BANDA ISLANDS

BANDA ISLANDS

Banda Islands (132 kilometers southeast of Ambon) is a group of 10 islands consisting of three relatively large islands and seven smaller ones. The islands are famous for being the source of nutmeg, one of the primary drivers of the spice trade that brought Europeans to Asia in the 15th and 16th centuries. The primary industries on the islands today are nutmeg production, fishing and tourism,. The islands are also prone to disasters. On a single day—April 2, 1778—the Bandas suffered an earthquake, tsunami, volcanic eruption and typhoon.

Two of the big islands — Banda (also called Banda Beser) and Banda-Neira — , are covered with nutmeg trees. The third big island, Mt. Api, is essentially a volcano that rises that rises out of the sea. Its landscape is dark and barren and only a few years ago it erupted quite violently. In 1990, there was huge earthquakes and volcanic eruption on Banda. All the residents on the island were evacuated by the Indonesian Navy.

Thes main attraction for tourists is diving and snorkeling: some of the best in the world.. The water is crystal clea and there are many varieties of bright fish and coral and steep drop offs where you are more likely to see sharks and big fish. Then there is the exotica. Banda is also the home of a giant bright blue pigeon that feeds almost exclusively on nutmeg and an eight-inch fish with eyes that light up like light bulbs at night. The islands were just taking off as major tourist destinations in the 1990s when the violence hit the Moluccas. It took a while for it to recover.

The Historic and Marine Landscape of the Banda Islands was nominated to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2015. According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “The Banda Islands are also known under the name 'Spice Islands’, as this island group was the original and sole location of the production of the spices nutmeg and mace during the most prosperous years of Dutch, English and Portuguese colonization. The Banda Islands are situated in the eastern part of the Indo-Malayan archipelago. It consists of eleven small volcanic islands, called Neira, Gunung Api, Banda Besar, Rhun, Ai, Hatta, Syahrir, Karaka, Manukan, Nailaka and Batu Kapal, with an approximate land area of 8,150 hectares in total.” [Source: Permanent Delegation of the Republic of Indonesia to UNESCO]

The Banda islands are perched on the rim of Indonesia's deepest underwater trench. Some parts of the Banda Sea reach a depths of over 6,500 meters. Gunung Api or ‘peak of fire’, on Api Island is a perfect cone. The islands are very remote and still hard to get as it is reached by charted plane or boat or flights and ferries from Ambon that only go one a week or so. Some cruise ships even stop by.

History of the Banda Islands

The earliest known usage of nutmeg is on the island of Ai in the Banda Island around 3,500 years ago based on residue found on ceramic potsherds. The Romans used it as incense. Saint Theodore the Studite (c. 758 – 826) allowed his monks to sprinkle nutmeg on their pease pudding. Nutmeg was known as a valuable commodity by Muslim sailors from the port of Basra (including the fictional character Sinbad the Sailor in the One Thousand and One Nights). The Banda Islands were the sole source of nutmeg until the mid 19th century . Chinese, Indian, and Arab traders all profited from the nutmeg trade. So to did the people of Banda, until Europeans, namely the Dutch, monopolized the trade.

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “These islands were the scene of the earliest European ventures in Asia. In order to obtain a monopoly on the production and trade of nutmeg, the Dutch constructed a comprehensive nutmeg plantation system on the islands during the 17th century. It included the nutmeg plantations for spice production, several forts for the defense of the spices, and a colonial town for trading and governance. This system lasted until Indonesia’s independence in 1945, however these first commercial plantations remain the basis of today’s modern international trading system of nutmeg produce. [Source: Permanent Delegation of the Republic of Indonesia to UNESCO]

“The Dutch were not the only occupants of this region, however. The British skillfully negotiated with the village leaders on the island Rhun to protect them from the Dutch in exchange for a monopoly on their nutmeg. The village leader of Rhun accepted King James I of England as their sovereign, and it became the first overseas English colony. Control of the Banda Islands continued to be contested until 1667 when, in the treaty of Breda, the British ceded Rhun to the Dutch in exchange for the island of Manhattan (later New York City).”

