A Clark’s anemonfish in a red ball anemone at Bolung 1
Transferring by private boat from Coral Eye Resort on Bangka Island, with two dives along the way, was such a treat. This beautiful boutique dive resort in the Indonesian province of North Sulawesi, where we had stayed for the previous week, was newly partnered with Siladen Resort and Spa, the renowned luxury resort in the heart of Bunaken National Marine Park. Located in the middle of the Coral Triangle, both resorts are situated in one of the most diverse and prolific marine environments in the world. While Coral Eye had more than lived up to its reputation as a soft coral paradise, Siladen promised to provide the perfect complement, from the stunning walls for which Bunaken is renowned to the world-class muck diving of the main island of Sulawesi.
We had stayed at Siladen Resort several times in the past, and we were keen to meet again with all the friendly and familiar faces that help to make this the special place it is. Yok, our dive guide from Coral Eye, had accompanied us on the boat to guide us on our two dives at Bunaken. The boat transfer had taken around 90 minutes. We relaxed on the comfortable sundeck, taking in the stunning views of the jewel-like islands and volcano peaks in the distance. The seas became flat and glass-like as we neared our destination.
Idyllic Siladen Island, where the resort is located, is in the heart of Bunaken National Marine Park
A Bunaken Teaser
Our first dive on the way to Siladen Resort was at Bunaken Timor, to the east of Bunaken Island. The vertical sheer wall dropped down to 130 feet before sloping out. The current was running at a fair rate, but not too strong, carrying us along the beautiful seascape of soft and hard corals, huge sponges and sea fans. Schools of thousands of fish surrounded us. Very soon Yok caught our attention: A huge green turtle was resting on a ledge in the reef. Lazily looking at us for a moment, it ignored us and went back to sleep.
Bunaken’s healthy reefs and diversity of marine life are due in most part to the upwellings from the depths—as much as 5,000 feet in some areas—as well as the changing currents, predominantly coming from the northeast but with counter currents and gyros linked to the lunar cycles, which bring free-swimming larvae to the area. The boat crews are very experienced in knowing the conditions and choose dive sites that are more protected or have easier currents, allowing divers to do gentle drift dives along the walls, the boats following to pick them up as they surface.
The second dive at Bunaken was at one of my favorite dive sites, Lekuan 1. With deep cobalt water setting off a stunning array of colors along the wall, we went with the gentle current, occasionally turning and finning lightly into the current to hold our position to take photos. One giant green turtle followed another, as I counted an incredible 36 turtles on our hourlong dive! Most were resting in cutaways in the reef, but others were free swimming, looking for a suitable cubbyhole to get comfortable in. The top of the reef is stunning, and we spent an extended safety stop exploring the edge of the wall.
Too lazy to move, this massive green turtle just blinked and then continued snoozing
A large tomato anemonefish in an anemone on the edge of the wall at Lekuan 1
Lap of Luxury
Arriving next to the jetty in the small village of Siladen, where the vast majority of resort staff come from, a golf buggy picked us up and drove us a few minutes through the village to the resort. Ana, the wonderful Guest Experience Manager, welcomed us, and we were shown to our luxury Beach View Villa, in a quiet area, central to the dive center, spa and swimming pool. The view from our private deck with plunge jacuzzi pool, onto a private area of beach and the sea beyond, was stunning. A large hammock, chaise longues and double covered loungers promised afternoons of relaxation after a morning’s diving. The inside of the villa, its living and bedroom areas separate, was beautifully decorated and furnished, our bathroom open to the sky.
Siladen Resort has five different grades of rooms, all beautifully designed and incredibly comfortable. We had previously stayed in a Garden View Villa, set amongst the landscaped grounds, and a Beach View Villa, with a private beach area and view of the ocean and the extinct Manado Dua volcano beyond. The resort now also has a Two Bedroom Beach View Villa, which was built during the pandemic, perfect for friends or family traveling together. Along with another Two Bedroom Garden Villa, the three luxury Beach View Villas complete the set of 23 rooms.
