Everyone knows fishermen exaggerate the size of their catch, but it is a little known fact that novice snorkelers can be a little generous with fish size too. But, really you should have seen the damn size of this enormous Napoleon wrasse. When I first saw him it was at least the size of yours truly. By the end of the week it was of Moby Dick proportions! Maybe I was overcompensating for the fact that Laura had seen a massive school of 50+ hammerheads the day before!
Welcome to Pulau Hatta in the Banda Islands, where the island is tiny but the undersea life is truly gargantuan. It was to be the setting for my first real attempt at snorkeling. And, I am glad I plunged into the briny since Hatta has given us some of the most fantastic experiences of the entire trip.
So, here it is part two of Paul’s conversion to fully-fledged water boy. After my first forays into water in the magnificent Togean Islands, I decided to do an intensive swimming course in Ko Lanta, Thailand while Laura was doing her PADI Open Water diving course. My eventual aim is to do a PADI course before the end of the trip and, at the very least, do a dive in the Komodo National Park next year. The very patient owner of Laura’s dive school Blue Planet, a fine and hilarious Lithuanian named Geddis, dragged me into the pool and over three days taught me a bunch of water skills. I was glad of his tireless efforts and I think he would have been impressed at my swimming attempts in Hatta. I still need to escape to a shallow ‘safe spot’ once in awhile but I happily float around without too much supervision from Laura these days.
After Laura had completed her Advanced Dive course with Blue Motion in Bandaneira, we were up for some serious blue water action. Abba, the owner of our hotel in Bandaneira, advised us to take a trip out to Pulau Hatta. His staff dropped us off at the quayside and after an hour or so of wondering which one was our boat, we hauled ass into a big blue boat with 30 or so Hatta Islanders.
The journey to Pulau Hatta took about an hour. The boat moored up right on the beach and as I looked over the side of the boat I peered down into the sea at the drop off that I dubbed ‘The Abyss’. You don’t have to swim far to reach the extraordinary dropoff to the insanely beautiful coral wall. In fact, at one point the dropoff is a meter or so from the shore. Hundreds of fish were pouring over the lip to shallower waters.
We ran up the beach to grab one of only two huts at Neira Dive. This is a new beach bungalow run by Ceisar, a local tourism entrepreneur and one of the only people on Hatta who speaks English. Pulau Hatta has had a mini-boom in beach accommodation in the past year. There are now five simple places to stay, all but one of which was built in the last six months! Don’t expect luxury resorts, though. Accommodation is very rustic with bucket showers and electricity for a few hours at night.
Neira Dive costs IDR200,000 per person per night full board. Meals are served on the beach and consist of tasty grilled fish, rice, noodles, and vegetables.
Pulau Hatta: The Best Snorkeling in the World (Really.)
Within fifteen minutes of arrival, we were out of our street clothes and clad in our swimwear and the fins and goggles we bought in Thailand. Top tip: bring your own snorkel gear to Pulau Hatta! Abba from Cilu Bintang had graciously loaned me a life jacket so I would feel more comfortable in deeper waters. I dispensed with this for now since fins, goggles, and snorkel was gear enough for now!
I still felt a little uneasy with the idea of deep water, but I was determined to see how I would fare after my recent swim lessons. I shuffled awkwardly into the water and splat, glug, glug, moan!! All the gear was too much of a distraction and I grumped out of the sea vowing never to try again!
Laura had seen it all before, so she let me grumpily retire to the beach while she swam around the reefs. And, what tales she told on her return. It sounded like she had discovered a treasure trove in the deep. Hundreds of colorful jewel-like fish swimming in an incredibly diverse garden of coral. Oh, well… the beach was beautiful enough.
Snorkeling off Hatta.
In the late afternoon, we met our neighbor, the curious but charming Peter from Zurich. He was a fun chap to hang out with for five days or so. He loved Hatta so much he had stayed there for four weeks already and was intent on staying a couple more. He seemed to get on very well with the locals and every night we were treated to impromptu musical performances from a rotating cast of colorful local dudes. Most of the songs had a simple ukulele accompaniment but the performers raised up quite a storm with voice and four strings. Peter seemed a little too new-agey in his musical tastes for my liking. I was highly disturbed the next morning to see him gyrating around to new age tunes in his skimpy underwear. This is a sight I never hope to witness again!
