It may be hard to get to, but it’s worth the effort. The Indonesian island of Una Una was deserted after a volcanic eruption but now has the beginning of an exciting diving future
At first, I thought the stories told by travelling divers were too fantastic to be true. A lost island a few kilometres from the Equator, that had been devastated by a volcano 40 years ago. How the population had fled, and that today a few have returned to find an island devoid of monkeys but full of exotic birds. Surrounded by some of the best coral in Indonesia (that’s some claim!) with strange swarms of pufferfish blanketing the reefs. Vast pods of pilot whales patrolling an expansive bay. A solar-powered dive centre providing nitrox for every dive, where they work with the local fishers to discover new and wonderful dive sites.
It all sounded incredible. However, the more I heard about Una Una the better it seemed. It is located far out in the Gulf of Tomini, which is one of the chunks of ocean that indent the vast Indonesian island of Sulawesi to form its distinctive ‘K’ shape. There is a stunning nearby jellyfish lake. You can trek right into the bubbling, noxious caldera of the volcano. There is a laid-back dive centre that works with the islanders to prepare them for the changes tourism could inflict on their idyll. The centre sometimes has to send the credit card machine by ferry to other islands to get a signal to process client payments. Oh, and the diving is pristine and fabulous. I was hooked! I had to get there, to see if the tales my travelling friends told when they stopped over on my base in Gili Trawangan near Lombok were true.
Just getting to Una Una was going to be an epic challenge. First, the short ferry ride to Lombok, then a much longer ferry ride to Bali, a flight to central Sulawesi, an hour’s taxi journey to the ferry port of Gorontalo, followed by a 12-hour overnight trip to the Togean island of Wakai, where I would be met by a boat from the dive centre for a 40-minute speedboat hop to a different world.
Una Una is the northernmost of the 56 Togean islands and the only one with an active volcano. It was once the regional centre, with a population of more than 10,000 supported by a healthy trade in copra, mainly to Malaysia (Una Una means coconut in Malayan and the island is also often known as Ringgit Island – Malaysia’s currency). But everyone fled the island in advance of the 1983 eruption of Gunung Colo, leaving it deserted for a generation. Slowly, some people drifted back and today there is a population touching a thousand.
The only building which survived the pyroclastic flow of hot gas and molten volcanic matter which engulfed the island was the mosque – one of the oldest in Central Sulawesi, dating back to 1804. The roads have never been repaired, cars (thankfully) have not returned and, neither have the island’s monkeys – all killed by the eruption’s poisonous fumes. The jungle, which quickly re-grew, is now populated with an awesome display of birds, including the Togean hawk-owl, the Togean white-eye and the grosbeak sparrow – all endemic.
The Sanctum Resort is a couple of kilometres from the village of Una Una (there are two other small villages on the island) and a few light years from the modern world of pre-packaged commercial holiday diving you find in so many resorts. Perhaps this is what dive resorts such as Sharm El Sheikh felt like in the Sixties, or Bunaken did in the Seventies.
It is managed and part-owned by Anni Kytömäki, 32, who comes from a small town near Helsinki. She has been there for a couple of years, has married Fatur, a local man, and is heavily involved with the local community. She helps run education projects with the island’s children, focussing on issues such as coral protection and mangrove conservation. While the local reefs are still in good condition and the fringing mangroves have not been ripped down to make way for tourist development, Anni thinks it makes good sense to prepare the local community so that such possibilities don’t come to pass.
The resort is as laid-back as you can get. Basic, but wonderful. For your entertainment, you have the best night sky imaginable – who needs Wi-Fi when you have the Milky Way? You eat together with the staff and other guests, and the food is fresh, mostly sourced from Anni’s impressive vegetable garden, the jungle or the reef. The rooms are mostly breeze-cooled (some have aircon), wooden-walled and have glorious views of sea or jungle. The showers are warm and the beds comfortable. The only thing that could disturb your reverie is when Anni jumps up in the night to shout at the bats to scare them away from her precious papaya.
Most importantly, the diving is something else. Huge outcrops of coral, barrel sponges big enough to encase a diver, fish stocks to rival the best in Indonesia, big walls with dramatic drop-offs, forests of gorgonia, plenty of predators and all this no more than a 10-minute boat trip from Sanctum. The island has been spared the horrors of dynamite fishing and the local fishers take a fierce pride in protecting their reefs.
Sanctum’s house reef is a night dive to dream about. Candy crabs, skeleton shrimps, Shaun the Sheep nudibranchs and a host of other delights, infest a small, sunken, wooden fishing boat and the surrounding coral outcrops. Further offshore it gets better and better with each new dive site the crew discover. They have invested in two scooters, and with the help of the local fishers are discovering stunning new sites on a regular basis. Top of the list is searching out the rumours of a spot out in the Gulf of Tomini where largish schools of scalloped hammerheads are said to rise from the depths.
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Most of the diving is fairly gentle, and the one site that does have a walloping current is blessed with a giant school of barracuda. If you are lucky you might witness a bizarre natural phenomenon, that as far as Anni knows, only happens around Una Una – a mass gathering of whitebelly tobies (Canthigaster bennetti). These medium-sized pufferfish (as big as 90mm) are common across the Indo-Pacific and are normally seen singly or in small groups, feeding on algae or small invertebrates, and are known by a multitude of common names such as Bennett’s puffer, pink-spotted sharpnose pufferfish, roseband puffers and exquisite tobies. Around Una Una every three months or so they aggregate in their tens of thousands. The local fishers stop work as these are a poor catch, covered in toxic mucus. The dive guides told me that at first it is fun but you quickly get frustrated not being able to see anything but clouds of pufferfish – and they eat all the nudibranchs! They spawn and after ten days, as suddenly as they arrived, they are gone.
If swarms are your thing, you can also check out Lake Mariona on the small and uninhabited island of Katupat which is brimming with delicate and very beautiful stingless jellyfish. This is probably the most reliable of the handful of places dotted across the Coral Triangle where you can swim with stingless jellies as, besides being extremely remote and therefore very quiet, the gelatinous blobs are present year-round – not the case in other such lakes.
On returning to Una Una we were escorted by a huge pod of pilot whales leaping from the water as they played in our bow wave. The scenery was stunning, with dramatic karst outcrops rising from the sea, covered with vibrant jungle growth. We stopped at a small Bajau village – the semi-nomadic, indigenous people who live on and from the sea scattered across the region from Thailand to the Philippines.
Another day trip not to miss is the hike up to the crater of Mount Colo volcano. As the road was down, we took a small boat to the other side of the island to what I thought was a dried river bed snaking up into the jungle. In fact, it was one of the lava flows from the 1983 eruption, which now forms the perfect path through the dense vegetation for the 90-minute trek up the 500 metres of the mountain. As you rise, you cross more and more streams of increasingly hot water until you reach a vast caldera some two kilometres across, belching sulphurous steam.
A fairly easy rope climb, if you are acclimatised to the heat and humidity, takes you up into the crater. Less than 40 years ago this exploded, sending dense yellow clouds five kilometres into the sky and spewing molten lava and noxious gases over the island. Volcanic ash reached as far as East Kalimantan, nearly 1,000km away. Today it bubbles and burps in a minor but still malevolent manner, with plumes of steam rising from the hot, but thankfully mostly solid rocks. It is the only active volcano I have ever seen – strangely fascinating and slightly terrifying.
Get to Una Una soon, to experience the best of tropical diving before the rest arrive. Raw, and full of possibilities with the best intentions of an exceptional dive team.