The island nation of Indonesia straddles the equator between the Indian and Pacific Oceans and lies at the heart of the ‘Coral Triangle’ - the epicentre of the world’s marine biodiversity. Nowhere on ...
Whether you’re after exceptional muck diving and underwater photography, stunning sandy beaches, or a luxury family holiday and first-class snorkelling, North Sulawesi has it all.
With well known destinations such as Lembeh, Manado, Bangka, Gangga and Bunaken National Marine Park – each offering something entirely unique, it’s easy to tailor your next scuba diving holiday to suit your needs. Here are our thoughts on where to go for which experience.
Bunaken National Park boasts some of the richest underwater ecosystems in Asia, if not the world – with several sites being home to over 300 species of fish! This outstanding diversity, alongside the warm waters, consistently great conditions and exceptional coral reefs, has attracted scuba divers for decades.
With depths between islands exceeding 1,000 meters in some places, Bunaken National Park provides incredible wall diving accompanied by exhilarating drop-offs and vibrant sun-soaked coral reefs. Located less than an hour from the North Sulawesi mainland, Bunaken offers a rare combination of amazing and accessible reef diving, with marine life that’s second to none.
If Bunaken is our first choice, then the beautiful fringing reefs and colourful pinnacles of Banka and Gangga come in a close second. With coverings of hard and soft corals, these sites display exceptionally high biodiversity and attract wonderful schools of colourful reef fish. Beds of seagrass provide food for the rare and wonderful dugongs which reside here, helping place Bangka and Gangga high on the list for marine life.
Since its discovery in the early 1990s, Lembeh Strait has earned a reputation as the undeniable muck diving capital of the world. With over 30 dive sites in a narrow stretch of water, each bursting with weird and wonderful creatures, it’s easy to see why.
Sheltered bays, rocky pinnacles, black volcanic sand, fringing reefs, rubble slopes and even a wreck or two play host to an abundance of truly unique critters, and with such a high density of life, the next surprise is often just around the corner.
Situated on the North Sulawesi mainland, it’s unsurprising that Manado is also well known for muck and macro, with coral reefs, black and white sand slopes and eelgrass beds. In fact, its entire coastline can be considered one big muck-site with a diversity of species and habitats that almost, but not quite, rivals that of Lembeh Strait.
If you’re just beginning your scuba diving adventure, the shallow areas around Bangka and Gangga are a great place to start.
In contrast with the sometimes strong currents and low visibility in Lembeh, these spots around Bangka and Gangga create a safe place to train and build new scuba diving skills. With so many bays and protected areas, your dive centre can always find somewhere with enough shelter for a comfortable dive.
The marine life around Bangka and Gangga, as well as Bunaken National Park, is also a big attraction for beginner scuba divers who are often more interested in the larger, faster animals than small camouflaged critters. Reef sharks, turtles, Napoleon wrasse, snapper and barracuda are a few of the possible creatures that can be seen in these areas.
Although quiet in comparison to tourist hotspots such as Bali, life in North Sulawesi can still be busy and the islands of Bangka and Gangga offer a tranquil alternative to the relative hustle and bustle. Escape the crowds and indulge in a private island experience at one of the fantastic resorts which boast excellent facilities and sandy beaches.
Bangka and Gangga are also world-class snorkelling destinations, with schools of snapper, colourful reef fish and passing pelagics in the blue. Many resorts offer stunning house reefs just a few steps from the beach, helping children and non-divers enjoy the experience as much as scuba divers.
The well-established tourism industry in Bunaken National Park makes it a great choice for families, with resorts that make a point of catering for the needs of traveling families. Conditions here are suitable for scuba divers of all ages and experience levels, and with plenty of shallow reefs, it also offers some exceptional snorkelling. A common household favourite – sea turtles – are found in abundance within the park, and encounters with both green and hawksbill turtles are both frequent and up close.
If you’re looking to add a little more luxury to your scuba diving holiday, Bunaken is the place to be. Siladen Resort and Spa was voted the world’s best dive resort in 2017 and offers guests perfect seclusion and exquisite beauty in the heart of Bunaken National Park. Equally, the award-winning Bunaken Oasis Dive Resort and Spa boasts exceptional quality and service in a truly breathtaking setting.
