IT WAS EARLY MORNING when I stepped off the plane and onto the runway of Ambon’s Pattimura airport. The sun had barely risen above the horizon, but already the humidity was suffocating.
I made the short walk towards the compact yet surprisingly modern terminal, and readied myself for the Indonesian immigration system. An uncharacteristically brief wait in line, and much to my surprise I was through within 10 minutes.
As I parked my trolley at the baggage carousel, I was feeling particularly pleased with myself. An hour later, as I finally hoisted my luggage onto the trolley, my smile had long since faded.
With normal service resumed, I left the airport and, armed with a few stock Bahasa Indonesian phrases, circumnavigated the gathering unlicensed taxi-drivers and climbed into my transfer vehicle.
Ambon is part of the Maluku Islands, located to the far east of the Indonesian archipelago. Large parts of the mountainous island remain covered in tropical rainforest. It is home to the provincial capital and a population of about 450,000 people.
The island’s inhabitants are a mixture of Malay-Papuan, something that was immediately obvious as I people-watched through the taxi window.
The population is divided between Christians and Muslims, which in the past has led to sectarian violence between neighbouring communities. In recent years peace has settled on the island and, although still in its infancy, tourism is beginning to arrive.
Ambon has quickly become known as a new hotspot for muck-diving, with multifarious weird and wonderful critters to be found.
It appealed to my passion for macrofauna, and I was curious to discover how it compared with the more famous Lembeh Strait to the west. Armed with a 100mm macro lens, I was excited at the thought of what I might unearth.
The journey to the dive resort took less than 10 minutes as we cruised down narrow roads, meandering through small villages that already looked busy as the inhabitants began their morning routines.
Maluku Divers Resort has done an impressive job in catering for the underwater photographer. It has thought of everything you could need and more besides.
The 10 bungalows and four spacious rooms have been designed with photographers in mind. Each contains a pair of camera-desks with accompanying lamps, and plenty of plug sockets for charging batteries.
The camera-room contains individual stations for examining equipment, each with electrical sockets, lamps and personal towels.
Adjacent to the dekit area are several rinse tanks filled with fresh water, enabling photographers to rinse their rigs or leave them to soak while they change.
Every guest is provided with a large padded cooler-bag to carry cameras to and from the dive-boats and keep them protected while travelling between dive-sites.
British couple Emily Allen and Joe Daniels currently manage the dive resort, and immediately make you feel at home. Joe, an accomplished underwater photographer,
is your go-to man should you have any questions regarding photography or camera equipment.

I’M NOT ONE FOR EASING MYSELF into a diving vacation, so within 20 minutes of arriving at the resort I was making a final check of my rig before heading out for the first dive of the day.
This was at the tantalisingly named Rhino City, and I was excited as we descended onto the patchy reef slope below me. We moved slowly across the substrate, until we arrived at a gathering of 50 or more fire urchins in an otherwise barren landscape.
The dive guide began examining each urchin meticulously, before eventually signalling us to join him. Sitting motionless on top of one of the urchins were a pair of Coleman shrimps, their vibrant patterns contrasting against the forest of spines around them.
This was a first for me, and quickly followed by another when the guide pointed out a Brooks urchin shrimp perched on a neighbouring urchin.
No sooner had I focused on the shrimp than I was beckoned over to yet another urchin. The resident this time was a zebra crab which, with its jagged triangular edges, resembled some kind of robot transformer.
It was the third of the trio of crustaceans that live commensally with the variable fire urchin. To find all of them in the same patch was quite something.
Further highlights of the dive included a hairy squat lobster on the surface of a barrel sponge, a juvenile harlequin shrimp and a pair of the solar-powered Phyllodesmiums.

LATER THAT AFTERNOON we set off for a mandarinfish dive at Laha 1, Laha being the name of the village where the dive centre is located.
I had been on several dives with these crepuscular critters in the past, but to be honest had never really enjoyed them. Typically they involve dozens of divers lying across the coral in a circular pattern with their lenses pointed inwards, while their strobes light up an area the size of a football field.
This being Ambon, things were a little different. There were only four of us on the dive, including the guide.
We spent 30 minutes photographing these amazing little creatures with their psychedelic colouration as they appeared from the fissures in the coral to partake in their nightly mating ritual.
Then, not wishing to disturb their privacy any longer, we left the mandarinfish to their evening’s courtship while we explored the adjacent reef slope. Laha 1 is so much more than just a mandarinfish dive. Over the next 40 minutes we encountered numerous ribbon eels, a cornucopia of nudibranchs, a yellow ornate ghost pipefish and two different frogfish.
The next day our first dive took us to Laha 2, with the entry point bordering on several fishing-boats moored against a corroding pier. Beneath the boats, the substrate was hidden below a thick layer of refuse. Car tyres and rusting metal jostled for space with pieces of plastic, tin cans and flip-flops – a wasteland that at first appeared devoid of life.
Above a pair of discarded shorts a pair of white robust ghost pipefish swayed gently from side to side. In among a pile of discoloured sheet metal, a family of bumblebee shrimps went about their business.
At 10m we came across not one but three flamboyant cuttlefish – two small males trailing a significantly larger female, displaying their aposematic colouration in an attempt to ward off predators or, on this occasion, a group of divers.

