Saturday, November 17, 2012

Loads of Fishes

Hendro was supposed to drive me out to the airport at 8 to catch my flight to Sorong, but at ten after I got a call from Ibu Min saying sorry, they were all at the airport already picking up Renny, who was coming back from a month in Makassar and should be landing soon, and if I just held on til they got home I could take their cab back out. In Indonesian time, ‘landing soon’ could be any second, or in half an hour, or maybe an hour, who knows. Fifteen minutes, maybe, for her luggage to show up in the big shed that serves as an arrivals hall, then the 20-minute drive back home, get me in the car, another 20 minutes back out. By now it was 8:15; my flight was scheduled for 9:20. Maybe not. Luckily Fr., back from her two weeks on Yapen, was willing to give me a ride, saving me having to find an ojek, and I made the flight. The plane had arrived from Jayapura, heading via Manokwari to Sorong and then Makassar with a full load of passengers, and with no computers at the airport they assigned me to an already-full seat, so rather than my window view I ended up in a middle seat next to a man who could really have used a primer on proper use of deodorant in the tropics. 35 minutes later, we landed in Sorong.

One hell of a front yard.
In the airport I was met by a representative from Papua Diving, and along with three Austrian men who’d been on my flight was dropped off at a local hotel, where we waited in the restaurant (I drank sirsak juice, they drank Bintang) and made awkward conversation for four hours until the next set of guests landed. It must’ve been a big day for resort transfers; I haven’t seen that many bules in one place since Bali. (I don’t think I’ve seen that many bules total since Bali.) Around 3:00 we finally collected the other couple and headed off to the waterfront for the boat to Kri.

Honestly I’m surprised no one got a concussion. It was a cloudy, windy day, and the seas came at us in 3-foot swells so that we’d ride up one side, continue past the crest, and then – WHAM! – slap down on the trough below. Every ten seconds or so, with varying severity, for just over two hours. I turned on a podcast, put on my neck pillow to cushion my head from the jolts, braced my feet on the floor, and turned towards the window to watch the flying fish, who seemed to be enjoying the weather rather more than we were.

Crocodile needlefish.
The waves let up as we got close to the island, and gave us a chance to catch our breath before we pulled up to the dock. The resort was made up of a series of thatched cabins stretching back along the wooden jetty and along the beach: ten or so huts, divided into two guest rooms each, a veranda with lounge chairs facing the sunset, a wall-less dining room, the offices and kitchens, and the bathrooms on shore. The only other thing on the island, besides the forest, was another, more upscale hotel with the same owners, just around the cape. I was in Room 2, in one of the huts on the jetty, raised over the reef on stilts. I looked out my window into the water and immediately saw a pair of crocodile needlefish swim by. Then I pulled out my Kindle, set up the hammock, and watched the sunset til dinner.

Shrimp on an anemone. (Disclaimer: I didn't take this
photo, but I did see these shrimp and they're awesome.)
There were about 15 of us staying for the week – it’s a weekly schedule, though if you really want to come or go on a day other than Sunday you can pay a couple hundred bucks to arrange a boat – mostly Europeans, aside from myself and a family of three Americans. Someone should seriously do a study of how people communicate with each other in these sorts of situations. (I’d love to write that grant proposal: “Dear NSF, Please give me $10,000 to go hang out at a dive resort for a month and listen to people talk. It’s legit research I swear.”) English was the general lingua franca, except for the one woman who didn’t speak any; the Swiss, French, and Italians speaking French among themselves; the Austrians, Dutch, and Norwegians (Danish? I never quite knew) speaking German with each other; me, the Americans, and the British manager speaking English; me and the Swiss woman working in Jayapura (S.) speaking mostly English with some Indonesian interspersed; the staff talking amongst themselves in Indonesian/Papuan Malay mixed with Biak; everyone else talking to them in English, except S, the manager, and me, who used Indonesian, and everyone speaking their national language with their compatriots. Occasionally I’d try to speak German and it’d come out half Indonesian as well, though I could understand pretty well as long as the Austrians didn’t go too regional in their accents. I didn’t attempt any Italian. Everybody there was well-travelled - most people don't come to Papua until they've exhausted all the more usual sights. The Austrians had just come from trekking in the highlands, the Americans had been diving around Indonesia for a month and were heading out to Africa for another month of diving, and everyone was swapping stories about the Galapagos, the Seychelles, Palau, and arguing
about which had the best dive sites, the most whale sharks, the best visibility. I was the youngest person there – most were late middle aged – and one of the least-experienced divers. (Never been to the Seychelles… yet.) In all it was a nice change from the dreadlocked backpackers in need of a shave and a shower that I usually run into on my travels. I guess that’s what happens when you upgrade from the $12/night hostels to respectable Eco Resorts on remote islands. (Though last time I stayed in a grass hut it was in Laos and I paid $8/night, and unlike Kri they had hot water.) So thank you to my subletter in New Haven for paying my rent so I could spend the money on this instead.

