The marine environment is perhaps even more complex. In the center of where life in the ocean is thought to have first begun, its reefs, nutrient-rich bays and wild ocean pinnacles are filled with corals and other invertebrate life of every description, unusual, exotic fish—like leaf fish, pipefish and scorpionfish of more varieties than most of us ever thought existed—and large pelagics.
We recently had the opportunity to explore what is considered Indonesia’s best diving area, in North Sulawesi. Located in the middle portion of the country’s sprawl of islands, Sulawesi is virtually due south of the Philippines, only a few hundred miles away; the center for diving there is the port city of Manado. From the area’s resorts, which include Kungkungan on Lembeh Strait, which has made “muck diving” famous (see the May 1999 issue of Skin Diver), there are many different dive sites that can be reached. We enjoyed a new opportunity, however, on a dive live-aboard, the Pelagian, which is now supplementing its normal Thailand itinerary by spending part of the year in Indonesia.
Dive Log: We have moved during the night. Dawn is one of those that covers the entire sky. High, wispy clouds are painted in rose hues from horizon to horizon. We are surrounded by dark, hilly islands that rise from the slick, flat ocean. Directly behind us is a perfect volcanic cone with evenly proportioned sides, its craggy, concave top spilling a long plume of smoke; a brooding, dark mass in the gentle pink sky.
The diving was varied, changing with each new dive site, but several distinct types were the most usual. Around the first groups of islands to the north of Sulawesi, those of Bunakan and Manado Tua, there were sheer walls that dropped from near the surface to a reported thousands of feet. Their faces were covered with soft corals, wire corals and gorgonian fans. There were a great number of tropicals and clouds of basslets and damsels, and on several dives, we saw Banded Sea Snakes that let us approach without concern.
Dive Log: The sun is already blazing as we slip into the smooth water near a jumble of rocks that emerges from the dark surface along the island’s tip. As we descend, we see large, upthrust peaks that reach up from the distant bottom. They move and shimmer in the mild current; they are completely covered by masses of orange and yellow soft corals, sponges, sea squirts, gorgonians and colorful anemones. I have never seen a place so colorful and so full of crowded life. If this was a painting, no one would find it believable; if it was an aquarium, it would be considered overdone...
Dive Log: We are anchored inside the island’s curve, just off a dark sand beach. The sky is deep, purple-black; the Milky Way is so visible and bright you can see its depth, as though it is a cylinder of bright dust suspended in the sky. Under the surface, it’s nearly the same. The water is full of organisms and phosphorescence flashes everywhere. Huge masses of Silversides glow and sparkle as they shift in the dark water. Squids are spread out in every direction, feeding in the rich soup. Across the sand bottom, there are trails from shells, and I see many lionfish, there, there and there again.
In the still bays where we spent the evenings, there were rich coral, grass and sand beds that began near the shore and extended out into deep water. They were very prolific breeding grounds for invertebrates and numerous bottom-dwelling fish, such as lionfish, pipefish— we found a pair of rare Leaf Pipefish on one dive—and many different puffers. They weren’t textbook dive sites; they just happened to be so full of life they were quietly spectacular.
Dive Log: At the dive site called Volcano, the water is clear and blue, despite the bubbles that rise through it like in some gigantic Jacuzzi. A yellow coating covers everything, sulfur coming up from deep in the earth. Where there is sand, we push our hands in until the temperature nears discomfort; this is weird—underwater, feeling heat flowing up through the bottom. Off the front side, it is an eerie scene constructed of black slabs and walls decorated here and there with huge, black coral bushes, pale in the deep blue.
Off Para and Manghetang Islands, there were seamounts that just reach the surface, rising up from the depths. Huge schools of fish swirled about in the constantly moving water; we saw barracuda, Horse-Eye Jacks, fusiliers and batfish in great numbers. Also near Manghetang, there was perhaps the most unusual seamount of all—a live volcano topped by basalt columns and sulfur-covered rock.
In the days of voyage, we passed by many islands, seamounts and pinnacles scattered over a vast area. We stopped at only a few, the ones that had been dived in the previous weeks by Pelagian’s crew or recommended by other dive operators in the area. Undoubtedly, we missed as many great dives as we made, and there’s little question that more and more sites will be discovered as Pelagian continues her expeditions. This huge, complex region, formed of fire and so filled with life, has scarcely been touched by underwater exploration—so many exotic surprises certainly await, just beyond the curved horizon.