Thursday, May 20, 2010

End of Dive Season

There are many diving destinations in Indonesia, but there’s something extraordinarily special about diving in Gorontalo. The marine life here is amazing, for sure, but what keeps me coming back is the contagious smile and boundless enthusiasm of Rantje, the American divemaster who runs Miguel’s Diving - not to mention his extensive knowledge of the marine environment and insights into the culture and customs of the Gorontalese. And who can resist the shy smiles of Rantje’s two assistants, Yunis and Undeng? A day out on the water with this crew is practically guaranteed to be a good time.

I’ve already blogged about many amazing things that have happened to me while diving in Gorontalo this season. You’ve heard all about my encounters with whale sharks, my first wreck dive and my experience posing as an underwater model. But there are many other extraordinary moments that are also worthy of mention. Here are a few that I haven’t written about yet.

The day the clouds touched the sea: One afternoon after climbing back on board after the third dive of the day at West Point, Rantje pointed out to me how the clouds were so low on the horizon that they seemed to be touching the sea. He explained that this happens because we’re so close to the equator. The effect made it look like icebergs existed in tropical Tomini Bay.

Tomini Bay "icebergs"

The day I became the first woman ever to swim through the tunnel at Chimneys: Rantje took Anna and me out to Chimneys one day. It was the first time he had been there in about a year because it’s farther away than most of the other sites and, to save fuel, requires a flat sea and a light boat to get there. The underwater landscape here is fantastic with tall chimneys lined with white sea fans and split-level caves and tunnels. Rantje swam through a tunnel and then beckoned for the two of us to follow him. I went first and then Anna followed. After the dive he informed us that we were the first two women to ever swim through that tunnel.

The day I snorkeled with a wall of shipjack tuna: Rantje and I were getting ready to dive the Japanese Cargo Wreck when we noticed a disturbance at the surface of the water. Tuna were jumping out of the water left and right. We quickly donned our masks and fins and jumped overboard to see if anything big was also in the water. What we encountered was a solid WALL of shipjack tuna.

Being able to dive so often here has truly transformed my fellowship year. Any frustrations I felt about power outages, rats in my house, plagiarizing students or language barriers quickly disappeared when I got on the dive boat. The fresh breeze on my face, the laughter and jokes on the boat, and the wonderful anticipation about the days’ dives always worked wonders to lift my spirits. I’ve been blessed with so many unforgettable memories this year thanks to Rantje and his crew. Last weekend was the very last weekend of diving in Gorontalo this season and Sarah, Alexa and I tried hard not to cry as we put on our fins and backrolled into the crystal clear water for the last time this year. None of us wanted this to ever end but the weather will turn soon, causing swells of up to five meters to crash into the limestone cliffs for the next six months.

Last surface interval at Hidden Beach with Rantje, Alexa and Sarah

The end of the Gorontalo dive season also signals the beginning of the end of my fellowship. Rantje has already returned to the US for the off-season, Sarah and Alexa will be leaving Limboto next week, and I have exactly four more weeks of classes left at UNG. Four weeks. That’s it. Then I’ll submit my final grades, pack up my worldly possessions, and also say farewell to Gorontalo. Well, for now. I’ll be back next dive season for sure!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

WWII B24 Bomber Wreck Dive

On May 3, 1945, the engine of an American B24 bomber plane caught fire somewhere off the coast of the Togean Islands. Knowing the islands were covered with forests and rough terrain, the crew decided to ditch the plane in the water rather than parachute down to land. Bracing themselves for a crash water landing, they jettisoned everything they possibly could from the plane – ammunition, guns, all loose equipment that might cause injury and even the pilot and co-pilot’s windows. The plane hit the water, skidded about 50 yards and then came to a standstill.

The crew quickly escaped through the windows and jumped into life rafts they had salvaged from the water and inflated. Miraculously, all eleven crew members survived with only minor lacerations and bruises. They were rescued an hour and a half after ditching the plane, which eventually sank to the ocean floor.

Sixty-five years after that fateful day, the plane lies almost completely intact off Kadidiri Island in about 15-25 meters of water. Anna, Alexa and I had heard about this wreck during our first trip to the Togean Islands last month and returned this past weekend with the sole purpose of diving it.

We teamed up with five other divers to charter a boat out to the wreck site. Since it is farther away from the dive resort than the other sites, we had to pay a boat fee to cover the cost of the extra fuel. After locating the wreck with his GPS, our divemaster descended first to hook a safety sausage to the plane so we could follow a reference line in buddy teams. Visibility here was only 10-15 meters, which added a sense of mystery to the dive.

As long as we stayed in our buddy teams, we were free to explore the wreck at will. I relished the sense of freedom I felt swimming under and over the left wing and peering into windows with my flashlight. I followed my fancy and swam right up the plane from the tail to the cockpit, where I noticed a pair of lionfish hovering over the seats as if they had taken over the role of pilot and co-pilot. The rest of the wreck was alive with sponges, anemone, clownfish, angelfish, butterflyfish, trevally, coral cod and more. After spending a good 45 minutes exploring the wreck, we reluctantly bid it farewell and swam into shallower waters above the reef for our safety stop.

Anna, Alexa and I post dive - mission accomplished!

Monday, May 3, 2010

Surface Interval Language Lessons

A couple of weekends ago there was a day when Rantje wasn’t able to come out on the boat and I was the only diver who had booked. So, I went out by myself with Yunis and Undeng. I was a bit apprehensive about this because I thought there would be a language barrier. They don’t speak much English and I certainly don’t speak much Indonesian. Rantje told me not to worry and waved us off as the boat pulled away from the dock.