Today “The Banda Islands contain outstanding examples of remains of forts, ports and features of a comprehensive plantation system that are illustrative of the Western colonial era and its quest for a monopoly of nutmeg production. In addition, Banda Neira, which functioned as the main center of the Banda Islands during the Dutch reign, later became the location to which several independence fighters, including Mohammed Hatta and Sutan Syahrir, were exiled during the struggle for the independence of Indonesia. The history of the Banda Islands thus encompasses both the start of colonial rule and Indonesia's struggle for independence.

“The authenticity and integrity of the colonial remnants may be disputable in some cases, as many buildings have been restored and even partly reconstructed after the bombing in World War II. However, many buildings are still in their original material state, which in many cases means that they continue to exist as ruins. Moreover, the town planning is still the same as during the colonial times, therefore the feel of the islands is very much authentic. Some of the historic buildings have been restored and are being used as museums or tourist attractions. Furthermore, plans are being made to prevent the remnants of the existing unreconstructed historic buildings from further degradation. More importantly, the Banda Islands should not be considered on the basis of particular examples of specific historic buildings, but rather as a comprehensive system. The entire cultural landscape comprises integrated Perkeniers houses, plantations, fortifications to protect the colonial claims, the ongoing production of nutmeg and mace, and the ways in which the history is still part of living traditions such as the Cakalele Dance and the Kora-Kora race.”

Traditional Life in the Banda Islands

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “Besides the nutmeg production on land, the sea played an important role in trade during the history of the Banda Islands. Not only was the sea the only access route to the islands, it also provided food for the locals and colonizers. Nowadays, most people still work as fishermen and therefore interact daily with the surrounding coastal environment. In terms of livelihoods, the fishermen rely heavily on the coral reefs for baitfish to catch the larger pelagics that are sold commercially. Despite these commercial enterprises, and fitful volcanic eruptions, the coral reef has proven to possess high resilience. [Source: Permanent Delegation of the Republic of Indonesia to UNESCO]

“These living traditions are kept in honor in Rumah adat Patalima, which are ritual homes for the objects, while not in use for either the Cakalele Dance or the Kora-Kora race. This house is regularly attended and incense is burned in front of the cabinets filled with ritual clothing, helmets, spears and such. Besides these continuing traditions, another tradition is currently being revived. The Sasi-system is a traditional sustainable way of fishing, which decrees that in certain years, fishermen are not permitted to fish for particular species of seafood. This system prevents overfishing and provides the marine population time to breed and maintain their numbers.

“Two living traditions are closely associated with” the islands’ history: “The first is the Cakalele dance, which is a symbolic dance that is still performed on special occasions on the Banda Islands. The dance illustrates the massacre of the orang kaya; the village heads who resisted Dutch rule. This dance is accompanied by the sound of the gong and tifa percussion instruments, and is encouraged by the cheering of the audience, in a spirit of resilience and love for the motherland. Secondly, every year there is a major Bandanese traditional event called the Kora-Kora boat races. For this event, every village constructs a traditional war boat according to ancient Bandanese practices and rituals. These boats, rowed by up to 30 men each with a drummer in front to set the pace, are raced against war boats from other villages. Old documentation reveals that a group of these war boats welcomed the first explorers, the Portuguese.”

