Not the smoothest journey to Bunaken
We’d heard great things about the snorkelling in Bunaken National Park and couldn’t wait to explore this remote Indonesian island which was significantly more ‘off-the-tourist-track’ than our previous destinations of Komodo and Bali. However after an emotional 24 hours in Manado (thanks to Lion Air losing my bag) North Sulawesi and I didn’t exactly set out on the right foot.
Our plan was to catch the public ferry to Bunaken from the main port in the city of Manado, which is by far the cheapest mode of transport to the island at 50k IDR per person.
We were guided to the ferry by a man from the ticket office, weaving through alleyways at the harbours market, the overbearing smell of fish filling the hot air. Reaching the waters edge, a group of locals were piling planks of wood and building materials onto a small boat. Our guide gestured for us to get on board. This did not resemble a public ferry at all. Where were all the passengers?
Tentatively, we made our way down to a dark lower deck. Sandwiched between heaps of fresh produce, bags of rice and bunches of bananas were around 20 local passengers plus a couple of tourists we’d coincidentally met in Komodo and at our previous hotel in Manado.
We were staying at Panorama Dive Resort situated on the West coast of Bunaken. After offloading from the ferry it soon dawned that there were no taxis or even cars on the island. So Nick convinced a local guy with a motorbike to take us for 20k IDR each, but we couldn’t both fit on his bike with our backpacks and had to go one by one.
Before our trip I made a few promises to my Mum and myself. One; don’t get on the back of a bike without a helmet. Two; don’t travel alone with strangers. There I was (merely 3 weeks in) and about to break two of them! Clinging onto the drivers shirt with sweaty palms, we raced along tropical paths, off-roading through the jungle. Genuinely I thought I was being kidnapped.
Snorkelling in Bunaken National Park
Bunaken National Park consists of five islands; Bunaken, Manado Tua, Mantehage, Nain and Siladen, offering us an underwater playground of sites to explore.
After settling into our Minahasa-style bungalow at Panorama (it felt good to be away from the dusty streets and dodgy hotels of Labuan Bajo!) we didn’t waste any time in jumping on the Panorama dive boat. Joining the group as snorkellers was an absolute steal at 50k IDR per person.
Snorkelling Siladen and Manado Tua
Snorkelling around Manado Tua and Siladen was excellent. Masses of redtoothed triggerfish shifted in colour as sun rays hit their indigo scales, while a variety of angels, puffers, black tip sharks and turtles touched down on the reef. Pastel-coloured soft corals in squishy purples and greens swayed in abundance off the shore of Siladen.
Snorkelling Liang Beach house reef
Panorama Dive Resort lies on a tropical hillside above Liang Beach. We’d heard about Bunaken’s struggle with rubbish washing up from nearby Manado, but thankfully it wasn’t too noticeable during our stay. This peaceful stretch offered us easy access snorkelling from the shore, a pretty drop-off and calm seas.
At the far end of Liang Beach it is possible to arrange private boat tours to see the dolphins and for snorkelling in Bunaken. This area is mainly set up for day-trippers from Manado, although we’d rarely seen anyone around except a few locals cooking up gorengen and selling coconuts and trinkets.
We enjoyed heading over here in the evenings to watch the sunset, but were often badgered by a fisherman who was desperate to take us out on his boat. We eventually gave in to his advances and agreed to let him take us to three nearby snorkel spots – Lekuan 1, 2 and 3.
Snorkelling Bunaken Island: Lekuan 1, 2 and 3
The Lekuan area is a steep and dramatic coral wall reaching down over 200 metres, and as we dropped into the clear blue water below we were stunned. Gorgonians and big sponges decorated the wall while a huge range of colorful fish darted in and out of its overhangs and caves. We saw some bigger stuff too such as trevally, jacks, reef sharks and even barracuda. This was probably the best snorkelling in Bunaken so far!
Snorkelling Pangalisang Beach
After a few blissful days, it was time to see the East side of the island. We were headed to Daniels Homestay on Pangalisang Beach. The homestay is a little more rustic, but arguably closer to some of the best snorkelling in Bunaken so we were happy with the compromise.
