Manado Muck Diving – It’s Not All About Lembeh

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Many divers out there may be familiar with Manado, north Sulawesi’s capital, as the gateway to the world famous Lembeh strait. While Lembeh is world renowned and often referred to as the ‘macro capital’ or the ‘mecca of muck diving’, nobody tends to talk about what’s happening on the opposite side of north Sulawesi.

A mere hour driving in the opposite direction to the strait, you will arrive at the west coast of Manado. It is actually shorter directly to the coast but I was staying at Murex Dive Resorts which is an hour south east from the airport.

Just sand?

Within half an hour of the resort you can reach an array of sites, not all muck diving, plenty of coral sites as well including the esteemed Bunaken marine park. Most of the sites were a mixture of sandy bottom and coral garden which makes them more appealing to some, personally I can glide over sand for a whole dive as long as I know there are macro critters to be found! I enjoy the searching and the feeling of finding rare or very well camouflaged creatures. However this is not for everyone, sandy bottom dives can be risky if expectations are not met, understandable of course, which makes them all the more rewarding.

Snake Eel at City Extra

What can I expect to see?

After diving these spots for some time, it became clear that some were definitely better for particular critters than others. The 3 sites that stood out as the best muck dives were City Extra, Bethlehem (or Bethelem as the guides would joke, meaning ‘better-than-lembeh’), and Circus.

Bethlehem would be great for tiny juvenile frogfish, cuttlefish, seahorses and Costasiella nudibranchs (Shaun the Sheep). This was very much like a Lembeh dive, typical sandy slope topography. I recall one dive here we must have found 6 or 7 juvenile frogfish, from the size of a half a fingernail to maybe an inch high. There was also a patch here around 20m with some seagrass where it was common to find seahorses, I remember this because usually I never made it here due to focusing too long on everything else I had found previously, a great sign for any dive.

City Extra was usually the ideal spot to nightdive, usually with many octopus moving around under the cover of darkness. Creatively named after the restaurant is sat in front of, this spot was very similar topography to Bethlehem, starting with flat seagrass at a few metres before slowly sloping off. This was one of the guides favourite spots because he would always find something new.

Circus, I believe named after all the strange findings there was a bit more of a coral garden/sand dive, which gave it a nice variation and made it acceptable to those who refused to dive in just sand. The entry point would guarantee at least a handful of blue and black sea slugs, no idea why, they were just always there traversing the sand without fail. With Circus you could go left or right (known as Circus 1 and 2) both having their unique findings. This site was excellent for various pipefish, mantis shrimps, snake eels and usually a resident giant frogfish could be seen with a little detour over some coral. It was also not uncommon to find flamboyant cuttlefish shuffling around, these were always welcomed by divers and are a much sought after find.

Shaun the Sheep with eggs at Bethlehem

So Manado is better than Lembeh?

In a word, no, it’s different, while it may not have the same concentration of critters as Lembeh, it still has a lot to offer. It is also very quiet by comparison with far fewer divers. Another benefit is the ability to combine this with Bunaken or other close by islands like Bangka to really see everything north Sulawesi has to offer.

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Bunaken Marine Park – Turtle Haven

In 2019, I was fortunate enough to spend a good length of time in Manado, the capital of North Sulawesi. During my stay I was privileged enough to visit the amazing Bunaken Marine Park dozens of times.

I remember before deciding to visit North Sulawesi, the only time I had heard or seen the word ‘Bunaken’ was seeing it on a last minute specials holiday website a few years earlier, the name stood out but I never looked into it (even the heavily reduced price was a lot for me at the time!). When I was in talks about coming to Sulawesi it became apparent this would be where I would be doing a lot of my diving and photography, only then I began to ask Google what this place was all about, I began to get VERY excited.

A short video compilation

The Island

Situated near the centre of the coral triangle, the small island of Bunaken is 1 of 5 that make up the Bunaken Marine Park, along with Manado Tua, Nain, Matehage and Siladen. In 1991 it was declared one of the first national parks by the Indonesian government, primarily because of it’s high bio diversity of marine life. Since that decision the ecosystem has flourished, with many agreeing the number of fish has greatly increased and that species are being seen that were previously known to be there. A true marine conservation success story for Indonesia and Asia, it is no wonder divers and snorkellers flock to this magical spot from all over the world.

Map of Bunaken dive sites

The park charges foreign visitors the option of a daily entrance fee of IDR 50,000 ($4), or an extended yearly pass for IDR 150,000 ($12). The money made from these passes goes back into the conservation of the area and the villages that make up the park. Be sure to bring this along as the rangers are quite often seen and will board your vessel like pirates, to check your pass and sometimes have a photo with you which is fun.

Getting there

If you wanted a true taste of island life it is possible to stay on Bunaken or Siladen with a good selection of resorts to choose from. I did not have the chance to stay nor do I know if the other islands have options for accommodation.

Staying on the mainland meant enduring a gruelling 25 minute boat ride, often across some of the bluest, glassiest water I’ve seen and nothing but your island destination and the horizon in sight.. It’s a hard life…. During this journey, if you’re lucky, you may be blessed with the presence of some marine fauna. On a few occasions we came across pods of dolphins who would love to come and play with the moving boat, effortlessly matching the speed of the hull and completely visible through the clear blue water, a real treat before you even start gearing up! We also had sightings of Pilot and Sperm whales very close the the boat too!

Another clip including the friendly dolphins!

The Turtles!!!

During my stay the word ‘turtle’ became synonymous with the diving at Bunaken. I would tell guests doing their first dives they should expect to see a lot of the curious aquatic reptiles, yet time after time, they would surface in complete disbelief.

