Human Journey

Traveling a Silver Road Across the Banda Sea

The crew of Mir had a safe passage from Bali to the Banda Islands a vastly remote and little-known archipelago that once was world-renowned as the heart of the “Spice Islands.”

 

The Banda Islands

The islands of Banda Neira and Banda Besar. Photo by Nadia Low, the Biosphere Foundation

Remote islands often give our planet some of its most unique and unusual flora and fauna due to their isolation from the rest of terrestrial life — the waters surrounding these islands act as a sort of evolutionary moat, allowing for the ingredients of life to take on never-before-seen twists. One such twist occurred when a small tree with yellow fruits the size of apricots evolved on a handful of exceedingly remote islands in the Banda Sea. This tree existed there and nowhere else, and when it was eventually discovered by Europeans, it changed the world.

At over 7,000 meters in depth, the Banda Sea is one of the deepest places on this watery planet — a vast blue bowl surrounded on the north, east, and south by the Maluku Islands of Indonesia. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Malukus became world-renowned as the “Spice Islands,” or the “Spiceries,” and nowhere were the spices more coveted than in the small archipelago of the Banda Islands.

Peaking out above the surface of the Banda Sea is a cluster of eleven islands known as the Bandas. They are so diminutive they often don’t register on maps of the region, but hugely disproportionate to their size is the substantial role the Banda Islands played in world history. Odd as it may seem to us now, these islands owe their fame — as well as a tremendous amount of bloodshed and atrocity — to a single plant: Myristica fragrans, better known as the nutmeg tree.

Nutmeg fruits, Banda Neira. Photo by Sam Keck Scott, the Biosphere Foundation

Nutmeg is endemic to the Banda Islands. Claimed to have many medicinal values, it was a popular spice in Europe and Asia in the 16th century, but once it began to be touted as a potential cure for the black plague, nutmeg quickly became one of the most expensive and sought-after commodities of its time. The race was on to control the remote islands where this treasure trove grew, and suddenly the once-quiet shores surrounding the Bandas became the site of countless battles between the Dutch and English. Eventually the Dutch had a stronghold on most of the area, and as was always the case in the bloody days of colonialism, the indigenous people suffered the worst fate of all as the Dutch butchered and enslaved the native Bandanese while seizing their ancestral home.

A bowl of dried nutmeg. The red lacy pieces in the center are mace, the part of the nutmeg that encapsulates the nut. Mace was a popular preservative in the times before refrigeration, adding even further to nutmeg’s already incredible value. Photo by Sam Keck Scott, the Biosphere Foundation

After decades of bloodshed, the Dutch controlled all of the Bandas, save one: the tiny island of Run. The British had managed to hold onto Run, and in 1667 they made a deal with the Dutch to trade their bitty prize in the Banda Sea for another small island on the other side of the globe — one that nowadays never fails to register on the map — the island of Manhattan.

The island of Run (in the background) was traded by the British to the Dutch for Manhattan in 1667. Photo by Sam Keck Scott, the Biosphere Foundation

Voyage to Banda

Starboard running light in the Bali Sea. Photo by Sam Keck Scott, the Biosphere Foundation

The crew aboard Mir departed Bali on New Year’s Eve and arrived to the Banda Islands ten days later. Our voyage brought us across three seas — the Bali, the Flores, and the Banda — though at times they each felt more like lakes, as we spent the majority of our passage becalmed in waters so flat it seemed the entire sea was being held tight with cellophane. There were moments when we would even find ourselves moving backwards in the invisible current, forcing us to motor for long stretches of the way.

Self-portrait off the bow into the freakishly-calm waters of the Flores Sea. Photo by Sam Keck Scott, the Biosphere Foundation

Though we would have gladly welcomed more wind, in some respects the calm seas made for a nice beginning to this expedition, especially for those aboard the ship who had never spent time on the water before. And despite the poor sailing conditions, our crossing was filled with beautiful scenes that can only be found at sea — massive lone sperm whale bulls bobbing on the surface; pods of hundreds of melon-headed whales at sunrise; flying fish skittering away from our ship like panicky bugs all day long; sunsets that engulfed the seas around us in orange flame. For two straight nights we sailed through waters that were filled to the brim with bioluminescent squid; whenever we passed a flashlight across the surface the squid would ignite the entire sea in glowstick-green blobs of light.

