The voyage across to the Bunaken Islands from our digs on the mainland of North Sulawesi is just over 20km. We do it each day, chug-chug-chugging, over and back, taking around 90 minutes each way. Four times in a week, some might see this journey as tedious. Others see it as a blessed relief from the freneticism of life. The voyage provides downtime: time to read; to reflect; to contemplate; to chill; to sort through those life issues that plague one. As David Cameron (who’s he?) once put it, to “chillax”, although Cameron did it with computer games.
Ourselves, we appreciate the time away from phones and ‘puters. Time at last to get stuck into that book, or those magazines that have been building up on the iPad, the ones for which you pay the subscriptions religiously each month with every good intention of reading them cover to cover, but… life intervenes. You might just stand there down the back of the boat, which on normal days ferries divers out to the islands, and scan the horizon, watching… watching… maybe following the thunderstorms as they work their ways each day along the ranges behind Manado, spotting their gloom and spitting their lightning and dumping their enormous raindrops theatrically on the lush countryside. Or maybe you just gaze deeply and wistfully into the middle distance, contemplating those worries you’ve left at home.
Sometimes, in the middle of the strait, you’ll plough through a blanket of flotsam, kilometres wide, of discarded plastic bottles, empty tetrapaks, of plastic shopping bags. The bags hover sinisterly a metre or so beneath the surface, teasing turtles into thinking they might be food, dooming them to a slow death as the plastic clogs their internal systems. You hear about this deadly blanket on the ocean through the meeja back home, but the scale and the threat don’t really register until you experience it directly. Practice always is a better educator than theory.
Curiously, while this obnoxious bobbing sea occupies the middle of the strait, it’s largely absent once we reach our swimming zones along the reefs on the other side. It’s carried along by the currents, which scoot through the kilometre-deep channels between these islands, coming from somewhere and going somewhere else. Where will it land, where some innocent locals will have to deal with the pieces of it that haven’t already been ingested by sea life? On our last swim day, the current on the outgoing tide turns a 1.8km cross-channel swim into a 3.5km journey. On our penultimate swim day, it makes the difference between a complete 3.5km island circumnavigation and a two-hour, 2.8km study of the island’s northern reef. So it’s to be respected.
You get a lot from just scanning the horizon on this voyage, imagining what lies beyond. We’re at the bottom of the Celebes Sea, which is where, as little children, we always thought the world’s salt came from. Behind, it’s the Sulawesi mainland; over that way, to the nor’-west, it’s Borneo with its orang-utans; and oop north, it’s The Philippines, with its vigilante squads, empowered by a new President, taking out “drug dealers” on suspicion. Let’s not head too far north, skipper.
As you leave the mainland, the sea is dotted with fish farms – basic, wooden structures, like small huts, like tiny oil drilling platforms, anchored in place and equipped with floodlights that are switched on to attract fish at night. The “farms” drop a net below, then scoop up the attracted fish for sale to tuna boats as live bait. Simple, really. In the Third World full of incongruities, the lights are solar-powered. The farms will anchor in place for a few days, then their owners will move them somewhere else as the catch diminishes in one spot, in favour of another with fresher prospects. It’s a big industry.
Ahead of us on the horizon are the Bunaken Islands themselves: Manadotua on the left, a volcano that dominates the seascape; Bunaken island on the right. Behind is Siladen, a relative dot of an island with perhaps the healthiest, lushest coral reef over which we’ve ever swum, through perhaps the clearest water. Two more big islands sit way behind, but they’re a bit distant to be of interest to us right now.
So you gaze contemplatively, faux-purposefully, into the distance. It’s silent, but for the chug of the diesel engine. There are 13 of us swimmer mugs on the boat and three crew: Chris (Kres), Stenley, and Brandon. Sadat and Maxy are off today. Most of them are either skippers or dive masters. Indonesia is an harmonious cultural and religious melting pot, at least in northern Sulawesi. The boat bobs along.
Then one of the crew yells, throwing his finger out to guide the skipper: “Dolphins!” and the bi-nose of the twin-hulled Divers III heaves obediently in the direction of a pointing finger. A hundred metres away, in the middle of the strait, there’s a fin breaking the surface. Then a dolphin leaps from the water (what’s it called, apart from “dolphining”, when a dolphin breaks the surface of the water with its entire body to breathe?)… Then another fin… And another one leaps… One shoots out and seems to stand on its tail, laughing at us and spinning around. They are spinner dolphins. Apparently, this is called a “spy-hop”. Then three dolphin out in parallel, a metre apart from each other, as if they’re practising for the synchronised swimming at the Olympics. Then around the nose of the boat, from nowhere, a dozen dolphins emerge from the deep and swim across our bows, racing the boat through the Celebes Sea, competing for the bow wave, veering left, dolphining over the top of each other, veering right, diving down deep, dolphining over the top of each other again. Then another school joins from the left, veering, dolphining, leaping… And another school from the right… Maybe 40-50 in all from three sub-schools.
They’re in this spot because there’s a fishing boat nearby. Dolphins love to eat fish, and the fishing boat means there must be fish around. There certainly are dolphins.
