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Swimming with the whale sharks of Gorontalo

Irene Barlian
Irene Barlian

Indonesian documentary photojournalist

Jakarta | Mon, May 8, 2017 | 02:31 pm
  • Swimming with the majestic giant.

    Swimming with the majestic giant. OF JP/Irene Barlian

    Swimming with the majestic giant.

  • A small seaside village commonly seen in Gorontalo.

    A small seaside village commonly seen in Gorontalo. OF JP/Irene Barlian

    A small seaside village commonly seen in Gorontalo.

  • Whale sharks have been commonly spotted in this area for two years.

    Whale sharks have been commonly spotted in this area for two years. OF JP/Irene Barlian

    Whale sharks have been commonly spotted in this area for two years.

  • Local fisherman have become guides as the site get hundres of visitors every week.

    Local fisherman have become guides as the site get hundres of visitors every week. OF JP/Irene Barlian

    Local fisherman have become guides as the site get hundres of visitors every week.

  • Panoramic view of Gorontalo's landscape.

    Panoramic view of Gorontalo's landscape. OF JP/Irene Barlian

    Panoramic view of Gorontalo's landscape.

  • Pulo Cinta Eco Resort nestled in the heart of Tomini Gulf.

    Pulo Cinta Eco Resort nestled in the heart of Tomini Gulf. OF JP/Irene Barlian

    Pulo Cinta Eco Resort nestled in the heart of Tomini Gulf.

  • Feeding and swimming with whale sharks has become a must do in Gorontalo.

    Feeding and swimming with whale sharks has become a must do in Gorontalo. OF JP/Irene Barlian

    Feeding and swimming with whale sharks has become a must do in Gorontalo.

  • Since the whaleshark's picture went viral, Gorontalo has become one of the hippest local destinations in Indonesia

    Since the whaleshark's picture went viral, Gorontalo has become one of the hippest local destinations in Indonesia OF JP/Irene Barlian

    Since the whaleshark's picture went viral, Gorontalo has become one of the hippest local destinations in Indonesia

  • A boat crew preparing for a day trip to see the whaleshark.

    A boat crew preparing for a day trip to see the whaleshark. OF JP/Irene Barlian

    A boat crew preparing for a day trip to see the whaleshark.

  • Early morning in the Pulo Cinta Eco Resort .

    Early morning in the Pulo Cinta Eco Resort . OF JP/Irene Barlian

    Early morning in the Pulo Cinta Eco Resort .

  • Enjoying the cinematic water of Gorontalo at Pulo Cinta.

    Enjoying the cinematic water of Gorontalo at Pulo Cinta. OF JP/Irene Barlian

    Enjoying the cinematic water of Gorontalo at Pulo Cinta.

  • A view of the limitless sea at Pulo Cinta.

    A view of the limitless sea at Pulo Cinta. OF JP/Irene Barlian

    A view of the limitless sea at Pulo Cinta.

  • A whale shark swimming under a fisherman's boat.

    A whale shark swimming under a fisherman's boat. OF JP/Irene Barlian

    A whale shark swimming under a fisherman's boat.

  • A shallow reef in Olele National Park, Gorontalo.

    A shallow reef in Olele National Park, Gorontalo. OF JP/Irene Barlian

    A shallow reef in Olele National Park, Gorontalo.

OF

I find myself swimming in the vast blue ocean at the heart of the equator. Next to me is the gentle giant of the sea, the whale shark. They are swimming gracefully and majestically, surrounding me from every direction. I feel like a tiny bubble in the great blue void we share together. I swim up to catch my breath, laughing out loud.

Gorontalo is a new shining jewel that has just been discovered. A hidden paradise in the archipelago that offers an expedition to unite the giant of the ocean with me, an island with pristine white sandy beaches, as well as a peek into the everyday life of locals.

Tourism in Gorontalo was kick started by a picture of a whale shark that went goes viral and has snowballed ever since. Now, the city known as Serambi Madina (Veranda of Medina), has been crowned one of the hippest local destinations in the country.

Arriving at the Gorontalo's Jalaludin Airport, I was greeted by a fairly small terminal. There are not many airlines that serve direct flights to the city. The new airport is ready, but not yet operating.

“President Jokowi will come to inaugurate the new airport,” says Yunan, my guide, explaining why there are a lot of security and police officers passing by.

