Byron Conroy had always longed to pay a visit to the renowned Bunaken National Marine Park, but would it live up to his expectations?
In the heart of the Coral Triangle lies the Bunaken National Marine Park. Well known for its clear turquoise water, warm tropical climate, pristine coral reefs and vast marine biodiversity, this place is nothing short of a diver’s paradise. I had wanted to experience diving in this marine park for a long time, and I was certainly not the only one to have this destination on my bucket list.
I arrived at Manado airport in North Sulawesi after quite a few hours traveling from Iceland, where I am based. Our friendly local driver Michael from Siladen Resort and Spa greeted me with a smile. During the short drive to the jetty, I found out that Michael had been with the resort for five years, and many of his colleagues for well over ten years, thanks to the great working environment.
Next I boarded one of Siladen’s comfortable, spacious wooden boats. Just30 minutes later I arrived at Palau Siladen, the smallest of the five islands situated within the Bunaken National Marine Park. This small island is built up by limestone and sits right between the impressive Manado Tua volcano and the picturesque North Sulawesi coast. This unique location offers not only world-class diving but also some staggering views from the island and the resort itself, in particular during the evenings as the sun sets over the volcano.
Luxury with a home away from home atmosphere,Siladen Resort and Spa is an exclusive yet relaxed boutique dive resort in a lush environment surrounded by numero us fantastic dive sites. It’s built on flat land with rich vegetation providing lots of shade,making it convenient and easy to move around the resort without getting overheated by direct sunshine. Guests have the option of Deluxe bungalows featuring a private outdoor bathtub and secluded beach area, Beach bungalows or Garden bungalows, all which are spacious with high comfort and are serviced twice daily.
Upon our arrival, I was greeted and shown around the grounds by resort managers Ana and Miguel, and dive managers Romina and Galen. I already got the sense that my stay here was going be a very personal and inclusive experience. It was like I was already part of the Siladen family, despite it being my first day. This welcoming and embracing atmosphere is what really makes Siladen stand out. The whole team is incredibly friendly and makes you feel at home. It goes without saying that Siladen has a high percentage of repeat guests, many who comeback several times a year. John and Tia, a lovely couple I got the pleasure to meet during our stay, travel from California to Siladen three times a year, spending a total of six month search year at the resort. That’s what you call a real‘home away from home’!
Wonderful Walls And Magical Muck
Surrounded by over 40 world-class dive sites, you would think that evolution had divers in mind when creating this area. The islands of Bunaken provides great reef walls ideal for wide-angle photography. All dive sites are easily accessible from Siladen by one of the resort’s four private boats, all locally designed and purpose built for diving. Each boat has a shaded seating area, toilet, sun deck and hot- and cold-water station.
I did the first dive with my private dive guide Erin at a site called Negri, next to the Manado Tua volcano. I was lucky, there was literally zero wind, no current, the water was blue and 84 degrees F warm, and visibility exceeded 30 metres. In other words, perfect conditions.
It is not often you can look up from 18m depth and see white fluffy clouds in the sky above you. The wall itself blew my mind with the variety of colorful sponges, gorgonian fans, soft and hard corals, anemones and tunicates. An enormous school of yellow pyramid butter fly fish were swimming below me.
Towards the end of the dive I spotted two giant yellow frogfish sitting at the top of the reef at 6m – a great place for a safety stop.
In addition to the fantastic wall dives, this area offers some excellent muck diving full of fascinating macro life. I visited Bolung and Tiwaho, two dive sites just off the North Sulawesi mainland coast. The macro life here is astonishing and all a macro lover or macro photographer can ask for.
I could hardly count the number of juvenile frogfish spotted during a single dive here, along with pink and yellow leafy scorpion fish, Ambon scorpion fish, ornate ghost pipe fish, bobtail squid, long-armed octopus and much more. Our guide Erin was born and raised on Siladen island and amazing at spotting the tiniest critters for me, even at night time.
Guests at the resort have the option of doing up to four dives a day. Two morning dives with a surface interval on the boat and snacks, fruits and hot or cold drinks provided between the dives, an afternoon dive, and a night dive or mandarin fish dive. I highly recommend doing at least one night dive at one of the muck sites – you will see an abundance of freaks and geeks in the dark. Great subjects for macro photos, or just for the pure entertainment of watching the nocturnal critters come out to play.
