Diving in the Banda Islands
Liveaboard cruises in the Banda Sea
Set in the heart of Indonesia in splendid isolation are the Banda Islands, which have a rich and important history. Nowadays liveaboard divers are discovering the high value of the life beneath its waters' surface. They are blessed with some of the finest scuba diving in the country.
The remoteness of the islands in the wide open Banda Sea, and the low levels of human population, have meant less fishing pressures, and a vibrant, natural and healthy reef system. The results of this is that you can expect reefs bursting with life, huge seafans and sponges, some monumental hard corals, and more fish than your mask can cope with.
While big fish and pelagics might be the most obvious draw card for divers at the Banda Islands, its true value is in the extraordinary variety and sheer volume of fish life, both in terms of large and small marine life.
Two of the creatures worthy of special mention here that characterise diving in the Banda Sea are the preponderance of dogtooth tuna and mobula rays. At most sites you'll see enormous schools of fusiliers and thousands of redtooth tirggerfish. At the other end of the size scale, there are prolific mandarinfish and the native Ambon scorpionfish.
Cetaceans are frequent visitors too, and Banda liveaboards often report sightings of spinner dolphins, orcas, and various whale species, including melonhead, pilot, blue, and humpback whales. One certainty is that you will see plenty of big stuff as well as no shortage of colourful reef life.
Diving is usually comfortable, with mild currents, good visibility and calm waters, but some of the sites are subject to stronger currents that make them suitable for experienced divers only.
If you have dived in the Banda Islands before then you will be planning to return already. If you have not, then now is the time to experience the splendour of the Banda Sea before the word spreads ...
Dive Site Descriptions
The Banda Islands
Pulau Ai - This is an isolated low lying island to the west of Banda Neira. It has some small limestone cliffs on its southern coastline and some pretty beaches on its northern shores.
Due to its isolation, walls and deep waters, when the current is running, Pulau Ai is one of the top dive sites in the Banda Islands for shark encounters. Hammerhead sharks are frequently seen, and thresher and silvertip sharks are occasionally sighted too. Wahoo and giant trevally visit the island, and chevron barracuda and bluefin trevally hunt here in large schools. Always a memorable occasion for any scuba diver are the squadrons of mobula rays, sometimes flying in formation up to 25 strong.
Batu Udang, or 'Shrimp Rock' in Bahasa Indonesian, is on the south side of Pulau Ai. Your dive begins over a gentle sloping reef down to 13 metres, followed by a very steep slope anywhere down to 55 metres. Black triggerfish and redtooth triggerfish are everywhere, freely intermingling with each other.
The deeper wall sections have yellow, brown and green soft corals, and lobe corals. Whitetip reef sharks, eagle rays and large schools of bluetail unicornfish frequent this area. Hawksbill turtles rest on ledges or feed on the green sponges; Maori wrasse, pinnate batfish and black and white snappers are some of the prevalent larger fish species.
Up on the reef flat, you can drift over limestone covered in gooseberry tunicates, sarcophyton and sinularia leather corals, fire and blue corals. Black and white bicolour chromis flit between the moosehead coral arms, small schools of convict tangs and striped large-eye breams move across their ranges, and oriental sweetlips lurk under the boulders and bommies.
At Tanjung Batu Payong, or 'Umbrella Rock Point', on the west coast of Pulau Ai, the wall is steeper and drops down to 60 metres. This part of the island has a few more barrel sponges, olive vase sponges, green tubestraea corals, gorgonian fans, and lots of hydrozoans in the shallows. Schools of rainbow runners often pull in to lunch on the blue and yellow fusiliers and bluedash fusiliers.
The thriving shallow reef flat at Batu Payong is simply superb. There are expansive hard coral fields interspersed with soft corals and anemones, and the whole area is busied by marine life. Every coral head or anemone seems to have its own residents, whether it be hawkfish, grouper or anemonefish. Large shoals of triggerfish flutter across the shallows, fusiliers and batfish roam around in search of willing cleaners, wrasse and goatfish forage over the flat. This is a great place to idle away the latter part of a dive, watching the interplay between the reef's busy populace.