Banda Islands Ecology and Conservation

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “The reefs in the Coral Triangle, particularly in Indonesia and the Philippines, are among the most threatened globally. The Banda Islands have some of the most spectacular and resilient reefs in this particular area— a coral wonderland with over 397 species of coral, 683 species of fish, and abundant with turtles, making it the Amazon of the sea. The Banda Islands contain a high diversity of habitats and coral reef species, and has one of the highest marine conservation priorities. Conservation efforts have been successful, as the biodiversity of the coral reef was not only maintained but has even increased. The Banda Islands have a strategic role in connectivity in migration patterns of several species, one of which is a critical stage in the sea turtle life cycle. Furthermore it also gives refuge to highly endangered oceanic cetaceans, including the blue whales. Besides the marine life, the Banda Islands are an important sanctuary and waypoint for migratory birds, as well as the endemic source of the high-quality Bandanese nutmeg tree, which prospers only at this location due to the geographical circumstances, the unique climate and temperature, volcanic soil, and rainfall. Although the islands are not any longer the sole producer of nutmeg and mace, the best quality nutmeg still originates from these islands due to its unique milieu. [Source: Permanent Delegation of the Republic of Indonesia to UNESCO]

“ The increasingly high degree of biodiversity” on the Banda Islands “is probably due to the buffering effect of the surrounding Banda Sea, which, with its depth of 8000 meters, protects the islands from extreme equatorial temperatures (circa 29°C/84°F throughout the year) and the effects of climate change. This sea also plays an important role in the production quality of the nutmeg, as the sea winds and salty rains influence the taste and quality of the nutmeg, which is still claimed to be the best in the world.

“The island's geological and climatic history, addition to its resilience to climate change and volcanic activity, has facilitated speciation and high species diversity. However, the coral reefs in the Coral Triangle, particularly in Indonesia and the Philippines, are among the most threatened globally. Therefore the Banda Islands are important for researchers to discover what causes this high resilience of the reefs, in order to protect other locations. Moreover, several conservation efforts in the Banda Islands have been successfully made, in which the biodiversity of the coral reef has not only been maintained but even increased. In addition to its scientific importance, the Banda Islands play a strategic connective role in migration patterns of several species, one of which is a critical stage in the sea-turtle life cycle. It also gives refuge to highly endangered oceanic cetaceans, including the blue whales.”

Banda Neira Island

Banda Neira (or Banda Naira) is the main Banda island and one with the most people and historical sights. Stepping onto the shores of Banda Neira is like taking a stroll through history—a trip back in time into a town that has remained relatively unchanged for centuries. Remnants of a once great trading center are visible across the island. The majestic Dutch Fort, Belgica, sits in its lofty position atop the high hill overlooking Neira’s Bay, commanding the attention and recognition of all who pass.

Old cannons lie scattered across the island, serving as reminders of the days when the Banda’s production of one of the world’s most sought-after commodities was one that was worth fighting to rule. Huge colonial palaces from times of the Dutch, Portuguese and British rule still leave their mark on Neira, built by those who had been catapulted into riches after successfully completing the arduous journey across oceans and seas for a spice once worth their weight in gold.

Banda Neira is the only one of the Banda islands with enough flat space to allow a small town, and therefore supports the only settlement of significant size on any of the Banda Islands, and sustains more than half of the archipelago’s 15,000 population. Neira is one of only three inhabited islands in the cluster. It is also a beautiful place with lush forests, remains of nutmeg plantations, spectacular dive spots, and exquisite coral reefs.

Banda Neira Town

Banda Neira (on Banda Neira island) is the main town and port for the Banda Islands. Occupying much of the northen part of Banda Neira island, it a sleepy town described as a "a nestling patchwork of white-walled colonial buildings with red tiles and sago-thatched roofs" and "the magnificent crumbling remains of early Dutch and Portuguese fortresses," some of them with cannon still in place. The several-thousand-foot-deep harbor is so deep that Japanese destroyers were able to tie up directly next to the town.

Banda Neira is a charming place with tree-line streets. Take a stroll around and see the crumbling remnants of the town’s colonial past. The renovated fort, Benteng Belgica (Belgica Fort), is a 17th century fortification, where for a small entrance fee you can go inside and visit this relic from a period when the spice trade dominated the island.