Baby black-tip.
On the way to breakfast my first morning, after being woken up at 5:30 by all the birds, I saw a baby black-tipped reef shark swim under the jetty. When I mentioned it nobody even looked up. That should give you a sense of the kind of place this was. As it turns out, you have to see six of them chasing each other around – as I did one night – to even get a reaction out of anybody.

The point of the trip, of course, was diving diving diving, and dive I did, three times a day. We were assigned to boats with a dive guide for each buddy pair – traveling without a buddy, I had my own guide – and headed out twice each morning and once in the afternoon to various spots in the area. I only skipped two dives during the week: on the second dive of my second day, still vaguely mystified by my dive computer (first time using one) and distracted by the manta rays swimming overhead, I stayed too deep to long and had to sit on the sand at six meters for a few minutes to decompress. I took the afternoon off after that, thinking an extra-long surface interval to let off some excess nitrogen might not be a bad idea. On Thursday I signed up for a night dive, and figured that even though I now had a much better grasp of what those numbers on my wrist were telling me, four dives in one day might be a tad much, so I skipped the afternoon.

Manta ray. (Didn't take this one either.)
And the diving was spectacular. Raja Ampat is a ridiculously rich ecosystem, with thriving reefs and more fish than I’ve ever seen in one place. (Granted, though, I’ve yet to see the Maldives…) I’ve long compared a good dive to a cross between meditation and the best acid trip ever (not that I’d recommend combining the latter with a dive), and I fully stand by that here. You’re swimming along in near-silence, listening to the sound of your breath bubbling out and the occasional crunch of a parrotfish eating some coral, all the while surrounded by the most incredible shapes and colors of corals and creatures swimming and crawling and growing all around you. There’s some crazy shit at the bottom of the ocean, more outlandish than anything I’ve ever seen in even the most imaginative sci-fi, fantasy, or horror books/movies/whatever. Like the manta rays, for example: roughly the shape of a stingray, but 20 feet wide, 2000 lbs each, flapping their “wings” as they glide by and occasionally launching themselves out of the water entirely; they look like giant bats from behind, space ships from above, and like nothing else on this earth from any other angle. Then there’s the unicorn fish, with a spike poking out between its eyes; the bumphead parrotfish, “bison of the reef”, four feet long with a lump on its head and teeth like a horse; and don’t even get me started on the cuttlefish and octopuses and translucent little shrimp; giant-eyed spotted pufferfish; the nudibranch and flatworms and Christmas tree tubeworms; tiny seahorses that camouflage with the bumpy pink surfaces of the sea fans they cling to; soft corals
I mean, seriously. (This one either.)
called ‘cauliflower corals’ for a reason, except that they’re bright pink or purple; giant clams half as tall as me in wild colors; the scorpionfish that blend in with the rocks and lionfish that wave frilly red fins, both extremely poisonous so don’t step on them; the flat, long-snouted crocodile fish that deserve the name (on looks at least); the feather stars that look like brightly-colored seaweed but have tentacley legs and can walk; the shrimp that swim through the water leaving glowing trails behind them on cloudy nights; and all the rest. I mean seriously, the crews of all the Star Trek series combined have nothing on what’s 10 meters under the water.

