MALUKU ISLANDS, Indonesia — Perched on the edge of a skiff, I felt a trickle of sweat inch down my cheek. A heavy scuba tank pulled at my back as I adjusted my mask, feeling claustrophobic in all this gear and anxious about making this dive.
How did I get here? I had come a long way to be sitting on this gunwale under a brilliant sun somewhere in Indonesia's Banda Sea: flights from Los Angeles to Bali and Flores, then motoring on calm seas past volcanic islands and coral atolls, white beaches and palm trees.
One cone-shaped island called Kombu fumed with smoke and ash, its rumbles punctuated with a thunderous roar every half-hour as it spewed lava and unleashed an avalanche of fiery-red glowing rocks the size of trucks.The scenery was stunning topside. But my husband, Ken, and I had come to see this underwater world, part of the Coral Triangle, widely considered the planet's most biologically rich and diverse marine area.
We had signed on to a two-week dive trip on a traditional Indonesian wooden schooner — the kind that inspired Joseph Conrad's novel "Lord Jim." This one, at 108 feet, was painted red and called the Seven Seas, a luxurious motor sailor designed for scuba divers who want to go to the ends of the Earth in comfort.
During our exploration of about 700 miles of the 3,200-mile-long Indonesian archipelago known as the Maluku Islands — sometimes called the Moluccas — we saw no other tourists.
These were the fabled Spice Islands of the 1600s, where Indian, Chinese, Arab and later European traders fought over nutmeg and cloves, precious as gold. Later, riches of another kind attracted scientists, including famous British naturalist Alfred Wallace. He came to see the birds of paradise, countless species of butterflies, as well as its fish and other marine life. Peering into these waters, he wrote, "It was a sight to gaze at for hours and no description can do justice to its surpassing beauty and interest."
Despite the remoteness of the destination, this trip attracted a well-traveled group of diving aficionados determined to see some of the world's most pristine coral reefs. It also brought a few relative rookies, like me.
The idea of three dives a day in uncharted waters had me sweating, and it was not only because I was in a black neoprene wetsuit in 96-degree heat. I had a 30-pound tank strapped to my back and 12 pounds of lead blocks around my waist. I was nervous about my diving prowess, and all this gear made me as heavy as a gladiator.
I remembered to shoot some air into my vest, called a buoyancy compensator, so I wouldn't sink like a stone as I hit the water.
"Check, check, double-check," one of the crew yelled. A half-dozen divers checked to make sure air tanks were turned on. Masks were secured and so were the confusing number of clips and gauges. Tommy, our Indonesian dive master, stuck his head in the water to check the currents sweeping off a coral reef.
"Are you ready?" he yelled. He beamed a gap-toothed smile, and his eyes sparkled with anticipation.
I placed my regulator in my dry mouth. "One… two… three!" One hand on my mask, the other on my regulator, I took a deep breath. I joined the others as we rolled backward in unison, a somersault off the skiff.
Ker-splash! As the bubbles cleared, I spotted Ken peering at me as he slowly descended.
"OK?" he asked, with the universal hand gesture.
"OK," I signaled — and to my surprise I was. The water was 86 degrees and I was weightless, moving easily.
We descended through a blizzard of colors — rosy clouds of small fish called pink anthias, silvery schools of fusiliers with sporty yellow stripes, midnight-blue triggerfish and so many others. Black, white and yellow Moorish idols with fancy whip fins and needle-nosed butterflyfish swam by — fish I knew from past travels. But many were new to me, because they exist nowhere else on Earth. It was hard to know where to look.
My nervousness vanished, eclipsed by wonderment.
Scientists estimate there are 500 species of reef-building corals in these parts. Some resemble brains, with elaborate folds. Others grow like deer antlers. Giant mounds of corals are interspersed with sea fans, giant sponges and long, whip-like soft corals, all teeming with small fish and spineless wonders: shrimp with fancy paint jobs, hairy crabs that looked like orangutans, cuttlefish that changed colors and patterns before our eyes. The corals were underwater cities for myriad animals.
Following Tommy, we dropped to 60 feet and flew along the coral wall, riding a strong current. For fun, I flapped my arms like a bird, feeling like Wendy in "Peter Pan."
