Above sea level it's an idyllic landscape worthy of a magazine cover: The sun shining above a small ridge of palm tree, breezy, thatch-roofed bungalows lining the shore, bright Acehnese fishing boats curved like horns plying their trade on the turquoise sea, coral reefs tracing patterns of current in the shallows.
Or it would be idyllic, except that beneath the surface parts of the reef near Pulau Weh (Weh Island), a small island on the westernmost tip of Indonesia, are still struggling to recover in the wake of the 2004 tsunami. In some places where the reef should be, only bare patches remain. Dead coral, bleached white like bones, lies strewn across the sandy bottom.
When the tsunami hit on the morning of December 26 it killed an estimated 168,000 people on Aceh's shores. It also swept through the 350-metre channel between Weh and Rubiah islands, rolling boulders the size of Volkswagen Beetles into a pile in the middle of the bay at Iboih Beach. While the mountainous terrain prevented the massive swell from cresting, still it scoured Rubiah's spectacular coral gardens clear of sea life, leaving it in ruins.
It's like a desert down there, says Andy Coconut, a diver and coral restoration volunteer at the newly reconstructed Rubiah Tirta Divers at Iboih Beach. Behind him lies the twisted wreckage of the last dive shop, ripped off its foundations and crushed by the tsunami like a tin can.
Imagine. No animal wants to live in a desert. What can it do without food and shelter? Then imagine you plant trees to make a new forest. So the animals can come back again to live.
Despite the close proximity of the destruction, most of Pulau Weh was unscathed and the island remains one of southeast Asia's premier diving locations. All week a steady stream of snorkelers and scuba enthusiasts from around the world have come to float like astronauts over banks of coral resembling the surface of another planet, or explore deep and inviting caverns where fish navigate in a riot of underwater traffic that would rival downtown Jakarta. On any given day one might find manta rays, black tipped sharks, moray eels, hawksbill turtles, and massive schools of tuna and barracuda.
Today it's Monday, and quiet. Tourists have donned their backpacks to explore other parts of Indonesia and NGO workers have left their favourite weekend playground to resume the work of rebuilding Banda Aceh, the city hardest hit by the tsunami. On a sultry day like this, it would be easy for the divers of Rubiah Tirta to lie around in their hammocks and while away the afternoon. Instead they get ready to plant more coral in the sea garden.
After the tsunami, Rubiah Tirta owner Dodent Mahyiddin, known locally as Pak Dodent, surveyed the damage on the eastern side of Rubiah and was perplexed by the government's slow response to help. They lacked a blueprint for restoring the coral beds and the livelihoods of the people, he says, adding that the fishermen were devastated by the destruction of boats and fish stocks. Since the tsunami approximately forty per cent of fishermen who once worked the sea now fish inland lakes and rivers.
Pak Dodent decided to undertake the coral restoration project himself and transplant coral from healthy reefs to restore the damaged areas. Using the research he had already conducted in more than 30 years of diving and reef restoration, Pak Dodent set to work in 2006 with his own money and the help of his two sons, Ismayudi and Isfanudding, to start the coral restoration project.
Together the divers don their gear and climb onto the 16-metre wooden dive boat moored in tranquil Iobih. Equipped with small saws and a blue plastic laundry basket, they motor out to the end of Rubiah where the coral is still intact. Then they jump in and descend to the bottom, where they gently saw small pieces of coral off the tips of the branches and put them in the basket. First green flowering Acropora elsey. Then shorter pieces tipped in cornflower blue, like mountain flowers. Acropora puertoglarae. The arched branches of brown Acropora formosa look for all the world like deer antlers.
The divers take care to harvest from different areas so the coral can easily regenerate. As they work, parrotfish glide by, going about their business. They look absurdly like real parrots, with orange beaks and scaly plumage bearing a multitude of colours. They flap their dorsal fins, the perfect miniature version of parrot's wings. Nearby, a lion fish crowned with a showy array of white and brown, its feathery fins resembling the headdress of a tribal chief, gracefully scales the side of a cavernous dropoff.
Back on deck, the corals clink in the basket, fragile as china. In the sunlight they look less exotic, their colours subdued to a muddy brown in the glaring light of day. The effect doesn't last long. In less than 10 minutes the boat is at the other end of Rubiah, thanks to the driver's expert operation of the tiller by swinging it across the deck with his feet.
