The Tambora...ethics and adrenaline - is travel ever sustainable?

Indonesia's flag
Asia » Indonesia » North Maluku
April 6th 2015
Published: April 6th 2015
Edit Blog Post

I love those numbersI love those numbersI love those numbers

I am suited to life at this latitude.
In the months since my trip aboard the Tambora, I have seen many articles written by trip organizer Simon Pridemore and realized there was a lot more to Simon than being a very nice guy and one of the scuba worlds most respected Professionals, Simon is also a passionate environmentalist and writes for several sustainability publications. I was reading a piece he wrote in Gaia magazine about tourism to remoter areas and if it can ever be sustainable.

Instantly I messaged Simon with a heap of questions and considerations that have long played in my head - how much am I part of the problem?. Can this delicate dance of truly ecological sustainable tourism ever work?

This trip was something very special in that we explored areas not often visited if yet visited at all and encountered people who seemed to have not seen a giant diveboat full of weird aliens in black stretchy skins with shiny backs ever before.

On one island a man woke up and saw us anchored and ran up into the jungle and peeked at us from behind coconut trees. When was his last encounter with ''civilization'' and was it positive or negative? These islands were plundered for spices way before world war 2 bought guns germs and diseases.

The soldiers may be gone and the bombs and guns silenced, but there are still plenty of guns lying around these remote islands. Passing another island we had a man paddle out and wave his gun at us, to let us know kindly he did not wish to entertain visitors that day. I wondered if there was any ammo left lying around after 50 years...and if this guy knew how to use it. It bought to mind the image from the 2005 Tsunami with the Sentinelise man standing on the beach with his bow and arrow pointed at the helicopter to let them know, hey, we are fine, we dont need your help.

Respectfully of course we did not make any land visits on small remote islands. People deserve to be left how do I justify my presence there?

Simon is a long term Indonesian resident and with Tim Rock had put together a well researched itinerary - not just from a diving viewpoint but also from a cultural viewpoint. Cultural sensitivity is a big part of how Simon and Tim operate, and in an industry of hundreds of thousands of operators it is a rarity, not the norm.

Of course dive operators want to look after the marine habitat, but I fear the land based diving has in some popular dive spots - Sabang in the Philippines for example - destroyed the culture. There is a very real possibility for liveaboard diving to head the same way.

Increased mobility, disposable income and cheap air transport has made what were once remote spots within the grasp of anyone prepared to put up with a few flights to get there.

Unfortunately, that has increased the demand for liveaboards too, with campaigns to stop more Indonesian Phinisi's being built and to source ethical timber. The Phinisi is a very efficient boat based on a traditional design from Sulawesi. On many wooden boats webpages I have noticed encouragingly a list of what timbers are used in the vessel, however establishing if those timbers were legally and ethically sourced is almost impossible. In a remote cove in the Dampier Strait we spotted the tell tale signs of logging, illegal logging of course, and I wonder if those 6 families in that bay have ever looked across to that hillside on an island off Hamlahera stripped bare of timbers.

The Itinerary Simon and Tim had put together included some exploratory diving around Morotai and Hamlahera, with a three day land based optional extension on Ternate. From a personal viewpoint as a crew member on a 1606 replica VOC ship the lure of Ternate has fascinated me for years. As a geographer the place where Alfred Russel Wallace the father of bio geography made his base while exploring and proving the Wallacea line among the volcano's was everything I had been looking for in a live aboard trip.

With so many liveaboards operating in the Indonesian waters finding the right live aboard for this style of low cultural impact tourism was essential.

Enter Uwe, owner and builder of the Tambora. For an exploratory trip of this nature to work, Simon and Tim needed the right operator and I believe they found him in Uwe. Uwe left a life as a biochemist in Germany to travel and work extensively before building the Tambora for divers. One key difference here is Uwe not only lives on the boat, but dives almost every dive unless he has business to attend to. Uwe also struggles with needing to operate a business and feed his family while venturing into waters further afield on custom trips like this one.

