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Dive into Siladen Island: A Mecca for Underwater Photographers

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Scuba diver near coral
Scuba diver near coral
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Byron Conroy discovers what could well bethe ultimate dive destination for underwater photographers when he visits Siladen Island in North Sulawesi, Indonesia.

Photographs by Byron Conroy

The Three Types of Underwater Photography

Ghost Pipefish
Ghost Pipefish

I have been an underwater photographer for a number of years now, looking at the pages of magazines dreaming of new destinations and new things to photograph. I am a fan of all types of underwater photography, which can largely be split into three types – macro, wide angle, and wreck. Of course, there are many variations on these and you could make the list as long as you desired, but the basic categories will always be the same.

Finding the Right Destination for Diverse Photography Opportunities

Bobtail squid
Bobtail squid

Most destinations offer one of these in an amazing way, but not usually the opportunity to do all types. Take all of your big animal destinations, for example – there’s really no need to be taking macro lenses or even to a certain extent, fisheye lenses, most shots will all be taken on a rectilinear lens without much variation all week. The same goes for some other destination – sometimes you find yourself in a macro destination, which I adore, however the photography is all one focus with no real opportunity for wide-angle shooting. Whenever I go to a new destination, I always do some research before I go to ensure I bring the right lens for the task in hand to get the very best shots possible, and also to make sure I don’t travel with any unnecessary equipment.

Easy Access and Warm Welcome at Siladen Island

Anemonefish
Anemonefish

So when I was looking into going to Siladen Island resort in the heart of the Bunaken Marine Park, I decided to find out what lens I would need. When I started to do my research, I was surprised to see such a wide variety of images coming from one place.

Amazing reef shots, taken on the walls of the Bunaken Marine Park, muck-diving-style macro shots of all the famous Indonesian subjects you would encounter at places like Lembeh, and even some shots of a shipwreck. For a photographer like me always looking for new opportunities – and the chance to shoot as many different things as possible – it seemed I couldn’t miss a stop to Siladen Island.

Luxurious Accommodation and Dive-Focused Atmosphere

Aerial view of the island
Aerial view of the island

Getting to the island is very easy. The airport of Manado in Sulawesi is the meeting place, easily accessible from Bali, Singapore and many other major hubs in the area. We were met at the airport by the dive team and local dive manager Teddy with a warm welcome and some helpful assistance with all of our equipment onto the boat ready for the 30-minute journey over to the resort.

When we arrived to the main island we were greeted with cocktails prepared for us by the bar staff and our equipment was all effortlessly winged off to our room. It was coming to early evening when we arrived so, after a short introduction and welcome from the resort manager couple Anna and

Miguel, we retired to our room to freshen up before dinner.

All accommodation at Siladen is luxury, being private villas either located with garden views or on the beach. All villas are very luxurious and made in traditional Indonesian-style wooden materials but with Western-level luxury – four-poster beds, air-conditioning and luxury bathroom for all guests.

Did you know?

The conditions in Bunaken are great for photographers wanting to experience wall, muck and night diving; each with their own unique photographic opportunities. Dive sites are mainly colourful coral walls or white and black sand slopes.

Passionate Dive Resort Owners and Dive Center Manager

We met Anna and Miguel for dinner, which is a buffet style served on the beach, and joining us for dinner were also long-time guests John and Tia from America and dive centre manager Romina. While Siladen is a luxury resort where non-divers would feel very much in paradise, the theme is definitely all about the diving – conversation over dinner was all about the types of diving we would be doing and the things we would see.

Anna and Miguel are passionate divers and despite running a very busy dive resort still take every opportunity they can to be out diving with the guests and sharing their passion for underwater photography and videography. Both are accomplished shooters and have a lot of experience, which they are only too happy to discuss with the guests. A plan was made for the following days diving with Romina, the dive centre manager and keen photographer, and lens choices were made. It was great to be able to geek out on underwater photography talk with people as equally passionate about the subject.

A Culinary Delight in a Remote Paradise

Huge barrel of sponge on the wall
Huge barrel of sponge on the wall

Food was an incredible buffet of local Indonesian and Asian dishes along with some Western gourmet meals – for a tiny island in the middle of a National Park, the variety and quality of the food was quite remarkable. We knew we would not go hungry throughout the week.

Equipped for Underwater Photography: Siladen’s Camera Room

We left our dive equipment outside the room that night, where we knew it would be collected and taken to the dive centre for the next morning.

Breakfast is served on private tables with a huge selection of everything you could want on offer. I welcomed the private table for breakfast, as sometimes it’s nice to have the wake-up time to yourself, and also everyone has breakfast at different times depending if they are diving or not. Anna and Miguel were walking around the tables welcoming all guests on an individual basis, and also in a variety of different languages.