Although Pulau Ai does not have the same coral diversity as some of the other Banda Islands, it still proves popular on liveaboard diving cruises due to its big fish offerings.
Batu Belanda - 'Dutch Rock' is so named as it is the supposed first landing spot for the Dutch sailing boats when they first arrived in the Bandas. It is located along the western coast of Banda Besar; a rock jutting out from the coastal wall marks the entry point and the start of this dive.
The wall drops down to 24m here and is by no means a spectacular wall; the lack of regular sunlight diminishes the prospects of vibrant coral growth. However, it is still worth diving here for the opportunity to spot one of the rare creatures of the Moluccas - the Lembeh sea dragon. This creature belongs to the pipefish family; it looks like an evolutionist's ideal evidence in "missing link" debates as it has the elongated body of a pipefish and the head of a seahorse. The Lembeh seadragon prefers to hook itself to black crinoids as it uses the host's stinging arms for protection from predators.
After an exhaustive search for the elusive sea dragon, divers can follow the wall and current in a northerly direction. The wall has many barrel sponges, green branching cup corals, and small orange dendronephthya soft corals. Yellow and blue, and violet sea squirts also pepper the wall. Scorpionfish, blackspotted morays and orang-utan crabs are common. Check out the whip corals for their symbiotic shrimps. There are several Napoleon wrasse in the area, as well as bullethead parrotfish.
At 13m is a good sized cavern; the ledge penetrates quite deep and sun rays burst through a shaft in the ceiling to bring light to the area. Soldierfish and bigeyes hide in the corners, and nudibranchs and red fire gobies are commonly found on the floor.
Batu Kapal - 'Ship Rock' gets its name from its large central pinnacle that breaks the Banda Sea's surface and looks not surprisingly like a ship. It lies to the north west of Pulau Pisang. The main features that make this site such a favourite are its interesting topography, and enormous gorgonian fans and barrel sponges.
Batu Kapal is unique in the Banda Islands in that it is a series of pinnacles. The main pinnacle is quite large and slopes down to 22 metres. On its west and northern sides there are walls. From the bottom of this central pinnacle, you are then free to explore the deeper submerged pinnacles, one off to the southeast, one to the east, one to the northwest and a large boulder to the north east. The overall area of Batu Kapal is much too large to cover in one dive alone.
The southeast pinnacle drops to 34 metres on its outside, and rises to 26 metres. Here the orange gorgonians and barrel sponges are truly gargantuan. Swimming around the pinnacle, past some beautiful stands of deep purple ellisella whip coral fans, you're sure to encounter large schools of midnight snappers and bigeye bream. The eastern pinnacle is similar but slightly shallower, and the north-eastern boulder lies on 22 metres. The pinnacle in the northwest is more cylindrical, and rises from 40 metres to 10 metres, though it has less coral growth. Potato cod, moray eels, rainbow runners, longnose emperors, grey reef sharks and yellow tail barracuda are sometimes seen here, so take you pick on which suits your requirements and diving experience.
You'll no doubt end you dive by ascending back up the main pinnacle, over fields of small orange dendronephthya soft coral bushes and violet blue tunicates, home to giant and honeycomb morays, masses of redtooth triggerfish, and blacklip butterflyfish. Up in the shallows, the rocky surface is adorned with leather corals and hosts an amazing variety of colourful reef fishes. There are lots of red fire gobies, blue goldtail demoiselles, pink and orange-finned anemonefish, and many of the different species of smaller surgeons, such as the palelipped and brown surgeonfish. Large banded sea kraits can often be found, diving down from the surface to explore the reef for food.
When the current is running, Batu Kapal acts like magnet and pulls in the big pelagics. You'll definitely want to make more than one dive here on your Banda liveaboard cruise.
