At Sea/Hoga Island, Wakatobi, Indonesia
Finally, the day had come when we were to board our expedition ship, Heritage Adventurer on her somewhat reduced maiden voyage for Heritage Expeditions. The ship had just finished being refurbished and rebranded for the company, but the 1A Super Ice class ship started life in a shipyard in Finland in 1991. Since then, she has an impressive history of polar exploration, so this trip through the tropics is a little change of scenery for her.
Though she was designed for over 180 passengers, the current configuration accommodates 140 guests, and we only have around 100 on board on this trip. She is 124 metres long, with a beam of 18 metres and she is certainly far more luxurious than I had expected.
From the hotel, we drove back down to town and on to the main wharf where officials checked our passports and vaccine certificates, took temperatures and took photos of us on their phones (all rather odd things to do at this point as we were just about to leave lol) 🤔🤔🤦🏻♀️ Then, finally, we could board a zodiac and head out to the ship and get settled into our cabins. I was glad to see I was still sharing with Harriet and even better, my booking for a triple cabin on the 5th deck, ended up being a twin cabin on the 6th deck. Same cabin really but much more spacious with only 2 of us in it (and believe me, we quickly spread out to occupy all the space).
We asked our Zodiac driver (one of the senior ship crew who had been with the ship since it’s refurbishment in Turkey) about the net that delayed out departure. He seemed surprised by the question and said there was no net, they were in dry dock in Singapore to clean the hull (a requirement for entry into New Zealand in November)!!!! 🤔🤔 I am not sure if we will ever know the truth but was now pretty dubious about what we were being told!
This day was always going to be a day at sea as we had a distance of over 500 kms to travel which would take almost 24 hours despite travelling 16 knots (accordingly to the info about the ship, the top speed is 15 knots and cruising speed 12 knots) lol. For much of the day there was not much to see (or sea lol) – just the odd container ship in the distance and a few small local fishing boats and of course the beautiful wide blue ocean and sky.
It was really just a day to get set up on the ship, starting with a rather disorganised lifeboat drill (not sure we would we have survived a real evacuation) and getting set up with our snorkelling gear for the trip. We took some time to explore the ship, which in my opinion is pretty flash, much more so than the old Russian ship I explored Fiordland on a couple of years. (They can no longer use that ship as it was leased from the Russian government.)
We had a huge ‘welcome’ morning tea just about an hour or so before lunch 🤦🏻♀️, which was also huge. Every day lunch was to include a massive salad bar with cold meats, a cold soup (often fruity and more like a smoothy really but always delicious) and also an a la carte menu option. This day like most I just had the salad and soup, but I can see I am definitely not going to go hungry.
I spent ages trying to take photos of little flying fish that were ‘flying’ around the ship in the beautiful deep blue ocean (I managed to get an ok one – if you look closely lol) and I found a nice little spot at the back of the ship where I could sit in the shade to read (I was already sure this would be a favourite spot). There are a few hard core ‘birders’ on board and it was useful to the names of the birds we saw and throughout the day we saw Red-necked Phalaropes, Bulwer’s Petrel, Red-footed Boobies and Brown Boobies (although my decent photos come later in the trip).
Our first presentation on the ship was about our activities for the next day (I was so excited for the trip to truly start) before welcome drinks and introduction to the captain and the ship’s crew. We were all closed up inside in this briefing and almost missed a stunning sunset, but I made sure I ran outside for it lol.
Dinner was (and will be every night) a 4 course meal if you want it – entrée, soup, main and dessert, and a course of 2 or 3 options for each course! So much food and always really good.
I did not have a great first night’s sleep – the cabin was very hot and woke up a number of times, so ended up getting up at 5 am. Not to watch sunrise but to watch an amazing electrical storm in the distance before sailing through a heavy downpour of rain – I love tropical rain!
