Asteroidea Celebes: Interview with Tony Whitten

POPO: What’s your favorite camping memory in Sulawesi?

WHITTEN: I remember climbing Mt Rantemario which is near the top of the SW leg of Sulawesi. We were climbing up and up and it was getting dark on the first night and there was nowhere obvious or safe to lie down. In the end I just lay down on the narrow rocky path – but there was a steep slope down on one side. I found a number of sharp stones and small rocks to put along the edge so that I would wake up if I rolled too far. I didn’t sleep much!

POPO: If you could have taken one thing from Sulawesi back home with you, what would it have been? (It doesn’t necessarily have to be tangible. It could be a characteristic, an emotional tendency, etc.)

WHITTEN: I would have taken the key to the only gate in a high fence around a large block of forest which did not have people in it and wasn’t used by local people. This would protect it from loggers, gold miners etc. I think I would then have thrown away the key. That’s not how nature reserves/national parks have to or even should work but until there is a better rule of law and existing government regulations on land use are followed I sometimes feel something dramatic is needed.

POPO: If you could inhabit the mind of any non-human animal in Sulawesi, what would it be and why?

WHITTEN: I think I’d like to be a large eagle, soaring over the land and sea using my high-definition vision to see who was doing what.

POPO: What’s the most memorable episode of weather you experienced in Sulawesi? (This could include sunrises or sunsets.)

WHITTEN: I think that has to be a flood I experienced in Palu. That is the capital of Central Sulawesi and it lies in a very dry valley. When it rains it REALLY rains, and the normally dry river beds swell, the mud tears downstream, and everyone comes out to watch. And it smells so sweet afterwards.

POPO: If you could spend one hour in Sulawesi, where would you go?

WHITTEN: May I have two?
(1) to the drop-off of the coral reef off Bunaken Island offshore of Manado. You snorkel happily over the normal nice reef and then the world vanishes and you are peering into ‘bottomless’ depths down a near-vertical wall of coral. That is the only place I have ever experienced vertigo. Awesome.
(2) The salt-lick used by babirusa at Nantu Wildlife Reserve near the Paguyaman River in Gorontalo Province. (Look up those words on Google). Despite many attempts, I’ve never been though although I have supported the English woman who has worked there and protected the site for the last 20 years. I was her PhD examiner about 20 years ago. An hour wouldn’t be enough but it’s one hour more than I’ve yet been able to do.

POPO: If you could visit Sulawesi’s past, when would you go and why?

WHITTEN: I would like to have gone there in the mid-19th century. There was transport available (albeit slow) and a colonial administration which allowed easy travel at a time when there was so much forest and wildlife left. I said above that there is still so much to discover – but back then it was incredible. I am a great fan of Alfred Russel Wallace who was the man who provoked Charles Darwin to write his book about natural selection. He found a treasure trove of new species while living simply and engaging with – and enjoying – the local people. If you’re interested here is a link to information about a cruise I lead which is built around the man.

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