Spectacular diving off Indonesia's starfish island

Season: Year-round diving

Visibility: 12-30m/35-100ft

Water Temperature: 27-30°C/81-86°F

Cuttlefish, Bunaken Marine Park, Manado (by Thalassa Dive Resort)

Diving: House reef, walls, coral gardens, critter diving, shore diving, boat diving, sharks

Snorkeling opportunities

Nitrox (Thalassa Divers, Minahasa Lagoon)

Can be combined with: Twin centre stays with resorts on the Lembeh Strait and Gangga Island are very popular, or why not compliment your liveaboard cruise with an extra week on shore?

Non-diving activities available include rafting, forest and volcano hiking, wildlife and bird watching, cultural tours, spas

Set in the middle of the Indonesian archipelago, and astride the equator, the starfish-shaped island of Sulawesi hosts a rich marine environment. Something like 3,000 species of fish populate the Indonesian islands and seemingly a high proportion of them live in the waters that surround Sulawesi!

Close to the northern tip of the island is the bustling town of Manado, easily reached by direct flight from Singapore. Only a few miles away, within an easy boat ride, is the Bunaken-Manado Tua Marine Park, an area of great underwater beauty. Here you may see varieties of fish species and invertebrates that have rarely been encountered before – the local dive guides frequently spot new species for the area or even sometimes undescribed species. Schooling species and colourful reef fish are all to be found in abundance, and with luck you may encounter a pod of Short-finned Pilot Whales or dolphins whilst travelling to the dive sites.

The Bunaken-Manado Tua Marine Park boasts one of the richest varieties of marine life in the world. Coral reefs surround each of the five islands within the reserve, beginning with a flat reef crest at about 3 metres and then sloping down steeply or dropping off vertically for hundreds of metres. The walls are crowded with hard and soft corals, barrel sponges, sea fans, whip corals and red and orange encrusting sponges. Amidst all this is an abundance of brightly coloured tunicates and a profusion of colourful feather stars perched on upstanding corals and sea fans. Vast schools of smartly coloured Pyramid Butterflyfish and masses of anthias dance around the reef edge and the upper part of the wall. Banded Sea Snakes are frequently seen winding their way through the crevices in the reef. White-tip Reef Sharks, Napoleon Wrasse, Spotted Eagle Rays and Bumphead Parrotfish are but a few of the larger fish regularly seen. Leaf Scorpionfish, the weird Giant Frogfish, blennies and gobies, and Blue Ribbon Eels (including the yellow female and black and yellow juvenile forms) are less easy to spot but are not uncommon.

There are at least 20 recognized dive sites, mostly concentrated off the south and west coasts of Bunaken Island. Most dives are slow drifts along the reef wall but some sites have an occasional stronger current offering a more exciting drift, while others are interesting ‘muck dives’ on areas of silty sand or coral rubble.

What better dive site to start with than Mandolin Point on the western side of Bunaken? A wide flat reef top only a metre or so deep is bounded by a steep drop-off where you can explore at your own chosen depth. Luxuriant coral growth on the wall provides a suitable background for an abundance of purple, yellow and white tunicates that sit like ceramic ornaments on the ledges and encrusting sponges. White-tip Reef Sharks, barracudas, sea snakes and turtles are often spotted here.

At Fukui Point the stepped profile of the reef is encrusted with an amazing ‘field’ of stony corals, including table, elkhorn, staghorn, lace, brain and cabbage, covering the gently sloping ‘hillside’. Carefully search amongst the ‘arms’ of the colourful crinoids and you are may be rewarded with a sight of an Ornate Ghost Pipefish. These remarkably camouflaged small fish (well-beloved of the underwater photographer) float head down within or close to the arms of the crinoid and at first glance may appear like a detached piece of the crinoid’s ‘arms’. The dive guides will be sure to point out to you the giant clams. Four giant clams with iridescent blue, green, purple, brown and black mantles lie in a regimented formation. Their slowly opening and closing siphons offer an amazing opportunity to gaze right inside the animal! The sloping reef gradually gives way to the deeps and at this point large schools of Teira Batfish glint and shimmer silver and gold in the sunlight while barracuda and schools of Midnight and Black Snappers drift over the reef. A curious Napoleon Wrasse is often attracted to the boat anchorage to gaze warily at the strangers from beyond his realm.

