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. 

When Jacques-Ives Cousteau came to the region in 1989 on board his research vessel the Calypso, just one year after Gunung Api had its last eruption, he was impressed to see how hard corals had repopulated the bare seascape left after the lava flows covered a healthy coral reef. It was back then that he made the statement that “this is probabaly the best diving in the world”. 

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/)