The world is blessed by Indonesia.
More species of marine life than anywhere on earth, endless
numbers of active volcanoes, enchanting land and waterscapes,
an extraordinary seafaring history, bizarre jungle creatures,
dramatic and diverse religious culture an at least one surprise
for every dive. Meri and Gary Bell guide us on a journey
of unashamed luxury and indulge in the wealth of North Sulawesi's
ocean wilderness - and a bit of Bali too.
It stretches more than 5000km from
mainland Southeast Asia to Papua New Guinea. It comprises
almost 18.000 islands - depending on the tide! It is the
largest archipelagic nation in the world and unquestionably
one of the most beautiful. With lush tropical jungles, bright
green rice fields and steaming volcanoes dominating the
landscape, Indonesia is mesmerising.
perfect - split level shot of acropora coral reef and tropical
island at the Togian Islands, Indonesia.
The waters surroundings these islands
are the richest in the world, harbouring more than 3000
species of fish and several hundred species of coral. The
further one travels across the Pacific away from Indonesia
the fewer the species found. In fact, there are so many
species in Indonesian waters that naturalists cannot give
an exact figure on numbers as several new species are discovered
We began our one month exploration of Indonesia aboard the
Undersea Discovery live-aboard diving cruise ship, MV Cehili.
Cehili is very new and responsible for opening up diving
around some of the remote parts of Indonesia - in particular
for our journey, the Togian Islands.
Originally built in Norway, Cehili
is 45m of pure luxury and is superbly equipped to guarantee
the most pleasurable diving possible. Everything is available
for hire on board including Sunto diving computers, Nikonos
V and Sea & Sea MX cameras with flash and even an underwater
video camera with movie light. The many features of the
vessel include a spacious informal lounge and dining area,
a library/conference room, entertainment facilities, E6
processing and video editing facilities and two large sundecks.
Accommodation is in 10 huge air-conditioned cabins, each
with private bathroom facilities and a CD player! But best
of all, the cuisine is amazing, drawing in the finest of
both Asian and Western traditions.
It was the ultimate cruise. Everything was done for us -
even the rinsing off of our cameras after each dive!
The Togian Islands are situated in
the sheltered waters of North Sulawesi's Tomini Bay. To
our knowledge, we were the second official charter to these
pristine islands to which, until now, only a handful of
divers had been. Joining us on the cruise was Australian
marine naturalist Rudie Kuiter, and photographers Lance
and Lyn Adrian. Rudie's task was to record fish species
while conducting a marine fish survey of the islands.
Cehili cruised out of the port of
Bitung (near Manado) at lOpm and arrived early the next
morning at Cape Flesko, a remote part of the North Sulawesi
coast with secluded coves surrounded by rainforest jungle.
Local villagers in outrigger canoes greeted Cehili as she
dropped anchor, offering their fresh produce and handicrafts
Our diving took place right on the Equator with Cehili travelling
mostly during the night to allow us up to five dives a day.
Our first day diving along the coastal reefs was in relatively
shallow water with scattered bommies decorated with small
soft corals, blue tunicates and multicoloured feather stars.
The marine life was outstanding and we found many different
species of unusual shrimp living among the delicate life
on the rocks. But our most amazing find was during our last
dive about half an hour after the sun had gone down.
Meri and I peered into a small crevice
when suddenly a juvenile pinnate batfish (platax pinnatus)
popped right out in front of us. Its bright orange fringed
outline glowed like gold against an otherwise drab black
body. It was a rare find - a fish I had longed to photograph!
I motioned for Meri to shine the torch in the direction
of the fish so I could focus the lens. She did and, you
guessed it, the little guy disappeared without me getting
one picture. It was obviously in no mood for a burst of
artificial light. Naturally I did what every fish lover
for what seemed like hours...
just in case the batfish reappeared...
eventually, Meri's patience wore thin...
We were making our way back to the boat when there it was!
Not the batfish, a black featherstar spawning in all it's
glory. We couldn't believe our eyes, I had never before
watched a featherstar spawn. It was another rare find, we
felt very privileged.
In between dives we made a quick trip
ashore, where we were greeted by a village elder who offered
to take us on a guided tour of his fishing village. There
are no power lines or roads here. Apart from sea transport,
these people are completely isolated from the rest of the
world. It was interesting to see their simple lifestyle
and their very old ming china which was enough to whet the
appetite of any serious collector.
We spent the next five days exploring
the Togian Islands which were very different from the coastal
reefs. The water temperature was higher here and the visibility
much clearer, averaging around 28 degrees Celcius. Many
of the islands we visited were of coral origin surrounded
by magnificent fringing deep water reefs.
My personal all-time favourite was
Dondola, a tiny island, no larger than a football field
with a healthy cover of tall Casuarina trees. On one side
of the island we dived a sheer drop-off only 5m beneath
the surface, plunging to great depths. Decorating the many
overhangs and crevices were huge black coral trees with
soft corals, sponges and sea whips adding colour to the
wall. Like clusters of screaming trumpets, huge chimney
sponges reached out into the liquid blue - it was like a
dream, but true.