The next morning, inspired by Laura’s tales from the deep, I decided to head into the sea again. I dispensed with the gear and decided to just get used to the sensation of swimming again. I was much more comfortable this time and spent a good couple of hours whizzing around above the coral. Over the next few days, I added in more gear and spent hours gazing in wonder at the amazing underwater delights. I was even happy to let Laura wander off and leave me to explore on my own. I saw an incredible array of fish: large parrotfish; moray eels; triggerfish; surgeonfish; butterfly fish; Moorish idols; angelfish; and much much more. Laura saw turtles and cuttlefish off the side of the Abyss. I still didn’t have the balls to swim over the Abyss though. I did peer over the edge at the point nearest the shore and I was utterly mesmerized by the deep blue and the shoals of colorful beasties. One day I jumped onto the moored public boat and caught a glimpse of a giant Napoleon Wrasse. It was cool but I felt it would only be a real sighting if I was snorkeling when I saw it.
On our last day in Hatta, I spent hours floating over the coral. Every second you are in there the scene changes. A new amazing fish floats by or you suddenly get enveloped by a ghostly shoal. I edged myself ever closer to the Abyss and suddenly out of the deep blue emerged the big daddy himself, the enormous Napoleon I saw from the boat. I expected to see it for a brief moment and then it would sink back over the edge. But, it hung around for a few minutes. I almost forgot my fear of the deep as I followed the giant beast as it moved back and forth right at the edge of the drop. I was so excited I think I must have talked about it for hours afterwards!
On our last night in Pulau Hatta, Laura met up with Will to grab a couple of videos of the dives from him. One of the photos he showed us reminded me how dumb it was to forgo the fins in these waters. I quite often put down my feet on the seafloor (but not on the coral!) but I won’t make that mistake again. Will had photographed two stonefish just off Hatta beach. They lurk on the seabed or on coral and can change color to blend in with the background. They do not move and kill prey that come close, killing them with a highly toxic venom from spines on their back. Stonefish stings cause incredible pain and swelling and on occasion the odd human has been killed by the toxins.
The downside to the amazing snorkeling on Hatta? It spoiled us! We haven’t been anywhere since where the snorkeling is half as good. “Not as good as Hatta” has been our catch phrase every time we go to another island or beach.
Island Life on Pulau Hatta
It is not all fish on Pulau Hatta. We wandered the road between the two main villages and walked through nutmeg and cinnamon plantations. Spices are still the mainstay of the economy. There was an abundance of tropical fruit in family gardens too. Soursop, breadfruit, jackfruit, papaya, and custard apple were everywhere. The nice thing about Hatta compared to the Togean Islands is that the accommodation is right by the village so you get to see a lot of local life. And life looks good on Hatta! Not many people have what you would recognize as a job, but the village looks relatively prosperous and incredibly happy. Everyone has time to come out to the beach at sunset. Kids zoom around the shore in tiny wooden canoes in the same way that kids ride bikes around the neighborhood at home.
Life in Pulau Hatta is pretty simple. The local’s to-do list consists of sitting on the beach, catching fish, and meeting up to sing and play the ukulele. Pulau Hatta was one of the only places in Indonesia where we got to hear local musicians. Sopian, the owner of the Rozengain Vitalia guesthouse next door, often turned up to lead the musical sessions.
And, now to the earthquake. Yes, you read right! An earthquake…
On our last night on Pulau Hatta, we were sitting on the beach having a splendid dinner of freshly caught barracuda when the ground started shaking. It took us a couple of seconds to register that this was an earthquake. And, the shaking and rumbles continued on and off for a few minutes more. There were also numerous aftershocks throughout the night too. I always thought that an earthquake would be a terrifying experience and that it would induce some panic. But no! Even though this 6.9 on the Richter scale quake was the heaviest in Banda’s collective memory it was shrugged off on Hatta. We asked Ceisar whether there could be a tsunami. ‘Nope’ was the reply! Most of the Westerners on the island were a tad more concerned and we spent an hour or so reassuring each other and making sure we knew the direction of the tsunami escape route.
When we got to Bandaneira the next day, we heard the town took the possibility of a tsunami a bit more seriously. Most of the town headed up to the fort for safety and many spent the night there. The epicenter of the quake was 50 miles north of the Islands.
Amusingly, I was woken up twice in the night by the aftershocks but for some reason I thought I was just feeling Peter clomping around in the cabin next door. Probably doing his erotic new age dance moves I thought!
The Monsoon Comes to Pulau Hatta
It was mid-December and the monsoon was arriving in the Banda Islands on schedule. On our last couple of days on Hatta, we had tremendous tropical downpours in between beautiful sunny spells. The sea, which had been glass-calm on the ride to Pulau Hatta, was getting choppier by the day. The changing weather brought beautiful sunsets to the island.
We left Pulau Hatta exhilarated by our watery adventures and decided to return later in the trip. We had planned to build an app or two on the road, but had yet to find the one place we felt we could hang out for a month or so. The Banda Islands will be that place.