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Adventure (and Misadventure) in Raja Ampat

The crew of Mir weathered a big storm and made it safely to southern Raja Ampat, but unfortunately for the author of this blog, there was some trouble in paradise…   Arafura’s Fury If there’s one thing that’s certain about sea travel, it’s that conditions will change. Oftentimes, these changes are drastic and happen with...

The crew of Mir weathered a big storm and made it safely to southern Raja Ampat, but unfortunately for the author of this blog, there was some trouble in paradise…


Arafura’s Fury

Storm in the Arafura Sea. Photo by Nadia Low, Biosphere Foundation

If there’s one thing that’s certain about sea travel, it’s that conditions will change. Oftentimes, these changes are drastic and happen with little warning; after eight days of venturing across seas so calm we couldn’t tell where the water ended and the sky began, we entered the Arafura Sea after a day’s sail from Banda and spent the next three days crawling across the decks on our hands and knees trying not to get blown overboard. We had to beat north directly into a storm; our bow scooping up hundreds of gallons of seawater and flooding the decks each time whoever was on the helm drifted a few degrees off their mark and took the swells straight on. None of us could sleep for the pitching, and we quickly found out what was truly ship-shaped and what wasn’t — galley cupboards flew open, our chain locker overflowed with seawater and flooded the bosun’s bilge, and a few of our crew had the unpleasant realization that their stomachs were yet to be ship-shaped as well, as seasickness rode in on the storm and turned our greenest sailors literally green.

Early morning after the storm broke. Photo by Sam Keck Scott, Biosphere Foundation
We had to postpone the celebration of crew member Rebecca Hoehn’s birthday by a few days until we could take our rain jackets off long enough to enjoy some merrymaking. Happy birthday, Rebecca! Photo by Gaie Alling, Biosphere Foundation

Arrival to Raja Ampat

Approaching Balbulol Island at dawn. Photo by Sam Keck Scott, Biosphere Foundation

After surviving the Arafura, we caught our first glimpse of the southernmost end of Raja Ampat — a smattering of small, steep islands near the larger island of Misool. We approached the island of Balbulol at sunrise, and as we drew closer, the steep masses of greens and blacks took on a sharper focus, and we found ourselves mesmerized by a Jurassic scene. The jagged volcanic cliff faces were both black and burnt orange, and sparsely populated by large-leafed vegetation. Palm trees hung crooked and precarious from high perches on the vertical walls. White-bellied sea eagles careened off minarets of stone to take a closer look at us, while huge clusters of frigate birds circled above a protected lagoon like moths around an incandescent bulb. And schools of thousands of tiny silver fish silently breached the surface in unison in what I at first mistook for a crashing wave that would appear, disappear, and then reappear again twenty feet away from where it had just been.

A fisherman near Balbulol. Photo by Sam Keck Scott, Biosphere Foundation

Our objective for our first week in southern Raja Ampat was to get ourselves ready for the next month of working with island peoples on conservation projects. We needed to get our newest divers comfortable diving in challenging conditions. We needed to train more small boat drivers. And we needed to get everyone up to speed on how to navigate Mir and her 113’ hull between tightly-packed islands and around sudden shoals and reefs. As well as learning the fine art of anchoring her safely while simultaneously not harming any corals.

On the lookout for a safe anchorage. Photo by Jan Travers, Biosphere Foundation

Our first anchorage was on the lee side of a small, uninhabited island called Pulau Efna, where we spent the next few days acquainting ourselves with this little-known paradise — scuba diving, snorkeling, paddleboarding — all while getting our various systems down pat. One moonless night I put on my snorkel mask and jumped off the stern into bioluminescence so thick that every movement I made sent thousands of dots of whitish-blue lights swirling and snaking away from me. Each speck of light was strangely similar in both color and size to what stars look like with the naked eye on a dark, cloudless night, and simply waving a hand in front of my eyes while underwater was akin to looking out the windshield of the Millennium Falcon while Chewy punched her into hyperdrive.


Caught with Our Paddles Out

Clarence surveying the storm. Photo by Sam Keck Scott, Biosphere Foundation

Before leaving on this voyage, Clarence Wainer — Mir’s chief engineer, and one of my dearest friends in this world thanks to the last time we sailed on Mir together from Malta to Singapore — convinced me that we should each get an inflatable paddleboard to bring to Raja Ampat. I agreed it was a great idea, and we got two beautiful boards from a company called Hala.

On one of our first evenings in southern Raja Ampat, Clarence and I decided to circumnavigate nearby Pulau Efna on our boards. Efna is a small, oblong island — not quite a mile long, and only a third of a mile wide, so we figured it wouldn’t take long to get around it. We started paddling around 4:30pm, and when we reached the north side of the island — directly opposite from where Mir was anchored — we noticed a small inlet of blue water flowing beneath some low-hanging tree branches.

