Published in Divelog Australasia June 2024

by Nigel Marsh and Helen Rose

Staring out into the dark water we could see countless pelagic fishes, but not the creatures we had hoped to see. This was our last chance to observe these impressive creatures we had travelled all this way to see. However, after 30 minutes, with our bottom time and air depleted in the deep water, we had to finally admit defeat and return to the shallows. Heading back into the shallows we got a fabulous surprise when nine of the creatures we had hoped to see made a sudden appearance – a school of scalloped hammerheads. This brief encounter had been worth the wait, and was one of the highlights of our recent trip to the Banda Sea in Indonesia.

The Banda Sea is a body of water in Eastern Indonesia, situated between Sulawesi and Raja Ampat. Dotted with countless islands and reefs this area is today known as Maluku, but at one time was better known as the Spice Islands. The original source of nutmeg, mace and cloves, the islands were fought over and controlled by the Portuguese and then the Dutch in the 16th century, and brought great riches to both nations.

To explore the Banda Sea, divers need to join a liveaboard vessel, with most trips departing from Ambon and sailing a circuit of the nearby islands. However, for our trip we had a very special itinerary, a crossing from Alor to Ambon, right across the Banda Sea from south to north. Sea Safari Cruises operate four traditional style phinisi schooners to destinations across Indonesia, and every now and then when the boats are relocated, they offer one of these special crossing trips. Our vessel for this trip was the 35m long Cheng Ho. Built of ironwood, the vessel accommodates up to 26 guests in 14 deluxe cabins with ensuites.

Getting to Alor was the first challenge, as it took us three days and three flights from Brisbane. It was a relief to finally get there and be greeted by Mark Brodersen, the Cruise Director of Marketing/Sales for Sea Safari Cruises. We had dived with Mark on a previous Sea Safari Cruise to Raja Ampat, so it was great to catch up. With all the guests arriving on the same flight, we quickly transferred to the Cheng Ho, as we had to get underway, as over the next nine days we would be travelling over 600 nautical miles.

Alor has some spectacular reef and muck diving, so we were a little disappointed not to be diving. However, Mark explained that the first leg was the longest, requiring us to depart after lunch so we could reach the first dive site the following morning. He added that we would be travelling each night, and often during the day to cover the vast distance, and that we would only be doing three dives a day.


Before we got underway, we did have a special encounter at Alor with a dugong. This male dugong is called Mawar and he is quite a local celebrity, as he seeks out boats and people for company. Unfortunately, he is a little over-friendly, so you are no longer allowed to snorkel with him. We headed out in two small boats and within minutes he joined us. He is a big animal, almost 3m long, and with no fear at all, coming within touching distance many times. I lowered my camera over the side and managed to get a few photos of this amazing encounter. And while it would have been great to get into the water with Mawar, we could see it was wise not to, as he was very frisky, even attempting to hump the boats!

After a spectacular lunch, the meals on Sea Safari Cruises are always a great mix of Asian dishes, we got underway for the first crossing.

The next morning, we arrived at Reong Island for our checkout dive. This sloping wall was typical of the southern Banda Sea, pretty hard corals in the shallows and lovely sponges, soft corals, sea whips and gorgonians on the slope. There was a good variety of reef fish to be seen and a constant parade of larger pelagic fish like trevally and mackerel. We even came across a “smoking” barrel sponge, that was releasing sperm in a dense cloud. While we didn’t see anything really spectacular, the water was warm and clear and completely devoid of rubbish.

Moving again, we did two exploratory dives at Tanjung Tutan. Both sites we explored had fabulous corals and a good variety of reef and pelagic fish. With the crew informing us we weren’t in official hammerhead territory yet, we went with the macro lens to shoot the wonderful reef fishes. We photographed a good variety of anemonefish, angelfish, butterflyfish, dartfish, wrasse and tobies. We were very impressed to see a good number of elegant dottybacks, one of the prettiest little fish found in this area.


All dives off the Cheng Ho are from two tender boats, and with 17 guests and five dive guides we were split into three rotating groups. All the crew on the Cheng Ho are first rate, looking after you, your gear and your every need. We quickly got into a routine of dive, eat, sleep and repeat.

The next morning, we dived a sloping reef covered in large barrel sponges at Nyata Slope. With many ledges, we were delighted to see quite a few rare barred angelfish. This site also had a large colony of spotted garden eels.

Our post lunch dive was the best yet at Palau Laut. With a current running there was plenty of fish action, and we saw schools of rainbow runners, jobfish, mackerel, fusiliers and coral snappers. We also spotted the first shark of the trip, when a large tawny nurse shark darted across the reef. At this site were garden eels, shrimp gobies and a large porcupine ray.

The next dive at Palau Limtutu was also very enjoyable. This was another very colourful reef covered in beautiful corals and swarming with fishes. We spotted schools of trevally, goatfish and snappers and also a shy whitetip reef shark.

