Among the highlights of diving in Indonesia is Bunaken National Marine Park. Located near to the 400,000 strong city of Manado, on the tip of northern Sulawesi, Bunaken Marine Park offers divers and snorkelers the chance to witness some of the highest levels of biodiversity in the world. Roughly 20,000 people inhabit the park and make a living from its waters. The park charges a fee of 150,000 IDR (roughly £7.50) which covers the cost of helping clean the park, and protect it from fishing and over exploitation. This was one of the first marine parks in Indonesia, and is considered a model example of how different nations should protect their greatest national treasures.
The national park is found just outside of Manado Bay in the Celebes Sea. The park, which covers roughly an area of 895 km2, was established in 1991, and was the first of Indonesia’s ever expanding system of marine parks. 97% of the park is ocean, and the remaining 3% is terrestrial, and includes the 5 islands of Bunaken, Siladen, Nain, Mantehage, and the impressive extinct volcano of Manado Tua.
Roughly 5 million years ago, the region underwent heavy volcanic activity, which is what created its interesting and quite unique topography. The waters surrounding North Sulawesi and the islands lack a continental shelf, which means the waters get very deep, very quickly. The depths between the islands are often over 1,000 meters, with the deepest point being 1,840 meters, just off the volcano of Manado Tua.
North Sulawesi is located almost at the center of the Coral Triangle, and contains over 70% of all fish species known in the Indo-western Pacific. The park is popular with both tourists, and marine biologists, who come here to see the incredible variety of life.
Apart from being very rich in fish, invertebrates and corals, the park is also an important many species of marine mammals. Dugongs can be found feeding on the sea grass meadows, many species of dolphin and whales can be found hunting in its waters, and at the right time of year, killer whales, false killer whales, and even sperm whales can be observed passing through its waters.
There are 2 distinct styles of diving within the park;
1) Wall Diving
As the waters surrounding the park drop so deep so quickly, there are some fantastic walls to see. Because of the oceanic currents that sweep through the park, the walls are literally covered in soft corals, gorgonian sea fans, sponges and ascidians.
Lekuan Wall is the most famous dive site within the park. It is one long wall that has been broken up into 3 unoriginally named sites, Lekuan I, Lekuan II and Lekuan III. These are all popular sites because they are relatively sheltered from waves by Bunaken Island, and currents are usually mild, except for Lekuan I.
There are a staggering number of turtles found living on the wall, and it is not uncommon to see 10 per dive! White tip reef sharks can be found sleeping in the caves, thousands of red tooth triggerfish swim out in the blue, and bumphead parrot fish are plenty. If you are into your macro life, bubble shrimp can be found within the bubble corals, the orang-utan crab is often spotted, and for those with amazing eyes for spotting, pigmy sea horses can also be found here. At night frogfish can be found lurking on the giant barrel sponges, and blue ring octopus can be seen hunting over the reef.
Tanjung Kopi is found just of the north shore of Manado Tua. It is a fantastic plateau that slopes from 5 meters to around 30 meters, before the sheer wall face drops down into the abyss. This site is not for the faint hearted, as currents hit the site from two angles and create some powerful upwards and downwards currents. The strong water movement has prompted a wonderful coverage of soft corals, and bigger pelagic species come here to feed. Dog tooth tuna, black tip reef sharks, Napoleon wrasse, eagle rays, and occasionally hammerheads have all been spotted here gliding through the currents.
Although the marine life here is unbelievable, the topography is equally impressive. As Manado Tua is a (extinct) volcano, you can actually see how the lava poured down the plateau, and cascaded into the depths!
Bunaken Timor translates to Bunaken East in Bahasa Indonesian. Again, this is a wall that stretches the entire east coast of Bunaken Island. Again this is broken up into multiple sites, but each one deserves a couple of dives to really explore. The reef top is stunning along this wall, and comes within 1.5 meters of the surface, so it is a fantastic snorkeling spot. The currents are usually not too strong running along this coast, so ideal for the lesser experienced divers. Although an easier site, it still offers a huge amount of fish and coral life to wow even the most experienced divers.
