The prestige of the Banda Islands as the only producer of nutmeg in the world has indeed faded along with the bringing of nutmeg seeds out of Banda. 400 – 500 years ago, this commodity was equivalent in value to a handful of gold, inevitably Banda became a contested area until one of its islands became a vital object in the Treaty of Breda between England and the Netherlands. For history buffs, the Banda islands are closely related to the exchange of Run Island with Nieuw Amsterdam (Manhattan, an island that is now part of New York). Rhun Island, which is located at the tip of the Banda Islands, was initially controlled by the British until the British lost the war against the Dutch in the Anglo Dutch War II. At first, the British offered Suriname which was then famous for its sugar plantations in exchange for Nieuw Amsterdam, but the Dutch insisted on getting Rhun Island to monopolize the nutmeg.
Besides the nutmeg production on land, the sea played an important role in trade during the history of the Banda Islands. Not only was the sea the only access route to the islands, but it also provided food for the locals and colonizers. Nowadays, most people still work as fishermen and therefore interact daily with the surrounding coastal environment. In terms of livelihoods, the fishermen rely heavily on the coral reefs for baitfish to catch the larger pelagic that are sold commercially. Despite these commercial enterprises, and fitful volcanic eruptions, the coral reef has proven to possess high resilience. The increasing high degree of biodiversity is probably due to the buffering effect of the surrounding Banda Sea, which, with its depth of 8000 meters, protects the islands from extreme equatorial temperatures (circa 29°C/84°F throughout the year) and the effects of climate change. This sea also plays an important role in the production quality of the nutmeg, as the sea winds and salty rains influence the taste and quality of the nutmeg, which is still claimed to be the best in the world.
The Banda Islands are situated in the eastern part of the Indo-Malayan archipelago. The archipelago consists of ten volcanic islands scattered in the Banda Sea, ± 140 kilometers south of Seram Island and 2,000 kilometers east of Java Island. This 180 km² archipelago is part of the Maluku Province. Its largest city, Banda naira, is located on the island of the same name. The Banda Islands are administratively just a sub-district. However, this area is a paradise for divers and a potential spice tourism destination. The Banda Islands consist of eleven small volcanic islands, called Neira, Gunung Api, Banda Besar, Rhun, Ai, Hatta, Syahrir, Karaka, Manukan, Nailaka and Batu Kapal, with an approximate land area of 8,150 hectares in total. Of the 11 islands, seven of them are inhabited and four are uninhabited. The total population of these islands reaches about 21,000 people.
As an archipelago, about 80 percent of Banda’s area consists of sea and the rest is land. The Banda Sea (including the Banda Islands) was identified as one of the highest marine conservation priorities in Indonesia in the USAID-CTSP Assessment 2009. One of the reasons for this is that they are in the heart of the Coral Triangle – the geographic epicentre of marine biodiversity. With a very wide water area, Banda has at least 34 diving points which locations are spread out. Because of the underwater abundance, these islands have the title marine tourism park. The Banda Sea Aquatic Tourism Park has a water depth of more than 6,500 meters. This area is mostly a deep-sea crevice (about 4 km), making it possible for various types of deep ocean fish that are not resistant to sunlight to live. More than 300 species of hard coral have been recorded in this area, spread over six islands in the Banda archipelago, from Run Island in the west, to Hatta Island, and 50 km to the south. In general, the coral reefs were in good condition. The island’s geological and climatic history, addition to its resilience to climate change and volcanic activity, has facilitated speciation and high species diversity. However, the coral reefs in the Coral Triangle, particularly in Indonesia and the Philippines, are among the most threatened globally. Therefore, the Banda Islands are important for researchers to discover what causes this high resilience of the reefs, in order to protect other locations. Moreover, several conservation efforts in the Banda Islands have been successfully made, in which the biodiversity of the coral reef has not only been maintained but even increased. In addition to its scientific importance, the Banda Islands play a strategic connective role in migration patterns of several species, one of which is a critical stage in the sea-turtle life cycle. It also gives refuge to highly endangered oceanic cetaceans, including the blue whales.
Almost all beaches in Banda are good for diving. Around Naira’s busiest pier, many visitors dive and snorkel to meet the rare Napoleon fish. Other favourite dive points are the lava avalanche area of Gunung Api Island, the coast of Rhun and Nailaka Islands, and the beach of Hatta Island.
In addition to diving and snorkelling, Banda also offers a tour of the history of spices. The Banda Islands are also known under the name ‘Spice Islands’, as this island group was the original and sole location of the production of the spices nutmeg and mace during the most prosperous years of Dutch, Britain, and Portuguese colonization. In these islands, there are many buildings and structures left over from the Portuguese and Dutch heritage. Naira Island is the most populous island that has the remains of historical buildings. In the 16th to 19th centuries, the island became the centre of the nutmeg trade system. On the island of Naira there are two forts, namely Fort Nassau and Belgica. Spice tour routes usually start from this island. From Naira, tourists are usually invited to cross for about 10 minutes to Banda Besar Island which is the largest nutmeg plantation area in Banda. Here, guests can see the only VOC era nutmeg plantation belonging to Pongky van den Broeke. The total area of nutmeg plantations throughout the Banda Islands is 3,970 hectares. Along with the increase in tourism industry, transportation problems are still the main obstacle in Banda. Airplane flights to Banda only take place twice a week so that the main access to these islands is based on the sea route. Sea transportation services that come regularly to Banda, namely the state-run Pelni ferry (every two weeks), pioneer ships (once a month), and fast boats (twice a week). During the big wave season, which includes the westerly winds (December-February) and east winds (July-August), practically only large Pelni ships can sail to and from Banda. Meanwhile, small speed boats cannot operate because it is difficult to penetrate the high waves. Reaching the Banda islands is challenging. Still, witnessing the best snorkelling reefs in the world, as well as unique cultural and historical sights of Indonesia’s colonial era is a precious reward.