Stilt village of Pulau Papan, Malenge Island.

In Over my Head: Ocean life in the Togean Islands

Or, how the clear water and profuse marine life of the beautiful Togean Islands in Indonesia inspired me to conquer my fear of swimming in the ocean.

Anyone who knows me well knows that I am not a water babe! For various reasons, I never learned to swim when I was a kid…or as a teenager… or as an adult. On the other hand, Laura swims like a fish. Her high school record in the 200 Medley Relay was recently broken after 18 years, but this was testament to her swimming skills from an early age. Laura was determined not to travel with an aquaphobic hubby so over the past two years I have been doggedly learning to swim at our local pools. Still, I only swam in the deep end a couple of times.

Over the years, my fear of water and lack of swimming skills have gotten me into a few dumb situations. I have photographs from a trek in Colombia where I am being helped across a 10’ wide and 2’ deep river by two guides. In the Pantanal in Brazil, I went on a 3 day trek, which mainly involved wading through wetlands but at one point I was in over my head so had to be pushed across the water by my fellow trekkers in a bathtub accompanied by a dog.

On this trip, I got to knee-deep in the placid turquoise waters in Gili Air before bitching about the underfoot conditions (broken dead coral) and returning to the comfort of the sun lounger. Laura saw a bunch of cool fish and turtles in Gili Air, which led to a small pang of envy. Once we got to Pulau Bunaken in North Sulawesi, a famous dive spot, conversation revolved around two topics- diving and snorkeling. Laura snorkeled in Bunaken and saw a bunch more cool fish and coral. Still, Buxton sat on shore reading his book and steadfastly refused to swim. Laura could have got decent odds at that point on me not swimming on the entire trip. Next day Laura signed up for a discovery dive at the dive resort we were staying at. And, unsurprisingly, she loved it. So much so that she now wants to do a PADI open water course and take advantage of us being near to some of the greatest dive spots in the world. Now, I am not one to be overly envious of someone doing something I can’t but something must have stirred inside. I always loved reading about the watery depths and the beasties therein as a kid but as long as it wasn’t in my face I could cope without exploring it for real. I was happy to look at the photos that Kelsey (Laura’s sister and avid diver) posted online of odd fish, coral, and watery weirdness and vicariously dive through those. But, Laura doing it for real was different!

So, off to the Togean Islands we headed in the company of Anna (Spain) and Brenda (Peru), who talked non-stop about diving off Una Una Island. For sure, Laura expected to do a lot of snorkeling while Paul swung in a hammock reading a sci-fi novel. But, wait; hadn’t Paul bought a pair of swimming goggles at the port town of Gorontalo? Yeah, right, they will get as much use as that guitar he has never once strummed back home!

Getting to the Togean Islands

Wakai Harbor. Hub of the Togeans.
Wakai harbor.

The Togean Islands sit in Tomini Bay about 100 km south of the northern arm of Sulawesi. They are not easy to get to and from, which is why they are still fairly unspoilt in tourist terms. We took a short hop on a prop plane from Manado in Northern Sulawesi to the port town of Gorontalo. The flight was fairly spectacular, crossing over the impenetrable mountains and forests that separated the two cities. Gorontalo is a pleasant place to hang out for a day or two. We stayed at the New Melati Hotel, whose owner, Alex, has been hosting those going to and from the islands for years.

There has been a number of alarming ferry disasters in Indonesia over the past twenty years, so we approached our overnight trip on the Tuna Tomini with some trepidation. Once onboard, I gave the ship a quick once over and once I had seen that she was equipped with life rafts and lifejackets I quickly chilled out and settled into the voyage. The crossing is incredibly cheap- regular economy class with a mattress out on the deck costs $5. We opted for a 4-berth aircon cabin, which cost around $13 each. The cabins are crew cabins, which crew members sell to tourists only to make an extra buck or two. You cannot buy a cabin ticket from the office at the dock but New Melati staff can help you procure one. The ship shop sells water, soft drinks, cold beers, and pot noodles. We bought some fresh noodles from the night market opposite the New Melati and we also grabbed some fruit and cookies to supplement our diet in the islands.