Banda Neira is built around Benteng Belgica, an imposing five-star fort with thick bastions designed to withstand British naval bombardments. It was restored in the 1990s. On the foot of the hill below Forte Belgica are the ruined walls of Fort Nassau, built in 1527 but largely an overgrown ruin today. Also worth checking are the town’s museum and the oldest church in Indonesia (built in 1680). There is also a mosque.

In Banda Neira, most people get around on foot as most tourist essentials are in the town and within walking distance. Alternatively, ojek and becak are available for a longer daytrip. To get from one island to another you will need to hire a boat. The price may vary depending on the distance but normally ranges from IDR 120,000 to IDR 500,000. There are no ATMs around Banda Islands including in Banda Neira so be prepared with cash prior to visiting the islands. It is highly advised to keep your money in a safe place, especially in and around harbor. Telecommunications are limited to Indonesian telecommunication providers Telkomsel and XL. You can top up credit in Banda Neira. Further information is available at the official website for Maluku (the Moluccas) regional government - malukuprov.go.id and the phone number is +62 911 352 180 or +62 911341 611 Tourist Information Office, Jl. Raya Pattimura 1, Ambon, Phone +62 911 52471 or +62 911 97126

Colonial Buildings in Banda Neira

Colonial buildings can be found in both the port area and the town center. Dutch-era colonial houses are sometimes open for visitors. They include te home of the Indonesian nationalist Mohammed Hatta, and Sultan Syahir, a figure in the anti-Dutch resistance. Granduis Istana Mini was the home of the Dutch governor. Captain Colle’s residence was occupied bu the British commander who captured Benteng Beligca without firing a shot.

Fort Belgica was originally built by the Portuguese, then conquered and reinforced by the Dutch East Trading company, VOC. It is one of the largest remaining European forts in Indonesia. A towering, stone structure, with looming 10-meter-high walls, it was built strategically at the peak of a high hilltop and has been maintained over the last four centuries. Its pentagon-shaped walls still have 17th century cannons pointing out to sea. The solid- iron cannonballs fired from these weapons were capable of sinking ships, and posed a deadly threat to any approaching enemy. Fort Belgica is just a 15 minute walk from the port of Banda Neira, and has been nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The palace building in the fortress is modeled after the Naples Opera House. Etched with a diamond in a window pane is suicide note from a Frenchman named Charles Rumpley. All that remains from the colonial era are a few chandeliers. The furniture has been replaced by ping pong tables. The Des Ali library contains a museum with Chinese earthenware, old Portugese cannons, a brass chandeliers, some delftware, old maps

Fort Nassau is a smaller, yet still impressive fort, built by the Portuguese in 1529. Nassau was the defensive structure on the island before the construction of Fort Belgica in 1611. Other colonial buildings still exist across the island including the Dutch Cemetery, the Dutch Reformed Church, the Mini Neira Palace, which was the Governor’s house, an old jail, and a museum filled with artifacts collected over the centuries.

Accommodation and in the Banda Island

There are not too many hotels around the Banda Islands. The biggest hotels are located right at the lip of white sandy beach. One of the most prominent Chiefs of Banda, Mr. Des Alwi plans to build one exclusive hotel, with limited number of rooms. Mostly travelers choose to stay in small hotels or guesthouses, as they offer reasonable prices and acceptable service.

Hotel Maulana of Banda Neira is the most luxurious hotel in the Bandas. Lady Diana, Mick Jagger, and Jacques Cousteau have all stayed in this 40-room hotel. Owned by the King of Banda, Des Alwi, the hotel boasts traditional colonial architecture with an expansive patio just feet from the crystal clear Banda Waters, and spectacular views of Gunung Api. All rooms are air-conditioned and equipped with bathroom facilities. Rates start at just US$50 per night, With en-suite bathroom, the rooms are facing pearl factory that belongs to the same owner. Please call +62 910 210 22 or +62 911 210 24,.

