I am looking out through the window of a sleek Garuda Indonesia ATR 72-600 aircraft at the isle below. We are approaching Biak, an island blanketed in rainforest chock full of exotic birds, insects and plants. But I am not coming here for the abundant wildlife above the sealine.
Biak, along with bustling Manokwari to the southeast on the Papuan mainland, are the gateway cities to this new and exciting dive destination in Indonesia’s West Papua: Cenderawasih Bay. Beneath its waters is the bounty of Neptune. Coral reefs teem with colourful fish – including many endemic species – while war relics sit on the sandy plateau as havens for marine life on a huge scale. Add in the world’s largest fish, the whale shark, and you can understand why Cenderawasih Bay is on every diver’s dream list.After landing, I spend the day in Kota Biak enjoying the people and the markets, before heading out in the morning on the live-aboard dive phinisi, Damai I. This traditionally made, wooden phinisi will be my home for two weeks of unforgettable diving the length and breadth of Cenderawasih Bay. During the Second World War, Biak was one of the home bases of the Allied forces, and the Japanese also used it as a defence base. It was here I was able to dive something special from that wartime era, a Catalina PBY flying boat airplane. Although the engines have been salvaged, the rest of this plane remains intact, adorned in coral, surrounded by schools of fish and still sporting the stylish lines of a flying boat. During the Second World War, PBYs were used in anti-submarine warfare, patrol bombing, convoy escorts, search-andrescue missions (especially air-sea rescue) and cargo transport. The plane has lush growths of soft corals all over it. Lionfish roam looking for smaller fish to eat. It is a beautiful transformation.
I was also told of sightings of a prehistoric fish, the coelacanth, off the shores of Biak. This rare fish normally lives in depths of around 100m or more, and only specialised divers can seek its habitat. Yet there had been sightings in just 30m here. Our foray to find one produced no coelacanth, but it was a good adventure. Motoring around the northern reaches of the bay we explored some remote islands and atolls that showcased beautiful dropoffs and mushroom-shaped limestone islands. Black coral trees hid longnose hawkfish that were on the hunt for tiny silver fish that shoaled in the coral branches. Following our trip through Biak’s eastern islands, we headed for Manokwari, which also houses some wartime shipwrecks. We explored freighters with sake bottles still in the holds, and one smaller ship was alive with coral and batfish. This is real frontier diving, with live depth charges at rest in an aft hold! It was here we picked up a park ranger at Cenderawasih Bay National Park headquarters, who accompanied our phinisi south to the national park.
Seeing the whale sharks was our focus, but the vast bay also includes a feeding habitat of three sea mammals: dugongs, dolphins and whales. On land, huge coconut crabs, the largest living terrestrial arthropod, thrive. And there are many islands and dive spots along the way. The park comprises the southwest quarter of the bay. Papua, on the western half of the island of New Guinea, is Indonesia’s largest and least populated province. Three million people live here, in an area of over 42 million hectares (about half the size of the US state of California) – 80% of which is covered by forests. As we headed south, diving along the way to reach the park, there was only nature in the form of thick rainforest along the shores. Cenderawasih Bay was geologically isolated until recently, and a map shows that it is still somewhat confined. This means that less current moves through Cenderawasih’s waters, and therefore there’s less recruitment of marine larvae than on the west side in a place like Raja Ampat. This isolation has produced a number of endemic species of interest to marine biologists including a recently discovered walking shark and an oddly coloured longnose butterflyfish. Papua and Biak are just now seeing some exploration both by land and sea. New sites beg to be found and known sites are being better studied. We motored south to Kwatisore village, the whale shark area. The diving spots here have unique creatures such as hairy frogfish, ornate ghost pipefish and a tiny pipehorse living near a submerged WWII Japanese Zero fighter plane. The dives at Tanjung Mangguar produced soft corals, red gorgonian sea whips, swim-throughs between rocks in the shallows and sandy shelves down the slopes. A bigeye jack school circled in one pass. Jagged, rugged and enticingly photogenic, I could live in this bay.
Cenderawasih’s resident whale sharks have learnt that fishermen, using large floating platforms called bagans, catch small fish by night using lights. Whale sharks have huge mouths and 6,000 tiny teeth but are harmless to humans as they eat only plankton. Though their mouths are huge, their throats measure only 10 cm across. The bagan fishermen started feeding small fish to the whale sharks maybe a decade ago, and consider their presence as good luck. The small fish are a bonanza of protein enrichment for the whale sharks, so now they come around on a regular basis. I jump in; my pal Gusti hands me my camera and points. I look around. There, just a few metres away, is a huge, huge whale shark. Called hiu bintang (star shark), one of its many names in Bahasa Indonesia, the unmistakable dotted pattern on this immense fish leaves no doubt. And there’s more than one. I can see at least five sharks above, below and circling around the bagan. I can tell I am going to have a lot of fun here. We made many trips to the bagan over the course of two days, watching them come and go and feed. They were quite calm and consistently around and coming to us. Normally, whale sharks swim at or near the surface and feed as they swim. The slow, rhythmic swaying of their tail belies an immense power, which even seasoned divers find hard to keep up with and photograph. But this was like a whale shark studio, with big fish coming right in to pose. It was a bit intimidating encountering such a huge shark at first. But after a while, their graceful swimming style and gentle demeanour ensured that any fears were replaced by awe.
We had little males, maybe 3m long, and a huge female of around 9m long and weighing many tons. Whale sharks can grow to nearly 20m, so these were actually all considered juveniles. As few as three and as many as eight appeared at our various feeding sessions that stretched over two days. It was a magical time. Whether it is exploring old war ruins, hiking the dense jungles, enjoying ethnic art or pursuing the biggest shark in the sea, Papua offers real adventure. Right now, there are no roads down to the park, and even the roads around Manokwari are mostly four-wheel-drive trails. This area is definitely one of the last remote refuges on Earth. Truly Indonesian, wild and wonderful.
Papeda is said to be the most famous dish in Papua. Usually eaten for breakfast, papeda porridge, also known as sago congee or bubur sagu, takes the place of rice in daily meals. It is commonly eaten with a soup or a sauce made from tuna or local fish. It may also be eaten with a baked fish dish called kohu-kohu.
Music and dance have always been a key component in West Papuan culture. If you have the chance, see a cultural performance or, while on hikes, just be on the alert for their unique Melanesian- Pacific songs as you pass villages. The music is accompanied by ukulele, guitar and monitor-lizard-skin drums for the quintessentially tropical sound of Indonesia.
In Manokwari, many local artists ply their skills from workshops in their homes. Make sure to visit the home of painter Lucky Kaikatui to see some amazing landscapes of the Papuan forest. Also look out for local Korwar-style woodcarvers, such as Nico Asaribab, and weavers such as Marice Fonataba, who makes women’s skirts by hand from pandanus fronds.
4. THE RAINFOREST
Manokwari’s State University of Papua does a lot of research in the field of herbalism. The university is strategically located on a hill facing the city, surrounded by a dense tropical rainforest. This allows the researchers instant access to some of the world’s most exotic plantlife. Wander into these tracts to connect with the various plants, tree leaves, flowers, insects and even endemic butterflies that make up this special ecosystem.
There’s nothing like Indonesian morning markets for all kinds of fragrances. Sea salt, turmeric, spices, soybeans, onions, limes, tapioca, taro, coconuts, powerful red chillis and chilli sauces, betel nuts, pepper leaves, peanuts, bilum bags and much more can be found by wandering through the local markets in Biak and Manokwari.