Having a big underwater camera system such as mine can be a little annoying to travel with, preparation can be tricky as you need a large space to store everything, wash it, dry it, charge batteries and prepare the camera. This usually gets quite frustrating in many destinations where you are doing it in your room or cabin of a liveaboard. Siladen, though, have an amazing air-conditioned camera room where you can leave everything. Each person has an individual desk to keep all their equipment on, with shelves and storage areas along with multiple charging points and international plugs. This meant I could leave everything there and remain in luxury when back in the room.

Amazing Dives and Wide-Angle Photography Opportunities

The awesome Vis
The awesome Vis

Our first dive was to be on a wall called Negri, usually wall dives are done in the mooring when the light conditions are optimal and so deeper dives can be done in the morning. We had incredible wide-angle conditions, 30-metre plus visibility and mirror-like sea surface. Already as soon as I dropped down onto the wall, I knew the photo chances would be amazing. We had lots of schools of small fish such as blue-throat triggerfish, sea fans, hard and soft corals and large sponges as we got deeper on the wall.

Erin our guide was very good and clearly used to working with photographers, happy and willing to be a model when needed and also knowing when to stay out of the shot. He also gave us the freedom to explore while helping and pointing out possible subjects along the way. He also really understood the difference between wide angle and macro, only showing things that were appropriate for the lens. At the end of the dive, Erin found two giant yellow frogfish that we were able to shoot with a Snell’s window background due to the clarity of the water and smoothness of the surface. After the first dive we had a surface interval on the boat where water, tea, coffee, fruit and biscuits were all provided for us.

Exploring the Underwater Wonders of Siladen Island

Two yellow fish
Two yellow fish

The second dive was another wall, we had great conditions and a small current meant we just drifted along through the site. At the end we were on a shallow reef where the current had dissipated and we were able to shoot a few over/under shots, our guide was lovely and gave us all the time on the surface that we could need to continue shooting.

For lunch we headed back to the main island, a wonderful buffet lunch and the opportunity again to geek out on more diving and photography chat and make a plan for the diving in the afternoon. We decided to try some muck diving for macro subjects in the afternoon dive and have a nice shallow long dive.

Muck Diving: A Macro Photographer’s Dream

Macro life abounds
Macro life abounds

The dive choice was Bolung on the mainland of Manado. Muck diving is always interesting and surprising, the bottom composition was largely brown sand and small coral outcrops with a maximum depth of around 12m. Whenever you dive a new muck site it can be a little underwhelming until things start to happen, our eagle-eyed guide Erin didn’t take long to get things going, finding a juvenile painted frogfish that was around 1cm in height.

Did you know?

Wall diving often involves diving in the open ocean without visual depth markers below, such as the ocean floor. Good depth awareness and buoyancy control are needed to wall dive safely.

A great macro guide usually finds you a subject and lets you photograph it, in the meantime they are looking for the next subject so, as soon as you have finished, it’s on to the next one. Erin our guide was clearly experienced in this and always had a few subjects up his sleeve ready to go as soon as we had finished shooting. By the end of a 76-minute dive, we had managed to get shots of many frogfish, leaf scorpionfish, common seahorse, pygmy pipefish, sexy shrimps, ornate ghost pipefish and a plethora of different nudibranchs.

After returning to the resort I always upload my photos as soon as I can – it was day one and I found myself having a huge range of different photos all in the bag after just one day of diving. Over/under shots of coral reefs and jetties, wide-angle shots sea fans and barrel sponges, hard coral reefs and an incredible selection of macro subjects.

Abundance of Marine Life and Experienced Dive Guides

Frogfish
Frogfish

Over the next few days we followed the same pattern, wide-angle morning followed by macro diving in the afternoon and also the night time. Our guide Erin never faltered and was incredible throughout the trip. It was also nice to get the same guide for the duration, as you get to know each other and realise the way everyone dives.

Supporting the Local Community: Siladen Island’s Impact

Over dinner each evening we had the opportunity to talk to Anna and Miguel about the resort, being on a local island it’s important that the resort does everything it can to support the local population. The resort has 120 staff, only five of which are non-Indonesian, and 70 of which live on the island itself. The resort itself has become vital to supporting the local community and as a result is very special to the locals. You can see this in the way they work, they are happy to be there and love to meet and interact with the guests.

Fond Farewells and Lasting Memories

On our final dinner we were able to reflect back on the photos and I was able to share some of them with Anna, Miguel and long-term guests John and Tia. It was lovely to be able to show them some of the shots we had got thanks to the amazing guides and service they provided for photographers.

Siladen Island: Where Diving Takes Center Stage

1
Area view of the beach with bungalows

John and Tia have been returning to Siladen Island for several months annually year after year because of the diversity Siladen Island offers – world-class diving along with incredible service and a warm and welcoming atmosphere where diving is the heart of the operation.


This article was originally published in Scuba Diver UK #70.

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