After a calm 11-hour overnight crossing, we pulled into the main town of Wakai. There is no accommodation in Wakai, so boats from resorts on nearby islands meet the ferry to move you on to your preferred destination.

Sunset Beach Resort

Sunset Beach.
Sunset Beach Resort.

Irina, the hyperactive Russian owner of the Sunset Beach Resort, met us on the dock, and after a quick supply run in Wakai, whizzed us over to her place about 30 minutes away by boat. Sunset has 3 very rustic beach bungalows and a couple of rooms in a traditional stilt house. It sits on a very small beach and bay and as the name suggests, is the perfect spot for sunsets. The bungalow had a bed, mosquito net, hammocks, a bucket shower, and toilet. The resort was full board and costs around $12 per person per night. The meals were pretty good: lunch and dinner consisted of grilled fish, salad, and rice; and, breakfast was pancakes and fruit. Water was a bit of an issue at Sunset Beach. The resort had no running water, so water came in daily by boat from a spring elsewhere on the island. This was definitely one of those times when we were glad we had the Steripen to sterilize the local water.

The word ‘resort’ is used a lot in the Togean Islands to describe the accommodation, but don’t be fooled into thinking ‘five star with exceptional service’! Even the best resorts here are extremely basic, which to be honest is great since it puts off the pushy, overly moneyed types that I prefer to avoid on holiday!

Boy and boats. Sunset Beach
Boy and boats at Sunset Beach.

After lunch, Laura switched into her swimming gear to explore the reef just in front of the bungalows. Paul did too. Double take. ‘Why is Paul following me down to the sea in his swimming gear?’

‘Whoah, Paul just got his toes wet in the sea?’ ‘Shit, someone has replaced my hubby with a water loving robot!’

Laura slips smoothly in the sea and winds up her well-drilled front crawl and disappears off towards the reef. Paul awkwardly kneels down in the water, pushes off, and immediately rears up spluttering seawater and rubbing his eyes. Damn fool forgot to pull down his goggles! A novice mistake I guess and not the elegant entrance I was hoping for. In the past, I would have turned right round and headed back to the hammock. However, the sea was so clear and calm, and the resort was in a properly protected bay so I was determined to succeed. I tried again…and this time some muscle memory clicked in and I moved across the water and, eventually, collided into a somewhat amazed Laura. It was ugly and ungainly but for the first time in my vehemently land lubbing life, I actually swam in the sea. I could never float with much confidence in the pools back home, so the extra buoyancy you get in the sea amazed me. It was like magic to me. I was actually floating without making any effort. Jeez..I could even float over this weird coral stuff!

Of course, I got thoroughly carried away and after a good two and half hours exploring the small reefs, seeing some beautiful reef-dwelling fish, and practicing a few different strokes, I crawled out exhausted…and sunburnt. Really goddamn sunburnt. Ugh, why does swimming have to be so painful! Laura had plenty of fun torturing me a few days later by peeling off layers of toasted skin!

The next day, I repeated the trick but this time I wore a t-shirt to protect my back. Man, this swimming shit is cool… where has the water been all my life!

The next part of my swimming lesson was to come later in the day. In general, you tend to avoid jellyfish in the ocean since they invariably sting if you come into contact with them. There were no man o’ wars or box jellyfish here but still you can get a painful whack or rash from the local, often invisible, gelatinous beasties. However, there are a few spots in the world where non-stinging, friendly jellyfish prevail and the Togean Islands has one such spot. So, we grabbed our swimming gear and jumped on a boat with Irina and a few people from Sunset to take a look. The jellyfish live in a deep lake cut off from the sea by a small natural dyke. Over the years, the jellyfish have evolved into their current non-stinging, curious, and friendly state. The water is extremely salty so buoyancy is (allegedly) almost Dead Sea like. Ideal for a swimming novice, but not this one. Despite the evidence of extreme buoyancy before me, I could not be persuaded in since I knew I would not be able to put my feet on the seabed if my fear of water struck.

Video of the jellyfish lake taken by Colin from Portsmouth, England. Many thanks to Colin.

