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Arnold Arboretum

Out of the forest, into the frying-pan

July 2, 2013 by Cam Webb

Apologies for the long delay between posts, but we have been really cut off in the forest. Our only communication option has been to hike to the river, boat back down to the bay, climb a rock that sticks out of the water east of Beow Island, hope that the cell tower in the south of the bay is switched on (which only seems to happen one day in two or three), and send a text. So, to cut to the present first, we’re out and well in Sorong, waiting for permits to move the specimens we collected to the Bogor Herbarium on Java. After a bumpy start, it has been “smooth sailing.” No accidents, no conflicts, and lots of laughs, great food, and great birds.

Jonathan the whirlpool-runner!

Jonathan the whirlpool-runner!

I will backfill the trip’s story over the next few blog posts, but I am drawn to start with an event still fresh in our minds: a crisis averted last Thursday when the 30-foot longboat we were traveling in from Kabilol to Warsambin was caught in a whirlpool in the Lepintol Straits. These must be among the world’s scariest inland bodies of water: the giant salt-water Mayalibit Bay (40 km by 10 km), which drains and fills through a 300-meter-wide gap between towering limestone cliffs. At peak flow the turbulence sets up large standing waves and whirlpools as the outside tide pushes or pulls the water through. Of course the locals navigate this strait without much fuss, but they say there are still a lot of accidents. The luck of our timing was not good and we had to pass through the strait at close to maximum inward flow (with a near full-moon tide), although none of us other than Jonathan, our fantastic boat driver, really knew what was in store.

The water in the inner part of the strait was mirror calm, but as we approached the gateway I saw disturbed water in the distance. At first I thought this was the effect of ocean waves just stretching into the bay, but then realized it was turbulence generated by the current. Soon we were in bucking, twisting water, gripping desperately onto the sides of the boat. Jonathan powered through, as the surging currents pushed the outboard, and the boat, wildly from side to side. Suddenly we felt the whole boat sink down perhaps a couple feet, and I could see a giant circular swirl of water around us as the whole boat started to pivot to the right. But in another second we were through, rising back to the level of the waters’ surface. Jonathan’s skill was constantly apparent, as he revved and cut the engine, giving to the water’s push and pull where needed. A few minutes (seeming like an eternity) later we were through, and pulling into the village of Warsambin that overlooks this fearsome patch of water.

As luck would have it, the daily truck-bus from Warsambin to Waisai was just leaving. I didn’t think twice before deciding we would ride rather than continue in the longboat over the open ocean for another 20 km. We were heavily laden, and had worried the entire trip about the ocean waves kicked up by the south wind that has just started to blow. After we unloaded the backpacks and 15 bags of specimens, Jonathan continued in the empty longboat and met us later in Waisai; he said the sea had been totally calm…oh well. A very quiet, undemonstrative chap, he also said he was “pretty scared” by the whirlpool, but added that our heavy load had actually helped us stay upright in the surging current. Quite a boat trip!

Acun, me, Endro: survivors on the beach!

Acun, me, Endro: survivors on the beach!

It was a great relief to arrive in Waisai, the regency capital of the Raja Ampat; not just after the hair-raising boat ride, but because it represented a major decrease in our uncertainty about getting the work done and getting the specimens out safely. During our time in the forest, Acun and Endro had been dreaming about doing a bit of sightseeing, and since we couldn’t really start the permitting process until Monday, we took a couple of days off over the weekend. They had been persuaded by pervasive word-of-mouth that if they didn’t see the Wayag Archipelago they would have missed the Raja Ampat. We looked into it, but at $800 round-trip for the boat, and with heavy seas at this season, it didn’t make sense. Instead they had a great, fulfilling trip to Kabui Bay, which has similarly striking limestone pinnacles, but which is still part of the diverse island of Waigeo.

Meanwhile, I enjoyed a day of snorkeling at the wonderful Pantai Cemara Homestay ($30 a day including 3 meals) in Saleo, just 30 minutes by motorbike west of Waisai. As I remembered from my 2005 trip, the marine life of the Raja Ampat is all it’s cracked up to be. At the reef’s outer edge, I dove down and held onto a dead coral boulder. Within seconds I was surrounded by schools of rabbitfish, sweetlips, and trevally—all at least double the size of fish I’ve encountered at any other reef. The Raja Ampat, both in forest and reef, really is one of the last, best places to be inspired by what nature can be if we let it.

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