Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Diving in Gorontalo

On Sunday I went diving for the first time in Gorontalo and the experience was so remarkable that I can only relate it to maybe living in Paris for nearly three months before finally seeing the Eiffel Tower. I finally had that “pinch me I’m here” moment that hits every tourist when they finally visit a place they’ve always dreamed of seeing, like the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Gorontalo may not have much to offer tourists above ground, but the underwater world here offers first-class diving and the opportunity to see various endemic species found only in these waters, many of which are still unknown to science.

The local dive shop, Miguel’s Diving, is run by Rantje Allen, an American who has lived in Gorontalo for over ten years and has done a lot of work in establishing dive sites and educating local fishing communities about the dangers of common fishing practices, such as blast fishing and potassium cyanide poisoning. He works closely with the governor of Gorontalo, who is also a diver, on marine conservation issues. It was a privilege to dive with him. Along with Rantje, there was an American from Ohio, two Swedes from Stockholm and Rantje’s local assistant dive guide, Yunis, on this trip.

Our first dive was at Swirling Steps, a site normally not recommended for inexperienced divers because of its strong currents. But on Sunday there was no current so down we went. The water looked so clear from the dive boat that I was doubtful about doing a back roll entry because it looked like I was going to hit my head on the coral! But I was reassured that the coral was actually several meters underwater. For the next 44 minutes I was submerged in a world of sheer exotic beauty. Rantje had a writing slate with him and helpfully wrote down the names of some of the creatures we saw. Not long into the dive, he turned towards me and made a punching-like motion with his fist. This is the diving signal for “danger”. Intrigued, I looked past him to the coral wall as he scribbled “scorpionfish” on his slate. Scorpionfish have venomous fin spines and are not to be messed with. In worse case scenarios, scorpionfish stings can lead to violent pain, unconsciousness and even extended comas. After taking a look from a safe distance we moved on. Some other curious creatures we saw included garden eels and jaw fish. Garden eels stick up from the sand and sort of move their bodies like a beckoning finger. Likewise, jaw fish also live in the sand and poke their heads up to see what’s going on. Other highlights included seeing a blue spotted stingray, a giant clam and the best one of all - a green sea turtle!

The second dive was at Traffic Circle, located right off Olele Beach, where I had previously gone with some students; from the dive boat I could even see the hut we sat at. More captivating than the hut though, was the pod of Risso’s dolphins that were swimming in the distance. These dolphins are distinguished by their blunt noses and the fact that their bodies become lighter in color as they age, while their dorsal fins remain dark. They also like to fight each other, which explains the scars below:

We all watched the dolphins for a while and then some of us hopped overboard to snorkel for a bit. It felt so liberating to be in the water sans scuba gear with just my swimsuit, mask and snorkel and it was exciting to know that the dolphins were frolicking just meters away.

The second dive brought even more surprises. Rantje’s assistant, Yunis, is an expert in spotting very small creatures. On this dive, he showed us all a teeny, tiny bright pink soft coral crab that was clinging to some coral. Remarkably, this soft coral crab has the ability to mimic the spiny appearance of the coral it is on. How cool is that? I also saw my first Salvador Dali sponges - the name that Rantje gave to these previously unknown giant sponges that resemble a surreal Dali painting with their ornately swirly carvings. This is the only place in the world where these sponges exist. Other endemic species we saw were cigar sponges and a small fish known as a yellow blenny. And I probably swam by countless other endemic species without even realizing it. That is part of the reason why diving in Gorontalo is so thrilling.

The third dive was at a site called Honeycomb East, not too far from Traffic Circle. The big feature of this dive was a “swim through”, a hole in the reef that you can swim through. Even though you can see the other side from the entrance, I decided to swim around instead, since I haven’t been trained in overhead environments. Like Traffic Circle, there were numerous Salvador Dali and cigar sponges here. There were also Napoleon wrasse (some pretty big fish!) and beautifully colored clown triggerfish with black and white polka dots. A highlight of this dive was seeing a yellow pufferfish taking a nap in a coral crevice. So cute!

That night all of us divers (minus Yunis, but plus the American’s wife and her friend) went out to dinner at a Chinese place in town. Over bowls of delicious wantons and fried rice, we chatted about diving in Sulawesi and life in Gorontalo. The two Swedes came to Gorontalo after a week of live-aboard diving in the Lembah Straits in north Sulawesi. A week of diving, eating, and sleeping on a live-aboard boat sounds like heaven! I hope I get the chance to do that while I’m in Indonesia.

All in all, Sunday was the best day I’ve had in Gorontalo to date. Like I said, it was really a “pinch me I’m here” kind of day. I see Gorontalo in a whole new light now and feel supremely lucky to be living here. I finally understand why the people at the dive shop back in NJ were so envious of me moving to Sulawesi!


  1. It's great to have these "best day ever" kinds of experiences. Are you still walking on sunshine after this?

  2. Julianne,

    Happy Thanksgiving from a family member who is getting to know you more from afar than if you were close by.

    Cousin Lisa

  3. Thanks, Lisa! I'm so glad you're following my blog. Hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving.