Imagine paradise: blue skies, amazing food, flowers, happy people, world class diving, smiles all round, a bit of pampering and a wet-edge pool looking out over the volcanoes on the North-Sulawesi mainland. This pretty much sums up our holiday at Gangga Island Resort and Spa.
Just after our arrival we were welcomed like old friends by Hanne and Gaspare, owners of the resort since 2000. With their extensive experience in the hospitality industry and their welcoming personalities they have made sure that staying here offers divers and non-divers a holiday experience that is impossible to forget.
The gardens are beautifully landscaped with plenty of flowering bushes and trees such as frangipani and palm trees amongst meandering walking paths.
Our bungalow was very comfortable, spacious and right on the beach. Our kingsize double bed was so comfortable that I had problems getting out of bed in the mornings, until I remembered the breakfast buffet.
From our veranda or the relaxing beach chairs we could admire the colourful sunsets. All thirty bungalows have television (although who would want to watch anything on television once you are here), are airconditioned and are set out with a mini-bar and coffee & tea making facilities.
The three larger day boats offer access to almost 60 different dive sites, including ones in Lembeh Street and Bunaken National Park. The boats leave in the morning and you get two dives in before lunch. Afternoon dives can also be organised and there is always the possibility to do a night dive.
All dives are guided and there is a maximum of four divers to a guide. In the evening just before dinner the dive coordinator would meet us in the bar or just before dinner at our table, have a little chat and come up with suggestions for our diving the next day. We found the diving very relaxing as the small groups were well separated on the sites giving you plenty of time to look around without too many other divers hanging around.
Although every single dive we did was memorable I have just picked out a few to indicate how amazing the diving is you can do from Gangga Island.
The first dive day the crew treated us by taking us to one of the sites they had only just recently started to dive. On the boat was only one other couple, from Germany. Otto and Helga both had stayed at Gangga Island Resort 5 or 6 times and still enjoyed each and every dive they do here and are planning on coming back again and again. It was great diving with them as they had developed an eye for the critters and tirelessly pointed out things they spotted.
Our very first dive was at 'Yellow Coco' with coral gardens in the shallows, sloping down to 25 meters where the terrain becomes sandy. The first things we saw were some absolutely beautiful Tiger Anemones clinging onto a whip coral. The photos really don't do them justice. We also got to see some pelagics such as tuna and barracudas swishing past.
We didn't have to strain a muscle to see things as everything was around us: Red-tooth Triggerfish, Long Toms, shrimpfish, butterflyfish, damsels, large sponges, whip corals and colourful ascidians too.
After a nice surface interval with a bit of sun, coconut and bananas we went to 'Rainbow'. The name says it all....Here we saw three Frogfish - one even yawned! -, a big octopus, lots of different nudibranchs, a school of Blue-stripe Snapper swimming in and out of the reef, passing us several times, anthias in large schools hanging just above the reef near 'their' coral, Hinge-beak Shrimp, Banded boxer shrimp (Stenopus hispidus), Crocodile Fish (Cymbacephalus beauforti), Bearded Scorpionfish (Scorpaenopsis barbatus), beautiful soft coral trees in different colours, and some fire corals as well (oops).
In the sandy area there are plenty of different species of Shrimp Gobies and their blind shrimp as well as grubfish and lizardfish resting on their pectoral fins. In the shallows we encountered butterflyfish, surgeonfish, leatherjackets and hawkfish. Fantastic!
Once we returned to the resort after diving, all we had to do was grab our camera gear and wander back to our bungalow, the pool or the restaurant to have lunch. The wonderful staff took care of our dive gear. Initially, I felt really bad, but they all assured us that that was part of the service and, hey, I stopped talking about this rather quickly (before they changed their mind, hehe). The next time we arrived at the boat to go diving our gear was waiting for us, all set up. All we had to do was quickly check everything was there and off we went.
We also dived 'Tanjung Tarabitan'. This site features several short coral walls separated by sandy slopes.
Straight away our guide Inyo took us down to a large Gorgonian fan at 25 meters. On a previous dive he discovered that this particular one housed ten Pygmy Seahorses! Not only were there plenty of them, they were also rather large and fat ... for a pygmy that is. Keeping an eye on my non-deco time and waiting for the other two photographers to finish made me feel like I was in a lolly shop just before closing. I think I was humming.....
But the party wasn't over yet. In the sandy areas we saw some dancing commensal shrimps near an anemone, both Blue and Black Ribbon Eels and a black pipehorse. In a pretty blue and white featherstar our guide pointed out a black and white Crinoid Crab. In the shallows a huge school of Sergeant Majors swam past and surrounding us, giving me that great feeling of being part of it all.
