Underwater Encounters: The Bunaken Marine Park

The Bunaken Marine Park, off the island of Sulawesi, has some of the best-preserved coral reefs in the world. Here Nick Hanna discovered some of the most bizarre sea creatures he had ever seen

It's just after 5pm on a tropical afternoon as three other divers and I splash noisily into the sea and descend slowly to the reef below us. We find a clear space on the seabed and settle down facing an innocuous-looking pile of coral rubble. As the sun sinks, we wait in the gathering underwater gloom. Suddenly, there's movement among the coral, and a tiny red and green fish pokes its head out of a hole. It's followed by another, slightly bigger, and then two or three more of different sizes. As we watch, the bigger fish perform a courtship dance, teasing out the smaller females.

At almost exactly 5.30pm, these tiny fish, no larger than my little finger, pair off and dart up from the reef, mating briefly a few inches from our masks before scurrying away to the safety of their coral homes.

What I have just witnessed is the courtship and mating of mandarin fish. It took only a few seconds but it's something I've never seen before in 25 years of diving. This is what diving in North Sulawesi is all about: the opportunity for rare encounters, special meetings with some of the most wonderful and bizarre marine life on the planet.

The Bunaken National Marine Park, off-shore from the coastal town of Manado in North Sulawesi, is one of the focal points for diving in this region. 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.

Bunaken is one of the great success stories for marine parks in Asia - or, indeed, globally. "The amount of fish has increased dramatically in the past five years," says Christiane Muller of Froggies Divers, based on Bunaken Island. "And we're also getting new fish that we didn't see before." Froggies is at the heart of the marine park, with easy access to some of the best and most spectacular dive sites.

Siladen Island also lies within the marine park. The resort has the best beach within easy reach of Bunaken's reefs, but you can't really swim because it's too shallow (although there is a great swimming pool). It's a small, intimate place with an attractive, open-sided bar/restaurant area and spa centre. The villas are very romantic, with four-poster beds and open-air bathrooms. The dive centre is well run, with most Bunaken dive sites less than 10 minutes away; the house reef has spectacular shallow-water corals.

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.

There is also first-class snorkelling: the shallow reef tops are glorious, every square inch packed with life from colourful corals to encrusting sponges, crinoids, sea fans, and other plants. Swarms of anthias and basslets dart here and there in the shallows, while the bigger schooling fish flow like rivers of liquid colour over the reef crest and down into the depths.

All this is even more amazing given that you can still see bombed-out areas where dynamite fishing had destroyed entire sections of the reef: the vibrant, living reefs which now thrive in most of the park are testament to the huge success of the Bunaken Marine Park. More than £1,000 a year is channelled back into each village in the park from divers' fees. All divers and snorkellers in the park pay $17 (£8.70) for an entrance pass, which funds ranger patrols, village improvement programmes, waste disposal, and other conservation projects.

Outside of the marine park, there's excellent diving and snorkelling around the northern tip of Sulawesi, accessible from resorts such as Gangga Island. This Italian-managed resort, three miles from the north coast of the mainland, has a gorgeous beach and a terrific pool. The 30 chalets, with verandahs overlooking the beach, are set in luxuriant tropical gardens. Standards of food and service are high: this is the top choice for island luxury and has an excellent spa. There's great diving and snorkelling within easy reach of the island, and they run regular trips to Bunaken. You can walk through neighbouring villages and get a feel for island life, which you can't do elsewhere.

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.

The Eco-Divers operation at Kungkungan Bay in Lembeh Straits is efficient and friendly, however the resort itself is tired-looking; boat traffic in the straits is noisy, and the beach is black sand. I'd recommend it only if you're passionate about muck diving.

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.

Further into this magnificent forest you may get a rare opportunity to see the world's smallest primate, the tarsier spectrum. These cute little creatures, no more than six inches tall, live in pairs and eat only insects: your guide will collect insects so that the tarsiers come out to feed.

A predominantly Christian area, North Sulawesi is dominated by large, elaborate churches that have been built in even the smallest of villages. And everywhere you go, you'll be met by warm smiles and given a big welcome.



Nick Hanna travelled as a guest of Regaldive (0870-2201 777; regaldive.co.uk), which offers seven nights' b&b at Tasik Ria from £989. Diving costs from £245 for five days (including three guided dives per day, lunch, tanks and weights). Seven nights' full board at Kungkungan Bay Resort (kungkungan.com) costs from £1,129, with diving costs starting from £200 for 10 dives. Seven nights' full board at Siladen (siladen.com) costs from £1,280, where 11 dives costs £198 including tanks and weights. All the above prices include return flights, transfers, and a one-night room-only stop-over in Singapore.

Gangga Island (ganggaisland.com) is featured by Snooba Travel (0870-162 0767; snooba.com), which offers 10 days from £1,450 including return flights, transfers, nine nights' full board, 16 dives, and a one-night stop-over on the return journey. Non-divers start at £1,170.

Clients at Froggies (divefroggies.com) are usually independent travellers. Other dive operators for North Sulawesi include Dive Worldwide (0845-130 6980; diveworldwide.com) and Explorers (0845-644 7090; explorers.co.uk).


The North Sulawesi Watersports Association is very active in supporting the marine park and working on conservation projects. For details visit DiveNorthSulawesi.com.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
A meteor streaks across the sky during the Perseid Meteor Shower at a wind farm near Bogdanci, south of Skopje, Macedonia, in the early hours of 13 August
voicesHagel and Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise, says Robert Fisk
peopleEnglishman managed quintessential Hollywood restaurant Chasen's
Life and Style
food + drinkHarrods launches gourmet food qualification for staff
Arts and Entertainment
Michael Flatley prepares to bid farewell to the West End stage
danceMichael Flatley hits West End for last time alongside Team GB World champion Alice Upcott
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Life and Style
Horst P Horst mid-fashion shoot in New York, 1949
fashionFar-reaching retrospective to celebrate Horst P Horst's six decades of creativity
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
Life and Style
Black Ivory Coffee is made using beans plucked from elephants' waste after ingested by the animals
food + drinkFirm says it has created the "rarest" coffee in the world
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T plays live in 2007 before going on hiatus from 2010
arts + entsSinger-songwriter will perform on the Festival Republic Stage
Life and Style
food + drinkThese simple recipes will have you refreshed within minutes
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Oracle 11g SQL 2008 DBA (Unix, Oracle RAC, Mirroring, Replicati

    £6000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Oracle 11...

    Recruitment Consultant (Graduate Trainee), Finchley Central

    £17K OTE £30K: Charter Selection: Highly successful and innovative specialist...

    SQL DBA/ C# Developer - T-SQL, C#.Net

    £45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Working with an exciting ...

    Sales and Office Administrator – Sports Media

    £23,000: Sauce Recruitment: A global leader in sports and entertainment is now...

    Day In a Page

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition