THE SUN ON MY FACE, breeze blowing through my hair, we sped across the mirror-like ocean surface in Siladen Resort’s transfer boat on the way to the small island located in the middle of the Bunaken National Marine Park.
Checking into our beach-view room after having our dive and camera gear taken off to the dive-centre and camera-room respectively, I went out onto the white-sand beach to look across to flat Bunaken Island and iconic Manado Tua Volcano just beyond. This was a view of which, seen from many angles over the next two weeks, I would never tire.
Refreshed the next day, I was excited to get below the flat-calm surface. I had dived Bunaken on two day-trips from Lembeh several years previously. Impressed by the amount of marine life and beauty of the corals covering those famous walls, I had been looking forward to a longer visit.
Descending to a bowl-like cut in the wall at 10m, our first dive-site at Depang Kampung, south of Bunaken Island, was to become one of my favourite dives.
I was met by a huge green turtle swimming to the surface for a breath of air. I normally wait until I’m on the bottom to turn my camera on and adjust my strobes and settings, so I kicked myself that I hadn’t been prepared for this perfect photo-opportunity.
As it happened, it didn’t matter. Green turtle after green turtle was found sleeping, feeding and swimming next to the wall.
As I was shooting wide-angle, my main attention was drawn to the larger picture of a beautiful coral-covered wall, the surface above pierced by shooting sun-rays. My buddy Mateusz rattled to get my attention. On a huge orange seafan, almost too small for the naked eye, was a Denise pygmy seahorse.
After studying it for a while, hopeful that we would return to this site so that I could bring my macro lens, I turned back to swim along the wall.
A little distance away, a dead red-toothed triggerfish was attracting the attention of many other fish, which all seemed to be feeding on it. As I watched, a Napoleon wrasse scattered the smaller fish and tried to take a bite, pulling the dead fish partially out of the reef where its head was hidden.
As it pulled, the other end of the corpse suddenly appeared in the jaws of a moray eel. A sharp jerk and the red-toothed trigger disappeared into the warren of holes in the reef, along with the moray. The Napoleon retreated to an overhang to sulk.
We had felt only a slight current on the dive, the guides and boat captains being extremely knowledgeable of conditions. Bunaken is famous for currents that carry nutrient-rich waters to feed the eco-system that produces the spectacular coral reefs and magnitude of marine life. These currents are mainly due to the tidal range being between 1.5 and 3m. However, this also brings great visibility, with low vis being measured at around 20m and normal vis at 40m-plus.
As we turned back towards the mooring, hanging on top of the reef to bask in the sunbeams at 5m, a large group of cuttlefish swam past just beyond my camera-lens’s capabilities for a decent photo. It was an incredible dive, which we would repeat twice over the fortnight.
NEXT MORNING WE VISITED Tinongko, at the south-eastern end of Mantehage Island. There are five main islands in Bunaken National Park, and more than 50 dive-sites.
A very steep, almost sheer wall met us. The visibility was incredible at more than 40m. We descended to 20m, keeping an eye on our computers. It’s very easy to forgot how deep you are in such great vis.
We had decided on a shallower but longer dive-profile, as the life on the whole wall-face was so prolific that it seemed unnecessary to dive deep.
A 70-minute dive later and a camera-card full of beautiful reef-scene images, we ascended. At 10m our guide Robbie became very excited, gesticulating wildly. He had found an ocellated octopus.
After our surface interval, we moved on to Bango Point, close by. As at Tinongko, the wall was full of seafans, beautiful hard and soft corals and large schools of fish.
Again, I was amazed by the amount of macro life on what would normally be described as a wide-angle dive.
Another Denise pygmy seahorse was spotted in a seafan, while nudibranchs of every colour dotted the reef. In a slight cut in the reef, Robbie found a candy crab mimicking the bright orange soft coral. It was resplendent in stripes and spikes, camouflaged to perfection.
We returned to the resort for a delicious buffet lunch prepared by Siladen’s Italian master chef, Marco. We were determined to dive as much as possible, not only to experience the incredible beauty and pristine nature of the marine park, but also to burn off all the calories from the hard-to-resist food!
A 30-minute boat-ride in the afternoon took us to mainland Sulawesi to dive one of the many muck and macro dives along the Manado Bay coast. Bolung was another dive I vowed to visit again, because this time I had my macro lens on but, on a white sandy slope at 20m, there lay the small wreck of a dive-boat swarming with glassfish.
The sand proved to be a haven for baby fish, including two miniscule frogfish, a tiny almost translucent crocodilefish and an egg-sized broadclub cuttlefish.
That night, we were woken suddenly in the middle of the night by the bed shaking. Disorientated, thinking that we had left the doors open and there was a storm, I got out of bed to check and found that the room itself was shaking.
An underwater earthquake of 6.8 magnitude had struck some 50 miles away. Lasting around a minute, it caused no damage to our room, and we went back to sleep to wake the next morning to a sunny day and perfect conditions.
Unbelievably, many guests had slept through the quake, totally unaware.
A FULL-DAY EXCURSION had been booked for the day. Siladen offers two of these, one to Bangka Island for its soft corals and the other to Manado Bay for muck-diving.
We were off to the latter, where the black volcanic sand bottom is more like that of the famous muck-sites of Lembeh Straits, favoured by all sorts of weird and wonderful critters. Here, however, it was interspersed with coral boulders.
Nudibranchs were everywhere! Ornate ghost pipefish hid in plain view, and different types of shrimp, fangblennies, dragonets and devil scorpionfish kept us snapping away with our cameras.
