North Sulawesi’s Bunaken Marine Park has iconic status due to the variety of marine life within its confines, but who knew that it held infinite possibilities for technical diving as well. Byron Conroy strapped on his twinset and stage to explore Indonesia’s deeper attractions.
Bunaken Oasis Dive Resort and Spa: A Diver's Paradise
Bunaken Marine Park is home to five islands, with the largest being Bunaken Island. In 2017, a new resort opened up on the island, Bunaken Oasis Dive Resort and Spa. The island resort prides itself on the quality of both the resort and the service it offers. In its first year, it had already been voted among the world’s top dive resorts, and in 2018 they opened up the first technical diving centre in Bunaken, Oasis Explorers.
The Oasis Explorers Tech Centre: A Technical Diving Hub
I have been visiting Indonesia for many years, drawn by its colourful reefs and bio-diversity, which is the most varied the world has to offer. But as a tech diver, I had never had the opportunity to do any technical diving in Indonesia before, so I was full of expectation when we were picked from a nearby island by one of Oasis’ brand-new luxury wooden dive boats, and our guide for the week, Chi, welcomed us with a warm smile and enthusiasm for a week’s tech diving.
Chi is originally from the UK and, along with her German husband Spencer, they manage the Oasis Explorers Tech Centre based at Bunaken Oasis Dive Resort and Spa. They bring with them a wealth of experience in tech diving and between them are able to teach all PADI and TDI open circuit tech courses from entry level all the way to Advanced Trimix. The centre also offers recreational rebreather trydives on the Poseidon unit, and the shop also has four units available for qualified guests to use during their stay.
As we approached the resort from the ocean, we were immediately struck by the grandeur of the appearance. The resort is built into a hill and as such, many of the rooms and the swimming pool are elevated to offer magnificent views over the sea.
Did you know?
Oceanic currents sweep past Bunaken Island bringing a steady supply of nutrients. It’s a sure certainty that where there is plenty of food in the sea, there will be an abundance of marine life, and you can be here to witness this rich harvest too.
Chi gave us a quick run-down of the diving operation, showing us the amazing dive centre they have built. The centre is a full trimix blending station and offers dream facilities for any technical or recreational diver, or underwater photographer. I was able to put all of my camera equipment into the custom-made, air-conditioned camera room that also featured compressed air and freshwater for rinsing and drying of equipment, along with every spare tool you could ever need, including vacuum pumps and spare batteries. The dive centre also offers amazing rental equipment for both tech and rec divers, they have all Apeks regulators, and BCDs for both twinsets and sidemount. The centre is also an official partner for Shearwater and can provide rental Shearwater tech computers for your stay.
After dropping off our dive equipment and underwater camera, Chi then introduced us to Roby, the assistant resort manager, who showed us to our room. Bunaken Oasis Resort say that ‘There is only one standard of accommodation at Bunaken Oasis – luxury’. We were blown away with how good the room was, a luxury 70 sqm bungalow situated on the hillside with amazing views over the neighbouring islands and the ocean. The room came with air-conditioning, a luxury bathroom, coffee machine and a balcony with stunning views.
After checking in and enjoying our first lunch, we took the opportunity to use the hillside pool at the resort. The pool is an infinity pool offering views of the fantastic sunset over the local volcano, and was the perfect backdrop to begin our dive trip. Bar manager Gusty also came over to us, delivering ice-cold lemon tea to drink in the pool while watching the sunset.
Exploring the Depths: First Dives in Bunaken Marine Park
We woke up early the next morning to begin the dive day, and Chi checked medical forms and certifications. It was great to see an operator so safety conscious. For dive number one we decided to do a simulated deco dive as a checkout. We went to a local wall site, Lukuan 3, and did a dive to 40m using twinsets of air and a stage of 50 percent O2. We started the dive with bubble checks, then S-drills at 6m, before descending to our maximum depth of 40m. During the dive we were amazed by the beauty of the wall, being able to dive down a sheer vertical drop to 40m and still have no bottom in sight made us realise the opportunities for technical diving within the local area. As we ascended back up the wall, there were large fans and barrel sponges along the way.
