Return to the South Pacific
The big snake came out of his hole and was heading in my direction. He must have been eight feet long and appeared to be swimming straight into the lens of my video camera. At what must have been inches from my face mask, he gracefully veered away. That creature and I were somewhere in Indonesia’s Banda Sea. We were in no more than 50 feet under water so clear I could count every black band on his slick white body.
Swimming as if in formation behind my camera’s subject were perhaps a dozen more of what were correctly classified as “Sea Kraits.” However, as far as I was concerned they were big snakes with paddle shaped tails, and very intimidating.
We were five or six divers together that morning. A couple of my more experienced scuba companions were actually playing with the snakes, who appeared to be as fascinated with us humans as we were with those hopefully friendly creatures. I found out later that sea kraits live in holes and crevices in the sea wall. They are amphibians, have lungs and actually swim up to the surface every hour or so to breathe. The females lay their eggs on land. Obviously we were experiencing creatures somewhere in their evolutionary process.
The year was 1987. I had been in a business meeting only a few weeks earlier when the call came into my office.
“Excuse me Mr. Nathanson. I’m sorry to interrupt, but there’s a gentleman on the phone calling from Australia, and he says it’s important. I think he said his name is Mr. Taylor.”
“Taylor?… Ron Taylor…? Hummm,” I thought to myself. “It must be.” I apologized to my guests, “I have to take this call; she said, it’s important.”
It was indeed Ron Taylor, my friend the famous underwater photographer with whom Elayne and I had travelled several years before on our Melanesian adventure with Ed and Ann Janss aboard the Lindblad Explorer.
Ron was hosting a dive trip in Indonesia next month with some famous underwater scientists. They had a cancellation, and would we be interested?
“Sorry to call you at this late date.” he added.
“Of course we’ll come,” I replied almost automatically. “Let me check with my wife,” though I could have certainly predicted her answer. When it came to travel, Elayne was always “packed and ready.” Two weeks later we were on a plane headed for Bali where we spent a day and a half, which wasn’t enough. Fortunately we had made plans to spend more time in that magical place at the conclusion of our cruise.
Coincidence or whatever, my Blog partner, Jen and her husband, Tony have just returned home from that part of the world. They had a wonderful time.
The boat was a beautiful live-aboard catamaran that we shared with an Indonesian crew, a dozen adventurers like ourselves and two famous underwater scientists, Jack Randall, Director of the Bishop Marine Museum at the University of Hawaii and Eugenie Clark, the famed marine biologist. Ron Taylor and his nephew Mark Heighes were in charge of scuba diving. The marine life in Indonesia was every bit as beautiful as in the waters of Melanesia. Unlike our Lindblad cruise, where interacting with the indigenous people rather than diving held priority, this trip was specifically organized for undersea exploration.
Ron Taylor told me he would be shooting video and suggested I give it a try. I had borrowed my brother’s Sony Handycam, ordered a special housing and probably taped video almost exclusively. The equipment back in the 1980s was primitive by today’s standards, and I was certainly a beginner. On the other hand, with the advice and encouragement of Ron, I was able to capture some amateur but nevertheless memorable footage.
It seemed that our professional companions had prevailed upon the captain one evening to divert from the ship’s scheduled course the next day and visit a little island which wasn’t much more than a volcanic peak that had risen from the ocean’s depths during an earthquake many years earlier. They wanted to explore the waters around the peak itself which rose no more than 200 feet above the surface. The island’s name was Gunung Api and it was off the course of most commercial as well as pleasure ships. When we arrived that morning the peak was swarming with sea birds.
We guest adventurers were fortunate to be traveling and diving in the company of our famous companions. Each evening after dinner Eugenie, Jack and Ron would review the day’s dives, project their slides and videos and discuss plans for the following morning. No one however, had mentioned Gunung Api the night before or what we might expect to encounter that next day.
Good thing. What we learned at lunch aboard ship after that morning dive was that the Sea Krait is a highly poisonous reptile whose venom is even more lethal than that of a cobra, its cousin. Its bite can lead to paralysis, and unless treated promptly, death shortly thereafter.
Nevertheless I was fascinated. I glanced over towards my wife Elayne who was shaking her head. Luckily for the sake of our marriage and obvious other reasons, there was no afternoon dive to revisit the morning’s unique experience. The captain prevailed upon our leaders to return to our original itinerary in order to make port on some other island where we were to refuel and spend the night.
I was to encounter Sea Kraits on another dive vacation off the island of Taveuni in Fiji. By then however, I was an “old hand” with the species, posed for a couple of photos and swam off looking for better “fish to ply.”
We spent several days in Bali at the conclusion of our dive adventure. Though the population of Indonesia is primarily Muslim, most of the people of Bali are Hindus. There are temples everywhere, and one of the treats is to watch the beautiful Balinese girls walking along the road at noon bearing offerings of fruit and flowers to the Gods.
Most Indonesians are genetically closer to Asians. They are of lighter complexion than the islanders we encountered on our Lindblad voyage to Melanesia, who were generally somewhat shorter with darker skin and bushy hair.
The Balinese kids we met on the beach were delightful. Sure, most of them had something to sell, but it wasn’t necessarily commerce they had in mind. “Where were we from? California? Hollywood? Do you know any movie stars?” They all seemed to have beautiful smiles which were not necessarily, to our surprise, a natural blessing of birth. It’s customary that when the boys and girls reach adolescence in Bali they participate in a teeth filing ceremony celebrating their coming of age and supposedly ridding the youngsters of the forces of evil. Most of the adolescents we met had perfect-looking traditional shaped teeth, however the teeth of some of the girls had been ground to sharp points. I never got an explanation.
Remembering Balinese children’s first names is not difficult as long as they are brothers and sisters. The eldest boy for example is always ‘Wayan.’ Next is ‘Made,’ followed by ‘Nyoman’ and the fourth is ‘Ketut.’ If the family should have a fifth, they just start over. Formally, boys’ names are preceded with an ‘I.’ The girls’ names are in the same order and proceeded by a ‘Ni.’ Go figure! They were all happy kids.
The highlight of our stay in Bali was our visit to the town of Ubud, the island’s cultural center, where much of the old Balinese traditions were preserved. We enjoyed the hot springs, attended a shadow puppet show, and met some local artists and artisans.
We had made a pledge, however; “No souvenirs,” remembering our rip-off in New Guinea three years earlier. Well… we met a mask-maker in Ubud who tried one on Elayne, and of course we broke that pledge, buying some masks and shadow puppets, and a few other articles we could carry with us on the plane ride home.
Though the island population of Indonesia was culturally more advanced than their more primitive neighbors in Melanesia, the underwater world was every bit as beautiful.Today 18 years later however, it’s sad but likely that most of the coral reefs and the marine life in that part of the world as I remember them have paid the price for man’s greed and carelessness.
Indonesia was not our last vacation in that part of the world. Elayne and I had the opportunity to visit Australia and New Zealand on several occasions for either business or pleasure. We traveled together to Africa and Egypt, which included a live-aboard diving adventure in the Red Sea. Certainly because of their proximity to the U.S., we took many short dive trips to Mexico and the Caribbean.