We’re anchored for mere minutes before the dinghy is splashed and we head out for our first round of exploration in southern Raja Ampat. Beaching on the island we’ve anchored adjacent to, the girls take off finding cuttlefish bones and shells. There are signs that fishermen overnight here- a rough platform that could double as a table, and the remains of a fish smoking setup. Along the beach are turtle tracks. We follow them eagerly to a large divot in the sand. Are there eggs below? The tracks are visible, but not perfectly fresh- it’s rained at least once since they were made. How many weeks could the eggs incubate? We resolve to do our homework on the boat and revisit the site.
Underwater, the eelgrass gives way to coral heads, and little gems begin popping out. A seahorse as it bumbles along near the bottom. I’ve wanted to see one for years- one that wasn’t behind aquarium glass, anyway. Finally, here it is! It is trailing seaweed and seems unwell, so we give it peace instead of stressing it further. We find out later that this kind of “playing dead” is a survival technique… the seahorse was fine, just trying to shake us off. Mission accomplished.
We hear the high pitched whine of an outboard from underwater, and pop up to see a fiberglass boat speeding heading towards us. It’s a little unnerving. This turns out to be full of the local conservation staff. They’ve been to Totem and met Jamie, but the language barrier was too great to accomplish whatever they wanted, so he’s come to collect me to translate. OK, no problem- we all head back to Totem.
It turns out they’re just checking up to make sure we all have the park fees paid for Raja Ampat and needed to see our paperwork from Sorong. The team alternates staff in the islands with staff in a village back on Misool, and monitors the conservation area. Once we establish that everything is in order and answer their survey questions they lighten up a little. We hadn’t seen many smiles at first, but now they’re pleasant and curious about us. Where are we from? How long have we been sailing? Where else have we been? They offer tips for where we should go in the mass of surrounding island, and tell us where to find a mooring nearby. The mooring sounds like a good alternative to our somewhat exposed, deep anchorage. We will stay the night but plan to move the next day.
During the following days, we get to know this crew and see them morph from the grim officials we met to a bunch fun-loving guys stuck out in the sticks. They invite us to their camp for dinner. It’s a rough setup of plastic tarp lean-tos (how do they manage with the torrential squalls?) on a small island with a fishing camp. We bring rice, vegetables and chocolate cake- they procure and barbeque some delicious fish. It’s a sweet and memorable evening.
We reciprocate, and the next day they’re invited to Totem for dinner. This gets a little comical. At first, there are seven who will come. Late in the afternoon, one of the guys arrives with a bunch of fish for us to fry up, and he tells us there will be a few more- maybe eleven? Then another boat of conservation staff arrives, and the numbers swell to seventeen by the time we have dinner! They have brought a bucket of fish, we cook up a small mountain of rice, and everyone gets to try “American” apple pie. Somehow there is enough food for all.
We give them tours on the boat and I try to answer questions. They are not the usual questions, but with a lot of dictionary references, I learn how to describe our engine properly in bahasa. We run through photographs of things we’ve seen underwater, and they help us identify the more mysterious sightings (squid eggs- I would never have guessed) and learn the Indonesian names. By the end of the evening, I have blown a mental gasket with all the attempts at rough interpretation and can barely speak.
We’re only around the crew for a handful of days, but it’s time for group photos by the time we move on. Great memories!