Four hundred years ago, the most valuable commodity in the world was not gold, oil or web clicks…it was nutmeg. The only known source of nutmeg were the tiny Banda Islands, which are part of a larger group of islands called the Malukus or Moluccas or Spice Islands (today in eastern Indonesia). Nutmeg was so valuable that in 1667 the Dutch traded their American colony of New Amsterdam (now New York) to the British in exchange for a 1.4 square mile Banda island called “Run.”
Or so the over-simplified story is usually told. In reality, the British and Dutch fought a series of exhausting world-wars in the 1600’s and eventually called a truce by consolidating each country’s sphere of influence. That did include the swap of Run and New York but within a larger framework. Nutmeg is still the primary industry on Run and supports a very pleasant, if simple, island lifestyle. But the locals love to tell you with a proud grin about their brush with history and fame.
We visited three islands within the Maluku chain: Run, Watebela and Banda Neira. They were a perfect microcosm of the rest of our trip through eastern Indonesia, with welcoming people and amazing snorkeling. Watebela Island was an extreme example of the phenomenon we mention earlier about the fun reception you can get in an untouristed place. As far as we could tell, tourists had never been to Watebela before and the enthusiastic welcome was off the charts. Both kids and adults with big smiles greeted us at the beach and around town. Everyone with a phone wanted a selfie with us and/or wanted to pose for a selfie with our camera.
Banda Neira, like Run, is famous for its nutmeg. And we enjoyed touring the nutmeg farms and seeing nutmeg drying on everyone’s front steps. But to us the highlight was a snorkel at Banda Api, a volcanic island just across a small bay from Banda Neira. It last erupted in 1988, sending a lava flow into the ocean. Since then, a beautiful coral garden has sprouted over the fresh lava and it rivals anything we saw in nearby Raja Ampat. There are lots of pictures below but it might be best appreciated in video.
All in all, the Maluku Islands were a great climax to our time in Indonesia. This was our second trip through eastern Indonesia and we’d be happy to do it all over again.
Sorry, no clever title or amusing anecdotes in this post. We take our snorkeling very seriously. Raja Ampat is a region of islands in Indonesia, just off the western tip of New Guinea. It is home to more species of coral and reef fish there than anywhere else in the world. As soon as you enter the water, the diversity and quantity of marine life takes your breath away. We’ve snorkeled all over the world and nowhere else compares. Pictures don’t do it justice — they can’t capture the variety of colors and the fish are rightly wary of us. But we’ll do our best.
A number of factors combine to make Raja Ampat the coral reef hotspot of the world: a stable climate with no cyclones, rich ocean currents at the boundary between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, few humans around to foul the water or overfish, effective conservation measures enacted in consultation with the locals, and the area has been geologically stable for millions of years while other seas have come and gone.
The views above the water play second fiddle to the underwater beauty but would justify a visit on their own. The sculptured limestone islands are perhaps even more dramatic and picturesque than what we saw in the Rock Islands of Palau.
When people ask us why we like to travel to remote obscure places, one of the reasons we often give is that we enjoy being not only the gawkers but the gawkees. In an area that doesn’t get many outside visitors, the arrival of tourists is an Event. The whole town will show up at the dock or airport for the excitement of seeing what strangely overdressed aliens might pop out. It can be a carnival atmosphere with children jockeying for a better view and vendors catering to the locals even more than us. Now in the era of ubiquitous cell phones, cameras click away at us like we are movie stars walking the red carpet.
Once in Uzbekistan, a wedding party taking their official photos in a park called us over to pose with them, presumably to lend the photos an air of the exotic.
New Guinea is divided between two countries: the eastern half is the independent country of Papua New Guinea and the western half is part of Indonesia. Cenderawasih Bay is on the north coast of the Indonesian side. When we were here four years ago, cell phones hadn’t fully penetrated the population but now everyone seems to have one. Not only in the bigish town on the island of Biak but even in the smaller villages we visited: Yende and Kwatisore. We got the full paparazzi treatment as well as endless request for “selfies” (the term now seems to be universal like “taxi”).
We’ve been to New Guinea three times and we always marvel at how friendly the people are. It is probably the friendliest place we’ve ever been. In the pre- and post-selfie worlds, we collected countless smiles, waves and handshakes. And not just because we are big fish in a small pond. We are small fry compared to Cenderawasih Bay’s most famous visitors: whale sharks, the biggest fish in the sea. They are not whales but are sharks, though it is mandatory to call them “gentle giants.” They eat nothing larger than a sardine.
Floating fishing platforms dot the waters of Cenderawasih Bay and it has become a tradition for the fishermen to feed the whale sharks, some say for good luck, others say that the feeding keeps the sharks from tearing into the fishermen’s nets for a snack. Nowhere else in the world are whale sharks so easy to see because of this unique cross-species relationship. We had the opportunity to snorkel with a young male whale shark, only about 20 feet long (a third of his potential) as he repeatedly came up to the surface to be fed like a begging pet by the fishermen.