Indonesia: Maluku Islands offer an underwater wonderland

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.