Friday, 29 March 2013

Cairns to West Papua and Indonesia

Well, first cruise of the contract over and what an awesome trip. I’ve spent some time in Indonesia before, but this trip from Cairns through to Kota Kinabalu on Borneo was mostly through new places.

As we set of from Cairns it was warm, and we knew it was going to get a heck of a lot warmer! We had our first day at sea as we cruised up through the Great Barrier Reef, past Far North Queensland and then the next morning on Thursday Island in the Torres Strait. We started off with a few birds inc blue-winged kookaburra, rainbow bee-eater, figbird, helmeted friarbird, and striated heron during a quick island tour. The afternoon was at sea, as was the next day as we neared West Papua. Late that evening we lowered two zodiacs and fitted with depth sounders we ran ahead of the ship for 3.5 hours through the entrance to the Asmat. There are no reliable charts of the area, so we acted as guides for the ship. Was a pretty cool experience to be running ahead of the ship in the dark, thinking that here we were in relatively uncharted waters in West Papua! We anchored just of Agats Village in the river at around 0245.

Up early the next morning and getting ready to go ashore in Syuru Village. We dropped the zodiacs and with everyone in the zodiacs we were challenged by about 25 canoes full of Asmat warriors. They paddled out and around us calling and screaming, and then guided us in to the landing. What an awesome experience! As we landed everyone onto some rickety steps people headed off into the village along the boardwalks, and eventually congregated at the long-house where they had a Bis Pole ceremony. Pretty awesome stuff. We then had an opportunity to walk around the village, look at artifacts, and hang out with the children. They absolutely loved having their photos taken and then being shown the pics on the back of the camera, and it was just classic stuff.

That afternoon we did a zodiac cruise up one of the smaller tributaries and found a few birds inc Pinon Imperial pigeon, black-capped lory, red-flanked lorikeet, black butcherbird, tawny-breasted honeyeater, and rufous-bellied kookaburra. Also some really interesting plants, and nice to get into some smaller waterways to explore.

That evening we also spent a few hours ahead of the ship as it relocated up another arm of the main river. We finished up around 10pm, anchoring near another village.

Up early again the next morning and then another village visit, with a little bit of scouting first thing in the zodiacs to try and find a place to cruise in the afternoon. Found a lot of mudskippers, and spangled drongo, rufous-bellied kookaburra, sacred kingfisher, etc. The village visit was awesome and we had the opportunity to wander their very basic village. No power, no TV, and just the basics. It felt very real! I too a look through some of the artifacts and in the end bought a really awesome ‘Soul Ship’ a wooden carving about 2.5m long. Has all the basic representation on it – with hornbills, snakes, and turtles carved into it. So now I just have to work out how to get it home!

The afternoon we spent zodiac cruising, after I spent a couple of hours out scouting after lunch in the zodiac with one of the younger passengers – Etienne. We managed to scout out an awesome small tributary, finding some locals in a small dugout collecting palm leaves and fish. Also felt very real, here we were in the middle of nowhere in West Papua, cruising through a small tributary! We got some awesome birds including more rufous-bellied kookaburra, sacred and azure kingfishers, greater black coucal, and the bird of the day a couple of stunning Emperor fairywrens! What a little stunner! The zodiac cruise with passengers later on also got some of the above, and a few more things including red-cheeked parrot and thousands of Pied Imperial pigeons flying in huge flocks over the river. Incredible to see hundreds of these birds taking off from fruiting trees, and flying over us.

That evening we left the Asmat and headed up towards Triton Bay. Stunning morning cruising in Triton Bay with incredible Karst limestone islands and clear waters. We got some excellent views of palm cockatoos, Blyth’s hornbills, Gurney’s and wedge-tailed eagles, and some other good stuff, and got to explore the area pretty well, as well as snorkeling from a beach. That afternoon we were cruising up the West Papua coast towards Kokas and there were a lot of flying fish. So Etienne and I spent most of the afternoon on the bow of the ship taking photos of them. Incredible to see such diversity, with probably at least 5-6 different species of fish, including some really stonking ones. Also a large pod of spinner dolphins that were feeding quietly as we approached, and then suddenly burst from the sea and took off from us. Very cool.

Kokas the next day I led a bit of a nature walk, but it was very hot and we didn’t see a lot of birds – did glimpse another Emperor fairywren though – and a male again! But did see a few nice butterflies and some small lizards. Very friendly locals though, as they obviously don’t get a lot of western tourists here. The afternoon we zodiac cruised around some more of the limestone areas and located some of the local rock art which is probably a several thousand years old, and possibly 10,000s years old! Very very cool with hand prints, birds, lizards, and other patterns and shapes. One particular rock area was overhung, so you could drive the zodiac in under it. Also found a bunch of pitcher plants growing both as huge vines through the other plants, or clinging to the side of the limestone. We also visited a nearby village and watched the children swimming and interacted with the locals.

Next day we spent the afternoon on a tiny little island in the Misool Group. Thinking there wasn’t going to be much ashore I was pleasantly surprised with hundreds of hermit crabs, lots of mimic honeyeaters, white-bibbed fruit doves, stunning violet-necked lorry, and great views of dusky megapode with active nests! Even a monitor and some nice spiders and butterflies…meanwhile most people spent their afternoon in the water snorkeling. Then onwards towards to Ternate in the Spice Islands, where we had a visit to what is probably the World’s oldest Clove tree. Unfortunately, much of the tree has died, but there is still a large live branch. Apparently it survived the Dutch, but not sure it is going to survive much longer. Not a lot of birds, but a young white-bellied fish eagle grabbing a fish from the water near the ship was nice.

