After almost a year away from the beautiful Dewi Nusantara, I am really excited to be back for another two trips sailing the megadiverse Indonesian seas as resident naturalist.  I am even more excited as the trips are being hosted by Ned & Anna DeLoach and Paul Humann, the well-known authors of many fish ID and behaviour books and the founders of REEF (Reef Environmental Education Foundation).

Juvenile Cross's DamselfishI have really enjoyed the buzz surrounding the dives on this trip, with one or all of our eminent guests coming up from virtually every dive buzzing about a creature or behaviour they haven’t seen before.  It is fantastic to see such passion, even after tens of thousands of cumulative dives, and it is certainly infectious.  Myself, Paul and Ned have given talks in the evenings and it has been an amazing experience to learn from these extraordinarily experienced natural historians, their insight into the reefs’ goings on is outstanding.

This trip, the first of two, has taken us from Ambon to the island of Flores, just east of Komodo.  This is quite some distance to cover in 14 days (around 850 miles or almost 1400 kilometres), but it has given us rare access to some very remote, fascinating and historic locations across the Banda Sea.  We followed an arc of tiny islets on the eastern side of the sea visiting the volcanic islands of Banda and Manuk, the coral atoll of Dusborgh and the limestone islands of Terbang and Romang.

The Banda islands are steeped in history, being the centre of the global nutmeg trade in the 1800’s.  We enjoyed a couple of days diving in the area, packed with interesting critters, as well as a tour of the historic fort and town before heading further south.  Manuk was our next stop and like its better-known cousin, Gunung Api, is renowned for its large population of sea kraits.

Sea kraits aren’t quite as well adapted to life in the oceans as the true sea snakes, one of which we saw later in the trip in Maumere harbour.  Sea snakes, among other adaptations for life in the ocean, give birth to live young at sea and have nostril valves to keep the water out.  Sea kraits on the other hand are more akin to terrestrial snakes and are more tightly tied to the land; most significantly they must come ashore to lay their eggs.

Juvenile masked grouperAs well as the kraits, a highlight for all of us at Manuk, and the next couple of islands on our journey, was a very rare juvenile fish indeed.  After the first dive at Manuk several of us surfaced asking the same question: “What was that pink and red fish?”  It turns out we had all been seeing the juvenile colour form of the Masked grouper (Gracilia albomarginata).  Surprisingly, despite having seen the adult many times, this was the first time any of us had come across the striking juvenile.  Over the next couple of days as we sailed southwards, we saw juveniles ranging in size from tiny (very cute) individuals to larger intermediate or transitional forms.  The adults were all over the reef, but it was the juveniles that became an utter obsession, for me at least.

After hopping our way along these relatively small islands we met the eastern end of the Nusa Tenggara chain at Wetar Island. Here, we fitted in a day of diving on the north west corner of the island around Reong Island, where I found other juvenile fishes that I hadn’t seen before, including the stunning Cross’s damsel, several hogfishes and several of the green, black and white striped bird wrasse babies.  Despite having crossed the Banda Sea, we still had another long journey to reach the Pantar straight between the islands of Alor and Pantar, which would be the location of our next day’s diving.

Displaying male Javan Fairy wrasseWe were all very excited about our first dive in this area, as we would be diving the site that, on her last trip to the area several years previously, Anna had discovered a brand new species of fairy wrasse.  In 2012, the stunning fish was named in honour of Paul Humann, who was also aboard and out in search of his namesake.  We were briefed by Anna about the habitat in which she had found the fish and off we went to search for it.  There was a roaring current around the site, but a small area was protected and full of fairy and flasher although sadly Cirrhilabrus humanni was not among them.  It was, however, a great moment for photographing yellowfin and filamented flashers, as well as Solor, Javanese and the yellow back form of Lubbock’s fairy wrasses.

Humann's fairy wrasse (Cirrhilabrus humanni)We subsequently decided to move across the straight for a few dives in Kalabahi Bay, where we dived Mucky Mosque.  This site is always productive with unusual and unique critters.  Again, it did not disappoint and one of our guests, Brad, kindly found a stunning red paddleflap scorpionfish (Rhinopias eschmeyeri) at the site.  Very excitingly, on our last afternoon dive, I spotted a fish that I didn’t recognise.  I managed a few images and followed it round for ten minutes or so to gather clues as to its identification.  I still wasn’t sure, so I found Anna and showed her my picture.  It was indeed the Humann’s fairy wrasse that we’d all been looking for! She managed to get some video of the lone male, which is some of the only footage ever to be captured of this rare fish.

Over the next couple of days we continued our journey along the north coast of the Nusa Tenggara island chain, which had some excellent muck dive offerings.  Again, Yann found us a Rhinopias, a lovely red weedy, and we saw six giant frogfishes, plus a svelte male velvet ghost pipefish.

Weedy scorpionfish (Rhinopias frondosa) in AlorOur last hurrah, before heading to our final destination of Maumere on the island of Flores, was to visit the active volcano of Kumba.  Indonesia is extremely geologically active, straddling several tectonic plates and as a result has several active volcanoes.  Kumba erupts every fifteen minutes or so and is especially breath-taking at night when plumes of glowing red lava spew from the caldera and scarlet red rocks roll down the scree slope.  This was certainly a sight not to be missed and a highlight of the trip.  The next day we woke in Maumere Bay and fitted in a dive at Pomana Kecil Island with 24 hours to spare before our guests would disembark the next morning.  Many of our guests were doing fish counts and ID throughout the trip for REEF, and Pomana actually provided the highest fish count of any site we’d dived on the whole trip.

We have another exciting trip planned with Ned, Anna and Paul, which will leave Maumere in a couple of days.  We will be focused on the greater Alor region and have our sights set on some very exciting areas and animals, as you’d expect from this group!  Stay tuned for my next blog update, but in the meantime you can view some of my images from the trip by following this link.

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