The second dive that same day, at HBO Point, was at least as amazing, but with a very different geography. It started off with a sandy slope and we finished in a bit of current doing our safety stop á la drift. First thing was an up-side-down jellyfish. I'd never seen one before and it looked just fascinating as it was swimming and then settled on the sandy bottom.
Plenty of nudibranchs along the way including Chromodoris bullocki and a few Halgerda batangas. I spotted four juvenile Banded Pipefish under a ledge, followed by a brown Robust Ghostpipefish. I thought I would die of excitement when Inyo pointed out a bright yellow Harlequin Ghostpipefish. Unfortunately, it retreated into the coral branches it resembled, so I could not photograph it properly, but I was able to have a good look at it and my buddy managed to capture it nicely. So pretty!
As the current increased we just floated along the coral gardens and joined Yellow Emperors (Diploprion bifasciatum), little pufferfish, Midnight Snapper and all kinds of other reef fishes.
Still buzzing with excitement we decided that we could fit in another dive later that day, after having lunch, hanging out at the pool for a bit and an afternoon nap.
At the Ganga Island Resort Mandarin dives are conducted every night. We left the pier around 5.30 pm in order to enter the water at dusk. Our guide Edy took us to the spot where the Mandarin Fish live. It all looked quite dull and I wasn't sure why the colourful Mandarin Fish would choose this as its home as it looked very boring. We settled on the sand just in front and starting to stare at the rubble, hoping to see the Mandarin Fish. We were clearly instructed not to use any lights until our guide indicated that it was okay to do so. After only a short little while I saw a bright blue one looking out, but it ducked back in. Slowly it got darker. The tiniest cuttlefish came out and hovered just above the rubble. I could not contain myself and let out a little squeak in excitement, but could not attempt to take a photo, as I did not want to discourage the Mandarin Fish. Soon enough there was a couple. Slowly, they swam up side by side, heads touching, a quick flick of the bodies, a cloud of reproductive material and they were gone again. We 'only' saw this happening three times and were not able to take any photos, but we were elated to have witnessed at least something happening.
After this, Edy took us along the reef for a night dive and we saw a large spearing Mantis Shrimp in its burrow, octopus, big crabs carrying a sponge on their backs (Cryptodromia octodentata), hermit crabs and three large basketstars feeding. Once we surfaced Edy apologised profusely for the Mandarin Fish not having much of a sex life tonight. He didn't understand why and he was VERY sorry. Of course we were thrilled to have seen the Mandarin Fish and had enjoyed every minute of the dive.
On one day we were taken to some dive sites a bit further a field, closer to Lembeh Strait and this meant that we would be doing three dives and have lunch on board. When we arrived at Lion's Head it was decided not to dive there. A wise decision I thought personally as the surface looked rather like a white water rafting area, whirling and twirling with lots of white water.
However, we did manage to dive 'Batu Punteng' just around the corner, a pinnacle with beautiful soft corals and lots of them. Again there was a multitude of colourful nudibranchs, including a couple of Nembrotha rutilans mating. The Bearded Scorpionfish seemed pretty common here as well. They make really good subjects for photography as you can approach them quite easily and they look great with frills on their chin and beautiful colouring. Up on the reef flat we were shown a large black nudibranch with dark-green stripes and neon-orange gills and rhinophores (Nembrotha kubaryana, I later found out) sitting out in the open! While my buddy had a look I was shown a decent size smashing Mantis Shrimp flashing it colours (Odontodactylus scyllarus) and a Dark-spotted Moray (Gymnothorax fimbriatus) right beside it. There were beautiful fans and more soft coral trees feeding in the little current across the reef. Our air supply was the limiting factor on this dive and I didn't really want to leave.
The other two dives that day were also awesome again with more Frogfish, pygmy seahorses, ribbon eels, flatworms, translucent seacucumbers feeding and more nudibranchs. And we found a Yellow-lined Harptail Blenny (Meiacanthus lineatus) who had found shelter in a discarded bottle.
Bangka Island is located close to Gangga Island and we were taken to dive 'Batu Tiga', meaning Three Rocks. As the name indicates, there is one large pinnacle and two smaller ones with sandy areas in between. It started off with seeing a Notodoris minor or Banana nudibranch as they call them here. Once you get over the excitement of its size and colour not much else happens. To be fair though this one was actually crawling!
Looking in the distance we could see the other group huddled together and being all excited. We eagerly waited till they were done and swam across: two large solar powered nudibranchs as my buddy calls them or Phyllodesium longicirrum. We think they were mating, but with all those funny 'longicirri' flopping about it was hard to tell, not to mention making a photo of it. We also got to see a large black Frogfish, flatworms, Blue-face Angelfish, a blue Ribbon Eel and heaps of fish in the shallows.
