The Togean -- or Togian -- Islands are an archipelago in the southeast region of the Tomini Sea in northern Sulawesi. Famous for both their difficulty to reach and diving, the archipelago is formed by seven primary islands situated near the centre of a global hotspot of biodiversity known as the coral triangle. Home to a great number of rare marine and terrestrial species, most tourists who come here are divers or snorkellers hoping to see some of the world's best marine life in unspoiled surroundings.
Are the surroundings unspoiled? Not really. While above the water, the islands are beautifully little developed and unspoiled, below the waves it's a different story. Since the early 90s, highly destructive fishing methods like dynamite fishing and cyanide poisoning have been widely used in the Togeans, causing a steep decline in fish numbers and immense shallow reef damage.
Sharks, other large fish, and turtles are rarely seen -- especially when compared to locations like Komodo National Park, which has seen better (though not perfect) protection. In two weeks on the islands we saw not a single example of snorkelling trips using buoys, with anchors freely thrown onto reefs and, while boats made some effort to adhere to already smashed channels, attention in this regard was pretty cursory. While one hotel owner suggested the reason for this was to not show fishermen where the fish are, these are very simple practices that could have a significant impact; it's a shame to see little attention paid to it.
While evidence of logging is rarely seen from a boat running by the coasts, under the water clear examples of coral smashed by sunken logs can be seen on some house reefs. Other effects, such as silt run off from cleared areas of jungle for cash crop farming, is less obvious to the untrained eye. Rising sea temperatures and crown of thorns starfish have also caused significant damage to the reefs.
The local population are predominantly Muslim and six main ethnic groups live here (Togeanese, Bajau, Bobongko, Buginese, along with Gorontalonese and Javanese transmigrants). Small villages are scattered about the islands and poverty is endemic, with poor living standards and high unemployment. While some live by fishing, many others grow cash crops such as coconut, cacao and cloves on land cleared of jungle. Some resorts are foreign-run and others are managed by Indonesian entrepreneurs from elsewhere in the archipelago -- few of the locals seem to reap any financial benefit from tourism, aside perhaps as boat pilots and staff at some of the larger resorts.
The island group was only declared a national park in 2004. Since then, the area has been earmarked as a key tourist destination by the Indonesian government. Potential problems arising from a significant increase in tourist numbers, such as extra demands on an already limited water supply, and sewage and trash disposal, do not however appear to have been addressed -- by the authorities or many of the resorts. There is no central waste disposal system and, at least as far as the resorts are concerned, non-biodegradable trash such as plastic tends to be either buried or burnt (though some plastic bottles are kept to sell to recyclers and empty beer bottles are sold back -- drink beer not coke!). Outside the resorts, waste often appears to be just thrown into the ocean; we watched one woman on a boat clear out a cupboard at port, casually chucking pieces of paper overboard. We also heard of one resort owner who purposefully throws aluminium cans into the ocean under the mistaken belief that they promote reef growth.
While this isn't good news for the long-term sustainability of tourism to the Togeans, there are simple things you can do to help reduce your personal impact. Bringing your own water bottle and making use of water refills (where available) is one of the easiest steps. It you need to buy bottled water, buy the larger 1.5 litre ones rather than the "virtual cup" ones that litter beaches across the archipelago. Another option is to keep your plastic trash and take it back to the mainland with you.
When snorkelling, collect rubbish (particularly floating plastic and bottles) and at least bring it back to your resort. Organise a beach cleanup at low tide -- you'll be surprised just how much plastic litter there is when you take a close look -- and try to get the local kids involved as the more they do it, the more the desirability of a clean beach will become apparent -- and perhaps they'll start telling their parents to stop throwing their rubbish in the ocean, as the kids on the next beach will need to clean it up. Small steps, perhaps, but better than no steps at all.
The archipelago runs west to east a smidgen south of the equator and is made of six large islands and a bunch of smaller ones. From east to west they are Walea Bahi, Walea Kodi, Talatakoh, Togean, Batudaka and Una Una to the north. The main town, Wakai, is roughly in the centre of the archipelago, at the eastern tip of Batudaka, while other sizeable coastal towns include Bomba and Dolong.
Accommodation can be found on Batudaka (Island Retreat and Poya Lisa -- the latter is on an islet just off the coast), Togean (Sunset), Kadidiri island, off the northwest coast of Togean (Lestari, Black Marlin and Kadidiri Paradise), off the coast of Katupat (Fadhila and Bolilanga), Malenge (Pondok Indah and Lestari), Walea Kodi (Sifa Cottage) and Walea Bahi (Walea Dive Resort). If you're not sure where to stay, read our pick of the best places to stay on the Togean Islands.
If you arrive from Gorontalo you'll be deposited at Wakai from where you'll need to get another boat to the resort you're staying at. If you're coming from Ampana, you may be deposited at Bomba, Wakai, Katupat or Malenge (among other spots -- see the transport section for details).
You'll get a patchy telephone signal (Telkom and Indosat only) on Kadidiri, a rough phone signal (but no EDGE) off Pulau Taupan (far west on the way to Ampana, useful only for Poya Lisa and Island Retreat) and a rather unreliable EDGE signal within eyesight of the antenna at Wakai. Unless otherwise noted, assume that any accommodation listed here has no phone signal and no internet access whatsoever. If you need to be online daily, or even simply require the ability to be in regular telephone contact, the Togeans are most definitely not for you.
There are no ATMs or banks in the Togeans so bring plenty of cash with you to cover the cost of your stay. Accommodation and food is paid in rupiah, while dives are generally payable in US dollars or euros. If the resort you are staying in has a website with prices in US dollars or euros, it can be a good idea to pay in that currency as some of the exchange rates the resorts use are a little unorthodox -- and not in your favour.
The nearest cash machines that accept foreign cards are in Gorontalo (most major Indonesian banks) or Ampana (Mandiri and BRI only) -- note the Mandiri ATM in Ampana allowed a maximum withdrawal of five million rupiah per day per card. Unless you plan to charter a speedboat for a return trip to the mainland, it is at minimum an overnight trip to the mainland to reach an ATM.
The Togeans are a risk area for both malaria and dengue fever. Be vigilant about applying mosquito repellent both during the day and at night and consider taking an antimalarial such as Malarone or doxycycline if you are planning a prolonged stay (or travelling extensively elsewhere in Sulawesi as well). The nearest hospital is in Ampana; it's basic but they do have facilities for malaria testing and treatment. A traveller we talked to who was treated there for dengue in 2013 was not particularly complimentary of the services delivered -- though he did live to complain.
By Stuart McDonald.