Mutiara Guesthouse has spacious air-conditioned rooms with a courtyard where you can daydream. Prices are from between IDR 70,000 to IDR 125,000 (the rate may change without notice). There is internet available in the lobby, although the speed can be very slow. The owner speaks fluent English, German, and Dutch. Please call Abba on +62 813 303 43377

Vita Guesthouse is another place recommended for travelers who enjoy detailed information on their destinations. Alan, the manager of the guesthouse, is very resourceful and able to explain details in English. This guesthouse has a private jetty facing Gunung Api, where you can rent a boat and snorkeling gear. The room rates are very competitive. Please call the staff at mobile Tel: +62 819 450 90110.

Staying on a live aboard boat is an ideal way to explore the Banda’s. Live aboard cruises last from 7 to 14 days. A live aboard is worth the time and money, especially if you are keen to explore as many dive sites as you can. Check with your travel agent for the best package. Live aboard cruises and tours are also quite popular and can be booked at sites such as: E mail: info@divingbanda.com

Fresh seafood straight from the ocean is a treat here. Guesthouse staff will be happy for prepare whatever seafood you are after, usually delicious ikan bakar, or grilled fish. There a few smaller restaurants serving a variety of Indonesian food.

While you are here in the home of nutmeg, you’ll have the chance to nutmeg jam in mostly every guesthouse in Banda Neira. Nutmeg is also available in form of preserved food (manisan pala) and dried fruit slices. Other local delicacies include eggplant stuffed with almond paste and fish in nutmeg fruit sauce. If you’re traveling in December try angur fruit which look like olives but taste sweet. Many guesthouses will include full board or cook dinners by arrangement.

Getting to the Banda Islands

The easiest way to reach the Banda Islands is to first go to Ambon. Ambon is the capital city of Ambon island, located 132 kilometers north of the Bandas. To get to Ambon you can fly either directly from Denpasar-Bali, or transit in Ujung Pandang. Garuda Indonesia flies from Jakarta (CGK) transiting in Hasanuddin-Makassar airport, or Denpasar- Bali (DPS) transiting in Ujung Pandang (UPG) to Ambon’s Pattimura Airport (AMQ). Other flights are from Langur-Central Maluku (LUV), Juanda-Surabaya (SUB), and Jeffman-Sorong, Papua (SOQ). Lion Air, Batavia Air, and Mandala Airlines serve Ambon-Jakarta, with transit in Makassar or Surabaya.

From Ambon, you can get to the Banda Islands either by a chartered small plane or using Merpati Airlines flying to Banda Neira. There is no round-trip flight available. Reservations for flights from Ambon to Banda can only be made in Ambon. The returning flight must be reserved in Banda Neira. The flight operates once a week or every two weeks. This limited accessibility means that one you do get there, you won’t see many other tourists around. Hence, it is an ideal hideaway. Alternatively, you can cross the Banda Sea by ferry. Pelni provides a twice weekly ferry by KM Ciremai liner from Ambon to Banda Neira. Make sure you double check the schedule for and unforeseen changes. There is a bimonthly boat that travels between Jakarta, Surabaya, Ujungpandang, Bau Bau, Ambon and Banda.

The Merpati flights are often sporadic. You should keep reconfirming, as flights are often cancelled due to bad weather, engine problems, and other unforeseen circumstances. Crossing the Banda Sea by ferry takes about 7 hours from Ambon to the Banda islands, but once again, these voyages are extremely unpredictable The Banda Islands are also a popular destination for cruise ships, and can be accessed via various cruise companies as well. Live-board often begin their trip some distance from the Banda Islands

Sights in the Banda Islands

Diving is the main attraction in the Banda Islands. There are more than 25 dive sites.Some of the most popular ones are Pulau Ai (beware during rough sea), Batu Kapal, Hatta Reef (Karang Hatta), Pulau Keraka, and Nusa Laut. Sailing is an activity that draws people to the Bandas. Sail Banda is a big event. It attracts sailors from around the world, attracted by Banda’s challenging conditions and winds. For Cool off with a relaxing swim at the beaches on the south coast of Banda Besar or on the tiny Pulau Nailaka.