I sat by myself in the middle of the boat staring forlornly at the floor, missing Rantje and all of my other diving buddies. Then Yunis came over and sat next to me. By way of a conversation starter, he pointed to various objects in the boat and started naming them – mask, tank, trash can, etc. I caught on quickly and practiced these new words with Yunis the rest of the way to the dive site.

After the dive we came back on board for our surface interval. Usually, Undeng and Yunis disappear with the boat captain leaving Rantje and his divers alone to talk about the dive, snack, sleep or whatever. But the fact that I had no one else to talk to coupled with the fact that the boat was anchored off shore, conspired to help turn the ordinary surface interval into an extraordinary language lesson.

It turns out that Yunis and Undeng know just about as much English as I know Bahasa, maybe even a little more. This worked out perfectly because we could teach each other new words simultaneously. There was a lot of guessing, gesturing and confused faces involved, but by the end of the day, I could say the following random sentences with confidence:

Di mana tempat sampah?

Where's the trash can?

Saya mau pindah karena matahari panas sekali.

I want to move because the sun is very hot.

Sarah bisa bahasa Gorontalo karena dia bicara dengan muridnya.

Sarah can speak Gorontalese because she speaks with her students.

Saya tidak mau naik bentor ke Manado. Saya mau naik mobil atau pesawat udara.

I don't want to take a bentor to Manado. I want to take a car or a plane.

I was very excited about my language lesson with Yunis and Undeng, but the next day the boat was filled with guests from Japan so there was no time or space for a language lesson. The following weekend was the big ELF/ETA weekend when Mark, Jimmie and Anna were in town. Like I mentioned before, there were so many of us renting equipment that we had to stagger the dives. When they did their first dive on Saturday, I snorkeled (and saw a turtle!) When they did their second dive, I stayed on the boat for another language lesson with my two new favorite teachers. Here's a sampling of sentences I learned after my second lesson:

Saya barusan lihat banyak ikan.

I just saw a lot of fish.

Saya barusan lihat penyu.

I just saw a turtle.

Saya sudah lihat ikan hiu paus dua kali dalam Gorontalo.

I've already seen whale sharks twice in Gorontalo.

Saya lihat ikan hiu paus dua bulan yang lalu.

I saw a whale shark two months ago.

Empat bulan lagi saya pindah ke Yogyakarta.

In four months, I'm moving to Yogyakarta.

Empat bulan lagi saya pindah ke Yogyakarta tapi saya kembali ke Gorontalo karena diving di sini bagus sekali!

In four months, I'm moving to Yogyakarta, but I'll come back to Gorontalo because the diving here is very good!

Yunis predicted that if I take language lessons every day for a month, I'll be fluent in no time. As you know, I've really been lacking the motivation to learn Bahasa, but these surface interval language lessons have been a turning point. I really like having Yunis and Undeng as my teachers and we even talked about the possibility of us meeting up once or twice a week after the dive season is over to continue our language lessons. We'll see if that actually happens. I hope so!

Undeng and Yunis

Millions of Fish!

My personal record for the most fish seen on one dive was established last week at Traffic Circle. Even Yunis, Rantje’s seasoned dive guide, was impressed and that’s saying a lot because he dives practically every day in these waters during the dive season.

It all started when we descended into a brown cloud that was actually a school of Bennett’s tobies. Bennett’s tobies are small pufferfish that you probably wouldn’t even notice much on a typical dive. However, once or twice a year in Gorontalo their population suddenly explodes leaving the reefs covered with millions of them. They swam by in a constant stream. And when I say constant I mean it - we were underwater for nearly an hour and the stream never stopped. At one point I turned back to look at the reef behind me and it was literally covered with a living brown blanket. Every once in a while I would follow a slow moving toby to get a good look at the tiny electric blue stripes radiating from its eyes. It was pretty cool.

Going deeper, I was staring out into the blue looking at the snapper, tuna and TONS of schooling fish when all of the sudden four big forms appeared before me and I saw a flash of sharp teeth. Trevally! They were so close they were practically in my face. I thought maybe they were giant trevally because they seemed so big but Yunis thought they were big-eye trevally. Regardless, they were big and they were close. They took a quick look at me and then disappeared back into the blue almost before I had a chance to register the whole encounter.

A little while later Yunis pointed out a Napoleon wrasse. Watching it swim along the reef, I turned my head to the left and there was a bumphead parrotfish! Bumphead parrotfish are the largest of all the parrotfish and can grow to nearly a meter and a half in length. They are also distinguished by the prominent bumps on their heads. This one was only the second one I had ever seen in Gorontalo but what made the encounter even more remarkable was the fact that the parrotfish seemed to be following us! We first saw it mid-dive and then it stayed with us most of the way back to the boat. How extraordinary! It must have somehow sensed I was missing my diving buddies. Because there were so many of us diving and only a limited amount of gear available to rent, we staggered our dives on Saturday. Sarah, Jimmie, Anna, Mark and Joe did two dives with Rantje while I dived with Yunis during their surface interval. Having the bumphead parrotfish tag along made up for the fact that I couldn’t dive with my friends that day.

Gorontalo Diving Buddies

Diving is a fun sport and a big part of the fun is being able to share the magical experience with friends. A week ago we managed to get a good group of divers back together in Gorontalo for a big hoorah before the Gorontalo dive season and our grants come to an end. Mark and Jimmie flew up from Makassar and Anna made the long overland journey down from Manado to meet up with Sarah, Alexa and me. Unfortunately, Alexa was sick and wasn’t able to dive with us. However, she was replaced by an expat named Joe from Jakarta who joined us for a day. He had never dived in Gorontalo before and had only tacked on one day of diving here after a business trip. But he loved it instantly and Rantje is sure he’ll be back next season!

Miguel's Diving Fan Club