The jellyfish seemed a curious bunch and within a few minutes of the crew minus one leaping in, orange and purple jellies floated up to greet the visitors. Thankfully, a few wandered over to the jetty to check me out but I missed on the more psychedelic views afforded to the real swimmers. After communing with the jellyfish for an hour or so we took the boat to nearby white sand Karina Beach. I took the plunge again but the open bay and wavy waters discouraged me from swimming too much. Ugh, back to the drawing board (or shallow end) for me!

Sera Beach Cottages, Malenge Island

Outrigger. Malenge, Togean Islands, Indonesia
Sera Beach Cottage’s outrigger boat.

The thing to do in the Togean Islands is island hop. You cannot really go wrong wherever you choose so check out the ferry schedule (or charter a local boat) and head out to check on another blissful view. Well, you can go wrong if you are scared of rats! A number of the resorts are plagued by infestations of bush rats. Thankfully, they are a tad cuter and cleaner than city rats but they seem keen on getting into rooms at night and chowing down on your food supplies and soap (maybe that is why they are so clean!). Thankfully, Sera Cottages proved to be beastie free give or take a few cockroaches. Mercifully, Sera was mosquito free too.

We had read and heard extremely good reports about Sera Beach on Malenge Island so we headed back to Wakai to jump on the local ferry, the Puspita Sari, to Malenge. Once we got to Malenge, we would be met by boats from all the island resorts to move us onto the beach of our choice. The ferry links the islands with the mainland town of Ampana and passes through 3 or 4 days a week. The boat cost $2 for the 4-hour ride and usually leaves Wakai at 2.30pm. But, sometimes it leaves early if it is full or late (as was the case for us) if there is a lot of cargo to unload (the boat is used to resupply all the islands).

Once the boat had off-loaded huge supplies of water, rice, and beer, we headed off. The ride was really fantastic since we stopped at a number of other islands on the way and for the whole journey we had clear waters (so clear in fact that we even saw a sea turtle from the boat). Every time we pulled into port, there would be a clamber of activity as islanders off-loaded bikes, supplies, and reconnected with families after a trip to the mainland. We stopped at a number of fabulous looking stilt villages and noted a number of destinations we could hit later in the trip (or next year since I think we will return when Laura gets her dive certificates). The boat was packed with extremely friendly locals and somehow the friendliness and beauty of the trip meant we didn’t get too irritated by the ubiquitous cigarette smoke and blaring Bon Jovi music!

Everywhere is smoking section on the deck of the Puspita Sari.

We arrived in Malenge after sunset but Sera’s boat captain, Andy, had hung around to see if there were any folks wanting to stay at his place. One of the really great things about Malenge is that there is no phone or Internet access. But, of course, this means you cannot contact the resorts in advance to let them know you want to stay. We were traveling in the shoulder season, so there was no real problem of missing out on a room, but it must be a pain in the ass in high season since you might not get into the resort of your choice. We jumped into Andy’s outrigger boat for the 30-minute journey in the dark to the resort. The wake from the outriggers highlighted a feature of the waters here- phosphorescent plankton. It gave the impression that silver sparks were flying off the back of the boat as we flew across the water.

Sera Cottages costs a ridiculously low $13.50 per person for full board and a beachfront bungalow. The shower was a mandi (a bucket shower), the toilet was flushed from a scoop of water from the mandi, and the aircon was a gap in the wall over the bed but for the price we weren’t about to complain. The owner, Nuir, and his crew were superb hosts and the perpetual smiles on their faces gave us the first hint that we might actually be in paradise!

Sera Beach. Malenge, Togean Islands, Indonesia
Sera Beach.

Meals are served communally at every place in the Togeans and this is a really fantastic way to meet fellow travelers, swap stories, and make new friends. Sera also organize unbelievably cheap trips to local Bajau villages, the offshore reefs, and the jungle that covers the island interior. The trips cost $3.50 for a half day snorkel trip to Reef #5, $1.50 for a couple of hours in the jungles, and $2 for a half day boat and walking trip to the Bajau village. We took advantage of all the above!

