Mantas Rays - No End In Sight

Just a single one is already a sight to behold but imagine having nearly a hundred manta rays swimming around you! It is an absolutely wonderful experience and something that always makes me realise how lucky I am to be in the Maldives doing what I am doing. As in the last few days, the conditions this morning were just right for the presence of the large filter-feeders, with the currents bringing in plankton-rich water and the tide being almost at the highest level. The sky was blue and the sea was calm, so that my snorkelling group of 11 guests and I were in a good mood and looking forward to seeing a few manta rays at Hani Faru, the place where the animals regularly aggregate to feed on plankton soup. What we didn’t expect was to see sooo many mantas! When we jumped off the boat and swam towards the feeding animals, we encountered only around 10, but when we kept waiting at the surface, more and more mantas would arrive in amazing formations, perform somersaults to capture plankton, and gently move around us passive observers. There must have been nearly a hundred individuals! Then they went out of sight again, possibly feeding at the end of the bay and filtering the water along the way, only to come back again 10 minutes later to impress us with yet another body-after-body appearance.

While my guests were happy watching or photographing the many manta rays, I was busy trying to get good photos of the animals’ ventral and dorsal patterns, as these are used just like fingerprints to identify individuals. I always forward these photos to my colleague Guy Stevens of the Maldivian Manta Ray Project, who has been working on a photographic database since 2005. The sighting history and locations will help him gain a clearer picture about seasonal migrations, localised daily movements, population size and cleaning and feeding behaviour. So far he has identified around 700 individual manta rays, and he estimates that there are at least 1000 in Baa Atoll alone.

The manta rays in our area of eastern Baa Atoll are abundant during the southwest monsoon season between June and November, when the water is teeming with plankton. They are best observed either hovering above cleaning stations, where cleaner wrasses free them from parasites or dead scales, or feeding in the bay of Hani Faru, where we saw them today. Because of the manta rays’ regular appearance at Hani Faru, the bay seems to be a significant habitat for the animals – but it has also become really popular with the resorts in Baa Atoll, as well as amongst dive safari operators. With many boats, snorkellers and divers in their main feeding area, however, the natural behaviour of the animals may be disturbed. We are therefore working towards making Hani Faru a Marine Protected Area and have already implemented strict guidelines for the boat captains, snorkellers and divers. Hopefully the need for protection is also recognised by our new government, which could really make a difference and ensure the continued existence of all these wonderful fish in the Maldives.

Komodo – Eye to Eye with Huge Lizards and Tiny Nudibranchs

The island of Komodo in central Indonesia, part of a cluster of small, dry islands situated between the big islands of Sumbawa, Sumba and Flores, is famous amongst nature-lovers for two reasons: for its Komodo dragons and for its rich marine life in the park surrounding it. I had always been aware of the super-sized lizards and the tales surrounding them, but not so much of the pristine coral reefs in the area. When two colleagues of mine came back from their trips to Komodo, they were enthusiastic about the diving, the abundance of coral life and the islands themselves. I therefore really wanted to visit the Komodo National Park and see for myself healthy and colourful corals, as well as the unique lizards on the islands.

Several airlines fly from Denpasar in Bali to Labuan Bajo on Flores, and I took one of them on July 11. Labuan Bajo, a small fishing town on the west coast of Flores, is the entry point for the Komodo National Park. It sees quite a hustle and bustle during the tourist season in July and August, when live-aboard vessels, divers and adventure-seekers like me visit the area – to my surprise, as I did not expect much tourism in the area except for a few curious herpetologists visiting the dragons… Four dive centres, a few guesthouses and hotels, restaurants and even internet facilities (with an unbelievably slow connection, though) were available in Labuan Bajo, and it looks as if more are to come. Compared to tourism hotspots on islands such as Bali or Java, however, Labuan Bajo was still a remote, undeveloped, charming little town with very cheap guesthouses and restaurants. Its inhabitants were mostly Muslim, lived in small, wooden houses and were obviously not used to seeing foreigners walking down their street. I was frequently greeted with “Hello Mister!” and involved in some strange conversations. The Lonely Planet had a short text about this phenomenon, which I not only encountered in Flores:

“Few places in Indonesia have so many ultra-keen English-language students desperate to help tourists in return for conversation practice. They pop up everywhere. This can result in delightful friendships or infuriating feelings of being pestered, depending on your outlook (and good fortune).”
Very often these constant greetings were tiring and even annoying, as I could never be undisturbed and by myself, and being a woman travelling alone “so far away from her husband” also didn’t help. But then again, I luckily never felt unsafe or got into a very unpleasant situation; the locals were mostly just curious or trying to be friendly – a different culture I just had to be aware of.

More to come...