Next morning was a tantalizing snorkel at Bunaken in Sulawesi. Tantalising because it would have been great to have gotten ashore and done some birding. But the coral reef meant it wasn’t easy to get ashore. The snorkeling was stunning though!

And then it was ToliToli in Sulawesi…wow! What a place and what a greeting we got. They do not get a lot of ships in here, and in fact I think only the Clipper Odyssey has ever been in here before. So there were literally hundreds of people at the port, and even the King of ToliToli was out to meet us! We all got into Becaks, the local bike/rickshaw type transport. Except that a couple of us got onto the bike and had the driver in the passenger seat, that caused a major stir and people were screaming and laughing as we sped along the roads…with very little in the way of brakes! What a laugh. Then we had a quick look through the market, and then an official welcome by some of the local dignatories, and a couple of us hung out under one of the buildings with a whole bunch of school kids. Then it was on to the local church, where we had some singing. But the local police woman were more interested in getting photos with us, and I caused a bit of a stir when I picked one of them up. There was even more screaming and laughter at this…what an awesome funny morning! Over the course of the morning we had literally hundreds of people wanting photos with us, probably 500+ photos were taken. Such lovely friendly warm people. I ended up getting a rid back to the ship on the back of a motorcycle with a young guy who spoke very good English (better than my Bahasa!), and so ended the variety of transport methods.

Afternoon at sea and then the next day at sea enroute to Kota Kinabalu. We had a few flying fish, but not good concentrations like the afternoon after Triton Bay, but did have some cetacean sightings with probable pilot whales or melon-headed whales, and perhaps some larger beasts as well.

So here we are in Kota Kinabalu, sitting in an Indian Resturant having just ordered pretty much everything off the menu. I almost need to pop the button on my pants, having eaten way too much. Back on the ship in a couple of hours and then onward on our circumnavigation of Borneo. Should be another great trip!

Asmat Warriors in their canoes off Agats Village

Children in the canoes with the Asmat warriors

Asmat warrior with a cuscus fur head piece

Asmat warriors and one of the local cross-dressers...

Asmat children in the canoes

Chief of Syuru village that we visited

Asmat women chanting and dancing at the Bis Pole ceremony

Asmat women dancing and chanting, note the cassowary feathers in the headress.

Asmat woman

Inside the longhouse with artifacts for sale, note the bird of paradise.

Family at Syuru village, local transport is now becoming scooters on the board walks.

Asmat local with bird of paradise feathers in his headress, passed down from his grandfather.

Some of the local kids hamming it up for the camera.

Taking a closer look.

Chief of Syuru village talking on his cell phone.

Local Asmat chief at the village we visited the next day

Mickey Mouse meets a cuscus, local Asmat man smoking.

Asmat dog

The 'Soul Ship' I ended up buying, with a few of the local lads.

Mudskippers on the banks of the river

Displaying mudskippers

Pied Imperial pigeons flying over the river.

Approaching Triton Bay early morning

Triton Bay with Karst limestone islands

Palm cockatoo up in a tree at Triton Bay

Stunning Karst limestone formations at Triton Bay

Great-billed heron in flight

Spinner dolphins bursting from the sea and heading away from the ship

One of the species of flying fish as we left Triton Bay

Another little beauty, leaving Triton Bay.

Pitcher plant on the limestone near Kokas.

Rock art over hanging the water near Kokas.

Rock art near Kokas.

More patterns

Friendly locals near Kokas

Kokas cats

Fishing village near Kokas

Commercial operation growing seaweed for export.

Hermit crab in Misool

Another hermit on the beach

Monitor climbing a tree on the small island

Beaut orb web spider

Butterfly on Octopus plant flowers

Violet-necked lory, a really stunning bird.

Nutmeg growing on Ternate

The oldest clove tree, on Ternate

Overlooking Ternate

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Three Kings 2013

Well just wanted to post this blog as well, as I'm sitting in a Hotel in Auckland about to hit the bed, before a very early start in the morning.  Flying to Cairns to jump on the MV Caledonian Sky for six weeks through Indonesia, Borneo, Philippines, and on up to Japan.  Should be an awesome time with hopefully a lot of good birds!

Anyway, we had our annual Three Kings trip again, this was the sixth trip we have done, and the second in a row not to actually get to the Three Kings.  This time not directly weather related, but the warmer water where we wanted to be was out well to the east and north of the islands, so we focussed on that instead.

It wasn't a complete blinder of a trip like we had anticipated (or at least we had built ourselves up to!) but was still a fantastic trip.  The bird of the trip was undoubtedly a Indian yellow-nosed albatross we found on the third day, and athough a pretty scruffy individual, was surely the star of the show.  This was a new bird for me for NZ, and was for most on the boat, bringing my NZ list to 260.  Other good birds were good numbers of black-winged petrels, some good very close white-naped petrels, two Kermadec petrels, but this year no Gould's or collared petrels.  Skuas didn't disappoint though, with three long-tailed hanging around for a while, a nice close pass by a Pomarine, and a South Polar as well.

So an excellent trip, with a lot of laughs as usual, and some quality fish caught.  A single strike by a marlin unfortunately didn't hook up.  Always next year!

Grey-faced petrel caught in the act of polluting the sea

Indian yellow-nosed albatross, my first one for NZ

Coming in to land

White-naped petrel coming past for a close look

Late immature Campbell albatross

Scruffy the yellow-nosed albatross and the Campbell albatross for a size comparison

NZ wandering albatross

Grumpy old white-capped albatross coming in to land

Pomarine skua taking a close look

NZ wandering albatross

White-capped albatross having a go at a Buller's alb

Dancing Wilson's storm-petrel

White-naped petrel sweeping past the boat

Black-winged petrel banking hard