How do you wrap up an amazing 14-month tour across Asia? Visit a new country? Stay at a plush resort? Do a thirty day monastic retreat? Climb Everest? Or, revisit one of your favorite spots? We opted for the latter and headed off to the gorgeous Togean Islands in east Indonesia for a couple of weeks of snorkeling, diving, chilling, and wildlife watching. We fondly recalled our first trip to the Togean Islands in September 2015 as the moment when we really found our travel groove. Even better, there is so much to do there we didn’t have to repeat anything from the first trip.
Our return to the Togean Islands confirmed our new-found love of the ocean. And it reminded of us of the stark choices humanity has to make if we wish to protect the oceans for the enjoyment of future generations.
As ever in Indonesia, there were some transportation issues prior to arriving at these remote islands. We had booked flights from Bali to the port town of Gorontalo in North Sulawesi. Alas, we found out the day before the flight that the Tuna Tomini ferry was in dry dock and there was no replacement service to get us from Gorontalo out to the islands. The other ferry to the Togeans left from Ampana in another part of Sulawesi, so we would have to rearrange all our travel plans.
I was also still suffering from an unidentified malaise that had persisted since our trip to Borneo. We abandoned our flight with an hour’s notice, unable to find a quick fix to our transport chaos. Thankfully, this gave me time to get to a doctor to figure out my bodily woes. A few days later we had discounted serious illnesses, fixed me up on superfoods, and rearranged our travel plans.
Pulau Una Una with its active volcano is the most remote island in the remote Togean archipelago. We took a prop plane flight to Luwuk in central Sulawesi, traveled overland by Kijang (private taxi) for eight hours to Ampana, slept for three hours, took a twenty minute ojek to the port, took a fast boat to Wakai (the main village in the Togean Islands), trundled over the ocean for three hours in an outrigger, and finally stumbled into the Sanctum dive resort on Una Una. Indeed! Phew!
Sanctum Una Una
You go to Una Una for one reason. To dive. Snorkeling is great too. But, the resort does its best to encourage the divers first and foremost. I decided not to dive. I was still a bit out of it after my illness. In addition, most of the good stuff here is to be found below my maximum allowed dive depth of 12m. I was happy to read, snorkel, and chat with a motley crew of travelers and dive masters that were in residence.
The resort itself is fairly basic but it has some nice stylish touches. The place is full board and the food was plentiful and tasty. The communal eating arrangements made for a convivial atmosphere.
Our favorite part of the resort was the sunset platform. Its design recalls the fishing platforms that dot the reefs and atolls of the Togeans. Standing in the shallows on the beach, it is a perfect place to lie in a hammock with a book at sunset. On our first night, a pod of dolphins swam by in the distance and put on a show, leaping out of the water.
The resort has only been open a year or so but it is already forging a tremendous reputation as one of Indonesia’s finest dive spots. This is partly due to its isolation and low population. The volcano erupted in the 1980s and the villages were evacuated. This means the seas weren’t heavily fished for a number of years. The villages have been resettled, but there still isn’t much fishing around Una Una. It is too far from the main group of the Togean Islands for it to be a profitable fishing destination.
We opted out of the one non-water-based activity- a climb to the top of the island’s volcano. I think we made the right choice. It was hot, humid, and our fellow travelers reckoned the views weren’t worth the effort. It costs 100K rupiah per person if you are game.
Climate Change at Una Una
The house reef is well-maintained and is well-stocked with an abundance of fish and generally healthy coral. We typically headed out to snorkel in late afternoon. You swim right off the meagre, grubby black sand beach through a marked channel alongside the boat jetty. There is coral either side of the jetty and a drop off not too far out.
Big fish like Napoleon wrasse and bumphead parrotfish are supposed to swim by once in a while, but we didn’t see any. There was certainly plenty of other cool marine life to keep us occupied for hours. We saw giant parrotfish, batfish, spadefish, pipefish, groupers, and surgeonfish. The usual reef fish.
Sadly, a big storm (or, maybe a ship dumped its garbage overboard) brought in an abundance of colorful but less pleasant floating life. Plastic bags and bottles. The resort dive masters told us this was very unusual. Maybe so. But we had to swim through lots of garbage on a number of occasions to get to the fish. Plastic takes 20-450 years to break down in seawater and is toxic to sea life. I might get inconvenienced by plastic bags around the goggles but fish are dying from ingesting this junk. Togean Islanders seem a little more environmentally aware than most Indonesians, but the bay is surrounded by towns and villages. And, in our experience they care not one iota about environmentally safe garbage disposal. Thankfully, we didn’t see too much trash on other Togean reefs.
We noticed one other pointer towards environmental imbalance. The water temperature. The ocean was around 31 degrees C near Una Una. It was actually too warm to swim in comfortably. This is not good for the local ecosystem. Warmer water temperatures can result in coral bleaching. When water is too warm, corals will expel the algae (zooxanthellae) living in their tissues causing the coral to turn completely white. This is called coral bleaching. Although the reef is still pretty healthy, there were the odd bursts of bleached coral. The recent bleaching events on the Great Barrier Reef have received plenty of attention this year, but oceanic temperature changes are resulting in similar events the world over.
There is a ghostly eeriness to bleached coral. It is kind of beautiful in its own way. But, healthy coral trumps it on all counts. Coral reefs are not as visible as receding glaciers or rainforests but they are indicators of a world out of balance. Let’s not let the balance tip any further.
Diving Una Una (by Laura)
I wanted to dive Una Una ever since we left the Togean Islands for the first time back in September. On our first visit to the Togeans, everyone was raving about diving Una Una, but I didn’t have my PADI certificate at the time. So I was thrilled to finally step off the boat onto the black sand beach of Una Una.
Is Una Una worth the trip? Absolutely. The diving is awesome, we didn’t see any evidence of dynamite fishing, and marine life is abundant as befits the island’s remoteness. But even here, as Paul mentioned, the effects of climate change were evident. It made me wonder how much time we have left to enjoy these natural treasures.
The highlight of diving Una Una is seeing the schooling barracuda at the Jam dive site a couple hundred meters off the jetty. It took us a while to meet up with the barracuda, but when they did, they put on a show. They didn’t do a tornado like I saw at Sipadan, but they came close and swirled around us in a solid wall of fish.
My favorite dive site at Una Una was Pinnacle 1. It’s an underwater pinnacle that comes close to Batu Bolong in Komodo as a real “fish soup” dive. There was a big school of jacks, beautiful coral, clouds of purple anthias, and millions of schooling fish. I liked it so much I chose to dive it for a second time. Unfortunately the lighting wasn’t great for my GoPro, so the images from these dives are only in my memory.
Una Una is the only place in the Togeans where divers can see Napoleon wrasse, the giant fish having been overfished in the main islands. On my next-to-last dive, we had an amazing sighting: a family of 20+ Napoleon wrasse all along the dropoff.
Most of our dives were affected by the presence of a raft of garbage floating on the surface. Several times, we had to descend and ascend in the middle of a pile of plastic trash. Here we were in a beautiful, remote paradise and it was like a garbage dump. The trash must have come from many miles away but it will stay at Una Una, either washed up with the tide or snagged on the reef.
I was sorry to ascend from my final dive at Una Una for several reasons. It was the last dive of the trip and my last dive for the foreseeable future. I probably won’t dive in tropical waters again until we take our next short vacation. And all my dives were accompanied by the uncomfortable, inescapable awareness of the degradation of our planet.
We loved Una Una and although Laura could have dived some more, she did the best diving Una Una has to offer, so we decided to move on. I think it is crucial that Sanctum Una Una is a success. The success of the resort has a knock on effect on the local community. Boat captains get money for providing private transport to the island. Motorbike taxi drivers earn money for transporting tourists to and from the volcano trail head. The local shop sells beer and snacks. Local boys and girls get trained up to be captains and dive guides. Locals become cooks, cleaners, and resort support staff. Take these jobs away and the locals fish. Their clients are usually Chinese. The Chinese like to eat Napoleon Wrasse. Remove the Napoleons and the Crown of Thorns Starfish thrive. COTS destroy coral. Destroy coral and the fish move on. Some food for thought, anyways! Back to basics.