When it comes to truly exotic diving destinations, it’s hard to beat Manado and Lembeh Island. Featuring a wealth of right-priced diving resorts, and blooming tropical landscapes both underwater and on land, this northeastern corner of Indonesia deserves its glowing reputation from worldly divers.
Wall dives, drift diving, and incredible macro photography are all available, thanks to stunning proximity to the nearly 300-square mile Bunaken National Marine Park.
Comprising 97% water and 3% land in the form of five islands – Bunaken, Manado Montehage, Tua, Siladen, and Nai – this pristine national park boasts world-class walls and some of the most diverse marine life in the world. More than 2,000 species and 58 genres and sub-genres of corals can be admired here, and divers will have roughly 25 dive sites to choose from.
Located respectively on the western and eastern edges of this skinny strip of Indonesia, and located approximately an hour drive apart, Manado and Lembeh Island both offer a host of reputable dive resorts, dive centers, and access to incredible reef walls.
But of the two, many experienced divers consider the Manado region the slightly greater gem. Nearly a dozen diving resorts are located in the heart of the park, on the sea green islands of Bunaken and Siladen, which gives divers easy access to the top dive sites, as well as miles of unpopulated coastline to explore.
Accessing this region requires some planning, and divers staying on the outlying islands will need to catch a small public or private boat to reach their final destination, but the rewards are worth the trek. Otherworldly throughout, with consistently warm and clear waters, Manado and Lambeth are the pinnacles of Avant Garde diving destinations
Bunaken Island National Marine Park is the place to start, as the sites attract both adventurous divers and professional marine biologists alike, for its wealth of marine life that can’t be found anywhere else in the world.
In fact, new species are continually being identified in the area, including a 1997 discovery of coelacanth within the lava tubes of Manado Tua. A reputable diving company can point a newcomer in the right direction, but there are a few notable sites in Manado and Lembeh that shouldn’t be missed.
Conveniently located next to a collection of dive resorts off the northeast coast of Bunaken, Sachiko’s Point is a fine representation of the offshore region’s exceptional wall dives. Slightly exposed, with fairly strong currents, you’ll enjoy a drift dive along the wall that veers from the shallows to depths of at least 130’. Vibrant corals can be photographed and admired in the shallows, while observant divers will find a handful of caves to explore in the deeper waters. Watch for feeding green turtles, bright blue spotted stingrays, and prehistoric-looking giant trevallies that can weigh up to 180 lbs. which will keep you company in the active waters.
Known as one of the best destinations in the world for muck diving, Lembeh Straight will entertain divers who like to hunt for tiny underwater treasures which are often not easily spotted during a traditional Indonesian dive. This is the place to go if you are fascinated by weird-looking and rare species, such as the giant frog fish, hairy frog fish, banded eels and sea snakes, orangutan crabs, mantha shrimp, and the neon-colored blue ringed octopus. If you appreciate macro photography, and want to score marine life photos that no one else in your local diving circles will have, Lembeh Straight will not disappoint.
Breeze past the local villagers who are relaxing at Liang Bay, and head to this calm and protected dive site on the southern side of Bunaken Island. Just under the surface, however, is when things start to get interesting, thanks to a strong current that runs parallel to the reef, and a reef wall that’s distinguished by its numerous “Celahs,” which is Bahasa Indonesian for “cracks.”
The ensuing environment is stuffed with gorgonians and sponges, which attracts a host of marine life, which in turn attracts underwater photographers from all around the world. Look for skittish pygmy seahorses and ghost pipefish, as well as more bold giant morays and sea snakes, among the colorful underwater world.
Located near Manado along the slop of Batu Hitam, this site starts out deceptively unimpressive, and then grows bolder and more interesting as the exploration progresses. A little attention to detail is a must here, as divers will have to actively look for emperor shrimps, candy crabs, decorator crabs and other critters who are at first shy among new human visitors.
Head to the network of rocky patches, where a range of species, such as pipefish, cockatoo leaf fish, ribbon eels, and cuttlefish, can all be spotted. Located in between the islands and the Manado shoreline, this site is a nice divergence from the reef walls that Bunaken and the other outlying islands are known for. A guide will come in handy to ensure divers catch a glimpse of all the unusual, and sometimes hidden, species at this dive site.
This site is located on the southwestern side of Bunaken Island, and is suitable for experienced divers, as avoiding contact with the reef can be a challenge as the dive descends. Following a reef wall that’s overflowing with single whips after 80’ deep or so, divers will find a host of colorful species that complement the colorful wall itself. Look for commensal shrimps and whip gobies among the single whips, as well as larger critters, like bumphead parrotfish, mappa pufferfish, Maori wrasse, and white-tip reef sharks, in the more open, clear blue waters. Eventually, the wall morphs into a palette of hard corals, soft corals and sponges, where the current will lead you through multiple sightings of local porcelain and candy crabs.
The trick with staying in these remote regions is to find a reputable diving resort. Diving resorts are plentiful, but may not be very trustworthy, with limited and rustic accompanying accommodations. The good news is that a solid diving resort can help with all the other aspects of your trip, including transportation to the resort itself, as well as guidance on how to reach some of the top diving sites in the outlying waters.
Visiting the Bunaken National Marine Park is a must, and the outlying islands are a popular vacation destination for locals-in-the-know. Take a private or public boat to these coastlines to do some beachcombing, and to find some of the most incredible shells and wildlife in the world. Just remember that heavy restrictions may apply when trying to take shells and other beachcombing finds home on an international flight.
Manado is the launching point for visits to both Lembeh Island and the Bunaken National Marine Park. There are domestic Indonesian flights to Manado daily, from Jakarta, Surabaya, Bali, Makassar, Papua and Balikpapan, and visitors flying in from Singapore can fly with Silk Air, which has flights scheduled to Manado four times a week.
Upon arrival, if you’re heading to Lembeh you can rent a car, or arrange transportation through their resort. Many resorts offer transport to and from Lambeth from the airport several times per day.
If you’re heading to a Bunaken National Marine Park island, you’ll need to head to the main Manado “marina,” (ask at the airport – they’ll point you in the right direction), and either rent a private catamaran, or board a 2-8 passenger public boat for guided transport to your island destination. A little nautical know-how will come in handy – especially if you’re commandeering your own vessel.
When to go: Manado and Lembeh can be enjoyed year-round, but the prime diving season is March to October. Watch for rough surface conditions from November through February, when continual winds and rains can cause swells of 6’ or more.
Average Surface Water Temps: 80-86°F, year-round
Average Visibility: 45’-75’ year-round.
Image attribution: https://www.flickr.com/photos/berniedup/