Manado - Bunaken - Banka - Sangihe - Lembeh
North Sulawesi is one of Indonesia's best kept secrets. Manado, the capital, is easy to get to with direct connections from Singapore, Malaysia and major Indonesian cities. Land-based accommodation ranges from backpacker's hostels to sprawling beach resorts and everything in between.
Manado is the jumping off point for some of the world's best diving at Bunaken Manado Tua National Marine Park , Lembeh Strait, Bangka Strait, and the Sangihe-Talaud Islands.
Manado is the jumping off point for some of the world's best diving at Bunaken Manado Tua National Marine Park , Lembeh Strait, Bangka Strait , and the Sangihe-Talaud Islands. The Manado area is called Minahasa for its original settlers from several thousand years ago. Portuguese merchants brought Christianity in the 16th century and the Dutch reinforced it during their occupation. Today Manado is predominately Christian with a large ethnic Chinese population. North Sulawesi is relatively prosperous due to agriculture and fishing industries. Much of the area's natural vegetation was cut down by the Dutch to make way for income-producing coconut palm plantations. Many still produce coconut crops while others are harvested to make furniture. Outside of Manado, the area is rural. Cloves, nutmeg, vanilla, coffee, and rice are cultivated on the fertile volcanic soil.
There are many options for single or multiple day trips. The area has several picturesque volcanoes. If you're feeling adventurous you can hike up to the crater of Mahawu volcano where you can see grand views of Manado Bay and the surrounding area. Trails also lead to the craters of Mt. Lokon and Mt. Klabat. White water rafting is another option. A drive through the highlands goes through a series of towns where each specializes in doing one thing. One town grows peanuts, another builds houses, another grows flowers, another weaves baskets and yet another makes pottery. Along the way you can visit spice and copra plantations. There's an orchid farm with thousands of species including the rare black orchid found only here and in Kalimantan. The highland towns, Tomohon and Tondano, have some of the most interesting and colorful local markets you'll find anywhere. The markets are the gathering place for the local pony carts that serve as taxis. Lake Tondano is a crater lake in which goldfish are raised. Ikan mas baker rica, or barbecued goldfish, is the specialty of small lakeside restaurants. Several walks lead to local hot springs and waterfalls. Roadside vents give off sulfurous steam near Lake Linau, a lake that changes color from blue to green and back. Near Kiawa village there are Japanese caves dating back to World War II. At the village of Sawangan you can view waruga , pre-Christian stone coffins carved with characteristics of the deceased's life or death.
There are two national parks in the area. Nearby Tangkoko Nature Reserve is home to the world's largest concentration of Crested Black Macaques and to the Tarsier, one of the world's smallest primates. The forest rangers keep tabs on them and know where to find them. Hornbills and other birds are commonly seen in the early morning hours. Pythons and the rare maleo bird are sometimes seen here. For a longer rainforest experience, there's Bogani Nani Wartabone National Park (formerly Dumoga Bone National Park), a five-hour drive from Manado. This park has macaques and tarsiers but also a wealth of bird life, flora, and the rare, endemic babirusa (wild tusked pig deer) and anoa, a dwarf buffalo.
Bangka is the largest of the five islands surrounded by water that's part of the through flow from the western Pacific Ocean to the Indian Ocean.
The Bangka Islands are on the northern tip of Sulawesi. They look like chunks of the mainland broke off and fell into the sea. The islands are rugged and sparsely populated. Japanese pearl farms dot the water between some of the islands. A large bay with lots of sea grasses is near Likupang on the mainland. Bangka is the largest of the five islands surrounded by water that's part of the through flow from the western Pacific Ocean to the Indian Ocean. The water moves through the Sulawesi Sea to the Makassar Strait, bringing with it enough nutrients to support a large fish and marine mammal population. Day trips between Bangka and Bunaken Manado Tua National Marine Park or Lembeh Strait are easily arranged. Certain liveaboards also ply this route and cover many areas from a safe and comfortable base.
In March/April and August/September whales migrate to and from breeding/nursing and feeding grounds. The area around the Bangka Islands is one of the migratory paths of these giant mammals. This migration has only recently been studied but already the research is turning up some fascinating information. At least nine species of whales have been sighted in the surrounding waters: sperm, dwarf sperm, pygmy sperm, melon-headed, pilot, Bryde's, false killer, pygmy killer, and orcas. The best-studied whales in the area are the sperm whales. Over 100 individuals have been photographed and identified. A resident group of mature females and young males and females inhabit an area near the Bangka Islands. Seasonal bulls, or mature males, migrate to and from this mating and nursing ground occupied by the females. The bulls grow to about 10m (33ft) in length and can weigh up to 16 tons. Sperm whales dive deep, 300-600m (1000-2000ft), and may go as deep as 3000m (10000ft). The deep oceanic trenches and large exchanges of water in the area seem to be ideal for them. One thing is certain: if you're lucky enough to encounter a whale diving, you'll never forget it.