Batu Wali - This dive site is located on the western side of the northern tip of Banda Besar and it is the core zone of the islands' marine protected area that encompasses the islands of Pisang, Banda Besar, Banda Neira and Gunung Api. It achieved this status primarily due to it having an astounding coral reef and it being a spawning area for an important fishery species, the pelagic plectropomus grouper.
You'll begin your dive by descending down a vertical wall, as is common in the Banda Islands. But the main feature that differentiates this site from the others in the islands is the wide step in the wall that lies at around 30m. From here the reef plunges steeply down again to well beyond the recreational diving limits. The wide shelf features some massive barrel and green vase sponges and it's a great place to observe large bumphead parrotfish, groupers, emperors, Napoleons and barracuda.
After using up a good portion of your bottom time on the shelf, it is time to head back up the wall. There are plenty of fans, whips, featherstars and anemones to examine for shrimps and other critters. Look out for the unusual blood red bulb-tentacle anemone and its host deep red anemonefish. Schools of batfish often pass by, seemingly curious of scuba divers. The reef top is at 5-10m and has some superb marine life. Thousands and sergeant majors and black triggerfish dart over the seascape, adding a final flourish to what is usually an already satifying dive.
Currents can be strong and unpredictable, including counter- and up-currents. Chilly thermoclines can also be a distraction, making this a challenging site when conditions are not favourable.
Gunung Api - Gunung Api is a small volcano island lying just across a small strait, to the west of Banda Neira. Its last volcanic eruption took place in 1988, and hot molten lava streams flowed down its north-eastern and northern slopes into the Banda Sea, destroying the existing reef system. The local village was permanently evacuated.
After a time the lava cooled and set like a 200 metre wide concrete path on the reef substrate. The solid platform provided by the cold lava, the attendant ionisation process and the earthen minerals within the lava, have combined to form ideal conditions for the regeneration of the coral reef at Gunung Api.
The regrowth rates here have been phenomenal, dumfounding marine biologists and shattering misconceptions about how fast hard corals grow in nature. The size and conditions of the coral formations are quite staggering, especially when one considers that they have only being growing since 1988. Contrasting the existing formations of neighbouring Gunung Api reefs that were not exposed to lava with the new reef, it is clearly evident that a natural wonder of global proportions has occurred at the Banda Islands.
The best point for divers to drop in to see Banda's wonder-reef is the northernmost flow of lava on the north east coast of the island. Descending from the sea's surface you are immediately struck by the awesome spectacle below you. In the shallows there are tiered table corals, warty finger corals, bottlebrush corals, acropora corals, then from 20 down to 35 metres cabbage leaf corals take over the scenery. Some of the table corals are as big as houses, the cabbage patches are more like fields, and the corals are so densely packed that there is hardly an available space amongst them.
Slender fusiliers, greensnout parrotfish, slingjaw wrasse and cuttlefish are commonly seen here, as are triggerfish. The shy clown triggerfish could lay claim to being the prettiest of all fishes, with its black, yellow, gold and white contrasting markings. Black triggerfish are far more abundant at Gunung Api, and can be easily identified by their black body with a white band at the base of their dorsal and anal fins.
There are also a couple of rocky outcrops that break up the landscape and add topographical variety to the dive. These too are totally covered in corals, featherstars and a seafan or two, with anthias and damsels swarming all over. A close examination of the gorgonian fans may bring you reward in the form of a longnose hawkfish sighting. The featherstars conceal clingfish and emperor shrimp, their colours perfectly camouflaged to match their hosts.
Swimming along at depth, there's a good chance that divers will see large Napoleon wrasse, schools of round batfish and pinnate batfish. If upwelling conditions bring in murky planktonic water, then you're in luck. Some of the islands' more numerous pelagics are likely to visit. Mobula rays fed on the rich plankton, dogtooth tuna and blue trevally will hunt at the extreme of your vision, searching for stray fishes as easy prey.
Gunung Api is a once-in-a-life time experience, and is a 'must-see' on any liveaboard safari to the Banda Islands.
