Updated on 25th January, 2013. First published 5th March, 2012
After a week in Torajaland trekking and watching buffalos go to their heavenly reward, I decided to fit in a few days of diving off Bunaken Island in North Sulawesi. I arrived in Manado too late for the public boat, but spotted some divers at the airport, and tagged along on their hotel's boat for 15 euros. (Many prices on the island are in euros, though you can pay in rupiah.)
We crossed the Bay of Manado in under an hour, pulled into a mangrove-sheltered cove, and waded the last few metres. This was just long enough for me to cut myself on the coral, and for our captain to step on a stingray. He was carried, grimacing, to shore while I waited under an awning for the rain to stop, slowly bleeding into a puddle.
Bunaken's resorts have increased in number and comfort over the years, and are clustered around the mostly mangrove-sheltered Pangalisang beach on the east side and Liang beach along the inner curve of the island. I chose Bunaken Sea Garden, a verdant midrange place on Pangalisang with a dozen bungalows. They don't have a dive shop, but sent me a few minutes down the road to the laid-back Kuskus resort.
My bungalow at Bunaken Sea Garden
Volcanic in origin, Bunaken has great wall dives offering highly-varied coral, massive barrel sponges, giant clams, and a profusion of small, unusual fauna: nudibranches, tiny crustaceans, leaf scorpion fish, seahorses, undulating flatworms. Shawn, the dive guide, used a shaker to call us over to his finds, once pulling out a magnifying glass to reveal a tiny crab camouflaged on a strand of whip coral. The drop-offs are hospitable to larger animals like sharks or tuna as well, and I saw a sea turtle on every dive.
I'd been warned about trash, but pollution varies with seasonal currents and I only saw an occasional plastic bag and the usual detritus on the town beach.
One afternoon I walked south along the narrow path that loops around the island. Within 15 minutes I arrived at the sandy paths and tidy front yards of town, which is dominated by a large church painted with the block letters "Jesus prays for Bunaken". A few warungs sell cigarettes, and there's an internet cafe, but no real restaurants or shops (resort prices include all meals).
Jesus prays for Bunaken
The day I was there was a holiday for the people of Bunaken, an ethnolinguistic group distinct from the mainland Minahasa. A crowd cheered on drummers and sword dancers, who were engaged in mock battle under a zinc roof spangled with dangling DVDs. Friends, Season 7.
Another afternoon I set off on foot to explore the island, but ran into a member of the hotel staff who took me on his motorbike to a harbour on the the far side, through coconut plantations with views of the neighbouring islands.
Watch out for stingrays!
In order to fit in a morning dive on my last day (sea turtle, napoleon fish, unicorn fish), I skipped the early public boat and chartered one for the afternoon. The price of 250,000 rupiah included a chance dolphin sighting on the way and a drenching motorbike ride into town after Captain Frangky decided the sea was too rough for a direct crossing to Manado.
Non-divers on Bunaken can snorkel from dive boats or on the reef off Pangalisang beach. You can also arrange a trip to nearby Manado Tua island to hike the dormant, forested volcano and look for tarsiers, a genus of diminutive, large-eyed primates, or their marsupial counterpart, the cuscus. Tarsiers can also reportedly be spotted in the wooded areas of Bunaken with some luck and a good guide.
Ox cart on Bunaken
However, Bunaken is primarily a diving destination; if you are looking for pristine beaches or island jungles, there are better options. For divers, the quiet, car-free island continues to offer great wall dives in one of the world's most biodiverse marine parks, just a short boat ride from Manado and its international airport. You can also travel from Bunaken to dive the Lembeh Straits or Siladen Island, as day trips or overnight.
I visited in the rainy season, but reservations are a good idea during high season. I looked at a few places along Pangalisang beach and can suggest looking into the following: Bunaken Sea Gardens, at about 20 euros per night; Kuskus is another midrange Indonesian-owned venture with simple, clean bungalows and a friendly dive operation. The Village Bunaken is a step up, with a small pool, hot water, and a dive operation, and was charging 30 euros per night. Two Fish has bungalows, cheaper rooms, and facilities and trips for undersea photographers. If you're looking to splurge, Living Colours has hillside cottages, new diving equipment, and a great reputation for food, charging about 50 euros per night. More hotels on Bunaken can be found on Agoda.com.
Dive prices average about 30 euros for a dive, plus 10-15 euros for equipment, though most places offer packages with better value for serious divers. Some offer certification courses as well.
Till next time!
Wherever you stay, request bungalows away from the path, which hums with motorbikes in the morning. If neither the public boat or a hotel boat meets your needs, you can reach Frangky at +62 813 5678 3989; he can also take you dolphin-watching.
Story by Matt Easton
Related readingVillage trekking in Tana Toraja
A funeral in Toraja, Sulawesi
How to hire a boat in Indonesia: Without drowning
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