Bali - Hiding in Retreats and Diving on Black Sand

Despite its charms to most other visitors, I had never really planned to go to Bali and much rather wanted to concentrate on other Indonesian islands during my summer holidays. Why? It just always sounded too busy and touristy to me, and I thought there wouldn’t be much pristine nature left, neither on land nor in the sea. After having spent two weeks there from the end of June to mid-July, it is now safe to say that I was completely wrong about my preconceptions of Bali. The island is indeed beautiful, diverse in landscapes, great for diving and full of traditions. I am therefore thankful to my Palauan Neco Marine team, who recommended a few good places for diving to me and opened my eyes.
Denpasar’s airport is probably the most conveniently located airport in Indonesia and the busiest next to Jakarta’s. It served as my port of entry into Indonesia (flying from Koror via Manila), and from there I was hoping to get to the Komodo area as soon as possible. Unfortunately, all flights to Labuan Bajo near Komodo were full until about two weeks later, so that I was obliged to spend some considerable time of my holidays on Bali. I was not too disappointed about this change of plans, though, as I had deliberately kept my schedule very flexible and desperately needed to have some quiet times to myself, read and write and watch and sleep. The last few weeks at Soneva Fushi had been terribly busy, and Palau with its packed dive schedule and sights and sounds hadn’t quite given me the rest I was longing for. I therefore chose to take it easy for a few days and to first travel to Bali’s northwestern corner, where I would stay in one of Jubawa Homestay’s pretty bungalows in a village called Pemuteran. This area was said to be remote, with little tourist facilities, but spectacular reefs and a few other interesting dive sites. I very much enjoyed spending some time on my porch in the sun, chatting to some other travellers and catching up with my friends at home… until the hiking and diving bug caught me again and I felt restless to go out and put my head in the forest and water.

A lovely Hawaiian couple, Jean and Lou, staying in the same hotel was planning to go on a day hike in West Bali National Park on the next day, which I had hoped to do with someone anyway. We therefore agreed to take a guide together and were looking forward to each other’s company. The seven-hour hike in the park was quite strenuous but exposed us to some very fine rain and monsoon forests with lots of jungle inhabitants: grey macaques, a giant squirrel, a defensive wild boar, rainbow-coloured beetles and spiders en masse. If we had had more time, I am sure we could have found even more bizarre animals in this park. The drinks after the hike – Bintang for Jean and Lou and a non-alcoholic energy water for me, thank you very much – tasted so good! It was also great getting to know Jean and Lou and their views of the world, and should you ever read this: thanks again for taking me along!

Natascha was a great inspiration, too. She stayed at the same resort as I and dived with the same dive centre, Jubawa Divers. We started talking and soon found out that we both work in the Maldives: she as a dive instructor at a Four Seasons resort and I as a marine biologist at Soneva Fushi. We both knew common people there; small world. Natascha was crazy about diving, despite her diving routine at the resort, loved all small and hidden animals, especially nudibranchs, and had worked in places before that I was still hoping to see. We were therefore a good buddy team and spent a few days together on Bali. We started diving in two places, called Puri Jati and Secret Bay (Gilimanuk’s harbour), both of which apparently resemble the sandy bottom topography of the Lembeh Strait in northern Sulawesi. This was all new territory for me, and I was hugely excited when we found such weird and wonderful camouflaged creatures as dragonets, frogfishes, sand divers and snake eels as well as a few octopi, nudibranchs and shrimps on or in the dark volcanic sand. Perfect places for keen divers, photographers and biologists! Not so funny was, however, that I got stung by one of those black Diadema sea urchins while trying to get out of the shallow water. I cursed those long needles, as they broke off in my thumb and inflicted a pain that would take one month to disappear… Remedies immediately offered were fresh pee, papaya or alcohol. I chose the latter but should have maybe gone for the warm pee… The island of Menjangan close to the volcanoes of Java offered diving highlights of another kind: It was surrounded by some of the most beautiful coral reefs I had ever seen in my life! Lots of colourful soft corals, pygmy seahorses hiding in sea fans, ribbon eels sticking their head out of holes, and drop-offs that are steeper than in the Maldives. There was a lot to see and take photos of, and you are welcome to have a look at my photos in the Bali Underwater slide show. On a pinnacle and on an artificial reef in Pemuteran itself, Natascha and I went on a night dive with her dive instructor friend Hugo, and together we found “everything” – from all sorts of nudibranchs, sepias, decorator crabs and shrimps to electric clams, nettling anemones and delicate pipefishes. I was completely blown away by the area’s diversity of marine life!

