The Bunaken coral walls off the northern tip of Sulawesi, Indonesia, instill awe, reverence and an overwhelming sense of perpendicularity. Floating 130 feet below the ocean's surface along a 90-degree wall, with only the boundless sea behind you, can have that effect. Add a supporting cast of marine misfits (including banded sea snakes and bearded scorpion fish), and the scene becomes positively surreal. When you recast this stage at night, these spectral surroundings assume an extrasensory air -- a condition more commonly known as Indonesian night diving.
Sulawesi started to seep into our subconscious north of the Tibetan Plateau. We had been traveling through western China's Gansu Province when we met a Tahitian gentleman and his Danish girlfriend. That evening we shared an unsavory dinner of chicken neck stew at a local noodle house and started pining for our favorite burrito haunts back in the States. Our conversation eventually turned to diving (the large scuba fins strapped to our mountain packs prompted an inquiry) and he recommended Sulawesi. "If you're serious about diving in this part of the world, then head to Bunaken."
Two months later, we were idling in the Kuala Lumpur airport, waiting for our flight to Manado. A large, curly haired fellow approached and offered some spare Malaysian change. "I'm not going to need these," he reasoned. "Why don't you treat yourselves to an auto-massage. I've already had three of 'em."
He pointed to a row of coin-operated massage chairs, smiled and strode off toward the ticket counter.
Benny turned out to be a NAUI scuba instructor from Hawaii on his way to Murex, an outback scuba hideaway on the southern edge of Manado Bay. He casually invited us to join him, and two weeks later we were basking with Benny in the shadows of Manado Tua volcano, preparing our dive gear on the bow of an Indonesian longtail boat.
Before slipping into the dark depths of Bunaken that evening, I asked our captain if he had any advice for our maiden night dive into the Celebes Sea. "Just don't look away from the wall." I pressed him on the matter. "What do you mean?" I asked. "Aren't there things to see on the open ocean side at night?" He agreed that there were things to see in the open ocean, but added that "there is plenty to see on the wall. You don't need to look anywhere else." His words sounded more like a veiled warning than a piece of advice.
At first glance, however, the captain's recommendation made perfect sense. I had descended into a world of blinding, lucid color. The grand soft coral trees jutting into the inky seascape were glowing. The wall was awash in radiant pinks, oranges, reds, purples and blues. Upon further examination, I noticed that the wall was moving. Layers of crustaceans, in all shapes and sizes, were scurrying throughout the silent forest. Sheepish lionfish and steely leopard eels peered out from cracks and crevices. And there were invertebrates that made the "Star Wars" bar locals look like squares.
But I still felt the enduring lure of the unknown behind me.
Counter to our captain's advice, I strayed several times away from the wall. These occasional forays into the sable sea, however, were met with marginal success. A beam of light proved no match for the leagues of open ocean fringing the wall. So I abandoned my search and redirected my attention to the vertical reef. At this point my light went out. It was not the first time this had occurred. During a night dive off Hawaii's Kona Coast in 1986, my light flooded. Since that time, my night-diving excursions have been plagued by malfunctions, so I was familiar with the trouble-shooting protocol. I retrieved my backup light and continued with the dive.
As fate would have it, my backup light also failed. It was nearing the end of the dive and we were in shallow water, so I signaled for my buddy Jeremy to meet me on the surface. There I explained my predicament and we agreed to retrieve a third light from the boat and finish our dive.
We descended to 40 feet and my new light immediately died. I had 900 pounds per square inch left in my tank and therefore opted to use the full moon and my buddy's light for guidance. As I continued to explore the wonders of the wall from over Jeremy's shoulder, I sensed someone or something behind me. I wheeled around and peered into the impenetrable depths. Nothing. Suddenly I noticed a faint movement and, for a moment, glimpsed the outline of a shark in the muted, pale light.
I explained the situation to Jeremy through crude sign language and distorted facial expressions. Fortunately, Jeremy deciphered my gestures, turned his light into the open ocean and uncovered a seven-foot silvertip shark. The shark turned abruptly, backed us against the wall and passed at arm's length. Jeremy caught its black eyes in his light and the shark down-shifted before making another pass and then fading into the dark waters below.
We revisited our chance encounter on the boat's bow as we motored across Manado Bay, watching the volcanoes shimmer in that same pale moonlight. The captain had a knowing grin. I flashed back and reflected on the prescience of his words: Remember to always keep your eyes on the wall.
-- CHRISTIAN McINTOSH