Thursday, November 15, 2012

My Leatherback Adventure: Day 1

Previously... Prologue

I arrived in Manokwari on June 24, after flying overnight on 2 planes with transits in Jakarta and Makassar and eventually landing in Manokwari, the former capital of West Papua.  Heri, a twenty-ish cheerful and friendly looking young man who happened to be one of the crew members of the project met us at the airport and after a 10 minute drive we were at the jetty where Natlie, another crew member was busy arranging the supplies on the boat. From Manokwari, it was a nine-hour boat ride to Jamursba Medi.
Rendani Airport, Manokwari
Overweight! Overweight! Natlie trying to figure out how to load our stuff.  :)
This is what the boat we'd be sitting in looks like.  Nicknamed the spider by Manjula.
At the fish market.  Fresh yellow-fin tuna.
About the only thing I dreaded about the entire trip were 2 things; the 9-hr boat ride and the long walks.  We are not talking walks to the market but walking the entire span of 18 – 20 kms of beach patrolling at nights and so on.  This makes the patrols on Chagar Hutang seem like a simple walk to the toilet.  And considering that I only walk a combined total of about 5 – 10 kms in an entire year, you can imagine my concern.

Anyway, it was an uneventful day filled with lots of snoozing on the boat.  After capturing some of the scenes, I figured I’d catch up on sleep.  Besides, it was about the only thing you could do and it would help kill time.  The 9-hour boat ride gave me a sense of how big the island of Papua really was.  And perhaps it is also this fact that has managed to reduce the amount of development these isolated beaches received therefore making it still a haven to wildlife.  It wasn’t really an open sea boat ride and we were always right by the coast and one thing that I found interesting is once we got out of Cenderawasih Bay, you see very little development on the island.  It’s jungle cover all the way to the beach.  It’s a very big contrast from places like Japan which has golf courses visible from air as far as the eye can see and even Malaysia where you see beach side resorts once you get close to land. 

The boat ride didn’t turn out as bad as I thought it would be as it was wide enough for two to lie down side by side and it was also long.  And as soon as we got out of the bay, the boatmen put up a makeshift cabin out of specially made 90-degree angled wooden supports and a tarp.
Shelter from the elements...
Village along Cenderawasih Bay.
This is the life, man…  Natlie, one of the project crew who manages all the logistics served lunch which was simple but delicious.  Rice with fried fish and curry chicken that reminded me of rendang.  Heri on the other hand, was sitting at the bow and having long conversations on his cellphone presumably with his other half.  There I was…  Sitting on a boat that was speeding towards our destination having a hearty meal and all my stresses started flowing away.

This is what Heri was doing for pretty much the first 30 - 45 mins...

This... Is Papua!!!
Toward the setting sun...
We arrived at the Batu Rumah base station late in the evening… around 5pm and it was an interesting experience being in a boat all day watching the sun rise and eventually set but this is it…  we were here!  As we turned the bend, Heri pointed out a rock that stood about 10, maybe 20 meters off the beach.  This rock was called Batu Rumah and it is what has given this beach its name.

We were greeted by Ricky, the local project manager, who also happened to be doing his PhD in Alabama and was probably in his early forties.  There were another 6 – 7 guys in their early twenties.  All graduates from UNIPA’s marine program, with Vidzond being the odd one out as he was fairer than the rest… hmmm… sounds like a line out of Snow White.  Anyway, while most of the crew were from Papua, Vidzond hailed from Moluccas…  or Maluku.  Which explained his unique features.  Like Heri, everyone was friendly and most of them had already met Manjula the year before but I guess I stuck out like a sore thumb.  It was like being in Nigeria once again, walking into a lecture hall filled with Nigerian lawyers.  Ricky later said that they were all surprised that an Ongkor (not sure how that’s spelt but it basically means a chinese business man from the city) would take a trip out here to this remote area and be doing the kinda things they’d be doing there.

But anyway, we quickly hauled off the luggage, first time I actually travelled with 30kgs of camping equipment, clothes and books (which I never even touched throughout the trip) and as it was starting to get dark, Manjula and I were led to a clearing near the base station and were told that we could set up our tents there.  It looked comfortable enough and clean as the crew had already tidied up the area.  The crew’s tents were about 30 metres away.  We were later informed that the area Manjula and I were given had ants which was why they setup their tents elsewhere…  Really thoughtful, guys.  Thanks!

Anyway, after tidying up and getting settled in, we had dinner and exchanged introductions.  Wooo hooo…  I was on the island of Papua!!!
My home for the week...
Sunset at Batu Rumah...

My Leatherback Adventure: Prologue

After years of longing to see the Leatherback Turtle, my dream came true in the middle of this year, thanks to Prof. Chan and Dr. Manjula.  It was actually one of my New Year 2012 resolutions so there you have it, I do work on my resolutions.  :)

My 10-day trip to Jamursba Medi (JM), a beach on Irian Jaya was also made more interesting in that I have always felt that Papua New Guinea had this mysterious, frontier feel about it.  And whenever it is mentioned, my mind would start conjuring images of cannibals with tusks embedded in their noses doing war dances as they cook you over a pot; a product of my over-active imagination and too much fiction literature.  The fact that the location was a 9-hour boat ride away added to the excitement.  This is as remote as it would get.  No access road.  No electricity (except via solar panels & generators).  No chalets or resorts.  I’d be camping!

The JM project was a collaborative effort between the State University of Papua (UNIPA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and it was thru Prof. Chan’s acquaintance Dr. Tiwari of the NOAA that I would finally get the experience of a lifetime.   The JM project spans the 21kms long Jamursba Medi beach and another beach 30kms east of JM called Wermon.  And guess what, there are estuarine crocodiles in Wermon (Not that I saw any although I did go looking...).  These are the really mean-looking, big ass ones that you see the late Steve Irwin wrestling with.  It’s like I’m living a naturalist’s life.  

Unlike the project in Chagar Hutang on Redang Island, this was on a bigger scale, partly due to the stakes involved and also the size of the area.  The challenges faced were also different.
The Bird's Head Peninsula.  Jamursba Medi is located between the major cities of Manokwari and Sorong.
Jamursba Medi is a beach located along the north coast of the Birds head peninsula in Papua and includes 3 beaches with a total length of 21 kms.  It is flanked by 2 capes, the Jamursba cape and the Medi cape, Hence the name.  There are villages (Saobeba on the Jamursba cape and Warmedi at the other) at both capes but both are separated from the nesting beach by rocky outcrops.  The Jamursba Medi beach is divided into 3 sub-beaches; Wembrak which is at the far west followed by Batu Rumah in the middle and Warmamedi in the east.  In addition, there is a separate beach called Wermon, located 30kms away from Batu Rumah.

Next... Day 1: The Journey to Jamursba Medi