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Banda Sea: Reefs, Blue Whales, and Hammerhead Sharks

Travel in luxury as you explore some of the world’s best coral reefs, explore jungle covered islands, look for schooling sharks, watch for whales, and more.

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  • Visit a remote area of the Banda Sea nicknamed “Hammer Island” for the chance to see schooling hammerhead sharks under a new moon.
  • Look for blue whales and other marine mammals with expert guidance in between snorkeling or diving some of the world’s best reefs.
  • Enjoy luxurious accommodations aboard the boutique ship, El Aleph.

Explore the beautiful coral reefs surrounding the volcanic islands of Alor and the Banda Sea between Saumlaki and Maumere on this 12-day luxury liveaboard expedition. At the border where the Pacific and Indian Oceans collide, this area harbors some of those most biodiverse coral reef ecosystems in the world and is a hotspot for blue whales.

Our expedition brings together professional conservationists and passionate guests for a unique and enriching experience. Selecting ideal snorkeling and dive sites daily, we will immerse ourselves in diverse marine habitats and sail among the many uninhabited jungle-capped islands, complemented by dedicated time to look for whales. A highlight of the expedition will be a trip to “Hammer Island,” a remote location where scalloped hammerhead sharks are known to school in large numbers.

This expedition can be done back-to-back with our Borneo: Rainforest to Reef Wilderness Adventure expedition.

Trip Dates & Cost

2019: September 10–21. From $9,695 per person + park fees.* Group limit 10 only.

2020: September 10–21. From $9,800 per person + park fees.* Group limit 10 only.

2021: October 13–24. From $10,800 per person + park fees.* Group limit 10 only.

* A deluxe master cabin is available at an additional cost. Trip prices do not include international airfare, or in-country airfare from Jakarta to Saumlaki and Maumere to Jakarta (or Bali). Click here for our full expedition terms and conditions.


Benjamin Kahn is a cetacean researcher and director of the Coral Triangle Oceanic Cetacean Program for APEX Environmental. He is an Adjunct Research Fellow in the Centre of Marine Science and Technology at Curtin University in Perth, Western Australia. Benjamin first worked with Oceanic Society in 2015 aboard our Raja Ampat: Snorkeling and Whale Watching expedition.

Wayne Sentman is our director of conservation travel programs and an Oceanic Society naturalist since 1998. He is an experienced guide with a diverse background in marine mammal, seabird, and marine debris research. Wayne also co-teaches undergraduate field programs in Kenya on human-wildlife conflict and on the use of social media and art to raise public participation in conservation. He recently received a Master's in Environmental Management from Harvard University.

Dalton Ambat is based in Bali and has helped guide Oceanic Society's Indonesia snorkel programs for the last 8 years. He is an experienced snorkel guide and a PADI certified master scuba dive trainer who has logged more than 10,000 dives and trained more than 1,000 students. Dalton has worked across the entire coral triangle region and is an expert naturalist with a keen eye for the macro critters. In 2016 he also participated in our marine debris sampling survey cruise from Bali to Komodo.


Guests will need to arrive to Jakarta at least one day prior to the start of the expedition. In-country flights from Jakarta to Saumlaki, where we embark, and from Maumere, where we disembark, to Jakarta are not included in the trip price, but will be arranged by Oceanic Society. The following itinerary is an example only, and is subject to change based on weather and other external factors during our voyage.

Day 1: Saumlaki, embark
In the early afternoon, after our flight from Jakarta, we will board our privately chartered vessel, El Aleph, your home for the next 12 days. We will then have lunch and embark towards the Banda Sea. There may be opportunities to see whales or dolphins as we cruise past beautiful, jungle-capped limestone islands. The diversity and abundance of cetaceans is amazing, to date 22 species have been identified in these local waters (also due to the long-term efforts of our experts on board). We will sail overnight to the island of Nila. Depending on the sea conditions we will arrive there before lunch the next day. This will provide us additional hours of “Whale Patrol" in the deep waters of the Banda Sea to survey for our priority species: the mighty blue whale and the deep-diving sperm whales.

Day 2: Pulau Nila
At Nila we will find a pristine shallow hard coral reef where we will have our first snorkel experiences. A stunning white sand beach invites for a stroll and enjoy stunning sunset views.

Overnight: We will cruise under the stars for a relocation to "Hammer Island," an incredible place to snorkel with schools of scalloped hammerhead sharks. We are venturing in the remote parts of the already remote Banda Sea. The island is not commonly known, so we are keeping its name a secret to prevent potential shark fin poachers from discovering it.

Days 3-4: Hammer Island
Arriving in the morning hours at the island we will have a meeting with the Chief and some of the island's villagers. The people here are trying hard to protect their reefs from outside fishermen that come as far as Sulawesi and beyond. Many of the outside fishermen have contributed to overfishing, and many still use illegal and destructive fishing methods that are harmful to the marine environment including dynamite (reef bombing), cyanide, and trawl nets. We will support the locals by providing food, supplies (including for the local school), and fuel during our visit. Guest can help as well and "pack with a purpose” to boost our assistance to the villagers. The village priest will then accompany us to the ocean to give his traditional blessings to call the hammerhead sharks to us. According to local tradition, this will increase our good luck with our hammerhead sightings in these very same waters. We will finish the afternoon with a snorkel or dive.

