Thursday, February 25, 2010

Miguel's Diving Blog

I’m thrilled that our encounter with the whale shark got a brief mention on the blog for Miguel’s Diving! Check it out! It’s the post titled “What’s big and spotted and swims by slowly?”

You can also check out lots of other cool posts about diving in Gorontalo here. I recommend the post called “Facebook for Nemo” for its numerous high quality pictures on Facebook of the unusual undersea creatures in Gorontalo.

Someday I hope to get either a diving camera or a housing for my current camera and then I’ll be able to post my own pics. Sorry there’s no pictorial proof of the whale shark!

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Encounter with a Whale Shark!

Last weekend, Rantje and I spent two dives purposely looking for whale sharks and didn’t see any. But this weekend we were very lucky! We weren’t even expecting it and suddenly there it was.

After determining that I had only been to one site west of the river, Rantje took me to White Point today, a new site for the 2009-2010 dive season. I loved it right away - we descended over a vibrant reef of dazzling, tightly-packed corals that plunged dramatically to a steep coral wall. At the edge of the reef, I saw several large, colorful steephead parrotfish. Then we descended along the wall until we reached white point – a jetty of white sand sticking out from the wall. We hovered at around 20-25 meters looking at the big fish – tuna, deep sea snapper, and a school of bigeye trevally. Ranjte told me later that two big dogtooth tuna were swimming right by my fins! I didn’t notice them at all, but I did notice the whale shark!

At one point, while glancing towards Rantje, I saw something odd behind him. It looked striped and blurry, like when fish are pooping or stirring up sand. I kept looking at it wondering what it could be. Suddenly, I saw the unmistakable white dot pattern on the back of a very large fish. Whale shark! I had been looking into its mouth! Elated, I looked towards Rantje to see if he had noticed but he wasn’t showing the slightest bit of interest. He was looking down at the bottom. I screamed excitedly into my regulator to get his attention. When he finally looked up at me, I flailed my arms and pointed behind him. He turned around quickly and backed up, startled. He was only about a meter away from the whale shark! I was about two meters away and the huge shark was exactly at our depth level. We watched it glide by and then high-fived each other underwater.

Continuing the dive, we also saw blue headed tilefish that are endemic to Indonesia, rings of yellow nudibranch eggs, numerous Salvador Dali sponges, emperor snapper, black and white convict blenny, stem anemone, coral cod, foxtail colonial tunicates, egg cowries eating leather coral, and much, much more. What a way to mark my 30th dive!

For those of you who don’t know, whale sharks are completely harmless plankton feeders. So, even though I encountered the biggest shark there is, I wasn’t in any danger. I just leaned back and marveled at the sight. It was one big fish! When I surfaced, I excitedly told Yunis what we had seen. He asked how big it was and I estimated that it was about the length of the benches inside the boat. He guessed that meant 6 or 7 meters. When Rantje came onboard, I asked his opinion and he also said 7 meters. So there you go, I came within 2 meters of a 7 meter whale shark! It was exhilarating.

After the dive, we spent our surface interval at a small cove called Hidden Beach. It was breathtakingly beautiful – emerald water, limestone cliffs and towering palm trees. The beach was deserted except for a couple of traditional wooden fishing boats, a small hut and a lone fisherman. We all hopped out of the boat and went ashore. The place was alive with the buzz of cicadas and large birds swooping from tree to tree. Ranjte said that they often see large hairy hogs and water monitor lizards here as well. Sure enough, Yunis called out that he had spotted a monitor lizard at the far end of the beach. Unfortunately, it was too far away for me to see. This is the same type of creature that Sarah and Alexa unexpectedly found in their house several weeks ago! It is also directly related to the Komodo dragon.

The second dive of the day was at Three Corners with Yunis. We were on a quest to find Denise pygmy seahorses. And of course, being the expert he is, Yunis found several of them on two different sea fans. The day before I had seen two common seahorses at a site Rantje playfully called "Julianne's Sand Box" because we didn't actually reach our goal of Deserted Castle. They were about 20 centimeters long. By contrast, these Denise pygmy seahorses were only about 15 mm!! They were so tiny and they blended right in with the pink coral fans they had wrapped their tails around. Macro underwater photographers travel great distances to see these tiny treasures and here they are in my backyard. In one day I saw the biggest and one of the smallest sought-after creatures of the sea. How lucky can one girl get? And did I mention that this was another private charter just for me? I wonder what my next dive will bring!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

"Going Around the World with Culture"

For one night only, my students ditched their jilbabs, conservative clothing and university jackets to model different fashions from around the world at UNG’s second annual cultural show, which marked the culmination of a semester of CCU classes. My co-teacher, who taught the final 8 weeks of Cross Cultural Understanding, supervised the production of this magnificent all-day event. The first part of the day was filled with a lunchtime sampling of international foods from Indonesia, America, Korea, Japan, India and Saudi Arabia while the second part of the day consisted of wonderfully choreographed and costumed song and dance numbers. I was invited to watch the performances and was even given my own costume for the night – a traditional Gorontalese wedding dress!

A real highlight for me was seeing some of my most conservative students break out into a choreographed hip-hop routine to the Black Eyed Peas’ song Boom Boom Pow. It was a fun surprise to see Mary, a shy, jilbab wearing girl who sweetly smiles at me in class, suddenly standing on stage in a tracksuit, wearing a sideways twisted baseball cap and a hardened “don’t mess with me” look on her face. There were also some great martial arts displays by students dressed as Japanese ninjas. They did a couple of very technical numbers and then, in the middle of one number, the music suddenly changed to that old 80s one-hit-wonder, “Hey Mickey”, and the ninjas started pirouetting and doing other flouncy, girly dances. It was great!