After my week in Pemuteran, I took the public bus to Sanur in the south and during the five-hour journey met a lovely girl named Mae with her little daughter, who I have stayed in touch with while I was in Indonesia. In Sanur I met up with Natascha again and planned two more diving days in Bali. We first went to Nusa Penida in Bali’s southeast, where the water temperature was much lower (and the visibility much better) than in other places due to the cool Indian Ocean water pushing its way through the channel between Bali and Lombok. Nusa Penida is famous for its pelagic fishes that include the sunfish Mola mola, manta rays and sharks. We were keen to see the sunfish but sadly were not lucky, despite three drift dives in the area. The reefs were good, but hell, it was cold! On the next day we went out to Tulamben, one of the very famous dive places in Bali. The most popular site is the beautifully over-grown “Liberty” wreck close to Tulamben’s shore that boasts pygmy seahorses, sharks, leaf-, anemone- and jackfishes but also big barrel sponges and nudibranchs. The Drop-Off was a great dive site, too. What will always stay in my memory about Tulamben, though, are the tiny local women carrying everyone’s dive gear on their heads across the dark beach pebbles to the entry point – sometimes two sets at a time! Unbelievable!

I have a feeling that this was not my last time in Bali. The reef and mud inhabitants were truly amazing, so that a diving holiday seems most likely. However, I haven’t really seen the interior of Bali yet and would like to get to know the Ubud area next time. With so many Balinese friends on Soneva Fushi, there must be a good way of visiting this gem of an island again!

Planning my Indonesian travels

When I took a took a course in conservation biology during my year at the University of Victoria in 2000, a book titled “The Song of the Dodo” by David Quammen was highly recommended to complement the lecture material. It was a book about island biogeography in an age of extinction, a thick volume about patterns in natural history, evolution and species distribution in the world. I must admit: it took me quite a long time to finish reading the book, as it was so intense. However, I became immediately intrigued by one of the “main actors” portrayed in the book, an extraordinary naturalist named Alfred Russel Wallace, whose name and influential works were mentioned repeatedly in the course of the book. Wallace had extensively travelled through the Indonesian islands 150 years ago and – by concentrating on the distribution of beetles and birds, and independent of Charles Darwin – had discovered the process of natural selection, through which evolution happened. He also found that the fauna of the eastern islands of Indonesia was more closely related to that of the Australian region, while the animals on the western islands were more similar to those on the Asian mainland. The imaginative Wallace Line between Bali and Lombok as well as between Sulawesi and Borneo is still valid today and indicates the border between the Asian and Australian biological realms. Interestingly, Wallace was not only an enthusiastic naturalist but also a culturally sensitive anthropologist, who had a wonderful talent for describing the peculiarities of the many different peoples in the many different islands.

I was hooked. I also wanted to get to know some of the animals, plants, landscapes and peoples that Wallace had seen 150 years ago, and I wanted to see how much had changed since then. Two months of free time were all I had – compared to his seven or eight years of exploring the natural wonders in the archipelago a tiny fraction. But a start! Instead of trying to cover a huge area, though, I decided to concentrate on a few regions only and leave room for later discoveries. My previous travels had taught me that, to get the full experience of a place, it was better to spend as much time there as possible, absorbing the smells, tastes, sounds, local stories etc. With enough time for a great holiday at hand, I was happy to just take it easy, not to plan too many details, and to be able to change routes according to the weather, other travellers’ recommendations and my own instinct. Komodo and Sulawesi were on the short list of islands that I really wanted to visit, with the option of going to Borneo, if time allowed. But options I had plenty of:

“There are, in round figures, 17,500 Indonesian islands – making up 1.3 percent of the total land area of the earth – with more than ten thousand species of trees, about a tenth of the world’s flowering plant species, about an eighth of all mammal species, nearly a sixth of all reptile and amphibian species, a sixth of all bird species, and about a third of all fish species. In almost all plant and animal taxa, Indonesia has levels of species diversity and endemism that rank with the highest in the world. And among humans, Indonesia has the world’s greatest ethnic, linguistic, and cultural diversity.”

Before leaving for my summer holidays, I had read a beautiful nature and photography book called “Archipelago: the Islands of Indonesia” by Daws and Fujita, which was a great inspiration for my own photography and from which the above quote stems. My constant travel companions, however, were the following books:
“The Malay Archipelago” by Alfred Russel Wallace, apparently still one of the best travel books on the region
“The Song of the Dodo” by David Quammen
“Indonesia” in the Lonely Planet series

Palau – Diving in Rainbow’s End

In 1995, I went to the OmniMax theatre in Vancouver to watch a film titled “The Living Sea”. Overwhelmed by Sting’s beautiful soundtrack and the sheer richness in marine life that was portrayed, I couldn’t possibly imagine that my travels would one day take me to some of the remote places that were shown in the film. Palau especially seemed out of this world for me. My perception changed, however, when my friend Anke enthusiastically wrote about the great reefs and islands in Palau and when my Soneva Fushi guests Jaqueline and Robert highlighted the wonderful diving there as well. As I was planning my summer holidays in eastern Asia (and found I had sufficient money to make the trip), I determined to make Palau my first two-week stop.

