Written by: Matt Newkirk
Destination: Sulawesi, Indonesia
Visited: November 2018
The island of Bunaken, just off of the coast of Sulawesi, is truly a scuba diver’s paradise. The tiny volcanic island, is mostly undeveloped, except for a couple of small villages and dive resorts lining the white sand beaches that peek out from in-between the mangroves that line its shores.
Turtle taking a nap
What makes Bunaken unique though is the steep coral-lined drop-offs that lie just beyond the edge of the shore. Scuba divers flock from around the world to explore the waters surrounding Bunaken, hoping to discover what makes this tiny island one of Indonesia’s most sought-after scuba diving destinations.
The diving around Bunaken is fantastic. Temperatures are consistently between 27-30° C, and water visibility typically hovers around 30-50 meters. The shallow reef is filled with a diverse array of small but healthy hard and soft corals, making Bunaken a great spot for snorkelers as well.
From the shallow reef, the seafloor drops off dramatically, creating stunning wall dives and slight overhangs. Most of the dive sites around Bunaken are along these steep walls, that are covered with gorgonians, sponges, and a huge variety of soft corals. Turtles and reef sharks can be spotted at most dive sites patrolling the blue or napping in shelves between the coral. Barracuda and bump-head parrotfish can sometimes be spotted, but not in the huge numbers that I have seen in other destinations around Indonesia. Despite the sharp walls, most of the dives were sunny, and well-lit for photography.
Juvenile trumpet fish hiding in a sea fan
On some dives I would drift along with the current, while on others the seas were so calm that you could swim back and forth with very little effort. The sandy bottom beyond the drop-off was too deep for recreational divers at most sites, so a typical dive was spent just exploring the cracks and crevices found along the rocky walls.
While all of my dives were pleasant, with great visibility and lots of very healthy coral, I didn’t seem to see the same level of biodiversity during the day that I have seen in other parts of Indonesia, such as Bali or Raja Ampat. On most dives there were scores of small fish, and the occasional shark or larger predator, but not too many medium sized fish. I am not sure if this was just because of the time of year that I visited, or if this is indicative of overfishing or impacts from tourism.
I have heard a lot of other divers complain about large amounts of garbage and plastic rubbish in Bunaken in the past. I am very pleased to report that this was not my experience at all. I did notice a small piece of plastic here and there on the reef, but nothing out of the ordinary compared to other dive sites in South-East Asia.
Giant Map Pufferfish
The night diving is where the reefs around Bunaken really came to life. I have never encountered such a transformation from day to night anywhere else. The walls are covered in dense colonies of sun corals, which lie dormant during the day, but open to full bloom once the sun goes down showing off their bright yellow and orange polyps.
Sun coral polyps at night
Purple and pink soft corals were fully opened, extending their branching arms so that their tiny polyps could feed on the microscopic plankton that swarmed the water. Tiny creatures sporting specialty camouflage to blend in with their surroundings were in every nook and cranny, and large yellow crabs with huge sponges growing on their backs were patrolling the walls looking for their night’s meal.
Can you spot the crab hiding in the soft coral?
Crustaceans of all types, including slipper lobsters, were visible throughout the dive. Divers who enjoy macro photography are in for a real treat on night dives in Bunaken.
The dry season is from May to October, but Bunaken has a relatively mild monsoon season so the diving is good all year round. The rains can reduce visibility, especially in dive sites closer to shore. The peak season is July and August during summer break.
There is no shortage of dive resorts in Bunaken. Options are available for all price ranges, from backpacker to luxury accommodations. Shops and restaurant choices are limited, so it is important to choose the right accommodation for your needs. Electricity is unpredictable with frequent outages during the day, and better reliability at night.
Happy Gecko Dive Resort bungalow
I stayed at the Happy Gecko Dive Resort while on Bunaken. The Happy Gecko has six comfortable bungalows located on the hillside overlooking the ocean. They are basic, en-suite rooms with ceiling fans, but no air-conditioning. Three meals a day were included, and the attached dive shop was well managed, and professional. Dutch owner Willeke and her local husband Jerry were warm and welcoming hosts. To reach the top bungalows, guests must climb nearly 100 steps, so if stairs are a challenge this may not be the resort for you. The small beach in front of the Happy Gecko features a patch of mangrove trees, and a shallow sandy beach.
The shop’s dive boat loads from the shore directly in front of the resort, and three dives plus a night dive are possible daily. The shop is happy to go out, even if only one or two guests are diving. Snorkeling from shore is exceptional, and the reef is only about 100 meters from the shore. During the afternoon, the beach can get crowded with Chinese tourists and snorkel trips, but I barely noticed, as most days I was out diving. There is a small village located just at the top of the hill from the Happy Gecko, where backyard shops sell basic supplies and snacks. Snacks, beer and sodas are also available for sale in the Happy Gecko dining area.
Bunaken is situated just off the coast from the city on Manado in the north-east tip of Sulawesi, Indonesia. To get to Bunaken, first fly to Manado, then head to the harbor to catch a boat to the island. Many resorts will arrange water transport to Bunaken, or you can easily hire a local boat from the harbor. Be sure to request that the boat driver use two outboard motors, or it will be a long trip. Typically, boats can make the passage in about 45-60 minutes using both engines.
Jetty on Bunaken
Most flights to Manado are on Indonesian carrier Lion Air, and Lion’s slightly more upscale Baktik Air. These airlines can be a bit rough, so set your expectations accordingly. Flights can be arranged daily from Jakarta, and a few other airports within Indonesia. Silk Air also offers a few direct flights from Singapore to Manado, but they tend to be more expensive (but much nicer) than Lion or Batik. If you get in late and need a hotel in Manado before transferring to Bunaken, I would recommend the Hotel Celebes.