Best Features & Dive Sites
The best feature of diving in the Bangka Islands is the pinnacle diving and its close proximity to Bunaken and Lembeh. The pinnacles attract lots of fishes and are covered with soft corals, sea fans, and feather stars. Currents can be strong but you can get out of it by staying on the lee side of the pinnacle. Away from the pinnacles there are good coral gardens with nudibranches, leaf fishes, ribbon eels and pygmy seahorses.
Some Bangka Island pinnacles break the surface, while others are submerged. Batfish, jacks, barracuda and tuna frequent these sites. Crevices and overhangs harbor moray eels and macro life. When the current is running the soft corals bloom. Lyre gorgonians inhabit the hard sand bottoms. Bangka Strait is a migratory route for whales, dolphins and manta rays and there's a good chance of seeing them March/April or August/September. You can dive in the Strait when the current isn't too strong. Lihaga Island has good hard corals and anemones with lots of basslets and clownfishes. Leaf fish and ribbon eels hang out among the corals. Talisei Island is known for its beautiful soft corals and gorgonians. There are resident sea snakes, unusual nudibranches, Napoleon wrasse and a large cavern to explore.
The macro diving capital of the world is across the North Sulawesi peninsula, an hour's drive from Manado. Lembeh Strait, formed by North Sulawesi and Lembeh Island, passes nutrient-rich water between the Maluku and Sulawesi Seas.
Bunaken - Manado Tua National Marine Park
The four coral islands, Bunaken, Siladen, Montehage and Nain, are flat. The fifth, Manado Tua, is an extinct volcano with an imposing crater that towers over the bay.
In 1989 Indonesia's first marine park was established in Manado Bay. Today, the North Sulawesi Watersports Association helps to educate the local population and foreign tourists on how best to enjoy and preserve this remarkable area. The park covers over 75,000 hectares in the Sulawesi Sea. The four coral islands, Bunaken, Siladen, Montehage and Nain, are flat. The fifth, Manado Tua, is an extinct volcano with an imposing crater that towers over the bay. Coral walls surround the islands, plunging over 1300m (4200ft) in depth. Excellent fish life and coral cover make this the world's premier wall diving destination.
The drift diving is easy; jump in and go with the current. Dive boats pick up divers wherever they surface. Most diving is in light currents when the filter-feeders open up and the reefs are at their best. Currents bring in schooling fishes and bigger animals like eagle rays, barracuda, Napoleon wrasses and sharks. The water temperature is warm, about 27ºC (84ºF). The best time to dive is March to November. The rainy season is December to mid-March. July and August are sunny and windy. Visibility is excellent at 15-30m or more.
Best Features & Dive Sites
The park's best feature is its steep walls and coral gardens. Snorkelers, too, can enjoy the shallow reefs filled with clouds of colorful fishes. Schooling pyramid butterflyfish are common along the reef crest. Deeper walls are filled with black corals, sea fans, and fantastic sponges. Nudibranchs are plentiful. Most diving takes place near Bunaken and Manado Tua, because of their many excellent sites. The following is representative of the diving in the area.
Lekuan Walls (I, II, III) on Bunaken is divided into three sites: Lekuan I, II and III. Together they represent the park's best. Steep walls are marked with deep crevices, sea fans and giant sponges. The shallows are filled with fishes. The wall, often protected from stronger currents, is frequented by bumphead parrotfish, turtles, and Napoleon wrasses. Mandolin has a knockout reef crest and a wall that attracts thousands of fishes like schooling fusiliers, surgeonfish, unicornfish, and bannerfish. They are acclimated to divers and are easily approachable. Bunaken Timor features strong currents and lots of fishes on this long wall. The shallow reef isn't as spectacular as some but there are turtles, sharks, eagle rays, and other big fishes in the blue. Overhangs and small caves mark the wall. Tanjung Kopi is a nice wall with a small school of barracuda and lots of sweetlips. Visibility in the shallows is not terrific but the numbers of fishes make up for it. Nudibranches and fire gobies are easy to spot here. Siladen Island has a beautiful wall of soft corals that bloom when the current is running. The shallows are nice with lots of fishes and schooling snappers. Muka Gereja is a pretty site with thousands of fishes in the shallows and deeper canyons that lead to the wall. Barracuda Point, on northwest Montehage, is one of the furthest sites. A school of giant barracuda are regulars along with jacks and tuna. This 60m (200ft) long German merchant ship, the Manado Wreck sank near Molas Beach in 1942. It sits upright with the bow at 23m (78ft). The ship is split near amidships back to the stern, exposing the wheelhouse and cargo holds. Dives finish up on a nearby shallow reef. Expect 10-15m (30-50ft) visibility.
If you want to see ornate ghost pipefish, frogfishes, mandarin fish, seahorses, stargazers, Banggai Cardinalfish, mimic octopus, Wunderpus, flamboyant cuttlefish, nudibranches, and pygmy seahorses, this is the place for you..
The Strait has few coral vistas but divers come here for the extraordinary critters-it's muck diving at it's very best. The best diving is in small bays away from the current where many juvenile fishes and invertebrates are found. Most dives are under 30m (100ft) and good dive guides are essential. Water temperatures run 24-27ºC (78-84ºF). Diving is good all year but December-March is overcast while July-August is sunny and windy. Lembeh's best feature is unusual marine life. If you want to see ornate ghost pipefish, frogfishes, mandarin fish, seahorses, stargazers, Banggai Cardinalfish, mimic octopus, Wunderpus, flamboyant cuttlefish, nudibranches, and pygmy seahorses, this is the place for you.