Under the jetty.
We’d be swimming along and suddenly be surrounded by a wall of fish on all sides, made up of schooling jackfish and snapper, with clumps of barracuda, triggerfish overhead, and sweetlips below. (I took videos, but my camera somehow decided to turn everything pink.) Usually a shark or two would be prowling the edges; I lost track early of how many sharks I’d seen. (Most were black-tipped reef sharks, full-grown versions of the little guys swimming around the reef under my cabin, but there were a handful of tasseled wobbegongs hiding under coral blocks, one that was either a white-tip or a gray reef shark, and on the last day a bamboo shark sleeping under a rock.) There were some good current dives, where we’d attach a reef hook on to some coral, hang on to the rope, and watch the jacks circle; then unhook and fly with the current to the shallows. (On my way down for the second of these I got a mouthful of water while descending, then must have made a face, since my mask filled up. At that point I thought, screw it, and surfaced, flagged down the dive boat still sputtering on salt water, and blew about half the ocean out my nose before my dive guide surfaced too and we went back down.) For the mantas, we went about 20 minutes out by boat, then sat on the sandy bottom behind a low coral barrier to watch them swim above us. I was one of the last to the bottom, and just as I was finishing my descent a huge manta swam right at me, passing a few feet above my head. (They’re filter-feeders, eating 60 lbs of plankton and fish larvae a day, but not interested in people.) On one dive I saw an octopus in a hole, with just its eyes looking out at me and flashing colors threateningly; another diver swan by and it retreated out of sight. Twice we passed schools of dolphins, who leapt beside the boat and swam under the bow; and once a group of sailfish passed by the jetty. The night dive was particularly striking: there’s few big impressive fish – even if they swam right over you you’d hardly notice them in the dark – but since you’ve got a light the colors are fantastic, and because your attention is limited to the little area illuminated by that beam
Unicorn fish.
you see all the strange, tiny, and well-camouflaged things you’d usually swim right past, like the scorpionfish sitting on rocks or little tiny octopi. It helps, too, that the crabs come out at night, and that their and the shrimps’ eyes reflect the light like a deer’s, so you see little crustaceans peering out at you and waving their claws from every nook and cranny, of which there are many. The best part was that after a night dive you get a hot mandi instead of the usual cold one. The last time I saw hot water outside of a cup of tea was early September, and I enjoyed every drop, even if it was slightly brackish.

Feather star & giant clam. Yes, that red thing walks.
I tried to take photos (during the day), but my underwater camera doesn’t have a viewfinder, so instead of point-and-shoot it’s guess-point-pray-and-shoot. A lot of my videos have something interesting swimming just through the bottom-right corner of the frame; apparently I err high and to the left. (If the idea of a camera without a viewfinder sounds like a stupid idea to you, that’s because it is; luckily for $75 they’ll send you a plug-in one, so I’m getting that ASAP. My pictures may still be gray and fuzzy, depending how effective the new flat lens casing and red filter turn out to be, but at least I’ll be aiming at the right thing.) I do, however, have about 430 pictures posted here, mostly of fish and sunsets – the sunsets were beyond spectacular – because my normal camera is waterproof to 10 feet and I took it snorkeling, and some people with better dive cameras gave me copies of their deep-water photos.

Red cenderawasih. (Not my photo.)
Saturdays there’s no diving, so instead I got up at 4:15 to go see some cenderawasih, the red bird of paradise. I figure living on Cenderawasih Bay I should probably get a glimpse of them at least once. Two of us showed up for the boat to Gam island out of the 7 who’d signed up, and after 20 minutes’ hike we arrived at a tree on top of a hill with a flock of cenderawasihs fluttering around the top. The man with me, one of the Austrians, had a good camera with a zoom lens; I took some videos. Gorgeous birds, if a little far away. On the hike down we saw some kookaburras too.

Puffer fish.
The rest of the day I read and snorkeled and got a bit of a tan. The boat ride back to Sorong on Sunday was uneventful aside from some dolphins. So was our wait in the hotel – we’d gotten to town in time for the Americans’ 10:30am flight; the last three of us didn’t eave til 1:40 – except for a small

(unintentional, and it’s sad that I have to clarify) bug in the tofu hotpot I ordered for lunch. (The Meridian, just across from the Sorong airport, in case you’re wondering.) My plane left an hour and a half late (so more or less on time). And now I’m back in Manokwari, enjoying a salt-free mandi but missing the sharks.

Sunset at Kri.

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