It is possible to climb to the summit of Gunung Api. Scaling this active volcano is a challenging 90 minute hike and guides are available. Other hiking trips can be booked at the Maulana Hotel to explore other attractions like traditional villages, and four-century old nutmeg groves.

In Banda Neira, most people get around on foot as most tourist essentials are in the town and within walking distance. Alternatively, ojek and becak are available for a longer daytrip. To get from one island to another you will need to hire a boat. The price may vary depending on the distance but normally ranges from IDR 120,000 to IDR 500,000.

Pulau Run, or Run Island is one of the smaller Banda islands, measuring only about 3 x 1 kilometers, yet it is sometimes considered to be Indonesia’s “most valuable real estate.” Multiple European powers had battled for control of the islands for many years until the signging of the Treaty of Breda in 1667. The British traded the tiny island of Run with the Dutch for an equally tiny island on the other side of the world, thus giving the Dutch full monopoly of the Banda islands which they maintained for almost two hundred years. The island across the globe traded to the British still goes by its Dutch name: Manhattan, in New York, USA.

Banda Beser is the largest island in the Banda Islands and regarded as the most beautiful of all the Spice islands. An early mariner once wrote: "from far out at sea, we could detect the scent of paradise wafting from the hills of Banda." Only about 15,000 people live in Banda. Much of the world's nutmeg, mace and cloves were grown here and the neighboring island Lontar on plantations that are now largely overgrown. Lonthair is the largest town on Banda Besar. It is a sleepy place with a number of attractive colonial buildings. Beteng Hollandia, built in 1604, is one of the biggest fortress in Indonesia. Around Kelly Plantation there nutmeg trees are protected by towering centuries-old kenari trees A large part of the 17-square-mile island is covered by a 2,200 foot high, still active and often smoking, volcano.

Diving and Snorkeling in Banda Islands

The Banda Islands are home to some of the best snorkeling and diving in Indonesia — if not the world. There are excellent drop offs at Hatta, Air and Run islands and exceptionally clear water. There is also a large variety of colorful tropical fish and exotic shells in the beautiful coral gardens. There are 250 to 300 different kinds of coral, compared to 30 species in Hawaii. Divers see colored crinoids and starfish, angelfish, triggerfish, parrotfish, barrel sponges, soft corals with tentacles, hard corals. There is also good deep sea fishing.

The reefs in the Banda Sea around Ai Island are particularly good for snorkelers because the reefs are located in water less 9 meters deep. The island is also easily accessible from the main Banda islands. here at also kor kora oats, nutmeg plantation and a fort on the islands. Hatta boasts spectacularly clear water with awesome coral holes and a spectacular drop off. It is harder to get to. Pulau Run is the tiny islet that was traded way by the British for Manhattan in 1667. There is specular drop off around 100 meters off the northwest coast. There are great white sand beaches and good snorkeling at the small island of Pulau Neilaka and shallow lagoon between Banda Neira and Gunung Api.

Scuba diving is still relatively new here, but pioneering divers didn't have to work hard to find a thrill. The undersea world around Ambon and the nearby island of Saparua have top-rate dive sites. As you explore beneath the surface you’ll see everything from sharks, enormous turtles, schools of Napoleon Wrasse, giant groupers, dogtooth tuna, mobula rays, redtooth triggerfish, various species of whales, spinner dolphins, and huge lobsters - neighbors to generous schools of reef fish and endemic Ambon scorpionfish.

Diving is possible all year round, but during the monsoon season (July — September) you may be restricted in your choice of dive sites. Beginner divers are recommended to pay strict attention to their safety since the current can be strong in several spots. Diving is usually comfortable, with good visibility (15-30 meters) and calm waters, however some dive sites are only suitable for experienced divers so check with your dive master. Depths of the diving spots range from 5 meters to over 40 meters, with temperatures from 26 to 29 degree Celcius. Try to hire diving and snorkeling equipment from larger firms as these tend to be more reliable, but remember the responsibility of checking the equipment is ultimately yours.