OVER THE FOLLOWING WEEK I dived an assortment of dive sites including reefs, walls, true muck-sites, jetties and even a wreck. Personal favourites included Jetty Dark Blue and Pante Nama Wall, both on the south side of the bay but a mere 15-minute boat journey from the resort.
Jetty Dark Blue juts out over a sloping sandy bottom with scattered coral outcrops. We descended directly onto a pink frogfish covered in tiny gobies before encountering a second vivid red frogfish perfectly camouflaged against a sponge.
Beneath the jetty, patchy coral and the ubiquitous rubbish provided cover for an abundance of nudibranch species. The jetty’s pylons were festooned in soft corals, sprouting out into the water column like huge pink cauliflowers.
Amid the corals’ delicate branches, Joe somehow located a pair of candy crabs, expertly disguised to resemble their coral host. Then, seconds later at the base of one of the pillars, a harlequin swimming crab was uncovered hiding within the tentacles of its tube-dwelling anemone host.
Slightly further down the coast towards the mouth of the bay, Pante Nama Wall offers something entirely different. The wall is home to imposing sea-fans and whip corals, as well as a healthy amount of fish-life. There were plenty of macro subjects for us, with more frogfish, coral cowries and pipefish, and towards the end of the dive we were even treated to the site of a hawksbill turtle swimming by in a leisurely fashion.

IT WAS FOUR DAYS into my stay when word came that a group on the morning dive had found a rhinopias at Laha 3.
We quickly finished our lunch and began planning for our second dive of the day.
We descended to 25m and spread out across the reef slope, four pairs of eyes scanning the substrate.
For half an hour we ignored the multitude of seahorses, nudibranchs and shrimps we encountered, focusing instead on finding the target of our dive.
We were finally rewarded just as we were ascending the reef slope. One of the guides start banging his tank, and within seconds the rest of us had joined him.
Resting on the substrate, a little over 15cm in length, was a purple weedy scorpionfish (Rhinopias frondosa). Its body was covered in numerous irregular skin flaps and its lavender hue contrasted starkly with the seabed.
We each fired off a few shots before the scorpionfish decided that enough was enough, and began shuffling down the reef slope and out of sight.
The rhinopias sighting was icing on the cake but what impressed me in Ambon was the sheer abundance of critters. Every sponge, crinoid, sea cucumber and soft coral had something living on it.
This kind of diving is not for everyone, and don’t expect to see shoals of fish on every dive. The shoreline and rivers connecting to the sea are overrun with discarded plastic and the noxious effluvia of decaying matter is inescapable at sites closer to the fishing boats. But look past the plastic bags and the lack of pelagics and you will be rewarded with some incredible diving.
It is not unusual on the final day of a dive trip for me to find myself at a loose end, unable to dive because of the impending flight and not wishing to start the mammoth task of sorting through my thousands of photographs.
Maluku Divers offers several day excursions, including to Ambon City and the local hot springs. I took the chance to take my camera out one last time and visit the freshwater eels of Larike village.
The eels inhabit a shallow, fast-flowing river where they have been hand-fed by the villagers for years. Who could resist wading into the clear water as dozens of these slimy fish, measuring up to 2m long, writhe around you
Maluku Divers provided plentiful dive-sites with a bucket-load of critters, easy accessibility and nitrox for long dives. The service was excellent and we had every site to ourselves, while the small groups meant that there was no need to wait in line to photograph a subject.
When I placed my rig into the rinse-tank for the last time I felt I had barely scratched the surface. I’ll be back to see what else Ambon has to offer.

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE Flights from Bali, Jakarta and Manado. Maluku Divers can assist with booking domestic flights.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION Maluku Divers, www.muckdivingindonesia.com
WHEN TO GO Year-round, but the best time to visit is September to December and February to June.
MONEY Indonesian rupiah. US dollars and euros.
HEALTH There is malaria in Ambon, though it is said not to be a major problem. Consult your doctor if unsure.
PRICES Divequest can offer a package from £1745pp that includes flights from London to Ambon, transfers, seven nights’ full-board accommodation and 18 dives, www.divequest-diving-holidays.co.uk
TOURIST INFORMATION www.east-indonesia.info