The wall off Bunaken Marine Park is a magical place that should be on every (free)diver’s bucket list
I arrived at the small airport in Manado and had that immediate feeling that I was getting deeper into Indonesia and away from the tourist crowds of my Bali life. It brought a smile to my face and made my heart feel excited for a new ocean adventure.
The Siladen Resort staff picked me up, and after a short car ride, I found myself on a boat cruising across North Sulawesi waters for the very first time. It was the right hour to witness from the rooftop of the speed boat the incredible golden lights and reflections of this latitude’s sunset, on my way to Siladen Island.
Waiting for me at the reception was Ana, who, together with Miguel, manages the resort. We shared a multilingual salutation, first starting in English, then Spanish, then a bit of Portuguese. This just felt like the warmest welcome I could have had. It was already nighttime, and before dinner, we sat for a briefing at one of the comfortable bar tables. Miguel asked me what I was looking to achieve on the trip, and Leo and Lea, responsible for all diving operations told me that this was the first time Siladen had received a freediving photographer like myself. We agreed to start everything trying to answer a simple question…
I fell in love with the resort the moment I stepped ashore
What Makes a Great Freediving Photo/Video Location?
Before I tell you my story of exploring Bunaken on a single breath, let me give you my six main highlights of this area:
- Incredible walls with unlimited depth just a few yards offshore—freedivers love this
- Healthy currents bringing life to the reef: Choosing the right time, you can get perfect conditions to freedive with great viz and no current
- Pristine coral reefs and abundant life
- Wild dolphins—a lot of them always around
- Turtle paradise—if you love these cuties, I don’t know a better place on Earth to find them
I had some images in my head that I wanted to capture, in a more magical way if possible, which could reflect the dramatic proportions and beauty of the drop-offs with a freediver as my main subject. Lea is a very skilled diving instructor and a certified freediver, so we decided that she would be our protagonist. She would also be our guide through the different diving sites.
The next morning, with the early light filtering through the abundant trees around the resort, I turned the light on over my desk in the camera room and did the final check of my camera rig to ensure everything was ready: batteries charged, trigger firing and flashes synchronized. After the green light of my Nauticam housing came on, confirming that there was no air inside the case, I left the air-conditioned room and found Lea standing there asking me if I was ready to go.
Discovering the Magic of Bunaken
We cruised first to Jalan Masuk on the mainland. I jumped from the boat and had my first look underwater. Below me was a beautiful circle formed by cubes, a fascinating geometric scenario full of creative opportunities to shoot and with a maximum depth of 40 feet. The structure is an artificial reef project for conservation purposes, and it makes a perfect creative playground for freedivers to explore. I knew this was going to be fun, and only then did my adventure begin.
The freediver playground at Jalan Masuk
Jalan Masuk was an excellent starting point, but I was impatient to finally swim at the famous Bunaken walls—our next point on the agenda. Around Cha Cha and Bunaken Timur, we had the company of a big pod of bottlenose dolphins. Soon I realized that dolphins are natural visitors to these islands and though it is difficult to see them in the water (we tried and, of course, failed), they will certainly come and play with the boats while looking at you with intelligent eyes. Over the following days, we had the same good fortune to see spinner dolphins as well.
I knew there was water that went deeper than 3,300 feet just underneath our boat. Colorful shallow reefs near shore led to incredible vertical walls, home for many species of marine life. This made for a unique freediving experience. One of the most popular wild animals in the area are the turtles: These gentle reptiles were everywhere! I remembered my first time in Balicasag Island, Philippines when I was told it was a turtle paradise. Then I visited the Gili Islands near Lombok, a self-described turtle home, and I even freedived in Akumal, Mexico, where the turtles are the main attraction. But I must admit Bunaken managed to surprise me. This is the ultimate turtle haven!
Dolphins were our constant companions as we traveled between dive sites
Turtles, turtles, everywhere: Bunaken is surely the ultimate turtle haven
The Hardest Decision I Had to Make
At this point, and with a limited number of days, the time came to choose as to how to split my time between still photography and video. Deciding what to shoot is always a challenge, as the lighting rig and camera settings are different. To make the decision even more complicated, I challenge myself to shoot a mixture of seascapes and close-ups of reef life, all while also trying to find my “magical freediving moments“ that capture my dive model in perfect harmony with the environment.
