would be once in a lifetime trip (and he was right!) while others are already an established dive sites and are available on regular basis. We decided to GIVE IT A GO.

The word 'EXPLORATORY' apparently didn't give a good marketing. I pessimistically set a target of 5 participants for the trip. Surprise... surprise... at the end of April, it turned out there were 10 divers confirmed consists of 7 Submariners and 3 KSDC friends.
After all boring administrative work was completed; on May 12th I flew to Manado to have a dive warm up in Bunaken with some friends including Muljadi Kartarahardja who joined our Halmahera 2005 trip as well. Later on, we met Dwi and Graham whom were supposed to fly to Ternate on the same Lion Air flight on May 16th.

Day 1 (May 16)
Alas, the flight to Ternate was cancelled! This certainly wasn't a good start. Lion Air staff called and told us that the plane had technical problem. Amazingly, Dave and Mie Khie managed to reach Ternate in the same plane that was supposed to have technical problem. Geez... I, Muljadi and Dwi went to Lion Air office and demanded some explanation. After a short tensed discussion, the best alternative was to fly on the next day, 17 May. We quietly promised ourselves not to fly with Lion Air anymore. I then tried to call the team who had reached Ternate (Richard, Sandy, Winda and Dewi) to inform them about the situation but to no success. Apparently, they were all underwater and unashamedly had made a head-go by starting their diving trip in P.Tidore; West Tidore, South Tidore and Tidore ... Just following the schedule they said (Doohhhh!!) According to them, the corals and marine life are just so so. Too close to the city, my friend.

Day 2 (May17)
We flew to Ternate! The weather was good, clear sunny day. I had started fantasizing about the dives. Landed on Sultan Babullah airport, we found Ferry, the Ciska staff, already waited for us with two rented cars to take us to the harbor. I was surprised to find that Ternate is a very clean city and it seems that from a quick glance at the houses and buildings, this island is prosperous. The harbor is called Kotabaru and consists of an estate of wooden housing, wet market and piles of rubbish along the harborside. Picked up by Darwis and his tender boat, we boarded on Ciska.

The diving trip began. After a small briefing and welcome speech, we set sail to Maitara island, close to Tidore. A little freebies of info, if you look at the back of 1000 rupiah note, the two islands printed there are actually Maitara and Tidore islands. What an eye opener. Our first dive was at Maitara island. According to Graham it was supposed to be a wall. However, we discovered that it was actually a gentle slope of 25 meters deep covered with healthy hard corals. Sorry to disappoint you friends that marine life was not so interesting. Again, it is too close to the city.

The second dive was at Pilongga island. The dive site was a fantastic. Combination of hard and soft corals with mild current that helped us conserving our air consumption while drifting away to see many interesting marine life from fish to invertebrates.
Just before we had our dinner, the boat anchored in a small bay of Mare island. This place has abundant numbers of critters. Guided by Graham, I found so many crabs and shrimps and it was so critters-rich that I could exaggeratedly say that on average we found two or three critters per minute. Almost all of them were of different species. Amazing. One of my best night dives ever. Thanks to Graham. Best choice.

Day 3 (May 18) - CURRENT and SHARK day
We were awoken by the rough sea. Our next dive spot is called Terumbu Gora, one of the possibly best dive sites in our trip. It is a small seamount, which is only visible on the surface during low tide. It was not easy to find especially when the sea was choppy. Once found, after a short briefing and ALL JUMPED. Looking at the corals growing in the area, (Scleronephthya sp) and delicate sea whip (Junceela fragilis), I could say this area is often swept by the strong current. We got drifted away slowly while watching so many schooling of surgeonfish with some oceanic triggerfish nearby (this is an interesting finding. A silverfish color trigger fish). A number of sharks were also spotted. Towards the end of the dive, we did our safety stop close to the top of the sea mount where we found a lot of lobsters that got Mie Khie's eyes rolling and mouth drooling. He even successfully squeezed himself in between the rocks in order to get the lobsters. What a sight! But no lobster caught. It was a nice dive spot!
After our yummy lunch, we were ready to jump for the second dive at a spot called Batu Darwis/ Darwis' Rock named after our lovely tender boatman who found the rock in the middle of the blue water. Again, the corals here were also very healthy and pretty diversed. Plus we found more sharks and more current.
Next dive was in a spot with no name (Batu Kecil as Graham called it). It was a just small pile of rock coming out of the water. I suggested Graham to name it Abbott's Point. Another area with beautiful and very healthy soft corals in combination with huge hard corals. A perfect place to take underwater landscape photos.
We had our night dive at a small bay of an island called Pulau Miskin. Here I saw some different scorpionfishes that I never spotted anywhere. It was a very interesting dive site that even Dave had to broke his famous 15 minutes Bintang rule (see nothing in the first 15 minutes then surface and have a beer). Good on ya, mate...

