Have you ever heard of the Coral Triangle? This is the area of tropical marine waters that contain more coral reef species than anywhere else on earth and almost all marine turtle species. Imagine an ocean that looks like an aquarium…. If you’re after clear waters, coral fringed islands and a breathtaking underwater life, then Bunaken is the place to be!
Situated in the north of Sulawesi, Indonesia, lies Bunaken National Park. Apart from Bunaken Island, the islands Manado Tua, Siladen, Montehage and Nain are also part of the park. Bunaken Island is the most populair and has great snorkeling an diving right from the beach or just a couple of minutes by boat.
Nearly the whole national park (97%) consists of warm tropical water, the remaining 3% of the park are islands. Bunaken is a paradise for naturalists, divers & sea lovers.
The island of Bunaken
Bunaken is an island of 8 km square and volcanic at origin. It has a lush jungle, mangroves, sandy beaches and three villages. The friendly locals mainly live from fishing and farming. The villages look like if you are going back in time, wooden frames, laundry outside, well maintained gardens with fruittrees and self-build structures. It’s like a petting zoo with chickens, dogs and pigs roaming free. People wave, the kids smile and follow you everywhere, at the jetty an old man is fishing for dinner. Life can be so simple, yet they look intensely happy.
Being in the jungle means a casual shower, the smell of fresh air and ripe fruit in front of your door. In the evening there is the sound of the loud cicades, the tjirping of the crickets and the roaring frogs. Waking up in the morning to the sound of singing birds, feeling the humidity rise when the first sunbeams peeking through the palmtrees. And then, when you look outside your window and see the calm blue waters and the waves gently moving onto the beach you know it’s going to be a great day.
Diving in Bunaken Marine Park
You have to try diving and snorkeling here! The calm waters are perfect for beginners but even experienced divers will have an amazing time in the water. There are about 20 dive spots, most of them near Bunaken and Manado Tua because this are the best places. There are many colorfull walls that are protected from strong currents, ideal for underwater photography. The best wall dives are at Lekuan 1, 2 and 3. There are sea fans, sponges, parrotfish, eaglerays, napoleon and lot’s of turtles.
If you feel like more diving and are into macro, then head for the Lembeh Strait near Bitung. Just a few hours drive from Manado is another divers paradise with seahorses, frogfish, octopus and nudibranch.
Good to know: For entering the marine park a fee is required. The entrance fee for foreign visitors is IDR 150.000 (approx. US $17/ EUR €14) per day.
To get to Bunaken National Park, you have to fly to Manado, the capital of North Sulawesi. Most flights to Manado depart from Jakarta (Garuda/Lion Air), Singapore (Silk Air) or Bali (Lion Air). From Jakarta and Bali it’s less then a three hours flight.
Best to take a taxi from the airport to the harbour of Manado which takes about half an hour (IDR 100.000). If you have booked an accommodation already, it’s easier to ask if they arrange transportation from Manado. This way you will be dropped off directly to your hotel or backpackers. Be prepared to get your feet wet as you will most likely have to wade through the water to reach the beach depending on the tide.
A cheaper and more adventurous option is a transfer with the public boat. Every day (except for Sundays) around 2 pm three boats leave for Bunaken from the Jengki River at the Pasar Bersehati in Manado. The return journey to Manado is in de morning around 8.00 am. If you take the ferry, which costs IDR 50,000 one way and takes an hour, you will be dropped off at the jetty on Bunaken Island. From here you have to arrange transport to your accommodation. Find yourself an ojek – a motorbike with a driver – who can drop you off.
Must-do: if you already “in the area” take a domestic flight to Sorong, which is the gateway to the Raja Ampat archipel. More diving, snorkeling, birds of paradise, mantarays and limestone cliffs, a true paradise.
Where to stay:
Bunaken is not a very big island and most accommodation is either on the east or the west side of the island. If you want, you can walk to the other side in about half an hour. There is enough to choose from, the cheapest way is in a homestay with locals and the most expensive a luxury resort. After doing some research we came across Happy Gecko resort, which is a small dive resort on Liang Beach. They have nice bungalows for a good price and amazing views over the ocean.
The resort is run by Jerry, who is born on Bunaken Island, and his Dutch wife Willeke. As we are Dutch as well, this was really nice to have a chat, they are so friendly and welcoming. At the time we arrived, all the other bungalows were empty so we had the whole resort for ourselves. They have their own diveguide who will take you to some of the best places. He is really good at finding marine life! After diving in the morning they have a delicious lunch ready. All food is included in the price and it’s the best food we tasted in whole Indonesia. After lunch you can go for a walk on the beach, explore the nearby villages or snorkel around the jetty and further to see nemo’s, lionfish and more.
Don’t miss the sunsets because they are unreal with red, bright orange and pink tones. Even better is the volcanic cone of Manado Tua in the background if you watch the sunset from the nearby jetty.
Best time to visit:
May to September is considered the dry season, but that being said, when we visited Bunaken a week in June it was mainly cloudy with a lot of tropical showers. The locals said this was quite unusual weather for that time of the year (sometimes it feels like the weather gods hate us). In the wet season the visibility can be slightly less.
If you want to avoid the peak season in July and August, go for May or September. The temperature is always around 30 degrees and the water nice and warm between 25 and 30 degrees.