It had been quite an adventure… Ricard Buxo had spent almost 12 months living among the legendary boat builders of southern Sulawesi, supervising the construction of SMY Ondina, while learning Bahasa Indonesia and the animistic traditions, rituals and legends of the Bugis.

By mid-2001 Ondina had been successfully launched and was now afloat with the fit-out of all the cabins and topside infrastructure proceeding well. Ricard was hiring and training the first crew and soon it would be time to sail – but to where? 

The newly built Ondina was about to join a very small and quite exclusive club of just a handful of boats operating in Indonesia, catering for foreign tourists. And, of them only a couple were dedicated to scuba diving, while the rest offered a combination of snorkelling, land tours and the occasional dive… 

Indonesia is a vast archipelago of over 16,000 islands, occupying an area the size or Europe or US, and across that huge area, back in 2001 scuba diving was in its infancy. There was virtually no public domain information available on where to dive and what the associated hazards might be, and only a few people to ask – if, of course, you could locate them… You could say that it was a quite challenging situation!

Exploring the Indonesian Archipelago – Start with the Known!

Word of mouth was that there was good diving to be had in the Lesser Sundas, along the southern edge of the archipelago, and Wakatobi, in southeast Sulawesi, so Ricard targeted both these areas for the first trips. Marketed mainly in Europe as exploratory trips, the combined allure of the newly built Pinisi style Ondina, together with the prospect of discovering new areas in a remote part of Indonesia, caught the eye of adventurous divers. And so, the first intrepid divers arrived to experience the underwater wonders of Indonesia onboard the Ondina!

These were tough times for us, nevertheless because of all the happenings around the first few years after the launching of Ondina, but they were also a unique opportunity, as those divers who did join us were true adventurers who really wanted to explore, and so together we were able to discover some of the very best dive spots in Komodo, Alor and Wakatobi. Plus, we had the whole area almost to ourselves…

Exploring the Indonesian Archipelago – Continue with the Unknown

As we progressed through 2002 and 2003, our thoughts were on where we should take Ondina next and most importantly… when we should make that move.

The 16,000+ islands of the archipelago straddle the equator and are very much subject to monsoonal trade winds – which are generally quite predictable. Blowing from the southeast from May till September and then from the northwest in December through to March. 

While strong, those winds rarely, if ever, develop into typhoons and their predictability was what the Bugis seafarers of south Sulawesi based their trade routes upon. Sailing east from Sulawesi in their Pinisi boats with the north-westerlies, the Bugis traded with the islands along the bottom of the archipelago on the way. And then returned through the islands of the north with the south-easterlies – a journey that required making the long crossing of the Banda Sea, the most exposed of all inner seas of Indonesia.

In 2003 we decided to follow that Bugis tradition and, with a huge leap of faith, did our first crossing of the Banda Sea in October, during the break between the monsoonal seasons, when seas are at their calmest. The 1.000 nautical mile journey across 4 different inner seas took 14 days, and saw Ondina sail from Maumere in Flores, to Sorong in Raja Ampat. And so it was that we began operating in Raja Ampat from November through to March each year, an area of the archipelago that has captivated us from the very start and we are incredibly proud of the pioneering work we have done there!

Exploring the Indonesian Archipelago – Follow the Bugis…

All ships need their quality down-time so that annual maintenance and problems can be fully resolved. Typically this is done in a dry-dock, so that the hull can be inspected and repaired if necessary, followed by a 5-week maintenance period to make the ship ready for the year ahead.

Traditionally Ondina comes back “home” to south Sulawesi each year for her annual period of maintenance, so again we followed the path of the Bugis seafarers from Raja Ampat and West Papua to Sulawesi in April, when the seas are typically calmest, a yearly journey that allowed us to learn where the best diving is in Halmahera, Lembeh, Togian and the Banggai. And as the maintenance works were finished, we would start another season again in Komodo.

Exploring the Indonesian Archipelago – Setting the Standard!

Since 2003, when we did our first Banda Sea crossing and started operating in Raja Ampat, we followed the same overall pattern initiated that year and fully established in 2004. Basically this was annual maintenance in Sulawesi during May, then down to Komodo for June, July and August. Then head east to Alor for September, followed by October in the Banda Sea and Ambon.