Food On The Beach
I think all divers can agree that doing up to four dives a day makes you feel hungry like nothing else, and the food at Siladen is worth a section of its own. Breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks are included for all guests staying at the resort. Meals are served buffet-style, with a selection of food exceeding our expectations. With an Italian and a local Indonesian chef running the kitchen, you will have a selection of both Western and local dishes to choose from.
The dinners have different themes each night over a 14-day period. Every other Saturday, it’s pizza night, a favourite for many of the return guests (the perks of having an Italian chef). Other themes during our stay was BBQ night, sushi and sashimi, pasta night and local cuisine. The selection of tropical fresh fruits with every meal was phenomenal. Mangos teen, passion fruit, mango, dragon fruit, kiwi and watermelon, just to mention a few. Food is served on the beach just feet from the sea, a really nice setting.
Another Dimension Of Relaxation
A few days and many dives into our stay, I was more than ready for a visit to the Siladen Spa. As I arrived at the spa, I got to smell samples of massage oils and chose the delightful mango and passion fruit oil. The local therapist trained in Bali delivered one of the best massages I have ever experienced. The spa itself was beautiful and the air-conditioned treatment rooms were tastefully designed with peace and relaxation in mind.
The Joy Of Giving
The island of Palau Siladen has a population of just over 300 people, of which 70 are employed by the resort. The resort takes great pride in working together with the local community through educational, clean up and recycling projects. For example, school books and educational material are provided for the local kids, and every month a beach clean-up is organized
All electricity on the island is provided by the Siladen resort’s four generators, which each day is connected to the local village. What a way to bright up everyone’s evening!
It is clear that the locals have a true passion about conserving their unique environment, although they were still happy to share it with us. Refreshingly, the dive guides are not afraid of taking action if divers are seen being disrespectful to the reef or the marine animals.
The resort is, each year, providing free dive training from Open Water to Rescue Diver for a number of people from the island. Some ambitious and motivated individuals have been provided with Divemaster and Instructor courses as well and are now working at the resort.
We Don’t Say Goodbye, But See You Later
During my stay at Siladen, I had the pleasure of experiencing the very best of what Bunaken National Marine Park had to offer, both from a wide angle and macro perspective. I would highly recommend this destination for any diver thanks to the fantastic biodiversity. In just a few days of diving, we saw everything from juvenile frog fish, ornate ghost pipe fish and seahorse, to reef sharks and probably close to 100 turtles. Worth noting is that some dives might turn into drift dives as the currents can pick up. Therefore, it helps if you are comfortable with drift diving, or have some previous experience in diving with currents.
I came to Siladen for diving, but actually got so much more. I made several new friends thanks to the genuine and friendly atmosphere. The food and the spa treatments added another dimension to the whole experience. When leaving Siladen, I didn’t say ‘goodbye’, but ‘see you later’. A big thank you to the whole team, and a special thanks to Ana and Miguel, who made me feel at home in their paradise. I will be back.
I highly recommend doing at least one night dive at one of the muck sites – you will see an abundance of freaks and geeks in the dark
Surrounded by over 40 world-class dive sites, you would think that evolution had divers in mind when creating this area
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Bunaken Marine Park, North Sulawesi
There are direct flights from Singapore to Manado International airport four times per week (Mon, Wed, Fri, Sat) with Silk Air, the regional carrier of Singapore Airlines. There are also several daily non-stop flights from Jakarta and a daily direct flight from Bali. A member of staff from Siladen meets guests at the airport and provides a private transfer to the resort.
When to go
Located a few degrees above the equator, the area enjoys constant temperatures all year round. The dry season lasts from April to November, while occasional rains characterize the remaining period.
Indonesia’s currency is the Rupiah, but resorts accept payment by credit card.
Visitors from North America can get a 30-day travel visa on arrival, you just need to have a valid passport with at least six month remaining, and a return air ticket.
Now we’re cooking! - When you aren’t diving, you need something to occupy yourself – so why not sign up for a cooking class at Siladen and learn how to prepare a variety of famous Indonesian and traditional Minahasan dishes. You’ll even take home a fantastic collection of recipes to wow your friends with!.
Did you know? - Bunaken Marine Park was established back in 1991, and was among the first of Indonesia’s ever-growing system of marine parks. It is claimed that this park has more than 70 percent of all the known fish species of the western Indo-Pacific.
Photographs by Byron Conroy