By the time we woke up, the boat already moved to Gilalang strait. Our first dive of the day was at Pulau Batusombo, which has been heavily bombed. We expected to see many critters there. The water was very calm unlike yesterday. The dive ended up at shallow water heavily covered by finger coral. From three meters depth of our safety stop we can see the white clouds on the blue sky.

Soon after our late breakfast and a short lazy nap, we moved to Pulau Pokal. Again this is a current swept area as indicated by the corals growing in the area. Nonetheless, this dive was such a picturesque dive with healthy corals swarmed by thousands of colorful anthias. A fabulous sight to capture.

One hour after we finished our lunch, the next dive was at Pulau Proco, in Patinti strait. It was an exciting drift dive. The corals were too colorful and alluring that I lost my group due to paying too much attention in taking snapshots. I had to surface after 10 minutes alone in the water. I called Darwis and asked him where the second group headed, his eagle eyes easily spotted the bubbles of the second group, then I jumped again into the water to find Dwi, Winda, Richard, Mie Khie, Sandy and Dirk there. Mie Khie almost lost his camera in this dive, luckily he saw the camera floating on the surface and he grabbed it. We thought that it might be the punishment from the lobster god that he was 'passionately' too-in-love- with.
Just after the third dive, Ciska sent a group of 2 'bule' (Graham and Farquhar) and 1 Indonesian Muljadi for a lobster mission. Their task was to buy lobsters for dinner as cheap as possible, which they successfully completed. Then we went for tiny exploration to a small beautiful white sandy beach. Back to the boat, since we just passed the equator, Graham was super duper keen in having small initiation. It was a small King Neptune (Graham being the Neptune, of course) ceremony that commonly took place every time a boat passed by the equator line. This initiation was conducted with a small speech followed by a splash of fresh egg mixed with tomato sauce and flour on your hair... natural hair mask, only that this made you feel all sticky. YUKHHHH!!!!
Our night dive of the day was in the same island but different spot. We found very healthy corals and many critters. Also an epaulette shark was spotted here. Beautiful overhangs and some holes were spotted in 18-20 meters depth.

Day 5 (May 20) - DRIFT DAY
I woke up just before the sunrise and found that the boat was anchored in a small bay in Pulau Kusu, still in Patinti strait. The water was really flat and somehow it seemed eerie. Complete silent, no noise no nothing.

First dive of the day. Once we jumped into the water, we felt a mild current drifted us along the reef line. The coral here, again, was very healthy and diverged. It was such a luxury to slowly drift away while seeing breathtaking scenery like that. We spotted many sharks swimming nearby coupled with napoleon and bumphead parrotfish. Dewi pulled some of the divers back to 22 meters to see a hole full with juvenile white tip reef sharks. Thanks, Dewi. Almost at the end of dive the current was getting stronger, but to Graham's credit, he had it all planned. We took a shelter by the end of the reef. Then we spent our last air in our tank there, playing around in shallow water while taking pictures of some small critters.

The second dive was at a nameless place. It was situated between Pulau Bacan and Pulau Kusu. Here again, we were drifted by the mild current while enjoying the very picturesque and colorful coral reef sceneries. Many black tip reef sharks were spotted in this dive.

One hour after we had our lunch, we headed back to Pulau Proco, again this was a drift dive, a third one in a day. The scenery, without saying, was magnificent; the corals were very healthy and pristine. I found a very tiny seahorse. I wouldn't say it was a pygmy nor Bargibant's or other well-known pygmy seahorse. Unfortunately, we did not have good picture to show it to Graham and ask what species it was.

