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Bunaken National Marine Park, Indonesia

It felt like some kind of tropical, Technicolor dream. The coral wall popped with color and swarmed with thousands of fish.
Bunaken National Marine Park, Indonesia

The Overview

It was a gentle feeding frenzy, and, from a global perspective, a beautiful anomaly. In an era when vibrant reefs all over the world are becoming bleached ghosts at an alarming rate, I was a witness to something all too rare, an intact marine ecosystem. Plus, for the first time in my relatively young diving life, I didn’t have to work to keep my buoyancy, or kick to move forward. I was flying. Hands out front like superman, soaring forward and back in a joyously shifting current. And when I bubbled to the surface after 45 minutes of diving bliss, there was Ole—the septuagenarian Norwegian backpacker I met on the Manado streets, wearing a bright safety orange life preserver and a mask, swirling on the surface like some sort of silver-tinged sock in a vast washing machine. Soon my dive buddies and I joined him in the spin cycle, and all of us were laughing like mad when the boat came to scoop us up and bring us back to our stylish bamboo huts overlooking the Celebes Sea.

That’s Pulau Bunaken for you. Nestled just off the upper right arm of Sulawesi and a mere hour’s speedboat ride from Manado a growing city with a sleek little international airport. Most foreigners who land in Manado come directly here to explore Bunaken National Marine Park—a cluster of five islands and miles of pristine coral reefs. The majority stay on the island of Bunaken, dive at least twice every day, and spend their evening combing field guides listing the park’s 300 varieties of coral, and 3,000 species of fish so they can identify what they saw. Given Bunaken’s rise to worldwide-dive-Mecca status some resorts refuse non-divers, but there’s a place for non-divers here too with white sand beaches, crumbling cliffs and thick mangroves to explore.

Dive resorts unfurl on two beaches. The original cluster is on Pantai Liang to the west. Sunbathers should land here. It has a beautifully wide stretch of white sand, but it does double as Manado’s de facto refuse dump when tides turn. Pantai Pangalisang near Bunaken village is the eco-choice. There’s no beach to lie on, but it overlooks an armada of stately mangrove trees, and the nearby reef is ideal for snorkelling.

When to Go
The dry season last from May to October, with July and August being particularly busy. Northern Sulawesi’s wet season last from November to March but is not a serious concern.

Getting There
Silkair flies four times weekly from Singapore to Manado, while Garuda Indonesia has three daily flights out of Jakarta to the city in north Sulawesi. Most resorts shuttle guests to and from Manado.

Where to Stay
In Pangalising, Living Colours (+081 2430 6401;; doubles from US$90) is a barefoot chic collection of bungalows with thick wood floors, stylish stone bathrooms, coconut wood beds and ample deck space. It’s an all-inclusive resort (they all are) run by a Finnish couple who double as dive photographers and cater to an almost exclusively Finnish clientele.

T+L Tip

Pay for your national park fee at your resort. It costs Rp50,000 per day but an annual pass  is normally a better option as it costs only Rp150,000.


Published on Aug 28, 2009

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