Friday, March 16, 2012

Review of Maluku Divers, Ambon, Indonesia: Photographer’s Delight!

I have been a professional underwater photographer for 28 years.  I sold the rights to my first photograph, a cornetfish, to Sea Frontiers magazine in 1984, and I had a portfolio of my images published by Underwater USA in 1984 as well.  That was a heck of a long time ago.  Since then, I’ve spent more than my fair share of time on liveaboard diving boats, ranging from Cousteau’s Calypso, to my friend filmmaker Bob Cranston’s Betsy M, to Mike McGettigan’s famous Ambar, to luxury liveaboards like the Caribbean Explorer, Nautilus Explorer, Undersea Hunter, and Solmar V.  I’ve been on many of the Aggressor and Peter Hughes boats also.  Oh, and I have to add Jim Abernethy’s Shearwater, which has taken me to some of the most memorable shark diving in the Bahamas that I’ve ever done. 

I am finding that I prefer the peace and pace of land-based operations in my middle age.  Liveaboard operators are usually forced to cater to divers who want to go to a different dive site on every dive.  As a photographer, however, I am different from most divers.  If I find a good reef or a good diving site, then I want to go back there again and again.  A big part of the fun in diving is discovering things yourself, and a land-based operation lets you do that. 

In the past couple of years, I’ve traveled almost exclusively to dive from land-based resorts or destinations.  As I write this, I am waiting out the weather in South Australia, where I’ve come to film leafy seadragons and blue-ringed octopus, diving from shore.  I have been comfortable in my motel room.  Although a bit bored, I am having far more fun than if I were in a boat, rocking away out there in the Southern Ocean, waiting for the 10-foot swells to subside.  Instead, I spent an hour trying to lure in the local magpies closer to my camera yesterday morning before I was forced back inside by the wind and rain.  I have not been seasick, nor have I been forced to tell the truth and suffered pupil dilation by using the anti-seasickness drug Scopolamine. 

Don’t get me wrong.  Being able to dive with great white sharks on the very comfortable boats Solmar V or Nautilus Explorer is wonderful.  But I’ve had a great time in the past two years diving out of land-based resorts like God’s Pocket on Vancouver Island; snorkeling with aggregations of huge whale sharks from Isla Mujeres, Mexico; and swimming with sperm whales from Dominica, in the Caribbean. 

Indonesia and the Philippines have become known for their land-based diving resorts, along with guides who specialize in finding elusive, rare, and bizarre critters to photograph.  Maluku Divers in Ambon, Indonesia, is one of them.  I spent three weeks out there in February 2012, and it was just what the doctor ordered – plenty of diving at my pace, lots of incredibly interesting marine life to photograph, good food, and comfortable accommodations.  Maluku Divers in Ambon, Indonesia, has just become one of my favorite land-based dive resorts. 

It can take a while to get to Ambon, but once you are there, the diving life is easy at Maluku Divers, undoubtedly the best diving resort on the island (this is easy to say, as I believe that there are only two diving operations on the island, Maluku Divers being the only one that can be called a resort).  The resort offers everything a spoiled American diver needs -- air-conditioned bungalows, great diving (mostly muck diving, with incredible critters), three to four dives daily, great Indonesian-themed food, and splendid service from the diving guides and the resort staff.  Highlights of the diving and critters include the rare and beautiful Rhinopias scorpionfish, which come in purple, pink, red, and yellow (and in lacy and non-lacy varieties); the incredible wonderpus octopus, Coleman's shrimp on fire urchins, and my favorite, stargazers.  These amazing animals are highlighted in the web gallery at:

Getting to Ambon can be a hassle.  I have written about some of my trip in my February 2012 blog entries.  Most folks fly to Ambon from Singapore or Hong Kong, through Jakarta.  I myself wanted to spend some time diving in Australia, so I flew round-trip from California to Sydney, then booked an incredibly inexpensive (US $1400) business class seat from Sydney to Jakarta on Garuda Airlines.  I was pleasantly surprised – the service and the seats on the Garuda flights were just fine, comparable or better to any other airline. 

Coleman shrimp are always found on fire urchins. 
Once you arrive in Jakarta, you generally need to wait for 8 to 20 hours for a domestic flight to Ambon.  For some reason, all the flights to Ambon leave around 1AM from Jakarta, arriving in Ambon in the early morning hours.  I stayed at the Jakarta Airport Hotel, which I describe in another blog entry, and which may or may not be the best choice.  I describe my trip to Ambon:

The diving at Ambon is mainly muck diving, meaning it is on black sand or silt-covered rocks – not traditional coral reefs.  If you are muck diving, then you delight in the bizarre creatures that you will find in the muck and patches of coral.  You’ll find all the usual coral reef animals, but you will also find animals that make their living in eelgrass beds, in the sand, and which are camouflaged so well that only your Indonesian guide will be able to see them. 

Sure, you can sit back and let your guide find all the critters for you.  But that becomes a trophy hunt – not so fun for me.  I’ll typically try to get a bit away from the rest of the group, find my own subjects to film, and check on the dive guides and what they’ve found every once in a while.  The guides are always better at finding cool subjects than I am, but if I just follow them around and take snapshots of what they point out, I don’t enjoy that sense of discovery. 

Lembeh Strait, near Manado on the island of Sulawesi, is another world-renowned place for muck diving.  Like Lembeh, diving in Ambon means that you are diving near a port – near human habitation, rather than on pristine coral reefs.  I was shocked at amount of garbage -- mostly plastic bags and trash – that was present on some of our diving sites.  If you come to Ambon, be prepared to find lots of bizarre and cool animals amid lots of trash, and overall a bit of too much human stuff around.  The best sites with the most critters (of course) are located right by some big fishing boats that had no holding tanks and probably delighted in flushing as divers were near.  

Stargazers lie buried in the sand, usually with only their eyes and mouths showing. 
The web galleries show the marine life to be found there.  I saw more Rhinopias (incredibly colored and camouflaged leafy scorpionfish) than I have seen anywhere else, as well as wonderpus octopus, Coleman’s shrimp on fire urchins, and stargazers. 

Sometimes they will extend their tongue out and flick it; the wormlike tongue attracts prey.  

Maluku Divers is a great resort, with a genuinely friendly and helpful staff, and a photographers' paradise.  My friend and fellow photographer Douglas Seifert highly recommended it to me and I've come to trust his recommendations.  I hope to get back there soon. 


Jett & Kathryn Britnell said...

Excellent post, Norbert!

Jett Britnell

Norbert Wu said...

Thanks, Jett and Kathryn!

Michele said...

Great sharing Ambon's waters with you, Norb! And... fantastic footage of the Stargazer's tongue!

Marcel Hagendijk said...

He Norb, great write-up! hope to see you here again very soon.
I just missed the pictures of your stargazer impersonation...

Villa for rent in Bali said...

Hello Guys , i think you did lots of fun there and you have shared great experience, thanks for shared such a wonderful experience and i am very excited to visit this place.

Sienna Hurst said...

Love to see you back. Again an inspiring article. I happy to see the article again. :)
Dive Indonesia

Seputar Airline Ticketing dan Penerbangan said...

Hallo Mr Wu.. I Just want to inform u that now, flight from JKT to Ambon not only 1 AM but also there is morning flight at 8.15 AM with Garuda Indonesia

Norbert Wu said...

Great to hear about the new time for Garuda's flights to Ambon. Thanks for letting us know.

Luisa Delantes said...

What a great adventure. You'll never go wrong with Diving courses in Indonesia. Thanks for the amzing photos.