Diving in Manado
Bunaken Island National Marine Park
Manado is among the highlights of diving in Indonesia and has earned plaudits throughout the world. When you're scuba diving in Bunaken National Marine Park you'll witness some of the highest levels of biodiversity in the world, with outstanding fish variety and world-class wall diving. The clear, warm waters contain astonishingly high numbers of species, whether corals, sponges or fish.
The park is located just out of Manado Bay in the Sulawesi Sea, off the northern tip of Sulawesi, and features some 2 dozen diving sites spread across an area of 75,000 hectares and the 5 islands of Bunaken, Siladen, Manado Tua, Montehage and Nain.
Dive into the deep waters of Bunaken from your choice of dive resort and you can see 7 times more genera of coral than Hawaii, 33 species of butterflyfish and over 70% of all fish species known to the Indo-western Pacific.
Oceanic currents sweep past Bunaken Island bringing a steady supply of nutrients. It's a sure certainty that where there is plenty of food in the sea, there will be an abundance of marine life, and you can be here to witness this rich harvest too. From the smallest commensal shrimp to black tip reef sharks and eagle rays, there is something for everyone in this very special dive destination.
Manado diving is very popular with fun divers and marine biologists both of whom can take great pleasure from the diversity of coral and fish found here. You will surely encounter marine life here that you have not come across elsewhere.
The most notable recent find within the park was in 1997, when the coelacanth was discovered living in the lava tubes of Manado Tua. This 'living fossil' fish brought international media attention to Bunaken Island. Unusual mammals that can be seen include dugongs, which feed on the sea grass beds in the south of the park, and sperm whales, which travel through the area on their way to calve in the Sangihe Archipelago.
Dive Site Descriptions
Black Rock - Dropping in over the slope of Batu Hitam near Manado you can be forgiven for thinking that not much lies in store. But you would be so wrong as this excellent site, also know as DJ Point, promises plenty of entertainment. If you or your dive guide have keen eyes you will encounter one critter after another. Commensal shrimps, emperor shrimps, decorator crabs and candy crabs can all reveal themselves after a little investigation.
You will spend most of the time in and around a series of rocky patches where you are also likely to see cuttlefish, ribbon eels, cockatoo leaf fish and various pipefish. It is true that the Lembeh Strait has exceptional muck diving but if you want to see critters, this is surely one of the best places to find the small-but-perfectly-formed.
This is a site you are likely to visit on your return journey to your Manado dive resort from the islands in Bunaken and acts as a perfect complement to the reefs, walls and fish action you will have seen on your dives at the island. Manado's Black Rock often proves to be one of the favourite dives of many who experience Bunaken National Marine Park.
Celah Celah - Located on the south side of Bunaken Island, this site lies just outside Liang Bay, which is a favoured spot for the local villagers to relax and entertain themselves. The curve of island protects the dive sites on the south side of the island, therefore the sea is usually calm above the surface. Below sea level, however, there is often a strong current running parallel to the reef setting you up for stunning drift dives.
Celah means “crack” in Bahasa Indonesian and almost immediately after jumping into the water you will see why this site has the name it has. Deep walls are the common characteristic of Bunaken's underwater landscape and deep cracks are the main feature on this reef wall. Many of the fissures are wide enough to allow significant coral growth.
The vibrant health and sheer volume of gorgonians and sponges covering the wall make this a preferred site for many scuba divers, particularly photographers. Living among the mesmerising coral formations you will see myriad interesting creatures. From the shy and retiring pygmy seahorses and ghost pipefish to the deceptively ferocious appearance of giant morays and sea snakes. When the current is strong early in the morning look out for dogtooth tuna, and sometimes even eagle rays and blacktip sharks swooping against the ceiling of blue.
The current is not always running at Celah Celah and that is a perfect time to say 'Que sera sera' and instead, take your time to explore the intricacies of the marine life in the crevices of Bunaken Island. This would be a perfect opportunity to test your dive guide's knowledge by asking him to name the many nudibranchs you will find interspersed with harlequin shrimps. At these times you can marvel, at your leisure, at the sunlight streaming through the cracks in dazzling golden shafts.
Depan Kampung - Located in the south east section of the island and literally meaning "In front of the village", Depan Kampung offers quite a variety in underwater terrains.
Starting your dive on the wall to the west, you can drift along at a healthy pace admiring the vast numbers of pretty pyramid butterflyfish, black damsels, and juvenile redtooth triggerfish. Neon and yellow dash fusiliers are scattered everywhere. Large black and white banded sea snakes slide up and down through the dendronephthya corals in search of easy pickings.
