North Sulawesi Unplugged

I can’t help likening this island to a chromosome. It’s contorted shape not only looks like one, but also has its different features spread out along different points even when you zoom in. Our focal point is the northern region. On the western side of the tip, we find Bunaken national park with its majestic drop-offs, on the top of the area around Gangga Island, and on the eastern side, Lembeh, famous for its critter diving.

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Previously known as Celebes, Sulawesi is Indonesia’s fourth largest island, and it is at its northeastern tip where we find the region famous for having a number of the best dive spots in the world. It can only be the most ignorant or newly minted divers who haven’t heard the names Manado, Bunaken or Lembeh uttered somewhere. Lesser known is it that this region is called the Minahasa, and the inhabitants, the Minahasan.

Originally inhabited by Malay-speaking peoples, the region was first colonized in the 16th century by the Portuguese. It was the Portuguese who first to referred to Sulawesi as ‘Celebes’. The meaning of this name is unclear, but originally, it did not refer to the entire island as the Portuguese thought Sulawesi was not one island but an archipelago. The modern name, ‘Sulawesi’, possibly comes from the words sula (‘island’) and besi (‘iron’) with reference to the historical export of iron from the rich iron deposits at Lake Matano in the Southern end of the island.

The Portuguese were soon followed by the Dutch who left the most significant imprint on the area. Manado, the regional capital and cultural center of the Minahasa people is a former Dutch stronghold and the center of the Dutch settlement in colonial times for which reason North Sulawesi still retains many traces of Western influence.

The Minahasa identify themselves strongly with the Dutch language and with 97 percent of the population being denominated as Christian—most are protestant, Lutheran—North Sulawesi stands out as a Christian enclave in an otherwise predominantly Muslim Indonesia. It is said to have the highest density of church buildings in Indonesia, with approximately one church for every 100m of road.

For a long time, Manado prospered through trade with the nearby Philippines and the spice trade with the rest of the world, but was badly damaged by bombing during the Second World War. In any case, most divers would head directly from the airport to the nearby resorts along the coast and on the surrounding islands, so let’s get on with it, and dive right in...

Bunaken National Park

The boat stops right in front of the reef. The surface is as smooth as glass, and the top of the reef is densely covered by hard corals. On the outer side of the reef, the water seems clear as crystal, and suddenly, we realise that our fins are dangling over an endless dropoff. I find myself longing for having my own twin tank, wing jacket and deco tank with me here—that would have been ideal. Fans of deeper diving will be thrilled at this spot.

Since there is no continental shelf here, the depth rapidly reaches more than 200 metres where there is a small plateau before it continues down into the deep blue of the open ocean. This unique topography is the cause behind the often strong currents and good options for encountering big pelagics.

As we slide in, we marvel at the protruding fan corals, huge sponges and big bushes of black corals that are covering the wall. At 30 metres, we stop our descent. The current gently pushes us along the wall.

I suddenly note a large green turtle sleeping right next to me under an overhang on the reef. She does not seem to be the slightest perturbed by my presence. Right here in the heart of the national park, she appears to be neither afraid of intrusive divers trying to grab, or touch her, or of fishermen trying to catch her. Patiently, she bears with the repetitive flashes as I take series of turtle portraits. She doesn’t even seem to acknowledge my presence with a blink of an eye —what an amazingly relaxed turtle.

Suddenly, Monica, the diveguide, is trying to grab my attention by waving her hands vigourously. It turns out that she has spotted quite a rare nudibranch on the wall. It is a really nice specimen, but unfortunately, I have chosen to bring my wide angle setup today. Instead, I focus in the hanging gardens of soft corals, blazing red whip corals, huge gorgonians and pretty barrel sponges—one motif is followed by the next. And, fortunately for me, it is apparent that is not the first time Monica has worked as an underwater model. She not only guides me in a very professional manner but is also a perfect model.

Wherever I turn my gaze, there is some sort of action. While two sharks on patrol glide past underneath us, we watch as an understandably apprehensive school of tunas hurry in the opposite direction. As our air reserves drops towards the 50 bar mark, the current push gently into a shallow bay. It is a region where in former year’s invasions of the predatory starfish Crown of Thorns laid waste to huge swathes of coral leaving the reef dotted with white patches of dead coral half a meter across.

To remedy the damage, artificial reef structures have been set down to encourage new growth of coral in the region. These three dimensional structures are made from a special open-pored ceramic that doesn’t react chemically with sea water and serves as an optimum substrate for the coral larvae. An ingenious but rather costly fix.


Environmental protection, especially as regards to the reefs, goes back a long time on Sulawesi. The highly regarded Bunaken National Park was created 17 years ago as one of the first protected marine areas in Indonesia.

This unique area of 790 km2 includes Bunaken, four neighbouring islands and two larger parts of the Sulawesi coastline. At the center lies the horseshoe-shaped island of Bunaken. It is also here we find most of the divespots.

This part of Sulawesi boasts an amazing bio-diversity. More than 70 genera (families) of coral and over 2000 species of fish with many more awaiting discovery.  It was, for example, here that the pygmy seahorses were first discovered.


