Some of the world’s best scuba diving can be found near Bunaken Island in North Sulawesi. Vertical coral walls drop hundreds of metres below, and the fish life is second to none
I first dived in Bunaken Marine park when I was a newly qualified scuba diver in 1997, and took everything pretty much in my stride. At the time, I had no idea that I was diving in one of the richest oceans in the world, with many unique fish, and stunning coral reefs. I just assumed that all of the world’s reefs were this amazing. Two hundred or so dives around the world later, and I realized that I had taken it all for granted whilst in Sulawesi and I knew I had to return to these spectacular reefs.
The boat ride to the reef can take a few minutes if you’re staying on Bunaken Island, as I did in 1997, or about 45 minutes from one of the hotels on the mainland just out of Manado, which is where I stayed on my second visit. The marine park itself takes in about 75,000 hectares of the Sulawesi Sea and five islands: Siladen, Montehage, Nain, Bunaken itself, and the extinct volcano of Manado Tua dominating the skyline.
Instead of the vast coral gardens that many people are familiar with, the reefs of Bunaken are largely made up of huge vertical coral walls, starting in the shallows at around three metres, and descending down to more than a thousand metres in places. I even experienced a strange vertigo hanging about at 20 metres, when I realized that despite the excellent visibility, I still could not see the bottom. These walls have been built over thousands of years by the coral – an animal living in symbiosis with algae. The coral builds the skeleton of the reefs, the algae provides its colour, and together, with the right conditions, they create an architecture unrivalled by man-made creations.
I’m a lazy diver. I’m not interested in struggling against a current and I don’t like to fin very much. Which is why diving in Bunaken is ideal. After descending, most dives follow the current and propel you gently – or at speed, depending on the current’s strength – along the wall. Diving in Bunaken is never boring – the crevices and cracks of these mountainous coral reefs hide huge turtles and large fish, while a glance into the blue might reward you with a sighting of a reef shark or a school of jacks or barracudas. The waters are teeming with life here, and most reefs warrant several dives in order to be fully appreciated.
Small is beautiful
The big stuff isn’t the main attraction of Bunaken though. Most people come here for the macro – the really small stuff. I couldn’t see the attraction before, being mostly concerned with hoping to see the big underwater attractions of sharks, stingrays and turtles. After a few dives with the enthusiastic Indonesian divemasters pointing stuff out, I gradually came to appreciate that small can most definitely be beautiful or, as is more often the case, extremely ugly. Some of these fish and crustaceans are just plain weird. There’s no two ways about it. The frogfish looks like a frog. It even has feet. It’s knobbly with bulbous eyes and so camouflaged that it needs a bit of working out where it begins and the reef ends. The harlequin ghost pipefish is a beautiful, delicate fish in the seahorse family, which hangs about upside-down, looking like an underwater ornament. And the orang-utan crab looks exactly like its name would suggest: sort of orange and hairy.
While most people are frightened of sharks, the reefs off Bunaken are home to one of the deadliest creatures in the sea – the banded seasnake. Thankfully, though they can be deadly, they rarely attack humans; they can only bite through the earlobe and the skin between the finger and thumb. Even so, I still always got a thrill whenever I saw one.
At the end of the day, it’s tempting to sit in the hotel pool, watching the sunset with a cocktail in your hand. But, on at least two occasions, I managed to drag myself back into my wetsuit for yet another dive on the house reef just as the sun was setting. I don’t often like night dives. They can be too hit and miss; sometimes you’ll see heaps of stuff, other times nothing. But the reefs off Sulawesi are as rewarding at night as they are during the day. Hanging upside-down over the reef in the pitch black, shining a torch into the nooks and crannies, is a surreal experience indeed. The presence of weird sea urchins, psychedelic snake eels poking from the sand and octopus, squid and harlequin dancing shrimps bopping about only serves to heighten the weirdness of the experience. It’s like a world of mini Dr Who monsters.
For non-divers, there are still a few things to do. Snorkeling is almost as rewarding as diving and many hotels can organize trips to Tangkoko national park, where you could strike lucky and see black macaques, snakes or the singing tarsier – one of the smallest primates in the world. There are also local volcanoes, lakes and street markets to take in. Yet it’s the underwater world that really captured my imagination leaving me impatient to return to dive in Sulawesi again.
Places to stay
Tasik Ria Resort, just outside Manado.
Kima Bajo Resort & Spa
Two Fish Divers, on Bunaken Island - closer to the reefs, but further away from mainland attractions.
Fly to Manado via Singapore with Singapore Airlines