Pulau Hatta - Karang Hatta, or Sekaru meaning 'shallow area', is a 500 metre wide submerged reef a couple of kilometres off the south coast of Hatta Island, named after the first vice president of Indonesia and one of the 2 prime intellectuals behind its campaign for independence, Mohammad Hatta.
The southeast corner of the reef is a good place to begin your dive as it generally has a southerly current, which attracts fish in their thousands. The sloping reef here allows you to dive at pretty much any depth, but 25 metres is where most of the action seems to take place; and what action it can be.
Endless cascades of neon fusiliers interspersed with blue and yellow fusiliers seem to roll down the reef slope like mercury, so thick in places that it is impossible to see beyond them. This is a great shame because if you do manage to get a clear sight of the blue the there's a great chance you'll see some of the large pelagic fish like dogtooth tuna, eagle rays, great barracudas and even great and scalloped hammerhead sharks, coming in to play their part in this oceanic feeding festival.
Your bottom time will be up seemingly within minutes, as time will fly by, so you'll be forced up the slope into shallower water. The action doesn't stop there. Large numbers of bigeye trevally, and whitemargin unicornfish prowl across the fields of golden brown soft corals in search of bluedash fusiliers, redtooth triggerfish, pyramid butterflyfish and juvenile yellow snappers. Green turtles frequent the atoll too, and feed on the sponges here. Mobula rays come in search of planktonic sustenance, and white tip reef sharks are often seen snoozing on the slope bed.
At the end of the dive, you'll just make your way up to the reef crown to complete your safety stop or to use up more air. There's lots of different species of hawkfish, soldierfish, groupers, and tubelip wrasse. Titan triggerfish are also common residents here, and the Bandanese version is little different in temperament from elsewhere, so beware the titan triggerfish when it's nesting.
On the west side of the site the scenery is a little different. The slope is replaced by a vertical wall at around 14 metres, which hosts some of the largest sponges you're ever likely to see, and soldierfish peer out at you from every overhang. In the depths, black tip sharks and red snappers circle. The shallow sloping reef here is in even better shape than the other side, with magnificent brown soft corals and leather corals. Surgeonfish and solor wrasse add vivid dashes of colour and life to the spectacle.
Back at Hatta Island proper, along the north coast, there is a sinkhole very close to the reef wall. The cut on the reef flat is about 6m across and drops down about 4m, whereupon the passage bursts immediately through to the seaward wall forming a spectacular archway. Orang-utan crabs have made the exit wall their home. The dive site is called Hatta Goa and the area is incredibly rich in corals, sponges and gorgonian fans, and is in such obvious health. The walls start close to the sea's surface and drop down well beyond any recreational diver's limit so you can pretty much dive at whatever depth you prefer. The deeper wall is the best place to catch sightings of eagle rays and midnight snappers, whilst the many ledges are often home to giant clams and used by hawksbill turtles as resting stops.
But the shallow reef flat atop the wall is where the marine life really bursts into colour. This is the place the laze away a good portion of your dive, drifting gently along, watching the triggerfish, wrasse, striped catfish and damsels amongst the amazing variety of anemones, featherstars and soft corals.
Towards the southern end of the west coast of Hatta is a site called Pantai Kecil. Seemingly every Indonesian island group has its 'Little Beach' and the Banda Islands are no different in that regard. This area too has a very deep wall and vibrant shallows. You'll be amazed by the seemingly endless number of fusiliers streaming past. Napoleon wrasse tend to favour this site and can often be seen swimming below dive groups. The reef flat harbours many schools of juvenile fish, teardrop butterflyfish, sweetlips, and a few nudibranchs.
Karnobol - Located just to the east of Banda Besar, the largest island in the Bandas, this site like many in the area offers the chance of diving among tremendous numbers of fish.