A red-footed booby catching a ride on Mir’s bow in the Banda Sea. Photo by Sam Keck Scott, the Biosphere Foundation
Sunset in the Banda Sea. Photo By Sam Keck Scott, the Biosphere Foundation

Lack of wind wasn’t the only theme of the trip; the full moon was on January 2nd, so most nights of the voyage we were following a big moon east. On one particularly still night, at around 1:00am, I climbed high into the ratlines and watched from above as our bow cut silently through a silver path of moonlight. It was in that moment that this voyage really began for me. I felt connected to all seafaring people who had ever ventured across our oceans before me, knowing that they too had beheld similarly indescribable scenes of peace and beauty. Life at sea is hard work, but there’s a reason so many people are called to it, and it’s moments like that one when it all makes sense — moments you know you’ll never forget even while you’re still living them. As I sat perched in the ratlines I knew I’d always be glad I had joined this adventure to Raja Ampat; an adventure that began on a silver road across the Banda Sea.

The ratlines (pronounced ratlins) are ladder rungs that run up the steel shrouds of the main mast. Photo by Sam Keck Scott, the Biosphere Foundation

***

After arriving to the Banda Islands in a squall (finally some wind!), we found a favorable anchorage for Mir in the shadow of Mount Gunung Api — the active volcano of the Bandas.

Mount Gunung Api as seen from Bandaneira. If you look closely on the lower right side of the volcano, you can see Mir’s two white masts. Photo by Sam Keck Scott, the Biosphere Foundation

The Banda Islands feel like a place outside of time. The mountains are lush and tangled with overgrowth, and the small towns are a charming mix of brightly painted houses with corrugated rooftops, old Chinese temples, new mosques, elegant colonial houses and hotels, and the pentagonal Dutch fort, Fort Belgica, that looms menacingly over the main town of Bandaneira.

Nutmeg fruits and kenari almonds drying on a rooftop in Bandaneira. Photo by Sam Keck Scott, the Biosphere Foundation

The crew of Mir spent our days in the Bandas fixing what needed to be fixed, restocking our food pantries, refueling our diesel tanks, and exploring these far-flung islands at the edge of the world. We snorkeled and dove on some of the reefs around the islands; a few of us climbed to the top of Mount Gunung Api at sunrise on the morning of the thirtieth birthday of Mir’s first mate, Christopher “Dolphin” Cooke; but mostly we just spent our time wandering around, taking in this place that is so richly baked in history.

The inside of Gunung Api’s caldera as seen from its peak. Photo by Sam Keck Scott, the Biosphere Foundation

The Bandas have cast a heavy spell on all of us, but alas we must push on. Tomorrow morning we plan to weigh anchor and continue onwards to Raja Ampat — our actual destination. Keep following along on our voyage here, and if you want to learn more about the Biosphere Foundation visit: www.biospherefoundation.org 

Mir anchored in the Banda Islands. Photo by Sam Keck Scott, the Biosphere Foundation
Children on a canoe in the Banda Islands. Photo by Sam Keck Scott, the Biosphere Foundation
Gaie Alling, the Founder and President of the Biosphere Foundation (right), and her old friend Mama Nounou. Mama Nounou lives in Bandaneira and sells nutmeg products of all kinds, as well as cooking the most exquisite food we ate while in the Banda Islands. Photo by Sam Keck Scott, the Biosphere Foundation
Sam Keck Scott is a writer and biologist from Northern California. When he's not in the field saving salamanders and bird nests from bulldozers, you can find Sam sitting and writing at the dinette table in his Airstream trailer in rural Sonoma County, where he lives. Last winter (in the northern hemisphere) Sam was working for the Biosphere Foundation as a mate on their 108-year-old sailboat, Mir, which they sailed from Bali to Raja Ampat and back, setting up small-scale coral restoration projects along the way. Follow Sam's adventures here, and you can find both the Biosphere Foundation and Sam on Instagram at @biospherefdn and @samkeckscott, and on Twitter at @biospherefdn and @samkeckscott

About the Blog

Researchers, conservationists, and others share stories, insights and ideas about Our Changing Planet, Wildlife & Wild Spaces, and The Human Journey. More than 50,000 comments have been added to 10,000 posts. Explore the list alongside to dive deeper into some of the most popular categories of the National Geographic Society’s conversation platform Voices.

Opinions are those of the blogger and/or the blogger’s organization, and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society. Posters of blogs and comments are required to observe National Geographic’s community rules and other terms of service.

Voices director: David Braun (dbraun@ngs.org)

Social Media