Pulau Bunaken: North Sulawesi
An unforgettable holiday in Indonesia needs nothing more than a still volcano, a village disco, internationally recognized tropical reefs and a pack of playing cards. Sarah Porter reports from Pulau Bunaken, North Sulawesi. The sound of the old boat’s engine churned and groaned, sending gentle vibrations through the bow’s crackling timber planks, where six of us lay like lazy lizards under a sun we hadn’t seen or felt for far too long.
The office and work stresses of Jakarta were moving behind us and our holiday had begun. The slap of the Sulawesi Sea against the boat’s hull was inviting us to disappear.
No one stayed below deck. The view north already held a spectacular promise; yet another of Indonesia’s awesome old volcanoes, Manado Tua, was already in full sight.
For some, the one-hour boat trip to Pulau Bunaken — Bunaken Island — from North Sulawesi’s capital Manado was filled with a mixture of fear and dread, excitement and nerves. This holiday would see us take that plunge and learn to scuba dive.
For others, it was a break to heal pollution-locked Jakartan lungs, to get away from the city’s traffic and noise, and to feel the sun against a bit of naked skin.
A few on board had dived before and would again at Bunaken. Others had no intention of testing potential claustrophobic tendencies and were armed with nothing more than suntan lotion and a book.
The snorkeling and dive base we were headed for, Bunaken Island, is just one of the tropical treasures that make up Bunaken National Marine Park, and is ranked among the world’s top 10 spots to dive. But there would be something for everyone, we had been promised.
The park has an ecosystem and marine life second to none in Indonesia and an underwater world that is allegedly one of the best the earth has to offer.
The official tourism website for North Sulawesi says the park covers a total surface area of 89,065 hectares, 97 percent of which is underwater. The rest is made up of five islands including Siladen, Bunaken, Mantehage, Nain and Manado Tua, the old and apparently haunted volcano.
It also boasts Indonesia’s flagship environmental program. Positive efforts to stop illegal fishing (including the use of bombing and cyanide) and prevent destruction of precious coral reefs are in part thanks to funds from a tourist entrance fee, collected and managed by the North Sulawesi Watersports Association.
The association works with the some 30 villages in the national park, interested parties and government agencies to help fund programs run by the Marine Environmental Education Center on Bunaken Island.
For tourists wanting to know where their national park entrance fee goes, unlike so much of the archipelago’s administration efforts, official reports suggest environmental activities and educational programs are making a difference — because the money is actually being reaching its intended destination.
In 2006, gold mine operators succumbed to pressure from activists and the local community and reversed a decision to dump waste into the sea between the national park and the Lembeh Strait.
North Sulawesi’s children are being educated on the importance of sustaining their coral surrounds, and in 2007, a turtle hatchery was established on a section of the national park’s beach where turtles come ashore to lay their eggs.
Unfortunately, the rubbish that makes its way from Manado to the national park and beyond is nothing less than unforgivable and the regular water shortages where we stayed at Bastianos Dive Resort on the southern side of Bunaken Island were reportedly a reflection of poor water management across the park.
But at the time of our visit, the country was suffering a drought and at least one of the staff at Bastianos told me he had made himself unpopular by insisting on better water management practices across the island — and that his efforts alone were working.
Despite everything there is to read and hear about this far northern tip of Indonesia — brooding volcanoes, untouched hinterlands, white sands and tropically blue waters — our arrival to the shores of Bunaken took us a little by surprise.
Having only ever completed a fun dive in Australia and on the Great Barrier Reef, I immediately wanted to find out how far away from the resort we would travel the next day for our first PADI lesson.
The spot we’d booked didn’t look all that spectacular, the beach was covered in rubbish, the tide was out, the mangroves looked sick and the water murky.
Dogs and campfires were visible only a few kilometers up the beach and kids were running around the not-so-pretty-sand playing with broken fishing nets and old tires.