One thing that stood out to me before booking Tambora was the boats website actually had a carbon emissions page. Hallelujah. I've long scanned Live-aboard websites for the merest mention of sustainability and found nothing. In Tobelo, the boys vacuumed the volcanic dust off our beds instead of washing the sheets. Uwe operates the boat as sustainably as I can see it can be done and remain in business. I'm sure there will be more days when those sails can come up and the engines can turn off but we as divers on liveaboards want air conditioned cabins and watermelon shakes.

Concerns for our 'footprint' have seen the rise of many great initiatives, with terms like responsible, Eco and ethical tourism becoming more prevalent and operators in some countries having to attain strict accreditation to use these terms. Can we expect those same controls in other countries, particularly the newer developing nations where geo political factors, mining and logging undoubtedly leave a far bigger and irreparable footprint, but if we are honest with ourselves, we do leave more than bubbles. Living in the worlds most isolated capital city I beat myself up when I need to book 6 flights to get to Sorong thinking of jet contrails and particle pollutants while the diver inside me keeps know you've been looking for that Persian carpet flatworm for a while now.

I read forums where divers are asking for recommendations for hotels in Papua with en-suites, air-conditioning, television and WiFi. I don't doubt one day their requests will be met with a quick click of a mouse on a online booking site.

We have liveaboards with 4 poster beds, gigantic bath tubs and Jacuzzi's. Is it necessary?

Declaring an area a marine park amounts to little more than lip service when the cruise ships, the Hilton's, the malls, the casino and the airport are built to give we divers some luxury and fun while enjoying the worlds greatest diving.

Economically for the local people dive tourism can be a great thing too. Through social media I befriended a young man in Ternate who is hoping to publicize Jailolo as a dive destination. Now the flights to Ternate are so cheap and affordable his business venture and his enthusiasm for promoting his island has provided him with the opportunity to get out of his island and sell it in Singapore at dive expo's. There is interest there, the diving is great, there is a fantastic little hotel there, lets just hope the tyranny of distance keeps it from becoming Phuket. I know, Ive dived it.

There lies the problem.

I'm part of it, I drive it, and I know it. I have a quench for diving the remotest parts of the world. Supply and Demand. Simple.

So is there an answer? Is it my right to stand here sanctimoniously and say it should be priced out of range of most...I'm going to defer to Le capitan, Mr Cousteau on that one with this quote.

“When one man, for whatever reason, has the opportunity to lead an extraordinary life, he has no right to keep it to himself” Jacques Yves Cousteau

I had that opportunity. Should I write blogs about it? or should I keep it to myself?

If people hadn't kept it to themselves I would never have discovered the beauty of Bangka in North Sulawesi and the amazing Tipuata Pass in Rangiroa.

Are the answers hidden in uncomfortable truths like diver expectations and behavior? on a boat in remote waters are you absolutely positively sure you need a flat screen TV and WiFi?

Do you need your sheets and towels laundered on the boat every day?

Do you absolutely need that Jacuzzi?

How can live aboard operators deal with this dilemma? by following the lead of people like Uwe who do show an interest in sustainability?

By making adjustments to their boats with cleaner engines and fuels? demand managing of energy consumption - on a liveaboard you are out of your cabin most of the day so why have the air conditioning on while you are not in your cabin? Implementing timed showers? bio effluent systems? solar panels? laundry guidelines? Providing sunblock that is not damaging to corals?

I have been blessed to have spent time in this alien blue world and seen sights only a third of the worlds population has access to technology to see on TV screens. As the hand of progress creeps across time I wonder what these islands and the people who live on them have in their futures. As divers, we are by nature, conservationists with a love for the ocean. In less than a decade I've watched some popular dive destinations deteriorate at what can only be described as a criminal rate. As a parent, I have a deep desire to take care of our planet while big business and government take a short term view to a long term problem. I wonder what will be of somewhere like Raja Ampat in 20 years time. Or do we accept the inevitable and take pride that we were there before the cruise ships got there?

Will we put in a ballot to get a permit to dive Mayhem like divers do in Sipidan?

