Quenching the Coral-Thirst in Indonesia's Bangka Island
After a few years focusing his diving around Australia’s temperate waters, Nicolas Remy was looking for a destination with vibrant tropical gardens, the sort of colour festival which urges you to grab a wide-angle lens and take photos. Indonesia’s Bangka Island came recommended as a top-pick to quench his coral-thirst…
Bangka Island: An Exotic Dive Destination
Bangka Island is a small island located just off the northeastern tip of Sulawesi, Indonesia. Bangka Island is known for its beautiful unspoiled beaches and exotic dive travel. There are four villages at the seashore of the island namely: Lihunu, Kahuku, Libas and Ehe.
Getting to Bangka Island: Travel Essentials
Bangka is the largest of three islands situated at the tip of North Sulawesi -Bangka, Gangga and Talise. The nearest international airport is in Manado, from which you can reach Bangka within an hours’ drive and a 20-minute boat ride.
Murex Bangka Resort: A Tropical Paradise
I stayed at Murex Bangka Resort, which is tucked in between tropical trees, behind a white-sand beach which boasts a healthy, shallow coral reef. My room was an ocean-facing bungalow (they have hillside cottages too), and I couldn’t get enough of the paradise postcard, which unfolded whenever I opened my front door!
Camera Gear Logistics: Ensuring a Smooth Dive Experience
As an underwater photographer hauling lots of equipment, the logistics around camera gear are always the first thing on my mind for me. When I visited in June 2022, the resort had a small though convenient, camera room located at the back of the restaurant and lounge area. However, a brand-new camera room was under construction with the new dive centre, it will cater for 20 image makers when it completes in November 2022.
Exploring Bangka's Underwater Playground
My days in Bangka would start with a double-tank dive in the morning, followed by a return to the resort for lunch and a third boat dive in the afternoon. Night dives could be arranged too, either on the house reef or from a boat.
Being located at the southern tip of Bangka Island, the resort offers easy access to four sites on the mainland (Sulawesi), in addition to the 17 sites spread around Bangka itself, plus seven sites on Gangga and Talise, so there is a huge underwater playground to explore.
The Calm Seas of Bangka: A Pleasant Surprise
As a pleasant surprise, the seas around Bangka were pretty calm and I didn’t have to use my Kwells pills! The neighbouring islands offer a fairly good protection from ocean swells, and I was told that the sea only gets choppier on the northern side of Bangka, which is exposed the open ocean.
Dive Guides: A Valuable Asset for Underwater Photographers
Finally, the dive guides are not only very knowledgeable about the sites and local marine life, they also have received photography training, with some being underwater photographers themselves. As a result, my guide doubled up as a talented model and a great photo assistant!
Wide-angle Coral Gardens: The Main Attraction
Like I mentioned above, my main motivation for visiting Bangka was to photograph lush coral reefs and I have been well served in these regards! With around 20 metre visibility most of the time, I could appreciate the gently sloping reefs, bottoming out at 30m-40m most of the time, with a few pinnacles (covered with corals) to spice-up the underwater landscape. For wide-angle scenery, my very favourite spot was Sahaung, near the resort on Bangka’s south. Sahaung boasts an extravaganza of soft and hard corals, an interesting topography with a pinnacle spanning from 35m to nearly the surface. Since I had a wide lens I was looking for mid-to-large sized wildlife, and encountered a pair of giant frogfish (frequently seen there), a resident juvenile white-tip shark under a table coral, crocodilefish and anemones teaming with clownfish.
Batu Goso: A Close Runner-Up
The runner-up was Batu Goso, on the northeast of Bangka Island. This site doesn’t have as many soft corals as Sahaung, but it was covered with colourful hard corals of diverse shapes, and the reef drop-offs are steeper than Sahaung. Cherry on the cake: there is a very photogenic vertical cave that is wide enough to swim into. The top of the cave – which is covered with soft corals – is at 30m depth, so watch your SPG! While Bangka isn’t known for big marine life encounters, sites like Batu Goso are more exposed to the open oceans, and I had four large tuna pass by a few metres away, just as I exited the cave, so you never know what you might see there…
Murex Bangka Resort: A Must-Visit Destination
Murex Bangka Resort is located on a white sand beach on the southern tip of Bangka Island. If you are looking for a remote tropical island experience with world class reefs and marine life, Murex Bangka should be on your bucket-list. Staff are friendly, knowledgeable, and deliver exceptional service. It’s possible to dive Bangka, Bunaken and the Lembeh Strait with Murex’s Passport to Paradise option, which allows you to explore three distinct destinations, from three beautiful resorts, linked by boat diving transfers.
