As I packed, checked my list, and re-packed for my upcoming trip to Tompotika, (Central Sulawesi, Indonesia) I could not ignore the mild sense of anxiety I was feeling. It was a good anxiety, but still it was anxiety. Perhaps it was because I was trying a new packing methodology (checking in my housing), or the fact it would take (4) plane rides and a (3) hour bus ride to get there, or anticipation of the cool critters I may encounter, or the fact I won’t be connected with my family for the next 15 days. Regardless, I found to best way to deal with anxiety in any area of life is to prepare or over-prepare in my case.
I looked at my spreadsheet for the 10th time and finally declared “I am ready to go!” I left Seattle at 8:30am on the 14th of February and oh my, was I in for a surprise. The entire trip (door-to-door) took a whopping 54.5 hours (only 35 hours on the return). The travel broke down as follows:
• Drive to Seatac – 1 hour (same on the return)
• Seatac Airport – 3 hours (saved 2 hours on the return)
• Flight from Seattle to Taipei – 13 hours (saved 3 hours on the return)
• Taipei Airport – 3.5 hours
• Flight from Taipei to Jakarta – 5 hours
• Jakarta airport (hotel) – 9 hours (saved 5.5 hours on the return)
• Flight from Jakarta to Makassar – 2.5 hours
• Makassar airport (hotel and 2 cancelled flights) – 12 hours (saved 10.5 on the return)
• Flight from Makassar to Luwuk – 1.5 hours
• Luwuk airport - .5 hours (added 1.5 hours on the return)
• Luwuk to Tompotika bus transfer – 3.5 hours
Some of the highlights of the travel were the beef noodle soup in Taipei (my go to breakfast when I land), the amazing foot massage in Jakarta, the club room in Makassar (with private showers), and of course the whiskey in Makassar as well. As far as my packing, it wasn’t perfect, but I was pretty proud to get all my gear there in one piece, even with checking in my Canon 5d.
Once we settled into the resort, things went extremely smooth. The food service was excellent and we were treated with refreshing drinks after every dive. The dive rhythm each day was as follows:
7:30am swim to the boat for dive #1 - We would typically splash around 8:00am.
Return to the dive lodge and eat breakfast
11:00am swim to the boat for dive #2 – Splash around 11:30am.
Return to the lodge and eat lunch
2:30pm swim to the boat for dive #3 – Splash around 3:00pm
Return to the lodge, recharge batteries
5:30pm swim to boat for optional night dive – Splash around 6:00pm
The morning dives were usually reserved for wide angle diving on open ocean walls and pinnacles, whereas the afternoon/night dives were reserved for macro diving at small reefs and muck locations. In total, I was able to log (41) dives in 12 days, with (1) day being cancelled due to weather. We dove (22) different dive sites in total, with the most dived spots being Pulau Dua (9), MBelang (5), and Ody’s Reef (4). The main reason we dove Pulau Dua so often is that it was our go-to night dive spot. Plus, the critters on this site were truly amazing. The dives consisted of the following terrain:
• (5) Dives on large pinnacles with current (Wide Angle) – Sites included Ondoliang, Batu Tetek, Solan Reef, and Mayumi Wall.
• (13) Dives on pinnacles/reef structure with mild current/surge (Wide Angle and Macro) – Sites included Albi Baba 1, Ali Baba 2, Entre 2 MERS I, Entre 2 MERS II, Entre 2 MERS III, Jenad Side, Ody’s Reef, and Nemo Rock.
• (21) Dives on small reefs/muck with mild current/surge (Macro) – Sites included Pulau Dua, Coliina Slope 1, Coliina Slope 2, Mbelang, Tanduk, Teku Rock, Shallow Paradise, and Smile Point.
• (2) Dives on muck/silt bottom with no current and mild surge (Macro) – Sites included Tompotika Reef and Quack-Quack Ding-Ding (more on this site later).
In general I would say the diving was pretty easy with live boat pickup. I did get blown off a wall and had to ascend solo on one dive, but the captain circle my SMB within 2 minutes of deployment. Visibility varied from 80’ to 10’ depending on the currents and rain fall. Most dives were longer than 60 minutes in length and not extremely deep. They did provide aluminum 100 tanks, but no Nitrox, so the extended surface intervals were nice. My personal dive stats were as follows:
• Deepest (3) dives were; Ondoliang 95’ Dive #30, Entre 2 MERS III 90.8’ Dive #26, and Ali Baba 1 88.3’ Dive #8.
• Longest (3) dives were; Pualu Dua 98min Dive #14, Pulau Dua 92min Dive #7, and Smile Point 85min Dive #21.
• Worst dive was Quack-Quack Ding-Ding – This dive was a muck dive to find mimic octopus. Viz was a terrible 10’ and several of our team members were hammering away on their signaling devices. Since the dive site did not have a name, we named it Quack-Quack Ding-Ding to represent the quacking and dinging of diver’s signaling devices. It was a very fun adventure and we certainly made lemonade out of lemons on this dive. I did flood my backup camera on another dive, but I cannot say that was the worst, because the dive was actually amazing.