Based on my original plan, I thought I would not have enough days to shoot everything I wanted, especially in regards to quality video footage. A sudden storm one night seemed to make my task even more difficult as the heavy rain changed the visibility of the water. We were out of the rainy season, but as an outdoor photographer, I know we always deal with weather conditions and need to adapt our schedules. It wasn’t a surprise to see Siladen’s team reassessing our diving schedule day by day in an effort to ensure that they were taking me to the sites with the best conditions, making the most of those overcast days where I got incredible images. The team’s knowledge of local sites and conditions made a huge difference. Then, fortunately, the good weather returned.
The seascapes in this area give photographers plenty of opportunities to indulge their creative side
While freediving, one can really explore a location over many hours
Freediving in Paradise
I remember one of the days where we were filming a scene at Tanjung Parigi, and Lea spotted a juvenile whitetip reef shark hidden in a cave. I dove down with the camera to have a look, turned on my video lights, and waited until the shy young shark started approaching me. I couldn’t stop thinking that the IUCN has assessed the whitetip reef shark as “Near Threatened.” The whitetip’s numbers are dwindling due to increasing levels of unregulated fishing activity across its range, so I felt lucky I was to be able to see them free and protected inside this marine park.
Freedivers spend less time underwater overall, but we can spend the whole day exploring the multiple cracks in the walls in places like at Mike’s Point. We can hold our breath during cinematic swim-throughs, or play for hours doing no-fin fun dives in spectacular white sand places like Bolung.
Even by just jumping in with your fins and mask at Siladen Jetty, you will be surprised how clear the water gets and how many healthy corals you can see in this seriously deep drop-off right off the shore. I imagine myself coming back to try some deep training dives here—if the current allows.
When faced with such an awesome natural sight, it is easy to feel small
Make sure to bring plenty of light if you want to bring out the colors in the deep blue
The Siladen Resort Experience
Staying at Siladen Resort is genuinely delightful. You are on a small island that is a real tropical paradise, and every single corner of this facility is looked after impeccably. The staff will greet you by your name, which will surprise you and steal a silly smile from your face every day. The rooms are big and comfortable, and you will always find pleasant surprises like a little bit of chocolate with a note wishing you a good night. The outdoor dining experience by the beach with delicious food choices, or the circular pool with incredible sunsets over the volcano, will help you relax after a long day in the water.
One of the essential things for all of us photographers is a good camera room. Siladen Resort has one of the best camera dedicated areas I’ve seen. The big main air-conditioned room has several desks for your setup with lots of space and every type of tool you could need. I especially appreciated the dedicated light on your table that makes setting up your rig very efficient. The outside rinsing area will ensure that your camera will always be entirely washed with fresh water, and just in case you are a methodical person, an air gun will allow you to thoroughly clean and maintain every part of your housing.
Most people’s vision of paradise looks something like this
My wonderful home for a week!
Who doesn’t want drinks on the beach after a day of diving?
Siladen’s fantastic bar and dining area
In conclusion, I go back to my question: What makes a great freediving photo/video location? Well, just imagine yourself exploring warm water, endless coral gardens, and shallow reefs. Then you take a deeper breath and free-fall down immense walls, feeling the pressure of the water build while cruising a world of depth and life. That is the magic of Siladen. The only challenge is to somehow capture all this with your camera.
Bunaken is a genuine paradise with high levels of biodiversity packed into 300 square miles of wild and beautiful Indonesia. For me, Siladen has added one more reason why I am totally in love with this country. Terima kasih!
It’s hard not to feel relaxed in a place like this
Every day at Siladen, you are just minutes away from scenes like this
Planning Your Trip to Siladen
How to Get There: There are direct flights from Singapore to Manado International Airport four times per week with SilkAir, the regional carrier of Singapore Airlines. There are also several daily non-stop flights from Jakarta and a daily direct flight from Bali. Guests are welcomed at Manado Airport by Siladen’s staff and escorted to the resort via a 90-minute boat transfer.
When to Go: Located a few degrees above the equator, Siladen enjoys constant temperatures all year round. The air temperature is usually around 86°F (30°C) and the water temperature is about 82°F (28°C). The dry season lasts from April to November, while occasional rains characterize the remaining period.
Languages: The following languages are spoken at the resort: Indonesian, English, Italian, Spanish, German, French, Portuguese, and Japanese.
Information: For more details about the resort, Bunaken National Marine Park, and the surrounding dive sites, visit www.siladen.com.
This is a vision of how I remember my time in this magical place