Don’t know about you, guys, but as for me, the opportunity to participate in real epic adventure does not often “knocks” on my door. Hence, you can imagine my excitement when I was offered to join world-renowned cinematographer Jonathan Bird  on his Trans-Indonesia diving expedition on the board of MSY Seahorse. The general plan was to embark in Raja Ampat (Western Papua, Halmahera Sea), navigate the Banda Sea and dive at all remotely located islands, including legendary Island of 1000 snakes while in transit to the final destination of the Alor island. So, do you think you could you say no?

Wetar island, Indonesia
Pulau Gunung , Indonesia
Terbang Islands, Indonesia
Nil Desperandum, Indonesia
Manuk Island, Indonesia
Banda Islands
East Mansuar, Maluku
East Misool, Raja Ampat
Jakarta, Capital of Indonesia
Alor, Indonesia
Sorong, Indoneasia

Jumping ahead I can tell you that the most difficult bit was to count out days left to the departure. Yet, after almost a year of restless anticipation, March 28th finally arrived and I boarded the plane.

Transportation, hotels, food, people I’ve met and places I visited and dove – everything was just incredible. So right from the start, I would be like to express my deep gratitude to all hard working personnel who tried so hard, and, by the way. perfectly succeeded, to make our journey a treasured experience of a lifetime.

On the boat, beneath the scorching sun (over 90’F with 100 percent of humidity) and under the surface of an ocean, management, crew, dive-masters … did their very best to fulfill every caprice of each guest. So I would like to thank all of them from the bottom of my heart. Guys, I truly appreciate everything you’ve done for us.

Flights

From Boston to Jakarta, some of us flew by Emirates airline. Great atmosphere; very clean cabins with spacious seats, excellent food menu, plenty of free booze and affable crew. Only much later I realized that we flew the latest innovation of the modern aviation Airbus 380. It happened that once I traveled in the business class from Boston to Cancun by one of the domestic airlines, yet chairs in  “upscale” portion of a plane were not as comfortable, nor recline as much as sits in the economy section of A380. Can’t imagine what first class of the “Emirates” feels like.

Taking off. Dubai-Jakarta

Jonathan mentioned that during 12 hours of the flight he’ll try to watch as many movies as possible, “to catch up with the latest trend” as he put it. I counted 16 different categories, with 90 films in “New Movies” selection only… good luck, man.

Local flights weren’t bad as well. Of course, planes were much smaller than A380 and we had to pay for excess weight. From Boston to Raja Ampat, the final point of our destination, I’ve changed 4 planes. On the way back, due to some discord in scheduling – 6. A bit tiresome, yet still manageable, especially considering that we traveled all the way to the other site of the planet.

Jakarta

Since all participants of this expedition flew from different parts of the world, we spent 2 days in Jakarta waiting for everyone’s arrival. Most of us stayed at FM 7 hotel. The hotel was 10-15 minutes from airport and prices weren’t bad either, $178 for 2 nights.

Hotel FM7. Jakarta

Air-conditioned, spacious rooms were very clean with windows occupying the entire wall. Some spent one night right at airport’s hotel and … couldn’t get out from their rooms fast enough.

Hotel FM7. Jakarta

While in Jakarta I arranged to meet my old acquaintance Sugi, a sushi chef, who lives and works in the city. He gladly agreed to show me a bit of Jakarta. I got a kick watching local traffic. Waves of motorcycles preceded larger vehicles. A family, 2 adults and 3 kids, were traveling on one, small moped. One child was positioned on the gas-tank and 2 smaller kids wedged between adults.

Amusement park, Jakarta

Distances between moving cars could’ve been measured in a few inches. And yet you could find a happy water-seller, leisurely walking between two large moving trucks. Or you can buy a pound of bananas or bag of spices while you waiting for the traffic to advance another foot. Pictures are worth a thousand words, but it’s still hard to convey what it really feels like until you actually visit the place.

On the streets of Jakarta

We toured Bank Mandiri Museum and few other places. People on the streets were good-natured and always met us with a smile. Three times I was stopped on the streets of Jakarta and asked if I don’t mind to participate in a group photo with local folks. Later we had very good lunch at the local restaurant, cooking right at the table, tasting Indonesian food and beer. In the evening we paid a visit to National monument – Monas, where we watch fire dancers.

