Alor - Again and Again

Alor againMichaelAW2016 AW53952 500x300px

Not much has changed over 20 years, though I was carrying four camera housings capable of capturing just 144 shots each dive then, but now, I often carry just one capable of shooting 3,200 pictures!

Sometimes it does seem that I have a death wish or perhaps am just a sucker for punishment. Well, all in the name of adventure and exploration, or misadventure if I fail to survive the ordeal. Thankfully, Angels have watched over me. My exploits of the seven seas have seen me floating in the open ocean for over six hours, getting my knee chopped by a propeller in gear, and being stranded on a refugee boat 30 years ago in the middle of the South China Sea for three weeks. However, when you pay good money for an exploratory expedition on a private boat but end up twiddling your thumbs on a dilapidated piece of junk, you will probably fail to be amused. That was my first trip to Alor in 1994.

Not much has changed over 20 years, though I was carrying four camera housings capable of capturing just 144 shots each dive then, but now, I often carry just one capable of shooting 3,200 pictures!

Sometimes it does seem that I have a death wish or perhaps am just a sucker for punishment. Well, all in the name of adventure and exploration, or misadventure if I fail to survive the ordeal. Thankfully, Angels have watched over me. My exploits of the seven seas have seen me floating in the open ocean for over six hours, getting my knee chopped by a propeller in gear, and being stranded on a refugee boat 30 years ago in the middle of the South China Sea for three weeks. However, when you pay good money for an exploratory expedition on a private boat but end up twiddling your thumbs on a dilapidated piece of junk, you will probably fail to be amused. That was my first trip to Alor in 1994.

AlorAgain MichaelAW AW55283 1 500x300px

I ‘discovered’ Alor from a news piece in a local paper in Jakarta. Generous praises were accorded to the ingenuity of an Australian-run outfit that had discovered an underwater Nirvana in remote eastern Indonesia. For a steep price they assured us 'creature' comforts, scrumptious food and a fast boat to explore the waters of Alor. Our fast boat turned out to be a derelict river-like boat, with an uncanny resemblance to the African Queen - that is before Bogie and Kate refurbished it in the film. The Queen was infuriatingly underpowered, throttling along at 3 knots but in a 4 knot current, she swung from side to side. The engine coughed, diesel fumes blew straight into our faces and there were so many leaks that we were usually paddling in a cocktail of seawater, diesel and cigarette butts.

On the third dive of the first day, we surfaced in total darkness and the Queen was nowhere in sight. Suddenly the familiar putt-putting of the Queen's laboured engine loomed from the distance. We blew our whistles only to be nearly run over by our 'rescuers'. The excuses we were offered for such dangerous predicaments were worrying to say the least, and did nothing to restore our faith in the operation. The operator protested that his crew had damaged the only gas lantern on board, and that their single flashlight had gone dead, typical of the batteries on Alor, he told us.

On the second day, coral scientist Dr Carden Wallace, was swept past the boat's rusty old ladder by fierce current. Her exhausted cries for a rope seemed to fall on deaf ears. Struggling against the current, she made further desperate attempts to get attention, resorting to an exasperating game of charades, spreading her curled hands along an invisible rope. Imagine her disbelief as one of the crew finally ambles to his feet and throws her a two-meter unfastened rope.

On another occasion, we surfaced from a dive 50m down current and sounded our horn for attention. The divemaster acknowledged us and quickly returned to his afternoon siesta. When we later questioned him as to why they were left us on the surface for 30 minutes, he responded that we didn't seem to appear to be in distress. After repeated incidents we demanded a chase boat, which is a necessity for diving in environments with swift currents. The next day, the Queen proudly towed along a one-man dug-out canoe, complete with paddles.

We expected scrumptious dinners, but the harsh reality was a long, miserable voyage back to port each night to mosquito-infested quarters for a practically inedible meal of leftover salted fish. However, the reefs around Alor were indeed pristine, and warranted further exploration.

