In Which We Dive an Undersea Volcano
Indonesia is not, let us say, short on dive sites.
And, when you can snorkel with giant manta rays, turtles and jellyfish defanged by evolution off Pulau Derawan in Borneo and see pretty much all the Togian islands have to offer (bar the plane) without fronting up for cylinders and BCD, it makes sense for any traveler with more time than money to be a little picky about where they actually dive.
An active undersea volcano, fringed with bright corals, falls well into the “yep, I’ll dive that!” category. One of almost 50 newly catalogued dive sites off Halmahera in East Indonesia, it nestles just offshore from Galela, only a couple of hours by dive boat from Tobelo.
The pure black sand beach, glittering with shards of mother of pearl, fringed by coconut palms and encircled by rocky coves full of lobsters, submarine hot springs and coral means there’s plenty for snorkellers too.
But descending into the crater itself? Wow!
The coral around Halmahera has suffered from dynamite fishing (now banned) – with the exception of the west coast, where a longstanding military base has meant explosions of any kind are a VERY bad idea.
As early as five metres, we see gorgeous fan corals, gigantic feathery, heathery creations which waft like slender pink and purple ferns in the current. Sparkling reef fish flitter through bright, branching tabular corals in gold, orange and yellow, like a myriad butterflies in a fantasy garden.
Descend further? And, oh my lord. A narrow swim-through between bright, towering overhangs populated by seaslugs, nudibranch, flirting reef fish and even the odd seahorse, opens dramatically to reveal schooling fish, swarming like bees, enormous groupers, the odd barracuda, squadrons of pennant fish trailing dorsal fins like banners striped in yellow, black and white…
Steam from the lava below emerges generally as hot springs, making the water shimmer with marine heat haze, though clouds of sandy smoke form an underwater echo of the clouds of gritty ash which burp from the low volcanoes on the mainland.
And then, there it is, the crater edge. Tiny, star-shaped violet corals flower like underwater daisies on coral skeletons and volcanic pebbles dyed a ferric orange and sand whose bony pallor calls to mind volcanic dust. It’s almost unbelievably beautiful.
I’ve said before that diving’s like flying. Here you’re finning, soaring over the edge, down into an active volcano, into a classic cone with vents hissing oily mineral steam around you.
The fish get bigger, the hot springs more dramatic, with slabs of coral still bright even at this depth, furry soft corals flourishing on the death of the old, the sort of nudibranches (bright, underwater critters) that get experts who’ve seen the big stuff a zillion times all excited.
We descend to 32 metres, by my gauge (memo to self: must buy a dive computer), 25 by the divemaster’s account. Deep enough for me, anyway, to get a hit of “hello trees, hello flowers, hello volcano!” nitrogen narcosis equivalent to a large martini or a medium reefer.
You know. Or maybe you don’t. You get a fin in the face. Figure you should stay still a while until the finning folk are safely out of face range.
So you just hover there, 100+ feet under the sea, gurning at the lovely daisies and the furry corals, while your left brain says, “Woot! Crater! We must go deeper! Woo! Down to the bottom, babe!”, your right brain says, “You’re narced. Don’t be f*cking stupid”.
Then your left brains says, “Woot! We’re hovering! We’re flying, man! Let’s reach down and stroke those purdy corals!” And your right brain, regardless, does all the sensible stuff like checking your remaining air, your pressure, the whereabouts of your dive buddy plus divemaster, and taking you back up…
To those dazzling rocky walls. And a truncation after the chick who’s diving with us hits her head, barrel rolls, can’t see us and surfaces far too fast.
I look around. She’s nowhere. Not above me. Not below me. Not behind me. Not in front of me. Not to either side of me…
The dive master signals me to stay and powers off upwards, and I misinterpret his: “Stay there, I’ll come back and complete the dive if everything’s OK” signals as “Follow me.”
At 5 metres, my legs tiring with his speed and my brain (totally unnarced by now) beginning to worry, he does the same shit again. I read it as “Stay there, count off your 5-metre safety stop and then surface.” Which, to his bewilderment, I do.
Though, in all honesty, I don’t think hanging out solo at 20+ metres is a smart idea for anyone sans dive computer or time piece. Let alone a muppet like me…
Actually, for a pretty new diver like me, this was a fairly challenging dive. My weighting was uneven – for some reason, there was only one weightbelt between three – which, combined with quite a bit of mild but unpredictable current means you list and roll like a pissed-up sailor until your leg muscles make friends with your brain and allow your instincts to take over.
The oily, thermocline heat haze from the vents dramatically reduces visibility once you’re in one, while sending you upwards if you don’t adjust your buoyancy fast. It’s not as dramatic as in the freshwater volcano lake I dived back in Coron, but the lower visibility here meant much less advance warning.
Anywise… A second dive is technically easier (Lynn and I chat, and buddy up more firmly: we go from a 3-0 formation to a 2-1). More dazzling corals, more gorgeous reef fishes, more big fellas, more sparkling colour.
The highlight? A deep, dark maw in a coral cliff, black, vertiginous and terrifying as an entrance to the mouth of Hades, whence an ominous warmth and murky fragments issue forth, and lobsters, inter alia, hang out enjoying the warmth.
Now, I’m no expert. But I’m guessing this place would be paradise for diving geeks, and quite possibly marine biologists too. There are at least four known bird species unique to Halmahera, plus several butterflies – and these are only the ones that folk have bothered to classify.
God knows how many uncatalogued species are hanging out down here, just waiting for those with the technical skills and knowledge to handle the conditions and identify them.
At the surface, we catch up with my spawn, who’s been enjoying snorkeling in the company of the friends we’re hanging out with (and splashing about with me between dives).
We agree that Yus, our divemaster, will take him down to 5 or 6 metres on his secondary air-source using some of his remaining air, while I follow behind on some of mine as a reserve in case any shit goes wrong.
Junior, who’d been a little miffed that the dive centre’s smallest dive kit was a medium (on the big side even for me), and the site was too deep for him to dive, plugs in like a right little trouper. And he finally gets his chance to add an undersea volcano to his fairly impressive tally of live volcanoes explored.
We find an enormous lobster nestled below an orange coral, surrounded by lurid purple anemones trailing tendrils like feathers. Soar over those spiky coral bushes, one a brilliant scarlet. Progress through the oily texture of thermoclines. He’s still talking about the scarlet corals today.
Like I say, I’m no expert. But if you’re in the area, go do this thing. It’s beautiful. And if you’ve never dived before, go learn. With or without the narc effect, it’s the closest most of us will get to space travel.
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The dive centre on Kakara beach lies a kilometer or so off Tobelo harbour and has two simple rooms for 200,000 rupiah (including breakfast). Dive prices vary according to numbers, but even a solo diver can buy three dives with divemaster Yus, including equipment and diveboat, for a million rupiah ($110).
The centre is only staffed when visitors express an interest. Contact Yus via the North Halmahera Tourism Office.