Mr. Sugi preparing food

After returning to the hotel and describing my day at the city, Jonathan, along with few others, expressed the desire to explore metropolis. So on the next day, Sugi took 6 of us to the Museum of Indonesia and local Zoo. At the zoo, we kinda hoped to see more exotic animals than we actually did. Maybe due to an incredible heat or to the long lasting, heavy rain, but we saw more pictures of the animals on the fences than actual habitats of the park. Zoo experience left much to be desired.

Komodo dragon. Ragunan Zoological Park

Yet we managed to see the Komodo dragon and one very entertaining elephant. The composition of my pictures did not come out as good as Jukka’s, he’s got really nice shots of the elephant.

Australian pelicans. Pelecanus conspicillatus. Ragunan Zoological Park

Going to the different parts of the city, one could not help noticing a very interesting trend. Be that near museum, national monument park or territory of a zoo, you always see people sitting on a small or large covers, placed directly on a ground, enjoying a meal, but leaving lots of rubbish behind.

 At Ragunan Zoological Park

And throughout the city one can observe that trash removal is not the highest priority for the local authorities. As a matter of fact – in the open ocean, sailing from one island to another, we often glided through large amounts of floating debris. In the city, there was so much discarded matter left on the streets, that rain, lasting just 5 minutes, instantly raised the water level to a half-foot mark. One of the locals told me that past summer, due to an enormous amount of clutter and torrential rain, the water level had risen to 9 feet high, rendering city dysfunctional for two weeks.

After 5 min of the rain in the Jakarta

I’m happy that I experience Jakarta. Now, if I have to go back to dive in Indonesia, I’d like to explore Bali.

MSY Seahorse

It was my first ever live-aboard dive trip, so looking at “Seahorse” I felt as all my childhood fantasy of running to the open sea on the pirate’s ship were rising from a forlorn dream. Two masts were haughtily towering over 100 feet long, 26 feet wide wooden deck. Climbing up on the board of the vessel felt though I was setting out on a wild, thrilling adventure. Too bad that sails were never let out from theirs tight and very uncomfortable cocoons.

All air-conditioned cabins had their own unique configurations. In mine – one bunk was slightly higher and set perpendicular to a lower one. In other compartments, both beds were positioned side-by-side. Inside of an each cabin, there was a closet and separate bathroom with shower, spacious enough to accommodate 6 feet tall person. Due to some fortunate circumstances, I ended up having the whole room to myself. So I used the second bed as a table to change lenses, transfer pictures, charge batteries etc. Sweet.

Inside of the cabin on the MSY Seahorse

On the deck, right in the middle, there was a camera table, sufficiently wide to be accessible and usable from both sides. So each of us could comfortably prepare our gears for an upcoming adventure. Upon arrival, we all got a firm, made of cloth, large bag with handles and name-tags of each diver.  We had to place ready-to-go housings inside of a bag and crew would carefully transferred our cameras along with dive-gears into 2 aluminum boats. So all we had to do before each dive is to don our wetsuits, listen to short briefing and step down to a motorboat.

On the deck of the MSY Seahorse

There were 15 guest-divers on “Seahorse”, so we were divided into 2 companies with 2 dive-masters per group. As we jumped in the water a boat attendee gently passed photo-video equipment to each diver. On the way back to the boat we follow the same procedure, only in reverse. Upon claiming on “Seahorse” we were expected to leave dive gears and cameras on a boat. On the bow, there were 2 shower heads along with two large plastic buckets filled with fresh water, one for wetsuits and other for photo-gears. It was an easy and comfortable arrangements.

Dining area on the MSY Seahorse

I can’t tell you that cooking on “Seahorse” was first-class French cuisine,  but must admit that food was very good. If not for a strenuous exercise, constant diving plus occasional walks throughout towns, with three fulfilling meals a day I could’ve easily add a few pounds. Oh yeah  if anyone had to take an edge off the hunger, varieties of fruits and snacks were within easy reach. Cold soda, beer and chilled wine were available to purchase. Soda was a dollar, beer – $4 and wine, depends on a brand, between 45-55 dollars. Yeah, a bit expensive for a generic bottle of wine, but we were traveling through the country with a strict ban on alcohol. Hey, look on the bright site – people shouldn’t drink while diving anyway, right?;)

Diving

I’ve heard, that Indonesia is the world’s finest diving destination. Incredible creatures of all shapes and forms, great gardens of soft corals with an astonishing palette of hues, incredible underwater topography, etc.