Another sub-pod joins from the right and a speckled Mrs Sparkle cries, “There’s a speckled one!” And it is. “That’s yours, love,” we say. “That must be Dolphy.”
It does have spots, all the way down its back from its fin to its tail. Another has what looks like a band-aid on its back about a foot ahead of its tail. We can pick out all this detail because the dolphins are little more than a metre away from us, crammed onto the twin noses of the boat, and the water is so clear that watching them beneath us is like watching them through a newly cleaned window at the aquarium. It’s not an aquarium where the sharks are more scarium; it’s an aquarium where the dolphins are hairium through the water, darting here and there, switching places, crossing over and under, sideways and around. They’re playing. One website says, “Scientists believe that dolphins conserve energy by swimming alongside ships, a practice known as bow-riding”.
It goes on for 15 minutes, and the boat goes around in circles, around and around, until the dolphins lose interest, or the crew does. One by one, they veer right off or dive right down, and in seconds they’ve gone from a dozen or so around the bows to nothing left at all. But we’ve been hyperventilating. This is the third time we’ve experienced this in this stretch of water, and the second time this week. And the dolphins must know something: the first time they appeared to us this week was on our first swim day out, and this time is our last swim day out. They’ve greeted us, and now they’re kissing us goodbye.
We all have our eccentricities, and one of life’s pervasive eccentricities is religion. In the West, we are, we understand, guaranteed freedom of religion, and many oddballs and charlatans have taken full advantage of this by setting up their own outfits, gaining tax-free status, avoiding council rates, and milking their communities for all they’re worth. Some people tire of others forcing dodgy creeds down their throats, as Rex Mossop would have put it, and we are no different. So, visiting Rome last year, Mrs Sparkle and we decided to set up our own religion with our own deity. But what should it be? Whom should we choose as a deity? Whom or what should we worship?
Then Mrs Sparkle had an epiphany. Who or what was the purest, most ethical, fun-loving, organic entity of which we could think? Who or what would provide the most wholesome role model for their disciples? Who or what could be relied upon to provide unerringly an example of lifestyle and attitude that could not be challenged as corrupt or immoral? Being of the ocean swimming persuasion, the answer was not hard to find. It was a dolphin.
“I think we should become followers of a dolphin,” she said to us, over pasta at Ristorante Gustosando. “We should call her/im, ‘Dolphy’.”
Thus was born Dolphism. Its followers are Dolphists. We are Dolphists. From that moment, Dolphy has always been with us, and we are the oracles of Dolphy.
To crown it, next day we walked to the Vatican, a couple of kilometres down the road. The Pope was away in the United States at the time, where he had his hands full, his attention distracted from affairs at home. So the joint was empty of clerics, apart from George Pell, who wasn’t going anywhere, least of all to Strãa. Absent its guv’na, thousands of punters still streamed into the place, and the square was set up with rows of chairs as if ready for the regular Wensdee audience. As we shuffled beneath the portico that surrounds St Peter’s Square, a tour guide with an American accent entered the square leading a pair of punters. “This is it,” he said adoringly, for this was his meal ticket. “Some people talk about spiritual places, but this is the real thing.”
Think about it, if need be. Those punters paid for that. And there was more: “See,” he told his punters, gesturing at the rows of empty chairs. “The square is set up for the weekly audience.” It was Wednesday, Francis was in the US, and he was a professional tour guide on his signature beat.
We nudged each other, guffawing privately, as we approached one of the twin fountains towards the side of the square. And there, as we stood, fingertips frolicking in the water baptistically, we slipped Dolphy silently, metaphorically into the pond, thereafter a squatter in the world’s most spiritual place contemporaneously absent its guv’na.
Thus we became the world’s first Dolphists, confident in the conviction that our spiritual calling is as good as any other. And our deity already had he/is own HQ, squatting in “the real thing” of spiritual abodes.
We’re not a large religion, we know. Since then, however, we have grown by 50 per cent with the conversion of our nephew’s wife. When we tweeted video of the dolphin interaction documented here, she responded on social meeja within minutes all the way from Strãa: “Praise Dolphy!” So we know she’s still good.
Anyway, we told you that story so the rest of it, back in the Cerebos Sea, made sense. “That must be Dolphy!” came the call, with the fervour of a still exultant convert, as the spinner dolphin with speckles on its back surged ahead of the bow that bore Mrs Sparkle towards the Bunaken Islands National Park. If you were a credulous soul, the entire incident, the interaction, was so glorious that you would believe it really was Dolphy, who is just as credible and just as meritorious as any other deity. Indeed, more so in our hearts, as Dolphism is based on example and role modeling, not prescription, threats, or brow-beating.
It was a special place and it was a special oceanswimsafari. The water was warm, 28-30 degrees Celsius, and of what seemed like absolute clarity. In a week of swimming along the reefs and across the channels, we thought we felt one tiny bite from a jelly baby, just one, and that is all. There were no other stingers. There were many fish of myriad colours, lots of waving and stoic coral and sea plants, so many turtles that you give up counting them. After a few score, they don’t seem special any more. A deity might scorn such a disrespectful thought, but Dolphy is not judgmental. Dolphy just sets examples, that happen to be idyllic.