On June 14 in the middle of the night, I arrived in Palau’s capital Koror and was taken to my hotel, which was the least expensive and therefore basic. The Tree-D Hotel’s manager Emma was an amiable Filipino and made me feel welcome and comfortable at once. And so did the staff of the dive centre I chose to dive with in the following 10 days, Neco Marine. I had pre-booked 10 days of diving with them and was looking forward to spending most of my Palauan time in the water. But I was also excited to explore some of the numerous rocky islands with their eroded bases that seem so typical for Palau and that are inhabited by endemic birds, coconut crabs and a lot of jungle. Wonderful times were lying ahead!

Let’s start with the scuba-diving. On the day after my arrival, I was the only guest at Neco Marine and therefore had Bert, my dive guide, all to myself, which was great for the orientation in new waters and getting to know each other. Along came Mandy, who has lived in Palau for more than 20 years, has worked as a dive instructor, photographer, artist and naturalist and has published a number of books about the nature and culture of the country. I was especially honoured to be diving with her, as I had read a little bit about her beforehand and admired her great photography. A very inspiring lady! We dived some of the best sites on the first day (Shark City, Siaes Corner, Ulong Channel) and were treated with great visibility and little current, diverse coral and fish life and, most notably, a huge spawning aggregation of Red Snappers! Everyone got really excited about the latter, as these aggregations are little studied and don’t happen too often. Upon our return, we consulted the staff of the Coral Reef Research Lab and were treated with a lecture by a visiting scientist from Hong Kong about spawning aggregations a few days later! The exchange of biological ideas with the Palauan scientists meant a lot to me, as I don’t have the chance to do so much at my resort in the Maldives. The following dive days were full of sights of marine life, from Grey Reef Sharks, Bumphead Parrotfishes, enormous Giant Clams and delicate soft corals to World War II wrecks, blue holes, steep drop-offs and deep tunnels. Even though I had already seen many of the animals in Maldivian reefs, here they just appeared bigger, more diverse and more numerous. Altogether, I enjoyed the diving immensely… even though I can’t remember ever being completely warm during the day! We usually had three one-hour dives a day in water that was 27-28 degrees Celsius. Surely these temperatures sound very tropical; however, they do make you lose a lot of calories, especially when you don’t wear a wetsuit, which my (otherwise) very kind and fun dive guide Bert had convinced me to do (“It’s all a matter of the mind, Anke.”). I did feel much less restricted in the water and tried to forget the cold but as soon as we got back up on the boat, the almost constant rain and wind really kept me freezing near the equator!

One of the highlights for a biologist in Palau is to visit its marine lakes. Of these, Jellyfish Lake (as the name implies) is full of little-stinging, symbiotic Mastigias jellies and has evolved its own unique fauna of anemones, cardinalfishes and other organisms. While it is not allowed to scuba-dive in the lake, hundreds of snorkellers daily are permitted to swim amongst the jellies (and possibly introduce new species into the lake). It was quite a big surprise for me to see so many tourists in the water, and I immediately discarded my romantic thoughts about this special lake, which I had kept from “The Living Sea”. Our time in the lake was limited but I managed to take some nice photos of the animals. Please have a look at the slide show!

When the rain had finally stopped and I had grown some webs between my fingers from the 25 dives, I started to discover the Palauan islands. Even though I didn’t get a chance to tick off some of my points on my wish list – like a big coconut crab, a dugong close to shore or a traditional Palauan ceremony –, I was glad that I could see some of the major islands. I once went to Babeldaob with its pretty waterfalls, lakes and road-side plants and was impressed by the perfect highway from south to north. It turns out to be a major concern to environmentalists, though, as it fragments this big island and could cause a loss of its biodiversity. Another weird sight was the beautiful, yet (not only in my humble opinion) inappropriately big government building, which apparently boasts a huge energy bill. Further south, on Peleliu, I took part in a tour around former World War II battle sites, where tanks, cannons and air strips can still be seen. Yes, it was impressive to a certain extent, but American tourists seem to get more out of this experience. I was more intrigued by the tour guide, an americophil, very “sweet” Palauan, whose eyes welled whenever he talked about the American soldiers who lost their lives on Bloody Nose Ridge. He didn’t seem too concerned about all the Japanese souls… During one rainy afternoon, I also went to the Etpison Museum, which was established by Mandy and her husband Shallum. Both have always had a keen interest in the history, culture and nature of Palau and had recently donated many items from their private collection to this museum. If you are ever in the vicinity, I recommend you go and see the great selection of historic photos, articles, handicrafts and shells – and say hello to the cockatoo at the entrance!

All in all, as you could read, Palau is a great travel destination. The islands and reefs are amazing, the islanders are friendly and helpful (but quite Americanised), and Neco Marine was a perfect dive base. Yes, it is quite an expensive place to get to, to stay and to dive, but for me it was all worth it. Anytime again!

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