One of the last blank spots on the diving map, Halmahera’s waters are also among the world’s most prolific
Just over 500 years ago, the Spice Islands were the El Dorado of the far east. With an equatorial climate and rich volcanic soil, they were the origin of the aromatic spices of cloves, nutmeg and mace. Thought to offer protection against the horrendous Great Plagues that ravaged 16th century Europe, and providing the only way at that time to preserve and flavour meat, these exotic spices were so valuable they were literally worth their weight in gold.
The hunger for them was one of the triggers for the Age of Exploration – a two hundred year period when the major powers of Europe sent fleets of sailing ships racing about the globe, chiefly to find, and control access to, these fabled islands. As part of the great race to secure supplies of spice, Christopher Columbus discovered the New World of the Americas, Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition circumnavigated the world for the first time and Vasco Da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope at the tip of Africa and established the sea route to the Indian sub-continent.
Having fostered such enormous changes in the world though, these small islands began to slip back into oblivion once their spices were transplanted to lands nearer to Europe. Today those spices are a common supermarket commodity throughout the world while the area, now known as the Moluccas, or Maluku in Indonesian, is little known even within the country. Though encompassing almost 1,000 islands, the area is home to less than two million of Indonesia’s 227 million people meaning that it hardly registers on the national level.
Nevertheless, this region, strewn around the curiously-shaped island of Halmahera that lies shattered like a crashed star about halfway between the island of Papua New Guinea and Sulawesi, is an increasingly enticing drawcard for adventurers, divers in particular.
They still come to explore the Maluku’s natural bounty, but instead of spices, they are seeking exciting places to dive, knowing that these waters are famed among those in the know for their eye-popping diversity of life.
Part of the explanation for this diversity lies with a vast ocean current known as the Indonesian Throughflow – a phenomenal movement of water from the Pacific Ocean, to the north of Indonesia, into the Indian Ocean to the south. This acts as a conveyor belt for an endless supply of nutrients, detritus of the sea, rich in phosphorus and nitrogen, that piles up on the seabed from decayed organisms. The Throughflow scoops much of this up and draws it south, leading those areas exposed to it to become magnets for the full pyramid of life that such nutrients can support, from microorganisms like plankton, through to ocean-roaming pelagics such as rays and sharks.
Due to Maluku’s remoteness, most divers access it from a liveaboard – ironically many of them pinisi-style boats modelled on those early European spice-traders. Some have been refitted for the purpose while others are commissioned from the start as dive boats, a boon to the otherwise diminishing craft of traditional boat building as practised in Sulawesi where most such vessels are built.
Going with the Throughflow
I joined my own liveaboard, the MV Ondina, at Sorong in the far eastern Indonesian province of Papua. This port is a common starting point for boats that ply this region, with North Sulawesi the other chief gateway and indeed our final destination on this particular voyage.
Right from the start, all of us divers on board were cautioned about the need to exercise care and good diving practices at all times. Headed so far from anywhere, there would be little margin for error and accidents could be fatal.
This sense of isolation was drummed home the first morning after leaving Sorong. We awakened to the sight of three islands, richly cloaked in dense vegetation, rising steeply from the deep blue waters of the Halmahera Sea. Roughly equidistant from the island of Misool and the very southern tip of Halmahera itself, they are the only landfall for hundreds of miles around.
The largest of the islands is called Pisang, Indonesian for banana, the name plainly referring to its shape; while nearby nestled two smaller islands sharing the name Batuanyer Kecil.
We were told that underwater the two islands are connected by an extremely vibrant reef, covered in hard and soft corals, their richness mirroring that of the dense vegetation above water. This site was to be our first taste of diving, Halmahera-style.
Any land sat in the way of a mass of moving water as large as the Throughflow is bound to stir things up, but when the body of land is as uniquely shaped as Halmahera, the results can be unpredictable to say the least. In places there are fierce, swirling, dangerous eddies; while elsewhere tranquil, protected backwaters offer ideal harbours. Dealing with the vagaries of currrents would be a continual backdrop to all of our diving here.
The three islands we were at that moment moored off had far less complex coastlines but we were warned that they still were capable of inducing perilous downdrafts that were a potential danger.
Diving such locations requires what Ricard Buxo, the Spanish cruise director of Ondina, calls a rapid negative entry. With everybody geared up and ready to go, the dive tender is positioned up-current of the site. On the signal, the engine is killed and everybody rolls backwards at the same time, cameras are quickly grabbed and then everyone gets down quickly before the current separates the group.
The trick is to get down in front of the site where the current hits it, central enough and deep enough to avoid being pulled to the side or taken over the top by the flow of water. Here the effect of the current is reduced and the best action is to found, including the promise of catching sight of the big predatory species cruising by with dinner on their mind.
I’d never dived such a remote site in such intense currents before and I don’t mind admitting it was, at first, a frightening experience. Puny strokes of my fins had little effect once I was in the flow – it was as though Mother Nature had me by the hand and there was no letting go. It was all I could do to get oriented fast and make sure I hit my mark. With one eye on my depth and one on the reef looming out of the void ahead, I waited for the current to let up enough to let me hold my position. Around me no doubt the others were struggling with their positions but this was one occasion where it was every man for himself.