Its name is derived from an old-fashioned Dutch club, which was used to beat to death many Bandanese people in an incident here several hundred years ago. Putting aside that useful piece of information, what makes Karnobol a unique dive site in the Banda Islands are the big bommies, rocks and outcroppings that form interesting topography As you descend down the steep slope dotted with immense and colourful gorgonians, sponges and soft corals, keep your eye out for the passing Napoleonfish and bump-headed parrotfish which frequent the area.
On flatter sections, staghorn coral flourishes with its frosted white tips standing proudly aloft. The colourful scene is added to by the yellow and blue hues of regal angelfish, whitecheek surgeonfish, brushtail tangs, ember parrotfish and butterflyfish which abound all around this site.
Butterflyfishes are small and colourful, and spend most of the day flitting in search of food within their small reef ranges. They typically travel alone or in pairs, and use keen eyesight to spot exposed polyps and other marine invertebrates. The Banda Islands host many different species, including ovalspot butterflyfish, which are bright yellow with a vertical black band running down through their eyes, and a large black spot in the middle of their back; and Meyer's butterflyfish, which is whitish-yellow with curved black bands and a grey nape.
Another excellent scuba spot which will leave you wondering why there are not flotillas of diving boats here, but thankful that you have this place to yourself ... and the ghosts of 50 or so poor Bandanese souls.
Pulau Keraka - 'Crab Island', as it is known in English, is a small rock islet located at the northern entranceway to the Banda Neira strait, and can be easily identified by its small lighthouse.
The dive usually begins on the south side with a drop down a near vertical wall which is blanketed by sea squirts in vibrant hues of blue and yellow. At about 20 metres the wall gives way to a sandy sloping bottom, featuring some big bommies amongst the sand patches. Generally scuba divers leave the wall to their left shoulders as they make their way round the southern tip of the island heading north.
On close inspection all manner of interesting creatures can be found around the bommies. Yellow snappers and a small resident school of chevron barracuda are usually present, and some of the larger moray eel species have made their homes here - giant, honeycombs and snowflake morays. On the sand there are colonies of garden eels and every divers favourite - the titan triggerfish.
As you make your way around Keraka and into the shallower area, you'll find acropora corals and table corals, pinnate bannerfish, and all manner of small wrasses.
This site tends not to be subject to current as much as some of the others and, given its relative shallowness, makes for a nice, easy and pleasant beginning to your liveaboard dive trip in the Banda Islands. Alternatively, you may elect to make a night dive here. The eels become active after dusk, and slipper lobsters, anemone crabs and hingebeak shrimp make their presence known around the crags and crevices.
Pohon Miring - You will likely begin this dive at the eastern side of the northern tip of Banda Besar by dropping in onto a sloping reef which runs down beyond 30 metres, where it begins to flatten out. The slope features a mixture of hard and soft corals and you may spot a bumphead parrotfish or two rubbing shoulders here with its smaller cousins such as emperor angelfish, red-toothed triggers and a variety of damselfish.
The first point of interest here is a 6m tall almond-shaped swim-through ranging from about 26 to 30 metres on its floor. It is more or less a single file swim-through if you wish to avoid bubbles or contact with nearby divers or sessile life. Barrel sponges, soft coral trees and sea fans line the interior.
The walls are also studded with small sprouts of orange coloured dendronepthya soft corals, a common feature at dive sites in the Banda Sea. Emerging from the swim-through, you will continue along with your left shoulder to the wall, which again features many of the barrel sponges, tubastrea coral and large sea fans that characterise this region.
Gentle currents are common here and you will likely find yourself gliding along the wall, keeping an eye on the blue for larger fish like tuna, bumphead parrotfish and Napoleon wrasse, and the other eye on the colourful oranges, yellows and pinks festooning the wall. Ultimately the wall comes to a point and cuts left and normally currents run either side of the point, meaning many dvers might not make it quite that far. There is a plateau here which has been swept rather bare by the currents. The crevices and recesses are worth exploring though for scorpionfish, leaffish and ghost pipefish.