At the marvellous Engine Point (named because a brand-new boat engine was lost overboard just off here in 100 metres!) the entire dive can be completed within the top 12 metres. A pair of Blue Ribbon Eels live in adjacent holes, but occasionally pose for visitors by ‘snarling’ and gaping out of the same hole. Goldspeck Jawfish (fascinating fish who incubate their young within their mouths) can be seen warily peeping from their borrow and Mantis Shrimps, either hiding in crevices or scuttling frantically around before zooming under a rock, are a common sight here. Beautiful and brightly-coloured nudibranchs can be found in abundance and the sharp-eyed dive guides may be able to find you a strange and almost perfectly camouflaged Robust Ghost Pipefish floating like a fragment of dead turtle grass.

A night dive at Black Rock will certainly rate as spectacular, even by those who normally shun the idea of night diving! Coral bommies litter this shallow sandy shelf and the jewels of the ocean are certainly here to see. Slowly wandering sea urchins with their small ‘families’ of fish and shrimps ‘walk’ over the sand in a glow of red and black when spotlighted. Perhaps a hermit crab whose shell is decorated with swaying anemones may crawl past. Deep crimson ‘sea hares’, stroll along the sand. Peep into a crevice or under a rocky shelf to find the small elegant Banded Pipefish or perhaps a surprise if a Black-edged Conger Eel is hunting there! Why not use the safety stop to wriggle around and produce your own light show from the luminescent micro-organisms?!

The superb Bangka Archipelago dive sites can be thoroughly explored either by liveaboard boat or by staying on Gangga Island. For details please see our Gangga, Bangka & Sangihe destination description. Those diving with Thalassa can enjoy some of these dive sites by taking a special trip. The journey takes about one hour by Thalassa’s swift speedboat and is well-worth taking!

For those wishing to take a break from diving, Northeast Sulawesi offers some fascinating attractions. A short car drive away is the volcano Mahawu. A trek up a well trodden path through lush thick vegetation brings you to the top of the crater. Walk around the perimeter and look down on the seething turquoise cauldron. Drive alongside rich green rice fields by Lake Tondano where local fish farmers and their families live on the water in timber shacks balanced on stilts, or make a trip through small villages alive with local life. Enjoy the spectacular mountain scenery or explore the tropical rain forest at Tangkoko in search of the Spectral Tarsier, the smallest carnivorous monkey in the world, Black Macaques (four tribes of these wonderful primates live in the forest here and are easily seen) numerous bird species that are only to be found on Sulawesi and huge iridescent butterflies.

COMBINATIONS:  Why not combine an exploration of the Manado region with a stay at the fabulous Lembeh Strait, situated on the south side of the northern ‘starfish arm’ of Sulawesi and world famous for its unusual creatures and especially its ‘macro life’, or visit Gangga and Bangka islands with their wonderful marine life, including extraordinary soft coral gardens. Alternatively, it is straightforward to combine a visit to Manado with a visit to another of Indonesia’s fantastic dive destinations. Talk to us about the possibilities.

Table coral and anthias in the Bunaken Marine Park (Thalassa Dive Center)


Shortfin lionfish (Annelise Hagan)

Giant frogfish (Thalassa Dive Centre)

Boxer crab (Thalassa Dive Centre)

Pygmy seahorse (Thalassa Dive Centre)

Bunaken reef (Thalassa Dive Centre)

Bunaken reef (Thalassa Dive Centre)

Bunaken reef (Thalassa Dive Centre)

Bunaken reef (Thalassa Dive Centre)

Green turtle (Thalassa Dive Centre)

Mimic octopus (Cary Yanny - Minahasa Lagoon)

Ambon scorpionfish (Cary Yanny - Minahasa Lagoon)

White-tip Reef Shark (Cary Yanny - Minahasa Lagoon)

Blue ringed Octopus (Cary Yanny - Minahasa Lagoon)

Bunaken reef (Cary Yanny - Minahasa Lagoon)

Hairy frogfish (Cary Yanny - Minahasa Lagoon)

Hermit crab eyes (Cary Yanny - Minahasa Lagoon)

Mandarinfish (Cary Yanny - Minahasa Lagoon)

Mantis shrimp (Cary Yanny - Minahasa Lagoon)

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