Currents and Dive Site Selection
As always, the most-healthy corals are exposed to currents, so our boat captain picked dive sites according to the time of the day, allowing us to dive with limited to no currents most of the time.
We did experience some heavy currents on the southwest of Bangka on one occasion, and on Sahaung another time. For the latter, I plead guilty for insisting to have a third dive there on the same day, as I wanted to explore it with a macro lens too!
Mix of Coral Sceneries and Muck Diving
Most days, we had two morning boat dives around Bangka Island (five to 15 minutes by boat), which were all about coral sceneries, while in the afternoon we often switched to diving the tip of Sulawesi mainland (20 minute boat rides), where we had a mix of coral fans and sandy slope, for a bit of muck diving.
Great Macro Opportunities: An Unexpected Treat
I hadn’t thought too much about small critters when picking Bangka, but I am glad I had brought a macro lens too! Within those vibrant coral reefs, if you pay attention (or ask your dive guide), you can see some highly desirable subjects, from a macro photography standpoint. For example, I photographed several pygmy seahorses (Hippocampus bargibanti), whip-coral gobies, anemonefish, spotted porcelain crabs, leaf scorpionfish and peacock mantis shrimps.
Discovering Muck-Diving Sites
There are also some good muck-diving sites which I visited, such as Sampiri on the Sulawesi side, where we saw the intriguing solar-powered nudibranch, which literally harnesses energy from the sunlight (photosynthesis) and is about 15cm long! I also had an excellent muck night dive right on Bangka, where we had snake eel, mantis shrimp, humphead scorpionfish and – my favourite encounter – a coconut octopus.
The Clever Coconut Octopus
This clever cephalopod is known for living inside empty coconut shells, but it will also use discarded glass bottles or… assemble a few shells to serve as protection. In fact, my dive guide carried a few shells with him as an offering, should we find a coconut octopus. The first one we saw snagged the offering with a tentacle, and politely declined, pushing it away. However later in my trip we saw another coconut octopus, which was quite pleased with the proposed shell, and we saw it ‘upgrade’ from its previous shell to the new one!
An Abundance of Macro Species
I saw more macro species than I can list in this article, and most of the time I was focused on wide-angle photography, but if macro is your thing, you certainly can spend a week diving in Bangka and not get bored.
The House Reef: A Hidden Gem
In fact, my only regret from this trip is not having spent more time snorkelling the house reef off Murex Bangka Resort. I only went snorkelling the day before my departure, to realize how much marine life there was in the shallows: I photographed clownfish and their anemone in only 1.5m of water, a few metres off the beach! Grab a tank to explore deeper and you can find pygmy seahorse right off the resort. If you opt to scuba-dive it self-guided with a buddy, be sure to ask the dive centre when to go, to avoid currents. You can also rent a kayak to explore that reef from above.
Murex Bangka's Coral Farm: Environmental Care
Finally, it was good to see Murex Bangka Resort doing their part in caring for the environment. Not only do they use solar panels to supply part of the resort’s electricity, they have also created, and are maintaining a coral nursery, a few hundred metres north of the resort. I have dived on this coral farm and it was good to see turbinaria and acropora hard corals growing healthy, on an area where corals had previously vanished.
Final Words: A Memorable Trip
Aside from water-based activities, it is possible to go hiking on Bankga Island, visit the local village of Lihunu or take a day trip to explore North Sulawesi mainland. In the resort itself, wildlife lovers will enjoy seeing hermit crabs on the beach, and I had the chance to see the rare cuscus, a marsupial bear feeding in the trees just above the resort. All-in-one, I fondly enjoyed my time in Bangka, the secluded location of the resort, good food and many underwater photo opportunities, both in wide-angle territory as expected, and in the macro realm too.
Connect with Nicolas and Lena Remy
This article was originally published in Scuba Diver ANZ #51