We set off for a two-hour drive to Boalemo regency. As our car speeded along the fairly empty and smooth grey asphalt, I was served a fine glimpse into rural life and the expansive hills filled with wild grass before finally arriving at Potanga village. A speedboat was parked at the seashore, ready to take me through the final gate to a man-made nirvana.

Pulo Cinta (Love Island) Eco Resort is the one and only construction that stands out in the middle of the limitless ocean. The rise of Gorontalo’s tourism convinced Pascal Lasmana, the owner and founder of this love island to build this luxurious, eco-friendly villa. He believes Gorontalo has what it takes to top Indonesia’s list of destinations due to its extensive coastline, mountains and steep hills.

As dark clouds began to cluster along the hilltops, the sky turned dark and the wind began to blow stronger than before, I speeded through Tomini Gulf. Before long I could spy the roof of the villa, a striking sight in the middle of nothingness. The darkness of the sky did not diminish my excitement as I stepped foot on this simple, yet glamorous, villa built atop a sandbar in the shape of a heart.

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 “That's the reason I named it Pulo Cinta,” explained Pascal.

All 15 villas were built using natural components, such as wood, bamboo and other natural fibers. They stand firm, above the shallow sea with electricity sourced from solar panels. They are presented in a captivating way and with the Sulawesi ocean for a front yard, the landscape is complete. I jumped into the water and enjoyed the sunset from this luxurious floating resort.

One hundred and sixty kilometers to the east is Botubarani, a small seaside village known for receiving regular visits from whale sharks. They began visiting this part of the ocean because of the abundance of food that comes from the waste of a local factory. There are 17 Munggiango Hullalo, as the local call them, in Gorontalo’s water. Transformed into a tourism site, the local administration has put up some boundaries and established a zoning system for interacting with these creatures. Only six vessels are allowed and each has a 45-minute time limit -- though it seems the rule has not been fully enforced.

The ocean was already filled with small fishing boats accommodating curious tourists. They stared ceaselessly into the ocean with camera at hand. "That’s Sherly, that’s Sherly," yelled one fisherman-come-guide as he knocked against the boat. The silence was shattered as everyone cheered to welcome the king of Gorontalo’s ocean.

A huge dark figure passed under my boat. It was enormous, reaching to 8 meters in length. It was grey in color with a dotted pattern covering its body. At first glance, it resembled a shark with its fin, but it has a flat, oval shape head with no sharp teeth at all. They occasionally stuck their heads to the surface of the water, opening their mouths to feast on the tons of shrimp shells that were served. It is a difficult process to translate this moment. I was petrified and shocked by the encounter.

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Swimming with giant whale sharks is a sensation I had never felt before. Feelings of joy, bliss and excitement mixed together like a giant whirlpool. I could feel my adrenaline rocketing sky-high. As far I could see, the whale sharks were everywhere. I tried to keep my distance, but the amicable animals kept swimming toward me. They are known for their curious character and may get very close to you.

The sun was beaming at its fullest intensity when I left the whale shark point. Our next stop was Olele Marine Park, where the reefs takes a form similar to that in surrealist artist Salvador Dali’s painting L’ Enigma del desiderio. “Could it be that this eccentric painter was inspired by the beauty of Indonesia?” I wondered.

Along the way I saw rows of magnificent green hills dominating the landscape of Sulawesi, formerly known as Celebes. Situated in the middle of the world renowned “Coral Triangle,” the waters are filled with biological richness with diverse coral reefs and sea creatures. Though it has not yet been designated as a national park, Olele remains riveting.

From the ship, the sprawling coral reefs resembled a rich carpet, exuding natural color. I witnessed real evidence of rich and healthy marine life. I floated in the green turquoise water and watched the festive underwater scenery.

I returned to Borubarani Village the next day. I couldn’t leave without saying goodbye to my giant friends. It was a special feeling to have the chance to dance with the king of the ocean and surrender myself to the absolute ruler of the Celebes. (kes)

***

Irene Barlian is an Indonesian documentary photojournalist based in Jakarta, specializing in people, culture and it’s relationship with nature. She has a particular love for the vibrancy of Southeast Asia. She has received several awards for her work and has been published in publications worldwide, such as DestinAsian Indonesia, Matador Network, Flint, Dodho Magazine, Kompas Klass, Bali&Beyond, amongst others. For more of her work, check out http://www.irenebarlian.net.

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