We are in a place I never knew existed and I suspect most have never heard of. The island of Bunaken is one of Indonesia’s more than 17,000 islands off the coast of Sulawesi, itself a sprawling island in Indonesia. Why are we here? To fly.
Amanda and I have spent the last two days in a dream-like levitation as we soared above the most sublimely beautiful cityscape nature has ever constructed. This is the Paris, France of cities, the Sistine Chapel of churches, the Grand Canyon of Canyons.
We enter the heavens just off the beach from of our simple bungalow. The beaches are small as most of the coast line is lush with thick mangroves jockeying for space. Their massive roots protrude up from the sand surrounding their trunks like spiky towers searching for briny water that has left with the low tide. The first two-hundred yards off the shore are nothing terribly special. Grass grows from the sand and some unusually chunky and spiky starfish dot the landscape below. The water is smoother than the smallest lake. There is not even a hint of waves or motions; only serene calmness.
This ordinary scene suddenly gives way to a kaleidoscopic explosion of shimmering colors. The coral is simply stunning to admire. As we slowly float along with the current we are awarded with a slideshow of proportions that only nature itself could have possibly conceived. Our land-based frames of mind find it difficult to fathom the diversity of hundreds of varieties of coral, some small, some forming a table nearly forty feet across.
The sun has only three to five feet of water to penetrate as it casts its shine like a highlighter across the most important sections of text. But unlike that textbook that is filled with fluff, here in this underwater city, no square foot is without beauty, no crevice without life, no dark hole without lurking eyes. And we float and kick and swim and stare. We stare with wonderment, with astonishment, and with love for this earth which is capable of such colors. Fire corals, hydrocorals, fan corals, anemones, table corals, bush corals, pore corals, and bubble corals put forth shades of deep purple, fluorescent green, sky blue, mango yellow, deep red, and burnt orange. These colors put to shame the most beautiful of fall days in upstate New York. The shapes look both impossibly ornate and yet strangely organic at once.
And now I’d like to introduce you to the star attractions of this never-ending production: hundreds of thousands of fish. While the coral is indeed beautiful in its own right, its most notable quality is the inhabitants it contains. As we float by from above we are completely surrounded by at least a hundred fish at all times.
As I approach a particularly large school of key-sized shiny bright blue fish hovering above an equally large outcropping of flat shaped table coral, they seem to move as though I am the director of this shimmering orchestra. I wave my hand to within six inches of the herd and they retract backward like a massive bubble that bends under the slight touch of my soapy hand. I repeat these motions again and again and the school keeps exactly six inches from my hands, as though we have rehearsed this act hundreds of times. I decide to leave these beautifully coordinated actors alone and move out towards the edge of the coral wall. Here the coral clings to the side of a cliff that drops straight down into the nothingness below. The fish are heavily concentrated as they peck on the coral for nutrients. The clicking sound as they peck is at times soothing, and at times deafening.
I look left and twenty yards below me a majestic sea turtle glides up to the wall. His wings flap at a graceful pace as he turns around and soars back off into nothingness. We approach a family of clown fish hiding in an anemone. One exits his safety net and stares us down. They are the most aggressive two inches we will ever encounter. We decide to leave it be and move on.
Spotted and Yellow Boxfish flail around us, their bodies changing color as the light reflects from different angles. Massive schools stay close together as a group of four barracudas swim by. A striped sea snake nearly four feet long moves among the coral searching for its next meal. The majestic scorpion fish spread their spiny wings in all their glory warning us to the poisons they possess. And thousands and thousands of fish are everywhere.
After about an hour of beholding this magical mystery world just three feet below the ocean’s surface, we head back to shore. As we walk back three hundred yards to our hotel we are like two kids on Christmas morning. Our smiles are huge and we are grateful to have been so lucky to have this opportunity.
We somehow stumbled upon this place and it was the greatest trip into the ocean yet.