Contributed by Sarah the Mermaid
I had been dreaming of this diving trip for almost a year. When I first decided to visit the tropical paradise of Bunaken Marine Park and Lembeh Strait, it seemed as if nobody had heard of it (including my travel agent and the man who checked me in at Melbourne airport). However, once I began to plan the trip I slowly heard more and more about the place. Deep dramatic walls, 30 degree water with 30 m visibility, and bizarre creatures were just some of the descriptions. My excitement grew.
We planned 5 days at Two Fish Divers on Bunaken Island and 5 days at Two Fish Divers in Lembeh Strait. A week before we left the Australian government warned travelers to cancel any unnecessary travel to Indonesia due to possible terrorist activity. I figured if my travel agent didn't know where this place was, neither would a terrorist. Anyway, I considered this necessary travel as I was freezing my toes off in the middle of Victoria's winter.
After a very easy and comfortable overnight flight from Melbourne to Singapore, then a quick 3 hour flight from Singapore to Manado, Sulawesi we arrived at 1pm. We were greeted at the airport by Two Fish Divers, who then drove us to the harbor where we boarded their boat. In less than an hour we were stepping onto Bunaken Island. The waters around Bunaken Island are surrounded by fringing reef before the wall descends into blue abyss. Upon arrival the first thing we did was hand over our dive gear. It was then I noticed the homemade fresh donuts for afternoon tea sitting on our table. Lucky for me this was where we filled in the paper work. We had an introduction and run down on the resort and staff, and received our Bunaken Marine Park passes. These passes cost American $17, the fee was implemented for environmental education, to fund patrols and other facets of the protection plan.
The rooms are very tidy, spacious and comfortable. The resort has 6 cottages, and rooms in the main house, all with western style toilet ensuites, large verandas and hammocks. The largest cottage accommodates up to 6. The resort will only accommodate up to 20 people at a time. July and August are the busiest time of year, however the resort didn't feel like it at all. There is plenty of space so it is easy to find peace and quiet within the resort. But if you want to socialize there are plenty of marine ID books and divers hanging out at the dive lounge/café/bar. There is a book swap and tea and coffee are available all day. There is also cold drinking water available all day free of charge.
The surrounding gardens were immaculate (thanks to the helmet wearing local gardener). The resort itself is set backing the mangroves. This means that while you won't have a white sandy beach to lie on you will be on the peaceful side of the island (the other side has about 8 resorts back to back), There is amazing coral reef walls for snorkeling directly in front of the resort, and the 3 days around the full moon you may catch sight of dugongs grazing on the sea grass.
I have to admit I was slightly concerned about the food arrangements. I get REALLY hungry after dives and I was concerned that staying at a place that served food only at certain times would leave me hungry. I also don't eat any seafood , but tasty vegetarian options were always available. I quickly discovered that I needn't be concerned. Meals were served when we arrived back form the morning dives, then the afternoon tea was always a treat, and dinner was always divine and healthy. The food was prepared fresh for ever meal, plenty of fresh vegetables and delicious meat. My Buddy really enjoyed the local seafood meals, especially the local tuna dish. We never went hungry and the meals were always divine.
Honestly there were a few things that I hadn't anticipated. Firstly, how friendly everyone was, and I just don't mean the staff, but the other guests as well. Because of the small scale of the resort new comers were easily welcomed through warm introductions. We met great people who were from France, England, Germany, Japan and America. We were the only Australians.
It was obvious why there was such a lovely atmosphere around when we met Nigel and Tina, the owners and managers of Two Fish. Reining from England they have been there about 8 years now and have just added another member to their team, their 4 month old daughter.
Two Fish are a 5 star PADI dive centre. During our stay Tina was actually instructing a Junior Open Water course in German.
It is also important for me to know that the organization I dive with takes an active stance in promoting sustainable diving practices and local interests. I was pleased to learn that Two Fish Divers does this in a variety of ways. They are members of the North Sulawesi Water Sports Association. This is an organization that promotes environmentally friendly diving and fishing practices in Bunaken Marine Park. This is Indonesia's first marine park established in 1991. Two Fish Divers also provides training to locals so they are able to work as Dive Masters.
