EXPLORING THE INDONESIAN ARCHIPELAGO

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!

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