The next day we arrived a little late at our destination, so only had time for two dives at Terbang. This was another pretty reef wall with fabulous barrel sponges and lovely gorgonians. On the first dive we saw mackerel, tuna and a yellow-lipped sea krait.  While on the second it was barracuda, sailfin snapper, giant Maori wrasse and a good variety of morays.

The next morning, we finally arrived in hammerhead territory at a coral atoll known as Nildesperandum. Schools of scalloped hammerheads are seen in the northern Banda Sea over two seasons - March to May and September to November.

The anticipation levels were high as we jumped in for the first dive. Unfortunately, the visibility was a little poor, only 10m and not the 20m plus we’d enjoyed so far, and the water temperature was lower at 26°C, but this cooler water was perfect for hammerheads. We patrolled the coral wall for over 40 minutes peering into the gloom, yet no hammerheads. Instead, we saw schools of barracuda, trevally, rainbow runners, mackerel, fusiliers and several massive dogtooth tuna.


We were not the only boat looking for hammerheads, as there were two other liveaboards at this site. We did two more dives at Nildesperandum, and unfortunately no hammerheads. However, there was still plenty to see including gropers, pelagic fish, a hawksbill turtle and a good variety of morays, including several rare spotted morays.

The following day, we arrived at the site we most wanted to visit in the Banda Sea – Manuk. This volcanic island is named after the thousands of sea birds that nest on it. However, the island is most famous for its large population of sea snakes.

Our first dive at Coconut Corner was sensational - 30m visibility, a wall covered in the most beautiful soft corals and sponges, and fish everywhere. There were schools of barracuda, triggerfish, basslets, snappers and fusiliers. And we finally saw the first hammerhead, with a scalloped hammerhead out in the blue. We only saw around ten sea snakes on this first dive, mostly Chinese sea kraits. However, another amazing thing at this site was the black volcanic sand between the corals. In a few sandy patches there were garden eels and soft corals growing straight out of the sand.

Our second dive at Bubble Ridge was just as good, with more pretty corals, more fishes and more sea snakes. The sea snakes at Manuk are famous for hunting in packs, often with an escort of trevally, and this is something we dearly wanted to see, and hopefully photograph. We saw dozens of sea snakes on this dive, and right at the end of the dive we saw a hunting pack of six moving over the reef with a group of trevally. Unfortunately, the group only stayed together for a minute and by the time we got over to them they had disbursed.

Our final dive at Manuk at Babylon Ridge was also epic, with more snakes and fish. We also spotted two more hammerheads, unfortunately very briefly.

By now we were deep into the northern Banda Sea, sadly this was also our last day diving recognised hammerhead sites. We started the day with a bang, with a great dive at Kerang Hatta. This was another gorgeous reef wall covered in beautiful corals. However, we were lucky we could see the corals as swarming over the reef were millions, or possibly billions, of baby red-tooth triggerfish. We have seen schools of these fish before, but nothing like this.

Unfortunately, no hammerheads, instead we saw a school of humphead parrotfish, barracuda, mackerel, tuna, morays, gropers, a hawksbill turtle and a blacktip reef shark. We also had a brief encounter with a group of six mobula rays.


Our next stop was back in civilization at Banda Neira. We had to stop at the port to register, with guests given the choice of a visit to the historic town or a dive. We choose the dive at nearby Lava Flow. This site is at the base of a recent lava flow and it was a little average after the dives we had experienced. There was still pretty corals and some nice fish life, but also rubbish in the water from the nearby town.

Late in the afternoon we arrived at Suanggi, the last recognised hammerhead site. We were a bit surprised to see a dozen local fishing boats in action around the island, and even spotted one that had landed a black marlin. There were also six other dive boats here.

It was almost sunset by the time we got into the greenish water, descending on a pinnacle off the island. The top of this pinnacle rises to 16m then drops to over 50m. The visibility was only 10m and the water was quite dark being so close to sunset. We didn’t like our chances of seeing a hammerhead, but followed our guide to the reef edge and looked out into the gloom. There was a good variety of pelagic fish on show – mackerel, giant trevally, barracuda and snappers. Unfortunately, with the limited visibility the sharks could have been 20m off the wall and we wouldn’t have seen them. After 30 minutes of patrolling the wall we were the last group left, so reluctantly headed back into the shallows.

That was when the magic finally happened, when we least expected it, a group of nine large scalloped hammerheads suddenly appeared cruising over the reef. They were an impressive sight, swimming around us three times, each time keeping a safe distance away. With our dive computers about to go into deco we finally ascended, happy to have finally seen the Banda Sea hammerheads.

Our last day at Nusa Laut could have been a let-down, but the pretty coral gardens and coral bommies at this site were overflowing with life. Over three dives we saw cuttlefish, octopus, humphead parrotfish, turtles, morays, boxfish, tobies, leaf scorpionfish, garden eels and a solar-powered nudibranch.

Our last overnight crossing saw us make the short trip to Ambon. It had been a sensational trip, one of our best to Indonesia, and one that we will be keen to repeat as the Banda Sea is home to hammerheads, spice and all things nice.