November through to March was dedicated to Raja Ampat, with some incursions to Cenderawasih and Triton Bay, and then we headed west to Sulawesi through Halmahera in April for the annual dry-dock. We followed this routine for 14 years, as it was a very logical way to dive all of the best areas of the archipelago in accordance to weather patterns. Interestingly, as other boats started operating in Indonesia, we saw them copy what we had established… And it all makes perfect sense – if you only have one boat. But that all changed for us in 2017, with the acquisition of Oceanic. Now we were finally able to do things significantly different!

Exploring the Indonesian Archipelago – Setting the New Standard!

The basic premise to our customers is that we want to show them the best diving Indonesia has it offer, and our basic promise to those same customers is that we will do that comfortably and safely. That was why we followed the same routes around Indonesia for such a long time, but with our new boat Oceanic we now have some very significant options to do things differently, while still providing the very highest levels of safety and comfort.

So our decision has been that Ondina is now based in West Papua, in the north of Indonesia, to cover Raja Ampat, Ambon, Triton Bay, the Banda Island and Cenderawasih, while Oceanic covers the south portion of the archipelago, from Komodo to Alor and the Forgotten Islands. By being based in these areas we are now able to explore the diving in what would have previously been considered as the “off-season” – something we find incredibly ironic given that we helped establish those seasons…

We are finding some incredible diving by doing this. In the next newsletter we will share what we have discovered.

As they say… watch this space!

Exploring the Archipelago – Even further…

Big ideas are often the most successful ones though they usually come with the risk that they are just too bold and will not work. And then, of course, there is the additional risk of things happening that are completely out of your control!

So it happened when our first boat the SMY Ondina was launched back in October 2001 – just 30 days after the devastating terrorist attacks in New York. The 9/11 attacks were followed by several other significant events – not the least of which were the Bali bombings in 2002, the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the incredible devastation in Aceh from the 2004 tsunami.

Things were not easy. It seemed like every year there was some kind of natural or man-made catastrophe sent to test our resolution. But we had faith in what we were doing with Ondina and, as word spread about the amazing diving along the archipelago, more people made the journey to Indonesia to dive with us. It really is a source of great pride for us that we were among a very small group of pioneering liveaboard operators that explored and opened up the vast Indonesian archipelago for international dive travellers…

Stability Arrives…

Around 2006 we began to feel increasingly confident that we had overcome the worst of the storms that hit us in our first five years of operation. Our occupancy rates were increasing nicely, and the pioneering nature of what we had done in those years had led to easier logistics in the ports we visited as shops and services developed to service our needs.

Perhaps the thing we are most proud of is the high number of guests who come back time after time on board the Ondina. We call these people our “dear repeaters” and always reward them with special rates and addittional discounts on their trips. Repeat business is a very clear sign to us that we are doing things right with the boat, where we go, how we dive, and how we care for our guest when they are with us. Most of our repeaters have done around 4-5 trips with us. We even have some “super repeaters” who are well into doubling those figures and now they sometimes charter the whole boat and bring a party of friends with them!!


After every single cruise, we seek feedback from every guest who joins us and their comments and ratings on our services allow us to make continuous adjustments and improvements within our operation. The feedback from our repeaters is particularly valuable as they have experienced how we do what we do in different locations and have typically developed a deep understanding of how it all works.

As our business grew and our occupancy rates remained constantly high, we started to get feedback about alternative routes. We saw this as a very positive input though logistically difficult with just one boat. So in early 2016 we started to consider adding a second boat as a sister ship to Ondina, which would give us the flexibility to explore and offer alternative routes to our guests and specially to our dear repeaters.

The Second Boat…

Adding a second boat, when you have a well-established first one with a great reputation and loyal followers should be, in principal, a great idea. But get it wrong and you can do significant damage to everything you have worked so hard to achieve! We thought long and hard about how to go about it and it came down to two options – either we build from scratch another Ondina or we find a suitable boat and convert it to our very specific needs.

Replicating the Ondina seemed to us too challenging at those specific moments in terms of time and resources so we finally decided to go for option B and the search began for a suitable boat that we could turn into a great diving liveaboard boat.

Enter Xavi Garcia and Oceanic

Xavi Garcia, who had joined our team in Indonesia in 2014, greatly contrinute with the search for the right second boat and finally he found the Oceanic – a 28m boat that had been built in Kalimantan around 2012 for spear-fishing expeditions.

