Friday, May 1, 2009

Happy Ending

I hate starting anything with an apology but it has been so long since we made a blog entry that I’m left with no option but to say, “We are sorry for the delay!”

Many bubbles have passed overhead since the middle of January when we last wrote. At that time we were in Sorong , Papua at the halfway point in our survey of divesites for the Raja Ampat (R4) Dive Guide we are producing in conjunction with Conservation International. On January 14 we left, “Oh So Lovely”, Sorong harbor aboard the liveaboard “Archipelago”. The divemasters aboard this vessel are our old friends Made and Ali. Made and Ali learned about diving and showing people great critters when they worked for Larry Smith. Watching them give the dive briefings brought tears to our eyes on more than one occasion. Diving with them also brought back many wonderful memories of when Larry was still with us and we were all diving together. We also met “Archipelago’s” cruise directors James and Francesca who had only been on-board for a few trips, but certainly had their act together. They said learning the “ropes” was quiet easy. All they had to do was ask Made or Ali what “Mr. Larry “ would have done and do it. Smart cruise directors and delightful people. James is British so he talks funny; Francesca is an Amer-Italian from New Jersey so she talked funny too! They are a most welcome addition to a stellar operation and the crew loves them, which means they are doing it right!

Next we boarded the “Seven Seas”. We’ve known Jos Pet, one of the owners, since our early diving days in Komodo. Jos was the manager for The Nature Conservancy’s field station there. He’s a really good guy who knows his stuff. His partner is Mark Heighes. Mark has been diving in Indonesia as long as anyone. He first came to the country in the mid-80s with his aunt and uncle, the famous Australian marine life filmmakers, Valerie and Ron Taylor. Mark previously ran a boat called the “Evening Star”. Three years ago Jos and Mark bought a phinisi (schooner) hull and Mark basically built the “Seven Seas”. It is a very tight ship. They crew is stellar as well.

Aboard the “Seven Seas”, as acting cruise director, was Stew Esposito. (Stew runs the Raja cruises and Mark does the Komodo itineraries.) Stew was the “Truk Aggressor” captain for years so he knows his way around a wheelhouse and divesite. It was really great getting to know Stew and diving aboard the “Seven Seas” again. (You may remember that we were aboard “Seven Seas” for the month of October ’08 when we assisted Howard and Michele Hall film their latest IMAX movie, “Under the Sea-3D”. *See the blog that refers to that time period for that expedition report. The film is in release and has received excellent reviews. Check it out in your local IMAX theater.)

Our next stop was a visit to Max Ammer’s Sorido Resort in northern R4. Max has been in Papua for a long time and has done an incredible job building this up-scale resort in the heart of the Dampier Straight. Sorido’s house reef, Cape Kri, is one of the fishiest sites in all of Raja and famed Sardine Reef is only a 5 minute ride away. Along with the more basic Kri Eco Resort, which is just around the corner from Sorido, Max’s resorts sit in the ideal location for diving the best sites in northern R4. He and his crew of divemasters have done a lot of exploring over the years. So staying at either place will enable you to dive many sites not on a standard liveaboard’s itinerary. (You’ll be able to read more about Max in the guidebook.)

For three days we had been doing some wonderful dives when we got a call from James, cruise director of “Archipelago”. Francesca had developed some strange symptoms and needed to seek medical attention immediately. Problem was they had another group arriving the next day so they asked if it was possible for us take over for them. We couldn’t leave them in a bind so we packed our wet gear and headed back to Sorong and rejoined the “Archipelago”. We do have some experience as cruise directors, but it had been 20 years since we were the managers (the first ones) aboard the “Bilikiki” in the Solomon Islands. Cruise directing is like riding a bike and with Made and Ali’s help it was a piece of cake. All we actually had to do was interface with the guests. Fortunately the group from Dolphin Divers (Sacramento, CA) led by Alan Markis was delightful and comprised of experienced divers who really needed no assistance.

We did a southern itinerary, but on the last day returned to Batanta (central R4) to dive a critter site we started the trip with. The winds were blowing quite hard, however, and it wasn’t possible to dive the spot we had chosen. So we looked at the chart and headed down the coast to a bay that was a bit deeper and offered some protection from the waves. To our knowledge no one had ever dived there so we were a bit concerned that the last day of diving might be a bust. Those fears didn’t last for long! As we entered the water and drifted slowly to the silty bottom the first thing I saw was a mimic octopus! And the dive only got better. We found another mimic plus two wonderpusses, two pair of ghost pipes, plus numerous unusual nudis and allied cowries. Everyone loved the dive and since it was the last day, we named the site “Happy Ending”. Ask for it on your next liveaboard itinerary. BTW, fortunately Francesca received a clean bill of health; she and James are back on the boat.

