IT’S home to some of the world’s most pristine islands, but the Halmahera Sea also has historical significance that forever changed science.
WHEN a dive master grabs a diver by the shoulder, coming centimetres from his face to sputter a reprimanding column of bubbles from his regulator, it’s either because something extremely good, or pretty dangerous, is about to happen.
In our case, it’s the second option: the diver is almost out of air at the bottom of the sea near Arborek village, in the Raja Ampat Marine Reserve of West Papua, just off the southern side of Waigeo island. He had better ascend to his safety stop, even though he has just spotted the first oceanic manta ray — wait, a group of three — of his life. Sinuous, large things that look like a mix between a flapping Mexican sombrero and Batman’s iconic logo, they float above the ocean’s floor as if they were shuttling in outer space.
What would you do, if you were that diver and had come all the way to West Papua precisely waiting for this very moment? Heartbreak. But no worries because the pain of leaving those creatures behind is short, for even out of the water this part of Eastern Indonesia, so close to Australia yet so incredibly forgotten, has plenty to impress.
We are in the middle of the Halmahera Sea, riding a wooden tiger across some of the world’s most pristine islands. Our vessel, Tiger Blue, a private Pinisi charter completely made out of wood, is a true Indonesian blue blood: custom-built in Bira, South Sulawesi, in the traditional boatbuilding style of the indigenous Bugis seamen — an intangible UNESCO World Heritage as of late 2017 — it has deep red sails that give it the mean look of an old-world pirate vessel.
The schooner is the brainchild of Malaysian couple David Wilkinson and Rebecca Duckett-Wilkinson who, together with two British partners, decided to build Tiger Blue to explore the exquisitely remote East Indonesian seas at their leisure. When they are not wanderlusting, the boat is up for charter.
Conceived as an intimate liveaboard, the 34m-long Tiger Blue can host a maximum of 12 guests and a crew of 10 in cosy ensuite cabins — a perfect choice for the adventure cruise of a lifetime. Besides offering itineraries in the popular Indonesian hotspots of Komodo National Park and Raja Ampat Marine Reserve, Tiger Blue just launched the ultimate East Indonesian exploration route: sailing from the pristine fringes of West Papua to Ternate in the Northern Moluccas, it retraces the last recorded sea voyage of 19th-century British naturalist and explorer Alfred Russel Wallace, one of the fathers of natural science.
Tiny Ternate, an island that’s almost all active volcano, is more important to history than its size suggests. Besides the prized cloves and nutmeg that fuelled the colonial spice trade, it was here that, bedridden by a bout of malarial fever, Wallace mustered the ideas he jotted down in an excited letter to his friend, Charles Darwin, in England. When the famous scientist received Wallace’s musings and read about “evolution by natural selection”, he rushed the completion of his own similar theory and organised the London joint lecture that forever changed the face of science, linking the two men as its godfathers.
There’s a dog-eared copy of Wallace’s The Malay Archipelago aboard Tiger Blue. “This new route mixes land exploration and sea activities, all based on Wallace’s maps and accounts,” says Rebecca Duckett-Wilkinson, who also runs the Tropical Spice Garden on the Malaysian island of Penang.
On the second day, Tiger Blue stops at Bessir, the village where Wallace spent a couple months studying the rare red birds of paradise. Besides a few TV antennas and the church introduced by visiting missionaries, not much has changed since the naturalist lived here two centuries ago. Shaggy-haired children in “Yesus I love you” shirts meet us at the wooden jetty, and chaperone us around the sandy roads lined with palm trees and their concrete and corrugated iron homes. Many heads lift from their daily chores: we are like some sort of attraction, as without public ferries, very few tourists make it to these forlorn shores.
On the next day, we set sail west for the 10-hour traverse that will take us through the Dampier Strait, past remote Gag island, and across the open sea to the southern side of Halmahera — the biggest of the Northern Moluccas islands.
When we see Gag’s coast profile ahead, a pack of 20 black, curved fins raises from the water: pilot whales. But we barely have the time to admire them as, on the opposite side of the boat, a fleet of jealous dolphins starts chasing our attention by flipping in and out of the water. One leaves the group and rushes ahead of the ship’s bow, effortlessly surpassing our engines, as if it wanted to clarify who are the fittest creatures to haunt this deep blue sea.
It takes another couple of days spent diving, kayaking in azure bays, and hopping between volcanic islets before the ship makes its final stop in Tidore, and finally sets anchor off Ternate’s coast. The two facing island-sultanates are both dotted by ash-grey Dutch and Portuguese forts and shaded by mighty volcanoes.
From the top of Fort Tolukko in Ternate, the view over the two opposing twin bays, chiselled by viridian crests, takes the breath away. Down in the sea, Tiger Blue is like a floating wooden dot beckoning for more adventures.
But the flanks of Ternate’s dormant Gamalama volcano marked the end of Wallace’s trip, and so ours. We won’t probably return Down Under mustering the theories that will revolutionise the future of science but rest assured, we’ll bring back a bag of memories to last a lifetime.
The writer travelled courtesy of Tiger Blue
Full private charters cost A$7165 a day for up to seven people (and a maximum of 12 passengers, with additional fees). Seven days cruises for two people in twin shared cabin with set departure dates cost A$11,000.
Prices include private en suite cabin, four meals daily, Raja Ampat Marine Park entry fees, sea and land activities, and airport transfers.
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