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Fire & Spice in the Banda Sea

Seven-thousand friendly inhabitants call the charming port town of Banda Neira home. It is one of the most picturesque ports in Indonesia, steeped in trading history and settled amidst a backdrop of lush mountains and a recently quiet volcano.

The streets are still lined with Dutch-style lamps and huge, ancient trees. British and Dutch architecture, that has withstood the test of time, still grandly adorns the town, while goats and children play in large parks.

The market bustles in the mornings and evenings, filled with the colorful smells of cinnamon, vanilla and nutmeg. Four-hundred years ago spices were worth as much or more than gold, used as meat preservatives even more so for their flavor.

Banda Neira produced prized nutmeg sought throughout Europe. Just one shipload of nutmeg would produce so much income that a family—often the entire lineage— would be financially set for life.

The Dutch erected a fort to protect their trade and it still sits in the town today. Restoration efforts have made this thick-walled fortress a fascinating place to visit, where burgundy nutmeg sits drying in the sun along the fort’s steps.

Take some time to stroll around, and you’ll find a large veranda selling ice, and a few shops down another offering local coffee. It’s a wonderful place to take a break for a couple of days to dive into Bandanese life, before diving some of the fascinating sites in nearby islands or even in the Banda Neira Harbor itself.

Muck divers can jump right at the main pier and try to find a piece of history, such as discarded Dutch bottles or coins. Nearby, a small waterfront hotel has become an entry point for those seeking critters and treasures in the muck. In fact, the entire front slope along the pier area has some great finds from giant frogfish to fire urchins with Coleman shrimp, zebra crabs and benthic ctenophores.

The port is also home to the colorful mandarin fish, a favorite of underwater photographers and videographers. Small and reclusive, they normally come out only at dusk to mate and establish territory.

They are prized by underwater shooters for their orange and brilliant green markings that make striking images. The shallow water around the piers is a photographer’s dream. Other creatures you’ll find are schools of catfish, various anemones with anemone fish—some laying eggs on the shards of Dutch bottles—skeleton shrimp, juvenile batfish, nudibranchs, tunicate lobsters and a long list of good muck subjects.

Across the harbor stands Gunung Api (Fire Mountain), one of the many volcanic cones found throughout Indonesia. The last volcanic eruption just took place in 1988. Today, one can see where molten lava flowed down the northeastern and northern slopes into the sea, covering the entire reef below.

A platform that was created became the base of a new coral reef that has grown at high rates and attracted studies from scientists from all over the world.

The prevailing current flowing across this point combined with minerals within the lava made a base for coral gametes to grasp and flourish. The growth rate has never been seen before, starting with huge table corals and other hard reef-builders. It is like a sculptured undersea park. Cabbage corals and a wall with black corals and gorgonian sea fans also make this reef worth a couple of dives.

There are 10 islands in and around Banda Neira and a couple farther out in the Banda Sea that can be reached by live-aboard when the sea is flat calm. They host everything from the odd Lembeh sea dragon (a pygmy type of pipefish) to yellowfin tuna and sperm whales.

Below Batu Kapal (Ship Rock) which, not surprising, looks like a ship, there is beauty, chaos and lots of movement. There are three main submerged pinnacles. The main pinnacle rises 24 meters. On its western and northern sides are walls with undercuts, giant barrel sponges, soft corals and a bazillion pyramid butterflyfish. One can just explore the various sides of this pinnacle and look out into the blue or go on to the other deeper pinnacles.

A southeast pinnacle drops to 34 meters on its outer wall. Big fans and immense barrels also adorn this deep tip that rises 26 meters. There is also a shallower pinnacle here and the whole area is worth a couple of dives to cover it properly.

Currents can get strong but, when they do, expect to see large marbled groupers, reef sharks and yellowtail barracuda. On one dive I saw a vast tornado of bigeye jacks seemingly covering the entire sea floor. The ubiquitous redtooth triggerfish can be seen in the shallows in large schools off the main pinnacle.

Other dive sites offer coral-drenched arches, beautiful undersea passages with deep swim-throughs adorned in white soft corals and sponges of all types and some nice walls and drifts. At Koon Island out in the Banda Sea (east of Seram), one can drift out to a current-fed point with silvery dogtooth tuna, barracuda shoals and jacks. When the El Nino brings colder waters, schooling hammerhead sharks also rise to the shallows, thrilling divers.

Manu Island is a major bird colony and only accessible by live-aboard. Steam belches from its volcanic vents and spews sulfur underwater as well in places. It is uninhabited by people, but a healthy population of sea snakes makes up for this.

Seemingly attracted by the floppy movement of one’s fins, the snakes swim up to see what a diver has to offer. For people who don’t like snakes, this can be a bit unnerving. But they are fascinating reptiles. The most commonly seen are banded sea kraits and there are Chinese sea snakes as well.

This tip of land, really not much more than a volcanic cone, is a major bird colony for a number of sea birds such as boobies, tropic birds and cormorants. But as these avians soar overhead, below is something highly unusual. Surfacing to the calls of thousands of birds makes this site a special and unusual place to explore.

Not many tourists come to visit Banda Neira, and there is even more to see in the Banda Sea. Diving can be quite seasonal, but new spots and remote pinnacles are discovered each year. Out on the water you aren’t likely to bump into many other divers; you are more likely to see a traditional long canoe propelled by a couple dozen men in brightly dressed traditional garb, rowing to the steady beat of drums that has echoed on these waters for centuries.

Practicalities

Getting There

For divers, the best way to visit is by live-aboard. There are ferries from Ambon and limited flights from some smaller Indonesian airlines. Keep an eye out for new routes.

Money

Changing money is not common here. Bring enough rupiah for food, accommodations and gifts if not staying on a ship.

Language

Bahasa Indonesia is the main language spoken. A form of Malay dialect with Dutch influences is also spoken.

Diving/Weather

Dry season in the Banda Sea is roughly May to November. January and February are considered rainy months. The temperature is quite constant between 27°C and 32°C.

Diving

All levels can handle the diving here, but some sites are for advanced divers due to fast currents, drifts and some pelagic points. On the whole, the sites are pretty with amazing sponge life, hard corals and more than 700 fish species.

Getting Around

One can walk, hire a bicycle or hire a motorbike. If not used to driving a cycle, a motorbike and driver can be hired. Taxis, for longer journeys, as well as mini-buses and becaks are available. A taxi ride from the airport to the town takes about 45 minutes. Banda Neira has good roads. The other islands are not highly developed.

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