Discovering the secret lagoon. Photo by Sam Keck Scott, Biosphere Foundation

We turned our boards into this narrow channel, ducking low beneath the foliage, and suddenly were whisked along by a strong tidal current into a brilliant turquoise stream that we rode like a chute until it opened up into a wide circular lagoon surrounded by steep, thickly-jungled hills. A flock of large, gregarious, pure-white umbrella cockatoos flapped above us, screaming and shrieking at the strange invaders who had just intruded into their secluded home.

Following Clarence further into the lagoon. Photo by Sam Keck Scott, Biosphere Foundation

We were spellbound. A light rain began to fall which only added to the surreal beauty, turning the clear waters of the lagoon a milky serpentine. As we paddled around the lagoon, the rain grew heavier, but protected as we were, it just felt like a soft, tropical downpour — rain had become such a common occurrence in the past week that we hardly thought anything of it.

Starting to rain. Photo by Clarence Wainer, Biosphere Foundation

When we finally pulled ourselves away from this turquoise dreamscape to begin our paddle back to the ship before it got dark, it dawned on us that this might not be just any ordinary afternoon rainstorm. Leaves and bark and branches were blowing off of Efna from the southwest, and though we were still protected from the wind where we were, it was clearly driving hard out there and might give us some trouble when we tried to round the bend.

The rain was relentless as we paddled, and the sky bruised deeply black. All I had on were swim trunks and a head-mounted GoPro, and Clarence bested me only with a light rash guard for a shirt. As we approached the sharp point on Efna’s southeastern side we began to see the white caps. We pulled our boards up onto a small sandstone shelf and walked around the corner, and our hearts sank. Barely visible through the sideways rain was Mir at her anchorage — a small blurred mass banging violently up and down at her bow. There was roughly a quarter mile of open water between us and her — open water that was shattered by breaking waves. We both knew without needing to say it that it would be impossible to cross that battlefield on inflatable paddleboards. We later learned that the rest of our crew were having quite the adventure of their own as they had to rev Mir’s engine to keep the anchor from dragging in the force six winds.

With only one shirt between us and a half an hour of daylight remaining, Clarence and I were stuck standing on the sandstone shelf that was rapidly getting buried beneath the crashing waves and rising tide. We held our hands above our heads to signal to the ship that we were safe, though we had no idea if anyone could see us through the squall or not.

Clarence attempting to signal to Mir that we’re “safe.” Photo by Sam Keck Scott, Biosphere Foundation

We started getting cold fast — especially skinny, shirtless me. There was a small cave beside the shelf that was waist-deep with sloshing water, and we found that it was warmer in there than out in the wind, so we took turns standing on the shelf signaling to the ship, while the other crawled into the cave and sat up to his chin in seawater.

Trying to remain jocular despite the unfortunate circumstances. Photo by Clarence Wainer, Biosphere Foundation

Our biggest worry was that our crew would send out the small boat to look for us, which could quickly domino the situation into a far worse emergency, so we were relieved when just before dark we saw a flashlight at Mir’s stern. It beamed us three times to let us know they had seen us. We hoped it also meant that they knew we were safe enough to not need a rescue.

Tide coming up. Photo by Clarence Wainer, Biosphere Foundation

My teeth were chattering by this point, so we decided to go back in the direction we had come from where the wind hadn’t been so strong. We paddled on our knees in near total darkness, and after a little ways we pulled into a jungly nook and hauled our boards onto a single flat rock and leaned our bodies against the steep, muddy hillside.

It didn’t take long for us to accept that this new spot was no better than the last one had been, so now in both heavy rain and complete darkness we paddled out again even further away from Mir, and found a small sandy beach on Efna’s eastern side. We constructed a pathetic hut out of our two boards to keep the rain off us, and I’m not too proud to admit that Clarence and I got pretty darn cozy under there, draping his one shirt across both of our torsos while we tried in vain to keep each other warm.

At no point did we ever stop laughing and joking about our predicament — Clarence and I were once in even deeper water, literally, when the two of us were briefly lost at sea together after a scuba dive off the coast of Sudan seven years ago, so we were at least glad to have some solid ground beneath our feet this time around. Despite our levity, I don’t think I was alone in beginning to wonder how this story of being marooned on Efna was going to end, and if we weren’t perhaps in a bit more danger than either of us was willing to acknowledge out loud.

The rain wouldn’t quit, and it started to feel very likely that we’d be spending the night in our inflatable hut on this tiny white beach. But after a few hours it finally did begin to let up, and we started to listen hard to hear if the wind was still blowing through the trees above us. It was, but it didn’t sound too strong. We knew we didn’t want to take another stab at paddling back to Mir until we were relatively certain we wouldn’t have to turn around again, so we hunkered down and waited for the calmer weather to really take before trusting it. About forty-five shivering minutes later the waves lapping at our feet began to burst into electric blue with bioluminescence at the same time that some sort of Raja Ampat fireflies started twinkling neon green in the air around us.

“Sky looks lighter,” Clarence said.

