This year, A and I decided, since we are spending quite some time in Indonesia, to travel to Manado, located on the northern tip of North Sulawesi province, to explore the underwater beauty of Indonesia. For divers, North Sulawesi is a paradise. The coral reefs in North Sulawesi are renowned for its marine biodiversity as it is located at the center of “Coral Triangle”, a geographic area that boasts the largest variety of coral species not found anywhere else in the world. Why this broad area is so rich in underwater life is because it is the meeting point between the Pacific and the Indian oceans, bringing a wealth of nutrition to feed the numerous species. There are even more marine species here than on the Great Barrier Reef.
Three totally different dive areas in North Sulawesi are reachable within a maximum of 1.5 hours boat trip. The most well-known dive area is Bunaken National Marine Park. The truth is that when you are diving in the waters of Bunaken, you can see over 70% of all fish species that exist in Indo-Pacific. The underwater biodiversity becomes even higher if we add the additional species that can be found in the other two dive areas: the Bangka Archipelago and the Lembeh Strait. The coral life around these areas is absolutely remarkable.
There were not many hotel choices for us in Manado. Our preference was to pick a hotel that offers a diving package and is also near the dive sites so that we did not need to leave our ten-month old baby Shiori and her nanny at the hotel for a long period of time. Hence, we selected Seaside Resort Santika as our hotel and Thalassa as our dive center. The dive center is positioned on the premises of the resort, which is 15 kilometers north of the Manado city. The location of the resort and the dive center is on the mainland, amongst palm trees and flourishing mangrove forests, in the middle of Bunaken National Park. Such a strategic location enabled us to always come back to our hotel room in between each dive, to see Shiori. The breaks between dives brought great convenience to our stay over there.
We stayed at Santika for seven days, with four full days of scuba diving. The four-star resort is built on a large area of lush garden and is implemented with a good balance between Western demands and local atmosphere. The restaurant on the premises offers food both local and international. The view of Mount Manado Tua, the islands and the sea from the restaurant is simply spectacular. In the large garden, there are a free form swimming pool and a children playground, so that guests can experience a family-style atmosphere. Traditional massages and body treatments are offered by the resort’s spa. There is no beach at Santika since the resort is surrounded by mangrove swamps. Consequently, the resort constructed a long jetty, with a stunning view of Bunaken and the sea. The hotel room, especially the bathroom, was, however, below my expectation. The buildings are a bit old. Also, the taste and the variety of the food (especially the breakfast) needed to be improved. Some guests took advantage the free shuttle service to Manado (about 45-minute drive) for a dinner in the city. We went to Manado twice for tasting local food. Another blog about my favorite Manado foods is currently in the work.
Overall, we were pretty happy with Thalassa Dive Center. Each day, Thalassa offers three dives: two in the morning (8am and 10am) and one in the afternoon (2pm). Divers are given freedom and flexibility to create their own dive schedule. A night dive can also be arranged. Since the dive center is very close to Bunaken, we typically come back to the resort during surface intervals if the chosen dive site is not far from the resort. If we go to distant dive sites such as Bangka Archipelago and Lembeh Strait, we will need to leave in the morning around 8am and return in the afternoon, with a yummy lunch provided on the boat. Another good thing about Thalassa is that a large group of divers is split into smaller groups and placed on different boats, so that we do not feel overcrowded when diving. As part of the dive package, they prepared tasty local food for lunch and also delicious snacks with hot tea and coffee in the afternoon. I personally liked the food provided by Thalassa’s chefs better than the resort.
In summary, our diving experience was really amazing and very memorable. We will definitely return to North Sulawesi again someday for another diving experience. We explored many dive sites at Bunaken that have impressive, completely overgrown steep walls. Diving along the Bunaken’s steep walls gave me an interestingly eerie feeling as I could not see the bottom of the sea. But I was truly impressed with the abundance and diversity of the coral life. We saw schools of different kinds of small and big fish passing by the walls, such as turtles, sharks, barracudas, eagle rays, napoleon fish, parrot fish, sweetlips, butterfly fish, moray eels, etc. With the help of our dive guides, we discovered a wealth of very well camouflaged critters hiding in little cavities and corals on the walls. These critters include a great variety of beautiful nudibranchs, different species of sea horses, scorpion fish, lion fish, frogfish, stone fish, cuttlefish, and still many more. Our favorite dive sites at Bunaken were Tanjung Kopi, Mandolin, and Lekuan 1. In Tanjung Kopi, we saw many kinds of big fish including barracudas, parrot fish, and sharks. The colorful deep wall of Mandolin is impressive, and the strong current will give you a nice drift diving experience. And diving in Lekuan 1 almost guarantees that you will see turtles.
We also spent one full day diving in the north, at the Bangka Archipelago, formed by active volcanoes that extend from the mainland into the sea. The dive sites at Bangka are relatively new reefs, where the hard corals did not have a chance to grow yet. Underwater, we could see traces of volcanic rocks, covered with amazingly colorful soft corals. Here we not only saw big schools of fish, but also many special critters hiding in between corals and small crevices, such as pygmy sea horses, ribbon eels, frogfish, nudibranchs, various types of crabs, and so on. When the sea current is running, the soft corals bloom to catch all the passing nutrients. Although the visibility sometimes was not as good as Bunaken (due to the crashing waves), a visit to Bangka must not be missed.
We unfortunately did not scuba dive at the Lembeh Strait, which is on the east side of the peninsula. The reason was due to the long 5-hour round trip required to reach Lembeh from our resort by car and boat. So, we would have arrived back at the hotel very late at night, and it would not be good for my lovely Shiori. I talked to one of the divers who went to Lembeh. She said that Lembeh is covered with black sand both underwater and on the surface. There is no interesting reef in Lembeh, but it is a paradise for underwater macro photography because of the large selection of rare, exotic, and bizarre species. Exceptionally strange small animals usually dig themselves in the black sand and they are difficult to spot. So, the eagle eyes of our dive guides are definitely a big help in spotting them. Lembeh will be unquestionably a place to dive for us when we return to North Sulawesi later in the future.
Not having an underwater camera and sufficient time to purchase one, I was planning to rent one of Thalassa’s underwater cameras. But, very disappointingly, their underwater camera housings were all broken, so I was not able to rent and take my own underwater pictures. All of the underwater photos shown in this blog were taken by Natasha Monina, a sweet Russian girl we met in one of our Bunaken dive trips, who kindly shared her underwater photos with me. Thanks much, Natasha! Next time I scuba dive, I will buy an underwater camera first, not a dive computer, although Mr. and Mrs. Unger (a German couple we got to know in Santika) repeatedly reminded me of the importance of dive computers for our safety and health. They are absolutely correct! But I still can’t change my mind. Haha.