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The Bunaken National Marine Park lies in the Bay of Manado in the north of Sulawesi. It encompasses five islands (Bunaken, Siladen, Manado Tua, Montehage, Nain) where you do mostly steep wall diving. I have dived around the islands in Manado Bay numerous times, first in 1994 and I always love to come back here. Here you have a good chance to see pelagics like sharks, mackerels and tunas as well as marine turtles. The walls are very nicely covered with corals and have small caves and overhangs.
The Bunaken National Marine Park lies about 30 minutes by boat from Manado. Bunaken island is the centerpiece of the national park but there is good diving also at Manado Tua (the volcanic island), Siladen, Montehage and Nain. There are accommodations on Bunaken and Siladen as well as several dive operators. You can snorkel at many places around the island or just enjoy the nice beach.
The dive sites at the mainland around Manado are also well worth a visit, lots of unusual critters to be found, and from Bunaken it is easy to go to the Bangka islands in the north for a day trip. I also recommend a visit to Lembeh Strait to the east or a liveaboard trip to the Siau islands.
Bunaken island has many dive sites, but all are similar in that they are very deep and feature steep walls of coral, pocketed with small caves and everything is nicely covered. In the deeper parts of the walls, one can observe sharks, turtles and Napoleon wrasses. My favorite dive sites here are Mandolin and Lekuan I. Although most of the diving is for the pelagics and the nice walls, sometimes there are also some interesting small animals to be found. I have found ghost pipefishes, nudibranchs, dragonets and some leaf scorpionfishes. A dive guide from one of the dive operations on Bunaken has also made a very interesting discovery, a small seahorse unknown to science, only about 2.5cm large and living on hydroids, which has been named Hippocampus pontohi.
Mandolin is situated in the
strait between Bunaken and Manado Tua. The waters are very deep and there often
is a strong current so you can do a nice drift dive on the wall that stretched
along the western side of Bunaken island for several kilometers. We always saw
napoleon wrasses, some of them real granddaddies, huge with a large prominent
hump on the forehead as well as large groups of bumphead parrotfish (short "Bumpies").
While snorkeling during our lunch break, our lookout from the boat shouted to us and there was a dugon mother with a small calf passing us. She was grazing on the seagrass growing in the shallow parts between Mandolin and Fukui. Dugon like flat water and don't dive deeper than 5 meter. They are relatives of the manatees sea cows but live only in seawater. They differ from them by the shape of their tail. Manatees have tail which is rounded and paddle-shaped, the dugong's tail is fluked. Dugongs have tusks, which Manatee don't. A Dugong’s flippers also lack the rudimentary nails that Manatee have.
Fukui: At this dive site you can practically always see a large group of mackerels and batfish but also sometimes barracudas and shark. There are two resident Napoleon wrasses living around the boey, I think they are being fed by the crew of some of the dive boats. Coral cover is not so nice, specially around the giant tridacna shells (giant clams) it is badly broken, but it is still a very nice place to dive because of the large schools of fish. Currents can somtimes be quite strong wih downcurrents.
Lekuan I is a wall dive with some nice crevices and ledges. There is always a whitetip reefshark patrolling and sometimes eagle rays. But also take a close look at the corals covering the wall. We somettimes found violet leafishes, mandarin fishes, ghostpipefishes and beautiful nudibranchs. On one of our dives we saw a dozen turtles starting or landing or sleeping on some ledges. The dive sites of Lekuan II and III are very similar to to this dive site, mostly wall diving.
Timur on the east side of Bunaken is a great dive site but also nice for snorkeling with a beautiful reef with rich coral growth. At one point we saw during our lunch break 4 banded sea kraits (Laticauda sp.) that were foraging among the corals. I had to warn the other snorkelers, because they didn't realize, that marine snakes have to surface to breath air. One large snake nearly surfaced among the snorkelers! These snakes are very poisonous but will only bite when provoked.
Siladen island is the smaller island northeast of Bunaken. The wall is steep, down to about 35 meter, and coral growth is very good. On past visits to Sulawesi this dive site was my favorite, mainly because I am a nudibranch fan. This time we also found many pijama nudibranchs (Chromodoris sp.) so called because the are striped and colorful but also some blue dragon nudibranchs (Pteraeolidia ianthina) - these are beautiful slugs with blue cerata (= protuberances) - and Nembrotha kubarayana.
Manado Tua or "Old Manado" is a dormant volcano (800m) jutting up just west of the Bunaken. Although the volcano is not active, you can still sometimes hear underwater some low rumbeling from deep inside. Submarine exploration (searching for the Coelacanth fish) also showed volcanic activity in several hundred meters depth.
