Thursday, November 20, 2014

On To Raja Ampat... or Not...

Our final night at Bwano Island, the three of us stayed on deck late into the evening. Mr. T & I talked while Widi and the crew fished with handlines off of the ship's rear. Sunset was again spectacular! We were all tired from a full day of activity but equally excited about the final days of the journey.

Finally, exhausted and ready for sleep, we climbed below deck to our respective cabins and were rocked gently to sleep by the calm waters of The Spice Islands. 

Up at dawn the next morning, the crew hoisted anchor just as the sun was rising and we made our way out of the bay and aimed the boat towards Sorong in West Papua New Guinea. All along the way that morning, we passed many small, low-lying islands. Most looked uninhabited except for a lighthouse and caretakers home. There were little signs of life on shore. In one cluster of islands, early that afternoon, Captain guided the ship into a narrow straight and past even more, tinier islands until we pulled around and into a narrow passage, more a river than open ocean. Here, we again dropped anchor. I was excited to have the chance to swim again in beautiful, calm water. The excitement quickly faded when I was warned to beware of crocodiles and that a large croc had taken a diver's arm here just a few weeks before. Looking around, I could see that the shores surrounding the narrow channel were lined with thick mangroves... perfect croc habitat.

Opting out of the swimming option for the day, Nikko volunteered to again give us a tour of these island and narrow waterways by zodiac. From the boat, we could easily see a couple of small, wooden dugout canoes in the mangroves but no sign of human life otherwise. We knew someone was in forest there, probably watching us. We were curious about what we might find so into the zodiac and off we went. These waterways were like narrow rivers. Occasionally we would spot an abandoned stilt house out over the edge of the water. We saw amazing coral gardens along the shores. 

Eventually we ended up on a tiny island, no more than 100 meters across and flat with a ring of white sand beach around one side, and mangrove around the other. In the center of the island was a thick stand of coco palms and other low brush. On the beach, there was what appeared to be a fishing camp. A shelter made of blue plastic tarps, some plastic crates and water jugs and a couple of coral rock-ringed firepits. On closer inspection, there were also wooden platforms made of driftwood and on them, some type of meat was drying. As we walked toward the empty camp, we began seeing the large, empty shells of sea turtles... quickly realizing that the meat drying on those wooded racks was turtle meat.

We were now entering Papua... the people we had encountered passing on small fishing boats on the way to here no longer looked Indonesian/Asian but more Papuan, Melanesian... dark skin, wiry hair and broad noses. West Papua, however, is a part of Indonesia via some weird, unexplainable treaty or land grab that happened a long time ago. Turtle hunting is still prohibited in Indonesia and we were now in the midst of an "illicit" turtle meat camp. By illicit, I mean that it would be illegal by law to hunt turtle here. That said, this area was remote, quite off the beaten track of any fish & wildlife officers. This area is also inhabited by people who have probably eaten turtle for generations and weren't about to stop due to some arbitrary international boundary.

We walked around the island some more, investigated the lagoon that sheltered it, until we heard the sound of a motor in the distance. Nikko thought it wise that we take our leave immediately lest we, or at least me & Mr. T, become "the other white meat" or at least have some problems with the returning turtle hunters who might think we were poaching their goods.

Into the zodiak we went and as we were motoring through the pristine coral gardens that surrounded the island, the two dugouts we had seen earlier were coming straight at us. Once within range, we waved sheepishly at the two boats. They were filled with families... husband, wife and kids. Danger averted as they waved back and seemed to pay us no mind otherwise.

Returning to the boat, we stayed at anchor for the rest of the day, fished with handlines for wide-mouthed gobies... Widi was excited by the catch and hoped the chef might fry them up as "crunchy fish". Just befor sunrise, the crew again pulled up anchor and we made our way between islands and back into the open sea. The Captain informed us we would be in Sorong by mid-morning tomorrow.

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