It is Friday at noon; the team has already arrived in Sumur, a sleepy fishermen town on the West coast of Banten. KM Samudra and her crew are ready to receive the group on board.

One Palm Point Panaitan Island
One Palm Point Panaitan Island. By Massew64 – Own work, Public Domain,

A small motorized skiff shuttles between the shore and the boat loaded with logistics, equipments, and people. A team consisting of marine biologists, cameramen, and photographers is set up for this particular survey.

The water around Panaitan Island is recently invested with scavengers and treasure hunters looking for valuable cargo from a long sunken vessel in the northwestem reefs of the island.


Information gathered describes the boat as a Dutch cargo vessel containing lead that met her demise in rough water and rugged coastline of Panaitan in the 1800’s. Extraction of materials from the wreck creates problems for the National Park authority, as it falls within the marine territory of Ujung Kulon National Park. This team is set up to examine the location, and see if the marine ecosystem has been somehow disturbed. Based on bits and pieces of information, the team sets sail from Sumur bound to Peucang Island for the final preparation.

The weather is mild, with no wind and no waves. In the distance, the horizon is blurred by haze that dominated most of the afternoon. The PS120 diesel engine designed for trucks installed onboard Samudra proves to be quite strong for boat propulsion. With minor modifications, this type of engine now pushes Samudra through the bluish green water. Several fishermen boats are seen entering the port of Sumur, as Samudra leaves the bay.

Panaitan Island
Panaitan Island

Hundreds of years ago, the waters around Ujung Kulon National Park were important passages connecting Dutch Indies (now Indonesia) with other colonies. Frigates and cargo vessels maneuvered through rough seas and rugged coastal features decorated with jagged massive rocks and high waves. All vessels would require skillful heimsmen equipped with the latest charts and navigation techniques. The lighthouse in Tanjung Layar provided aid in navigation. Despite thorough preparation and careful planning, reefs and rocks along the northwestern coast of Prinsen Island (now Ujung Kulon’s Panaitan Island) often took their tolls. Numerous vessels met their demise along the rugged edge of Panaitan coast. Some of them carried valuable cargos such as pottery, ceramics, porcelain, coins, and other materials. The most recently found old cargo was lead.

Lead extraction around Panaitan gives headache to the Park authority. The location is within the National Park’s territory, so it is the Park’s responsibility to prevent any illegal entries and extractions from the Park’s ecosystem. Hundreds of fishermen come and dive the area, stepping on corals, rubbles, and rocks to reach the wreck to get the lead out. Later on, private enterprise comes and takes part in the extraction. Just like the gold rush in the Wild West, or the oil boom in Canada, more and more people are coming into Panaitan to take a piece of the sunken treasure.

Panaitan Island
Panaitan Island

Eagles soars over the coastal forest on Peucang Island. This small island north of the peninsula will be the base camp for the Panaitan survey team for the next three days. Gentle afternoon breeze and silvery ripples on the sea surface greet, as Samudera enters the narrow strait separating Peucang Island and the mainland. In the bay, nestled in the white sandy beach, Peucang Pier stands out to receive incoming visitors to this Island resort in this World Heritage Site.

Slowly ciosing the throttle, the skipper of Samudera gently steers the vessel starboard. The crew drop anchor, drag the line to the back, and secure it to the aft. As the vessel approaehes the pier, one line is thrown and securely fastens Samudera’s forward post to the piling. The vessel now rests neatly at the pier.

First order of the business is to have all SCUBA tanks filled and prepared for tomorrow. Four tanks are previously filled. These will be used to test the underwater housings of both video and still cameras. Before that, Samudera will pick up the Rhino Camera trap team on the coast of Cidaon. It starts to rain when the Rhino Camera Trap team comes aboard. The plan is still on schedule, and it is going to be a sunset dive. Four divers took the housings down to 60 feet to test for any leak, condensation, and any malfunctions. The dive takes 45 minutes, and the housings pass the test. The sun already sets when the divers surface and return to the boat. The skipper starts the engine, lifts anchor, and heads back to Peucang pier.

Panaitan Island
Panaitan Island

The air-fill compressor starts, 14 SCUBA tanks are lined up for an overnight air-fill. Dinner is prepared. Ketut, a seafood stall owner in Labuan, is a member of the team. He is an excellent cook, so the survey team will be treated with fine cuisines. In the first night on Peucang, sweet-and-sour fish, stir-fried veggies, and special omelet are served. Members of both Rhino Camera Trap and Panaitan Survey teams devoured the food as if there’s no tomorrow. Good food! The Rhino Camera Trap team leaves Peucang shortly after dinner, they are on their way home. Close to midnight, the air-fill is done, and rest is required, for tomorrow will be a strenuous day.