One of us saw a reef shark fleetingly, and we saw a school of tuna jumping out of the water in the distance one day. The environment was so benign, so pristine, so welcoming that it felt the most natural feeling possible to be wallowing in that sea. It was luxuriant. It was too warm for reef sharks, we were told: they preferred cooler water so remained lower down – the reefs drop off a kilometre or more in some places – and all the big stuff was so well fed that they remained disinterested in the peloton bobbing abart above them. We must have looked a little strange to them, as they looked up at us from below, like George Evatt with his underwater housing.
This region attracts many divers, mainly from Holland, but a few, occasionally, from Strãa, which is how we learnt of it. But we are, we think, the first swim group to visit the Bunaken Islands for the caper up to which we get. True, there’s a new direct flight from Shanghai into Manado and it’s already pouring planeloads of Chinese tourists into North Sulawesi. The target is 10,000 per month, we were told by some in the tourist industry, their eyes gleaming. We saw them off the islands: they’re the ones clad in life jackets, snorkels and masks, gripping for dear life onto liferafts. Can any of them swim?
What we did see, inter alia, was the most beautiful reef over which we’ve ever swum. Beautiful not so much in colours – coral reef is never as colourful in actuality as it appears in picture books, after some smarty artist has touched it up in Photoshop – but in health, in abundance, in – here’s that word again – luxuriance.
Where we noticed it most was during our attempted circumnavigation of Siladen, a small island behind Bunaken. Around the southern end of Siladen, the drop-off from the reef is as close as 20 metres from the beach, before ranging out as you swim north as far as 500 metres. We rounded the northern end into an out-going tide with a current of what seemed like several knots. It gave us plenty of time to study individual coral heads and wafting plants.
Here, to save distance, we cut in over the reef, breaking a golden rule that the standard safest course is along the drop-off. The reason for this is that, over coral reef, you need water beneath your keel, you’ll see more and a greater diversity of life – including big things -- and you cannot lose your way: if you follow the drop-off around an island, you will eventually get to your destination. It’s hard to get lost. It’s like, “Just keep Strãa on your left”. Sometimes, though, if the drop-off is far out, you might cut in to save distance but then the other criteria come into play, particularly water beneath the keel. Our golden rule is that you don’t swim over shallow reef because you might suddenly find yourself beached on coral, and one of the worst things that can happen to you – and this is extremely dangerous – is to be cut by coral.
The other downside of cutting in over reef is that, the shallower the water, the faster the current. So a shortcut might save distance, but it may not save time because the shorter distance takes longer to swim. With a deeper bottom, a given volume of water has more room to move, so it moves more languidly. If it has less room, such as over a shallow reef, it will move more urgently. This is why there are some swims in the Pacific that we don’t like, because they are over shallow reef with stronger currents. Heron Island has strong currents, but part of the swim is against the current, and part of it with the current. Indeed, working with Heron Island Resort, we set a course and a swim start time that seeks to take advantage of those currents and to minimise their resistance.
We spent considerable time over Siladen’s northern reef in a current so strong that, when we emerged from the water almost two hours after diving in, we fell more than a kilometre short of our 3.5km round trip. (Another of our golden rules in locations such as this, pretty well right on the equator in high summer – Siladen is just over one degree north of the equator – is that we limit our time in the water, exposed to the sun, to around an hour.)
There’s more to these places than swimming. In a week in Sulawesi, we have six days of activity. We program four days of swimming with two swims each day, and two days of land-based excursions. One day, we send our punters off on a tour of the highlands behind Manado; the other, we go whitewater rafting, 9km down a river about 90 minutes’ drive from our digs. Our digs is LumbaLumba, a dive resort whose nine rooms we are able to fill, thus preventing any distraction from pesky divers who might want to command the Divers III.
The whitewater rafting is an adventure. The Highlands Tour is something else, for it includes a visit to the Extreme Market. This actually is its name. This is a section of the market in a market town up in the hills that specialises in “extreme” produce. We’re talking about pythons (fillets and steaks cut from the whole), bats (wings sold separately from bodies), rats on sticks (whole, to show their thick tails, proof that they’re bush rats, not domestic), roast dogs… Some of this requires a strong stomach and a resilient heart, but we pride ourselves on offering punters a cultural experience, not just a swimming experience. We’re masking nothing from you. If you really want to get the flavour of a place, as it were, then you’ll appreciate what we’re doing.
Lumbalumba was built and is run by a Dutch couple, Roel (pron. Rule), who looks like an elongated Craig Riddington, and his partner, Ute. They make a play of the resort’s elevation above sea level. This is a place where memories of the Boxing Day tsunami have yet to fade. From the dining area, from the accommodation higher up the precipitous hill, and from the adjacent wet-edge pool, there is a spectacular view out over the sea to Manadotua and the Bunaken Islands.
It’s fairy tale stuff.
And here’s something interesting: Lumbalumba means, “Dolphin”.
Praise Dolphy, indeed.