Dive To Bunaken, North Sulawesi

Discover the multi-faceted beauty of Indonesia. Here we present the destination to add to your itinerary. (Words & Images by Tommy Schultz)

Bunaken

Bunaken National Marine Park is a marine reserve – just off the northern tip of Sulawesi in eastern Indonesia – extending over 890km2. Tommy Schultz goes in search of its many underwater treasures, including a sea serpent that hasn’t been sighted for 40 years.

Pak Patriot catches a small albacore tuna for dinner on Siladen Island.
Pak Patriot catches a small albacore tuna for dinner on Siladen Island (Source : Colours the magazine of Garuda Indonesia)

Pak Patriot, a Siladen villager, describes the ‘mythic’ creature as having the “head of a horse and the body of a snake”, and measuring more than 5m. Local fishermen from Siladen first noticed the mysterious creature gliding through the beautiful coral garden beside the island’s western coast in the fading light of late afternoon.

Pak Patriot says he was just a boy when he first glimpsed the aquatic equineserpent, but even today he remembers that evening on the beach. Oddly, after almost four decades the Siladen villagers haven’t seen another of its kind.

It might seem impossible that such creatures could remain hidden from a community where children are exposed to rare and exotic marine animals from the day they are born – until you consider the geography of Siladen.

Siladen Island, North Sulawesi
Siladen Island, North Sulawesi (Source : manadonow.com)

Located on the edge of the Marine Park, the waters around the island plunge to 1,566m – more than enough briny deep to hide an encyclopaedia’s worth of exotic creatures that spend an entire lifetime without ever seeing the sun. And with new species of marine animals being discovered as recently as 2008, it’s easier to see how a ‘sea serpent’ might go undiscovered for decades. Only 3% of Bunaken National Marine Park reserve is terrestrial, including Bunaken Island, and the islands of Manado Tua, Mantehage, Nain and Siladen.

Bunaken’s explosion of marine biodiversity makes it a top destination, not only for marine scientists but also for scuba divers in search of the trip of a lifetime. With more than 90 species of fish and 390 species of coral, even the most salty reef veteran is sure to catch a glimpse of something they’ve never seen before.

Bunaken is famous for its spectacular marine life and coral reefs
Bunaken is famous for its spectacular marine life and coral reefs (Source : pinterest.com/source/travellearn.xyz)

“Bunaken is a like a miniature representation of the entire Coral Triangle,” observes Dr Lida Pet Soede, the Director of the World Wildlife Fund for Nature’s Coral Triangle Programme – an international conservation effort that spans the spectacularly diverse seascapes of Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, the Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste.

“You have every environment from shallow-water mangrove forests and 25–50m vertical coral reef walls to the deep sea trench where it’s possible to see very large animals underwater,” Soede adds.

That’s why I’m scanning the cobalt-blue panorama of the deep trench beside the spectacular coral wall at Alung Banua – you never know what you might see swimming by in the open water in a place like this. Just last night I heard tales of orca sightings in Bunaken from Daniele Marianelli, the man behind the Siladen Resort & Spa, a scuba diver-friendly collection of tasteful bungalows that’s rated one of the best resorts in the park. In between sips of fresh mango juice by the pool, Marianelli also tells me of recent whale shark and sperm whale sightings.

The macro photo geek in me is excited to see smaller creatures like the extremely rare blue-ringed octopus, but nothing captures the imagination of my inner Jacques Cousteau like being dwarfed by the eclipsing shadow of a passing whale shark.

Ten minutes into this dive and we’ve already seen an endangered hawksbill sea turtle, a whole circus of clownfish, and a porcelain-coloured crab freckled with brown spots living within the protective tentacles of an anemone. My camera’s memory card is filling up fast, but I’m still staring optimistically out into the blue abyss for a glimpse of something huge.

A hatchling green sea turtle swims in the shallow water beside one of Siladen’s beautiful beaches.
A hatchling green sea turtle swims in the shallow water beside one of Siladen’s beautiful beaches (Source : Colours the magazine of Garuda Indonesia)

After an hour, the needle on my tank’s pressure gauge is dropping and it’s time to surface. My guide Delly signals me to pause 3m below the surface for a safety stop. A school of fish flutters past, shimmering in the silver light beams angling through the surface.

Back on the boat, two French divers from our group are excitedly showing off the photos on their digital camera.

“Did you see it?” they ask.

“See what?” I ask, already suspecting my inner Jacques Cousteau might be getting rusty

“Whale shark!” they shout, with huge smiles on their faces. The unmistakable silhouette of planet Earth’s largest fish lights up the camera’s LCD screen.

Missing the whale shark is definitely a setback. But I still have another few days here and every dive is like an underwater lottery ticket to spot something amazing.

An hour later, we’re in the water again. This time it’s Depan Kampung, a dive site located at the north end of Bunaken Island.

A shallow coral garden with a circus of darting parrotfish, fluttering damselfish and brilliant coral colonies abruptly gives way to an underwater cliff that plunges as far as I can see.

I have a brief moment of vertigo as the current sweeps me over the precipice. Once again, I’m scanning the blue horizon for a glimpse of Bunaken’s undersea magic – imagining Pak Patriot’s legendary sea serpent.

The afternoon sun sparkles through the infinite seascape when I spot a green sea turtle gliding near the surface on its pectoral wings. With a few kicks of my scuba fins, I’m out into open water, swimming alongside.

The turtle’s sharp eyes take in the awkward stranger struggling to keep up. After a few minutes alone with this graceful animal, I stop swimming, snapping a farewell photo with my camera as an old soul of the sea dissolves into the deep. (Credit to : Colours the magazine of Garuda Indonesia)

 

 

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