Lembeh also has its share of luxury, with fantastic getaways such as Lembeh Resort and Solitude Lembeh Resort, both of which are surrounded by lush tropical gardens and offer dedicated first-class service.
Bangka and Gangga boast some of the most beautiful beaches in North Sulawesi. With soft white sand and crystal clear water, these unspoilt beaches offer a real taste of a secluded island paradise.
Many resorts located on these islands have impressive beaches right on their doorstep, meaning guests don’t have to travel far to find the perfect spot. Kick-back on the sand and soak up some sun before cooling off with a swim or a relaxing snorkel on the fringing reef. Please remember that, as the area is quite rural, visitors should cover-up in the villages.
Although a complete list of Lembeh Strait’s inhabitants may never exist, the iconic - perhaps now somewhat expected - species are usually enough to excite scuba divers of all levels.
Many divers flock to this mecca of muck with the hope of crossing long-dreamt about critters off their ‘hit-list’ – and hopefully, snap a photo or two. As a result, the resorts around Lembeh Strait have become experts in catering to divers interested in underwater photography. Dive guides are often keen photographers themselves and are well trained in assisting, both in and out of the water, while the dive centres frequently incorporate camera rooms and other specialist facilities.
The successful tourism industry in Bunaken National Park is often regarded as a perfect example of conservation and tourism working together. With so many visitors within the park the marine life has become less wary of the presence of scuba divers, giving photographers a better chance of getting that perfect shot. With an honourable mention going out to Bangka and Gangga, where the shallow seabed and nutrient-rich currents have nurtured some truly photo-worthy reefs, it’s safe to say that North Sulawesi is a heaven for underwater photography.
The incredible diversity and amazing reefs of Bangka, Gangga and Bunaken National Park, make them a perfect location for focussed conservation efforts, with many resorts doing what they can to protect the environment. Bunaken has long been recognised for both its exceptional diving and its great potential for tourism, helping to ensure conservation has been central to the development of the tourism industry.
The founder of Murex resort was a pioneer of diving in Bunaken, helping to create the national park, and his dive company now runs Coral Gardener courses from resorts in both Bunaken and Bangka. Their resident marine biologist leads the course which teaches coral identity and reef restoration methods. Recent new-comer, Coral Eye, was once an outpost for marine biologists to exchange ideas and develop projects, and now boasts full logistic support to scientists with a fantastic laboratory and guides trained in scientific diving.
With the mainland of North Sulawesi just a short boat ride away from all 3 destinations, it’s easy to spend a day or two exploring the breathtaking beauty of the nearby national park or volcanoes. Situated at the foot of Dua Saudara Mountain, the rolling hills and valleys of Tangkoko Nature Reserve are home to interesting and unusual plant and animal species, including one of the world’s smallest primates.
Further south the two active volcanoes, Mt. Mahawu and Mt. Lokon, offer some nice climbs which are both challenging and rewarding, while the village beneath – known as the Flower City – is alive with picturesque flower gardens and markets. Additionally, Lake Tondano boasts some incredibly scenic floating restaurants serving freshwater fish.
Bunaken Park itself offers some nice trekking opportunities including hiking along the islands footpath or climbing the Manado Tua Volcano. Dolphin and whale watching day trips are also available as well as fishing trips outside of the protected marine park. On Bangka, there is little in the way of roads, but it is possible to trek through the jungle, visiting small villages and spotting wildlife such as parrots, cuscus and monitor lizards.
Sam Ratulangi International Airport in Manado is the closest airport for all three destinations, with frequent international flights from Singapore, as well as regular domestic flights from Jakarta and Bali via Makassar. Boat transfers to Bunaken resorts are usually included within the packages and depart from either the Jenke and Calaca piers in Manado.
If travelling to Bangka and Gangga, land transportation to the north takes just over an hour, with a 20-minute boat journey to the islands. Guests travelling to Lembeh will be transported by car to Bitung, taking around 90 minutes, with a further 15-minute boat ride across the Strait to their resort.