On other occasions the prevailing current might push you away from the point into the blue, in which case you can make your way along the reef flat which features a lot of rock and good finger holds. Here you can cling on and watch the myriad fish enjoying the current. Sweetlips, black snapper and various other individuals hang in the current, sometimes in vast numbers enjoying the passing bounty.
The Banda Sea Region
Koon Island - is located in the Banda Sea, 10 km east of Seram. After back-rolling in you will drop down into warm, clear and shallow waters where the reef flat rises to 5 metres below the surface and from here, begin your descent down the wall. The ever-present current will guide you gently along the reef to your right as the wall comes to a point. On the wall you can expect the larger life to include dog-toothed tuna, schooling barracuda and jacks.
In the nooks and crannies of the wall divers should look out for robust ghostpipefish quietly going about their business like a torn piece of vegetation, whose movements are seemingly at the whim of the ebb and flow of the water. Also here are the much-sought-after orangutan crab, most often at home in bubble coral. The little beast seems to have hairy orange limbs much like the great ape after which it is named.
Countless red-toothed triggerfish flutter their electric blue fins all around you and the occasional palette surgeonfish swims around on the wall, as spotted and giant morays gape from their holes.
The wall and the slope that comes to the point of the reef are heavily covered in corals, both hard and soft, including the ubiquitous orange dendronepthya and a lot of healthy cabbage corals, many of which are home to cleaner shrimps. Sea squirts, whip corals and several colours of crinoid all add to the healthy vibrance of the seascape. At the point is where the current is most keenly felt during the dive and it is here that many large and impressive reef fish can be seen. An enormous Queensland grouper is often sighted here together with white tip reef sharks and Napoleon wrasse. There is also the chance to spot possibly the biggest trevally you are ever likely to see.
At the point, you will probably have found some way of anchoring yourself to observe the big fish. To not do so will mean a drift into the obscurity of the blue. After drinking in the big fish action, you will need to slowly make your way up against the current and around the corner to a quieter section of the reef. Here you can run down your remaining air to end your dive having fun with the field of spotted garden eels, craning high from their sandy burrows.
Manuk Island - Only in favourable conditions will any Banda Sea liveaboard consider visiting this remote spot. It lies 100 km off the usual itinerary to the south of the route that connects Banda Neira with Koon Island. High seas (and high oil prices) make a visit here a rarity and something to be treasured. This sulphurous volcanic island is uninhabited and far from human impact.
Manuk is home to a thriving population of seas snakes and you can expect to see many examples here, most commonly the often seen banded sea krait and the more rare Chinese sea snake in colours of brown and green. The snakes are curious and may swim around you as you watch them snake their way through the water column. Although highly venomous, they do not normally come so close to unnerve you, and records of scuba divers being bitten are exceptionally rare. Why there are so many sea snakes here is open to speculation with some believing the warm sand and other geothermal conditions are helpful to these cold blooded creatures and their eggs.
Although the sea snakes are the stars of the show, the reefs are in great health with cabbage corals, porites and barrel sponges rising up from the warm brown volcanic sand where at times you can witness bubbling geothermal gas. Fish swarm around the island's circumference, with barracuda aplenty including chevron and yellow-tailed varieties. Jacks, rainbow runners, and sleek unicornfish are present in large impressive numbers.
The topography of this dive site, with its many vertical undulations and fingers stretching out into the sea, mean that there is plenty to be explored and with water as balmy as 31°C, you will be in no hurry to emerge from the action.
Nusa Laut - is located to the east of Ambon, about halfway across the southern coast of Seram. It is located in the Banda Sea, but is not part of the Banda group of islands. This rather picturesque island is a popular dive destination due to its very evident diversity of reef fish species, and its health and varieties of hard corals. No matter how many times you dive here, the amazing thing is that there always seems to be something new and different to see.
Akoon is in the south east and if you drop in the right spot here and you'll descend straight on the inner area of a wall spur, so neatly arranged that you'd be forgiven for thinking that it looks manmade. The wall is covered in orange dendronepthya corals. As you're diving down to 13 metres, you'll see a large exit hole that leads you out to the open face of the Banda Sea and the rest of the dive.
