Indonesia: Maluku Islands offer an underwater wonderland

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.