Bunaken hosts a large number of resident Green Sea Turtles and this becomes evident almost instantly without even getting wet. Float around in the right spot and you will see one after the other coming up for a breath of air before heading back down to munch on some coral or find a quiet ledge to get a few ZZZs. Seriously though they are everywhere, some dives I think we counted nearly 50 individuals, ascending for air, descending, swimming along the reef top, sleeping on a ledge, lazily dangling on soft coral or hilariously head first in a sponge, EVERYWHERE… It’s safe to say I got ample photo opportunities, I remember how the crazy number really occurred to me one time when I was able to fit 8 of the clumsy swimmers into a single frame. Although the vast majority of the turtles seen are green turtles, you can also find hawksbill turtles here, you know, in case you get bored….

Diving and Snorkelling

Bunaken is a phenomenal location for divers and snorkellers alike. The wall diving is suitable for all levels from beginner to tech, the coral is extremely healthy from the top of the reef coral gardens all the way down to 50m plus. The coral gardens start from 3 or 4m which is perfect for snorkellers and freedivers, while being a fantastic place to spend a safety stop in the sunshine taking in all the colours and mind blowing diversity of fish.

For the more advanced divers, most walls drop down to 30m or more, some refer to certain parts as the ‘giant walls’ of Bunaken, because they extend down to nearly 2000m!

Currents do vary between sites but it was never too strong for me personally. The great thing is because the walls are so long, if you decide you’d rather not fight the current you can simply drift along trying to dodge the turtles. Some sites also have sheltered areas along the way which are handy if you are fighting the current to take a little rest and a mosey around.

In general I never felt like the area was crowded, some days you would see many boats out but during a dive I don’t recall crossing over more than one or 2 groups. The number of sites, length of the walls and the cooperative efforts from dive operations ensure that everyone gets to enjoy their dive in peace.

Bio Diversity (What will I see)

As I’ve said the diversity here is astonishing, both coral and fish. For example, here you can find 7 out of the 8 known species of giant clams worldwide. There is over 50 genera and sub genera of coral species embedded into the walls, a whopping 7 times that of which can be found in Hawaii. Incredibly, the park is known to be home to around 2000 species of fish and is claimed to have more than 70% of all known fish species in the Indo-Western Pacific. Safe to say there is always something new and exciting to find here.

Common sighting include multiple species of butterfly fish, angel fish, trigger fish, snappers, trevally, barracuda, jacks, puffer, wrasse and plenty more.

For those looking out to the blue or a delving a little deeper, you may be rewarded with some bigger game fish like tuna, reef sharks, giant barracuda or in extremely lucky conditions a Mola Mola (we had some guests see a small one).

Check back soon to my Dive Locations part of my site where I will be putting together info on locations like Bunaken, providing best times to go, best sites, conditions, likely sightings and more.

Diving in North Sulawesi

Welcome all to my first blog, I hope to provide some useful information and insight on any topics, experiences, or dive destinations I deem worthy. I hope it may be of use to anyone reading or at the very least an interesting read, we shall see!

For the second half of 2019 I was fortunate enough to be diving in the rich waters around the northern end of Sulawesi, one of Indonesia’s bigger islands. You can fly to the Island’s capital Manado from nearby better known locations like Jakarta and Bali, taking 2 to 3 hours.

Murex Staff and Boat

I spent 5 months doing photography work for Murex Dive Resorts, one of the oldest and most established dive resorts in the area. They have three locations they offer in a package known as the ‘Passport to Paradise’, an accurate description by all means. These locations include Manado (about an hour from the airport), Bangka Island, a 20 minute boat from the very tip of Sulawesi, then there is Lembeh, the proclaimed Mecca of muck diving. Each location offering something a little different above and below sea level.

Northern part of Sulawesi and Bangka Island

Manado and Bunaken National Park

The diving in Manado was a superb mix of muck and coral diving along the coast, as well as some excellent wall diving in the Bunaken Marine Park. A sun filled half hour boat ride which can boast sighting of dolphins, whales and other large fauna. During my stay we saw pods of dolphins playing with the boat, Pilot Whales, Sperm Whales and on one occasion Orcas were spotted from the shore. The marine park charges a small fee for a pass allowing you to dive there, which aids the conservation and protection of these wonderful sites, as well as the villages in the area. I plan to go in to more detail on each location but the thing that truly stands out in Bunaken is the crazy number of turtles, some sites it is common to see 30 or more! I believe one time the dive guide counted throughout the dive and the number was somewhere in the 50s, so more a less everywhere you look.

For a full blog on Bunaken please read my dedicated blog here
Dodging Turtles

Bunaken sits near the centre of the Coral Triangle and comprises of mostly wall dives, offering something for everyone, snorkelers included. It has been a true success story for marine conservation in Indonesia, with many saying the fish numbers have largely increased and other species of fish are appearing that were not present before. The coral on the walls is amazing, with colourful sponges and seafans, while the reefs, sitting at around 5m, play home to a huge diversity of marine life and reef critters. I spent a lot of time on top of the reef, encountering Blue Fin and big eye trevally, schools of Needlefish, Anthias, Sergeant Majors, Black Snappers and many many more. As you reach the drop off it was common to see huge gatherings of Redtooth Triggerfish filling the water column. For those who like to look out into the blue for the bigger things, you may be rewarded with some big Tuna, Reef Sharks, Rays other game fish.

Manado Muck Diving

Along the coast of Manado you can find many exciting coral and muck diving sites, all within 5 to 25 minutes from the resort. For those who like to hunt there is a few true sandy bottom muck sites that can be great for tiny critters. Over the months I was able to capture many Frogfish, Cuttlefish, Octopus, Nudibranches, Shrimps, Sea Kraits and much more.

Nudibranch found at Murex House Reef