We had been told that lunch was being served, so we dropped off our bags and did the short walk along the beach to where tables and chairs had been set up in a beautiful location under the trees. Most lunch and evening meals were served here, unless it rained, when guests used the covered restaurant where breakfast was served. We chose from a delicious, varied and plentiful buffet, changed daily with themed evenings and special freshly cooked stations.
The beautifully appointed Beach View Villa
Siladen Resort’s expansive pool is the focal point for chilling out after a busy day’s diving
Vibrant Corals and Incredible Diversity
Waking up to a perfect day, the sun shining, blue skies and flat calm water, we met with our dive guide for the rest of our trip, Rando, a very experienced guide who we had dived with on previous trips. We were also delighted to see Leo, one of the dive center managers, who had been at Siladen Resort last time we were there. We discussed with Leo our needs for the next few days of diving and arranged the sites we would visit to have the best conditions and chances of encountering what we wanted to see.
Our first dive was a favorite wide-angle dive site called Mike’s Point, a promontory that sticks out from the main wall. There are normally currents that run along the wall, bringing nutrients to feed the reef. Because the reef sticks out, it seems to catch more nutrients, making the area full of life and color, with sea fans, hard and soft corals, and sponges. A vibrant bright purple anemone caught my eye as we descended—I had never seen one that color before!
Mike’s Point is a beautiful dive site with numerous vibrant sea fans
On top of the wall at Mike’s Point, an unusual anemone with bright purple tenticles
Our second dive was at Pangalisan. Leo had chosen this dive for us because of the position of the sun during the dive. The hard corals on top of the wall are incredibly prolific and stunning, with a fairyland of fish playing over them, and they are set off even more with a sunball effect. I spent over half the dive at around 15 to 30 feet, photographing one hard coral scene after another. Teamed with a large number of sponges, bright blue starfish and anemones with different types of anemonefish, the reefscape is incredible!
Feather stars on the top of the reef at Pangalisan
The stunning hard coral gardens on top of the wall at Pangalisan
Macro Magic in the Muck
After two days diving the walls, we decided to change our lenses and find some macro subjects. The main island of Sulawesi has many dive sites that rival the famous Lembeh Strait for muck diving. We headed further north than we had dived on previous trips to a village called Daruno, which has a river out to the side of it. Before we reached the village, we heard the excited shouts of “Lumba, Lumba”! A huge pod of bottlenose dolphins surrounded the boat and played in the bow wave for 15 minutes before continuing on their way.
The inflowing and outgoing of the river next to Daruno produces more nutrients and a wealth of critters on the sandy slope running down to the depths. As we zig-zagged our way down the slope to 70 feet, we found several individual small anemones with porcelain crabs, razorfish, a yellow spotted snake eel, head poking out from the sand, two fingered dragonets, a sea pegasus, pipefish, and a coconut octopus hiding under a small log, its eye following us around.
Heading back along the coast, our second dive at Bolung 1 was fantastic. There were two critters we had hoped to see again during this visit. The first was the very shy and elusive pugnose pipefish, only found in Galaxea coral, and the second was a bearded goby, which like to live amongst the branches of Seriatopora corals. Taking our time searching every little outcropping of corals, I found one bird’s nest coral where I saw a little pale fish darting about. Was this a bearded goby? It was so tiny, even when I managed to take a photo, I couldn’t see clearly through the viewfinder. Taking several shots, I saw a slightly bigger and darker colored one.
Rando called me over. He had found a small Galaxea coral. There, almost impossible to see, was a dark strand ending in a tiny white blob. A pugnose pipefish! How shy and difficult they are to photograph! Constantly weaving its way through the coral, the fish hardly stops moving. I managed to fire off a couple of shots and hoped for them to be in focus.
When I downloaded the photos later, there was no hairy goby, but it was an adult and juvenile five-lined goby that I had never seen before. And yes, the pugnose pipefish was in focus!
