The Coral Beauty of Northern SulawesiArchipelago Diaries
The Coral Triangle is an area so rich in sea life that it is known as the global center of marine biodiversity. Stretching north to the Philippines, west to Sumatra and east to the Solomon Islands, the Coral Triangle is where the Pacific and the Indian Oceans meet. Over 500 species of reef-building corals can be found there, providing homes and feeding grounds to more than 3,000 species of fish. The Coral Triangle is also a superhighway for migratory species like tuna, whales and ocean sunfish - and Sulawesi lies at the heart of it all.
The Bunaken National Marine Park, Indonesia’s oldest marine reserve, sits at the northeastern tip of Sulawesi. It covers almost 900 square kilometers of ocean and is dominated by the 600-meter extinct volcano of Manado Tua. Established in 1991, the park owes its status because of the hard work and dedication of Dr. Hanny Batuna and his brother Sander, who extensively explored the region and discovered many of the dive sites. Dr. Batuna dedicated his life towards protecting the area and in 1987 established the Murex Dive Resort, which is still owned and operated by the family today.
Diving the marine park and the surrounding areas is a great way to experience the vast diversity of Indonesia’s marine life and a variety of underwater topographies. From the walls of Bunaken and the pinnacles of Bangka to the muck diving of the Lembeh Strait, divers can explore three distinctly different regions, sighting everything from large pelagics to some of the strangest macro life on the planet.
I flew directly from Jakarta to Manado, an easy three-and-a-half-hour flight, to experience this amazing underwater environment for myself. The next morning I woke up, grabbed my dive gear and was greeted by one of those dreamy tropical days with blue skies and a glassy sea. As the boat cut a graceful wave that peeled off each side of the bow, I sat on the foredeck and watched Bunaken Island come more and more into focus revealing the village, the beach and a dazzling strip of turquoise water that abruptly changed to cobalt blue – this was the famous Bunaken wall.
Our first dive was at a site called Lekuan Two, a quintessential wall dive. Covered in sponges, corals, sea fans, and teaming with marine life, the wall descends vertically over 900 meters. Turning away from the wall and looking out into the blue domain of red toothed trigger fish and schools of surgeon fish, I felt like an untethered astronaut suspended in space. A green sea turtle flew up from the abyss below, as if curious to see what the bubbles were about. Then drifting along the wall I saw a number of turtles resting on ledges, foraging for food and leisurely scratching themselves against the hard corals. Weighing up to 300 kilograms, these gentle giants feast mostly on algae and sea grass. By the end of the dive I had seen no less than twelve turtles.
Over the next few days we dove other sites along the wall. At Lekuan One, I saw so many turtles that I lost count. They swam at me in groups of two and three. One came from behind and flew directly over my right shoulder - so close that I could have touched it. Sometimes the scene became pretty comical, like when a turtle above me casually relieved itself and the feces dropped past my field of vision and almost landed on my GoPro! But turtles weren’t the only thing I saw as there were also colorful nudibranchs, reclusive moray eels, and both black and white tipped reef sharks who cruised the reef like stealth bombers.
Closer to the mainland we dove the eerie remains of the Molas Shipwreck, a Japanese cargo ship believed to have been torpedoed by the Americans during World War II. The bow and stern are intact while the smokestacks lie helplessly in the sand off the starboard side. Covered in corals, sponges and patches of stringy algae, divers can enter the wreck to get a closer look. The wreck is home to trumpetfish, Moorish idols and a school of friendly batfish who swam right up to my mask. The perimeter of the wreck is the home of wary barracuda, large Napoleon wrasse and patrolling reef sharks. During the ascent, we visited a coral garden where I spotted bubble coral, a porcelain crab, an octopus and a lawn of garden eels. The icing on the cake was when a sinuous blue and yellow ribbon eel threaded its way through the coral heads. Sometimes only its head and tail were visible, emphasizing its great length.
Tanjung Pepaya, a muck dive in Manado Bay, has an artificial reef constructed from one of Indonesia’s most venerable icons - the motor scooter. There resting on the substrate, are a couple dozen coral-encrusted scooters arranged in a giant “U” shape. Nearby, amongst the small coral heads, JOKOWI is spelled out in 60 cm high letters, as a tribute to Indonesian’s president. The laissez-faire attitude of a drifting leaf scorpion fish contrasted greatly with the offensive posture of some tiny clown fish who attacked my camera, protecting their home in the sea anemone from my graceless intrusion. Another territorial creature I saw in action was a giant mantis shrimp, who punches its prey with the force of a .22 caliber bullet. There’s a lot to see in Bunaken and Manado Bay and in the end, I dove nine different sites, repeating a few of my favorites.
Northeast of Manado at Sulawesi’s “Lands End”, is Bangka Island. Known for sloping reefs, pinnacles and strong currents, this is a good base to search for dugong, the elusive sea cow. Growing up to four meters in length and weighing as much as 400 kilograms, these shy animals can sometimes be found here happily munching their way through sea grass, leaving cleared pathways in their wake.
