CONCENTRATING HARD as I tried to capture on my camera the tiny clownfish dancing through the arms of an anemone, I was suddenly aware of someone watching me.
Being almost 5m down, I thought it must be my dive-buddy. Looking up, I almost jumped out of my skin to see a young boy grinning at me, looking odd in homemade wooden goggles.
Giving me a double thumbs-up, he slowly swam back up to the surface, before duck-diving back down again, performing somersaults and making funny faces at me as I took his photograph.
Very soon he was joined by some friends who had swum from the shore, treading water and taking turns to duck-dive down, pushing each other aside if more than one dived at the same time, jostling for position in front of my camera lens, posing ever more inventively in a competition to see who could make me laugh the most.
What amazed me was not only the almost constant diving to depth, but the length of time they stayed under water on one breath-hold. I noticed that some of them were using their flip-flops as paddles, which seemed to help them to swim more effectively under water, but might just have been a way to keep their shoes safe.
For the next 40 minutes they entertained me and the other divers in my group with their antics until we had to ascend, the air in our tanks depleted.
Once on the surface, I could see that the boys were aged between about eight and 12. They splashed and laughed on the surface around us, ducking each other and performing haphazard synchronised swimming moves, waving their legs in the air.
We were diving from the Mermaid II liveaboard, on route from Raja Ampat to Maumere in Indonesia – a special 16-night biodiversity trip through seven seas – and were currently moored in the middle of the Alor Islands.
Part of an extinct volcano, jutting up from the ocean, they consist of a group of two major islands and several lesser islets in East Nusa Tenggara province. They are part of the Lesser Sunda Islands, lying between the Flores and Savu Seas and the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
Our support rib approached us slowly. As we took our kit off and boarded the boat, some of the boys also clambered aboard, while others hung onto the ropes attached to the inflatable sides, all set to enjoy a gentle cruise back to the liveaboard.
The boat-crew were clearly used to the boys from previous trips to the area and chatted to them in Indonesian, translating our questions and the answers, which the boys found very funny, guffawing and giggling loudly.
Approaching Mermaid II, we saw a whole group of villagers in dugout canoes, tiny fishing-boats and rafts made from all sorts of flotsam and jetsam heading the same way and clambering onto the duckboard at the stern of the liveaboard. We laughed to see several children, some only toddlers, in tiny dugout tree-trunks, using pieces of polystyrene as paddles.
They obviously had no fear of the ocean, because they delighted in filling the canoes with water until they were almost submerged.
We were diving off Yan village on the island of Pura, a lone rock in the middle of the Alor Islands. Being so remote, the islanders have no choice but to live off the sea. Fishing is a way of life.
Located in the centre of the Ring of Fire, the islands consist of volcanic sand and rock which, along with the mix of several nutrient-rich currents, makes for an incredibly healthy reef system full of marine life, from the deepest depths right up to the shore.
The villagers have made the most of the gently sloping reefs on their doorsteps by choosing to freedive, and set up home-made bamboo fishing-cages to complement more traditional types of fishing using boats.
Swimming the short distance from shore dragging the cages, they place them on the slopes at depths from 5 to 10m, securing them with rocks. While diving we had spotted several different shapes and sizes of cages full of colourful fish, dotted over the reef at various depths.
I had to stop myself from using my knife to cut the cages open, reminding myself that these fish were essential for the villagers’ survival.