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.


  1. Just reading this phrase "the water depth plunges to about 4 km just meters from the shore" gave me a thrill of danger, which was soon outdone by your description of the flower urchins. Such an innocuous name, like sweet beggar children selling roses in Dickens' London or hippie kids playing in 1960s San Francisco.

    What an incredible dive. Even without photos, the evocative names and your account really make this all vivid.

  2. Good for you! So great to hear that one of my friends is actually "living the dream". :)

  3. I was glad to read about some things that I have seen though not in nearly such a cool location. Atlanta aquarium has whale sharks, cuttlefish, clown fish and anemones, moray eels (though I don't remember the color of their eyes). We used to take Lucy there every week so she has seen them too.

  4. Teena, maybe Lucy will grow up to be a diver someday!! Sounds like she has a good head start already.

  5. Lucy loves to swim too! It will be very exciting to see what she wants to do with her life when she grows up... I remember you always wanted to be a marine biologist. Now you just get to be in the ocean without all of the tedious data-collection!