Ambon Inside And Out
JOHN LIDDIARD goes to Indonesia to savour the contrast between the muck-diving in Ambon Bay and the reef-diving outside it
Appeared in DIVER April 2018
WE HAVE A WRECK with CIA connections,” Kai Maney tells me when I ask about Dive Into Ambon. He knows I have an interest in wrecks. Funny thing is, I had completely forgotten about the wreck and its CIA connections.
What had caught my interest was that Kaj and Barb’s dive-centre serves both muck-diving sites inside Ambon Bay and clear open water on the outside of the island.
Memory jogged, I immediately make the connection with CIA pilot Alan Pope and his role in the Permesta Rebellion in 1958 (see panel overleaf).
The wreck of the 5,397-ton Aquila lies close to an active oil-pier well into Ambon Bay, where the water begins to both narrow and shallow. Diving is consequently governed by ship activity and tides.
With this in mind, my first dive on the Aquila is with a macro lens, because the conditions are unknown and we could end up diving the muck somewhere else.
As it turns out, we get a nice 50 minutes on the wreck before my hoovering of nitrox forces us to ascend. As on any muck-dive, it’s all about weird and tiny critters, only on a substrate of silty rusting steel rather than mud and gravel.
It also serves as a good recce for returning with a wide lens. I already know the layout of the wreck, a bit like a scaled-up version of the Elsa off Dartmouth – two holds forward, two aft, and an extended superstructure with a deep hold in the boat deck.
I have a route of photo-opportunities worked out in my head. Down the buoy at the stern, across the aft holds, through the engine-room forward to the stoke hold, then quickly on past the forward holds to the bow and back beneath the wings of the boat-deck. If divers are very careful about the silt, there are some interesting inside scenes.
This isn’t the only wreck in Ambon Bay. A medium-sized steel hull can be found just off the city waterfront, with a smaller steel hull tied alongside.
But this isn’t a wreck of interest, more a bit of steel substrate providing habitat and spanning the slope between seagrass beds in the shallows and small clumps of coral in deeper water.
Every time we head into the bay I notice another derelict ship in some state of partial submergence. Whole rafts of sizeable fishing-boats have been lined up at anchor for years since a clamp-down on illegal fishing marooned them in harbour. Some are maintained, while others look as if they could soon be joining the derelicts.
If a group of divers wanted to go exploring for wreckage, there is no doubt more to be found. Who knows how many vessels have already disappeared below the surface?
Nevertheless, wreckage is a bonus, and my main reason for visiting Ambon is to contrast between muck-diving in the bay and reef-diving outside it.
Imagine a slightly ovoid island. Ambon Bay cuts in from the south-west, about 75% of the way through.
To the south-east, Baguala Bay cuts more gently into the island to leave an isthmus about 1km wide just holding the north and south parts of Ambon together. It’s almost two islands.
Dive Into Ambon lies on the north coast of Baguala Bay at the Maluku Resort, with a pair of boats to serve the “outside” dive-sites directly. Diving the “inside” muck-diving sites involves a short ride on its bus to board a third boat kept at its Ambon Bay jetty.
THE DIVE PATTERN typically alternates a day or two inside with a day or two outside, as various groups of divers rotate between the boats.
As a gross generalisation, the further you are into Ambon Bay, the muckier it gets: silt, visibility, people, trash – all the things that perversely provide habitat for the critters that habitual muck-divers seek out. If Neptune’s Army of Rubbish Collectors cleaned up here, half the marine life would end up homeless.
Choice of dive-sites is often a compromise between diving conditions and critter conditions. The wrecks are the closest sites we dive to DIA’s jetty, about 30 minutes out. Most other sites are a further 30 to 60 minutes or more along the north or south of the bay, though with three dives per trip we often don’t notice that, because the middle dive is usually the one furthest from home.
As with any muck-dive, sometimes we can go 10 or 15 minutes before finding anything exciting, or even anything at all. Then suddenly we strike mucky gold.
On the other hand, sometimes we land on top of the gold-mine. What we find varies so much between sites; each has its own seasonal residents.
Jetties are often good for frogfish, and I’m not disappointed at Air Manis Jetty.
A monster is lurking among the legs as clouds of fish swirl about. She doesn’t have her lure out, so perhaps there is so much free lunch available that she has no room for any more.
THE NEARBY SEABED provides interesting muck in itself, changing from a gravel slope to dark mud littered with junk. Drifting towards the jetty we find a pair of ornate ghost pipefish, seahorses and a variety of nudibranchs, shrimps and crabs.
Which reminds me, a seriously hairy orangutan crab is just about impossible to focus on. Even when in-focus, it still looks out of focus. Nevertheless, beneath the jetty is the high point of the dive, a winning habitat combo of shade, pier legs and maximum junk.
Another jetty at Laha is active with fishing-boats. Beneath and along the nearby seabed, the steady supply of fish-scraps from above keeps a massive population of eels, octopus and cuttlefish fed.
Of course, critters in these families are fairly common muck-diving sightings, but the sheer profusion, variety and boldness at a single location is something special.
An unfortunate side-effect of muck-diving is the risk of ear infections. Every diver has a pet preventative, ranging from branded preparations to home-brew concoctions gleaned from old wives tales and the Internet. When these fail, a trip to the local pharmacy is only two stops and 3000 rupiah (about 15p) by the local minibus up the road.
Three remedies are available: antibiotic ear-drops, the regular antibiotics and the strong antibiotics.
