Indonesia: Diving into the Gulf of Tomini

By Thilo Resenhoeft

The Togian Islands off the northern Indonesian island of Sulawesi offer some of the best diving spots on earth.

Welcome to the Togian Islands. Photo / Supplied
Welcome to the Togian Islands. Photo / Supplied

Reaching the relatively unexplored and sparsely populated Togian Islands in the Gulf of Tomini can be an adventure in itself, but visitors are rewarded by pristine waters and fascinating nature.

Many tourists fly from Jakarta or Surabaya on the island of Java to one of the small airports in Luwuk or Palu. From here, there is the choice of completing the journey to the Gulf of Tomini by bus or with a chauffeur-driven rented car.

The trip from Luwuk to Ampana takes six hours, while travellers from Palu need 11 hours on the road. Following an overnight stay in Ampana, the journey continues with a ferry trip or private boat charter to the islands near the equator.

Formed by volcanic eruptions, the islands were once thickly forested but coconut palms now grow on much of the available land. Where the forest still survives, it grows right to the rocky sea coast's edge, limiting the numbers of beaches and hotels.

Visitors to the Togian Islands are guaranteed to see coconut crabs - also known as the robber crab or palm thief - and coral reefs in the crystal clear water.

The palm thief is the world's largest terrestrial crab. Like hermit crabs, juvenile coconut crabs use empty gastropod shells for protection, but the adults develop a tough exoskeleton on their abdomen and stop carrying a shell.

A mature specimen can weigh up to five kilograms and their strong legs make them capable of speedily climbing palm trees.

Tour guide Guntu points out one of the underground burrows where they live, warning tourists not to put their hands near the entrance as coconut crabs generally remain underground during the day to reduce water loss from heat.

Coconut crabs are a protected species as their population in several areas have declined or become locally extinct as a result of habitat loss and human hunting for their firm and tasty meat.

The police issue warnings when they find people selling the crabs, but Guntu reveals law and order forces are rarely seen on the Togian Islands.

The other main reason for a visit to the islands is to dive its coral reefs. Professional diver Elso Martinez estimates there are about 120 kilometres of reef here. The Spaniard has lived in Indonesia for two years, during which time he has spent more than 6000 hours diving.

About 25 reefs are within a 40-minute boat journey from Bomba. Some reefs stretch close to the water surface at low tide, making them easy to explore by snorkellers. The huge variety of colourful fish and coral life present here can hardly be measured.

Divers and snorkellers are not seen as a threat by the fish, so they are barely noticed. However, poisonous stone fish lie on the coral heads, and divers are warned never to touch anything on a reef.

The effects of dynamite fishing can be clearly seen on some parts of the coral where huge chunks have been disturbed and are faded. It could take decades before they are fully healed and life returns to the reef.

The practice is not as prevalent as it used to be, but this is only because there are no longer enough fish to make the use of dynamite financially worthwhile, says Martinez.

"Unfortunately, the view still persists among many people here that over-fishing the reefs will bring more financially than protecting them."


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