It’s possible to snorkel all the way along Pangalisang Beach, but accessing the reef can be quite challenging at low tide so it is important to plan your snorkel accordingly. It’s not worth risking injury or damage to the reef (full length rash guards are recommended – read our snorkel packing list).
We discovered a good entry/exit point between the mangroves from both Bunaken Sea Garden Resort or Lorensos, marked by a small flag. It’s kind of creepy (but fun) snorkelling through a mangrove forest dodging tree trunks!
Marine life in Bunaken National Park
If you like turtles then you will love Bunaken. On almost every snorkel we spotted several. Seeing so many little dudes chomping away and popping their heads out of the water was awesome! Other marine life we saw regularly included: dolphins, schooling parrotfish, nudibranches, mantis shrimp, many species of cuttle fish, giant clam, blue-fin trevally, schooling batfish, scorpionfish, razorfish, catfish, long-nose filefish, schooling jacks, trumpetfish, sweetlips, snappers, different species of boxfish, pufferfish and clownfish.
Exploring Bunaken Village
We decided to upsticks from Daniels and found a super cheap B&B in the heart of the village. Arto Moro is run by a Dutch guy and his Indonesian wife. After a distinct lack of food at Daniels, our mouths watered at Arto Moro’s delicious home-cooked Indonesian cuisine. It was hard to beat a cold Bintang and a Beef Rendang on the beach.
Almost every person we met in Bunaken village smiled and greeted us with a friendly ‘Hello Mister’. This was so infectious my face hurt from grinning all the time! I decided to nickname Bunaken ‘the island of smiles’.
Renting a scooter in Bunaken
We were on the hunt for a bike, and had been told that there was a local man in the village called ‘Opo’ who could rent us one for 50k IDR per day. We located Opo’s house along a quaint road with colourful picket fences.
Introducing us to his fleet (all of three bikes) Opo’s well used motors had seen better days. This raised my concerns for safety, since this was the first time riding a bike in South East Asia. I looked on in horror as Nick took each for a test drive to see which bike had ‘the least spongy breaks’… Of course nobody wears helmets on Bunaken ‘you don’t need, no cars here’ Opo advised.
Exploring Bunaken by scooter
There are only a few roads on the island, most come to a dead end or turn into a dirt track through the jungle. But having our own mode of transport gave us the ability to explore and sample more great snorkelling in Bunaken.
Despite my nerves, I discovered something magical about travelling around on two wheels. It gave me an immediate feel for everyday life in Bunaken. Children ran alongside us, local neighbours greeted us as we passed their homes, while chickens, dogs, pigs and even the occasional tortoise ran riot in the road.
It’s hard not to notice that Bunaken’s communities are segregated between Muslims and Christians, with the latter taking precedence (Sulawesi is predominately Christian). The huge pink Disney-esque church in the main village with its underwater inspired stained-glass stands proudly on the shores. Bunaken is certainly an intriguing little island.
What makes Bunaken so special
We spent two weeks in Bunaken, which was a perfect amount of time to snorkel, explore and relax on the island. The snorkelling conditions were hard to fault, with excellent visibility and only the occasional current, which for us was nothing compared to the likes of Komodo. Although the snorkelling was not as exciting as Komodo, being able to access excellent sites directly from the shore without the need of a guide or a boat was cost-effective and easy.
The island itself has a certain rustic charm. The flora and fauna is beautiful, and its people are some of nicest we’ve met in all our travels. There is a range of accommodation available to suit most tastes and budgets. It is definitely an affordable snorkelling and diving destination in Indonesia.
Bunaken is easy to reach from the neighbouring city of Manado in mainland North Sulawesi, which has regular flights to and from Singapore, Jartaka, Bali and other airports in Indonesia. If you are interested in visiting the island and need more advice, please check out our Bunaken Travel Guide for further information.
We hope you enjoyed this post about snorkelling in Bunaken! Please subscribe for more like this and follow our journey: Next on the itinerary was our biggest snorkelling adventure yet in Raja Ampat.