On the other side of the island there
was a magnificent coral lagoon that bathed a white sandy
beach. Here we snorkelled among some of the best Acropora
(staghorn) coral gardens I have ever seen. The fish life
in the lagoon was very good. I could have happily spent
the whole day there with my camera and a swag of film on
Jewas Sand Cay was another interesting
dive out in the middle of nowhere. All we needed here was
a large beach umbrella, two deck chairs and a fancy bottle
of champagne and we would have had the perfect postcard
setting. The reef at Jewas Cay slopes away very quickly
to a sandy bottom with huge barrel sponges and clusters
of chimney sponges dominating the terrain. What amazed us
most about this place were the numbers of tiny white holothurians
(sea cucumbers) crawling over orange elephant-ear sponges,
obviously feeding on the organic debris ensnared on their
tentacles. They were literally in their thousands! Similar
to these holothurians in size and appearance were numerous
white pipefish nestling among carpets of colourful christmas-tree
worms. We watched banded sea snakes search for prey in cabbage
coral and lionfish successfully hunt tiny translucent fish
in water which absolutely teemed with life.
The fish life around the Togians is
incredibly varied and we saw many species we had never spotted
before. Although we did sight dog-tooth tuna, mackerel and
the occasional shark, they were far from common. Cehili's
crew have since found sites at the Togians where manta rays,
sharks and other pelagics are regularly sighted.
Simply put, this cruise would have
to be one of the best we have ever done. Of course the fact
that there were only six passengers opposed to 22 crew,
helped considerably! Cehili is for the diver who wishes
to indulge. The service, the space, the facilities and the
above water activities make it an especially good option
for couples in which one partner does not dive or for divers
who wish to explore Indonesia's surface delights as well
as its seascape.
With the Togians behind us we continued
to explore North Sulawesi, basing ourselves at Manado and
Nusantara Diving Centre (NDC). Scenic mountains are the
perfect backdrop to the rich reefs of Manado Bay, famous
for its sheer walls and abundance of fish life. Four different
dive operators in Manado are presently catering for divers
who come from around the world to explore these virtually
NDC's Loky Hemberlang pioneered diving
in North Sulawesi and has devoted much time and effort to
promoting and preserving them. Loky's early dream to see
the Manado Bay reefs protected soon became a reality after
beginning a program of conservation among the local fishermen.
Finally, in 1989, the Federal Government recognized these
reefs as being of international value and declared the Bunaken-Manado
Tua and Arakan Wawontulap area's National Marine Parks -
a total of 89 065 hectares of reserve. In recognition of
Loky's dedicated conservation efforts, Indonesia's President
Soeharto awarded him the Kalpataru Environmental Award in
Although the Manado Bay reserves are
declared National Marine Parks, they are not yet fully protected.
Spearfishing is still practiced by the local villagers who
hunt the shallows with home-made spearguns while wearing
simple goggles made from coconut shell. They have been hunting
these reefs for generations and still depend on the sea
for their livelihood. However, the future of these reefs
looks promising as plans are under way for the Government
to teach the people new fishing skills, whereby they will
fish open waters for pelagic species.
One of our favourite dives off Manado
was at night at a place named Tanjung Pisok. The dive started
with a gentle slope that dropped sheer to a wall almost
completely covered with vibrant orange soft corals. Enormous
one metre basket stars hung everywhere, their intricate
lace-like arms cupped into circular dishes as they fed in
the plankton-rich water. We saw juvenile scorpionfish, decorator
crabs, banded coral shrimp, electric coloured blue-ribbon
eels (close relatives of the morays) and arrow crabs in
Manado is a bustling city of 50,000
people which may not appeal to everyone. But the hill country
of Minahasa, as the area around Manado is known, is definitely
worth exploring. A tour through this scenic area will reveal
many authentic traditional villages, Japanese WWII tunnels,
mountain lakes, smoking volcano craters and an ancient cemetery
with tombs dating back to the 14th century.
Minahasa also has a wide range of
habitats and is home to some of Sulawesi's most unusual
endemic species. One of these is the Tarsius, a carnivorous
monkey no larger than a guinea pig, with big goggling eyes
and a ferocious appetite for insects! We joined a special
rainforest excursion to see this most unusual primate.
On our way home we dived in Bali on
the reefs along the north-east coast. The dive we favoured
most here was the Liberty shipwreck at Tulamben which is
a favourite for every diver that visits Bali. Easy access
to the wreck and its abundant marine life have made it Indonesia's
most popular dive, attracting a regiment of divers every
day of the year. To avoid the crowds we checked in at Tulamben
and dived the wreck in the early morning and the late afternoon.
On January 11,1942, this Liberty class
WWII ship was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine while crossing
the Lombok Strait. She received extensive damage and was
being towed to Singaraja by two destroyers when it became
obvious that there was no hope. To save the vessel from
sinking the captain gave the order to run her up on the
beach at Tulamben, where she sat for 21 years. In 1963,
the nearby Gunung Agung volcano erupted and pushed the vessel
off the beach to her present resting place.
The shipwreck lies parallel to shore
on a steep sand slope only 30m from the beach with part
of the super-structure just four meters below the surface.
One side of the hulk is partially buried in the sand and
the other rests on the bottom in 29m.
The life on and around the wreck in
unbelievable! Tunicates, soft corals, gorgonians and encrusting
sponges cram every surface while more than 400 species of
reef fishes go about their business. What this dive lacks
in water clarity is certainly made up for in life - it's
everywhere. You name it; it's all there - even flashlightfish.
I even saw a huge sunfish being cleaned of parasites by
bannerfish at one of the wreck cleaning stations. In all
my years of diving, this was the first sunfish I had ever
But that's the thing about Indonesia;
you just never know what will turn up from one dive to the
Text: Meri & Gary Bell
Photography: Gary Bell