Turtle hanging out at Bunaken

This article originally appeared in scuba diving website and magazine Duiken (“diving” in Dutch). This piece focuses on diving at Bunaken, Manado and the Bunaken Marine Park. Original text: Judith Rietveld, photos: Daniel Versteeg.

Both Manado and Lembeh are part of Sulawesi, the fourth largest island in Indonesia. It is a relatively undiscovered destination compared to the popular islands of Bali and Sumatra. Lembeh is the island on the east side of Sulawesi, in the far north. Sulawesi is characterized by a chain of volcanoes that extends from the north to the south, several of which are active in the north.

Finding the Tarsier…

The fertile flanks of these volcanoes are therefore richly covered with tropical rainforest. So I’m quite surprised when we are on our way to Tangkoko National Park. You can find the rare tarsiers here. “We are almost there,” says Randi, who also accompanied us on all our country tours.

I eagerly await flickering signs that read “tarsiers this way” on it. But nowhere I do see a sign that indicates we’re almost there. We take a small bumpy road at a village, and after 100 meters we stand in front of a weathered barrier, the “entrance” of the park.

Entrance is a bit of a stretch. It’s no more than a small wooden booth with a large Indonesian man in it, sitting behind a table. We have to write our names down in a battered book, after which we meet our guide for this day.

Low expectations with a surprising outcome

My expectations for this visit are not very high, to be honest. We also made a trip to the Filipino Ghost in the Philippines, but that was one big circus. There they sat in a small area enclosed between gates. You had to stand in line to see them. We quickly left the place.

Hikers in the jungle finding the Tarsier

But this is different. Completely different. We walk into the jungle on a path overgrown with roots. Everywhere I hear insects chirping with their persistent, long serenades.

Exotic bird sounds and the laughter of mocking birds echo from the treetops, and in the distance I hear the ocean. Already I’m thinking this is more than a successful trip! Since the tarsiers are nocturnal, we’re walking at dusk. After half an hour we take a small path, deeper into the jungle.

Meeting the Tarsier

As we climb over fallen trees, the damp evening air embraces us. In the distance I see three people standing, looking up at something in the tree. “We’re here,” says our not too talkative guide – by the way, this is the first time he has said something!

A Tarsier in a tree looking around
He’s awake! The tarsier looking around curiously.

He points to a large tree, a ficus. There is a tarsier! It presses its relatively large hands against the tree, reminding me of those slime hands that you throw against the window and that stick to it. He looks around with his big round eyes. He’s awake! He is no bigger than my fist. Daniel immediately takes some photos, and soon shows me his images. “Look, there’s another one hidden behind it!” Damn it, he’s right. When I look closely, I see two eyes sparkle in the dark.

There must be around six living inside this tree. It is already becoming a more crowded around the tree: two more people have arrived. We wait until dark and see how the tarsier starts to hunt, but we decide to leave the animal alone. Accompanied by the evening singing from the jungle, we walk back to the car. There is no shop to buy a tarsier keychain or an I Love Tarsier t-shirt, but that doesn’t matter. So little tourism is really awesome.

Diving at Manado, adopt a guest

After our excursion we continue to our main destination: Thalassa Dive Resort Manado. Daniel and I each get a bungalow with a magnificent view of a small green valley with the sea behind it. Owner Simone Gerritsen remarks that some people complain about not seeing the sea, but to be honest, I think all that green is much nicer.

Nudibranch in North Sulawesi
Beautiful diving with Duiken at Manado

Adopt a guest is the motto of the Thalassa dive guides, so our Randi also joins us for the dives around Manado. It is really nice to have the same dive guide for these two weeks: he knows exactly how we dive and what we would like to see.

At the dive resort you will only find local guides who speak English. It is very difficult to get a work permit as a foreigner and I think that is actually a good thing: the people who live here have a fair chance of working in the tourist industry. And besides, they know very well where to look if you have a request.

The eyes of a Wonderpuss
Duiken at Manado – Wonderpus

Duiken at Bunaken

Randi proves this even more during our dive at Lekuan 2 at the Bunaken National Park. Bunaken Island forms the heart of the island group that together form the national park. This area has been protected since 1982 and therefore there is a lot of life to be found on healthy reefs. There are more than 55 dive sites, most of which are drop-offs – and only a 20-minute boat ride from Manado!

We now drift along one of the walls that are completely overgrown. The view is great and everywhere I see corals and lots of fish. It seems like a busy city. Eyes light up from the holes in the wall. The big eyes betray that it concerns red soldier fish. We are approaching a curtain of fish, the funny thing is that it consists of three layers. The lower one being butterfly fish, the middle sergeant major damselfish and the upper layer consists of doctor fish.

It seems a bit like you’re swimming from theme to theme like they do at amusement parks. Although I’m enjoying myself immensely, Daniel is still not completely happy: he wants to photograph another turtle. He gestures this to Randi, who says he is following him. Not gonna lie, Randi finds a sleeping turtle within a minute.

A turtle life

The reef wall is also ideal for sleeping animals, since there are large cracks and crevices everywhere. Very carefully, Daniel approaches a green turtle, an enormous one that’s dozing peacefully. When Daniel comes closer, the animal looks sheepishly at the camera, at Daniel and then at me. It seems to be shrugging before closing its eyes again.