Round one of the jutting seams that split the reef and you may just startle a whitetip reef shark. Normally skittish and only occassionally inquisitive, the sharks may circle a few times if you have piqued their interest, otherwise they'll race off past the batfish into the depths.
About half way through the dive the wall gives way to a steep slope dominated by branching green cup corals and pink hydroids. Here there's always plenty of yellow margin triggerfish, gilded triggerfish and angelfish. Blue gilded angelfish, quite common at Bunaken Island, are always a pleasure to see with their luminous orange markings.
Time for your safety stop and time to slow things down a little. With some careful attention you could find leaf scorpionfish, many different nudibranchs, picasso tobies, and the photogenic razorfish.
Fukui Point - This site, on the west coast of Bunaken Island, always features highly on people's favourites list and is named, not as an insult to a visitor called Hughie, but after its Japanese discoverer who dived this spot some 20 years ago. Here, unlike most of the Bunaken diving sites, you will find not a wall but more of a slope with a few short, steep drops.
Here you can find white-spotted moray eels peering out from their hideouts, and sailfin tangs elegantly raising their dorsal fins and soaring away. If there's a current running then you can expect to see thousands of red-tooth triggerfish, swarming low down and en-masse across the reef slope.
Since it is a cleaning station you are likely to run into all kinds of big fish. It's a perfect place to observe Napoleon wrasse having their parasites nibbled off as trevallys and large snappers line up for the same hygienic make over. Not only will the big fish show up here but you can also amuse yourself with the colony of garden eels or checkout the 5 hefty tridacna giant clams lying in a row.
Lekuan I, II & III - Whether beginner or experienced, in daytime or at night, you will drop down here through calm and crystal clear water to the coral wall in front of Lekuan Beach on the south side of Bunaken Island, facing the city of Manado. The wall has 3 prongs imaginatively named I, II and III and is a very popular site for all levels due to the conditions and the variety of fish and turtles present.
There are perhaps 10 green turtles on Lekuan I alone and some of the males are a very impressive size. You'll see them paddling by in the open ocean or resting under the many overhangs and ledges that mark this diving spot.
Legions of bump-headed parrotfish may charge past as you make your way to the wall where there lurk many lionfish and statuesque scorpionfish. Swarms of anthias at the reef edge will keep you entertained and there is every chance that the big lips of the humphead wrasse might cruise by to say hello.
The steep walls have tremendous coral growth, some massive green stands of black coral bushes, and, unless you are a real depth junkie, they will go down far beyond your maximum depth. Lekuan II in particular has very deep sections, and some interesting coves and shafts to cut across, in search of tuna and other pelagics. Scuba diving in the Bunaken National Marine Park makes for a fine memory if you are fortunate enough to visit it.
Mandolin Point - The origin of the name of this site in the south west of the island is unknown but some have suggested it is a reference to the number of 'strings' present here in the form of whip corals.
Descending down alongside one of Bunaken's typically colourful walls you will soon realise that, in the 20-45m depth range, there are more single whips than your eye can take in. For depth chargers this is a good chance to get down into the 'narc zone'.
As a good diver you will want to avoid any unnecessary contact with the reef which here is like trying to snake through a maze of tripwires. Bigger stuff to see includes Maori wrasse, bumphead parrotfish (both the big green ones and blue-pink ones), mappa pufferfish and white-tip reef sharks. There is also no shortage of macro stuff to keep you amused with the whip corals playing host to commensal shrimps and whip gobies.
Later you will see the wall morphing into a mat of sponges and hard and soft corals over which the current will lead you. At this stage of your dive you can hunt around for porcelain crabs on bubble coral and gorgeous little candy crabs on soft corals. Mandolin Point is an unusual and continually stimulating spot and is unlike any other site in the diving haven of Bunaken.
Sachiko's Point - Sachiko's Point is located on the north-east side of Bunaken Island. This is the favourite dive of a Japanese tour agent, who was lucky enough to have the site named after her.
Yet another example of Bunaken's great wall dives, you will witness an incredible variety of healthy coral and the marine life. The exposed position affords unforgettable drift dives along the wall that drops down from shallow waters to at least 40 metres. The shallows are characterised by vibrant coral growth with large gorgonians sprouting from the mid to low sections of the wall. There is more than enough depth for recreational scuba divers to revel in and there are some interesting caves in deeper water.
The strong current encourages larger pelagics, and bigger schools of fish are spotted here than on the south side of the island. It is very common to find yourself finning alongside a Napoleon wrasse as it searches for small fish and crustaceans among the corals. Schooling blue fin trevallies, easily recognised by their electric blue fins, accompanied by the powerful predator giant trevally, are also out for the hunting. Weighing up to 80 kg, the largest member of the Carangidae family impresses even the most experienced diver.