Best Features & Dive Sites
The Banggai Cardinalfish is a beautiful fish previously known only from the remote Banggai Islands in eastern Sulawesi where they lived among the spines of sea urchins in 3m (10ft) of water. This fish is special because of its breeding habits. Other male cardinalfish are oral brooders, meaning the male holds the female's egg mass in his mouth until they hatch. The Banggai Cardinalfish is the only one that continues to harbor the young hatchlings in its mouth until they're old enough to survive on their own. Several years ago some Banggai Cardinalfish were accidentally introduced into Lembeh Strait. Since then, they've established thriving colonies. They've expanded their territory to include sea anemones and mushroom corals in addition to long-spined sea urchins.
Hairball is a featureless black sand slope occasionally overtaken with algae. Among the sand and rubble are animals that blend in incredibly well with their environment - hairy frogfish, ghost pipefish, flamboyant cuttlefish, sea slugs, etc. Angel's Window is a submerged pinnacle with a swim-thru at 25m (82ft), this site has good visibility and lots of fishes. Sergeant majors and butterflyfish inhabit the shallows. California Dreamin' boasts a crevice and a reef slope full of gorgonians, sea fans and orange tree corals that bloom in the current. Fish life is good. Visibility can exceed 25m (82ft). Nudi Falls is a wall that drops away to a field of rubble. Nudibranches, weedy scorpionfish, Cometfish, and pygmy seahorses are the highlights here. Nudi Retreat is a deep cutout in the reef provides a sheltered spot for a pair of resident sea moths. Expect to see nudibranches, pygmy seahorses, ornate ghost pipefish, and sea fans. The 100m (330ft) Mawali Wreck Japanese freighter lies on its side at 30m (100ft). Sunk during WWII, the ship is intact and heavily overgrown. The port side is at 16m (55ft). Cargo holds are open and empty. Marine life is excellent.
Calderas rise up from sandy beaches and at night, red-hot lava spews from Siau volcano. You can even dive on an underwater volcano or on a lava flow. Cool.
The volcanic Sangihe Island chain separates Indonesia from Philippines and the Sulawesi and Maluku Seas. Deep, clear water attracts massive schools of fishes at times of the new and full moons when the currents are strongest. Liveaboards from Manado or Lembeh Strait make the overnight sail to these islands. The water here is some of the clearest anywhere often in excess of 50m (160ft). Water temperatures run 27-28ºC (84-86ºF).
Best Features & Dive Sites
Sangihe's best feature is its natural seclusion and untamed nature. Calderas rise up from sandy beaches and at night, red-hot lava spews from Siau volcano. You can even dive on an underwater volcano or on a lava flow. Cool. Ruang Lava Flow is a massive swath of black lava flows down the mountain into the sea where it becomes a beautiful coral reef. At Makalehi Island Napoleon wrasses, fusiliers, pyramid butterflyfishes and tuna are common. At 30m (100ft) or so, hammerheads hang out. A small chimney leads from the wall to the reef flat. Mahengetang Volcano is a site not to be missed. It may be your only chance to dive on a real underwater volcano. The vent, just below the surface, is desolate and strewn with huge boulders. Hundreds of tiny bubbles race to the surface as gasses escape from deep inside the volcano. Everything is covered with yellow "dust" (sulfurous deposits). Look closely though and you'll see tiny sea stars, algae, small worms and sprouting corals–a new coral reef in the making. The other side of the volcano has already been successfully colonized with the once barren seascape now a lovely coral reef. The exposed pinnacles called Needle Point attract jacks, fusiliers and bannerfish. Hammerheads and orcas have been spotted here. Clouds of damsels and purple queens inhabit the shallows. Strong currents can prevent diving here. Para Island is a twin-peaked pinnacle and a real high voltage site. Swirling currents around the pinnacle attract big fish action with hundreds of surgeonfish, fusiliers and barracuda. Gray reef sharks hang out below 28m (95ft). Lipang Island is the northernmost point in the Sangihe group. The horseshoe-shaped reef is awash in surgeonfish, fusiliers and pyramid butterflyfish. The southernmost island in the group is a plateau with patch reefs, pinnacles and lots of soft coral cover called Biaro Island. Groups of sweetlips, snappers and bumphead parrotfish complete the scene.
About the Authors
Larry and Denise Tackett are the authors of all of our Indonesian dive site and regional descriptions. They are professional photographers specializing in underwater and terrestrial natural history and travel subjects. They are represented by stock photo agencies in the US and United Kingdom and their photographs have been widely published in books and magazines worldwide. Their work has appeared in magazines such as National Wildlife, Islands, BBC Wildlife, Ocean Realm, Asian Diver, Unterwasser, Tauchen, Canadian Wildlife, Popular Science, Sport Diver, National Geographic Kids, Geo, and many others.