The dive boats I could see anchored just off the beach were open timber vessels in desperate need of a paint job and I wasn’t the only one looking sideways to see if we had come to the right spot.
This place is famous, though, we said to one another. The Lonely Planet and every other publication we’d referred to couldn’t have it all wrong?
But Bastianos Dive Resort doesn’t advertise itself as a five-star beach holiday destination, and a couple of accommodation spots on the island actually turn away non-divers.
The island is not a tropical getaway to come to laze on the beach, drink cocktails and hope for something other than ridiculously unorganized food and beverage service.
The real surprises — and what we will all go back for — are hidden away and underwater, just like everyone said.
They are to be found climbing up the old volcano, trekking across to the other side of the island and getting lost, invitations to village discos, strange ojek adventures, incredible night sky views, boat trips for hours across to other islands, and wonderful, wonderful nights with a deck of cards, a new game, and some self-sung music.
Complimented of course by a few warm Bintangs.
Apart from our diving adventures and shared stories of resplendent walls of coral, unbelievably alive and with every inch moving — a near fatal sea adventure to seek-out neighboring Siladen Island and its new-ish five-star resort, was a stand-out adventure for us all.
Climbing aboard from Bunaken, cameras in hand, and excited for an adventure, none of us were to know one of the very worn timber boats we’d hired for our Bunaken-Siladen excursion was about to break down, in the middle of the deep dark sea.
But the very fluorescent phosphorous in the water and the view of the old volcano as the sun set itself across a haunting open sea, are scenes and memories difficult to disregard. Even if a few of us will never go to sea again.
Fellow travelers Yousuf Rangoonwal and Timo Thoennissen say they’ll also never forget almost falling off the top of the magnificent Manado Tua.
Their wet ascent one day included coming across wild boars (they think), fresh coconut milk and machete-proof coppice.
Their accidental ojek driver informed and warned them the volcano island was haunted and that by climbing it they would become sacrificial offerings, alive or dead. Both men today say they believe this now to be almost true.
And Australian Sean Stratton and Marco Fischer from Switzerland reportedly received numerous marriage proposals, friendliness to-boot, and palm wine hangovers, after an evening visit to Bunaken’s local village and annual street disco. Their story we’re all quite sure has some missing parts — and their photographs of crowding villagers, untouched beaches and unthinkable snorkeling left us wanting to know more.
But while others were falling off tops of mountains and losing themselves to the locals, beginner divers Sandra Furh, Daniel Schmidt and I completed our PADI open water certificate, passed our exam and saw our very first turtle underwater. I’ve not a clue of the names of all the fish we saw or of how Mother Nature dreamed of creating such an underwater world. Learning to dive for me was more than learning to breathe again, it was being put inside a fairy tail.
The highlights are too many, but our ever-so-patient Norwegian instructor Sean Nordbo said we were lucky to have come so close to a turtle he guessed was more than 100 years old.
The ancient sea-dweller’s shell alone was magnificent, and as I looked up to make sure the others were watching, and could see him, I wondered what he would say to us, if he had the chance.
Then as he slowly turned away, magically moving his flippers as if in flight, incredibly, I’m pretty sure, he gently smiled, and asked us to come back one day.
Finding Nemo, now, has nothing.
As a beginner diver, don’t go anywhere else than Bunaken Island. And do stay at Bastianos. The diving teachers and assistants were all wonderfully patient and absolutely committed to ensuring we learned to dive the right way — without a hangover, safely and with the most respect for our surroundings.
At the time of our holiday, Bastianos Dive Resort, telephone +62 431 853566, was charging US$22 per night accommodation for divers and a little extra for non-divers.
The open water dive course, a PADI certificate, was $350, and they charged $50 for PADI’s manual, which is useful, and helps you avoid drowning.
But send them an email for further up-to-date information and prices: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Flying to Manado is possible from Singapore, the Philippines, Jakarta, Surabaya and Bali. Getting out to Bunaken Island from an overnight stop at Manado involved calling Bastianos and asking for help. They organized the lot.