Major Banda Islands Dive Sites:

There are 22 available dive spots in the waters surrounding Banda Neira, each with their own unique splendor and charm — and many more are still being discovered. The crystal clear waters are almost overgrown in numerous types of corals and inhabited by hundreds of species of fish and other marine life. Large schools of fish patrol the seas together with a mesmerizing array of surgeonfish, bannerfish, jacks and barracuda. Even schooling sharks and mobula rays are frequently sighted in the deeper waters. Other large species found roaming the waters include tuna, hammerhead sharks and several species of rays.

The nearby island of Banda Gunung Api is an island consisting entirely of a volcano. Its last major eruption was in 1988. Molten, hot lava flowed across the island and into the ocean, destroying all corals and marine life in its path. But when cooled, a spectacular phenomenon occurred. The hardened andesitic flow created so fertile a ground that in just a few short years, it supported a higher diversity and abundance of corals and ocean life than the adjacent reefs, not covered by lava. Now, 30 years later, coral growth around Gunung Api Banda not only matches, but exceeds the development that normally takes coral formations over 70 years to achieve, making it the most rapid growing coral in the world.

Sonegat: The nearest site for a decent dive is just five minutes by boat from most hotels. It is in the sonegat-sea arm- between Banda Neira and Gunung Api, just offshore from a Des Alwi’s little seaside house. The drop off here is steep and the wall extends down 25 meters to a grey, sandy bottom. There are plenty of good sized dogtooth tuna cruising by and some beautiful blue girdled and emperor angelfish.

Keraka Island: Pulau Keraka or Crab Island is just a few minutes further out, and protects the north entrance of the Neira - Gunung Api sea passage. A nice sandy stretch on the north coast is perfect for a picnic. At the south shore, 18 meters down you will find a mini-wall covered with hundreds of large blue-and-yellow tunicates. To the east shore, there are a good assortment of reef fish and a school of half meter long barracudas.

Sjahrir Island and Batu Kapal: Sjahrir Island, formerly known as Pisang Island (Banana Island) and Batu Kapal (Boat Stone) are just 20 minutes by boat from Banda Neira. These two sites combine well for a morning dive, a picnic on the beach, and an afternoon dive. Lontar Island: The outer edge of Lontar Island, which represents part of the rim of a sunken caldera, offers several good dive sites.

Batu Belanda: On this site, you will find many barrel and tube sponges and small caves and cracks. The fish are varied and plentiful, including a school of snappers, large emperor and blue-girdled angelfish, wrasses, a large pinnate bat-fish and numerous bannerfish.

Ai Island: Together with Hatta Island, this island offers Bandas best diving. Both the north coast and the southwest of Ai are ringed with flawless coral walls, which are rugged and full of caves, the kind of habitat that harbors fish.

Hatta Island: This island is about 25 kilometers by sea from Banda Neira. Skaru atoll, is a barely submerged reef a few hundred meters off the southern point of Hatta. On a coral outcrop, watch the passing parade of Unicornfish, Fusiliers, Jack Fish and Rainbow Runners, Whitetip Sharks (almost 2 meters long) and Dogtoothed Tuna, Napolean Wrasse, and Hawksbill Turtles.

Palau Gunung Api

Palau Gunung Api (on Banda Neira island) is the 656-meter-high volcano in the center of Banda Neira island that periodically erupts with devastating effect. During a 1988 eruption three people were killed and 300 houses were destroyed and layers of ash covered much of the Banda islands. The hike to the top of the volcano passes through a lovely cinnamon plantation on the volcano's eastern slope. On the other side of the volcano are some nutmeg and mace fields. Elsewhere you can see tropical almond trees giant ferns and cockatoos. The shallow waters at the foot of Gunung Api Banda are an internationally recognized dive spot. Multi-coloured corals contrast starkly with the blackened volcanic sea bed, housing a rich marine life, high in number and species diversity, despite the small total area. Gunung Api was designated as a National Park by the Ministry of Forestry in 1992.