The dives are designed so there are 2 morning dives, leaving at 8 am. The maximum depth on any dive was set at 25m. This keeps the dives conservative and allows for a delightful no-limit bottom time. They just ask to ensure that you dive within the no-decompression limits and arrive at the surface with 40 bar. There is a one-hour surface interval on the boat (tea and biscuits provided). After the morning dives its back to the resort for lunch. The afternoon dive usually leaves about 2:30 pm and a night dive with Mandarinfish leaves about 5: 30pm.
Most divers, like ourselves opted to do 2 dives a day and every other day either do an afternoon or a night dive. It is Two Fish policy that you will never have more than 4 people in a group. For all of our dives it was just my buddy, our guide and I. All of the dive guides spoke English well. We met our guide, Agus the night before and had a chat about the diving. He is a local who lives on the island with his family.
One of the first things we did after we got settled into our room was head out for a snorkel to the house reef, 'Maku'.
It was only a short swim over the reef flat to the plummeting wall that descended to over 500m. We stayed out until the sun began to set. We soon found out that this is where the afternoon dives and night dive are held. It was great to be amongst the diverse array of tropical creatures again.
It is a good idea to bring your wetsuit booties along on your trip even if you have full foot fins. Due to the tides you'd be required at some point to walk a short distance from the boat, and as there are a few sea urchins the booties are a necessity. My buddy didn't have any and fortunately, the dive centre was happy to loan him a pair.
Our first dives were on the walls off Bunaken village, 'Lekuan I' and wow was I blown away, literally. The current was racing and the wall was kilometers deep, We went zooming past a Green Turtle, who was nestled into the reef, schools of Red-toothed Triggerfish and colourful soft corals.Wall diving is simply astounding. It reminds you how massive the ocean really is. Loosing myself in the moment while looking down through the warm crystal clear visibility I was glad to notice Agus was right by our side leading us through a very safe multi level dive. Our dive lasted about an hour.
Our second dive was called 'Lekuan III' on a similar wall. These dives served as an excellent introduction to Bunaken, the famous dramatic walls and diverse marine life. We were already impressed. The dive guides carried around these long tent peg things. I couldn't really understand what they were for at first then I realized they used them to point to some of the minute cryptic marine life along the walls.
On our second day we decided to do 2 morning dives and an afternoon dive. Our morning dives were along sandy slopes. There was coral and plenty of anemone fish as well as Sulawesi's famous ribbon eels. This area has more critters and we were absolutely delighted when our dive guide found a Flamboyant Cuttlefish. These creatures are unreal. Close to the size of fifty-cent piece, they are black with alien like displays of flashing colours. A characteristic special to this small cuttlefish is that they actually walk most of the time, instead of swim. They are apparently as toxic as a blue ringed octopus.
It was very fascinating to watch. The afternoon dive was on the house reef wall where there are plenty of rays, Mantis Shrimp and the local mafia triggerfish that kept a watchful eye. Truthfully I am a bit frightened of triggerfish and the dive guides and my buddy teased me about it. Agus was like my personal triggerfish security guard, ready with his tent peg if duty called.
That evening the dive guides decided to throw a farewell for some guests that were leaving the next day. Apparently this means the song “leaving on a jet plane” gets sung over a few bottles of the local palm wine. They got out the guitar and homemade bass, played music while the rest of us danced. It was such a fun party. When the renditions of 'Hotel California' and 'Brown-eyed Girl' began to sound the same we hit the hay to ensure a good nights rest for diving the next day.
The next day we did another sloping wall dive with giant clams and plenty of anemonefish then another amazing drift, wall dive. This wall was magical with overhangs and crevices. We saw large Humphead Wrasses, schooling Black Snapper, batfish and a tiny yellow seahorse among gorgonian fans.
That afternoon we mentioned to our dive guide that we were going to take a walk to the local Bunaken Village. Not only did he show us personally around the village but took us to his house for some tea and to meet his family. Yet another example of the fantastic hospitality. The village is only about a 15min walk from Two Fish. Lots of smiling children greeted us as we walked past.
Our last day diving on Bunaken Island took us to 'Fukui' and 'Mike's Point'. 'Fukui' is a sandy sloping reef with plenty of strange creatures. 'Mike's Point' is another excellent wall dive around the north side of the island with overhangs and gorgonians. We spotted a Banded Seasnake. Our bottom times had grown longer to 80minutes by now. We were taking advantage of the warm water and diving in either board shorts and a rash vest or a 1mm short sleeveless suit. The surface interval was enough to warm us up in between dives.
