5 December, 2014

Author: Dr Tony Whitten

‘Wallace Trails and Sails’: Well, I Don’t Know About Anyone Else, but I Certainly Had Fun! 

This year’s ‘Wallace Trails and Sails’ cruise has just ended. As ever, it was sad to say goodbye to everyone in Sorong – it’s amazing how close you can get to fellow passengers during an 11-day cruise which just throws random people together. This year’s cruise had many of the elements of the two previous Wallace cruises but together with the cruise leader, Caroline Delman, we introduced new activities e.g. snorkeling with manta rays , and locations this year. As the small print indicates, the itinerary is only an indication of what will happen, and we enjoy the flexibility. Sometimes it is nature that forces a change – fruit bats deciding to move away from a roost which has found disfavour, strong currents, and rain (though we scarcely had a drop this year), and sometimes it’s because the tour leader and I have an idea and a take a chance on somewhere beautiful neither of us have been to before. The freedom Seatrek cruises give is remarkable. 

Throughout it all, I’m speaking about Alfred Russel Wallace, reading out relevant parts of his The Malay Archipelago, and finding new ways to get guests to share experiences he had 150 years ago. As you can tell from the introductory chapter to the Periplus edition of The Malay Archipelago (usually available in Singapore and Indonesian airport bookshops), I really like and admire Wallace and wish I could have known him. By the end of the cruise I want people to feel the same way – and generally they do. 

Alfred Russel Wallace paintings by Evstafieff

What were the highlights of this year’s cruise? Unlikely ones, according to some of the guests, included snorkelling over the mud next to the stilt roots of mangroves. After days of snorkelling over gorgeous coral reefs with a bewildering diversity of animal shapes and colours, snorkelling near the mangroves allowed us to see a whole range of different animals and, because the water was shallower, they were closer. We did indeed experience some wonderful coral reefs and some of the best was just off villages near which we had moored. The growing practice of establishing village-level ‘no take zones’ as part of marine conservation strategy is really paying dividends.

I was especially happy this year that we were able to visit two of the four villages where my NGO, Fauna & Flora International (FFI), is working to conserve biodiversity and deliver sustainable benefits. That experience was hugely enriched by having our project manager, Ms Fitria Rinawati, known as Ririn, aboard with us for several days. We fell in love with her!

Throughout the world one of the biggest environmental concerns is marine debris, especially plastics. Even on some of the most remote islands where we land, the top of the beach bears a ring of plastic. Marine plastics are one of FFI’s focus areas; FFI and Seatrek are devising a way to engage guests on its cruises to collect information to establish a baseline on marine debris for entry into a CSIRO database. We found it really very salutary and emotional to actually gather, sort and count the debris; typically we just see it but walk past without actually looking at it. The quantity is quite staggering and it floats around the world carried by the currents.

A final highlight was of course seeing three species of birds of paradise: the Wallace’s Standardwing, the Red and Wilson’s which were breath-taking in their absurd beauty and dances.

There was so much more – I guess the only way to find out the whole range of the activities and sights is to join us!