Bunaken is a small island and getting there is easy although it is a long way to go from Europe. You have to fly to Manado, normally via Singapore, and the dive centre with which you are staying will normally pick you up at the airport. Boat transfer to Bunaken from Manado takes about 30 minutes. On Bunaken there are no resort hotels but there are dive centres. I have stayed twice with Two Fish Divers in September/October. Other than going for a walk, there's not much to do on the island. Bunaken is situated in a protected marine park and you have to pay an entry fee - about $15 which is valid for the year. You are always accompanied by a dive guide and normally there are no more than four divers to a guide.
Most of the diving is drifts along walls with great corals – hard and soft – with lots of sponges. Apart from the variety, quality, and quantity of the corals, what was striking was that they were excellent on virtually every dive. The condition of the reefs is very good in general –the area is a marine national park. On a normal dive there was no need to go below 20-25 metres and the best of it was around 15 metres and the reef tops which are particularly good. As a result, dive times were quite long – over 60 minutes on most dives. Visibility was normally around 25 metres – this is meant to be a good time of year for vis. - and water temperature was normally 29 degrees. Most of the dive sites were no more than 15 minutes from the dive centre. Fish life was prolific although we only saw a few sharks (black tips and white tips). The area is well known for having lots of small things to see and there were plenty of nudibranches, flatworms etc. and pigmy seahorses. The night dives were a real feature. They were truly excellent - lots of life with a large variety of crabs in particular.
Now to the dives themselves. On the neighbouring island of Manado Tua we dived the sites of Pantalingan, a slope with a saddle like formation at about 25m, known for its currents and a big school of barracuda, and the wall dives of Negeri and Bulao which were easy drifts with lots of marine life. Around the middle of the site Negeri had suffered damage to hard corals
On Bunaken itself the wall of Lekuan is highly regarded and rightly so. There are three sites – Lekuan I, Lekuan II, and Lekuan III – and I thought Lekuan I was the best. The corals are excellent on all three and you could probably spend a dive just enjoying them. On Lekuan I there are a lot of green turtles some of which are very large. All the dives are drifts and the fish life was prolific. There were sharks, tuna, trevally, snappers, large trigger fish, various sweetlips, napoleons, schools of fusiliers, a couple of bumphead parrots, plus masses of smaller fish and nudibranches etc..
Just to the east of Lekuan is the site known as Muka Kampung (translates as « in front of village ») which was an excellent drift dive on the two occasions we dived it. Apart from the normal fish life we saw a robust ghost pipefish there (before the current picked up!) and there were porcupine fish, large trigger fish, black tip reef shark, unicorn fish, scorpion fish, fusiliers, tuna, a turtle, morays, a couple of large groupers, box fish, puffers, snappers, sergeant majors, emperors, etc..
Mandolin and Ron’s Point are sites adjacent to eachother where the corals are good especially at the reef tops but the larger fish life is more prolific. Mandolin is a wall dive while Ron’s is more of a slope. On Ron’s, I saw the largest school of tuna that I’ve ever seen in over 10 years of diving– there were hundreds of them. There were sharks, turtle, barracuda, trevally but also pigmy seahorses. We were lucky enough to see pilot whales at the surface as we approached Ron’s on one occasion.
Other sites on Bunaken include Fukui (part of which has suffered extensive damage from dynamite fishing in the past but is now the location for a project to restore the corals) where there are some enormous giant clams and the fish life was excellent – enormous school of batfish, a lot of giant trevallies, schools of unicorn fish, garden eels and lots more, and the walls of Timor I and II, Alung Banua, Mike's Point and Sachiko’s Point where we saw eagle rays. You can do a dusk dive at a site called Mandarin and the point of the dive is to observe mandarin fish who at dusk come out of their hiding places in the coral to mate.
We also dived some sites on the nearby mainland coast. Tanjung Pisok is a slope with a superb reef top, Black Rock is a sandy slope muck dive where there were sea snakes, mantis shrimp, rays, juvenile barracuda, ribbon eel, nudibranches etc., Tiwoho is a bay with lots of coral blocks where there was a frog fish, ribbon eels, huge cuttlefish and more. Wori I and Wori II are also dives along sandy slopes with coral blocks where you can find little critters - we came across a tiny juvenile frogfish. There is a wreck which I didn’t dive close to Black Rock. Mantehage Island is an hour away from Bunaken and the dive site on its west side is known for the huge school of barracuda there are located there. We saw them – there were hundreds of chevron barracuda swimming lazily together – as well as very large schools of trevally and snappers. You can also see eagle rays and bumphead parrotfish there.
The day trip to Popo, just over an hour away, is a treat for fans of muck diving. The site is a slope of dark sand with patches of sea grass and visibility of around 10m.. We were fortunate to catch a couple of glimpses of a dugong and her baby as well as seeing Hamilida ghost pipefish, mimic octopus, a stargazer, a seahorse and various other things – lots of anemones with clownfish, lionfish, and cowfish in the sea grass. The trip to Bangka Island, less than 1˝ hours away, was to see spectacular corals – especially soft corals. They are truly outstanding and the fish life was very good including lots of scorpion fish, some napoleons, pigmy seahorses, flying gurnards, leaf fish, and frog fish.
If you enjoy diving for the marine life and great reefs then this is a diving location you should not miss even if it is a long way to go. Wreck enthusiasts and those wanting lots of big shark encounters will have to look elsewhere.