Two years later in 1996, I commandeered a 35m live-aboard aptly named the Baruna Adventurer for a 14-day expedition from Maumere to Alor. On board this time, I have David Doubilet on assignment for National Geographic. What can possibly go wrong on a recently refurbished boat with new carpets, new dive deck, huge capacity compressor and tanks, new kitchen, new hi-fi system, and a complement of 14 smartly-dressed crew members? Literally everything! By the second morning, 12 of the crew were seasick and two of the vessel’s three engines seized up. For the rest of the way, we ambled along at 4 knots. For whatever reason, house bricks were used as ballast. Unsecured, they sounded like a Mah-Jong game in progress, rattling to the rhythm of the ocean swell. The first dive was 40 hours into the journey but we surfaced to a shocking surprise. The dive deck handrail almost massacred us with 120v of electrical current. We soon found out the power supply on the boat was unearthed, erratically emitting a current ranging from 120v to 400v. Of course this killed battery chargers, the air conditioning and yes the freezers as well. By the fourth day, all perishable foods were fed to the fishes, and we subsisted on canned food. Somehow, the plumbing from en-suites leaked in five cabins ruining the new carpet, but the occupants were quite amused with a footbath by their beds.

The newly appointed captain had many years of ferryboat experience so for him, searching for reefs seemed like a silly idea. For reasons only known to him, one morning he reversed the boat onto a reef and that was the end of the dive deck. Because the boat was at the dock for over eight months during the refurbishment, it also became home to rat-sized cockroaches, which ran all over us in our sleep. I did nightly battle with them using cans of air freshener. There were two desalinators on board, but they were not installed. As we had to find ports to replenish fresh water thrice during the cruise, these occasions inevitably reduced diving time. In all, after 14 days, we managed only 16 dives. We expected 4 if not 5 dives per day. Despite the catastrophes of the voyage, I returned with some unique pictures and I vowed to be back. But not anytime soon.

Alor again MichaelAW2016 8AW7438 500x300px

Perhaps I have the brain of Dory, but after 20 years, the allure of Alor beckoned me to return for another adventure. Memories of pristine coral environments overshadowed chaotic times. I returned in 2016 on the DAMAI II and this time the boat was perfect. I was spoilt for good on this boutique luxury 40m vessel. Alberto Reija, the owner of the vessel delivered uncompromised à la carte meals and diving. Each of us had our own dive station and private camera rinse tank. Between unlimited dive time, we were offered delectable meals personalized to our respective palates and massages and spa treatments on a spacious sun deck. So the boat was great, but what about the environment 20 years later?

Tidal forces push vast quantities of water back and forth through the narrow straight between Alor and its neighbouring island, Pantar, to the west, while jagged coastlines and tiny islets that dot the channel make navigation perilous. The ever-changing and unpredictable currents make underwater exploration rather challenging. The deep, cold, nutrient-rich waters running beneath the Sawu Sea collide with tropical waters from the Banda Sea, causing thermoclines and plankton blooms with restricted visibility. These conditions provide a haven for marine life, and in this aspect, the marine environment is still the richest and healthiest we have ever seen in recent times.

The movement of tectonic plates in the region created three distinct terrain types for exploration: the submerged sea ridges, outer fringing reef slopes and abyssal walls. In deeper water we found a few robust reef sharks, and in-the-blue encounters with Dog-toothed tuna, rainbow runners, Spanish mackerel, and surgeonfishes are common. Parades of Bumphead parrotfish gnawed green algae, while vast numbers of smaller ornamental reef fishes fluttered in the currents, sometimes obscuring the large table corals on the reef's meadows. Soft corals and anemones of kaleidoscopic colour adorned the walls and boulders of Alor – they are just as gorgeous. Not much has changed over 20 years, though then I was carrying four camera housings capable of capturing just 144 pictures each dive, but now I often carry just one capable of shooting 3200 pictures!

The slope along the dark water of Kalabahi Bay is the muck haven of Alor; from surface to depth beyond 30m are forests of gold, white, green, and black coral trees, barrel sponges, red soft coral trees, staghorn corals and encrusting sessile animals completely cover the area. Whilst tidal currents bring in huge amounts of plankton-rich water to sustain the enormous density of filter feeders, matured larvae take up residence on this already overcrowded suburb, settling for 'apartment-dwelling in an urban high rise society'.

