A Divers Disneyland

A diving photographer looms over a spectacular sea garden off the coast of Ambon, an island in a far-flung corner of eastern Indonesia. Laura Woodward dived its brightly peopled waters.

In what must be one of the worlds most remote diving locations, in the corner of eastern Indonesia, Ambon Island sits at the base of a huge triangle of the thousand scattered islands, give or take a few atolls, which comprise the Moluccas. The islands, which are mainly uninhabited and framed by Irian Jaya to the east and Sulawesi to the west, spread over a huge area of almost 1.5 million square km, most of which is ocean. Not surprisingly, when Indonesians talk of their country they say tanah air kita, meaning our land and water.
The journey to Ambon is a long one, and flight connections mean a stopover at Jakarta or Bali. After another two 90min flights, I was met at the tiny airport of Ambon by Carol Palmer, one of the dive masters and a partner at the Ambon Dive Centre.
In the centres old minibus we drove through a shimmering tropical paradise of lush green forests of banana palms, coconut palms and cloves, and a land so fertile you could thrust a stick in it and watch it grow.
Ambon citys heyday was during the Dutch control of the last few centuries. Previously, trade winds brought Indians, Arabs, Chinese, Portuguese, and the British to the islands shores. Now, after being heavily bombed in the Second World War, there is very little evidence of its former colonial prosperity or exotic history.
A half hours drive from the city is the dive centre, based at Namalatu Beach, at the south-west tip of the island. There is Amboina Diving Club for the locals, but you need to be fluent in Indonesian to go there, and the diving is reputed to be not as good. Opened in 1994, the centre is the success story of a determined Englishwoman; it is a small but professional operation, with Carol Palmer and her Indonesian partner Sonny as dive masters. They have two boats and a compressor, and offer equipment hire and excellent service.
Out of a choice of 30 dive sites my first dive was at Salile beach, in the south of Ambon, not too far from the dive centre. There, a gentle, sandy slope and clear waters of a deceiving depth impressed me, with a plethora of fish life: huge lizard fish sitting patiently on the reef, clownfish frolicking, shoals of basslet, damselfish and angelfish swimming past, trumpetfish and starfish, to name but a few. Much to my delight I even glimpsed a manta ray as it glided into the distance, and a huge moray eel lurking among the corals. It was a divers Disneyland.
Many of the dive sites are only minutes away from the centre, so a small group of three of us was able to fit in two dives and lunch easily, with the boat returning to the centre by mid-afternoon. It allowed a good rest period before the excellent night dive off Namalatu beach, with wonderful Spanish dancer nudibranchs, bizarre boxfish, pufferfish, a squid and the spectacular reds and oranges of the corals.
The dive centre also has dive sites in the north, and shifts location to make the best of the seasons, although almost all sites are diveable from September to December. April to August are the monsoon months, when the best sites are in the north, while January to April offers beautiful clear water on the southern dive sites closest to the dive centre.
My favourite dive was at a site off the north of Ambon, a 11/2-hour drive away. At the dive centres base camp at Hitu village, we stopped to collect the speedboat which is permanently moored there. Then we sped off to
Carols Coral Canyon. It was a balmy, sunny, tropical day, and the waters looked clear and calm.
Diving in, the shallows of the reef soon disappeared and we dropped over the edge and started our descent down the steep, rocky wall of the canyon. Covered with crevices and caves harbouring huge moray eels and scorpion fish, it was impressive. Giant gorgonian fans, enormous corals and exaggerated sponges decorated the wall. The highlight of the dive had to be the sighting of a huge Napoleon wrasse, which must have been about 2m in length, gracefully swimming along. We followed it for a while before it disappeared back up to the reef.
The waters were so deceptively clear that before long we had been enticed to a depth of 36m and it was time to ascend. During the ascent the seemingly still waters suddenly revealed a moderate current that transported us along the wall through the most amazing multi-coloured sea garden, rich with fish. We joined the swarming shoals of surgeon, basslet, butterfly fish, damsel fish, fusiliers and some bemused jack fish. The current eventually started to dissipate, much to my disappointment, and restricted air time meant the ending of the dive.
The diving was excellent for the whole week, with visibility ranging from 10-40m. Because the reefs arent heavily dived, they are in good condition, and each dive gave me that exhilarating feeling of discovering the unexplored.
The fish life is prolific, with endless unfamiliar species endemic to Indonesia, but sightings of the more spectacular fish are more a question of luck. Apparently, you can see sharks, big tuna, manta and eagle rays, barracuda, turtles, humphead parrotfish and Napoleon wrasse. If you are very lucky there are groupers to be seen here the size of a VW Beetle. On my trip, although I only saw a couple of these, I was more than happy.
The colourful markets of Ambon are worth a visit; you can hire a bicycle carriage to do some shopping (which wont take long), but the main tourist attractions on the island lie outside Ambon city. Among the clove and nutmeg plantations, birds of paradise display; there are villages and wood carvers to visit, pristine war memorials to explore, mosques, the occasional fort, fascinating conch shell orchestras, mountain peaks and the National Park at Seram. Alternatively, if you fancy lazy days sunbaking and snorkelling, there is always Namalatu beach, across from the diving centre. Ambon is barely touched by tourism. There are a couple of western style restaurants where you can buy attempts at western food, a couple of basic souvenir shops and the occasional hotel, but Ambon is only used to catering sporadically for the few hundred overseas visitors.
British passport holders dont require visas if staying less than 60 days. Indonesians are conservative, and women should wear slacks or knee-length skirts/shorts or a sarong away from the diving centre, and a sarong over a swimsuit is handy. Ambon is a half Muslim and half Christian community.
  • Singapore Airlines fly via Singapore to Menado, Sulawes. All-inclusive price with Explorers Tours: around£1525 for 14 nights, including stays in Menado and Ambon. Explorers Tours also offers a two-centre holiday to the dive centres at Saparua Nusa Laut and Ambon for around£1695, and various liveaboard expeditions around Ambon, the Banda and Seram seas, tel 01753 681999, fax 01753 682660.
  • Ambon dive operator: Ambon Dive Centre, PO Box 1009, Ambon, Maluku, Indonesia, tel/fax 0011-62-911-555685. The centre is open all year round except May. Accommodation, meals and diving (2-3 dives per day) packages are available.

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