After switching to 50 percent at 21m, we slowly ascended to 6m making simulated stops along the way, with Chi checking that we could maintain stops in line with the plan and were comfortable with stage handling and NOTOX gas switching. At 6m on the last deco stop, it was amazing to hang out on the top of the reef with a rich mix of hard and soft corals, along with plenty of fish life.
For the afternoon dive, we headed to Mandolin, using air and a 50 percent mix – again, we had a max depth of 40m and 20 minutes of deco. During the dive, the local turtle population became apparent, as we saw 15 – completing deco dives while turtles were swimming up to you was magnificent. The increase in the local turtle population has been helped by the local conservation efforts of the dive resorts. Faisal, the resort manager, is currently working with local fishermen and island residents to educate and help with marine conservation efforts. The resort also now raises turtles from eggs and then releases them back into the ocean when they are large enough to fend comfortably for themselves.
The resort is the first in Indonesia to receive recognition from the Minister of Environment for Indonesia for employing over 90 percent of its staff from the island itself. From 86 staff there are only five people who are not from the island. In order to do this, the resort offers lots of training and internships for island residents and conducts training itself. Faisal regularly teaches English, hospitality and housekeeping in the village.
Diving the Mola's Wreck: A Sunken Treasure
For day two of diving, we had decided to dive a local wreck, the Mola’s Wreck. The wreck is a perfect tech-diving depth at 43m. We completed a 40-minute dive on the wreck before 25 minutes of deco. The wreck itself is encrusted with coral from years of being submerged in the Coral Triangle. The wreck itself is a Dutch freighter that was sunk at the end of World War Two in 1945, and it has a permanent mooring line connected to the bow, making the descent very easy. Upon arriving at the bow, the first thing you notice is that the wreck is sat very nicely in an upright position.
The wreck is home to lots of fish life, including batfish and sweetlips. We did a short survey of the length of the ship from bow to stern, and found the propeller fully intact at the stern. We then did a penetration into the main cargo hold – the hold offered amazing lighting conditions as the portholes allowed natural light to enter the hold. After 40 minutes, it was time to ascend. To ascend in nice blue water with batfish greeting you on the safety stop was extremely pleasant. We switched gas at 21m and then completed our deco stops, finishing at 6m with a 15-minute stop.
The Quest for the Indonesian Coelacanth
Over lunch with Chi and Spencer, we were able to talk more about tech diving in Bunaken and were amazed to hear the story of the Indonesian coelacanth. This is a fish that was thought to be extinct for 66 million years, however in 1997 Mark Erdmann found a specimen in a local Manado fish market. After only being able to get a few photographs, he returned in 1998 and found another in a local market again, but this time he was able to acquire the specimen. The fish was still alive and lived for six hours, allowing Mark to photograph its true colours and also record fin movements. After DNA testing in 1999, it was shown to be a new species, the Indonesian coelacanth. This fish is thought to live in the 100m range, and Chi and Spencer have an ambition to be the first divers in the area to photograph one in its local environment.
After talking to them further, their passion for tech diving was infectious. They were explaining the possibilities of the area, and the fact that the diving we were doing was real exploration. Many recreational divers come to Bunaken Marine Park each year, but only a handful of tech divers. Diving into the unknown with no idea of what you will find is true exploration – Oasis Explorers are living up their name!
Exploring Uncharted Depths: A Dive to Remember
On our final days diving, we decided to do a deeper dive to 60m. We dived down the wall of Likuan 2 and found ourselves on a slope at 57m. After the previous day’s conversations, knowing we may be the first people to have ever seen this slope was an amazing feeling.
In near-perfect conditions of 40-metre visibility in clear blue water, we continued to explore while looking out for the coelacanth, but soon we reached our max time at depth and began our ascent. For this dive we had been using a trimix blend to minimise narcosis, along with a 50 percent O2 and a 100 percent O2 for the final deco stops.
At 21m, we completed our first switch and the current began to pick up. Bunaken Marine Park is famous for its currents and it allowed us to drift gently along the wall soaking in the marine life, and we saw tuna in the blue along with blacktip reef sharks.
A Memorable Dive Experience at Bunaken Marine Park
We returned to the Oasis resort to reflect on the diving we had done. The opportunity to tech dive on wrecks, see world-class macro diving and explore places that have never been seen before will be a memory that lasts forever.
This article was originally published in Scuba Diver ANZ #52.