A poisonous but beautifully coloured flamboyant cuttlefish walked over the sand looking for food, while a coconut octopus hid in its den made from glass and pieces of shiny plastic.
Robbie called us over. He had found two thumbnail-sized baby hairy frogfish sitting within a metre of each other, one yellow and the other white. I had never seen any so small before. Manado Bay was proving a definite contender for macro heaven. And as we were coming to the end of our last dive of the day, a pea-sized zebra boxfish caught my eye – magical!
Mike’s Point, the following day, saw me celebrate my 900th dive with the sighting of a very rare Mototi blue-ring octopus. Mototis have only two rings either side of the head, but this cousin of the blue-ring is just as tiny, and just as deadly.
Over the next week we varied our dives between wall and sand-slope dives. All were good and exceeded my expectations.
At the beginning of our second week, Ana Fonseca, Guest Relations Manager at Siladen, joined us for the full-day excursion to Bangka, halfway between Bunaken and Lembeh. Unfortunately it decided to rain all that day, torrentially!
We went anyway and were so happy that we had, because we dived onto a beautiful slope at Sahaun teeming with multi-coloured soft corals. In bright sunshine, this would have been even more spectacular.
A slight current carried us along the reef as we passed coral bommies full of life. Halfway through the dive the current started to speed up. I tucked my strobe-arms in, turned my camera off and went with the flow, flying like Superman over the reef.
On reaching our second dive at Bosa Bora, we bottomed out at 15m. Almost immediately Ana spotted a pair of reef octopuses mating. We were voyeurs for the next 10 minutes as the male turned white and extended his specialised mating arm to latch onto the female, who turned dark red. The female seemed to be constantly trying to pull away, but the male stuck firm, splaying his legs over the reef to get better purchase.
The night dives we did were also incredibly rich in life. As we followed the mooring-line down to 15m at Tiwoho, a tiny long-arm octopus greeted us briefly before comically raising its body up on its legs and scurrying off.
Nearby I spotted a baby stargazer, almost completely buried. Different kinds of crabs and shrimp were everywhere, from a huge box crab to tiny porcelain crabs hiding in anemones. Mateusz was taking a photograph of a boxer shrimp when he spotted a baby blue-ring octopus right next to it.
Rarely have I found waters so rich in life at night. I had to keep turning my torch off after being swamped by swarms of plankton.
Siladen’s general manager, Miguel Ribeiro, joined us for a dive at the Wreck, a big Dutch cargo ship sunk off the coast near Manado by a torpedo in 1942. At 37m the large propeller is embedded in coral on the sand bottom. The wreck sits almost upright at a slight angle, with the mooring line fixed to the bow.
Dropping for a quick look at the prop, I then ascended and swam towards the bow at 23m as I made my way along the largely intact deck. We had swum into a fair current getting to the stern, staying at 15m to conserve our air before dipping to the prop, and it had picked up as we swam back towards the bow.
After around 20 minutes we ascended again to 15m and swam at a right angle to the ship towards Black Rock, another site a short distance away.
Meeting a sloping bottom going all the way to the shoreline, we slowly swam up a slope dotted with coral outcrops to a beautiful sun-drenched reef.
There we spent an extended safety stop investigating the nooks and crannies.
OUR SECOND DIVE WAS AT Fukui, another beautiful reef full of healthy soft and hard corals. If Bunaken was in a beauty contest, it would be Miss World.
The sun was streaming into the water, making a dazzling backdrop for the schools of anthias darting in and out of the corals.
A mass of striped catfish, unusually, were moving in unison across the reef, feeding. They’re normally seen moving over sand, but the reef must have been so full of food they had changed their habits. Miguel posed for me with them as they ignored him, absorbed in feeding.
Ana had told me that a school of batfish were normally found at this site, and sure enough I found them at 8m, basking in the sun-rays.
On our penultimate dive-day we requested to go to Lekuan, a wall in the shadow of Manado Tua volcano. Normally this would be classified as a wide-angle dive, but I was amazed by the amount and variety of pygmy seahorses to be found there.
Consisting of three mooring-sites linked together, this is one area that has to be timed perfectly, not only because of the often strong currents but also to ensure that yours is the first dive-boat to moor. Because the life is so prolific, this is one of the most popular dive-sites in Bunaken.
One thing I did notice was a kind of etiquette between dive-centres, with one dive-boat moored at a time, which is refreshing. I suppose there are so many excellent sites around that you’re spoilt for choice.
Our final dive at Tinongko saw a fly-past of four big eagle rays swooping past us. Snorkelling around Siladen Island on our last day, trying to take some split-level surface images of the jetty, we were joined by a group of children whose obvious playground this is after school.
Jumping in from the stairs and the top of the jetty, they were very keen to interact and pose prettily for our cameras in the sunset.
Benefiting from both steep walls and volcanic sand slopes, Bunaken really does have the best of both worlds. I can’t wait to visit again!
GETTING THERE: Fly from the UK to Manado via Singapore. Singapore Airlines offers a 30kg baggage allowance. Minibus transfers take 40 minutes, followed by 40 minutes by boat.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Siladen Resort & Spa, www.siladen.com
WHEN TO GO: Year round. Dry season is March to December and the not-so-dry season from December to February, when the weather is only slightly worse than in other months. Water temperatures range between 27-29°. A 3mm shortie or full wetsuit is recommended.
CURRENCY: Indonesian rupiah.
PRICES: Dive Safari Asia offers 12 nights’ full-board (two sharing) at Siladen Resort with full board, 20 guided dives, return Singapore Airlines flights and transfers from £2695pp, www.divesafariasia.com
VISITOR INFORMATION: www.indonesia.travel