Starfish and a Storm: Belitung, Sumatra

A woman was holding something large and star-shaped in her hands, gleefully showing it off to her friends. I looked at Jack, ‘Is that what I think it is?’
On the beach before us, the giddy woman stood proudly, being photographed by her friends as she carefully clutched onto the points of a large, bright orange starfish. I regressed to my five-year old self and stared at the lady feeling envy run through my veins. Inside my mind I stomped my foot, folded my arms and pouted. ‘Where did she find it?!’ I also felt a little concerned for the star-shaped animal; was it ok to hold it like that?

Jack and I walked over to the shore and paddled in the shallows. Another young woman not far from us had found another starfish, this time coloured red and black and sized almost as big as her face. I looked down at the clear sea surrounding my feet and then looked back at the beach – a starfish had washed up on the shore. Now smiling as gleefully as the woman before, I walked over to inspect the intriguing creature. Black and orange, it lay cosily in the sand. Unsure of how starfish like to be treated, I tentatively sat next to it and looked at it closely. Being the crazy animal lady that I am, I instantly named him Mr Simon the Starfish.
‘Do you think he would mind if I picked him up?’ I asked Jack.
Jack gave a nod of approval, ‘For a few seconds, I think.’
Extremely carefully, I gently lifted Mr Simon the Starfish from off the sand and held him in my open palms. Simon was a lot heavier than I was expecting, exactly like a star-shaped brick. There was no kind of movement, no sign of wriggling – and no eyes or features to show any kind of sign of life that us mammals are used to. Simon looked like some decoration an artist had made out of clay; a vibrantly coloured, intricately detailed shape. This is a real, living thing?  I thought, slightly befuddled.
I turned Simon over to investigate what a starfish looked like on its other side. Numerous, tiny little nodules lined the underside, all squiggled along the star points (- I have since learned that they are actually tube feet). Like an alien life-form from a movie, a few slowly moved; a sign of life. Simon was the most curious creature I had ever met in my life.

Me and Simon

Me and Simon

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Having close to zero knowledge of marine biology, I figured I shouldn’t spend too much time playing about with Simon. I didn’t know (and still don’t know) how long a starfish can spend out of water, but I figured if the sea was his home, Simon should be returned to his watery abode ASAP. I walked into some deeper water, away from the other excited, splashing tourists and gently let go of Simon, letting him gently float down to the sandy sea-bed.

After saying goodbye to him, we made our way back to the boat. It was a few hours later that I realised that amongst all the starfish excitement, I had left my flip flops on the beach and was now completely shoeless for the rest of our trip. Whoops.

Back on the boat, our dear toothless Captain started the engine and we made the short trip across to our next island destination, Pulau Burung. Pulau Burung – or in English, Bird Island, is named so for a large rock formation that sits majestically only a few metres away from the shore. The large granite rocks are assembled in such a way, that it apparently resembles a bird (I personally had to apply a lot of imagination to this to see it). Our captain pulled into the island, and anchored the boat deep into the sand. Jack and I jumped out and immediately settled ourselves down in the shallows of the sea. Sitting with our legs prostrate before us, we let the soft wave of the aqua water gently sway us to and fro. Peering into the water, I noticed the blurry shapes of more starfish. I looked further – there were loads of them, a family of them all patterned along the seabed. They all varied in size and colour; some small, some long and thin, some beige and others bright red.
‘Bintang Laut banyak,’ (Lots of starfish) I said to our Captain in broken Indonesian.
He smiled and jumped off the boat into the water. A second later, he presented a starfish the size of my head in his hands. Brilliant red with black bumps along its surface, it was a wonder for the eyes.

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starfish everywhere

starfish everywhere

Pulau Burung

Pulau Burung

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It was around twenty minutes later that the sky on the horizon began to surge with angry, grey clouds. Flocks of long-necked birds emerged from the grey and swarmed the sky. En masse, they flew in our direction, in a frantic race against the brewing storm.
The flock of birds stopped and hovered above our islands, surfing the wind and filling the sky above us. It would be minutes before the storm made its way over.
Uh oh.
Time to find shelter.


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*Tune in next time for more starfish and disappearing islands…

 

Go Go Go!

Weather: The best time to visit Belitung in Sumatra is during the dry season, from May-September. We went in early November – the weather would be bright and sunny from the morning until around 3pm each day. It would then rain hard for about an hour but completely clear up after. If travelling in the rainy season, make sure to bring lots of mosquito spray!

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3 comments

  1. Your writing is excellent! I wonder too whether it’s okay to hold starfish up out of the water for very long. Last November, I was in Palawan (Philippines) and about 5 giant starfish (looked like the same species you found!) were pretty close to the shore. One group of a dozen tourists found them and started taking photos with them, holding the starfish out of the water….with a dozen people posing separately, and with multiple poses to get just the perfect shot, it took quite a while for the starfish to get tossed back in the water. He survived, I think, but it was one of those moments….you know.

    Other kids on the beach kept flipping the starfish over, and I’d watch as they slowly, so slowly, tried to right themselves again. No matter how many times I flipped them back right-side up, the kids would come back and flip ’em upside down again. Eventually I gave up. Here’s hoping they’re as hardy as they look!

    1. Thank you so much! Love reading your writing too, always very honest and entertaining! :)
      I know what you mean, as much as I wanted to hold them and see them close, I was so worried about hurting them or damaging them – and I feel so sorry for being only able to move so slowly! I have since learned though, that they can survive up to 15minutes out of the water – I do think that more beaches that are home to starfish should state this fact more just to warn any overexcited tourists.

  2. wow that is quite a starfish. it would easily blend with the rocks. and that’s some useful information – 15 minutes , will keep in mind

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