The corals resume their luminous colours as they make the descent to their new home. In the bare expanse of white sand, the desert begins to bloom anew. Square beds containing rows of overturned cement pots - about 500 square metres to date in July 2009, molded from plastic buckets - have transformed the desert into a coral nursery.
Yudi and Andy point out some sections that are coming along nicely, sprouting cornflower blue, pale mauve, baby pink, fresh spring green. A few are struggling, a little stunted. They may have to be removed for other pieces to be replanted, but the odds for success are high. Pak Dodent said that 90 per cent of the baby coral is healthy and growing.
The coral gardeners get to work on a new section of the bed, scrubbing the posts embedded in each pot with small metal brushes to clear them of newly established oysters and debris. A diver holds out the plastic loops one by one like a surgeon's assistant. The other diver pulls a piece of coral from the basket and secures it to the metal post with the loop. It's a tidy operation that will yield about one metre of fresh plantings per dive.
Already the growth looks promising, a reminder that life can survive and regenerate in the wake of destruction. Gobies have already colonized the older plantings of Acropora elsey, nibbling at them and resting beneath them for shelter. Tiny fish fry alight among the branches like sparrows. Vagabond butterfly fish hover and feed, brilliant in their yellow and black stripes of tiger-like intensity. Nudibranches loll, slug-like, on the sand.
Nature is resilient when given a chance. The coral gardeners of Pulau Weh are giving it the chance it deserves, restoring the sea beds from the ravages of the tsunami and working to protect it from the dangers of overfishing, pollution and climate change. To continue the project and garner donations, Pak Dodent and his team founded the Aceh Coral Conservation and the Coral Oasis Foundation. They also work with the US-based international organization Reef Check, which monitors the health of reefs in the world's oceans.
As the dive boat approaches shore, another replanting mission accomplished, small groups of German and Australian tourists relax on the beach, soaking up the afternoon sun. Some paddle at a leisurely pace, day-glo flippers and snorkels poking through the surface of the sea as they explore patches of spiky sea urchins, Finding Nemo clownfish and purple surgeonfish chasing each other in circles.
Pak Dodent says he wants to get the coral reef at Iboih back to its previous peak of health in the early 1970s He admits it is an ongoing responsibility to care for and monitor the health of the reefs, but that tourism, wisely managed, can be a boost because it creates environmental awareness and support for conservation. It is never finished, he says, adding, The coral must always be here for the people of the world, and to provide oxygen for the fish. And the fishermen can have fish again too.
From Medan, opt for an air conditioned nonstop overnight bus (9 to 10 hours) from one of several ticket sellers on Jalan Gajah Mada (about Rp 200,000). Lion Air, Sriwijaya Air and Adam Air also fly to Banda Aceh from Medan (less than an hour, from Rp 240,000 and up).
Pulau Weh can be reached by fast boat and ferry from Ulee Lheu Harbour, about 20 minutes from Banda Aceh's city center. The fast boat takes 45-60 minutes and departs at 9 am and 4 pm (Rp 60,000 - Rp 80,000). The slow ferry takes 2.5 hours and departs at 1-2 pm daily. On Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday it departs at 11 am and 4 pm (Rp 15,000). On the afternoon crossing, watch for dolphins.
On arrival in Pulau Weh, local transport is available to Gapang and Iboih beaches - it takes about one hour (minibus about Rp 50,000, charter bus Rp 100,000).
Places to stay
Erick's: 0652-331118/0815 3382 8419 Yulia's Bungalow and Restaurant: 0813 6255 3561 Iboih has much more accommodation available. On arrival, walk down the path of bungalows nestled in the trees to find a place to stay.
Information: www.sumatraecotourism.com / www.pulauwehsabang.com Book a diving holiday: www.rubiahdivers.com Conservation: www.coral.org
Pufferfish photo by Andy Moss, all others by Wendy Bone.
About the author: Wendy Bone is a Canadian writer and adventurer currently living in North Sumatra, Indonesia. When not enjoying the country's spectacular beaches, she is hanging out with orangutans and riding elephants in the jungle. For more on her adventures, visit www.wendyboneabroad.com