In 2019, I was fortunate enough to spend a good length of time in Manado, the capital of North Sulawesi. During my stay I was privileged enough to visit the amazing Bunaken Marine Park dozens of times.
I remember before deciding to visit North Sulawesi, the only time I had heard or seen the word ‘Bunaken’ was seeing it on a last minute specials holiday website a few years earlier, the name stood out but I never looked into it (even the heavily reduced price was a lot for me at the time!). When I was in talks about coming to Sulawesi it became apparent this would be where I would be doing a lot of my diving and photography, only then I began to ask Google what this place was all about, I began to get VERY excited.
Situated near the centre of the coral triangle, the small island of Bunaken is 1 of 5 that make up the Bunaken Marine Park, along with Manado Tua, Nain, Matehage and Siladen. In 1991 it was declared one of the first national parks by the Indonesian government, primarily because of it’s high bio diversity of marine life. Since that decision the ecosystem has flourished, with many agreeing the number of fish has greatly increased and that species are being seen that were previously known to be there. A true marine conservation success story for Indonesia and Asia, it is no wonder divers and snorkellers flock to this magical spot from all over the world.
The park charges foreign visitors the option of a daily entrance fee of IDR 50,000 ($4), or an extended yearly pass for IDR 150,000 ($12). The money made from these passes goes back into the conservation of the area and the villages that make up the park. Be sure to bring this along as the rangers are quite often seen and will board your vessel like pirates, to check your pass and sometimes have a photo with you which is fun.
If you wanted a true taste of island life it is possible to stay on Bunaken or Siladen with a good selection of resorts to choose from. I did not have the chance to stay nor do I know if the other islands have options for accommodation.
Staying on the mainland meant enduring a gruelling 25 minute boat ride, often across some of the bluest, glassiest water I’ve seen and nothing but your island destination and the horizon in sight.. It’s a hard life…. During this journey, if you’re lucky, you may be blessed with the presence of some marine fauna. On a few occasions we came across pods of dolphins who would love to come and play with the moving boat, effortlessly matching the speed of the hull and completely visible through the clear blue water, a real treat before you even start gearing up! We also had sightings of Pilot and Sperm whales very close the the boat too!
During my stay the word ‘turtle’ became synonymous with the diving at Bunaken. I would tell guests doing their first dives they should expect to see a lot of the curious aquatic reptiles, yet time after time, they would surface in complete disbelief.
Bunaken hosts a large number of resident Green Sea Turtles and this becomes evident almost instantly without even getting wet. Float around in the right spot and you will see one after the other coming up for a breath of air before heading back down to munch on some coral or find a quiet ledge to get a few ZZZs. Seriously though they are everywhere, some dives I think we counted nearly 50 individuals, ascending for air, descending, swimming along the reef top, sleeping on a ledge, lazily dangling on soft coral or hilariously head first in a sponge, EVERYWHERE… It’s safe to say I got ample photo opportunities, I remember how the crazy number really occurred to me one time when I was able to fit 8 of the clumsy swimmers into a single frame. Although the vast majority of the turtles seen are green turtles, you can also find hawksbill turtles here, you know, in case you get bored….
Diving and Snorkelling
Bunaken is a phenomenal location for divers and snorkellers alike. The wall diving is suitable for all levels from beginner to tech, the coral is extremely healthy from the top of the reef coral gardens all the way down to 50m plus. The coral gardens start from 3 or 4m which is perfect for snorkellers and freedivers, while being a fantastic place to spend a safety stop in the sunshine taking in all the colours and mind blowing diversity of fish.
For the more advanced divers, most walls drop down to 30m or more, some refer to certain parts as the ‘giant walls’ of Bunaken, because they extend down to nearly 2000m!
Currents do vary between sites but it was never too strong for me personally. The great thing is because the walls are so long, if you decide you’d rather not fight the current you can simply drift along trying to dodge the turtles. Some sites also have sheltered areas along the way which are handy if you are fighting the current to take a little rest and a mosey around.
In general I never felt like the area was crowded, some days you would see many boats out but during a dive I don’t recall crossing over more than one or 2 groups. The number of sites, length of the walls and the cooperative efforts from dive operations ensure that everyone gets to enjoy their dive in peace.
Bio Diversity (What will I see)
As I’ve said the diversity here is astonishing, both coral and fish. For example, here you can find 7 out of the 8 known species of giant clams worldwide. There is over 50 genera and sub genera of coral species embedded into the walls, a whopping 7 times that of which can be found in Hawaii. Incredibly, the park is known to be home to around 2000 species of fish and is claimed to have more than 70% of all known fish species in the Indo-Western Pacific. Safe to say there is always something new and exciting to find here.
Common sighting include multiple species of butterfly fish, angel fish, trigger fish, snappers, trevally, barracuda, jacks, puffer, wrasse and plenty more.
For those looking out to the blue or a delving a little deeper, you may be rewarded with some bigger game fish like tuna, reef sharks, giant barracuda or in extremely lucky conditions a Mola Mola (we had some guests see a small one).
Check back soon to my Dive Locations part of my site where I will be putting together info on locations like Bunaken, providing best times to go, best sites, conditions, likely sightings and more.