Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Togean Islands

Last Wednesday, Alexa and Sarah came over for dinner and we attempted to plan out our remaining two months together in Gorontalo. We penciled in dates that we definitely want to dive in Gorontalo, the weekend Alexa and Sarah are going to Jakarta for the WORDS competition with their students, the weekend I’m meeting my ELF friends somewhere for our last hoorah, and so on. We quickly realized that time was running out for us to visit the Togean Islands, a cluster of remote and beautiful islands off the coast of Gorontalo that we had been wanting to visit since we first arrived. Knowing that Rantje didn’t have room on the boat for all three of us to dive in Gorontalo this weekend, we decided on the spur of the moment that this would be our chance to venture to the Togeans. And what a good decision that turned out to be – we had quite an adventure!

It all began Friday night on the 13-hour overnight ferry trip from Gorontalo to Wakai on the Tuna Tomini, where we picked up a few more travel partners before we boarded – Anna, the ETA in Manado, and Ed and Todd, two travelers Alexa had meet last month in Bali who also just happened to be heading to the Togeans this weekend. The six of us were slightly baffled by the different tickets for sale. “Economy class” guaranteed you a choice of a spot on the floor or a seat in a non-reclining chair. “Business class” got you a mattress on a communal sleeping stage. And then finally there was the promise of the ability to upgrade an economy class ticket to a cabin once you got onboard. Ed and Todd had been traveling on a lot of ferries and decided they were fine with the economy class tickets. Us girls decided we would upgrade to a cabin once we boarded. Well, it turned out that the “cabins” were actually the crew’s personal quarters but they were more than happy to rent them out to us bules to make some extra money. We hovered by the door as the crew members hurriedly packed up their clothes and vacated the room, phone chargers trailing behind them. Then we moved into the four bunk room that still had their sheets on the beds. Yes, this was a little bit sketchy, but we were happy we had a door that locked and AC.

The next morning, a speedboat from Black Marlin Dive Resort met us at the dock in Wakai and whisked us away. En route we stopped to pick up something from another dock where a man who was holding a barracuda in one hand and a dead chicken in the other shouted his “Hello, Mister!” greeting to us. It was a classic Indonesian image. As the speedboat continued on to the resort, we zoomed past beach after beach tucked away between the limestone cliffs and palm trees. At long last, one of the idyllic beaches came closer into view and we realized that this amazingly beautiful stretch of beach with simple bungalows and inviting yellow hammocks was where we were going to be staying. We had arrived.

The Togean Islands have long been a favorite of backpackers and divers and I have to say they certainly lived up to their reputation. We lounged on our porch chairs and marveled at how ridiculously beautiful it all was and asked ourselves how is it even possible that this is our life right now? It doesn’t even seem real. Black Marlin Dive Resort is on Kadidiri Island – a place that has exactly three waterfront places to stay and no roads, no cars, no Telkomsel cell phone reception and not even a village. Talk about getting away from it all!

The resort itself was pretty rustic. The electricity is only turned on in the evening hours. Fresh water has to be shipped in daily from elsewhere and only runs for a few hours every day – just enough time for you to fill up your mandi with water to shower and flush the toilet with. Oh, and don’t be surprised if you see a big crab walking around your bathroom while you’re sitting on the toilet. It’s all just part of the experience.

The diving was phenomenal, of course. Like diving in Gorontalo, the Togean Islands offer stunning visibility, lots of fish and large cetacean sightings! We saw a pod of dolphins from the boat on the second day as we entered the water at Mini Canyon and hoped they would swim over to us. They didn’t but we were still pleased with the large bumphead parrotfish, crocodile nose needlefish, scrawled filefish, tuna and large snappers we saw. Plus we loved swimming through the mini canyon at the beginning of the dive.

View from the dive boat:

Sarah and I also opted to do a night dive. I had been itching to do another one ever since my fantastic first experience on Bunaken. Rantje doesn’t regularly offer them in Gorontalo because of the difficulty of navigating the boat from the river to the open water at night with little light and many obstacles, but here at Black Marlin we were able to dive the house reef right in front of the resort. Oh, I love diving at night! You don’t go as deep as during the day so you can stay down longer. You also move more slowly and everything is calm and has a Zen-like feel to it. And the creatures! There were blue spotted stingrays out in the open, a cuttlefish, a small octopus, an eccentric decorator crab, a large free-swimming eel, blue spiny lobsters, ornate ghost pipefish, soft coral crabs, goatfish, starfish, and large freaky Star Wars-like spiky worms that retreated into crevices when you shined your light on them. When we surfaced after the dive, the first thing Donna, the instructor who was leading Sarah on this Adventure Dive, exclaimed was, “What a monster show!” The absolute highlight of the show was seeing two beautiful Spanish Dancers – large pink and red nudibranchs that bare an uncanny resemblance to the skirts of flamenco dancers as they gently swim from one resting spot to another. The ones we saw must have been over a foot long. They were stunning. Jeff, another instructor at the resort, said he’s been on over 1,000 dives and has yet to see a Spanish Dancer. And I saw two. And Sarah saw three – on her eighth dive ever.

The next morning we dived the house reef again and it was a completely different place in the daylight. The stingrays were hiding under the coral and the Spanish Dancers, the spiny lobsters and the freakish crabs and worms were nowhere to be seen. Instead we saw tiny Togean pigmy seahorses, coral shrimpfish, the wreck of a sunken Black Marlin wooden boat covered with nudibrachs and pipefish and, my personal favorite, a large purple/blue reef octopus that we watched for several exciting minutes.

It was a great weekend and we were all reluctant to leave. But since all good things must come to an end, we stocked up on local cuisine to go (corn, nasi goreng, and fried vegetable patties) at the harbor in Wakai and then settled in for the long 13-hour voyage back to Gorontalo. This time Sarah and I spent a good amount of time up on the upper deck, first watching the spectacular equatorial sunset (which happened in the blink of an eye) and then staying to chat about life, love and the great unknown future while lying on our backs watching the stars.


  1. Thanks from Sarah's mom . Beautiful photos too

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