Posted September 26 ’12

Scuba diving is my current obsession.  In the past 10 months I’ve been to the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Fakarava and most recently North Sulawesi in Indonesia.  I used to go on surf trips to exotic places but with increased popularity of the sport the crowds have grown, even in the most remote areas, and so more and more I’m finding that I prefer to be alone under the water.  Theses days I dream about being submerged, the weightlessness, free-floating, the peace, weird critters, the light and the beauty of the ocean’s floor.


Katie Arnoldi submerged

This obsession is not really new.  People talk about beloved books or movies from their childhood, early influences that help chart the course of their lives.  For me the pivotal character was Diver Dan.  A TV show made in the late ‘50’s and early 60’s, Diver Dan spent his days underwater with his friends the fish (played by crude puppets) and Miss Minerva the mermaid.  The show was shot through an aquarium.  It’s fantastic.  I watched as a very little girl and it has stuck with me for fifty years.   To this day, the opening credits of waves crashing on a rocky beach still triggers an intense longing to get in the ocean.


Diver Dan’s helmet

Unlike surfing, scuba diving is not really a sport.  It’s bobbing around under water, breathing air, looking at cool stuff.  Yes, there are safety skills that must be mastered but anyone can do it.  You don’t really even need to know how to swim.  So it’s confusing to me when I run into divers with the superior attitudes of elite athletes. These people are easy to spot.  They call sharks pelagics and use Latin names to describe common reef fish.  They pull out their logbooks as an excuse to brag about number of dives.  They namedrop photographic marine conquests and travel with more gear than the rest of us.  They’ll push you out of the way to get their underwater picture.   For the record, I am not a scuba snob.  I’m a sightseer, a submarine tourist.  I like hanging out underwater and can even be talked into sitting at the bottom of your swimming pool—if it’s warm enough.  But I do have a soft spot for the big stuff.  Maybe that’s a function of being a meathead ex-bodybuilder but I love immense sharks and mantas and gigantic schools of barracuda.  Please oh please let me eventually see a whale shark.  Every time I jump in the water and start my descent I say a little pray, “Scare me.  Just a little.”


Hammerhead by Natalie Arnoldi

So anyway, I just got back from North Sulawesi.  I knew that this was not the place for big animals and I only saw one shark in the entire time I was there.  I spent a couple of days diving in Bunaken Marine Park, which is in theory protected, but there were no tuna, no barracuda, not a single large school of fish.  What the area is known for is macro diving (a term that refers to the camera lens you’ll to need if you want to take pictures of the stuff you’re going to see).  I don’t have macro lenses on my eyeballs and so a lot of the time I had to struggle to see the clear shrimp-like things that were hanging out in the anemones and such.  But I did see some really cool things.  Seahorses, ribbon eels, blue ring octopus, sea snakes, boxfish.  The weirdest stuff lives in the mucky silt and debris on the black sand bottom of the Lembeh Strait.   Muck diving is like dropping into a dark, post-apocalyptic world filled with cast off tires, and empty bottles.  The big prize down there is the mimic octopus and after a few dives I was lucky enough to see one.


Mimic Octopus

Thaumoctopus Mimicus was discovered in 1998 off the coast of Sulawesi.  Growing up to 24 inches, it is unique in its ability to imitate more than 15 different species.  Lionfish, brittle stars, giant crabs, sea anemones, this thing can change shape and color in an instant.  The mimic that I saw started out as banded sea snake swimming quickly along the ocean floor.  My dive guide Ratno had a long metal prod with which he gently cornered and then irritated the hell out of the beautiful creature.  I watched as this amazing animal switched its body from black and white snake to brown stingray in an instant.  I’m sure it would have continued to morph if provoked but after the switch we let it swim off as a ray.

Mimic as toxic flat fish

I spent the rest of the week searching for another mimic but they are hard to find in that murky world.  It was a total privilege to have seen the one—well worth the long trip.

North Sulawesi is beautiful in many ways but there is a tremendous problem with pollution and over-fishing.  I watched people dump their trashcans right into the ocean and I didn’t even ask what the small villages are doing about the sewage.

Fishing hut in Lembeh

There is traditional fishing in small boats and huts but it seems that commercial operations are depleting the area quickly.  I wish I’d visited this area thirty years ago.  I feel lucky that I got there when I did.

Katie Arnoldi in North Sulawesi