2) Muck/Slope diving
If you head towards the mainland, you lose the walls that are characteristic of the island, and fringing Sulawesi is sandy or muddy slopes, with more hard coral coverage in the shallows. These muddy and black sand bottoms are perfect for muck diving, which involves patiently searching the bottom to find some of the stranger critters that dwell within the parks waters. Check out our Muck Diving blog here.
Wori is named after the village that the site sits in front of. This site is characterised by a flat muddy top at 6 metres, where you can find baby cuttlefish, yellow mantis shrimp, and sea horses anchoring themselves to debris on the bottom. As you head down the slope, there is a nice coral patch, with some classic reef fish, as well as some ribbon eels and leaf Scorpionfish.
Bolung is another site similar to Wori, but with a few small differences. There is no muddy platau, which means visibility is clearer than it normally is at Wori. There is also the wreck of a small dive boat sat at roughly 20 metres, with patch reef dotted about in the sand. If you look carefully at the reef surrounding, giant frogfish, clown frogfish, ornate ghost pipefish and Pegasus sea moths will start to reveal themselves.
Molas Wreck is a World War II era Dutch cargo ship. She sits on a sandy slope halfway between Bunaken and Manado harbour. The bottom lies at around 40 metres, and the shallowest point is a 22 metres, depending on the tide. The wreck itself is completely encrusted in huge sponge formations of all colours and sizes. There are many nudibranchs to see, and you can also find the Denise’s pigmy seahorse living in some corals, and there are some large napoleons and barracudas swimming around.
The marine park is good to dive year round. The best season for dive conditions is between March and the end of November, as December is the start of the rainy season. The islands receive far less rain than the Sulawesi mainland, and often just gets the odd showers, even during the rainy season. Water temperate is a between 27 C and 29 C year round, but the occasional upwelling can drop the temperate to 24 C very suddenly. Average visibility is 30 + metres, and on a good day you can get over 50 m. During rainy season it does drop a little, but only dive sites in the Manado Bay area.
Currents can get very strong in the park, especially around the islands. All dives around the islands are drift dives, however some sites can only be visited at certain times due to tides. It is not uncommon for currents to rapidly switch during a dive, and it is possible in some parts to find yourself being pulled down by down currents, or suddenly ascending due to an upwelling.
Manado has an international airport, which receives many flights from around Indonesia daily, as well as several flights a week from Singapore. The park is roughly 45-60 minutes from Manado plaza pier. A one way ticket will cost between 25,000 IDR (roughly £1.20) to 100,000 IDR (roughly £5), depending on the boat driver, and if you can speak any Indonesian.
Many of the resorts on the islands can arrange transfers for you from the airport. Although this may cost a little more, you get to skip traveling through Manado, which is not a particularly nice city to visit.
Eat, Sleep and Drink:
Most people who visit the islands are divers, and all the dive resorts have accommodation attached. The islands are not really catered for backpackers, but there are a couple of places where you can find a night in a guesthouse for roughly £15 a night. There are places to stay on all of the islands, ranging from very basic to very luxurious.
There are not many places to eat apart from the resorts, which often are all-inclusive. If you choose to stay at one of the guesthouses, the resorts will let you join them for lunch if they are not too full. This is not a party destination, so don’t expect to find any bars to spend your nights drinking away. Again the only places you will find to serve alcohol is at the resorts, and drinking here is not cheap as Indonesia has very high taxes on alcohol.
Bunaken is a very safe area to visit. The locals are friendly, and even petty crime is low. The park is considered to be a malaria free zone, but other areas of North Sulawesi do occasionally get cases of malaria.
There are many Stonefish and Scorpionfish living in the park, and they live to live in the shallows when the tide goes out. Avoid walking in the sea and on the sea grass meadows, or you might get a nasty surprise. When snorkeling or diving, always take care of where you put your hands and feet (or any other body part) as there are also many type of stinging hydroids and fire corals around.
‘Bunaken Marine Park, Indonesia’ was written by Mike
Photo Credits: Kaufik Anril