Bunaken-Manado-2Today was our last day of diving off Bunaken. The weather was questionable when we left, but the skipper assured us it’s changing for the better, that the weather forecast for the day was only light rain. Connie—my friend visiting from the US—decided not to go diving today due to a headache, and Marion—my colleague—thought she’d just snorkel around this area today, once the weather cleared up. Not wanting to miss out on a final dive of Bunaken Marine Park, I joined a dive party of two guys from India and their friend from Jakarta.

The hour-long trip over to the island wasn’t too bad. We dived—possibly my best dive in the 14 years I’ve been scuba diving—and then I stayed on the surface, snorkeling, as not to cut into the 24-hour no-dive period prior to a flight.  The moment the other three divers surfaced, we were told we’re heading back right away since the weather was changing…
We were in a smallish scuba boat with just two little outboard engines. About 20 minutes into the trip, the sea got VERY rough. Some of the waves were about 20 feet tall, according to the skipper. It’s plain scary when the wave behind the boat is much bigger than the boat itself! Fortunately, those were rolling waves, so they’d literally just lift us up and plop us down with a big bang! But some hit us from the side, and sent some gear flying.

You know you’re in trouble when the crew turns the boat around, then try going in a third direction, simply following the waves. The boat itself was hardly moving; the little propeller engines were worthless against the force of the storm.

You also know you’re in trouble when the crew start yelling. (Fortunately, our dive master, Ken, was as cool as can be. If it weren’t for that, we’d all be panicking! But he was going back and forth from the bow and the stern, trying to problem solve.) The skipper, Simon, constantly gestured to us four divers to shift to the other side of the boat to shift weight… He didn’t have to say a word! We moved as ONE, like we had rehearsed for days!

From the crew’s frantic yells, ll I could understand was the word for “Help!” I asked Yori—the Indonesian girl who was with the two other divers—what the skipper was saying. She was smart enough to say that they were speaking the Manadonese dialect, that she wasn’t able to follow. But later, she told me that he was yelling to the rest of the crew to pray.

I didn’t need anyone to tell me to pray. I was holding on to whatever I could, praying for God to calm the storm. The next moment, four life jackets come flying out from under the dive tanks, landing RIGHT at the feet of each one of us four. I kid you not. It was surreal! We looked at each other and immediately put on the life jackets.

The sound of the wind and the waves was deafening. As was the wind against the roof. Then, suddenly, the roof blew off with much of the wooden structure with it! Amazingly, no-one was hit by any of the poles! At that time, I told the rest of our group that we should probably get our dive booties on and get ready to grab our fins. But dive master Ken, who had earlier still seemed quite calm, suddenly yelled, “Put on your BCDs!” Which we did, of course!

Afterwards, we laughed so hard at one of the guys who said he had forgotten so many of the little details regarding diving, but in that moment, he remembered right away how to manually inflate the BCD. Ken grabbed a phone and called for help. Then he told us to prepare to go overboard, to abandon ship small boat. (He said later he was CONVINCED the boat was going to capsize, hence he wanted us to put on our BCDs, so we would float.)

Suddenly, there was a very loud thump or three, and our boat came to almost a complete stop! We had hit a reef.

Ken told us to take off our BCDs and fins but to keep our dive booties on, and to grab what we can and walk ashore. We grabbed towels to stay warm (we divers were thinking we were on an island where we might not find people!), and we were given some bottled water, which I think none of us opened, saving it for later, when we’d be stuck for the night? I was very thankful that I had a dry bag for my camera. Earlier, I had decided to take the bag overboard with me with its own life vest, if need be.

We got off the boat, and we started wading through beds of sea urchins, through sand that was a lot like quick sand, where we were stuck all the way to our knees at times, through mangrove forests, and finally (maybe close to an hour later?) we hit dry land. Then we learned that we were, in fact, right at the end of Sulawesi, rather than on one of the outlying islands. That meant that there were people nearby… We weren’t going to have to survive on a remote island for the night, after all! (We weren’t sad about that.)

We walked past homes out in the bush, through coconut plantations and past lots of cows. (Funnily, I kept thinking of beef rendang, my favorite Indonesian dish, which is beef with coconut. But that’s beside the point.)

It “just so happened” that we ended up only about a kilometer or so from the house of a cousin of the skipper, where we could rinse off since the part of the marsh we waded through was full of sewage! From there, we walked to the main road, where we waited for the cars from the dive center (more than an hour away by road) arrived. We were whisked off in one vehicle while the men in the other vehicle headed to the boat to salvage what they could and to try and tow it to a safer spot.

All along the drive home, you could see the damage from the freak storm everywhere, with trees blown down, power lines being downed by some of those trees, and small roofs blown off. It was bizarre to think we were in the water when the worst of storm hit!

By the time we reached the dive center, the waves were still growing bigger, and were pounding the buildings. The dining area, which is right on the water, was hit several times, so much so that we had dinner in the back kitchen tonight.

But we were safe, dry, clean. And alive. I have no doubt that God heard our cries today. Though he didn’t calm the storm, he provided a safe passage through it, he kept the boat from capsizing (the crew thought that the fact that the roof blew off saved us from being flipped over by the wind). And despite all the craziness of the trek through beds of sea urchins, sinking sand, and sewage, we made it through unscathed.

Despite the craziness of the entire event, I never felt like any of our group panicked. In fact, I finally took out my camera when we got to dryish land and shot a clip of the rest of the crew emerging from the mangrove swamp. Through it all, we were still smiling, infinitely thankful that the boat didn’t capsize…

Originally published April 2, 2011

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