Bunaken National Park (established in 1991), is located opposite the city of Manado, the capital of North Sulawesi Province.  It is one of the most popular dive locations in Indonesia, and for very good reasons.  The waters of Bunaken National Marine Park are very deep (1566 m in Manado Bay), clear (up to 35-40 m visibility), refreshing in temperature (27-29 C) and harbor some of the highest levels of biodiversity in the world. 

The park consists of five islands each surrounded by extensive coral reef systems, and a stretch of the Sulawesi mainland opposite the islands that also contains great diving.  The relatively shallow circling reefs and protected bays make it ideal for snorkelers, while the very deep, open waters mean there are plenty of opportunities for viewing pelagics and other large fish.  Bunaken is justifiably famous for its expansive coral reefs at 2-5 meters on top, and walls falling down 30-100 meters to a sandy bottom.  Because it is one of the geologically oldest seas on the planet, the variety and concentration of soft and hard corals, fish, and other animal life is difficult to match anywhere in the world.

All five of the islands have local villages.  Only two of the islands have guest facilities -- there is a small village on Siladen and a larger one on Bunaken, and many of the residents are employed taking care of diving guests.  Fishing and seaweed cultivation are the other occupations for villagers on the islands.  Fishing is restricted in the park – villagers may use traditional fishing methods including poles and small boats on the outer edge of the reefs, but motorized boats with nets are not permitted.   

Basic Rules for Visitors to the Park

1.       Be careful with your fins, feet and hands!  Do not touch the coral or stand on the coral heads.

2.       Do not take any coral, shells, fish or sand.

3.       Minimize the amount of garbage you produce and try to take as much as possible back to the mainland for proper disposal.

Dive Season

Bunaken Marine Park is dive-able all year round, but the best weather and water conditions are generally found from April to November.  July and August are peak season and can be very busy.

Getting to Manado

Manado has a busy international airport (MDC), and is a domestic transit hub for flights to the Moluccas and Papua.  Silk Air flies non-stop (3.5 hours) from Singapore four times a week (M-W-F-S), and Garuda, Merpati, Lion, Batavia and other Indonesian airlines provide domestic links.  As of this writing (updated December 2012), the AirAsia and Malaysian Airlines direct flights from Kuala Lumpur are not operational.

Hotels & diving:  the mainland

There are a number of three-star hotels in Manado itself, but these (and Manado) will hold little interest for snorkelers & divers except as an overnight stop on the way to Bunaken or Siladen – the only islands in the park with guest facilities.  The Novotel , Sedona and Swiss-Belhotel are all popular one-night stops in Manado.

There are several dive resorts located on the mainland, all of which access the marine park daily by boat.  Murex  (located south of Manado) and Nusantara Dive Center (north of Manado in Molas) are the oldest of these and are more traditional dive lodges – not fancy.  Other  lodges and resorts focusing on diving include the Barracuda Dive Resort, and the Hotel Santika (4 star) just inside the park boundaries.  If you choose a dive resort on the mainland, one key selection criteria to consider is the distance to the park and boat speed – ask how long it takes to get to the dive sites when you make your enquiries.  The Thalassa Dive Center at the Hotel Santika is the only PADI Instructor Dive Center (IDC) in North Sulawesi and offers a full range of instruction.  Check the PADI website for listings of the numerous PADI Dive Centers and Resorts in the area:  www.padi.com

Hotels & diving:  on the islands

Both Bunaken and Siladen Islands have guest facilities catering to snorkelers and divers.  Resources on the islands are very limited, and travelers should expect a fairly simple hotel experience.  There are no commercial restaurants on the islands, and nearly all hotels include meals in their packages.  Wells on the islands are somewhat salty and are fine for bathing, but all drinking water must be brought by boat from the mainland.  Bunaken has public electricity only from 8 pm to 5:30 am, and hotels must use their own generators for daytime power.  There is no public electricity on Siladen, but the hotel there has its own generator.  

Hotels on the islands will organize airport pick up and put you on one of their small boats at the new, small boat harbor in Manado for transport to the park (thankfully, all commercial shipping goes into Bitung harbor on the NE side of the peninsula).   Hotels on the islands will not make the crossing after dark for safety reasons, and most boats to the islands leave by 2pm.

Siladen Island is the smaller of the two islands with overnight facilities.  It has lovely beaches and one hotel, the Siladen Resort & Spa.  This is a bit more upscale than most places on Bunaken, with a swimming pool and air conditioning in some villas (they produce all their own electricity, and at the last visit were testing a water desalination plant).  The focus is on diving:  they have a boat and a European dive master with local dive guides.

Bunaken Island has a relatively large village on its southeast tip, complete with one church and one mosque.  There are up to a dozen smallish dive hotels concentrated in two general areas:  along the northeast and northern shore of the island, and along the inner part of the bay facing south-southwest. 

The smallest hotels and guest houses will generally not have dive services or equipment available, but will refer you to the larger establishments nearby.  When you make your bookings, be sure to confirm the availability of any equipment you might need to rent, and instructional services – although a resort might advertise dive certification courses, they might not have an instructor on staff when you visit.

Hotels & diving: the surrounding area

Not surprisingly, there is also great diving around North Sulawesi outside Bunaken National Park.  Some popular destinations with dive facilities include Gangga and Bangka Islands off the northern tip of the peninsula, and the Lembeh Straits on the eastern side near Bitung, Manado’s commercial port.  The Lembeh Straits are renowned for spectacular muck diving, with abundant nudibranchs and mandarin fish.

Park Management

There is a flat, annual Rp 150,000 park fee for foreign visitors to Bunaken Marine Park, and this is typically collected by your dive organizer before your first dive.  (Indonesians pay Rp 2,500 per visit.) You’ll receive a tag to attach to your BCD for the duration of your stay.  Where does the money go?  Unlike most national parks in Southeast Asia, the money doesn’t go back to the central government, but remains with the Bunaken Management Advisory Board to fund conservation and village development programs in the park.  The funds are controlled by a multi-stakeholder management board comprised of the North Sulawesi Watersports Association, villagers from the 30 villages in the park, local tourism, fisheries and environmental government agencies, and the local university’s marine sciences department.  This arrangement ensures that the money collected is directed to the most important programs needed in the park (as agreed by this diverse set of interests).

Park Management Challenges

There are three main challenges in managing the park: enforcement of park use rules, managing weekend day-trippers, and garbage.  The good news is that fish bombing and the use of cyanide to capture live fish have pretty much ended, and villagers are recognizing that good reef management means more fish in the long run.  Large numbers of Manado residents head out to Bunaken on Saturdays and Sundays – it’s a popular place for family excursions and church groups – and it can get crowded on the beaches and over the shallower parts of the reef.  Unfortunately, day boat operators tend to be very lax in educating their weekend visitors and the reefs suffer as a result.  Plastic garbage on the beaches is becoming an increasing problem, and the park management board and local government haven't yet found a solution.

More Information

The internet is an excellent place to find more detailed information on the dive resorts providing services in and around Bunaken National Park.  Some useful sites are listed below.

http://www.north-sulawesi.org/bunaken...  (the provincial government's tourism information site)

http://bunaken.org (the official site of the park's Management Advisory Board)