There were some really key points about the Oceanic that convinced us to invest in it. Firstly, she was built using the best timbers for a boat, a type of Indonesian wood calledulin. She also had an excellent main engine that was similar to Ondina’s, good gensets and installations, plus the overall design, layout and an open deck suitable to be turned into a spacious dive deck. Yes, she was ready to be suited the way we like. On the negative side, the interior had been finished in plywood and the general atmosphere was poor but we knew we could fix all that and the decision to invest was made!

The 100 Day Refit

Once that big decision was made Xavi took the lead in planning the refit and worked like a trojan to get it all completed – here is what was done:

  • Oceanic went into dry dock so that everything below the waterline could be inspected and repaired as necessary.
  • The main engine and gensets were completely overhauled.
  • All the decks and superstructures were completely waterproofed.
  • All the interiors were removed and made new with natural woods. To do this we flew in a team of the best boatbuilders from Ara, in South Sulawesi!
  • Completely renewed all plumbing and electrical circuits and fittings.
  • Installed new compressors, nitrox system and a complete filling station.
  • New R.I.B. tenders with 50 hp 4-stroke outboard engines were acquired.
  • Finishing and details to give it the final touch of comfort.

Xavi and Ricard were able to complete the refit in the 100 days that it had been planned for and in January 2017 Oceanic successfully made her maiden cruise from Bali to Komodo!

What This All Means…

Since completing all the work on Oceanic we have also done a major upgrade to Ondina so that both boats are now of the same high standard though we continue to position our rates at the most reasonable in the region. Having two such well-built, highly reliable and extremely functional boats give us the versatility we need to meet the needs identified from all the feedback we have received from our guests and collaborators.

Both Ondina and Oceanic use the proven mother ship concept developed by Ricard to ensure the best and the safest diving wherever we operate. Our crews are both highly trained and very experienced, plus they are led by the best Cruise Directors in Indonesia, assuring that the boat you embark is maintained and properly operated for the area of the Indonesian archipelago you will be diving in!

Our New Routes and Our Greatest Hits!

In upcoming newsletters and posts in our blog we will be telling you more about the new and exciting places we have explored, plus the new routes we are going to add to provide more variety to our actual proposals,what we call our “greatest hits”…Stay tuned, a lot of great work has gone into getting us where we are now and we would love you to enjoy it and become part it in the future!

Building the Nymph of the Deep Seas

SYM Ondina (Liveaboard) Indonesia.

It really was a bold idea… One that was conceived and then nurtured during extensive travels across the vast archipelago that is Indonesia. And much like other great ideas it was quite simple in concept, but required several things to come together in concert for it to become a reality.

The year was 1999 and Enrique Rubio, the founder of our parent company, was over 10 years into his enduring relationship with the enigma that is Indonesia, and his journeys across the country had convinced him that it had tremendous potential for scuba diving tourism.

But the very thing that had helped to create what many consider to be the very best diving in the world was not something to be taken lightly. For, while the Indonesian Throughflow is the very life-blood of the archipelago, it is also an extremely powerful force of nature that has to be understood and worked with.

The Bold Idea…

Enrique’s idea was to take the tried and tested basic design of the traditional Indonesian Pinisi sailing ship and build a customized version that would enable journeys of discovery through the incredible waters of the archipelago in both safety and comfort. Journeys that would allow seasoned travellers to experience the very best that underwater Indonesia has to offer.

And, by doing it on a Pinisi style boat they would be safe on board a modern version of a truly classic design that has proven itself capable of sailing the Indonesian archipelago for centuries. So classic is the design that in December 2017 UNESCO recognised Pinisi boat-building as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity

The Times Were Changing…      

1999 was an extremely important year for Indonesia, for in June of that year the first free elections since 1955 had been held successfully and a whole new era seemed to be upon the country. The previous year had seen the resignation of President Suharto after 31 years as the leader of Indonesia. Only the second person to lead the country since independence in 1945,  Suharto’s New Order had overseen a lot of positive change, but was also renowned for its widespread corruption.

Investing in a local business in Indonesia under the Suharto regime was not something for the feint hearted… but the times really did appear to be changing and it seemed the right time to get started. So, Enrique decided to make a huge leap of faith and pay the deposit to the boat-builders of South Sulawesi.

