Monday, September 16, 2013

Benjo in Indonesia

My first time to Asia and I was both excited and nervous before arriving. After a confusing and sleepy first night in Jakarta I flew to Sumatra the next day, following the Indian Ocean coastline and tracing the Indonesian islands of Java and Sumatra in my mind. I don’t know why but these islands have always held a mystical quality in my mind. Perhaps it was the thought of remote rainforests with tigers and orang-utans surrounded by super-diverse coral reefs.
In reality, the city of Bengkulu, which is the base from where I am working, is one of the most boring and ugly cities I have ever visited (up there with Derby). It is crowded, functional and without any unique features. Indonesia is quite developed and between the bright-strobe lights of the supermarkets to the fast-food restaurants I think I got a similar overload of modernity that I feel when I get back to the UK, where I just want to run away to somewhere wild and beautiful. Unfortunately there was a lot of planning to do with Bob and our local contact Sean, which meant working from the hotel (where the standard rooms have no windows!) and even when we were finally ready to start fieldwork and get out to the reef we were thwarted by bad weather.
There are two islands we are trying to investigate. One is Tikus, a small spit of sand 4 miles off-shore from Bengkulu with 2km long fringing reef around it. The other is 18mile long island called Enganno, 200 miles south in the middle of the Indian Ocean. We tried getting to Tikus, but bad weather prevented us getting out there. We set off to Enganno and sat for 3 hours in a very bumpy ferry (even I felt sea-sick) and then turned around, being told it was too risky. We tried one more time to get to Tikus and succeeded. It was great to be in the water and see a new reef in a new place, but when we tried to get back the next day to start fieldwork, after having decided on the study sites, the weather got in the way again! One stressful week had passed with no data, eating rice and prawn crackers three times a day and trying to navigate arrangements with no language or control over the situation. In addition I was actually quite ill with three different infections, which I had to blast with antibiotics. I was very stressed and fed-up.
Finally we attempted the ferry to Enganno again and succeeded! Our team included two students from Bengkulu university, Mukti and Dede, plus Bob and Sean. We arrived on the island at about 9am after leaving Bengkulu at 8pm the night before, and as I woke up and looked out the windows I saw a deserted tropical  coastline with coconut palms, white sands, rainforest behind and multi-shades of turquoise and blue hinting at the reefs below.  The island was much bigger than I had thought, but apparently there are only 6000 people on it, so most of it is uninhabited pristine rainforest. We were staying with a family the Mukti knew well and were shown into their simple, but very comfortable house, nestled between the mangroves and the rainforest right on the water’s edge. It was idyllic and all my pent up frustration disappeared in moments. Not many Westerners get to Bengkulu and even fewer to Enganno, which is evident from the lack of English from the majority of people and fascinated stares I get everywhere I go. I am probably the first person to have ever collected ecological data on the reefs there. I felt very privileged and excited to be working in this place.
So began four blissful days of diving in tropical paradise. The reefs were spectacular, the coastline was postcard perfect and the people we were working with were a delight.  I really had to pinch myself and remember that it was real and happening. It felt like a major mile-stone in my life. Here I was diving in one of the remotest more beautiful places I have ever seen and being paid to be there! The past few years of work, study and sometimes struggle in Kenya are paying off.
The little fishing boat we puttered around the coastline in was owned and driven by a guy known at Pat-Nur, from the sea faring Madurese people from the island of Madura in east Java. They are known for their quick tempers, sharp tongues and apparently their traditional dress is based on 17th century pirate outfit. I loved Pat-Nur. He knew the water around that island perfectly, telling me all the best spots for research. He understood what I wanted and didn’t mind taking detours and stopping the boat at random. Most people in Indonesia, like Kenya, are very indirect, withholding information so not to disappoint, not explaining plans and easily offended direct instructions or questions. Not with Pat-Nur I told him what I wanted (through a translator of course) and he told me straight if it wasn’t possible. He was a real character.
The reefs were in really good condition. I saw 16 species of butterflyfish in the 4 days of fieldwork there. In 2 years in Watamu I have only found 10. The remotest site we went to had a lot of groupers indicating little fishing pressure away from the small settlements. All the reefs had big fish, including the endangered Humpheaded Wrasse (Cheilinus undulatus), which I found in one spot. I only saw a small fraction of the under-sea wonderland there. I could have stayed and studied it for a few years.
It was with great sadness I left my happy host family and Pat-Nur and strong desire to come back one day to this special place. The thought of Bengkulu and all the stress of trying to organise boats and gear to do fieldwork at Tikus was too much. In the end Tikus also went well and the weather stayed reasonable. I enjoyed the dives, but the reef just wasn’t the same.
So in the end I’ve seen the mystical and the ugly side of Indonesia and I’m sure there are many more sides to see in this huge country. As ever, I hope that I can see more of the remote, untouched places and also really hope that they won’t disappear too soon.

My host-grandma cooking fish

Typical meal with the research team

Lunch in the jungle. Pat-Nur is on the right. Dive buddy Mukti on the left

Nemo says hi!


  1. Hi everyone. Thanks for reading this blog, it got 45 hits yesterday when I posted this entry. Interestingly it got 25 hits from the US alone, but I don't think I know that many people in the US, or do I? Who are you lovely American readers and do I know you?
    Best wishes,

  2. Not American but excited you're posting! Lots of love xx

  3. Sounds wicked! I'm heading out there in 2 months. How did you find your host family and boat driver? Any info is greatly appreciated

    Thanks lance