With so many great spots to choose from, it doesn’t feel quite right to highlight just a few, but on any given trip, you can only pick out so many sites from the huge buffet of great locations on offer here. Nonetheless, on the basis of my own restricted experience, I can only speak warmly about the following sites...

Bunaken – Lekuan 2

At the southwestern corner of Bunaken, we find the most frequented and best dive sites of the island. The dives here lead you along a fantastic covered drop off from shallow water down to a maximum depth of 50 metres. In a depth of 20 to 30 metres, you will find some nice overhanging reef and crevices.

On morning dives, many green turtles can be seen here. In the blue water along the drop-off, schools of mackarel, tuna, fusiliers can be seen passing by as well as napoleon wrasses, and from time to time, stingrays and blacktip reefsharks. This is a good place for lazy drift dives as the current is mostly slight. During ascent, you can enjoy huge fields of hard corals in the shallows.

Bunaken – Muka Kampung

This spot is in many ways similar to Lekuan, but due to its position at the southern cape of Bunaken, it is exposed to strong currents, which you have to be able to handle safely. The drop-off, which is absolutely vertical,  boast a selection of all kinds of huge fan corals and soft corals. Visibility is usually in excess of 30 metres.  Lots of turtles and schools jackfish tend to hang around here.  

Manado Tua – Pangulingan

Situated between Bunaken and the volcano islands of Manado, Pangulinga is a tricky but very rewarding site for those who can handle the extreme and descending currents on this location... Tua. The dive starts in the slight current at the dropoff.  Past the wall the current gets stronger, heading down and away from the wall towards the big blue. Those able to maintain position at about 20 meters depth will be rewarded by masses of fish. Barracudas, mackarels, big snappers and hundreds of batfishes seem to congregate here. Occassionally, mantas will be passing by, and predators as black tip sharks and hammerheads are hunting here. The dive boat is going with the current, taking everybody on board in the open water.

Critter capital of the world

Transferring all the participants of the photo-shootout and their equipment across the peninsula from Tasik Ria Resort Manado on the western side to the Kungkungan Bay Resort (KBR) at the Lembeh Strait took two hours by mini bus. After that ordeal, it only took us ten minutes after reaching this well known resort built in traditional style, to get into the dive boat and enter the water.  

The first impressions were a bit of a let down. All we saw was a muddy bottom with no growth. The visibility was not very impressive either; at best, it was not more than ten meters.

But suddenly, everything sprang into action. The three dive guides had disappeared in different directions, and now they each signalled vigorously with their metal shakers to draw our attention to them. A little orange frogfish was sitting on a sponge and seeming wanting to pose for our cameras. A perfect subject and a patient model! Two photos later, I heard another next signal: Wow, this time it was a couple of the rare Halimeda Ghostpipefish. I wasn’t done with this subject when we heard the next signal. And so it went on all through the dive.

The dive guides were clearly accustomed to working with underwater photographers and were able to present an impressive palette of first class subject—there was hardly enough time to take all the pictures. Which brings me straight to the main point... Those who love nudibranchs, crabs, rare cephalopods and fishes will find a paradise here.

The region around Lembeh Strait at the northern coast of Sulawesi became famous because of the huge concentrations of rare and bizarre creatures, or “critters”, attracting photographers from all over the planet looking for spectacular macro motives. It is difficult to write about the diving in this region without getting carried away—for throughout every dive I did on this trip, I was constantly fascinated by what this hotspot of biodiversity could throw at me.

Divers who have no eye or sense for small parts of life and who prefer drifting and passing colourful reefs and drop-offs looking for the big aminals, would have come to the wrong place. Also, you should not complain about the various items of human civilisation you may encounter on the sea bottom. There are some dive spots where old car tires, soda cans, bottles and plastic cups are the most remarkable structures on the sandy bottom.  

Ironically, these artefacts have been welcomed as shelters for fishes, crabs and other animals. The pollution stems from the more than 200,000 inhabitants of the nearby city of Bitung, the most important harbour city of North Sulawesi.

To what degree the marine population is influenced or negative impacted by this city, has not been documented, and I am not sure what to make of it. Due to the strong tidal currents, the daily water exchange in Lembeh Strait is very significant. In any case, the diving centers in this area are working closely together to designate the area a “Protected Marine Area”. The regional diving centers are in a continuous dialogue and working close together.

Those days are over when the local dive guides, in hope for a good tip, presenting the critters to the clients by taking them out of their habitats holding them up in front of the cameras. This led to the decision to disallow the use of diving gloves. Touching things can be dangerous, and even the casual touch of a random object might cause difficulties, because there is no region in the world where you will find so many poisonous animals as on the bottom of the straits of Lembeh. On the other hand, you will rarely  find other dive regions, were it is as easy as here to obtain perfect photo results.

Back on the diving ship, everybody seemed pleased with their resulting photographs.  The participants of the photo competition were given three days to take the pictures for their competition portfolio. All along the way, the professional photographers on the jury offered their support and generously shared their extensive experience and knowledge. ■