The Bugis      

South Sulawesi is the home of the Bugis – accomplished seafarers who roamed the seas long before the first Europeans arrived in what was then known as the Malay Archipelago. Equally feared and revered, the Bugis are said to have navigated by the stars as far as Madagascar to the west, China to the north and the top-end of Australia to the south. They carry reputations as adventurers, warriors, slave runners, pirates and are even said to be source of the famous English saying, “watch out, the bogeyman will get you”. In reality they were also astute merchants who used their boats and seafaring skills to trade exotica far and wide.

When the Dutch colonized what we now call Indonesia in the late 1700’s they did so in their European style sailing ships. Over time many of the key features of those European schooners were incorporated into the sailing ships built by the Bugis and eventually the amalgamated design became known as the Pinisi.

The Design      

The first thing Enrique learned when he engaged with the Bugis boat builders was that there is no actual standard for a Pinisi boat and each build is a function of wants, needs, customs and traditions, all of which is discussed with the team that will build the boat. Usually that team revolves around a family clan of shipwrights and carpenters, typically led by a construction manager who is a “haji” – a Muslim who has already completed his pilgrimage to Mecca and therefore commands great respect. Every family builds its own design without plans drawn up, and the knowledge is passed from one generation to the next.

Enter Ricard Buxo…

If ever there was a case of the right person appearing at the right time it was when the paths of Enrique Rubio and Ricard Buxo crossed – courtesy of mutual friends…

Clearly Enrique needed somebody in Tanah Beru, the village in South Sulawesi famed for the skill and craftsmanship of its boat-builders, and where the basic concept had been agreed and deposits paid!

Ricard had just completed five years in the Egyptian Red Sea and was considering what his next adventure might be. He was also intrigued by what he had heard about the waters and the scuba diving in Indonesia, namely that there was more biodiversity than anywhere else on earth. But also, Ricard had trained in architectural design and had a strong interest in boats and building – the stars were aligning…

There were however a few logistic challenges to overcome, as Ricard could not speak a word of Bahasa Indonesia, while nobody in Tanah Beru could speak English, let alone Spanish. But necessity is the mother of invention and Ricard left for South Sulawesi and what would become one of the great adventures of his life, arriving in June 2000, a few months after the keel of the yet unnamed boat was being laid. Some 15 months later the boat was launched and christened Sailing Motor Yacht (SMY) Ondina – the Nymph of the Deep Seas!

Living with the Bugis

Ricard describes those 15 months as both the most challenging and yet satisfying period of his life, as the Ondina took shape on the beach at Tanah Beru. His five years in Egypt had given him the strong foundation he needed for the total “cultural immersion” he went through living with the Bugis, learning how to communicate with them and ensuring the pivotal details that make Ondina such a great diving platform were implemented.

Ondina was not the first Pinisi boat built for foreigners to carry passengers across the Indonesian archipelago, but it was the first to be crafted as a dedicated liveaboard built specifically for diving, with a dedicated dive deck, camera preparation area and rinse tanks. Thus, diving on Ondina flows in a very natural way, enabling the guests and the crew to prepare and then get into the dive tenders with maximum efficiency. It was Ricard’s Red Sea liveaboard experience and his total synergy with the Bugis that produced such good results.

A Mystical Process…

While Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world, it is known for its secular brand of Islam and general religious tolerance, coexisting in relative harmony with other religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism and Christianity. Many of the racial groups that make up the fabric of its almost 270 m people combine their version of Islam with many historical myths and beliefs, which in many ways helps make the country so interesting.

The Bugis are amongst the most fascinating of those racial groupings, combining Islam with a deeply superstitious nature and animistic traditions, rituals and legends, which have become intertwined with how they build their Pinisi boats. These were among the many things that Ricard had to learn and adjust to as Ondina was built. Perhaps the best way of understanding the validity of all the rituals and ceremonies that went into the building of the Ondina is to consider that the boat actually went into service on the 11th of October, 2001 – 30 days after the devastating terrorist attacks in New York, universally known as 9/11, probably the worst date to start a business in a Muslim country that requires tourists to fly long distances to simply get on board.

And yet here we are, over 18 years later, and the SMY Ondina has established its reputation as probably the best diving platform (we think it is the best…) in Indonesia, and continues to go from strength to strength. Clearly it was a good thing to have the blessings of the Bugis spiritual leaders as Ondina started its journey of adventure and exploration.