We later look these up in the British National Formulary – turns out they are good for almost everything including anthrax and bubonic plague, so ear-infections have little chance of survival.
Both jetty-sites are on the north side of the bay. Almost level with them on the south side, Yorum Point is populated with tiny frogfish. The largest we find is bright orange and about 3cm long, looking like a chunk of orange sponge nestled between two fingers of sponge.
The smallest are about the size of my little finger-nail, and all I can see are black or orange blobs of gunk until my macro lens focuses on them.
If you’re not a photographer, and even if you are, it’s well worth bringing a good magnifying glass with you.
A HUNDRED METRES ALONG, just off a house extended on ramshackle stilts over the water, an isolated rock on an otherwise sandy slope is the well-known home of a pair of lacy rhinopias.
Momma rhinopias is bigger and purple, and a bit of a diva, posing boldly for photographs. Daddy rhinopias is about half the size and blends into the biscuit-coloured hydroids of the background.
I could go on forever about the various nudibranchs, shrimps, crabs, seahorses, pipefish, octopuses, scorpion and stonefish relatives, but I also need to say something about the outside dives. After all, this is why I’m here.
The boat used for the inside sites is named Wonderpus. A similarly sized boat used for the outside sites is Mimicus. On a low spring tide, we need to wade a few metres out on the clean sand of Baguala Bay to board.
As our captain heads us across the bay and along the south side of the island, the geology becomes obvious. Jungle hangs over a short cliff with a distinct ledge just below the waterline.
The cliff is cut with caves and crevices, then at headlands with arches and stacks. UK summer months are the stormy season when this coast is inaccessible, with waves pounding in against the rock and etching out the smallest of cracks.
In December the waves are minimal; just a light surge below the surface. A period of lower sea-level from the last Ice Age has left similar arches, cracks and caves for us to dive through.
They’re not as profuse as in the cliffs above, but perhaps they didn’t have as long to form, or perhaps many have become filled with coral and sand.
Alfa Bar is a double-chambered cave at the waterline, a wide outer chamber then a crack up into an inner chamber where we break the dive to admire flowstone, stalactites and the twinkling of flashlight fish when we turn our lights out.
At Hukurila the “cave” is a series of crevasses and canyons in the shallow reef leading down to three arches lined with gorgonians, whips and soft corals.
It’s one of those dives that has to be done big and small, with the overall scenes providing the big wow, while looking among the gorgonians reveals long-nosed hawkfish and the whip corals are inhabited by shrimps and gobies.
The arch at Gate of the City is on a bigger scale altogether, so big that it’s too big. Over-wowed by the magnificence, I soon find myself looking among the rocks for small stuff, though I have to admit that it’s our guides who find the boxer crabs and minuscule nudibranchs.
Shallow corals don’t survive the stormy season beneath the cliffs, though a little bit deeper there are enough stony corals in most places to hide the bare rock. Sea-mounts coming within a few metres of the surface are not so badly affected by the stormy season’s breakers and provide the full array of corals, from thorny forms in the shallows through stony corals down the sides of the mounts.
Among fish and critters, the novelty site is Hard Boiled, where volcanically heated sand can be used to cook an egg.
Inside or out, on big scenery or muck, our dive-guides are obsessive and almost competitive about finding the smallest critters possible, from a frogfish the size of my little fingernail to nudibranchs that would leave no room for angels on the head of a pin.
They also find plenty of “larger” macro critters of all types, but my lesson to take home from Ambon is that 100% macro reproduction just isn’t enough.
To paraphrase Jaws, I’m gonna need a bigger lens.
The CIA Permesta Rebellion. In 1957, while the USA publicly supported the Indonesian government, the CIA was backing rebellion in Indonesia, afraid that President Sukarno’s “Guided Democracy” regime was leaning too close to Communism.
The Permesta rebels, led by ex-Indonesian Army officers, declared an independent state in north-east Sulawesi. To support the rebellion, the CIA provided B26 Invader aircraft under the cover of the front organisation Civil Air Transport (CAT).
The aircraft were painted black to obscure any identification. Most of the pilots were Filipino and Nationalist Chinese but led by two Americans, Allen Pope and William Beale.
Missions in April and May 1958 included attacking shipping in Ambon, damaging and eventually sinking the Flying Lark and the Aquila (built in 1940 as Duke of Sparta).
In mid-May, Pope’s B26 was shot down and he and his radio-operator bailed out and were captured. CIA orders were for pilots to fly without identification or documentation, an order largely ignored because documentation could be the only thing to save a pilot’s life if he was captured.
The US ambassador tried to disown Pope as a mercenary, but documents carried by the pilot provided public proof of CIA backing.
The Permesta rebellion was over by June 1958, and CIA support for rebellion in Indonesia withdrawn.
Pope was tried and condemned to death but released in 1962. Beale was killed that same year in another CIA-backed operation in Laos, flying for “Air America”.
GETTING THERE> John Liddiard flew with KLM and Garuda via Amsterdam to Jakarta for an overnight stay at the FM7 hotel. Ambon is a direct domestic flight with Garuda or Batik Air. Ground transfer takes about 40 minutes.
WHEN TO GO> Any time.
MONEY> Indonesian rupiah.
PRICES> Booking through Dive Worldwide, eight nights’ full board at Maluku Resort & Spa, 18 dives with Dive Into Ambon, flights with Garuda, overnight in Jakarta and transfers costs from £2195pp, diveworldwide.com
VISITOR INFORMATION> indonesia.travel