Panaitan Island
Panaitan Island

Rise and shine, it is 6 O’ clock in the morning. Most are awake already, especially the cook

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. He is preparing our breakfast and lunch for today, and divers are preparing dive equipments and cameras. The weather seems very conducive with light waves and gentie sea breeze. Haze still lingers on. At l0 O’clock, Samudera heads north to Panaitan Island. Fist stop is Butun Bay, to meet with Tandya, Head of the Panaitan District of conservation. He’s just had his post constructed last month, and he stays there for 5 days. KM Krapu, a patrol boat is anchored near the shore at Butun when Samudera arrives. Four young rangers on board Samudera are very eager to come ashore, to their new post, while rangers on shore are eager to go home already. A small ‘jukung’ shuttles to and from, disembarking personnei and taking Tandya on board. Everything is set, and Samudera is, once again, on her way to Tanjung Cina, the shipwreck site.

The team is interested in observing the shipwreck condition in Tanjung Cina. After all these years, the wreck should become populated with corals and fishes. It should have become home of hundreds of fishes. Lead exploitation can damage all of these beauties. The cameras should be able to capture signs of exploitation and the damages caused by such activities. The only clues are the coordinates, and information on depths and approximate whereabouts of the wreck, not much to work on. Let’s just hope that something is still visible.

It is unusually calm for sea in Tanjung Cina. Even so, waves rock the boat giving dizziness and motion sickness to some of the passengers on board Samudera. Divers prepare SCUBA gear, and cameras. Coordinates are plotted, and the dive path is determined. Two cameramen and two dive buddies follow the dive leader. They take a zigzagging path east and northeast. It is 40 feet under the boat, when the search starts. The seafloor is covered with rocks, sands, and algae. Occasionally, corals are found. The current is not very strong, but the surge is a killer. This rocking motion affects not only people on board, but also divers below! Equipped with a compass, divers follow the search route while cameramen start documenting the process.

Panaitan Island

Swimming under the surge is not an easy task, but the divers manage to reach 25 feet, the reported depth of the wreck. Still, no signs of lead are found. Divers start to spread from this position. When the SCUBA tanks are only 1/3 left, signs of a shipwreck is found. A metal post from the ships hull is visible followed by the rest of the hull. It is not a complete hull, probably only a quarter of the actual hull, and it is slightly covered with encrusting corals. The divers continue to follow this piece and finally reach the anchor. This anchor still retains its shape, despite a long period of submersion. This piece is probably equal to 4 men in length.

Cameraman and photographers are busy with their cameras ensuring good footage and documentations. They view features from the wreck, coral cover, and also fishes from the site. The search is on for about 10 minutes until the air in the tanks is depleted. No sign of lead, but it is definitely the wreck identified previously by the National Committee. It is time to surface; the divers covered a distance of approximately 750 meters from the fixed coordinate underwater with no trace of lead, but they found parts of the wreck. Two samples of metals are brought back on board Samudera.

People waiting on board are eager to see us, as they want to get out of this place soon. The seasickness is already out of hand! Still, most managed not to throw up. When the last diver is aboard, the skipper starts the engine. The crew pulled the anchor, and soon Samudera is on her way back to Peucang Island. Lunch is served, but not many are interested. Most prefer waiting to reach calm water in Peucang for a rather late lunch. The divers, on the other hand, chewed on.

Panaitan Island

It is a very strenuous, but rewarding day. Despite difficult dive conditions and minimum information, the team manages to locate the wreck and makes rapid assessment on the site. Compared to information recorded from 2002, the wreck is pretty much cleared up from encrusting corals. Some parts of the wreck may have been removed. After over one hundred years, the wreck is covered with corals and inhabited by varieties of fishes; thus making the wreck an integral part of the marine ecosystem of Panaitan Island. As part of the ecosystem in a World Heritage Site, the wreck site should be preserved and protected. Extraction will only provide a limited economic benefit, but preserving it will provide long-term economic and conservation benefits.

This piece of history no longer serves as a cargo vessel, but she now serves as stronghold for varieties of marine life. Her value from tourism and fisheries is far beyond the value of the treasure she carries. Unfortunately, most people are blinded by the glow and glitter of immediate cash; thus ignoring the actual value of history, value of life.

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Bjørn Grøtting

Photographer based in Norway. See a collection of my best photos in the portfolio. Licensing of images is done through Photoshelter or alamy.
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