Diving Indonesia: Maluku Province – Ambon’s Twilight Zone

On the western side of Ambon’s superb natural harbor is one of the best, and certainly one of the strangest, muck diving sites in Indonesia – the Twilight Zone.

Christened by American dive explorers Burt Jones & Maurine Shimlock back in 1995, the site was discovered the year previously by Monique Walker from Germany, who had arrived in Ambon early for a dive charter on the liveaboard Cehili and decided to kill some time while the boat was waiting for the rest of its passengers to arrive by diving the “aviation jetty” near the village of Laha.

Monique was joined later that afternoon by Deb Fugitt, whose dive charters on the SMY Ondina first introduced me to diving in Irian Jaya and the Mollucas – Deb subsequently published this short article on the still to be named site.

Fishing boats at anchor at the Twilight Zone

Fishing boats anchored above the Twilight Zone in Ambon


Diving Indonesia: Ambon’s Twilight Zone – Real Muck Diving!

The Twilight Zone in Ambon

The Twilight Zone – real muck diving!

Bob Halstead, the godfather of muck diving, once defined it as diving that takes place at any site which does not have beautiful underwater scenery.

The Twilight Zone would definitely satisfy that criteria because underwater it resembles a cross between Steptoe’s Yard and a critter menagerie.

The site is the general area around the jetty at the village of Laha, on the northwest side of the harbor close to Ambon’s airport, and the jetty can be thought of as the epicenter of about 100m of sloping sandy shoreline around a small sheltered bay, which offers protection for both the ships at anchor and the critters that inhabit the netherworld beneath the surface.

The main purpose of the jetty is for fuel tankers from Pertamina, the Indonesian national oil & gas company, to deliver aviation fuel to the airport – hence the name…

However the area is also home to a small fishing fleet that plies the rich waters around Ambon, shipping the prepared catch to Bali, and over the years a considerable amount of general junk has been thrown off the jetty and the fishing boats, and consists of a mixture of everything from car tires to filing cabinet drawers and has formed a cozy habitat for the denizens of the Twilight Zone.

Underwater at the Twilight Zone in Ambon

“Organic” debris underwater at the Twilight Zone

The diversity of the Twilight Zone can be attributed to a troika of organic nutrient sources.

Firstly there is the fresh water run-off from the stream that empties into the bay nearby, and secondly there are the currents & cold water upwelling’s from the deep waters of Ambon’s harbor.

But the bulk of the organic nutrients come from the fish carcasses that are simply thrown over the side of the boats after the catch has been cleaned & filleted for shipment to Bali.

When this happens the “bottom feeding” inhabitants of the Twilight Zone emerge and descend on the fish carcasses.

If you are underwater during one of these feeding frenzies you will notice a sudden decrease in visibility and what appears  to be an underwater sandstorm…

If you investigate you will find a large swarm of catfish devouring the remaining flesh on the fish carcasses and the feeding action is so intense that they throw up the surrounding black volcanic sand into the sandstorm which drifts down into the depths!

You will also see moray eels darting in and out of the catfish swarm, risking a daylight foray to make sure they got their share of this sudden bounty from above – it is quite a sight!

Schooling catfish underwater at the Twilight Zone

Catfish on the prowl at the Twilight Zone


Diving Indonesia: Ambon & the Twilight Zone – Diving in the Zone…

The thing that is really special about the Twilight Zone is that it is actually two sites – the mother of all muck sites most of the time and then around midday it transforms itself into a kind of unique and eerie wide-angle photography studio where you can practice all those techniques you have read about!

For a couple of hours around noon the bright Indonesian sun is overhead and sends beams of light down through the gaps in between the moored fishing boats and around the jetty itself. This intense light seems to excite the large resident shoal of silversides, which normally hides away under the jetty, and they stream around the pillars of the jetty and out underneath the fishing boats.

The Twilight Zone's streaming silversides

Schooling silversides stream around the Twilight Zone’s jetty at midday

A similar thing seems to happen with the large colony of catfish, who also get a little agitated and start to do things out of character which provides excellent wide-angle photo opportunities. Then there are the moray eels who appear out of the day-time hideaways, seemingly disturbed by all the commotion and provide excellent foreground subjects for the creepy background.

Add in all the other larger critters such as scorpion fish and stone fish and you can understand why midday at the Twilight Zone is one of my favorite places – not just in Ambon, but in Indonesia… It’s that special!

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