A Tropical Sanctuary on Una-Una

The Togian Islands are probably the most out-of-the-way destination of our trip so far. Tucked into the huge gulf formed by the northern arm of Sulawesi, this Indonesian equatorial archipelago is only accessible by boat from a couple towns that are already far-flung themselves. We weren’t by any means certain it would be worthwhile to go here: a quick Google search will show the islands are indeed quite beautiful, but so is much of the Indonesian coast; and we had heard mixed things about the quality of the diving there. Would the experience make up for the trials of traveling via public vans, tuk-tuks, local ‘airlines’, and overnight ferries? The short answer is, yes indeed!

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Wakai – the Togian Islands

We began this leg in the northeastern Sulawesi town of Tomohon, where we closed out our visit by finding more delicious ragey (fatty pork sate – we hadn’t had pork in a while, with much of Indonesia being primarily Muslim!). We worked our way to Manado’s airport on a combination of minibus and mikrolets – these are small blue hop-on hop-off vans which make up 99% of non-scooter traffic in this region of Sulawesi. We then took a short flight over to Gorontalo, skipping a 10-hour bus ride by paying $24 each rather than $12 (woo-hoo!). We parked ourselves in this nondescript port town for 36 hours, awaiting the ferry for our next leg.

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driving a mikrolet, it’s common practice to keep cash piled in the dashboard for quick change

The “Tuna Tomini” ferry that sails between Gorontalo and Wakai in the Togeans offers a range of accommodation from open deck free-for-all (see this post for more on this Indonesian seagoing standard) to small bunk-bed cabins with AC. These are actually 4-bunk crew cabins that they rent out to tourists in an unofficial manner. They run 600-700k (~$50), quite steep compared to normal costs here in Indonesia, and they aren’t exactly posh! But having been on similar vessels before we were loathe to spend 13 hours in the heat, smoke, and noise of the cramped common areas. The best scenario would be to share the 4 bunks with another couple travelers but we didn’t know how to find anyone, nor did we know how to actually secure a cabin. Happily, both of these problems were solved simultaneously by asking at the hotel front desk: she knew a guy who arranged cabin bookings, and a Swiss couple passing by heard the discussion and said they were also looking for passage. Five minutes later the go-between shows up, sends a text to his buddies on the boat, and tells us there is one cabin left. Cash is exchanged for nothing but an assurance (this is typical) and the transaction is complete!

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we made friends with a guy at the post office who, finding the supply of postcards in Gorontalo to be lacking, decided to make his own.

Our overnight ferry voyage was uneventful; we and our new Swiss friends were quite happy to have a small room. The common areas were indeed hot, smoky, noisy, and busy with both locals and less-fortunate tourists (of which there were many!). The bunks were tiny, but we actually slept fairly well and awoke to the sunrise as we arrived in Wakai.

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ferry cabin! we were obligated to accept the American sheets.
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outriggers in Wakai’s harbor

The final leg of our trip would be by a small boat out to our island of choice. For many travelers this is Kadidiri which is close to Wakai and has several dive resorts and homestays. We almost went there ourselves, but while considering our options a couple days previously we had decided instead to make for Una-Una. Una-Una is an active volcanic island that sits apart from the Togian chain and is remote even by local standards, with few inhabitants or connecting boats. So why go there? For the diving: unlike the other islands, Una-Una has not been commercially fished, which sadly in Indonesia commonly included dynamite and cyanide fishing in the not-too-distant past (which as you can imagine is not so good for reefs). So for Sanctum Resort on Una-Una we were bound. After some in-port confusion due to the surprisingly large group of seven of us who had made the same choice, we were packed into a small fiberglass boat for the 90 minute ride. This 5-meter vessel was close to meeting its match on the 1.5 meter swells in the open channel crossing and we were all soon soaking wet. The low, wide silhouette of Una-Una was painfully slow in changing from a hazy blue-green to distinct lush jungle and sand as we wallowed and splashed across, but finally we arrived, shot through a gap in the reef, and beached in front of Sanctum.

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Sanctum’s pier, boats, and one of the friendly resident mutts.

Our soggy arrival was quickly righted by a warm welcome, warm shower (geothermal!), and hot coffee. Being greeted by two cute puppies Gula and Madu (Sugar and Honey) also helped, and this pair entertained us endlessly during our stay with their playful and friendly nature. What a place to be a puppy – an expansive beach, grass and jungle, friendly people, the occasional fish to gnaw on… Anyway we were quite comfortable here ourselves with a simple airy room, hammocks everywhere, a nice open area for meals and hanging out, and a great view along the empty tropical beach.