The wall drop off here is very deep, and if you look down you can identify some of the lesser known snapper species such as the pygmy snapper (silver with a yellow band on its tail), the red mangrove snapper, as well as huge Napoleon wrasse and silver sweetlips.
Purple dottybacks seem to live in every crag of the wall, mantis shrimps are here and nudibranchs too. Anook seems to be something of a snapper mecca, as the wall is also home to humpback snapper and blacktail snapper, as well as emperor angelfish, gilded triggerfish and the all-yellow canary wrasse. There's plenty of fish action too; swarms of small magenta and gold slender anthias create clouds of enticing snacks, and lunar fusiliers dart past, doing their best to avoid the attentions of bluefin trevallies and black trevally.
Above the wall in the shelter of the shallow reef flat, 6-striped wrasse seek refuge in the finger and fire corals. There's a huge number of different leather coral species, and yellowtail damsels flitter in the bright water.
In the north east of Nusa Laut is the village of Amet. There's a reef slope to the south of the village and jetty, where you're likely to begin your dive with a descent onto the clear, sandy sea floor at 12 metres. The reef is not deep and there is no reason to go deeper than 25 metres except in search of sharks and Kuhl's bluespot stingrays.
The main reef slope is made of brain corals, pore corals, and small acropora and table corals, as well as vase, tube and barrel sponges. Featherstars root themselves to every available surface. There are just too many fish species to mention them all but some of the common ones to encounter include masked rabbitfish, bignose unicornfish, Pacific double-saddle butterflyfish, bluemasked angelfish, green-throat parrotfish, as well as some juvenile and smaller grouper species, and small schools of yellowfin goatfish.
From 12 metes upwards the stands of hard corals get bigger, and the topography is mixed with bommies, and stubbly sinularia leather corals and soft flower corals. Purple anthias proliferate in the open whilst juvenile catfish, razor wrasse, dartfish, split-banded cardinalfish all hide and aggregate in the shelters.
To the north of Amet Village jetty is a wall that drops to 45 metres, interspersed with channels, gullies and small caverns. Good-sized marble rays are often found on the sandy areas here. There are some great tube sponges specimens, thorny turquoise vase sponges and encrusting hard corals. Yellow damsel fish and pale-lipped surgeonfish are easy to spot by their large numbers, and the juvenile fusiliers that congregate here attract midnight snappers, large spotted sweetlips, rainbow runners, and bluespine unicornfish.
As you finish your dive on top of the wall you'll find some precariously balanced finger corals and staghorns. This area attracts a whole host of colourful anthias - threadfin and redfin, purple queens, all in delicate shades of violet, lavender, magenta, orange and cream.
The schools of fish may not be as large at Nusa Laut as they are in the Banda Islands, but the reef fish diversity certainly adds a further interesting dimension to Banda liveaboards.
Pombo Boi - Often this is the first site that liveaboard safaris departing from Ambon will visit after diving the Ambon area. It's usually visited on the morning of your 2nd diving day following a 6 hour overnight steam from Ambon Bay. From the tender, this appears the type of location that scuba gear was made for - a lush tropical island with a little rocky satellite islet, surrounded by flat calm water and with a vibrant colourful reef, visible through gin-clear water from the sea's surface.
Rolling in you soon descend onto a shallow reef bursting with life. The predominant colours of the sponges, hard and soft coral that proliferate here are brown, orange and pink with splashes of green and blue thrown into the mix. Your dive guide may mention, in his briefing, that you may be able to spot many commensal shrimps and gobies, squat lobsters and clingfish, and it is this type of small creature that really makes this site special. Red-toothed triggerfish, longnose butterflyfish, and blue-dash fusiliers are plentiful here among many other colourful species. You may also run into a banded sea krait or a shark or two but "the devil is in the detail" at this Banda Sea dive site.