Our next dive at Bangka Island was a dive site called 'Alfa Omega' and although we had dived this one before we were very keen to go here again as we knew we could see two yet undescribed species of pygmy seahorse, Leaf Scorpionfish including two pink ones and heaps of fish. However, what we didn't know was that there were two, green Robust Ghostpipefish (Solenostomus halimadae) hanging out at about 18 meters! You really had to look twice as their camouflage was amazing and they looked exactly like the seaweed they hang out with.
Again we had an extensive safety stop as there was just so much to look at in the shallows like Red-tooth Triggerfish, more anthias, a juvenile Ribbon Eel, nudibranchs and a Whitemouth Moray (Gymnothorax meleagris).
The last dive we did during this visit was on the House Reef. Initially it just looks very sandy and a bit bare, but once you swim along you find little clumps of growth with all kinds of life around it. We were lucky to have another sunny day and with the white sand and little depth it was almost like swimming around in a swimming pool.
First thing we saw was a Spotted Snake Eel (Myrichthys maculosus), scurrying around looking for something to eat, ducking in and out of little holes in the sand. This was followed by plenty of reef fish, shrimp gobies, Ringtail Cardinalfish, a small Giant Clam and filefish.
After a while we came past some experiments conducted on site where artificial reef formation is compared between using biorock, plain old bamboo structures and metal structures that have a low currents flowing through them.
Nearby I spotted two different jawfish. Neither of them had any eggs in their mouth, but they looked quite funny bopping up and down with their heads, not sure whether I was a threat or not.
Since we did not have a guide with us we did miss out on the Pygmy Seahorses they have. Before we knew it we had been down there for 90 minutes and although we had plenty of air left we were thinking of the crew keeping a look out at the pier and decided to return.
If I had to summarise the diving to be done from Gangga Island I would say: amazing diversity of life combined with some really unusual animals. The soft corals stand out in their number, variety and colours. Of course Pygmy Seahorses are pretty high on my personal list although at times I felt sorry for them as they are so little and we are not. If you are a nudibranch and/or crustacean fan this area is a must. Macro, macro, macro, but.....with the beautiful coral gardens and walls I would not leave my wide angle at home.
As a diver, at the end of your stay you receive a log of all the dives you have done. This comes in very handy as the dive sites have sometime exotic and hard to remember names. The little map that comes with it shows you exactly where the dive sites are located as well.
Our last afternoon was spent visiting one of the villages on the island: Gangga Satu. Most of the staff at the resort actually lives in one of the two villages. The main street was impeccably clean with lots of pigs running around ....
Children kept asking if we could take their photo and where extremely familiar with the fact you could instantly see the picture taken. They thought it even more exciting once Tim filmed them with the video camera. Not a whole lot of candid shots though as they loved to pose. They struck us as very friendly people and just so contend with the little they have. Most of them spoke some English and they all called out:"Ciao" since there are a lot of Italians frequenting this resort. Of course the staff at the resort speak English and some of them Italian or German.
Lunch and dinner were even better than breakfast, although after the first two days we did decide that one or maybe two courses was enough on each occasion instead of the four that were usually on offer (appetizer, entrée, main and dessert). The food was beautifully prepared and every day there was plenty of choice whether you like to try local cuisine, the western variation or the vegetarian option.
A few evenings a small group of staff took care of the entertainment during dinner and sang local songs, accompanied by just a guitar. It just completed the whole vibe of the resort as being a friendly, welcoming place where you'll have to return.
In the Coconut Bar you can play a game of pool, backgammon, table tennis, use the caarom board, have a browse through the multi-lingual library or just have a drink and get to know other guests and the staff.
If you don't feel like diving or you are not a diver you can book one of the day trips on offer to the mainland like the Manado City Tour, the Minahasa Highland Tour, climb the volcano Mount Mahawn or visit the Tangkoko Nature Reserve. Snorkelling and sailing trips can also be arranged, visiting remote beaches in the area.
For more relaxation you can always stroll across to the spa area where a range of massage packages and beauty treatments are on offer. The girls are trained in remedial and traditional massage, aromatherapy, reflexology, pedicures, manicures... Absolute bliss!
The staff members were all super friendly and helpful. They'd readily answered any questions and would go through great lengths to make sure your stay is absolutely perfect.
Although still under construction when we were there, Gangga Island Resort is now also equipped with a photographer's room complete with your own personal workstation where you can store all your underwater camera equipment. There will also be a computer available to download your images and burn them to CD/DVD.
How to get there - July 2006:
When coming from the North Americas or Europe there are direct flights from Singapore to Manado. Australians will have to fly via to Denpasar, Bali and then to Manado.
You can find rates, the different trip itineraries and more information on the Gangga Island Resort and Spa website.