My favorite place is Pangulingan (Pangalingan), a dive site to the northeast. One dive we did was just incredible. It was windy and there were a lot of really large waves breaking on the shore of Manado Tua. When we jumped in there was a strong current on the surface and we had to descend as fast as possible. There is a corner at about 28m and here the water was just full of large fish! Mackerels, barracudas, two large whitetip reefsharks and a large Napoleon wrasse! Further up a huge tuna was passing by, but then visibility was getting very bad, probably from the waves above and we had to break off the dive after 45 min. On other dives we also saw a large school of butterflyfishes and at least 50 black and white snappers. Please notice that the shallow part of this dive sites is not so nice, there are a lot of waves here and the corals take quite a beating. However if you take a close look you can find some small animals like an octopus or dragonets.
Tanjung Kopi lies behind Manado Tua and is also a nice dive site. You dive with the current on a very steep slope becoming a vertical wall at about 25m. Butterflyfishes are everywhere out in front of you, groups of surgeonfishes and snappers as well as mackerels and a few large tunas. A good place for Napoleon wrasses and sometimes large groups of barracudas. The shallow area is quite nice with large coral boulders, sweetlips and black snappers. Look on the wall for nudibranchs and shrimps, but don't forget to look into the blue for an occasional shark or eagle ray!
Montehage is a large flat island north of Bunaken fringed with extensive mangrove forests (1453 hectares). The dive sites are off the west and south, on a wide shallow reef flat and is exposed at low tide. I had a very nice experience at Barracuda point where we dived away from the wall and out into the blue and an immense wall of barracudas! I think we were lucky. The school seems to change places and is not always seen at barracuda point but also on other sites along the coast.
Nain is an island in the north towards Bangka and is reached by boat in about 40 min from Bunaken. I did several dives there over the years, but around the year 2001 the dive guides didn't want to dive there, because there had been two accidents on Batu Kapal (= ship rock). This dive site is only for experienced divers, because the interesting part starts at 40m: a huge underwater pinnacle divided from the reef by a deep canyon. The top is at 42m and there are caves on about 60m below. Some crazy divers always want to visit those caves which is dangerous and so the dive guides refuse to go. Nain is also quite far away from help. Last time I went there we saw a huge tuna, about 2m long and further down a hammerhead shark! The reef around this area is also very nice and on the way there you often see pods of dolphins or pilot whales.
Jalan Masuk is a nice wall dive. We saw about 9 bluespotted stingrays that seemed to flee suddenly from sandy spots and hide again from us on the reef and a group of bumphead parrotfish. A nice colourful reef.
You can make very interesting night dives on Bunaken, usually at a sheltered place around Cela Cela or Lekuan III.
Already in 1991 the underwater area around Bunaken, Manado Tua, Siladen, Montehage and Nain islands became a national marine reserve: Taman Nasional Laut Bunaken - Manado Tua. The park covers a total surface area of 79,056 hectares, 97% of which is ocean. There is an entrance fee (since March 2001 - about 15 dollars) that is used for the preservation of the park and in part for the villages on the islands (controlled by US Aid). Also belonging to the park are two coastal areas with small reefs, seagrass beds and mangroves: Molas-Wari and Arakan-Wawontulap
But there is still a lot of work to do, to really protect the underwater life around these islands. On the islands are several fishing villages. In 1994 the first management plan was made and is has been revised and improved just recently in 2001 and an agreement on fishing zones, diving zones and a zone whereboth fishing and diving is prohibited was signed.
Currents regularly sweep garbage and sewage from Manado to the islands (I heard the park authorities plan to put nets on the river estuaries around Manado). Still, the reefs are in very good shape, only some visible damage through fish bombing (before the park was established) for example and some dive sites that are often visited (for example Fukui) have some damage like broken corals (around the large Tridacna clams) and dead coral heads where divers have touched them often.
One of the highlights are the schools of dolphins or pilot whales that you sometimes meet while crossing the Bay of Manado on the way over to Bunaken. Thanks to our boat driver who stopped the motor early enough not to disturb them too much, but still be close enough to them to observe, I actually managed to snorkel with some pilot whales. The school was distributed over a very large area with whole families resting on the surface. While snorkeling (don't make any noise with your fins!) a huge pilot whale appeared just in front of me, came up for air several times before disappearing again. The whole time I heard the chattering and squeaking from the school communicating around me. Just great!
There is no continental shelf in the northern part of Sulawesi and the reefs drop directly down to 1840 meter! Depths between the islands are around 200m, between Manado Tua and Montehage 1360m! A rare fish has been found here, the coelacanth (Latimeria menadoensis) who lives in caves at about 100 to 200m depth on these steep underwater slopes. Coelacanths can reach a length of about 2 meter and are so called living fossils. Living fossils are organisms that have not changed in millions of years. The Coelacanth (Latimeria chalumnae) was first discovered in the mouth of the Chalumna River on the east coast of South Africa and later around the Comores islands. This is a different species than the one living around Manado.