He floats! He treads water! He swims!

Sera Beach. Malenge, Togean Islands, Indonesia
The bay at Sera Beach Cottages.

Sera Cottages is based on a sheltered bay with a white sand beach and unbelievably clear turquoise waters. The beach is palm-fringed thus provides a constant supply of fresh tasty coconuts, and dense jungle rises up behind the cottages. The bay has two small but beautiful coral gardens replete with a variety of colorful fish and a couple of baby reef sharks. The bay was a little bit wavy but all in all it was the perfect spot to get on with my swim lessons. When the tide was high, usually after breakfast and before dinner, we took the plunge. I practiced my front crawl, which was pretty efficient, and tried to make some sense of treading water and breaststroke, both of which had baffled me in the pools at home. Laura slowly edged me out to slightly deeper waters to practice treading water and floating on the surface. After a few days of peculiar underwater arm waves and leg pumps, I got the hang of that treading water stuff. The floating business was pretty easy in the buoyant briny.

Floating really was the key to enjoying the reefs. I never got so confident that I could float fully over the reefs but I could hover around and maneuver myself sufficiently to get acquainted with the local reef dwellers. We saw stingrays, Moorish idols, parrotfish, lionfish, clown fish, pipe fish, sardines, jellyfish, blue starfish, and gazillions of other colorful fishes. Laura also checked out the baby sharks but I didn’t have the confidence to hover over their reefy home since I was worried I would have to put my feet down. This is a real no-no since you run the risk of damaging living coral and gouging your flesh on dead coral.

On the second day, I was even gung-ho for the choppy waters that rose up in the afternoon. I was brought down to earth on day three though. Laura and I decided to go for an afternoon swim right across the little bay and I really went for it without taking much notice that I was heading out to sea rather than across the bay. Laura naturally thought that I was at last overcoming my fears of the deep but kept close just in case I freaked out. Which I did! I got a bit tired and instead of just floating and catching my breath, I thought I would just put my feet down. Except that down was a lot further down than I had planned on. I was in over my head! Panic kicked in but thankfully Laura was on hand to push my spluttering mouth above the water and drag me to shallower waters. OK…so, I have still some work to do! I stuck with it though so after spitting out the briny I carried on swimming. For the next couple of days, Laura stayed on the seaward side to make sure I didn’t make the same mistake.

On the afternoon of day one, we took a boat round to the south of the island to visit the Bajau village there. The village is a stilt village that clings to a rocky outcrop about 100 meters off the shore. The village is linked to the mainland by a kilometer long wooden stilt bridge that curves through the coral gardens below.

The long bridge. Pulau Papan, Malenge, Togean Islands, Indonesia
The long bridge to the Bajau village.

We picked up some of the local hooch, arak (palm wine), from a local dude and headed over the bridge. The bridge and village are extremely photogenic and the locals were extremely friendly. They were even cool about us strolling through their houses to check out the lobster farms and coral gardens. At the end of the day, we jumped off the back of one of the stilt house, and after negotiating the village trash (sardine tins and bottles), a sea snake, and several spiky black stinging urchins, we floated over the local gardens. We ended the day swilling down arak cocktails made with lime and fresh coconut juice, which was as delicious as it sounds.

Bridge swimmers. Malenge, Togean Islands, Indonesia
Boys swimming by the long bridge to the Bajau village.

Happy to be here. Pulau Papan, Togean Islands, Indonesia
Us on the hill above the long bridge

The island interior houses hornbills, tarsiers (the world’s smallest monkeys), macaques, lizards, coconut crabs, and lots of birdlife. The chances of seeing any of the beasts was fairly slim but still, for a $1.50 for a guided walk it was worth the risk. We only saw one bird but it meant we could do our good deed for the day. The bird was caught in a trap set out by locals. NGO conservation groups have worked hard with locals over the past 10 years trying to persuade them that looking after the fauna and flora is a better option in the long run than some of their more harmful practices of the past. In the past, local people would dynamite fish the reefs, chop down trees for firewood, and catch animals to eat or for pets. Now people come from all over the to snorkel and dive on the recovered reefs, animals have returned to the forests in good numbers, and the ubiquitous green gas canisters have replaced the need for firewood. The odd bad egg remains but overall the eco-mentality remains strong. There are a couple of notable exceptions to this environmental conscience- Napoleon fish and coconut crabs are popular in China and command a high price so locals catch and sell them. Coconut crabs are huge beasts and as their name suggests, they crack open and eat coconuts. The dearth of Napoleons is leading to an increase in crown of thorns starfish- more on this later.

