Shooting sensational Siladen

It was turtle hatching time at Siladen (Richard Smith)
It was turtle hatching time at Siladen (Richard Smith)

Marine biologist RICHARD SMITH explores the underwater photographic potential of Bunaken National Park in Indonesia and some of the unique marine life it has to offer

Also read: Return to Siladen (with Gen Alpha)

Adjacent to the famed Bunaken Island lies its much-smaller and laidback cousin, Siladen. Although I first visited Indonesia many years ago, somehow I had never made it to Bunaken National Marine Park, probably the oldest and best-known of Indonesia's diving areas.

The park is renowned for its walls and lush corals, but I found there also to be many different topographies and interesting animals that make those habitats their home.

I was based at Siladen Resort for nearly two weeks as its resident photographer and underwater naturalist. I gave evening talks on the animals of the area, and shared techniques and tips for photographing them.

There is certainly plenty to keep both macro and wide-angle photographers occupied but, after the first couple of days and amazing hauls of unusual animals, I felt that I wanted to focus on the reef’s smaller critters rather than the walls and reefs.

Island nature

During my time at the resort, we dived all the local islands, including Siladen, Manado Tua, Mantehage and of course Bunaken itself. Each had its own array of critters and varied photographic opportunities.

Initially we spent two days diving around Manado Tua, which is an almost perfect volcanic cone that towers over the other islands. As the slopes meet the ocean, they disappear abruptly into the abyss in a wall so steep that it seems to undercut in places.

Such blue, clear water makes for a great wide-angle location, should you find the right subject such as a gorgonian or soft coral.

Diving at Siladen
Getting the diver in the shot at Siladen (Richard Smith)

As ever, I was keeping my eyes peeled for some of the more unusual fishes that might live in this kind of habitat and wasn’t disappointed. In a huge overhang, I spotted a little grey dottyback fish with an unusual pattern.

It was very shy and, after some time spent stalking it, I reluctantly gave up and headed for shallower waters to avoid hitting deco. Thankfully, when I was at just 7m or so, I spotted another dottyback and managed to get some shots. As ever with a skittish fish like this, I would recommend having all your camera settings and strobes ready for shooting whenever the opportunity arises.  

The fish was unusual in having scarlet dots on its pelvic fins that were more reminiscent of the Komodo or Bornean species of dottyback than the local one. I committed some time to shooting the fish and patience was definitely a prerequisite, as it often is when capturing images of nervy fishes. 

Ultimately, I believe this oddity is a strange variation of the thread-finned dottyback found only in North Sulawesi and neighbouring North Halmahera.  

Turtle cornucopia

Everyone loves a turtle, and they make excellent photographic subjects. The abundance of these reptiles on the reefs around Siladen makes things even easier. You can just wait to find one against a nice background, or with a temperament that allows you to approach that little bit closer.

Both green and hawksbill turtles were extremely common and habituated enough to divers' presence that they would carry on with their business as I shot away.

I was very lucky that my visit to Siladen coincided with hatching time. The beaches around the resort are turtle nesting sites and, if a new nest is spotted, the folk at the resort protect the eggs from marauding predators. During my stay, 60 days had passed on one of the clutches, so the dive-guides were keeping a close eye on them. 

One evening, as dusk fell, the call came that they were hatching. We dashed down and, for the first time, I saw baby turtles entering the world. They have an innate compass that directs them towards the ocean, so off they went on their little adventures, running as fast down across the shore as their little flippers would carry them.

They looked so tiny and fragile that it was difficult to resist the urge to help them on their way. It took a good 90 minutes for the entire clutch to emerge.

The Marine Life
Randall’s shrimp gobies share their burrows with alpheid shrimps

Ghost pipefish

One day we headed to the mainland for something completely different. Here, as with Lembeh Strait on the other side of the peninsula, there is great muck diving to be had. I was keen to explore this new area, and we clocked up quite a number of different photographic subjects.

This is definitely a macro photography area, with frogfish, nudibranchs and leaf scorpions.Some of these critters can also be found on the coral sites, but the density on the mainland sites was much higher. My eagle-eyed guide Robbie was very careful not to damage or touch the animals, and I greatly appreciated his gentle and non-invasive approach to the marine life.  

One animal that was a real highlight for me, as a committed fish geek, was the red Halimeda ghost pipefish, which can be found fairly regularly on the local sites. Halimeda ghost pipes are uncommon generally and the best place to find them is around their namesake bright green calcareous algae. 

As you might expect, because these animals generally live around a green alga, they are green in colour to match this habitat. Around Siladen, however, the predominant alga is bright red in colour and, for the first time, I saw a very rare red Halimeda ghost pipefish that lives with it.

I had never heard of such a fish and it really was spectacular. Definitely something to ask your guide about during your stay.

Quieter Siladen

Diving at Siladen
A pair of Axelrod’s coral blennies

Compared to Bunaken Island, Siladen is a much quieter and less densely inhabited place. The resort takes up a large area with manicured gardens and villas, and just around the other side of the island there is a small village.

I think the reduced human presence is reflected in the island’s reefs. We dived a site on the point that was a large hard coral plateau, with lots of abundant growth around. It makes a great wide-angle site, but thankfully I was using macro on the day I found another rare creature.

The flame angelfish is a really stunning little fish that exudes character and beauty. I was shocked to see one, because they ordinarily inhabit the central and eastern tropical Pacific. In fact the fish ID books don’t have them recorded in Indonesia at all.

For resident photographers this fish offers another challenge, but the images speak for themselves in being worth the effort. The scarlet fish has black bands and neon blue specks. It lives around hard corals on exposed sites, so this was actually the perfect site.

Again, the photographer must be patient to get a clear side-on shot, but if the fish gets comfortable with your presence, it will continue to feed among the coral branches and your opportunity will arise.

Perfect pitstop

Siladen Resort sits at the perfect location for an add-on trip. With flights from the UK to Singapore and then on to Manado, it is possible to just add a little car transfer for some muck diving in Lembeh Strait.

Siladen is linked through a “Paradise Pass” with Lembeh Resort in the strait, as well as Murex on Bangka Island. You can stay at Siladen and transfer by boat to dive other sites in the area en route to your add-on at Bangka or Lembeh.

If you have the time for a really big trip, there are also direct Garuda flights from Manado to Sorong, the gateway to Raja Ampat. I will certainly be stopping off at Siladen again in the future, as I explore further afield in Indonesia.

Sensational Siladen
Long-nosed filefish

The variety and number of photographic opportunities and subjects around Siladen Resort are extremely varied and will certainly contribute to any photographer's portfolio. I not only added species that I hadn’t seen before, but had the opportunity to spend time on subjects and revisit sites that I felt I could explore further.

These are both invaluable pursuits for photographers, but often underestimated. I look forward to capturing more images from this wonderful part of the world next time I get to visit.

RICHARD SMITH is a British underwater photographer and writer who aspires to promote appreciation for the ocean’s inhabitants and raise awareness of marine-conservation issues
through his images. A marine biologist by training, his pioneering research on the biology and conservation of pygmy seahorses led to the first PhD on these enigmatic fishes.

His photographs and marine life-focused features have appeared in a wide variety of publications around the world, and he organises and leads marine-life expeditions on which the aim is for participants to get more from their diving and photography by learning about the environment. He is also the author of The World Beneath: The Life and Times Of Unknown Sea Creatures and Coral Reefs.

Also on Divernet: Dive into Paradise: Exploring the Philippines’ best dive spots, Seahorse discovery like ‘finding kangaroo in Norway'


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