Friday, April 06, 2007

Mucking Diving Heaven

Written by Lynn

Indonesia is made up of over 17,000 islands and stretches almost 5000 kilometres from one tip of the archiepeligo to the other. In total Indonesia has over 80,000 kilometres of coast line, which is equal to about 1/3 of the world's circumference. Off the coasts of the Indonesian islands the warm waters of the Pacific and Indian Ocean converge, creating a vast melting pot of marine life feeding on the nutrients carried in by these warm waters. In the seas surrounding the islands, over 1220 species of fish and a staggering 600 species of coral (there are only 400 types found in the enormous Great Barrier Reef) thrive, making this section of the Western Pacific the richest marine habitat on earth.

I decided to go up to Manado in Northern Sulawesi to go diving on the advice of some avid divers I met at the Canadian Embassy in Jakarta. This area is home to the world reknowned Bunaken Marine Park as well as the fairly recently discovered, and much lauded, Lembeh Straits. There are over 120 dive sites in this area, including 40 wreck dives, the majority of them less than 30 minutes from shore.

Bunaken is best known for its unbelievable wall diving. These steep, pristine coral walls start less than 3 feet below the surface and plummet down for up to 150 feet, covered with a huge variety of coral and inhabited by countless species of marine life. The bulk to Colin's right (my dive partner for the week) is the coral wall, and the spots to his left are just a fraction of the fish you can see. You slide out of the boat and descend and can spend an hour just going up and down over a small area peering into crevasses and under bits of coral. There are literally millions of animals to be seen here, and you would have to be blind to not appreciate the unparalelled beauty of these reefs.

Lembeh, on the other hand, has been dubbed the muck diving capital of the world. Lembeh Straits are found right by the very active port of the city, Bitung, in Kungkunan Bay. The port itself is full of boats with oily deisel films floating on the water around them and people randomly throwing garbage into the bay. Doesn't sound very attractive I know. It is true that muck diving involves slowly swimming over black, apparently lifeless sand, with your head pointed downwards and you legs way up above you (an ass over tea kettle type position). This is an attempt to keep your fins from touching the bottom and stirring up silt which obstructs your view. Your nose in about 6 inches from the bottom, and your eyes are tired from the strain of staring and not blinking enough. Occasionally you'll see a plastic bag, or peice of shoe leather bob by, and the floor of the ocean has half buried coke bottles and juice containers all over the place. Really makes you wonder why there is such a hue and cry about this place. Believe me, I wondered when I first got in. But if you move really slowly, and really pay attention, what you find is an underwater Lilliput.

Lembeh Strait is the Holy Grail for underwater macro photographers and marine biologists. It seems to be the drop off spot for all the strange and ugly under water denizens that the gods just didn't want to put in the beautiful coral reefs for fear of spoiling the ambience. New species are being discovered here all the time. Now I'm a fairly inexperienced diver, so just getting underwater and seeing something as common as a sea anemone with its protective herd clown fishes (these little buggers will actually take a run at you and nip you on the finger if you are so foolish as to put one out there) is pretty cool to me. Lembeh Straits tends to draw in the really experienced divers who have become blase about the oh-so-easy to see parrot fishes and groupers that occupy most tropical reefs. Here, on the other hand, you get to see species most divers will only get a glimpse of in glossy diving magazines, as one new and exotic creature after another casually swims by you. We saw, in the 3 dives I was there, multiple frog fish (hairy little creatures that walk along the bottom rather than swim), mothfish (that look like birds flying through the water), pygmy seahorses (about the size of my baby fingernail), ghost pipefishes, nudibranches by the dozens (like technicolour sea slugs), decorator crabs, mimic octopuses and many, many fish I can't begin to describe as I have no idea what they were. It is a veritable critter safari that was probably a little wasted me as I had no idea how lucky I was to see these animals. That is, until we got out of the water and the other people on the boat started to RAVE about all the things we saw. The other three divers had a lot more experience than me, being rated as dive masters, two levels above my lowly open water PADI licence. The vast variety of marine life, combined with the shallow waters leads to very long dives (we had one that was almost 78 minutes, which is an incredibly long time to be under) and is well worth the trip.

BUT, not to be a spoil sport (because Lembeh was incredible), I'm more of a fan of the ostentatious, in your face, beauty of the Bunaken Islands. I'm still enough of a new comer to the underwater world to be wowwed by the sea turtles, moray eels, black tipped reef sharks and enormous groupers that I saw. On my last day there I rented an underwater camera to try and capture just a bit of the experience, though I have to apologize for the poor quality of the shots as there was no flash on it. On the bright side, the many, many blurry shots of coral and fish I took were edited out.

When I got to Manado I booked in with Thalassen Divers to take me out on my dives. These guys are great. They are very professional and safe, and do EVERYTHING for you, including loading up all your gear on the boat every day and rinsing it all off at night. Because it had been a while since I last dived, they assigned a dive instructor to me to do a free refresher course and to go on my first dive with me. For the following 3 dives I always had a guide assigned just to me, which not only made me feel much safer, but was great because he was able to point out all sorts of bizarre things I would have missed otherwise. The boats were generally empty as it was low season, usually just one or two other divers, the guides and a few helpers. Once we got to release a sea turtle that had been bought off a local fisherman to save it from being eaten (a highly illegal, yet common practice in the area).

Rather than stay at the expensive hotel associated with Thalassen, I got a room in a guest house in the village of Buhawo only a few kilometres away. Buhawo Guest House is run by a couple of expats from the UK, Phil and Paula. Its situated in a small village of only about 400 people. Phil and Paula have done a tremendous amount of philanthropic work here, helping to raise funds to expand and improve the local school and have recently completed building a medical clinic. Out of their own pockets they will be paying to have one of the local women go to school to become a nurse, who will then staff the clinic daily, a doctor only being available 1 to 2 days a week. It seems all the expats in the area are doing their part, not only by providing jobs for the locals, but also in other more obvious ways. Thalassen, which is run by a Danish woman, is presently building a highschool for the children of the four local villages, so that they won't have to take the 45 minute bus ride into Manado every day. As Phil put it, "You don't come here with the thought in mind that you want to do all this, but when you get here and realize just how much of a difference you can make to these people's lives with so little effort, how could you not............."

Anyways, it was quite a trip, both relaxing and exciting at the same time. While here I got to do 10 dives, 4 of them muck dives, ate some great food, got to visit the local school and meet some of the kids and even went out the the building site of the new high school. I also went out to a local Indonesian bar, that appears to have been made out of cardboard and two-by-fours (apparently it burned down last year and was rebuilt, looking exactly the same, with in a week). At these bars individual girls are assigned to each table to encourage you to drink, fetch your beer and dance with you (whether you're a girl or a boy) as Indonesians always dance in pairs, the dance floor being covered with two long lines of people facing each other, and god forbid you ever stray from the lines. Your girl will immediately shepard you back in. This was off set the same night by visiting an upscale night club that had a huge dance floor with strobe lights and dry ice being pumped onto it, a live band complete with 4 back up girls singing and dancing behind them and expensive blended drinks rather than cheap shared bottles of beer. BUT.............still those 2 lines of dancers!

From here I went back to Jakarta to spend a few days with "just the girls". Harkiran, Tika and I hung out by the pool, did a bit of shopping and generally relaxed prior to meeting back up with the boys. Harkiran was flying to Ha Noi, Vietnam, where Tod and five of their friends were. I was heading to Kuala Lumpur to find Gilles, hidden somewhere in the streets of Chinatown

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