I can only imagine the places Uwe has discovered and is reticent to name and have it become part of the procession of live aboard itineraries as is most of Raja Ampat.

I commend him for not doing so, even though id love to ask him, I wont, I respect his integrity in not disclosing these locations. Its not selfish. Its a desperate battle to keep a culture and an ecosystem intact. Does he price these trips out of range of the average travelling diver to only offer a very few exclusive trips or does he stay competitive? Having an unlimited bank balance does not guarantee a diver's concern for conservation any more than it determines his level of skill. Given somewhat stable geopolitics, international and domestic travelers with money and cheap airfares I can only see the demand for trips to Raja on liveaboards growing. One only needs to look at how many boats are operating there and in Komodo now.

For Uwe, its one mans battle, yet a growing movement of people saying, we know we are leaving more than bubbles. Im thankful for Simon answering me and knowing im not alone in this ethical dilemma. As sustainable movements in tourism begin to emerge we should treat them as the target not the niche in what we look for when travelling.

The Tambora is out there now.

Uwe is doing the right thing. I doubt the crew on the Russian Patagonian tooth fish boat are.

Is there such a thing as truly sustainable tourism when we talk about travel diving?

Additional photos below
Photos: 21, Displayed: 21


7th April 2015

The 'delicate dance of truly ecological sustainable tourism'...
It's a discussion we seem to have all the time Cindy, and it's a difficult one. We seem to be good at maintaining a small footprint at home, but then we fly interstate and overseas at the drop of a hat... On the plus side there seem to be more ecotourism operators around than ten years ago, and that can only mean that the demand exists and is (hopefully) growing.
9th April 2015

Problem makers
I enjoyed this read a lot, as it is something I think about frequently. I don't have the luxury of long trips, being chained to a desk for far too long, so I fly a lot. Then when visiting very hot countries I gratefully and guiltily switch on the aircon. Despite being a frequent traveller I am often torn as to the "benefits" of tourism to local communities, ie whether my presence is ultimately helping in the destruction of the culture. I haven't come up with any answers other than to try to find sustainable tour operators, however I sometimes think it's just paying away some guilt. Anyway, a very thoughtful read and as always, so beautifully written!
11th April 2015

Fascinating subject. If we learn from Easter Island, it is that humans are capable of taking and taking against rationality and even their own self-destruction. At the same time, I think there are some areas of the world that are managing to balance tourism and ecotourism (never 100% though). I remember talking to a local environmentalist in Malaysia who said that his goal wasn't to save the entirety of the jungles in Malaysia, but to look at the problem as a long-term solution. For example, allowing 5-10% of a place to be open to tourism and reap the monetary gain to protect the other 90-95%. He found his greatest hurdle to be corporations and government officials who wanted to increase the tourism higher without the long-term goal. As economists would say that incentive is just human nature, I wonder what kind of incentive can we give such corporations and government officials to be satisfied with the 5-10% and not tear into the remainder? Or is the only solution to increase prices and keep places secret? I worry that even that isn't a long-term solution. Again, really, really interesting subject, Cindy! Thanks~~
17th April 2015

Thanks Michelle :)
I think sadly that is the stage we are at in the world now, we know its past tipping point so if we can save pockets, we are doing the best we can. Ironic that Zoos are now the only place where Black Rhinos exist yet it was Zoos that started our fascination with exotic worlds and animals. We reaped what we sew. Thanks for your thoughts!
19th April 2015

Peeked out from behind coconut trees
Yes I can imagine he may have thought aliens had arrived on his island. I'm glad you care about the environment and take care to negatively impact it as little as possible. Although as you've said we need to be cautious of our footprint, we also realize that as we follow our passion it does change things. Yes, selfish, our flights are wrong and yet we continue taking them. These are deep thoughts and we must continue to be a responsible as we can.

Tot: 1.174s; Tpl: 0.021s; cc: 22; qc: 81; dbt: 0.0209s; 1; m:saturn w:www (; sld: 2; ; mem: 1.6mb