The best diving in the world.

the best diving in the world

Indonesia by numbers… A vast country of some 17,000+ islands, strewn along 5.000kms of the equator in South-East Asia and home to more than 260 million people with about 300 distinct native ethnic groups.

A true melting pot with many unique cultures but just two seasons – warm and dry or warm and wet! The Indonesian archipelago is incredibly biodiverse and above water it is second only to Australia in the total number of endemic species that call it home.

Under the water Indonesia is considered by many to have some of the very best scuba diving in the world and diving tourism has grown rapidly over the last 20 or so years, as word spread about what there is to see. 

But less well known is why the archipelago has such amazing marine biodiversity, with scientific studies identifying over 4000 fish species, compared to around 1000 in the Red Sea and 400 in the Caribbean!

The basic answer to that question is really quite simple… the eastern half of the Indonesian archipelago sits at the very epicenter of what marine biologists call the “Coral Triangle” – the region of the world with the greatest recorded marine biodiversity.

Image courtesy of Conservation International.

The Coral Triangle

Its name comes from the roughly triangular area that covers the tropical waters of the eastern parts of Indonesia and Malaysia, plus Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, the Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste.

Because of the huge area it covers, the overall biodiversity of the Coral Triangle will take marine biologists many years to fully quantify and, to date, they have concentrated on the known hotspots – but the results have been staggering!

For many years the Red Sea was considered as probably the single most biodiverse marine environment in the world, however scientific studies by both

Conservation International and The Nature Conservancy indicate that the Coral Triangle has at least four times the number of species!

But… you may be wondering quite why this fairly remote part of the world is so incredibly biodiverse and the answer is something called the Indonesian Throughflow.

Image courtesy of Journal of Geophysical Research.

The Indonesian Throughflow

Simply stated, the Indonesian Throughflow is the largest volume of flowing water in the world… So large infact that a special measurement had to be created to allow it to be quantified in a way that makes some degree of sense to non-scientists!

That measurement is called a “Sverdrup” after the Norwegian oceanographer who invented it. One Sverdrup is one million cubic meters per second – which is a lot of water in anybody’s book.

The Indonesian Throughflow is said to transport 15 Sverdrups (or 15 million cubic meters of seawater) every second – but it’s not so much the amount of seawater that holds the key to the biodiversity of the Coral Triangle, it’s what is in that water.

The Throughflow is the basic mechanism by which the eggs and larvae of the Indo-Pacific region marine life are distributed. Plus, as it passes over the deep-water basins of the region it sweeps up the nutrient rich detritus of the sea becoming the veritable life force of the Coral Triangle! 

Points of Contact

Originating in the Pacific Ocean to the north-east of the Coral Triangle, the Indonesian Throughflow is created by the Earth’s rotation and complex equatorial currents.  

It flows south-west, past the southern Philippines, towards the huge island of New Guinea where it splits, with the major portion entering the eastern half of the Indonesian archipelago. While the rest flows down the north-east coast of Papua New Guinea and on to the Solomon Islands

Where those fertile and nutrient rich waters touch land they create biodiversity hotspots. In Indonesia’s north that means Raja Ampat, Halmahera and North Sulawesi, while in the south it is Bali, the Lesser Sunda and “Forgotten” islands.

The Nymph of the Deep Seas

Enrique Rubio, the founder of our parent company is no stranger to Indonesia and has been exploring far and wide across the archipelago for many years seeing first-hand the wonderful diversity of its ecosystems.

In the late 1990’s Enrique was among the very first to recognize the potential of the traditional Indonesian Pinisi sailing ship as a motorized liveaboard dive vessel that could truly explore the waters of the archipelago.

His dream was to build a custom designed Pinisi that could take divers deep into those biodiversity hotspots to see the underwater wonders of the vast Indonesia archipelago.

In the next issue of our newsletter we will tell the full story of how SMY Ondina, the nymph of the deep seas, was built by hand in the land of the Bugis in South Sulawesi!

Want to know more about the Coral Triangle – check out this link to the dedicated site established in conjunction with Conservation International and the WWF. 

(Link: http://thecoraltriangle.com/)

Want to know more about the Indonesian Throughflow and diving in Indonesia then check out this link to the dedicated page on Don Silcock’s website  www.indopacificimages.com. Don is an Australian underwater photojournalist based in Bali and regular visitor to both our boats.

(Link: https://indopacificimages.com/indonesia/indonesian-throughflow/)