Beyond Bali: a Five-Star Cruise Encounter with Wildlife Â

Dec. 14th, 2022

Written by: Tricia Welsh

The thrum from our tender’s outboard motor breaks the early morning silence over mirror-like Saleh Bay in the island of Sumbawa. From our Aqua Blu expedition ship we are making a bee-line for one particular bagan, a traditional Indonesian fishing boat, we can see brightly lit on the horizon as the sun breaks crimson through broody clouds.

We are on a mission and have the GPS coordinates to meet certain fishermen before they depart for the day, having hoisted their overnight nets filled with anchovies and squid from the deep clear waters below. This daybreak ritual has become the feeding site for whale sharks that feast off the spillage.


Our plan: to swim with these majestic gentle giants! Masks and snorkels on, no flippers for fear of flipping them – and over the side we go. There can be up to five or even six whale sharks at this location, we are told, but this morning there is just one – but we are thrilled.

Suddenly, I’m eyeball to eyeball with one of the biggest fish on the planet. At more than 18 foot long, this magnificent dark grey spotted behemoth glides gently around our naked legs occasionally brushing us with its rough  6 inch-thick skin. It’s an eerie feeling as we float mesmerized for timeless minutes as this female juvenile gathers the residue of the catch – before swimming off into the still dark waters.


Back onboard Aqua Blu, we are briefed on this slow-moving member of the rhinocodon hypus genus, that can grow to 60 feet long and has a lifespan of some 130 years. Local fishermen hunt them for their meat, skin and fins – perfume being made using their oil. But gradually conservation efforts such as Aqua Expeditions’ gesture to pay fishermen so tourists can interact with them are proving effective.

This awesome encounter is just one of many highlights during our 550-mile week-long expedition cruise through the pristine waters of Indonesia from Labuan Bajo on the island of Flores, through myriad islands and bays of the Komodo National Park, around Lombok and the Gili Islands to Bali.


Earlier, we were welcomed on board by cruise director Glenn Wappett, a former British Royal Marine Commando, who has been with the ship since it began cruising here 2019, just months before the pandemic. While cruises restarted in May of this year, its schedule is still being fine-tuned as little-known secrets are further discovered in the largest archipelagic nation on the planet, whose 1,700 islands are scattered over three time zones.

On this barefoot cruise, we are just 16 guests aboard the five-level luxury motor yacht, Aqua Blu, a former British Royal Navy survey vessel, HMS Beagle, built in 1968. After reconstruction and refurbishment overseen by leading Dutch yacht designer Cor D. Rover, she has morphed into one of the most luxurious small vessels afloat with just 15 individually designed cabins with ensuites and spacious, comfortable indoor and outdoor social and dining areas. Gleaming brass stair rails, plush carpets, amassed cushions and sink-into lounges set the classy tone, while regional artifacts and beautiful art pieces give an innate sense of place.


Having settled into our air-conditioned cabins, we meet for sundowners on the top Sun Deck where we spot dolphins and pass our first volcano as the sun sets, turning the sea the palest blue tinged with soft pink ripples. We later learn this whole region is part of the Ring of Fire – a horseshoe-shaped rim around the Pacific Ocean where earthquakes and volcanic eruptions are prevalent.

Founder and CEO of Aqua Expeditions, Francesco Galli Zugaro, makes a point of providing fabulous food onboard his five luxury vessels. On those in the Peruvian Amazon and the Galapagos, food is overseen by Peru’s first Michelin-star chef, Pedro Miguel Schiaffino; his riverboats on the Mekong and the Irrawaddy, boast menus designed by Thai cuisine maestro David Thompson.


Dinner on the first evening sets the culinary bar high: tuna ceviche followed by melt-in-the-mouth rendang of slow-roasted beef short rib, organic Javanese prawns and Balinese urup salad with pineapple and ginger tarte tartin and ice cream for dessert. All meals, apart from buffet breakfasts, are served en famille at huge round blonde-wood tables.

With six different nationalities to please, it could prove a difficult task, but consulting chef Ben Cross understands his brief well. Having honed his skills in the kitchens of Neil Perry’s Rockpool, Cross runs his own restaurant, Mason, in Bali. For Aqua Blu’s menus, he has taken inspiration from the nearby Spice Islands and the cuisines of India, Morocco and Indonesia. He uses locally grown cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg in flavor-explosive dishes such as his 48-hour slow-cooked beef rendang, braised oxtail, grouper in Shaoxing broth, Moroccan spiced chicken and charred chermoula tuna. His food is superb – each meal topping the previous one. House wines and beer are complimentary, with a good spirits and reserve wine list available.


Life onboard Aqua Blue is relaxed, casual and very low-key. With an average age of around 45, guests actively participate in all activities.  I’m not a diver, snorkeller or swimmer having nearly drowned when five years old, but I snorkel every day and even try SCUBA diving – such is my trust in the well credentialled, delightful and intuitively attentive crew. At full capacity, the ratio of crew to passengers is 1:1.


There are dive and snorkel sites aplenty, with usually the chance to explore the underwater sea-life at least once a day. Sites have been chosen for their different examples of soft and hard coral, the variety of tropical fish and the likely presence of rays, turtles, large reef fish such as trevally and blue-fin tuna. One site is aptly called Shotgun, where the fast-moving current carries snorkellers along: just lie back and drift along for the ride. So good was the first drift, we rode Shotgun again – sighting a hawksbill turtle, a blue-spotted stingray and wall to wall schools of fish of all sizes – like swimming through confetti.


In Horseshoe Bay, we are on the hunt for Komodo dragons – the largest monitor lizard in the world, as a tribe of macaque monkeys bound over the rugged steep terrain above the water’s edge. Through binoculars, we see these cheeky-faced primates that make tasty snacks for dragons. Soon, we spy deer grazing in the undergrowth – one of the dragon’s main food supply. Dragons only come to the beach to ambush their prey while drinking at waterholes.

The chances of seeing dragons on these beaches can be hit and miss, according to Glenn, but with 20 pairs of eyes scanning for these rock-shaped prehistoric animals, it isn’t long before a gentle cry goes out: “Over there!”


The dragon ambles along under the shade of ancient trees – the whole scenario of gentle mountains covered in thick jungle growth, reminiscent of Jurassic Park. The giant lizard walks with a confident swagger, its forked tongue whipping in and out to sense the air.

Soon we spy another being followed by a family of wild boar. ‘Here comes breakfast’, someone suggests. But the mother and three babies wander off nonchalantly into the undergrowth to live another day.

On Komodo Island, we visit a rangers’ compound where two dragons have come to visit. It’s a new inclusion, Aqua favoring a more natural setting rather than one with countless visitors and tourist stalls.

In this little-known part of the world, every day brings new experiences, new islands and magnificent sunsets punctuated by still active volcanoes. A new modern-day destination, these waters and islands are steeped in ancient history and age-old culture and just beg to be explored.

And while the rest of the world might know Bali, just wait till they discover what’s a little further beyond – just around the corner.

Written by: Tricia Welsh


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