Randi takes Daniel’s request seriously, because he finds five more turtles in no time. When you start paying attention, you’ll see a lot more! The reef wall is actually a large “bunk bed” for all turtles, from large to small. When Randi puts his thumb in his mouth and points to the wall, I see a very cute little green turtle taking its afternoon nap.

Pool area at Thalassa Manado
Pure bliss! The pool is enormous and the sea view is just lovely.

Slow down, will ya?

“Slow down and don’t forget to enjoy it for just one minute!”

Simone tells me that we shouldn’t just work – as we are busy vlogging, writing stories and processing photos. How can I refuse her? I close my laptop and take a refreshing dip in the huge swimming pool. With a view of the sea, we’re indulging in this moment: our bartender Jimmy brings us two mojitos. Simone was – of course – right, we really have to enjoy this beautiful place.

In the evening we have dinner with other guests at a large table, it is striking how many divers are regular guests. Some have been coming here for 11 years! I don’t blame them, because the diversity in diving is great and the resort is of course, beautiful.

PADI Course Director Simone Gerritsen - © Duiken
Managing owner Simone Gerritsen in her element.

Exploring Molas Shipwreck

Speaking of diversity, the Molas wreck lies close to the resort. It’s a Dutch freighter that sank towards the end of the Second World War. At that time, the remaining Dutch people of the resistance desperately tried to maintain their rule over the colonies, while the Japanese had taken over the territories. Although it sunk during the war, there is evidence that it was not sunk by enemy fire. We have to find out for ourselves what the cause was, says Randi. After only a few minutes by boat we go into the water already.

The Molas Shipwreck near Manado - © Duiken
Molas Shipwreck’s wheelhouse allows for great photos.

The visibility is pretty milky and it’s a bit like diving in my own country. I can see barely 4 meters away. You descend further along the line and there she is: the ship is nicely upright on the sandy bottom.

Visibility is now much better, although there is still quite some sediment swirling in the water. The deepest point, the propellor, is at 41 meters. An anchor chain has been rolled out over the seabed, the anchor itself is missing. The bow starts at 22 meters so we don’t have to go very deep to explore the wreck.

On the port side there is a huge dent in the hull, metal pieces stick in all directions. It seems that the ship has been rammed considerably. Would this have been the cause of its demise? Still lost in thought, we follow the deck towards the wheelhouse. A huge sponge has taken possession of a thick tube, it looks like an old tree with knots. The wheelhouse offers a beautiful opportunity for a photo.

Piecing it together

Three bat fish with black stripes roam nearby, and they are huge! We swim on to the davits, which look eerie in the light of my lamp. These cranes that hoist the lifeboats down into the water are deployed on the starboard side, but not on the port side.

This might mean that they were used on one side to get the crew off the boat safely. And again my brain starts to tick. It is striking that the ship is beautifully overgrown, also inside: large gorgons have taken over. We are now at 27 meters. Given the depth, we have to turn around again and start the ascent.

The truth about the Molas Shipwreck

I swim through the wheelhouse again and greet the trio of batfish. We are slowly rising again, and I am now very curious about the story of this ship! I listen intensely to Randi when he finally tells the mystery about the Molas wreck.

“According to the insurance, it had hit a reef – but that is impossible. As you saw, there is no reef at all! The closest is 200 meters away. The ship’s owner had had enough of the war. He wanted to go home to his family. You can sell your ship, but that is not easy in times of war. What do you do then?”

“Simple: find a friend to ram your ship, get everyone off safely and claim it with the insurance company. When a ship is rammed during wartime, you get nothing, but in an accident you do. And in 1945 no one would really come over from England to check whether the ship had actually hit a reef…. So it’s nothing more than an insurance scam!”

The caldera of Mahawu volcano - © Duiken
The stench of rotten eggs penetrate my nostrils. But man, what a view!

Volcanoes and waterfalls

Time flies when you’re having fun… During the last few days we visit the beautiful volcano Mahawu where suplhur fumes reach our noses from its crater. Before we go to the airport, we dream away for a moment at a 40-meter high waterfall in the middle of the jungle. We take a refreshing dip in the water and then we have to say goodbye to Randi, who took such good care of us.

We get on the plane with our hair still wet. What a wonderful combination: diving on spectacular coral reefs at Manado and muck diving in Lembeh. And Thalassa Dive Resorts can turn a dream vacation into a reality. In November we organize the Duiken Reader’s trip to Manado and Lembeh, and we have the resorts all to ourselves. Are you joining us?

Cottages at Thalassa Manado - © Duiken

Thanks for visiting Manado, Duiken

Thank you Judith & Daniel of Duiken, your articles are awesome. If you haven’t read it yet, their experience at Lembeh is definitely worth reading as well.

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Picture of Arjen Bokhoven

Arjen Bokhoven

I'm a PADI Advanced Open Water diver, I do guest relations and resort management at Thalassa Dive Resorts Indonesia. Whether I'm diving the walls of Bunaken to spot schools of fish & turtles, or explore the sandy flats of Lembeh with its fascinating underwater creatures- I love all of it.

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