The previous afternoon we had had a lecture about Wakatobi archipelago, the location of Hoga Island where we were to visit. Apparently it has been described by Jacques Cousteau as a marine nirvana 🎉🎉🎉. The name Wakatobi is a combination of the main island names – Wa (Wangi Wangi) ka (Kaledupa) to (Tomia) bi (Binonko) and one of our guest lectures is part of a team working for with the World Bank on an integrated tourism master plan for the region and therefore had a lot of really interesting information about the area. (It may be worth noting he is another one of these over achievers and as well as being an expert in this region, he has a PHD in Antarctic tourism!)
Situated in Southeast Sulawesi, with approximately 150 islands and a population of 115,000, Wakatobi National Park was listed as a UNESCO biosphere reserve 10 years ago – it is also the largest barrier reef in Indonesia (apparently second only to the Great Barrier Reef). Unfortunately, a few years ago, the Indonesian government excluded all inhabited islands from the national park so now, only when you are at sea are in the national park. 🤔🤔
Early this year, flights to Wakatobi were stopped (with no explanation), so the Wakatobi Dive Resort have their own airstrip to fly their guests in. They also pay the locals not in fish in front of resort to ensure their guests have a great marine experience. It can take up to 30 hours to travel from Jakarta! (As you can imagine, our lecturer who is working on a tourism plan for the region had lots of thoughts about all of this.)
The people of Wakatobi are all Muslim and many are considered ‘sea gypsies’. In areas such as Bajo Mola, their stilt houses (bajo sampela) once were in the sea, but the Government have reclaimed land so now, during low tide, they are actually on land. Though some do still live/work in fishing structures/houses, some far out to sea.
After sailing all the previous day and night, we finally arrived near Hoga island around 9am and our first real landing was a wet landing which means wading from the zodiac to shore – in this instance, about 50m through warm water ranging from a few cms deep to 30-40 cm deep, often without warning 🥴.
When everyone was finally on land, we headed off in different directions for various walks. The short walk that I went on took us in to the forest just off the beach and pass the rundown remains of old resorts – as we had our wonderful naturalist Rod with us, we managed to spot a few birds and insects.
Back on the beach, it was time for some snorkelling. Unfortunately, it was low tide, so it was a fair walk through the sea grass meadow before actually being able to swim … it was worth the effort though. We snorkelled through the continuing sea grass meadows, before heading out into an area of hard and soft coral clusters. There were so many fish – hundreds and thousands of small brightly coloured fish, and I can’t forget the starfish and giant clams.
We waded back out to the zodiacs before zipping around to see the Bajo houses on stilts. Unfortunately, as it was low tide, it meant we could not get close, but it was fun zipping around in the zodiacs getting wet again 😂
Back on the ship, dripping wet, just in time to hear the call for lunch so ran to the room to put on dry clothes before heading to the restaurant for lunch. It only took us a day to turn our cabin in to a laundry with wet clothes hanging all around it lol. I guess it was only a matter of time!
I had bought a local sim card when I arrived in Bali in the hope that I would be able to keep in touch with home as we went in and out of coverage. Surprisingly, we had pretty good reception here on Hoga Island, but apparently, it was only good because the Government knew we were there and did something to improve. Normally it is terrible!!
The rest of the day was spent on the ship, setting sail across the Banda Sea for our next destination. We had a couple of interesting lectures, firstly from my favourite naturalist Rod, on Wallacea and the Wallace line, between Sunda (Asia) and Sahul (Australia), followed by one on the Spice trade in the region (did you know the islands used to be known as the Spice Islands) where clove, nutmeg, pepper and cinnamon are all indigenous to a handful of the islands in the Banda Sea – where we were now travelling.
Apparently, nutmeg was thought to have fought off the plague and was so valuable, that the British traded a small island in the Banda islands (Run Island) for the island that now houses New York in the 1600’s!
As we travelled east, we had the first of a number of time zone changes overnight, losing an hour’s sleep 🤦🏻♀️.