We took the bird, a Merpati dove, to a local doctor, who was leading up efforts to keep the forests and seas pristine. He gave the bird a once over before releasing it back into the forest.

Hanging with the neighbors on Malenge

A couple of days later we walked back down the trail to check out nearby beaches and, of course, to swim. We wandered over to a beach owned by a Spanish couple, who will be opening the newest resort on Malenge, Bahia Tomini, in the coming weeks. The beach is a glorious sweep of palm fringed white sand and the bay seems a little calmer than the choppy waters of Sera. The waters were a little stirred up the day we visited and cloudier than Sera so we didn’t get a chance to check out the reef. The resort looks like it will be super cozy and the couple, Kike and Eva, are determined to keep it small (5 bungalows max), eco-friendly, and will be offering diving and snorkeling trips. Most of the foreigners setting up shop in the Togeans are definitely not in it for the money, but as Kike explained, they are doing this as a lifestyle choice. They want to live simply, off the grid, and use any small profits from the resort to indulge their passion for diving the gorgeous reefs around the islands. Kike and Eva are already good on their eco-credentials and told us that they often go out to the reefs and clear off the crown of thorns starfish that destroy coral with astonishing efficiency and speed. On one trip, they cleared 700 starfish off reef 5. The starfish are native to the area and typically live in small numbers, which are unthreatening to the overall ecosystem. However, the Chinese passion for Napoleon fish, the natural predators of the starfish, has reduced Napoleon numbers and created a potential disaster for the Togean reefs. Such is the delicate balance of life in these pristine areas. We wished Kike and Eva well in their venture and promised to pay them a visit when we return next year and headed back to Sera.

On the way back, we stopped at the beach of Dr. Ating and his wife, who are the island’s main eco-conscience. They once again thanked us for saving the Merpati Dove and invited us in for tea and chocolate cake. Dr. Ating is quite a character to say the very least. Like the Spaniards, Ating wants the simple life- he built his own home on the beach, the first building was made out of reclaimed materials and his main domicile was built out of local coconut palm wood. He has no electricity, his water comes from the heavens, and he rarely visits the mainland. In an increasingly rare kind of exchange these days, he wanted us to update him on happenings in the world from the last month! He told us of his environmental work on the island and his hope that he can set up an education center at his home for local kids so that he can spread the good word on the importance of maintaining the environment. I am sure this is a more pleasant job than his previous work in Papua as a scientist mapping malaria. He told us that he has had 12 bouts of malaria in his time! He waxed lyrical on climate change, commented on his water issues (the current drought has left him perilously short of water), and gave us his two pennies worth on mainstream religions. He is trying to raise money for his school by renting out his bungalow to tourists, but likely many an ‘idealist’ he is not too comfortable ‘selling’ it. Hence, very few tourists stay with him. Again, if we go back, we may stay with him for a day or two especially as he promised us a proper jungle walk (and good chocolate cake). Check out his work at the Dr Ating Foundation.

Togean Islands Epic Snorkel at Reef 5

Laura after her snorkel around Reef 5.

The reefs in front of Sera Beach are pretty cool for a novice swimmer like myself, but real swimmers need to head out to the huge reefs further offshore to experience the world-class snorkeling of the Togean Islands. The nearest reef to Sera is Reef #5. It is a 20-minute boat ride directly north from Sera. The reef is an atoll and even though it plunges to significant depths there are areas that are only a few feet deep. Buxton amusingly got excited at the idea so packed his swim gear on the off chance he had the balls to jump in. On the way out we spotted a pod of dolphins whizzing gracefully through the seas so we stopped the boat to watch them in action. A couple of times they sped right below the boat, which was pretty damned exciting.