It was reassuring to know that above us were not one, but two, dive tenders roving the surface checking on our locations. Still the thought of what would happen should any of us be swept past them couldn’t be banished altogether despite the vision that greeted us underwater. The reef was a dazzling testament to the profound fecundity of the Throughflow. Superb gorgonian fans and vibrant, red barrel sponges reached out into the current, beautiful soft corals abounded and reef fish simply teemed all about us as we finned to maintain position.
Sailing on, next day we reached the very southern tip of Halmahera, where we were looking forward to sampling the dive sites off the villages of Karang Dorobi and Ganone. Being so isolated, we expected the local reefs here to produce some vivid sights but instead there was only disappointment when we discovered that huge swathes of the coral had been wiped out by what appeared to be storm damage.
Hundreds of metres of what must have once been rich, hard coral reef had been destroyed. There was no choice but to move on up the Patinti Strait between the west coast of this southernmost ‘leg’ of Halmahera and the large island of Bacan.
The Patinti Strait, and particularly the Proco Channel between two small islands that sit out in the strait, are classic big current dive territory, again requiring the rapid negative entry and vigilant dive tenders deployed by Buxo and his crew.
On several of these dives I tagged along behind Buxo himself, following him as he carefully sited himself where the current would carry him into the heart of the reef, then dropping to around 40m looking for the ‘hot spot’. Perhaps that should be ‘cold spot’, for here, where the current first touches the reef, it is bringing cold water from the deep, heavy with the detritus of the sea.
Plankton feeders love this ‘nutrient soup’ and gather where it hits the reef, laying the foundations of the surrounding ecosystem as succeeding layers of the marine food chain work the area.
Watching and learning from Buxo, I grew better at managing the current, especially at depth as the most intense currents tended to be found near the surface. Still things were pretty exciting with large predators of the sea lurking about: numerous large gray reef sharks often ambled easily in the current while at times, down deep, way beyond the limits of recreational diving, wandered the unmistakable profiles of great hammerheads.
Islands in the stream
From the Patintie Straits, another overnight sail took us further to the northwest into the Maluku Sea and to the Goraici group of islands.
The Goraici’s are about 75km south of Ternate and Tidore, off the west coast of Halmahera. The largest of the original Spice Islands, Ternate and Tidore were the epicentre of the trade, at one time the only places in the world where cloves could be found.
The people of the Goraici’s have an admirable reputation as pragmatic environmentalists who have succeeded in keeping their reefs healthy and in good condition by preventing the twin scourges of dynamite and cyanide fishing that has done so much damage elsewhere in Indonesia.
The area is therefore rich in marine life and it is at Tagani Bay on the northwest tip of Kayoa Island where the celebrated ichthyologist, Gerry Allen, counted a record 303 species on a single dive. Our dives here were notable for strong currents, clear blue water, healthy reefs with rich hard and soft corals, and cruising sharks and other pelagics.
We spent two days diving the Goraici Islands, but I could easily have spent a week. Gliding over reef after reef, each a riotous patchwork of colours and forms, we would spook all kinds of critters, some freezing in place, others electing to scuttle, snake or shoot out of sight. All the while, boiling around us were clouds of reef fish, no doubt the target of larger species further out in the blue around us.
The highlight of the dives around the Goraicis was surely the submerged reef of Terumba Gora some two hours west from the main group of islands. It was the last dive of the day and our last in the area – overnight we set sail into the Maluku Sea, headed for North Sulawesi.
It had all given me a sense of just how wonderful the diving in Indonesia can be, and how it must have been through much of the archipelago as recently as 25 years ago.
After days of gentle prodding, Buxo was to take me to the ‘hot spot’ on a reef he had found on an exploratory dive some months before. As a hugely experienced divermaster, he has a good sense of a diver’s abilities and knows when they are being exposed to more danger than they can handle. I had done three previous trips with him and had established a relationship that allowed me to ask this favour of him. To my delight he agreed.
Dropping to 35m, we ran into a Queensland grouper the size of one of the dive dinghies. An encounter with a large creature anywhere is always compelling, and this monster was so large and fearless that we got almost eyeball-to-eyeball, even trading pilot fish.
Still one final treat lay in store: the island of Tifore, in the middle of the Maluku Sea, halfway between Halmahera and North Sulawesi. On the southern side of Tifore is a reef at Pantai Sago, known for a school of barracudas said to number at least 1,000. There we dived the southeast face of the reef, riding the current past superb hard and soft corals down deeper to where we found huge shoals of schooling fish.
Trips such as this are a once-in-a-lifetime experience for most people. Even if my line of work means I get offers to dive in wonderful spots all around the world, a trip as rich in experience as this is still rare. Even now, months on, reflecting on those days in Maluku leaves me humbled. It doesn’t take much to send me back, to feel the power of the Throughflow again, feel its pull speeding me towards another reef teeming with life.
When to go
The best time to dive the Halmahera region is from May through to November, during the dry season. Apart from anything else, this ensures less runoff from the islands to impact on the visibility.
How to get there
The only way to dive the Halmahera area is by liveaboard. Some boats incorporate it as part of a trip from Sorong in Raja Ampat through to Manado in North Sulawesi (or vice-versa). Other boats do it as a round trip from Ambon to the south.
What to take
Most liveaboards carry some dive gear for hire, although the majority of people take all their own equipment. Dry season air temperatures are typically 27-32?C, so bring light clothing only, plus seasickness tablets (just in case) and mosquito repellent for use while on trips to shore.