Here's a picture of me with the "Indonesia" food group. Notice how most are wearing their batik!

And here's a picture of me in my Gorontalese wedding dress. To my right are students modeling other wedding dresses from Java, Sumatra and South Sulawesi.

Post-show, my ninjas struck a pose just for me!

It was a really fun night. I may have been horrified by my CCU students’ writing skills, but they are wonderful, funny, and kind people and I really look forward to having them for another semester. Plus, I’ll have them for Writing III, so I plan to set a few things straight!

Monday, February 15, 2010

Diving Gorontalo’s Hidden Paradise

If you’re a diver, Gorontalo is the perfect place for a “staycation”. I just spent the past three days diving at some of the most spectacular sites in the world and I spent each night in my own bed. To top it off, I had a private charter all three days. That’s right, it was just me, Rantje, and the crew on the dive boat. I had my choice of dive sites and the undivided attention of the divemaster. Can it get any better than this?! I am truly living the dream.

We spent two dives on two different days looking for whale sharks – the biggest fish in the sea. Rantje said they’re often found off the point at Swirling Steps at this time of the month because they feed on the tiny minnows that swim up the river right before the new moon. Also, Gorontalo’s unusual topography means that the water depth plunges to about 4 km just meters from the shore. Our chances of a sighting being good, we spent a great deal of time hovering around 16 meters in open ocean hoping to catch a glimpse of one of these behemoths. The thought that one might emerge from the blue at any moment was thrilling. In the end, we didn’t see any but we did see lots of tuna, a hawksbill turtle, and even more intriguing, tiny electric blue plankton that twinkled on and off. As a final touch, we saw a rare Venus’s girdle – a ribbon-shaped comb jelly – as we surfaced after the second dive.

Two dives were wall/reef dives. At Kurenai Beach I went diving with Yunis, Rantje’s local assistant and renowned expert in finding the very small stuff. Right away, he pointed out an orangutan crab, which really does look like a hairy, orangy-reddish orangutan, on a piece of bubble coral. He also showed me many other types of small crabs, shrimp and nudibranch. During the safety stop on our ascent it was my turn to point out something to him. He was facing me and as I looked towards the open ocean behind him, I saw the huge, sleek, unmistakable silhouette of a barracuda glide right by! The other dive, at Traffic Jam, was with Rantje. Traffic Jam is so named because there are so many large schools of fish that congregate here. I can’t even identify them all, but the experience of seeing so many swirling schools of fish in one place was utterly magical. I followed Rantje’s lead and just fluttered my fingers in front of me as the fish gracefully dipped, curved, disappeared and reappeared.

And finally, two dives were muck diving. It doesn’t sound very promising, does it? Compared to the mysterious blue of the open ocean with its promise of large pelagics or the colorful displays of coral walls and reef fish, who would want to go explore a sandy bottom littered with old tires, shoes and other debris? But this is precisely where some of the most unusual and bizarre critters live and I was instantly hooked after my first muck dive at Mystic Point.

It was here that I saw my first pair of Harlequin ghost pipefish, an odd spiny leafy fish somewhat related to seahorses. I also saw schools of juvenile stripped catfish that wiggle over the sandy bottom in a mass that resembles a small dark ball. In addition, there were tons of shrimp, lionfish, and even a couple of fanciful juvenile many spotted sweetlips. Near the end of the dive, not very far from the boat, I saw Yunis suddenly give me the hand signal for “danger”. He did this repeatedly and even added in the “out of air” hand signal, which is pretty much the same as the general symbol for slitting one’s throat. Startled, I looked down at the white mass on a rock he was gesturing at. It looked like an innocuous collection of little white flowers, but it turned out to be the extremely venomous and lethal flower urchin. Back on board, Rantje told me that this urchin is probably the most deadly thing in the local waters, followed by the poisonous blue-ringed octopus. He said that if I had brushed against it, I would have been dead before they could have even pulled me from the water – a very sobering thought indeed.

However, fear of flower urchins did not stop me from requesting another muck dive the next day. This time we went to Sandcastle, which is not far from Molotabu Beach, where I have been snorkeling a couple of times. What a treasure trove of delights this site was! The bottom was strewn with patches of anemone guarded by aggressively territorial black and white clownfish. They had no fear and sometimes came right up to my mask to see who the big intruder was. Underneath the anemone were porcelain crabs, commensal shrimp and anemone eggs. The sandy basin was also home to countless shrimpgobies, who balance on their front fins while standing guard over the burrows they share with some rather large shrimp. When threatened, both the gobies and the shrimp retreat in a flash to their burrows. Yunis also pointed out the first frogfish I’ve ever seen. It was the cutest little thing with a black body and orange spots. A real highlight of this dive was finding, on my own, my first white-eyed moray eel nestled in an old tire! We also saw a cuttlefish that changed colors right in front of us as it swam away, a flounder, more Harlequin ghost pipefish, more lionfish, a fingered dragonet, sand dollars, brittle sea stars, nudibranch, and various urchins - not the flower urchin, though!

It never fails to amaze me that I actually live in this remarkable place and have such easy access to fantastic diving that remains too remote and inaccessible for many other divers. It’s mine and I feel very privileged.