Changing our plans in the middle of our survey did have one negative consequence however. After Sorido we were scheduled to board our long time friend Edi Fromenwiler’s liveaboard, the “Pindito”. Although Edi understood and gave his blessing to our subbing aboard “Archipelago”, it was a big disappointment. Edi has been diving Raja longer than anyone and we were really looking forward to the trip with him. Hopefully the chance will come again next season. BTW, I just talked to Edi an hour ago. He was in Sorong about to start his last R4 charter of the season. He had just finished his previous trip at…where else?…”Happy Ending”. Edi had never dived it before and his group found great critters including both varieties octopi and ghost pipefish. It really made our day knowing we were able to give Edi a tip about where to dive in Raja! (Read more about Edi in the guidebook.)

When we got back to Sorong on February 17 after guest cruise directing on the Archipelago we said “so long” to Sorong! Our survey was complete. Actually we had run out of time. Raja is so vast we could easily spend another season or two or three exploring never-dived sites, but we came home pleased with over 12,000 new images and over 30 new sites for the book.

Once in Bali we set up housekeeping again. I started editing photos and Maurine continued work on the text. Editing that amount of photos takes a while! To date I’ve done about 500, which is more than enough for a guidebook that will only contain 150 pages. Maurine continued to work on the text but 10 days later I was back on the plane bound for…Sorong.
I was asked to act as guide aboard a private yacht visiting the area. The “Andiamo” is a 150 ft, Dutch built, “Feadship” owned by Nancy Mueller, former owner of Nancy’s Frozen Foods. (Apparently her frozen quiche is quite good.) Anyway she sold the business a few years ago to fulfill a life-long dream of diving the world’s best reefs. The ship is immaculate and run by another Truk alumni, Raymond Heer. He was with the Peter Hughes fleet. We had a great two-week trip. Nancy was a delight and accepted my critiques of her photography with open arms. She had a wonderful group of experienced divers and friends with her, and the trip was a huge success. We even did a bit of exploring in the far eastern part of Misool near the Daram islands, location of the “Candy Store” divesite mentioned in the previous log. We found a couple of excellent new sites, but Daram still needs further exploration. We really like this area. It’s not dived much because most of the liveaboards don’t venture that far east, although actually Daram’s only a couple of hours from the eastern sites on most Misool itineraries. Daram normally has clearer water than the sites to the west and some of the area’s most beautiful beaches. We feel sure there are many more wonderful dives waiting to be discovered around Daram.

By the time I returned to Bali Maurine had basically finished the text of the guidebook. Even though we hate being apart, I guess my absence wasn’t totally a bad thing! I had not taken cameras with me aboard the “Andiamo” so I didn’t have more images to work on. We were home for about two weeks and I was able to finish editing all the images for the book. During this time we received a number of pieces of sad news. One of our good friends in Austin, Brian Chamerlain, had succumbed to cancer and another friend from Bali, Sasha Dambach, one of the Kararu Dive Voyages owners, had a fatal accident on his Harley. This news was a double shock to us coming in the same week. We will really miss Brian and Sasha’s presence in our lives. One would think that the loss of two friends in our circle would be enough but death is always a constant in life. One should live life to the fullest because you never know.

Early April brought to Bali a group of stateside friends we hadn’t seen since leaving last June. Aboard the “Seven Seas” we hosted one of our Secret Sea charters. Virtually every guest was a previous client and most of them are close friends. Bali is a wonderful place and we’ve made new friends but being with people that you consider family is something the heart needs occasionally. So we spent a fun week wining and dining, playing tour guide, etc. (Actually not that much wining was done. Indonesia recently placed a 300% duty on all foreign imported luxury goods. That means the cheap bottle you buy at the grocery costs somewhere between $30-40 here. What’s worse is that cheese prices have also tripled.)

We took the group to Maumere on the island of Flores, our gateway to a spectacular dive trip around Alor. We started the trip off with a bang by visiting the actively erupting (about every 5-15 minutes,) volcano of Komba. After Komba we worked our way east to Alor, which lies on the southwest corner of the Banda Sea, diving some fabulous walls along the way. The reefs were literally blanketed with purple anthias, and on a couple of sites we had multiple shark sightings. We also found an outstanding new wall during an exploratory dive in Alor. Alor also has some of the better critter sites in Indonesia and we spent time with frogfish, fire urchins and their commensals, and octopi. Village visits were also outstanding, so the trip had a good mix, walls, critters, and culture. One of our shore visits was to the famed traditional whaling village of Lamalera on Lembata Island. This is the only place in Indonesia where the natives still hand harpoon whales by leaping from small boats powered by nothing but sails and muscle.

As we headed back west we dove a new critter site off west Lembata that turned out to be a real find. We photographed two different species Rhinopias, a red skin-flap and brilliant yellow weedy. Other finds included regular reef octopus, fingered dragonets, frogfish, and multiple giant plurobranchs on the night dive. But the real highlight for most of the divers was the “squid ballet” taking place in 10 feet of water. Around 8 large reef squid (12’’ long) were mating and laying eggs for the entire day. Actually they had been at it for over a week, as there were hundreds of eggs scattered around the site, hidden in various clumps of acropora corals. The squid were very accepting of the divers and continued their activities while we watched, mesmerized by their dance.

We ended the diving at the island of Pamona just north of Maumere. This site was once one of Flores’s best but was heavily damaged, along with every other site in the area, by the ’92 tidal wave that nearly washed Maumere off the map. Mark had not dived the site since ’91 and was a bit apprehensive about what we would find. Turned out the wall was in very good shape, and at the western point of the island the fish life was outstanding. The divers had one of their best dives of the trip watching schooling snappers and trevally, eagle rays, dog-tooth tuna and 4 grey reef sharks. It was another “Happy Ending”! Most of our clients agreed it was their best trip ever.

An interesting and disturbingly scary event took place in R4 while we were aboard “Seven Seas” in Alor. A large crocodile attacked a diver in the Blue Water Mangroves off NW Misool. Diving the BWM is one of the highlights of a charter to Raja. This area is especially attractive for photographers and we have spent many hours on scuba or snorkel wandering through the labyrinthine channels that comprise this area. The diver in question had finished his dive and was on the surface when the croc came out of the mangrove and attacked. The diver and his buddy fought animal. Details are a bit sketchy and contradictory at this time, but it is big news on all the dive forums. If you wish to read more, visit and do a search for croc attack/Raja Ampat. There is controversy regarding whether the crocodile should be eliminated from this popular dive area. Consensus seems to be overwhelming that the croc was exhibiting normal behavior in its environment. It being the diver’s choice to either accept the animals presence or not dive the area. We agree. Bottom line, the diver was evacuated to Singapore and is doing fine even though he’ s had to endure numerous operations on his hand.

When we got back to Bali and opened our email we learned of the passing of one of our very best friends, Steve Drogin from San Diego. Many people in the industry know Steve. He was so helpful to so many. He knew everybody and if Steve liked you (he had no time for jerks); he was truly your friend. If you wish to know more about Steve check out the Wetpixel website. They have a nice tribute to him. I talked, via Skype, with Steve every couple of weeks and will really, really miss him. And we sure hope that Death has moved on now. It has certainly taken its toll in our circle of friends.

Now it’s back to the book. The editor is almost finished with the text and we will meet with the designer next week to begin laying out the book. It is still on schedule for a debut at DEMA, the annual industry dive show, in Orlando in November, assuming DEMA happens! The industry is really suffering in this economic climate and it appears that none of the big equipment manufacturers will attend this year.

Maurine’s sister and brother-in-law come for a short visit next week and then at the end of May we go to Singapore to get our visa renewed. June 3 we will have been here for a year! Once back from Singapore it will be the Komodo dive season and we are looking forward to diving some of the sites we pioneered in the early ‘90s. A newsletter will be going out shortly announcing our travel programs for 2010. Hopefully we’ll see many of you on our upcoming Secret Sea Visions charters. I promise to be a better, or at least a more frequent, blogger in the coming months. And speaking of blogs, we have been asked to contribute a blog on “Undercurrent’s” website. So look for that as well. Until next time we wish you all a Happy Ending and…

Best Fishes,
Burt and Maurine

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