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Gula and Madu playing on the beach

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Despite its distant location Sanctum was quite busy with fellow travelers and we made some good friends from Paris, Amsterdam, and Barcelona. The energetic dive staff also hailed from all over – Finland, Israel, France, and one instructor from Colorado. Family meals were a happy busy mix of guests and staff and were followed by lively games of cards and dice. It was a great group to hang out with and a wonderful place to relax! The food was simple – to be expected given where we were – but well done, with tasty vegetables, occasional fish or chicken, and fiery homemade sambal. One dinner we were all treated to some trevally sashimi by one of the guests who free dives with a speargun, and who also apparently travels with soy sauce and wasabi. It was served on a baking sheet and was incredibly delicious.

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Gula and Gregor both tired after a busy day
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life is tough here on Una-Una.

So we ate, made some friends, played cards and read, cuddled the puppies and watched the moonrise on the beach – all in between some great diving! The out-of-this-world experience that was Komodo remains unmatched, but Una-Una gave us some great sights and highlights that we were more than happy to have made the trip for. With the furthest sites merely 20 minutes away by boat (most much closer), going out for a dive was a breeze; and with absolutely nobody else around, each location was all ours to explore. We checked out underwater pinnacles decorated artfully with huge sponges and fans; drifted along reef walls and slopes; and hunted around in the ‘muck’ (sand/mud/grasses etc) for weird critters. We swam alongside big dogtooth tuna and banded Spanish mackerel, hung out inside a blackfin barracuda tornado, and visited with a couple cuttlefish (smart!) and a spiny seahorse (dumb!). On one dive we were paced for a solid ten minutes by a spotted eagle ray, which I’m pretty sure was just showing off as it glided around with occasional bursts of speed. That same dive we heard something new underwater as well – a deep, dull explosive boom which our guide confirmed via a unique hand signal as Una-Una’s volcano rumbling away.

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tiny transparent blue shrimp hanging out in an anemone
As before, we didn’t bring our camera on most dives and the photos we have barely scratch the surface! But we got a few fun ones. Top left down the column: a pair of gobies, colorful tunicates (weird transparent animals), and three nudibranch (colorful mollusks). On the right, a mantis shrimp peers out of its hole, and on the bottom, a broadclub cuttlefish checks us out. See a cool video we got of the cuttlefish here – watch it change shape and color near the end!

As on Bunaken, a night dive here on Una-Una was a special treat and this was definitely our most amazing one yet. As soon as we dropped in we were face to face with a pair of juvenile African pompano, gorgeous silvery fish with long delicate filaments off of their fins – a special thing to find on a dive, and just the start for us. From there we found several bigfin reef squid hunting in the dark with their huge eyes. We didn’t seem to bother them and they swam quite close at times. After watching each other for a few minutes we actually saw one dart in near some coral, catch a fish, and tuck it away right in front of us!

The dive was still far from over. We went on to see a bevy of weird little shrimps and crabs, a blue-spotted stingray rooting around in the sand for something to eat, and hefty broadclub cuttlefish hovering around slowly like an alien spacecraft. Elaine found a pink/purple reef octopus hiding in a rock and I spotted a big blunt decorator crab moseying along in its disguise of reef detritus. After a full 90 minutes of diving (our longest by far) we emerged exhausted and exhilarated, with our guide Dean also ecstatic – one of the best dives of his life, he said. Hunting squid! Juvenile African pompanos! He was bubbling over the rest of evening chatting with his fellow dive pros. It was also with Dean that we saw the eagle ray, spiny seahorse, and many other awesome things – by the time we were leaving he had declared us quite lucky and wished he could keep diving with us.

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the hand-sized blunt decorator crab! See its two eye stalks sticking out?

Once again we managed to completely exhaust ourselves by the time we packed up to leave our diving destination. Our trip to Una-Una brought me to over 60 dives, with Elaine not far behind – considering that merely seven weeks before we had arrived in Indonesia with nothing but a notion to perhaps try out diving, this is some combination of impressive and ridiculous. But we both remain completely enthralled with the activity, and given how much Indonesia has to offer at really good prices, I can’t say I find that number to be excessive at all!

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Our journey away from Una-Una partially retraced our steps; a small boat to Wakai (thankfully smaller swells) followed by taking the Tuna Tomini ferry to Gorontalo, this time bunking with a couple of our new friends from Sanctum. After staying a night in Gorontalo and visiting the local “pizza” establishment (ever do the toaster-oven pizza thing with English muffins, frozen shredded cheese, and processed red sauce? Think that flavor) we caught a couple flights through Makassar to Bali, thereby re-emerging from our several weeks of travel pretty far off the beaten path.

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departing the Togians at sunset
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cards on the top deck with our Dutch friend Merit
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locals relaxing on the ferry
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Una-Una is the island in the distance on the right hand side.

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