Bunaken is one of Indonesia's most famous diving and snorkeling areas and it draws visitors from all over the world. In addition to banana-shaped Bunaken Island itself, the 890 km2 of marine national park includes the neighboring islands of Manado Tua (a distinctive cone-shaped extinct volcano), Siladen, Montehagen, Nain, and Nain Kecil.
Some 20,000 local inhabitants make their living from the waters in the Bunaken National Marine Park, and this has inevitably led to some conflicts. By and large though, the co-operation between national and local government authorities, conservation groups, business owners and local communities has been very successful here. This has led many to cite Bunaken as a model example of how Indonesia should be preserving its natural marine treasures.
Bunaken was formally established as a national marine park in 1991.
The park is famed for the clarity of its water (35m visibility is common in the summer dry season), the abundance of coral and fish, and for the precipitous "walls" at some sites. Bunaken Timur, right off the east coast of the island and featuring all of the above, is rated by many as the single best dive site in all Indonesia.
In places the water is extremely deep here - 1,500 metres plus.
Flora and fauna
Bunaken has a quite stunning biodiversity including:
No less than 70 different genera of coral
five species of sea turtle
an extraodinary range of fish - 70% of all fish species that exist in the Indo-Western Pacific Ocean are found here
white tip and black tip reef-sharks are common
wonderful resident dugongs
barracuda and tuna make regular appearences from more pelagic waters
occasionally saltwater crocodiles
Bunaken is barely a degree above the equator and thus tropical. The wet season, from November to mid-April, brings frequent rains sometimes in storms lasting for several days which freshen the air nicely but also reduce marine visibility. The dry season is from May to October, when temperatures climb to a roasting 35° and visibility reaches a maximum.
Bunaken receives less rain than the north Sulawesi mainland and is well ventilated with sea breezes.
Bunaken is about 45 to 60 minutes by boat from Manado.
Most resorts will arrange transfers from the airport for their guests.
Alternatively, a public boat leaves daily except Sundays at 2-3PM from the canal on the north side of Manado market. The cost is Rp 25,000 one way for tourists and Rp 10,000 for locals. It returns to Manado from the jetty in Bunaken village around 8 to 8:30AM every morning except on Sundays.
You also can charter a private boat to bunaken in the Manado harbor (behind the Celebes Hotel.
As of September 2008, entry to the park costs Rp 50,000 per day or Rp 150,000 per calendar year. Children below 10 years are exempt.
Even though the fee is not automatically levied upon entrance to the park, it is the responsibility of all visitors to pay it and reputable dive shops & resorts will always charge this to their guests. As proof of payment, you will receive a waterproof plastic tag that must be carried at all times. Spot checks are not uncommon by the patrol boats.
The park is managed by a multi-stakeholder board comprising of government and non-government members to include representatives of the 30,000 people who live within the boundaries of the park. Though deemed by some as not being transparent and lacking in effectiveness, the management board together with the water police have, over the years, been able to stop cyanide fishing, dynamite fishing and more recently participated in the release of 700 napoleon wrasse that had been illegally caught in and around the park. Though not perfect and certainly having room for improvement, the management board does have an important role in the conservation of the area and this could not happen without the support of all visitors in adhering to the purchase of the entrance tag.
Pathways connect the various settlements around Bunaken. Many are effectively impassable after rain.
Ojeks are the motorised from of transport around the island but visitors are encouraged to walk.
Watch out if walking along the coastline, as the beach may disappear when the high tide rolls in.
Tourism on Bunaken has been very much geared towards serious divers over the years but the trend seems to be changing. More and more casual snorkelers are visiting the area as are those who wish to just relax immersed in nature. Possible activities for landlubbers include:
Beach-combing, especially at low tide when the reef top is accessible.
Hiking to some of the secluded coves on the eastern and northern part of the island. Trails are poorly marked.
Fishing, but only outside of the park boundaries. Hire a boat or join one of the local fishermen.
Dolphin & Whale watching, either on diveboat trips or by hiring a boat privately.
The thing to do in Bunaken is dive, dive and dive! However, the steep walls and occasionally strong, rapidly changing currents mean that many sites cater more to the intermediate/advanced diver. There are beginner-friendly sites too and all dive shops can arrange introduction dives and Open Water Dive courses.
The North Sulawesi Watersports Association offers oodles of detail on diving in the park.
All dive shops in the park are affiliated with resorts, so see Sleep below for listings.
Snorkeling is fantastic in front of many of the resorts around the island, with an incredible amount of marine life inhabiting the shallows. Remember not to snorkel without fins as the currents can sometimes be strong and change quickly even when they are not. Pick a reference point on the island and do not stray too far unless you are a very confident swimmer.
There are no unusual health risks in the park, aside from the standard set of easily avoided venomous marine critters. Stinging jellyfish are found only occasionally, primarily during the change of the seasons in spring and autumn.
Bunaken is considered to be a malaria-free zone. Nearby areas of North Sulawesi are malarial though (but not rampantly so).
Saltwater crocodiles may be encountered close to river mouths and mangroves, although no official populations survey has been done in quite some time, making it impossible to know whether or not they still exist in the area.