Late afternoon, Mie Khie was itchy for shopping again. This time he chose coconuts for his shop list. Darwin brought him and Sandy to the island and they got someone to climb the coconut tree. Mie Khie was obviously the boss as he just supervised Darwis and Sandy carrying 20plus young fresh coconuts to the tender boat. Lazy bum. But thanks to them, we had fresh young coconuts the next day.

For our night dive, Graham found a spot called Pantat Hitam (it was a cheeky direct translation of Black Bottom). It was our first muck dive in the trip and also the first time we dived at Halmahera island. Dewi spotted many rare critters and showed them to me. Later on Graham also called to show me a beautiful squid dancing while hunting for the prey. After some ghost pipefish, Volitans lionfish and juvenile spotted sweetlips, we ended the night dive.

Day 6 (May 21)
We woke up and found ourselves at South Goraichi island. I dove this site quite deep and long with Dwi, and she was not even in decompression mode. I had 3 meters and 11 minutes on my computer. This dive was spectacular since we spotted a very huge Napoleon wrasse and schooling of barracuda just before the end of the dive. Safety stop was interesting. Again, Graham had it all planned. He had prepared a safety buoy for us. A sudden rush of current swept by and we all were hanging on the rope, sandwiching with each other. Poor me, I had to stay alone in the blue water to finish off my decompression stop.

Our second dive was still somewhere around Goraichi island, but this time we jumped in a small area that looked like Mimpang in Bali. It was three rocks but without eagle nests on top of them. I simply called it Batu Tiga. We found many interesting stuff here like nudibranches, orangutan crab, moray eel, giant clam, various scorpionfish and some anemone shrimp.

Before we found our next dive site, Pulau Latalata, we were passing by Selat Hatta (named after second founding father of Indonesia who came here forty years ago). We found a small kampong in the middle of nowhere, it was quite amazing. The coral here was in fact the best and the healthiest among all dive sites we dove in this trip. Unfortunately, we were quite late therefore not so many fishes, some said it was marine life shift change from daylight to nocturnal marine life. Make sense, though. Thus far, this was the only dive site that was most heavily covered with various corals, hard and soft. I would imagine if I dove this place during the day, it would be very beautiful scenery then.

Then we were bombed by bad news. Pelita Air Service just cancelled all flights including our flight from Ternate to Makassar then to Jakarta. Some of us (Erwin, Richard, Sandy, Farquhar) who already booked the flight agreed that we would fly on the earliest possible flight on May 22. Dwi came up with a good suggestion to go to Pelita office first in Ternate to find out if there was anything at all that they could help. All agreed not to having a night dive that day and let the boat cruising back to Ternate. Thanks team.

Day 7 (May 22) - THE LAST DINNER
Some of us already said goodbye to the rest of the group who were confirmed flying on May 23. I, Dwi, Sandy, Richard, Farquhar and Lily went to Pelita office and the manager greeted us. All ended well. Pelita staff had done a mass booking for flight back to Jakarta from Ternate.

Graham told me that he wanted to have a nice dinner with us on the last day at Ternate. After a short discussion with the driver we found a Chinese seafood restaurant that was supposed to have very good seafood in town. By five thirty we already went to the harbour and got into 2 rented cars. We had very nice dinner there, coconut crab, prawn and fish. Mie Khie, Muljadi and Graham also entertained us with their good voice when singing on a karaoke. Not to forget Farquhar for his hidden talent in DANGDUT.

Day 8 (May 23) - GOOD BYE TERNATE
Early in the morning, by four thirty, we already headed to the harbour and ready to go to the airport. All flew safely to Manado, then connecting to Jakarta, while some stayed in Manado.

On behalf of the group, I'd like to say Thanks to Graham for being a very safe, professional, knowledgeable and fun dive guide. Dwi for being a very good companion and for all her efforts in solving the flight problems. We know it wasn't easy. To all Ciska crew who were very friendly and their services were remarkably good. Special thanks to the Captain for helping Graham found so many new interesting dive sites. Darwis, the tender boatman, who was always there when we surfaced. Eko, the chef, for the bon appetite meals. Last but not least thanks to all the participants who made this trip a fun, memorable and relaxing one. Last special thanks goes to Winda for editing this story and make it a more enjoyable story for you to read.