The creatures were the stars of this underwater Neverland. Tommy, a gifted critter hunter, clanged on his tank with a metal pointer, a signal that he had made a discovery. A hawksbill sea turtle was snoozing under a coral shelf. Giant lobsters waved antennae from their lairs.
Gazing beyond the reef, we were treated to big fish patrols out in the blue, as they say. Missile-shaped barracuda and giant trevally formed separate schools of hundreds of silvery fish. Such sightings are rare, a sign of overfishing even among these islands. Rarer still are shark sightings. Fishermen know they can make good money — up to six weeks' wages per kilo — selling the fins for soup.
We saw three dozen giant bumphead parrotfish emerge from the deep. With their massive heads they moved slowly, like grazing buffalo. Ken grabbed his little slate and wrote, "Home on range."
The most charming were the clown fish, with orange and white stripes like those of Nemo, the star of the animated film. They came in pairs, full of bravado. One emerged from the tentacles of a sea anemone to stare me down eye-to-eye, wiggling its tiny fins as if they were boxing gloves. His partner mistook my dangling air gauge for another challenger and faced off belligerently.
All too soon an hour had passed and it was time to ascend to the skiff. We emerged, talking all at once about what we had seen — as outboard engines roared, taking us back to breakfast aboard the Seven Seas.
Our ship accommodated 16 guests with eight double cabins. Each had its own bathroom, with a shower, a comfy bed and blessed air conditioning. But the schooner had so many places to lounge that we returned to our rooms only to sleep. During the day we snoozed like puppies wherever we collapsed.
The rhythm of our days fell into a delicious pattern. Early risers gathered on the padded cabin roof for yoga at 5:30 a.m. Yaya, who had the almond eyes, full lips and high cheekbones of a Balinese goddess, led us through 45 minutes of gentle postures to stretch sore muscles. Like all of the crew, she had several jobs and a wonderful spirit.
At 6:30 a.m. we had "little breakfast" — cappuccinos and platters of papaya, mango, pineapple and watermelon, as well as cereal. By 7:15 a.m. we were suited up and on deck for a briefing from Karl, our trip leader. Karl's head scarf and earring gave him a pirate-like in appearance, but a kind and attentive one.
After the first dive came "big breakfast." We ordered from a wide choice of Western breakfasts or Indonesian fare, nasi goreng (fried rice) or mee goreng (fried noodles). Our hungry pack of divers wolfed down every meal. After a brief rest, a second dive was underway, then lunch, then a longer rest and a third dive or often an afternoon visit to a village on the closest island.
Such visits were fascinating. Villagers were friendly, even those with a history of head-hunting. Many had lips and teeth stained red from chewing betel nut. The men were preoccupied with building or repairing boats because they rely on fishing; the women concentrated on weaving, drying fish or hammering shells of nutmeg. Some villagers offered to sell carvings or weavings. Others had not seen outsiders for years and were as curious about us as we were about them.
We were fortunate to have fellow guest Larry Fisher, a University of Arizona professor, to translate for us. He had lived in Indonesia and understands nuance, often translating for President Obama or official delegations.
On the island of Wetar, we watched a giant saltwater crocodile the size of a canoe slide off a log into the slimy green water of a lagoon. Nearby I saw something wriggling. To my amazement, it was the ears of a submerged water buffalo.
I asked why the crocodile didn't eat the buffalo and why the villagers hadn't killed the crocodile. Larry translated my questions.
"Friends," one villager said.
"We feed it dead dogs and chickens so it's not hungry," another said. "The crocodile is the reincarnation of our grandfather, so we must not kill it."
Larry and I looked at each other with raised eyebrows. We learned that a crocodile ate a child two years ago, and the villager who shot the croc mysteriously died a month later. Nobody kills the crocodiles anymore.
After a few days our group had bonded. We did as many night dives as our locations allowed. After seafood dinners on deck, we gazed at unfamiliar constellations searching for the Southern Cross, aided by iPad star-map apps. We reviewed the day's top 20 underwater photos taken by marine scientists Peggy Lubchenco and Steve Gaines. We listened and sang along as Canadian singer-guitarist Doug Craig toured us through classic-rock hits.
Most nights were spent underway, as we traveled to our next dive destination lulled by the moving boat. We sank heavily into sleep, eager for the next day's dives. I wanted this to go on forever.
By the trip's end, we were already planning our next adventure aboard the Seven Seas — to Komodo, in search of dragons.