Seeing as it was our last day on Bunaken we decided to do a night dive. It was at 'Maku'. Giant Basketstars and Crinoids swayed with the current, sponges, decorator crabs that looked like they were wearing hats, and Spanish Dancers surrounded us.
The next day our transfer to Lembeh Strait meant a boat trip back to Manado, then a one and a half hours drive to Bitung, a thriving industrious town. Once at Bitung we had less than a 30 minute boat trip to Two Fish Divers in Lembeh Strait. We didn't know much about the Lembeh resort at all. We had heard that it is a much smaller resort and still under construction and that the diving there was quite different form Bunaken. We were to expect slightly less visibility and water temperatures, less coral and walls but plenty of strange and macro creatures. Many guests who had stayed at Bunaken either had already been or where on their way to Lembeh.Upon arrival we noticed some friends that we had met on Bunaken were staying at Lembeh for a few days.
We had the opportunity to do an afternoon dive there, but felt it would be a good idea to have a day off gassing. The diving was set up in a similar but on an even smaller scale than Bunaken. The accommodation was slightly more basic, the food was just as good and the hospitality astounding. Opo is the manger of the resort and he is full of good stories and laughs. Our dive guide was Frankie.
Over in Lembeh the tent pegs were even longer. Lembeh is a great place to dive if you really think you have seen it all in regards to diving. It's muck diving at its finest. Sometimes you may be diving for 10 minutes in black sand before you spot anything interesting, but when you do it's just thrilling. There are a few coral slopes as well. If you are into macro photography this is a dream come true.
Diving in Lembeh is shallower as well, so this means as long as you rug up a bit more you can have really long bottom times. Our longest was 88 minutes. I have to admit it took me a few dives to begin to really appreciate the diving, but when I did I really immersed myself in it. You may wind up swimming around for a good 10 minutes before anything catches your eye, so I found myself watching what creatures there were interactions with each other, I really began to notice their behaviors and I loved the shrimp gobies, I would watch them for ages. It was something again I hadn't done for a while.
The Lembeh resort is more isolated than Bunaken and there isn't a lot to do on the resort except dive, eat, relax in a hammock and look through fish books we found ourselves concentrating on the dives. It was something I hadn't done in a while and it renewed enthusiasm in me I didn't realize I had lost. Lembeh strait is actually a lot narrower than I imagined it, because of this the dives sites are usually about 5 minutes away.
Our first dive the next day was at 'Hairball 1'. We saw large common seahorses, octopus, Flying Gurnards and Frogfish. I also quite liked the pincushion sea star. Our second morning dive was at the sloping shallow wall named 'Nudi Retreat' and as the name says there are plenty of different nudibranchs to see. We also got to get up close and personal with a few Pygmy Seahorses, Ornate Ghost Pipefish, dragonets and sea moths. Once again the tent pegs proved helpful. We also saw a large cuttle fish. My favorite however was the very pretty yet apparently toothy, Yellowtail Fangblenny.
The next day we did 2 dives again. The first was at the 'Police Pier'. Here we encountered Ringed Pipefish, Ribbon Eels and the local Barracuda. Diving in Lembeh Strait you will notice a bit more rubbish than at Bunaken. Old tires and bottles of coke are scattered around the dives sites. It is amazing however, to notice how well the strange marine life is able to make these their homes. Frankie would often point to something that looked like an old shoe covered in algae, he would have to draw it to my attention a few times before I realized it was actually a Frog Fish.
Our second dive was at 'Nudi Falls'. This is a cliff face covered in nudibranchs. I think I counted 17 different ones. The one that really caught my eye was the 'Magical Hypselodoris'. There were also many Mantis Shrimp and a few Barramundi Cod.
We left about 5:30pm, as it was important to get there at dusk if you wanted to see the Mandarinfish mating. This site was abundant with hard corals and was quite colourful. As it was only 5m deep here I took my new camera .We took out positions near the coral as the Mandarinfish peered in and out of it waiting for just the right moment. It was quite sweet, it was if they were playing hide and seek with each other, and then in an instant they would swim side-by-side twirling around. It was over in a matter of seconds. After the mandarin fish were finished doing their business a huge silvery swarm of sardines enveloped us as we swam around the coral gardens.