Banda Volcano is a perfectly conical mountain that is about three kilometers wide. .Due to its key location in the spice trade, Banda Volcano ranks among the best documented volcanoes in Indonesia. Historical eruptions have been recorded since the late 1500s, and have been relatively low-level, though there have been the occasional larger eruptions, with lava flow reaching the coast.

On May 9, 1988, after 97 years of dormancy, a violent eruption shook the Banda islands. A column of ash billowed three kilometers into the air, and earthquakes were felt every few minutes. Two days prior to the eruption, 1,800 residents of the island were evacuated to nearby Neira and Lonthor, both of which are remnants of volcanic activity. On the day of the eruption, people began moving to further islands, and eventually to locations as distant as Sulawesi. About 10,000 people of the 16,000 population living in the Banda islands were evacuated during the 1988 eruption, which finally ended in August, 1988.

This powerful eruption had a devastating impact on what was once an integral part of the famed “Maluku Sea Gardens.” Molten lava oozed across 70,000 square meters of well-developed fringing reef, destroying everything in its path. But even volcanic clouds have a silver lining, and this seemingly catastrophic event led to a remarkable discovery.

Hardened lava, once broken down, provides some of the most fertile soil on earth. This is because it is rich in minerals and nutrients brought up from within the earth. Therefore, the plant growth affected by volcanoes can recover quickly. But does the same hold true for coral growth? Prior to the Banda eruption of 1988, this idea received scant attention, but scientists were now provided with a unique opportunity. Coral colonization was monitored on 3 locations, and in just five short years, the hardened andesitic flow supported over 120 species of coral. A higher diversity and abundance than the adjacent reef not covered by lava. Now, 30 years later, coral growth around Gunung Api Banda not only matches, but exceeds the development that normally takes coral formations over 70 years to achieve, making it the most rapid growing coral in the world.

As for climbing Gunung Api, the mountain is not too tall, yet it is a rough, but rewarding climb. The climb is a continuous, steep ascent for about 2 hours, so be sure to bring plenty of water. The trail is unmarked, but fairly difficult to miss. The path is are mainly sand or gravel but can be slippery, so good climbing shoes are advisable as well. If climbers set out with the first light of dawn, you should be back down on the shore by 11 am or 12:00pm. On the trek up the mountain, you can observe the various plant life, such as the orchids and the nutmeg trees, which produce the fragrant spices men once crossed the ocean for. If you’re quiet, you may even see flocks of colorful birds perched high in the treetops or soaring in the skies above. 23 species of bird inhabit this island, many of which are endemic to Banda Region. If you set out early enough, you should make it to the summit in time to witness the dramatic dawn over the panoramic view of the sparkling blue sea, and the surrounding rocky islets.

The Sonegat Sea Arm is located between GunungApi and Banda Neira, and is the site of the lava flow where the eruption of 1988 destroyed almost all corals and marine life. The Sonegat Arm lava flow is one of the most popular dive spots in the area and one of the many “must-see” dive spots in Indonesia. After just over 20 years of rehabilitation, table corals and other hard corals have grown at an impressively rapid rate, rarely seen elsewhere in the world. Four seamounts harbour a huge amount of ocean life including yellow fin tuna, banded sea snakes, the beautiful Mandarin fish, and the rare Napoleon fish. Ecological studies in 2001 and 2002 showed tremendous biodiversity with 310 species of reef-building coral, 871 species of fish, and high populations of grouper and shark.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Indonesia Tourism website ( indonesia.travel ), Indonesia government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Japan News, Yomiuri Shimbun, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Updated in August 2020

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