Green turtles feeding on the corals will keep you company during your safety stop and don't be surprised by blue spotted stingrays hiding in the crevices along the wall, ensuring you are entertained from the beginning to the very end of your dive.
Tanjung Kopi - Located on the east coast foothills of the spectacular volcanic island of Manado Tua, Tanjung Kopi is literally translated as "Coffee Point" but the reason for the name remains a mystery. However, one thing is for sure, the site is superb for the photographer. Both wide angle and macro lens can be used, so bring both along.
The dive site's main feature is a sloping underwater plateau that descends from 5 to 30 metres, fringed with a vertical wall that drops off to over 80 metres. An experienced dive guide is essential for diving here, as entry at the correct point is critical. Currents can be very strong, so you'll want to drop in upstream and drift over to the plateau.
This is the ideal location in Bunaken to see the bigger fish species. Use a reef hook or find a suitable rock to hold onto, then just hang out and watch the action in the deeper water off the wall. Black tip reef sharks, dogtooth tunas, Napoleon fish, giant trevally, eagle rays and the occasional hammerhead shark all glide through the currents, seemingly without effort.
But equally Tanjung Kopi is famous for its schooling fish with hundreds of batfish, jacks and bigeye trevallies imitating each other in a single group. On the reef plateau, blacktail barracuda hang around at 7 metres deep feeding in the currents.
For lovers of macro life, reef fish and corals, there is something for all, as some of the best soft coral gardens at Manado Tua can be found on the southern reef top of Tanjung Kopi. Reef fish are in abundance and many surprises lie in store, from harlequin shrimps, boxer crabs, starry morays, ribbon eels, and nudibranchs of all shapes, sizes and colouration to mention just a few.
Amongst the most fascinating things about this dive site is the grandeur of Manado Tua Island itself. Being an extinct volcano, you can actually follow the outline of the centuries-old larva flows down to the water's edge, and imagine how the underwater topography was formed all those eons ago.
Bunaken Timur - Timur means 'East', and this is a very long reef - so long in fact you'll need to dive Bunaken Timur more than once if you want to see it all.
What you will see is an array of beautiful soft corals and leather corals in the shallows, and a 35 metre wall, trimmed with fine lilac lace coral. There is plenty to delight the eye here and you may spot several different types of nudibranch as well as plenty of bright butterflyfish, including the ever-present crowds of pyramid butterflyfish and the rarely seen zebra butterflyfish, and the odd green turtle meandering by.
It's not all small stuff here though and you could well run into a few sharks, rare dolphinfish cruising below, or schools of eagle rays gliding elegantly into the blue. There can be a current on this dive, so it is normally reserved for intermediate divers. That said, it is not often difficult and is normally very rewarding, sometimes astoundingly so.
Apparently, a Dutch couple who were diving at Bunaken Timur came within 1 metre of 3 orcas (killer whales) - datsh amayshing!
How to Dive Bunaken
There are a lot of dive resorts around the area of a variety of standards and not all are very good value for money. We recommend only those professional, well managed resorts that have high quality boats and dive staff, both on the Manado mainland and Bunaken Island itself.
If you have time it really is worth seeing more of the North Sulawesi region. Consider adding a few days stay in the Lembeh Strait where you can enjoy the best macro diving and critters in the world. Lembeh is really a must for any divers visiting the area.
You can enjoy Bunaken Island diving all year round but overall the best season for dive conditions is from March to October. November to late-February sometimes sees winds and rains so surface conditions can be occasionally rough with 1 or 2 metre swells at that time. Litter washed up from the mainland can also be a problem in rainy season too.
Water temperature (27-30°C) and visibility (20-35m) are pretty constant all year round. The rainy season of November to late February is less pronounced than at some other places in the region although showers are not unusual during this time. Visibility is reduced when it rains, more so around Manado bay sites than those at Bunaken.
Many creatures here are year round, such as the amazing array of giant clams and nudibranchs. Resident dugongs as well as barracuda and tuna appear throughout the year. June is a good months for sharks, July for dolphins and whales. Sperm whales migrate through the region to calf in the Sangihe region in March and July/August. This period also happens to be the time when homosapiens are present in the area in large numbers.
Good for: Small animals, wall dives, underwater photography, drift diving, reef life and health, dive value-for-money and advanced divers
Not so good for: Wrecks and non-diving activities
Depth: 5 - >40m
Visibility: 20 - 35m
Currents: Normally gentle but can be strong
Surface conditions: Calm
Water temperature: 27 - 30°C
Experience level: Beginner - advanced
Number of dive sites: ~50
Distance: 18 km north of Manado Bay (40 mins)
Access: Bunaken and Manado dive resorts
Recommended length of stay: 7 - 10 days