The boat moored up above one of the dro offs on the edge of the atoll. The water was incredibly clear and you could see large fish and astonishing coral to maybe 60’ down. The water was way too deep for me, but still, it seemed like I could ‘snorkel’ without even leaving the boat. Laura and 4 others snorkeled twice, led by Nuir. Nuir’s experience of swimming out here made him the ideal guide for spotting all kinds of crazy beasts in the coral. Laura saw sharks, two bizarre bumphead parrotfish, huge schools of fish, and one weird looking cuttlefish. I was a bit bummed that my poor swimming skills meant I missed out but it made me ever more determined to get over this daft fear of the deep. Even though I only skimmed the surface of what the reef had to offer, I still think it is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.

Laura has now laid down an enticing bet to encourage me to do a discovery dive before the end of the trip. She doesn’t like me to have too many desserts and beers, but if I do a dive I will be allowed one guilt-free large beer and one brownie every day for the rest of my life. Now, how much do I want that daily supply of Reuben’s IPA and chocolate brownies?

Back to the mainland

We toyed with the idea of staying a few days more, but in the end, we figured that we should give Tana Toraja and its fascinating culture a good chunk of time too before flying out of Sulawesi to Kathmandu. Tana Toraja has been on my bucket list for years, but damn, it’s hard to give up this tropical paradise!

The journey to Central Sulawesi was going to take three days and the first leg of this was by boat. The Puspita Sari leaves from Malenge at 5.30am so we had to get up at 4am so that Andy could take us by speedboat to the port. We once more traveled through the dark to get to the port. It is quite amusing on reflection that we have jumped on all kind of boats in the Togeans given Indonesia’s terrible maritime record. In fact, I believe we vowed not to travel on boats at all here! Well, you figure pretty quickly that not jumping on boats becomes pretty limiting when you are traveling in a nation of 18000 islands. Anyways, we have been pretty impressed by Indonesian seamanship whether we have been on outrigger boats, plastic hulled speedboats, wooden ferries (the Puspita), or big sea-going steel-hulled boats. The boats all look a bit dodgy, and sometimes packed to the gills, but we have never once felt in peril.

The ferry journey was fairly uneventful but exceptionally hot. This current heat wave is truly murderous. We sailed past a few islands we hadn’t seen before and made a mental note of other spots to visit on our return. Looking forward to checking out Poya Lisa, Fadhila, Bolilangga, and, of course, the dive and snorkeling mecca of Una Una. Hopefully, next time I will be truly in over my head with nary a care in the world! Then, it will be all round to my place for an IPA and Brownie party!!

Photos of the Togean Islands

View full size photos on Flickr

15 thoughts on “In Over my Head: Ocean life in the Togean Islands

  1. Eric Anderson

    I’m LOVING all your posts on Indonesia. After we are done in Kyrgyzstan we plan on taking the long, slow way through Asia back home to the PNW. Looks like there are lots of reasons to spend some serious time in Indonesia (we loves hiking AND beaches.)

    1. Laura

      You could spend a lot of time in Indonesia! We highly recommend Sulawesi and especially the Togean Islands. I don’t know if you guys are into scuba diving, but I would recommend giving it a try in Indonesia. Crystal clear waters and some of the most beautiful natural scenery I have ever seen, up there with the Cascades.

  2. Paul Buxton

    Hi Eric
    We are heading back to the Togeans June 8-23. We are staying on Malenge for 6 days, Poya Lisa for 5 days, and finally Una Una for 4 days of snorkeling and diving. I think one of the joys of the Togeans is checking out a few Islands, which is very easy to do. If I was you I would definitely go to Sera on Malenge and try one more island. We have heard amazing things about Poya Lisa. Spending 10-14 days at one spot might get a bit boring since aside from the odd tour you can’t really get round much on any specific island.

    Maybe we will see you there. It is our last stop in Asia.
    Cheers, Paul
    Paul Buxton recently posted…A Journey Through the Deserts of IranMy Profile

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