Standing in the middle of a bright, sandy underwater plain, the pinnacles of Batu Tiga towered 30 meters overhead. Covered in undulating soft corals, these spears of rock are home to a variety of marine life. At the top of the pinnacles were schools of tiny gold fish that scattered the sunlight like prisms. Within the cracks and passageways, I found a large school of batfish and a girthy green moray eel with black spots. At Busa Bora, another nice dive site, I spotted a crocodilefish lying in the sand, a stonefish camouflaged on a rock, and a frogfish that was virtually imperceptible against the red coral. All three are known as “ambush predators” and were waiting patiently for something tasty to swim by. Both the stonefish and the frogfish are venomous with the stonefish holding the title as the most poisonous fish in the world.
After diving around Bangka Island I headed southeast to the famous Lembeh Strait. Well-known for its plentiful and bizarre macro life, Lembeh is the Holy Grail of muck diving. Diving here was like scouring the ocean floor for my lost keys. I investigated every stone, coral and bit of trash, as anything can act as safe haven for the tiny, magical creatures that call this area home.
On my first dive at Makairido Two, I saw a hairy frogfish, something my dive buddy had not seen in his ten years of muck diving. This tiny creature, covered in straggly hair, looked like a bedraggled vagabond with a hangover. Then I was confronted by a tiny coconut octopus the size of a bottle cap fiercely defending its territory. Next door, an orange jawfish poked its head out of the sand with a wide-eyed expression, resembling something out of One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish by Dr. Suess.
When diving Jahir One, I was treated to a slow motion performance by a one-meter snake eel who languidly exited its home one centimeter at a time. This site had an amazing array of psychedelic nudibranchs and a grumpy looking white frogfish that only needed a cigar and a bowler hat to complete his outfit.
Side Trip to the North
North of Sulawesi is the Sangihe and Talaud Island group, a green necklace of islands stretching across the Celebes Sea towards the Philippines. They are remote, volcanic islands that are usually explored by divers on liveaboards. Nowadays, however, independent divers can leave Manado and reach Sangihe Island in about five hours on the Majestik Kawanua passenger ferry, a 25-meter hydrofoil. It’s a comfortable and stunningly beautiful journey that stops at some of small islands along the way.
Tahuna, the main town on Sangihe Island, has no dive shops, but I was able to connect with a local Divemaster and arrange a wreck dive in Tahuna Bay. The following morning, I was picked up at my hotel in an angkot, the ubiquitous blue minibus typically reserved as a form of public transportation. We proceeded to Sangihe Search and Rescue where after some discussion, we scored some tanks, BCDs and regulators. We then went to a tiny warung (restaurant) on the harbor for coffee. When I drained the cup the Divemaster asked me if I was ready to go.
“Sure”, I said.
He then led me, rather matter-of-factly, across the street and over the seawall. There on the rocks we put on some of our gear and threw the rest in the water. We jumped in, somersaulted into our BCD’s and descended. I was laughing into my regulator on the way down.
The wreck, a 40-meter Japanese cargo ship sunk by the Dutch in 1948, sits erect and relatively intact in about 25 meters of water. The ship is cloaked in corals, sponges, purple sea anemone, and draped with fishing nets at the mid-section. I peeked into a giant barrel sponge growing off the hull and found a lion fish resting inside. Looking up towards the bow, I saw a school of blue trevally swim over the main deck. We then entered the ruins of the pilot house, dove beneath the main deck and made our way to the aft section. Streams of light streaked through the gaping holes in the deck and filled the engine room, illuminating schools of damsel fish, butterfly fish and blue-striped snapper.
After the dive there was a debriefing back at the warung over another cup of coffee, strong and sweet. The Divemaster laughed and told me I was currently the only bule (foreigner) on the island, which explained why I attracted so much attention. I found the people of Sangihe very friendly, and felt lucky to be the only foreigner sharing their beautiful island with them.
If you ever want a break from diving, you will find that northern Sulawesi is also spectacular on land. There are towering volcanos, interesting cultures and jungled national parks with endemic wildlife. But with so much marine diversity and varied underwater topography, if you are anything like me, you may find it difficult to tear yourself away from the thrill of going down under.
- Jakarta/Manado – Many airlines offering reasonably-priced tickets.
- Find flights at: https://www.skyscanner.net/
Diving around Manado
- Go online and you will find many good dive operations. Who you choose will depend on your time and budget. If you want to dive Bunaken, Bangka and Lembeh, look for an operation like Murex that serves all three regions. This will help you maximize your dive time and minimize transportation and accommodation hassles.
Sangihe & Talaud Islands
- Boat Travel - Buy tickets for Majestik Kawanua at the main harbor in Manado.
- Air Travel - Manado/Sangihe with Wings Air: http://www.nusatrip.com/en
- Diving - This is a remote area, you can find inspiration at: http://www.starfish.ch/dive/Siau.html
- Accommodation – Here is a good place to start: http://www.sulawesi-info.com/sangihe.html