If you have a pointer and take pleasure in discovering the smaller things then it is worth examining every whip coral and crinoid you come across. Many play host to more of these critters than seems fair, with some whips entertaining a dozen or more gobies darting along its surface. Commensal shrimps are also plentiful and there are a few different colorations on the numerous whips at this site. Divers should also inspect the bubble coral and anemones to see delightful little coral shrimp (Periclimenes Holthuisi and Tosaensis) that live in these jelly-like homes. Crinoids are also plentiful with practically each example playing host to a squat lobster and a lazy looking clingfish.
Dolphins and dugongs are also not uncommon in this area, although you will need a large slice of luck to encounter either while diving here. Pombo Boi is as easy a dive site as it is colourful and makes a great start to the day.
Soangi - is a little uninhabited island in the Banda Sea, 100 km from Ambon, with nothing more than a radio antenna rising high above the thick vegetation and being over-flown by the birds that have made their home there. There is also life below the water's surface in such concentration that it provides a veritable feast for the senses.
Usually you will start the dive on the southern tip of the island where the gentle currents split and run down either side. As you descend down from the sea's surface, a sloping reef rises up with a steep wall dropping off into the abyss. The wall is not particularly spectacular but is a good place to start as it is a prime spot for pelagics such as mackerel, dog-toothed tuna and barracuda.
Gradually the wall peters out and becomes a right turn onto another gently sloping reef where the full complement of Banda marine life hits you. There is an uncommon trigger fish here which is present in extraordinary abundance. Literally thousands of black triggerfish, about the same size as the more common red-toothed variety, swarm all over this reef.
They are rivalled in number only by blue dash fusiliers, schools of which cascade endlessly down the slop, their vivid blue flanks darting past in numbers impossible to count. There is such an enormous amount of life at this exceptionally rich dive spot that no list could include all the many species visible. However, honourable mention must go to midnight snapper, bump-head and blunt head parrotfish, Napoleon wrasse, and jacks that are almost seemingly ever-present. Turtles and sharks are not uncommon too, normally with visits from black tips or, if you are in luck, a passing hammerhead.
The seascape is almost entirely bedecked in healthy corals, both hard and soft, and a variety of sponges. One side of the island shows some bleaching and dead acropora as well as the occasional crown of thorns, but mostly the health of the reef reflects the abundant fish life. Hard coral coverage is dominated by flex coral, laminar coral, blue coral, brown daisy coral, dome coral and crispy coral. Soft corals include wrinkled coral and various hues of dendronephthya.
How to Dive Banda
The Banda Sea is vast, so to sample the widest variety of diving in the region, including Ambon, we recommend you hop onto an Indonesian liveaboard.
The amazing dive sites of the Banda Islands are best visited in March and April and during the September to December period. The weather is a little inconsistent outside of these times, so much so that many operators (even land-based) cease diving in the area as surface conditions can really kick up. Liveaboards restrict their visits to calmer periods.
During these calm periods the marine life is reasonably constant with Bandas schools of fish, the snakes of Gunung Api, and the critters of Ambon, all present. Visibility begins to clear up from August and then during the best months it can reach the higher end of the range (15 to 30m). Water temperatures do not vary much during the periods that liveaboards visit, namely from 26 to 29°C
Good for: Large animals, small animals, visibility, underwater photography, wall dives, reef life and health, and advanced divers
Not so good for: Diving for beginners
Depth: 5 - >40m
Visibility: 15 - 30m
Currents: Gentle, but can be strong
Surface conditions: Calm
Water temperature: 26 - 29°C
Experience level: Intermediate - advanced
Number of dive sites: ~25 (plus ~30 more in the greater Lucipara and Ambon/Seram/Nusa Laut region)
Distance: ~200 km east southeast of Ambon (14 hours), 320 south west of Sorong (West Papua, 16 hours)
Access: Indonesian liveaboards
Recommended length of stay: 1 - 2 weeks