Pulau Gunung Api Banda is one of ten volcanic islands in the Banda archipelago, and as you may have suspected by the name of the island, Gunung Api Banda – meaning fiery mountain – is made up entirely of a volcano. This small island chain was part of the fabled “Spice Islands” during the time of Portuguese and Dutch maritime trade, and until the mid-19th century, was the only source of nutmeg and mace in the world. The shallow waters at the foot of Gunung Api Banda are an internationally recognized dive spot. Multi-coloured corals contrast starkly with the blackened volcanic sea bed, housing a rich marine life, high in number and species diversity, despite the small total area. In 2005, the Banda islands were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Journals from the early European sailors describe the islands as a jewel-like cluster, surrounded by crystal waters and brilliant coral reefs. Hundreds of years have passed since then, but visitors to the islands nowadays still say the same.
The Banda islands are located in the Banda Sea, approximately 130 kilometres southeast of Ambon, administratively the Banda district, Central Maluku, Maluku province.
Banda Volcano is a perfectly conical mountain that rises 656 meters above sea level, and is about 3 kilometres wide. Due to its key location in the spice trade, Banda Volcano ranks among the best documented volcanoes in Indonesia. It is also one of the most active volcanoes in East Indonesia. Historical eruptions have been recorded since the late 1500’s, and have been relatively low-level, though there have been the occasional larger eruptions, with lava flow reaching the coast.
On May 9, 1988, after 97 years of dormancy, a violent eruption shook the Banda islands. A column of ash billowed 3 kilometres into the air, and earthquakes were felt every few minutes. Two days prior to the eruption, 1,800 residents of the island were evacuated to nearby Neira and Lonthor, both of which are remnants of volcanic activity. On the day of the eruption, people began moving to further islands, and eventually to locations as distant as Sulawesi. About 10,000 people of the 16,000 population living in the Banda islands were evacuated during the 1988 eruption, which finally ended in August, 1988.
This powerful eruption had a devastating impact on what was once an integral part of the famed “Maluku Sea Gardens”. Molten lava oozed across 70,000 square meters of well-developed fringing reef, destroying everything in its path. But even volcanic clouds have a silver lining, and this seemingly catastrophic event led to a remarkable discovery.
Maluku Sea Gardens Restored
Hardened lava, once broken down, provides some of the most fertile soil on earth. This is because it is rich in minerals and nutrients brought up from within the earth. Therefore, the plant growth affected by volcanoes can recover quickly. But does the same hold true for coral growth? Prior to the Banda eruption of 1988, this idea received scant attention, but scientists were now provided with a unique opportunity. Coral colonization was monitored on 3 locations, and in just 5 short years, the hardened andesitic flow supported over 120 species of coral. A higher diversity and abundance than the adjacent reef not covered by lava.
Now, 20 years later, coral growth around Gunung Api Banda not only matches, but exceeds the development that normally takes coral formations over 70 years to achieve, making it the most rapid growing coral in the world.
Gunung Api was designated as a National Park by the Ministry of Forestry in 1992.
The Maulana Hotel is a luxurious hotel boasting traditional colonial architecture with an expansive patio just feet from the crystal clear Banda Waters, and spectacular views of Gunung Api. All rooms are air-conditioned and equipped with bathroom facilities. Rates start at just 50 USD per night.
As Gunung Api is well, a mountain, so climbing to the peak should definitely be on your list of things to do. The mountain is not too tall, yet it is a rough, but rewarding climb. The climb is a continuous, steep ascent for about 2 hours, so be sure to bring plenty of water. The trail is unmarked, but fairly difficult to miss. Roads are mainly sand or gravel and can be slippery, so good climbing shoes are advisable as well. If climbers set out with the first light of dawn, you should be back down on the shore by 11 am or 12 pm.
On the trek up the mountain, you can observe the various plant life, such as the orchids and the nutmeg trees, which produce the fragrant spices men once crossed the ocean for. If you’re quiet, you may even see flocks of colourful birds perched high in the treetops or soaring in the skies above. 23 species of bird inhabit this island, many of which are endemic to Banda Region.
If you set out early enough, you should make it to the summit in time to witness the dramatic dawn over the panoramic view of the sparkling blue sea, and the surrounding rocky islets. By the time you make it back to shore, you should be well and ready for a dip in the irresistibly cool, clear sea. Waters are fairly shallow, so whether you are a professional diver or a beginner, you can still enjoy this magical underwater paradise.
The Banda islands rest at the edge of an ocean trench, where depths reach down to 6,500 meters – the deepest in Indonesia. This greatly influences the microbiology of the Banda Sea, giving it unique marine characteristics that vary greatly from other areas in the country.
The Sonegat Sea Arm is located between Gunung Api and Banda Neira, and is the site of the lava flow where the eruption of 1988 destroyed almost all corals and marine life. The Sonegat Arm lava flow is one of the most popular dive spots in the area and one of the many “must-see” dive spots in Indonesia. After just over 20 years of rehabilitation, table corals and other hard corals have grown at an impressively rapid rate, rarely seen elsewhere in the world. Four seamounts harbour a huge amount of ocean life including yellow fin tuna, banded sea snakes, the beautiful Mandarin fish, and the rare Napoleon fish. Ecological studies in 2001 and 2002 showed tremendous biodiversity with 310 species of reef-building coral, 871 species of fish, and high populations of grouper and shark.
The quickest route to the Banda Islands is through the Pattimura Airport in Ambon Island, about 36 kilometers from Ambon City. This is a domestic only airport, with flights available from Jakarta, Surabaya, Makassar, Kupang, and several other smaller destinations.
From Ambon, you can charter a small plane to Banda Neira or catch the occasional Lion Air flights, but these are quite sporadic. It is impossible to book round trip flights, so you would need to be sure to book your return ticket once in Ambon, and don’t forget to keep reconfirming, as flights are often cancelled due to bad weather, engine problems, and other unforeseen circumstances.
Alternatively, you can cross the Banda Sea by ferry, which is about 7 hours from Ambon to the Banda islands, but once again, these voyages are extremely unpredictable.
The Banda Islands are also a popular destination for cruise ships, and can be accessed via various cruise companies as well.
Live aboard cruises and tours are also quite popular and can be booked.