“It does, but let’s wait it out a little longer,” I replied.

It was when the buzz of crickets and other jungle insects grew deafening around us that we felt sure the storm had really passed. We deconstructed our hut and vowed to stay within a paddle’s reach of one another, then pushed off and started making our way back towards Mir. We had no flashlights, but our eyes were well-adjusted to the dark, and when we reached the sharp point where hours earlier the water had been impenetrable, we turned it easily and saw home — Mir had all her deck lights on and looked like the most warm and welcoming refuge. All we had to do was cross the quarter mile or so of open water between us and her.

As promised, Clarence and I stayed side by side, and though the swell was still overhead, it was well-spaced, and the current was mild — we rolled across that black field of undulating water with little issue, and were welcomed home with big hugs and sighs of relief, and a huge bowl of the best curry I ever ate in my life.

Eating a hot meal after making it home to Mir. Photo by Jan Travers, Biosphere Foundation

We learned some valuable lessons that night about always being prepared for the worst. Next time we decide to circumnavigate a remote island on paddleboards you can be sure we’ll bring along a radio.

And two shirts.

And a flashlight.

And snacks.



A Little Back Story


Unfortunately getting caught in a storm wasn’t the end of my troubles. On the morning of January 25th — three days after our paddleboarding misadventure — I was in the small zodiac loading dive bottles into the bottom of the boat when I bent down and out of nowhere it felt like someone stabbed me in the lower spine with an electrified ice pick. I yelled and slumped down in agony and wiggled and contorted myself into a flat lying position. People yelled for the captain, Laser, and he jumped down from Mir into the small boat and came to my aid.

I now know that I herniated a disk in my lumbar spine. It was the most excruciating pain I’ve ever felt. I couldn’t get out of the small boat for almost three hours, and when I finally did it took three guys to get me to my feet, and even more people to help me up the ladder and onto a bed on the deck. The pain was so intense I nearly fainted while they were moving me.

Getting me to my feet. Photo by Nadia Low, Biosphere Foundation
Getting me back off my feet. Photo by Nadia Low, Biosphere Foundation

Once settled on deck, I was too afraid to be moved again, so when nighttime came along I insisted on sleeping where I was. Of course in the middle of the night a rainstorm bullied in, and there was nothing anyone could do for me besides wrap me up in a tarp and periodically check on me. Man, can things change fast — earlier that day I had woken up feeling strong and healthy. Before 8:00am I had already been on a beautiful scuba dive and was helping another team get ready to do the same. I was in Raja Ampat on a gorgeous old sailboat. I was on top of the world. But by that night, I was stuck outside in a rainstorm, burrito-wrapped in a thick tarp, and in so much pain I could barely roll onto my side to piss into an empty tomato sauce jar. And as I lay there listening to the rain against my tarp, I could tell it was going to be a good, long while before that guy who had woken up feeling strong and healthy would be back.

Recovering on deck with a homemade piña colada and a live concert — not too shabby! Photo by Jan Travers, Biosphere Foundation
Dolphin serenading us at sunset near the island of Wagmab. Photo by Gaie Alling, Biosphere Foundation

As I’m typing this it’s day eight of my recovery, and only as of yesterday can I stand up unassisted. But I’m making progress, slowly slowly, and it’s all thanks to this wonderful crew of people who have been feeding me delicious meals, slow-dancing me to and from the bathroom, changing my sweaty sheets, massaging me, and doing their best to downplay the beauty of the dives and snorkels they’ve been going on; as well as the many paddleboard adventures between the narrow chutes of the nearby islands where Pacific reef herons scatter like confetti from the steep craggy cliff walls, and enormous secluded lagoons open up unexpectedly like lost kingdoms of aquamarine. Sigh.

The hidden, protected lagoon of Wagmab Island. Photo by Nadia Low (and her drone), Biosphere Foundation

Stuck on my back in Raja Ampat. Lucky for me there’s so much more of this adventure yet to come, and I’m on the mend. Perhaps my body knew that if I had to go down this was the time, because what’s on the horizon will be even more entrancing and magnificent than what we’ve already seen. I’m sure hoping so.

Keep following along on our voyage as we venture deeper into Raja Ampat. And check out the Biosphere Foundation’s website to learn more about our many projects and how you can get involved:

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Meet the Author

Author Photo Sam Keck Scott
Sam Keck Scott is a freelance writer of both fiction and nonfiction. His work has has appeared in Harpur Palate, The New Guard Literary Review, The Earth First! Journal, and Nautique Magazine. In addition to writing, Sam is a terrestrial and marine biologist, a conservationist, and an avid adventurer. When not living out of his truck or a hotel room for work — or exploring some far-flung land or sea — Sam lives in an airstream trailer tucked between two dilapidated chicken coops in rural Sonoma County, in Northern California. 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. You can find both the Biosphere Foundation and Sam on Instagram at @biospherefdn and @samkeckscott, and on Twitter at @biospherefdn and @samkeckscott