Alor again MichaelAW AWE6727 500px

The strangest and the oddest critters, once thought rare in other coral reefs, are easily found here. Associations of both large and small reef fishes occupy every space possible - anemones hosting clownfish, porcelain crabs and commensal shrimps, crinoids with fascinating residents of clingfish, shrimps and squat lobsters, allied cowries on every branch of gorgonian coral, territorial gobies on whip coral, the list is endless. Over the course of my three expeditions, I have found many never before seen animals, observed behaviour that was once only hearsay, and photographed fish that were previously impossible to shoot elsewhere. Frogfishes, Rhinopias, and the Mototi ocellate octopus were virtually unknown subjects 20 years ago. During the 2016 trip, I shot a red, yellow and purple Rhinopias, giant and clown frogfishes and played with two Mototi octopi!

In the 1994 expedition, we explored a site known as ‘Anemone Country’ adjacent to a school east of Pura Island; I renamed it the ‘Refrigerator’ for good reason. Nowhere else in the world, at least of the places I have been, has more anemones by species and density than that of Anemone Country. And nowhere else in the world, of the places I have dived, would water temperature drop 12C˚, from 27C˚ to 11C˚ in an instant - it was as thoughlike someone decided to prankhad flushed a huge tank of icy water on us with an underwater Ice Bucket Challenge!! The anemones blanket the slope, filling in every nook and crevice, on sponges and ledges; real estate for coral polyps to settle is non-existent. As anemones are the choicest home for clownfish, we expected to find them in abundance. NONE. It appears that clownfish are also not fond of the erratic, brutal changes of cold water either. Burrrrrrrrrrrr!

The is also a site known as Kal’s Dreams, which in my opinion is a nightmare. It was first named by the anthropologist Kal Mueller, who said he saw schools of Napoleon wrasse at the submerged ridges lying in the channel between Pura and Alor. I have dived the Dreams several times in my three expeditions and may have seen a couple of lone Napoleons. It may be Kal’s dream, but in my opinion, every diver’s nightmare. The three huge submerged ridges act like obstacles in a pinball machine; as huge volumes of water flow through its corridors, currents up to six knots are generated in unpredictable directions. Reef fishes play out the axiom of life continuously.   Even the big fish seemed daunted, they stayed away; only a few Mahi Mahi are seen near the surface. On two occasions, I was careened into The Abyss—a sheer wall that lives up to its name—by down currents, where I briefly converged with a few tuna and trevally, only to be pulled deeper by another current. I had to climb hand over hand towards shallower water, much like adventurers scaling the Andes with a downwind. It was a nightmare at 60m.

Each day, the village people convene in a small bay, North West of Pura. It is not the clownfish among pure snow-white anemones nor the myriad of marine life that impresses me at this site, but the people. Hundreds of children play, swim and free dive among meadows of staghorn corals, which have sustained their families and forefathers for generations. Simple folk with simple needs – their livelihood sustained by subsistence fishing. Instead of a Mars Bar, clownfish are their after school snack while the main meals are either salted fish and rice, or rice and more salted fish. However, this meagre existence does not dampen their bountiful enthusiasm and zest for life. Unlike us city folk who have been burdened by commitments and the quest for financial security, they possess that rare commodity, childish innocence, which they all share with me as they dive and play to my camera. It was most embarrassing as we swum side by side; I am in full scuba outfit and them looking totally at home with just a pair of homemade wooden goggles. I photographed them in 1994, 1996 and again in 2016. They were the highlight of my sojourns to Alor. I envied their simple life by the water, where sunrises and sunsets are the only indicators of time. Yes, I will do Alor again … but not tomorrow

 

Read More Articles - Sign-up for More Full Articles (free)

Essay and Photographs by Michael AW ( OG 39)

Blog & Review Categories

Blog & Review Archive