Monitor lizard, Singapore Botanical Gardens
Travelling by small ship from Papua New Guinea to Manila in the Philippines may sound like an idyllic way to see the region’s wildlife but, to date, our landings have been short and sweet and the sea miles, long and fairly unproductive.
After a stopover in Singapore, we joined Noble Caledonia’s ‘Caledonian Sky’ in Rabaul, and are presently around 30 nautical miles south of the equator heading for Raja Ampat, having visited various small, sometimes uninhabited, islands on the way. We have been entertained royally by the villagers on Garove Island, Kopar village on the Sepik river and the waterside houses around Lake Sentani, Jayapura. We cruised Alim Island, home to hundreds of red footed boobies and a smattering of white-capped noddies and white terns, the highlight so far. A landing on the small island of Pulau Runi gave us beach kingfishers, Brahminy kites, amazing little hermit crabs, a few smaller birds, most notably olive-backed sunbirds, and a welcome swim in crystal clear waters.
The monotony of the sea voyage was broken, last evening, by a very brief view of dolphins and, today, by a sighting of a couple of sperm whales. Otherwise, those of us who are interested rejoice at the passing of the odd brown booby, shearwater and the, almost, ever present flying fish. There are over 800 species and 300 endemic birds on PNG and we have yet to see more than a handful of bird species and any endemics. Still, it’s warmer than at home..
Well, today started well. We trudged up a mountain in pouring rain and pitch darkness to see a red bird of paradise and we saw two! The light was terrible but it was good to get a glimpse of one of these iconic species. Then, the day went downhill. At around 1230, our ship ran aground on a reef as we were moving around Raja Ampat. Apparently, the charts are not good in this area and we managed to find ourselves in very shallow water. Despite the best efforts of the two big engines and the bow thrusters, as I write this at 1720, we’re still stuck fast. This does not look good but the captain is hoping a tug will arrive soon and on the high tide, we might just break free. There are some very unhappy locals as we are aground on their reef adjacent to a dive resort. The consolations are that this is a small part of paradise, the temperature is about 30 degrees, the sun is shining and there is plenty of food in the pantry. Read on for the next chapter.
So, it is around 2230 and after inching our way forward for the past hour, assisted by the (expensive but apparently useless) big tug and its huge rope, we have finally returned to deep water. There is some damage to the underside of the ship and, apparently, to the reef but we’re hoping neither is serious. We’re dropping anchor nearby until the underside can be assessed tomorrow. Meanwhile, well done to everyone. It’s good to be rocking again. (Having read the press since I wrote this, it seems there may have been considerable damage to the reef and a huge claim for compensation. We’re all sad that damage has been caused to this beautiful underwater environment).
We still don’t know what negotiations took place but discussions with various officials and inspections of the ship took all day. The ship has been declared damaged but seaworthy and at 9pm, we’re on our way, a little over 24 hours late and forfeiting a landing at a wildlife reserve.
A day at sea, and I spent most of it photographing flying fish. I didn’t realise there were so many different varieties of flying fish and when I shot a group of weird looking red ones, I was a bit perplexed. They seemed to be facing the wrong direction, that is, flying backwards. And that’s exactly what they were doing because they weren’t flying fish, but flying squid. Under threat, they shoot out water and propel themselves rearwards and, fortunately for me, they flew into the path of my camera.
Back at sea after a few short hours in Bunaken, Sulawesi, allegedly one of the best five dive sites in the world, and onwards on the long journey to the Phillippines.
The remainder of the trip is notable for being, at least in wildlife terms, unspectacular. This voyage is getting more like a repositioning, with quick visits to islands followed by many hours at sea. The whale sharks didn’t turn up for our swimming with whale sharks morning in Donsol, and the nature was absent from our nature walk in Sibuyan, despite being billed as the ‘Galápagos of the Philippines’. The worrying thing is that none of the expedition team had been here before so they had no more idea than we did what to expect.
And so we’ve arrived in Manila and yesterday afternoon produced the most excitement of the trip with a couple of very hungry brown boobies catching flying fish off the ship’s bow and a brief visit by a pod of bottlenose dolphins. This is my kind of photography and I hope I’ve done justice to the display. And that was it. I’m now sitting on a B777 en route to Singapore and then home.
And here is the grand finale to what was not the best photographic experience – yesterday, I thought I had downloaded all of my images, only to find that for whatever reason, only some of those from one of my cameras have appeared on my computer. As it happens, this was the camera which contained the sperm whales, the dolphins, and all the red footed and brown booby photos. Unfortunately, I deleted the images from my camera before I discovered the download had not completed. If you are disappointed at not seeing what I think were my best images, guess how I feel. There’s a lesson to be learned here and I should have known better… and since I had a significant birthday this weekend, I’m putting it down to a senior moment.
P.S. I think I’ve solved the problem. I had the same experience again but, this time, I checked the download before deleting the pictures. Being completely baffled, I carried on as normal until I saw a message from Dropbox telling me I didn’t have enough space for all of my images. I didn’t even know I was downloading images to dropbox so I told it ‘Never for this device’. Since then, no problems. So what was that about?