• Best dive was my last dive of the trip at Pulau Dua. The main reason is that I spotted a tropical Bobtail Squid on my own. Out of the (25) critters I wanted to see the previous year in Anilao, the Bobtail Squid was the only critter I did not see. The encounter was amazing and it was one of the most beautiful critters I had ever seen.
Overall the diving was on par with Anilao (from a critter standpoint) and on par with Fiji (from a reef standpoint). The variety of structure and critters made for a great diving experience. Speaking of critters, my top (5) critter encounters were as follows:
1. The Bobtail Squid @ Pulau Dua Dive #41 – This was top on my critter list and being able to see this on my very last dive was a great treat. The colors of this squid were memorizing. However, the behavior was vastly different from our local Stubby Squid species. In the Puget Sound, mid-sized Stubby Squid will migrate up into the water column when they have had enough of the blinding strobe action. They typically will hover for photo ops for a good 3-5 minutes, displaying their tentacles. The Bobtail squid simply buries itself, after a couple photos, it will pop out, hover about 2” from the ground and re-bury itself. I really wanted to see it in the water column for a comparable PNW Stubby Squid shot, but I did not want to harass the little critter, so I settled for some beautiful “sand” shots.
2. Reef Squid @ Mbelang Dive #33 – My dive buddy, Val, alerting me to a beautiful (and large) reef squid at around 50’. I quickly switched to my red focus light and pursued this skittish critter to around 80’. The squid was flashing and not wanting to be photographed. Once I slowed my pace and approach cautiously, it allowed me to get some very nice photographs.
3. Black-tip Reef Shark @ Batu Tetek Dive #15 – This was the dive I was blown off the reef by current. Prior to that incident, there was a depression at the top of the wall. As I approached the depression, a black-tip shark quickly shot into view and darted away. Afraid I had scared it, I patiently waited for its return and the scuba gods reqarded my patience with an amazing encounter. The shark circled several times as I peered over the wall. My dive guide, Sofyan, wanted to know what I was watching and I signaled shark. I could see him smile through his reg, he settled down next to me and enjoyed the multiple passes. Although I got one terrible photograph, the experience of seeing a shark close enough to look into its eye is one I will cherish forever.
4. Pygmy Seahorse @ Jenad Side Dive #38 – Although we had seen several Pygmy’s (this area had them on full display), they are extremely difficult to get photographs of. Surge, size, and location all play a role in the difficulty level. I really try to photograph these in a very respectful way by avoiding to poke or hit the sea fan, which is sometimes extremely challenging. This way the sea fan polyps will open up, providing a unique photo opportunity. This encounter was unique because the sea fan was at the base of a rock with a sand bottom. I struggled for several minutes in the surge to capture a shot. Frustrated, I swam away from the rock and reassessed my position. I noticed a flat sand bottom next to it, so I decided to inspect, dump my air and gently stand next to the rock on the sand and shoot up at the Pygmy. The sea fan just so happened to be about 6’ in height, which was perfect. The Pygmy was also on an outer branch, posing perfectly. I settled in and took several photos. I love it when the stars align like that.
5. Crocodile Fish @ Nemo Rock Dive #16 – The previous day my dive buddy, Zack, said he saw a Crocodile fish. I was really excited with the news, because I had always wanted to shot a close-up of the Crocodile fish’s eye. Toward the end of a pretty non-eventful dive, my dive master pointed out a Crocodile fish in the open. As I approached the fish jetted away and I thought, “Darn, just missed my opportunity.” A few minutes later, he noticed me searching the reef, so he joined in and quickly re-spotted it. However, it was wedged between two large structures. I hovered over the reef, positioned my body vertically, and extended my camera down to capture the eye. I was trying to be really careful now to hit the fish or the structures I was in between. I’m happy to report success on all accounts.
Similar to Anilao, I went through my photographs by critter. This makes it easier for me to relive the encounters and really communicate my experience/interaction with the amazing Indonesian sea life. I must admit that the number of Nudibranchs and Seahorses was pretty amazing. In Anilao, I captured (67) different species of Nudibranch/Slugs. In Tompotika, I believe I captured over that number. That is a pretty amazing comparison.
In regards to the number of photos I am sharing, I really need to pare down my gallery to include the absolute best of the best. However, I thought I would simply share every photo I loved capturing in order to let you see, feel, and experience each and every encounter. I am always challenged with photo sharing. Mainly due to people seeing my “throw away” photos and saying “Wow, that’s amazing, how big was that? Where did you see it? How did you find that?” So instead of picking and choosing, I want you to see everything I saw. I’ve always said that any underwater image is amazing. Capturing critters the size of a grain of rice in current, surge, and low-viz with a bulky UW camera is extremely difficult, so let’s celebrate ALL underwater images.
Enjoy the photos and please comment on the ones that make you feel good. I will be posting my Shrimp, Lionfish, Moray Eels, Pipefish, and Nudibranchs soon. Be safe and have a great week.
p.s. My favorite non-diving moment was body surfing with the local kids on the final day. What a treat, they were so fun.