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.

THE COMPACT GUIDE

HOW TO GET THERE

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).

FURTHER INFORMATION

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

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
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
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Membership Sales Advisor - OTE £20,000 Uncapped

    £15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

    £35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

    Guru Careers: Membership Administrator

    £23K: Guru Careers: We're seeking an experienced Membership Administrator, to ...

    Guru Careers: Dining Room Head Chef

    £32K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Dining Room Head Chef to work for one of ...

    Day In a Page

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor