MY LAST DAY OF DIVING at Prince John Resort, and I am in two minds about repeating a shore-dive to the house reef and Green Wall. A dive there on my first day had not been good. A current that I could only just make progress against, murky visibility and no worthwhile critters found, except for a long-nosed hawkfish.
There had been a constant buzz of speedboats overhead, taking off from the beach of the resort next door at full throttle towing banana rides behind. Navigation back to a precise entry point had taken on a new level of criticality with the lurking threat of a propeller haircut, and even then the speedboats sometimes zipped along our shoreline rather than shooting straight out to sea.
My first impression had been underwhelming. Did I really want to repeat the experience when there were other sites I hadn’t dived yet?
Manager Alex persuades me to give it another go.
It’s amazing how two dives on the same site can be so different. Today the resort next door is quiet – it’s busy only at weekends and public holidays, when it fill with locals from Palu. Visibility is good and the current just a trickle, enough to carry off any minor sand disturbances and orient the fish in the same direction.
Guide Manning is finding critters faster than I can photograph them, though I suppose “finding” could be a misleading term, as this is a site he dives most days. He knows in which gorgonian the pygmy seahorse lives, and which the long-nosed hawkfish prefers.
The ribbon eel has a hole to call home and various anemones host resident shrimps and porcelain crabs. Had I been looking for wide-angle photographs, the forest of green tree coral that gives Green Wall its name would have sparkled against a clean blue background.
PRINCE JOHN RESORT lies on the western tip of Talise Bay, a few kilometres outside the port of Dongala and just over an hour by car from the city of Palu, the regional capital for central Sulawesi at the back of the bay.
It’s a convenient short flight from Jakarta, so as well as a stock of international divers it also has regular domestic and expat guests. The other attraction is an economically priced bit of everything from muck to walls and wrecks. It’s a taster menu for Indonesian diving, but with less travel than some of the more remote locations.
The mouth of Talise Bay is seven miles wide, or about 90 minutes of chugging away in the traditional wooden boat the dive-centre uses for day trips.
It takes an hour longer on the day trip I make, because we head further out along the opposite coastline before we reach the wall at Botu Saya.
It’s one of those walls you know has to be good. One end of the boat is over the shallow water, where we can look down from the bow at individual corals and fish. Amidships we can look straight down into a blue so dark it looks deeper than any diver would sensibly go.
Splash, and a few metres down I feel a mild thermocline. The water temperature is always in the high 20s, and several of the divers go without wetsuits. I feel comfortable with a loose-fitting 3mm.
All the guides have matching custom wetsuits. Manager Alex orders a new batch each season, off-the-peg suits to fit Indonesians being hard to find.
As divers spread out along the wall, it’s easy to separate my guide Nasrun from the others. He has been guiding for 20 or more years and seems to be carrying every bit of kit he has ever owned like a string of medals – a Christmas tree of kit that would make DIR purists quake in their Jetfins. He also wears a bright orange hardhat.
I MUST WATCH MY DEPTH. It’s the usual big-wall temptation – neutrally buoyant with horizontal trim, my eyes look at what is just forward and below me. I’ll just nip down a bit for a good angle on that sponge. I’ll just nip down for a better angle on that black coral.
I’ll just nip down a bit for that field of gorgonians. Can I get under the chin of that grouper? I wonder what’s beneath that overhang?
Every so often I take a sanity check, rise 10m or so to get my bottom time and gas consumption under control, and the process repeats.
It’s not the best dive profile, but I take my time over the depth changes, and am deep enough that the pressure ratio is less severe than it would be in shallow water.
I spend a good 30 minutes using up gas in the shallows at the end of the dive.
The lip of the wall rises too shallow for my safety-stop in places. We can hear the rain falling. Looking up, I see raindrops splashing into the surface. We prolong the stop until we are the last onto the boat.
Our captain points the boat back along the coastline while we eat lunch and spend a few hours decompressing before diving another wall at Eriu.
I had planned to change to a macro lens, but the rain dictates a change of plan and I take wide-angle pics of Nasran pointing out pygmy seahorses, barrel-sponge squat lobsters, nudibranchs and all the usual suspects. By the time we surface the sun is out, and you would hardly think it had been raining.
The morning I have been waiting for arrives. It’s time to dive the Gili Raja, an Indonesian ship carrying military supplies that was bombed and sunk while anchored off Dongala during the Permesta rebellion (see panel).
Alex gives us a thorough briefing and carries a couple of bail-out tanks just in case. The seabed beneath the bow is 51m, though we limit our dive to 48m. When it comes to bottom time and narcosis at depth, every little helps.
The wreck lies on its starboard side, bow slightly deeper. In many ways it is like other deep wrecks in tropical conditions – deep enough to be in really clear water; black corals, sponges and gorgonians hanging from masts and railings. As a “modern” ship, it has a steel superstructure and an easily accessible engine-room with diesel engine located aft. The rudder and steel propeller are still in place.
HOWEVER, IT’S THE CARGO of military trucks, Jeeps and an armoured car piled in the holds that make the Gili Raja different. It was equipment destined for government forces fighting the rebels.
From the stern we follow the gently rising sand back to the shallow reef, a mass of thorny corals in good condition, considering that they’re just outside a town and working harbour.
I don’t manage to fit the smaller and shallower steamship Moro into my schedule. Alex says it’s a less interesting wreck because the holds are empty and the visibility less good.
Instead I dive on an old Admiralty-pattern anchor at Anchor Reef. It’s jammed into the edge of the reef and could originate from any time from 100 to 300 years ago.
Perhaps it was cut loose when it jammed, or the cable broke in a storm – no-one knows. Above it are spreads of table corals, some with small whitetip reef sharks hiding below.
Anchor Reef is the first of a chain of Pasi reefs running south outside Talise Bay. Each rises in a hump to just a few metres from the surface, though each meets the seabed at a different depth and has its own character.
At Pasi Utara, Nasrun finds me a boxer crab and what I like to think of as a ghost ghost pipefish – an ornate ghost pipefish so close to transparent that it’s a mere ghost of itself.
Having dived various types of reefs, walls and wreckage, the remaining star of diving in this part of the world is muck. It would be hard to find a site muckier than the Pelebuhan jetties at Dongala.
The old, smaller jetty has a greater covering of life, which provides both a richer habitat and good camouflage for critters. The new jetty 50m away offers less habitat for critters, but those that do live on it are easier to spot.
A typical dive plan is to swim among the legs of the old jetty, then cross the rocks and mud to the new jetty and follow the legs back out again. Or vice versa.
On my first dive we have two guides and four divers, so we split up and dive in opposite directions.
Ninety-five minutes later we have found a small cuttlefish, an ornate ghost pipefish and numerous shrimps and nudibranchs, several pairs of which are busy making more nudibranchs.
I can’t resist bringing up the old line of it being a nudi porn shoot.
FOR MY SECOND DIVE at the jetty and my last with Prince John, the guides adopt a different strategy. Both take the same route from old to new and, working together, find two frogfish in addition to everything we had seen previously. The nudibranchs are still at it.
Ninety or so minutes later, rather than end at the old jetty we continue along the harbour wall, in some places less than 2m deep on a shallow seabed of rocks and mud.
The area is a haven for muck-camouflaged bottom-dwellers – flying gurnards, dragonets, scorpionfish, stonefish, octopuses and quite a few devil scorpionfish. One of these is so well camouflaged that I don’t even notice it clinging to the back of the larger one I’m photographing until it jumps off. Have I interrupted something?
Camouflage takes many forms. What at a distance looks like another spike on an orange, black and white starfish turns out to be a tiny toby, a small pufferfish.
Neglecting camouflage completely, the area is inundated with mantis shrimps, many scuttling about in the open. Perhaps it’s the time of year, or maybe the shallow muck habitat.
Over two hours, and even in shallow water I’m breathing fumes from a 15-litre cylinder. If my regulator had become tight, I would have used my last few breaths to stand up. As it is, while washing kit back at the dive-centre later I have just enough gas left to blow off my regulator dust-cap.
Gili Raja and the Permesta Rebellion
The 1013-ton Indonesian motor ship Gili Raja was one of two ships bombed and sunk at anchor off Dongala on 28 April, 1958. Also sunk in the attack was the 549-ton Panamanian steamship Moro.
The attacking aircraft was a B26 Invader flown by ex-USAF pilot Allen Pope and operated by the CIA under the cover of the front organisation Civil Air Transport (CAT).
Pope, who had flown in the Korean War, was recruited by the CIA to fly for CAT in Indochina. Among other missions, he flew a C119 on the last supply air-drop to the besieged French forces at Dien Bien Phu, the day before they surrendered to communist forces on 6 May, 1954.
In 1957, while the USA publicly supported the Indonesian government the CIA was backing rebellion in Indonesia, afraid that President Sukarno’s “Guided Democracy” regime was leaning too close to communism.
The Permesta rebels, led by ex-Indonesian army officers, declared an independent state in north-east Sulawesi. Pope was one of two US CAT pilots sent to support the rebellion – others were Filipino and Nationalist Chinese.
Pope’s first mission in Indonesia was on 27 April, 1958, flying from the rebel-held air-force base in Manado. His B26 Invader was painted black to obscure all markings. Then, on 28 April, he flew a mission to central Sulawesi where he sank the Gili Raja and Moro off Dongala and attacked army trucks in Palu.
Pope flew further missions until, on 18 May, he was shot down by a combination of anti-aircraft fire and an Indonesian Air Force P51 Mustang while attacking a government troopship off Ambon.
Pope and his rebel radio-operator bailed out and were subsequently captured.
Confronted with the embarrassment of an American pilot captured flying for the rebels, the US ambassador tried to disown Pope as a mercenary. CIA orders were for pilots to fly without identification or documentation, an order largely ignored because documentation could be the only thing to save a pilot’s life if he was captured.
Flying logs and other documents carried by Pope provided public proof of CIA backing.
Pope was tried and condemned to death, but held under house arrest and eventually released on 2 July, 1962. The Permesta rebellion was soon over. In June 1958 government forces captured the Permesta-held territories.
CIA support for rebellion in Indonesia was withdrawn and the USA switched to supporting the Indonesian government against the communist party, the PKI. A small guerrilla war continued in the jungle until the last rebels surrendered in 1961 in return for a pardon.
The remaining B26s were quietly flown back to the USA – and were used in the 1961 Bay of Pigs attack on Cuba.
GETTING THERE: Fly Etihad to Jakarta, then Garuda to Palu. Both give an extended diver’s baggage allowance of 30kg.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Prince John Dive Resort, www.prince-john-dive-resort.com
WHEN TO GO: In western Sulawesi the monsoon runs from October to March, unlike the north. You can visit at any time, but May-September is ideal.
CURRENCY: Rupiah (100,000 is about £5).
PRICES: Flight prices vary greatly with seasonal demand, from £600-900 return. For domestic flights, allow just over £100 each way. Deluxe bungalow, 110 euros per night (two sharing). Ten-dive package, 274 euros. If you would like to discuss a trip to Prince John you can contact Dive Worldwide, www.diveworldwide.com
VISITOR INFORMATION: www.indonesia.travel