On the following two days, we will remain anchored at Hammer Island and will have the full day to snorkel and dive the beautiful reefs here with great opportunities to see hammerhead sharks. While here, we will also be able to see sloping walls (or drop-offs) covered with soft corals of every color imaginable, which house many varieties of fish including ghost pipefish, Napoleon wrasse, cardinalfish, angelfish, and butterflyfish, as well as invertebrates such as crabs, shrimp, sea anemones, and nudibranchs. Our anchorage is sheltered yet has ample views to the horizon and deep waters of theBanda Sea, so whale sightings may occur as well - right from the anchorage!

Day 5: Hammer Island - Cruising North
We will have another half day to snorkel and dive around Hammer Island. After we've had plenty of opportunities to explore this unique area, we will continue our journey north into the Banda Sea to search and survey for whales and dolphins. These valuable “Whale Patrol” observations add to our understanding of the whales and dolphins’ habitat use in these remote and data-deficient waters. .

Day 6: Gili Manuk
Being an active volcano rising from the 5,000-7,000m depths of the Banda Sea, Gili Manuk is a wilderness hotspot with many different species. Above the surface we will encounter numerous species of seabirds such as frigate birds, boobies, gannets and terns, even the rare tropicbird – this island is a rookery for these seabirds and recognized as an Important Bird Area by Birdlife International, the leading non-government organization in global bird conservation.

Below the ocean’s surface we find an exceptionally high density of … sea snakes, especially the banded sea krait and olive sea snake. For that reason, Manuk is nicknamed "Snake Island." Even though these marine reptiles are highly venomous, we will not have any dangers arising as they are equally peaceful as curious.

In addition to all this, Manuk has teeming coral reef drop-offs and we often see large pelagic fish such as tunas, barracudas, jacks, and sharks passing by. This is a truly unique and wild place, located in the middle of one of the most remote seas on Earth.

Days 7-8: Banda Neira
Being the only place where nutmeg was originally grown, the so called Spice Islands are historically very interesting and important. Many battles have been fought over them in the 16th and 17th Century by the reigning maritime superpowers of that time - the Portugese, followed by the English and the Dutch “East Indies” Companies (who eventually took possession for centuries to come). This intriguing colonial heritage can be felt today, as several of Banda Neiras street have hardly changed in over 300 years... A stroll over the main island of Banda Neira includes a visit to a quaint museum, a nutmeg plantation and the VOC’s Fort Belgica, where a local guide will teach us more about this fascinating chapter in global colonial history.

Below the surface we will see a stunning comeback of a coral reef. At the site named "Lava Flow”, the last eruption of the volcano Gunung Api in 1988 eradicated the whole reef. What has happened ever since has baffled coral reef scientists. To this day, Lava Flow is a very encouraging case study on how fast a coral reef can bounce back (reef resilience) when the conditions are right.

As a final option and a must for all who like to keep fit on this well-catered for expedition, the 2000 ft. tall volcano can be climbed in the early hours of the morning to watch the sun rise over the other six islands of the Spice Islands. Follow in the footsteps of the early explorers and enjoy the magnificent view into the Banda Sea.

Day 9: Whale Patrol
This whole day is dedicated to surveying the waters from the Spice Islands onwards towards the west. We can expect numerous species of oceanic dolphins, blue whales, sperm whales, pilot whales, melon-headed whales, beaked whales and even orcas have been spotted here in the past. You are welcome to join the team of PlanetDeep on the survey deck and get involved in the search, or just relax while cruising and join just in time for each sighting announced by the ship’s bell.

Day 10: Nusa Laut
The hard coral reefs fringing this small island just south of Ambon are yet another snorkel and diving highlight. The villagers of Kampung Amed have protected their marine assets from destructive fishing methods for many years and one can clearly see the fruit of their conservation efforts—a stunning reef to explore. We will also go and visit the villagers to speak with them about their efforts in conservation.

Day 11: Selat Manipa, West-Ambon
This area is a new cetacean hotspot, as “discovered" by members of our expert team during dedicated cetacean conservation projects in 2016-2018. Manipa is not yet 'on the map' for other boats cruising in this area, and further explore this amazing cetacean and snorkel hotspot. Together with the team of Planet Deep we will be pioneers in this area, and support sustainable boat-based tourism and marine conservation to safeguard Manipa’s ocean wilderness.

Day 12: Ambon
On arrival in Ambon we will disembark and transfer to the airport. You will have the option to fly to Jakarta or Denpasar (Bali) to catch your international flights back home. All guests looking to fly home should make sure their flights do not leave until after 8:00 PM. Most flights will leave the next day.

—> Optional (if afternoon flights available): Visit of Museum Sitta in Ambon which hosts skeletons of blue and sperm Whales as well as cultural artifacts.

Optional Post-trip Extensions
For those who would like to continue their exploration of this spectacular region, we are offering post-trip extensions to Borneo and North Sulawesi upon request. Please inquire for details!


Our expedition takes place aboard El Aleph, a 40-meter luxury ship purpose-built for exploring the remote and legendary Raja Ampat. From the polished wood finish – more reminiscent of a fine guitar than a phinisi schooner – to the-state-of-the-art electronics and navigation suites, no expense has been spared in providing the ultimate in relaxed, luxury charter. El Aleph features just 5 cabins accommodating a maximum of 10 guests (4 double cabins, 1 master suite), each with en suite facilities, and is staffed by 12 crew members. Multiple decks and a large lounge area offer ample space to spread out and relax, or to dine al fresco as you take in the surrounding views.

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