Well, those statements are probably true, so many can’t be wrong, but during this trip, especially in regards to soft corals, I personally did not experience what I expected to see. This report is nothing but very subjective opinion and my very initial impression of Indonesia. At first possibility, I’d go back to dive and to explore again. But as of today, I would be a little cautious to rate or call it the “best there is.” As of now, in my humble opinion, soft corals of Fiji look better and healthier than Indonesia’s counterparts. Maybe there are locations in Indonesia where soft corals would match or even surpass the beauty of Fijian analogs, but that remains to be seen. Plus, due to my sinus disorder, I totally missed last two days of muck diving at Alor, so here is another reason to go back.

Shrimp on soft coral

“Seahorse” departed from Raja Ampat and travel 1200 miles all the way to Alor, with stops along its way at all scheduled islands. And don’t get me wrong; diving at all those spots was extremely interesting. Take an “Island of thousand snakes” – a main attraction of the whole trip. From the deck of the “Seahorse”, we watched as a white smoke was coming out from the sulfate-painted crack in the side of the living volcano. Underwater escaping gasses raised clouds of sand. And warm sand is one of the main reasons that draw snakes reside in such a “shaky” environment, they enjoy resting on the warm surface. Cici, one of the divemasters and a manager of the “Seahorse”, explained that if you place your open palm under snake’s belly, then passing reptiles may freeze for a second, enjoying the warmth of your skin.

Red and black edged white flatworm

Red and black edged white flatworm. Maiazoon orsaki

Before each dive, we were briefed by divemasters what to expect underwater and which lens may be preferable for the upcoming exploration. Almost every dive, except night-dives and Alor Island, wide-angle was the lens of a choice. Actually, preparing for this trip, I upgraded my 6 in. wide-angle dome for larger, heftier and optically beneficial 8-inch port. Hoping for the best I used wide-angle set up more than ever before, but I must admit on some of the “wide-angle” dives I wished I had micro lens. I liked great diversity of sea life present at each island I dove. The current, sometime light, sometimes mild, was always part of the dive.

Coral reef. Koon island

The company

It mast be a separate paragraph, fully dedicated to those with whom I had such a privilege to be on the board of “Seahorse”. Prior to departure, I knew just a few guys – Jonathan Bird and Michael Lafayette. Once or twice, I dove with both of ‘em at Eastport, Maine. Jonathan – a passionate soul and natural leader – can create the festive atmosphere in a blink of an eye. He’s comprehensively educated, especially in aspects of photo and video shooting and following post-production.

Michael, with participating of others, produced and staged unique version of “Jaws”. The show was “sold out” and had a big success. I really feel sorry for those who missed it. The rest of the group I’ve met for the first time. Jukka Sorvisto – an awesome filmmaker from Finland and fun guy to be around with. Anna Krowczynska, Tim, Carl, Brenda, Daniel Bodenstein and others. I also have very warm memories of divers from England; Sue McCord and her husband Ken, I loved diving with this couple.

Members of Jonathan’s 2013 Trans-Indonesian dive trip

Every crew member, from the owner to deckhand, was very nice to us with only one goal, making our stay a memorable one. Txus, pronounced as “juice”, the owner of the ship, has lots of experience and was a great conversationalist. Cici, the captain’s right hand, was a very pleasant, great divemaster and excellent spotter of hard-to-spot creatures. Before each dive, she drew a detailed schematic of the upcoming dive, so following it was very easy.  Ned, Dani and Jandri, other three dive masters were very helpful as well, constantly pointing at new findings.

Water was warm 83-85 F and typically very clear. Depth fluctuated between 40-50 feet. Time underwater – 50-60 min on the average. One of my favorites was a night dive at, if I’m not mistaken, Manuk Island. I’ve never seen a Peacock Mantis shrimp before, but during that night dive I saw three of them.  (2 different species and one of them was carrying eggs.)

Conclusion

 I know that I’ve seen very little of what Indonesia can offer, therefore I’d like to come back soon. It’s unlikely that I would do the same itinerary, yet I’d get back on “Seahorse” in a heart bit. Thankfully “Seahorse” offers the wide range of destinations.

There is an idiom in Russian which, if translated word for word, sounds as “7 feet under the keel”. In English, I believe – “Fair seas and a following wind” convey the same meaning. And that is exactly what I am wishing to the Seahorse and its great crew.

Cheers, guys. Safe and happy explorations for years to come.