A yellow spotted snake eel peeking out from the sand at Daruno
Not a bearded goby, but a five-lined goby, found in the branches of a Seriatopora coral at Bolung 1
The ellusive pugnose pipefish, the size of a thread of cotton, weaving its way amongst a Galaxea coral at Bolung 1
Our last day of diving had us back over at the main island again for more macro for our morning’s two tank dives. Normally, schedules allow for two boat dives leaving at 8am in the morning, with optional afternoon, night or blackwater dives. We had decided, with an offgassing day the following day, to go for the blackwater dive as well as the morning dives.
Kalumpang was another sandy slope dive, interspersed with coral outcrops. The current was running pretty strongly as we kept as close to the bottom as possible, finding several groupings of whip corals with Anker’s whip coral shrimp, Zanzibar shrimp and whip gobies, crinoids with black and orange crinoid shrimp, dartfish, and a small crocodilefish almost completely hidden in the sand.
At Tanjung Bajo, we found several green and black Nembrotha nudibranchs and a bright blue flatworm as well as a Phyllidia nudibranch on the wall. The current carried us along the mini-wall to a pinnacle, which we circled, the current calming and changing direction. One of the other guides jangled his rattle and called Rando over. He had found a Lembeh seadragon, a rare member of the seahorse family. Hair thin with a long body and looking like a piece of algae waving in the current, it was almost impossible to photograph!
One of several Anker’s whip coral shrimp on whip corals bending in the current at Kalumpang
A Phyllidia nudibranch moving over the soft coral on the wall at Tanjung Bajo
At 6pm we met the dive center manager so he could give us a presentation on blackwater diving. In this relatively new type of diving, boats take divers out at night, in hundreds of feet of water depth, to follow a line lit with lights down to a depth of around 100 feet. The lights attract the larval critters that come up from the depths at night to feed. Largely transparent, they are often not even recognizable as the animals they become as juveniles and adults. After the thorough briefing, and being the only two for the dive, we were each given an individual dive guide. Rando was to be my guide, and my dive buddy Mateusz had Frenki, who had just qualified as an instructor and was also an excellent spotter.
Arriving at the blackwater spot, a large yellow buoy lit brightly, with a line attached, was thrown into the water. Lights were placed at roughly every 30 feet down the line. We back-rolled in and followed the line down to around 65 feet. Rando and Frenki went either side of the light beams out to the lights’ furthest reaches and started looking for larval critters. We followed them, scanning around with our own lights. This blackwater dive is really a drift dive, with the boat following, but because we and the critters were moving at the same speed as the line, there is no sensation of movement. It feels like you are hanging, suspended in space, just focusing on your torch beam.
Very soon, weird and crazy looking things started to appear! My light caught several diamond squid, small jellyfish and a chain of salps. A tiny juvenile amberjack was drawn to my light, feeding in the beam. Many other alien-looking larval critters that I could not identify caught my light, and I tried to photograph them as best I could. It is actually a very relaxing and easy dive, and you just get completely mesmerized by the critters appearing in your light beam. Such a surreal, but addictive experience, it’s something I would encourage anyone to try—at least once!
A chain of salps floating past during a blackwater dive
Several diamond squid were spotted during blackwater dives
Our last full day off-gassing, we took one of Siladen Resort’s many offered tours, this time to the Minahasa Highlands on the main island, with their own tour guide, Herry. Exploring the beautiful inland area of the islands, with lakes, rice paddies and volcanoes, it was a perfect last day.
As we left on the transfer boat for the main island the following morning for our flight back home, the pod of bottlenose dolphins crossed over in front of the resort and accompanied our boat back some of the way, leaping next to the boat, as if to wave goodbye and wish us a speedy return. Without a doubt, we will be doing just that!
Hard plating coral is very commonly seen on the reef tops in Bunaken Marine Park
Cayman-based Lisa Collins has been diving for three decades and has taught underwater photography for half that time. To see more of her work, visit her website, www.capturecayman.com.
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