Bunaken underwater paradise, North Sulawesi

Indonesia provides some of the best scuba destinations in the world. Situated across a region aptly named the ‘coral triangle,’ the country is an archipelago of 18,000 islands with only 922 of them inhabited.

Manado is the second largest city and capital of North Sulawesi. It is situated on the northern most tip of Sulawesi at the Bay of Manado and is surrounded by a mountainous area. The city is one of the largest in the region, has an international airport and serves as a tourist hub for attractions in the region.

North of the island of Sulawesi, in the centre of the coral triangle lies Bunaken National Park. This stunning area covers 890 km², 97% of which is marine habitat, and includes the five islands of Bunaken, Manado Tua, Mantehage, Nain and Siladen. Dive resorts are plentiful from the city of Manado and cater for divers of all levels. The underwater discovery is breath-taking and you can expect to encounter marine-life here that you would not find anywhere else. From dugongs feeding on the seagrass to black tip reef sharks to eagle rays, there is something here for everyone, making Bunaken a very special destination for marine biologists and divers alike.

Covering more than 185,000 acres around a cluster of small islands, the park is home to some of Indonesia’s finest coral reefs. It lies at the epicentre of the riches of Indo-Pacific marine biodiversity.

The proof of Bunaken’s conservation success is in the diving: this is a fabulous, once-in-a-lifetime experience, well worth the long journey to get here. Sheer reef walls, resplendent with coral, plunge down into the depths. Trevallies, bannerfish, angelfish, snapper, butterflyfish and many more species flash their colours against a backdrop of sponges, gorgonians, anemones and hard and soft corals. Tuna, turtles, rays, sharks and jacks can be spotted out in the blue. Pilot whales, dolphins, and whale sharks are also sometimes seen. Even orcas sometimes pass through.

The other main diving area is in the Lembeh Straits, on the eastern side of the mainland, which is famous for its “muck diving”; this involves exploring the seabed looking for some of the extraordinary marine critters that live there. With ghost pipefish, hairy frogfish, pygmy seahorses and orang-utan crabs, this is heaven for macro-photographers and ichthyologists.

Despite Bunaken’s worldwide reputation, diving here is still very low key and dive sites are uncrowded: there are only 2,000 or so divers per month, spread across more than 100 dive sites. Bunaken does have some strong and unpredictable currents, which means it’s not suitable for novices.

North Sulawesi is a fascinating region, and it’s worth taking the time to explore inland as well as underwater. It’s worth making a day trip to the Minahasa Highlands (see 24 Hours, below), as well as visiting the Tangkoko Natural Reserve on the north-west coast, about 90 minutes from Lembeh or Manado. This is a little gem of a nature reserve alongside the beach. The rainforest is home to crested black macaques that live partly on the ground and are quite used to humans since there’s a research station based here. As a result you can stand among them as they carry on with their daily round of foraging, feeding and socialising.

Make sure to visit Bunaken during its best season between May to August. That way you can explore the Park  to its fullest.

How to get there:

The island of Bunaken is easily reached from Manado by motorized boat, departing from Manado harbor, Molas, Kalasey and Tasik Ria beach. Furthermore national flag carrier Garuda Indonesia serves direct flights between Manado and Denpasar.

For more information and reservation write booking@topindonesiaholidays.com

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