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Whale sharks & Rhinopias: MARECO x Indo Siren – March 2023

by Dr Gonzalo Araujo, Director, MARECO

Earlier this year we teamed up with Master Liveaboards onboard the Indo Siren for a special itinerary from Kaimana in West Papua, through the Spice Islands, to Ambon in the Maluku Islands. From the world’s largest fish to the smallest nudibranch, this trip had an excellent mix of diving.

The Indo Siren in Triton Bay - part of the Bird's Head Seascape in eastern Indonesia.

We set off from Kaimana in Eastern Indonesia to Triton Bay. Triton Bay is part of the a network of marine protected areas known as the Bird’s Head Seascape which encompasses over 22 million hectares, including world-renown Raja Ampat and Cenderawasih Bay. This epicentre of marine biodiversity is home to 1,800+ species of reef fish and 600+ corals – needless to say diving here was pretty spectacular! It wasn’t just the diversity of fish that caught my attention – it was the abundance of fish everywhere, and the overall size of individual fishes. Larger, adult fish are more fertile than smaller ones, which is good news for those fishes. It is also a sign that there is limited fishing pressure as fishers tends to target larger, more valuable fish.

Triton Bay is also home to the world’s largest fish, the whale shark Rhincodon typus. I know a thing or two about these behemoths, and we were lucky to start our 12-day trip with four different whale sharks (juvenile males, 4-6 metres long)! Whale sharks are highly mobile, moving over 10,000 km a year typically driven by food availability, and the whale sharks in Triton Bay are associated with bagans or liftnet fisheries which target anchovies. Whale sharks know there’s discards of fish from this fishery and thus hang around for a free meal. During our dives around the bagans we were also surprised by Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins Tursiops aduncus and cownose rays Rhinoptera spp. There are three species of cownose rays that likely overlap in this region. We are working with local partners to determine which species we encountered, so we’ll update on this soon!

Vic getting in position for a perfect shot with a whale shark in Triton Bay.

After some incredibly productive and beautiful dives in Triton Bay, we moved west through the Ceram Sea to the Eastern Banda Sea islands of Kurkap and Koon. These fringing reef islands dominated with stunning walls, incredible visibility and balanced macro-wide opportunities. We were surprised by a scalloped hammerhead shark Sphyrna lewini cruising at ~20 metres on the wall at Koon, a pygmy mobula (devil) ray Mobula kuhlii and a very relaxed hawksbill turtle. These reefs along the eastern Banda Sea reminded me a lot of Tubbataha Reefs in the Philippines, albeit not atolls, their walls with colourful shallow reefs made for impeccable diving. The macro on the shallow top did not disappoint either – plenty of leafy scorpionfishes and squat lobsters to keep us entertained!

The walls of Koon were stunning! Visibility was also incredible.

We then moved further west to the Spice Islands or the Banda Islands, dominated by the active volcano Gunung Api, and the historic trading port of Banda Neira. Once the centre of the nutmeg trade (amongst others like cinnamon), the island is now an important trade hub in the Central Maluku Regency. We were lucky to visit the island with a very interesting guided tour between our dives. Mandarinfish are a must-see during the sunset dive. My favourite dive was however, the old lava flow from the 1988 eruption of Gunung Api – endless Acropora hard coral gardens, as far as the eye can see. On our way out of Banda Neira towards Pulau Ai, we came across a resting group of short-finned pilot whales Globicephala macrorhynchus – what a treat. Due to time constraints, we couldn’t stop the boat to have a look, so we were aided by some aerial support (see a great video here)!

Short-finned pilot whales cruising near Banda Api.

For the final stretch of the trip, we dived the central Maluku islands of Nusa Laut and Ambon. Caves full of fan corals and slopping reefs dominated with incredible fish and macro diversity, until we reached Ambon Bay. Here, slopping sandy and rubbly substrates with reef patches were covered in critters – everywhere we looked! Possibly my best night dive ever, and when we revisited the dive site on the last day of diving, we were surprised by a new host of critters including none other than a yellow Rhinopias! What a treat. We started the trip with world’s largest fish and finished with critter hunting in the muck – what a great end to a fantastic trip.

A yellow Rhinopias in Ambon - a macro treat!

This trip was made possible through a partnership between Master Liveaboards and MARECO, with a generous proportion of the trip’s proceeds donated to MARECO. We’d like to extend our gratitude to Master, the amazing crew of the Indo Siren, and our amazing guests for an amazing trip! We can’t wait to be back on the Indo Siren!

We will be partnering with Master Liveaboards again next year to host the Eastern Banda Sea itinerary from Saumlaki to Kaimana! Both macro and wide options on this itinerary, and we’ll fishing with whale sharks in Triton Bay. You can find full details of the itinerary here and to sign up, you can email us here.

If you would like to join us in future trips and get updates on MARECO’s work, make sure to sign up to our Newsletter following this link!

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