On our last day of diving we requested to go back to 'Nudi Retreat' as my buddy wanted to try out a different macro lens there. Once again we saw Pygmy Seahorses and the peculiar sea moth. Our last dive at 'Maka Wide' found us 2 common seahorses and the beautiful yellow Frogfish. I was a bit sad when it came time to sat good-bye to all of the unusual creatures we had met.
We spent our last evening chatting away with Frankie and Opo. Opo's extensive knowledge of the area comes along with some pretty funny stories. The hospitality and friendliness of the staff on Lembeh balance out the remoteness. The guides were as much a part of the enjoyment as the diving was. Perhaps it's because we had both worked as dive guides ourselves that made us really appreciate their efforts and professionalism. I personally really enjoyed having the same guide for all of our dives (10). This is done on purpose for all guests. I have never had that experience before and I have to say it was really great. We got to know each other's diving ability, equipment and preferences. By the end we felt as if we were diving with an old friend.
Apparently there is a zoo nearby that can be reached by boat so that could always be an option to get about a bit while staying there. Remember there isn't anything to do or anywhere to go once on the island so bring a good book or as a few of the guests did, a lap top with movies to watch at night. We didn't attempt any swimming from the beach, as I was worried I may step on one of their strange and wonderful creatures. It did look like an interesting for snorkeling though. At least one of the new cottages is finished now and more are to be built and the garden has had some work done to it, so it will become more picturesque as time goes by. It's definitely a good option as the others around Lembeh tend to be much more pricey.
I have to make it a point to say that when staying with Two Fish we didn't have to think about organizing anything. It made our trip very enjoyable. We never had to worry about our dive gear, they got it ready for the dives, rinsed and dried it afterwards and the food was always ready when we were. The hospitality at Two Fish Divers was simply astounding. My biggest dilemma was wondering which hammock I should lie in.
The next leg of our trip took us to Singapore where we spent a night and a day. I have to admit that I wasn't really looking forward to this stop over, but as it turned out it was pretty exciting. I had heard rumors of the possibility of diving with a Dugong that lives at underwater world, the Singapore aquarium. I was delighted (as I am sure everyone noticed) when I found out that I could go diving with Gracie then and there.
There is also the option to swim with Grey Nurse Sharks as well. The staff seemed a bit surprise that I was only interested in Gracie. I get to dive with sharks all the time back home, but never a Dugong! I was briefed by Alan, one of Gracie carers. He said that she had been found about 7 years ago as a baby after her mother had died. She has lived there ever since. My buddy wasn't keen to dive so they let him in at half price and even let him come up to the top of the tank to meet and feed Gracie. I was geared up and told how to hold the bouquet of sea grass properly so she would eat it, as she is very particular. Gee! At 170kg you wouldn't guess it.
As we entered the water she approached us, she was eyeing off the sea grass I was holding, I held out the sea grass and she munched away, engulfing half of my hand in the process. Her mouth was bristly and soft. Alan told me I would probably only have about 15 minutes with her, but all up I think I spent about an hour playing with her. She would have something to eat, then go off for a little swim, then come back to us. There were also 2 Leopard Sharks and some batfish in the tank with us. This was one of the most exciting things I had ever done. I highly recommend it. I had never done an aquarium dive before and I was surprised at how funny it was. I had all these people waving at me, when I waved back they all took photos. I felt like a movie star!
On our flight back to Melbourne, I reflected on our trip. It dawned on me that we didn't meet any other Australians our entire trip. There seems to be a misconception that it is difficult and expensive to get to Sulawesi. But in reality it's just a few hours further travel from Bali, and as it turned out the stop over in Singapore offered an amazing experience. The highlights of the trip would have to be the breath-taking wall diving at Bunaken Marine Park, and the peculiar creatures of Lembeh Strait. However, the diving would not have been as easy going and enjoyable without the wonderful organization and friendlessness of the staff. Of course I would have to mention swimming with Gracie one of my personal highlights as well.
Arenui: cruise and dive Indonesia, the world's no.1 biodiversity, from our exquisite luxury vessel. Max 16 guests to 22 crew for a truly first-class trip!
Pelagian Dive Yacht
Feel like you're on a private yacht charter with just ten guests. Pelagian cruises the outer reaches of the exquisite Wakatobi region.