LENA KAVANDER and BYRON CONROY (photography) had always longed to pay a visit to Indonesia’s renowned Bunaken National Marine Park, but would it live up to their expectations?
In the heart of the Coral Triangle lies the Bunaken National Marine Park. Well-known for its clear turquoise waters, tropical climate, spectacular coral reefs and vast marine biodiversity, this place is something of a diver’s paradise. My partner Byron and I had wanted to experience diving in this marine park for a long time, and we were certainly not the only ones to have this destination on our bucket-list.
We arrived at Manado airport in North Sulawesi after more than a few hours travelling from Iceland, where we’re based. Our friendly local driver Michael from Siladen Resort & Spa greeted us with a smile. During the short drive to the jetty, we learnt that Michael had been with the resort for five years, and many of his colleagues for well over 10, thanks to what we were told was a great working environment.
We boarded one of Siladen’s comfortable, spacious wooden boats. Thirty minutes later we arrived at Palau Siladen, the smallest of the five islands situated within the marine park. The island is built of limestone and sits between the impressive Manado Tua volcano and picturesque North Sulawesi coast.
The location offers not only world-class diving but some staggering views from the island and the resort itself, especially during the evenings as the sun sets over the volcano.
Siladen Resort & Spa
Luxury with a home-away-from-home atmosphere, this exclusive yet relaxed boutique dive resort is located in a lush environment. It is built on flat land with rich vegetation providing plenty of shade, making it easy to move around without getting overheated. Guests can choose between Beach, Garden or Deluxe bungalows, all spacious and comfortable and serviced twice daily.
We were greeted and shown around the grounds by resort managers Ana and Miguel, and dive managers Romina and Galen. We had the sense that our stay here was going be a personal and inclusive experience – as if we were already part of the Siladen family.
The friendly team all make you feel at home, which is perhaps why Siladen has a high percentage of repeat guests. John and Tia, a lovely couple we met during our stay, travel from California to Siladen three times a year, spending a total of six months at the resort every year. That’s what you call a real home away from home!
Walls and muck
Surrounded by more than 40 easily accessible dive-sites, you would think that evolution had scuba divers in mind when creating this area. Bunaken’s islands provides great reef walls ideal for wide-angle photography. Siladen has four boats, all locally designed and purpose built for diving. Each boat has a shaded seating area, toilet, sun-deck and hot- and coldwater station.
Our first dive with private dive-guide Erin was at a site called Negri, next to the Manado Tua volcano. There was zero wind, no current, the water was blue and 29°C warm, and visibility exceeded 30m. In other words, perfect conditions. It’s not often that you can look up from 20m down and see white fluffy clouds in the sky above you.
The wall blew our minds with its variety of colourful sponges, gorgonians, soft and hard corals, anemones and tunicates. An enormous school of yellow pyramid butterflyfish were swimming below us. Towards the end of the dive we spotted two giant yellow frogfish sitting at the top of the reef at 5m – a great place for a safety stop.
As well as fantastic wall dives, this area offers some excellent muck diving. We visited Bolung and Tiwaho, two sites just off the North Sulawesi mainland. The macro life there was astonishing.
I could hardly count the number of juvenile frogfish spotted during a single dive there, along with pink and yellow leafy scorpionfish, Ambon scorpionfish, ornate ghost pipefish, bobtail squid, long-armed octopuses and much more. Our guide Erin, born and raised on Siladen, was adept at spotting the tiniest critters for us, even at night.
Resort guests have the option of doing up to four dives a day: two in the morning with a surface interval on the boat and snacks, fruits and hot or cold drinks between dives; an afternoon dive; and a night dive or specific mandarinfish dive. I highly recommend doing at least one night dive at one of the muck-diving sites to enjoy seeing an abundance of freaks and geeks in the dark – pure entertainment.
Divers will agree that doing up to four dives a day makes you feel hungry like nothing else, and the food at Siladen is worth a section of its own. Breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks are included for all guests with meals served buffet-style, and the selection of food exceeded our expectations. With an Italian and a local Indonesian chef running the kitchen, we had a wide selection of both Western and local dishes from which to choose.
The dinners have nightly themes over a 14-day period. Every other Saturday it’s pizza night, a favourite for many of the return guests (a perk of having an Italian chef). Other themes during our stay included BBQ, sushi & sashimi, pasta and local cuisine.
The selection of tropical fresh fruits with every meal was phenomenal. Mangosteen, passionfruit, mango, dragonfruit, kiwi and watermelon, just to mention a few. Food is served on the beach just metres from the sea – a really nice setting.
A few days and many dives into our stay, I was more than ready for a visit to the Siladen Spa. On arrival I got to smell samples of massage oils and chose the delightful mango and passionfruit oil. The local therapist, trained in Bali, delivered one of the best massages I have ever experienced.
The spa itself was beautiful and the air-conditioned treatment rooms were tastefully designed with peace and relaxation in mind.
The island of Palau Siladen has a population of just over 300 people. Seventy of these are employed by the resort, which takes great pride in working with the local community through educational, clean-up and recycling projects. For example, school-books and other educational materials are provided for the local kids, and every month a beach clean is organised.
All electricity on the island is provided by the resort’s four generators, which are connected to the local village every day. What a way to brighten up everyone’s evening!
It’s clear that the locals have a true passion about conserving their environment, although they were still happy to share it with us. Refreshingly, the dive-guides are not afraid to take action if divers are seen disrespecting the reef or marine animals.
Each year the resort provides free dive training from Open Water to Rescue Diver for a number of islanders. Some ambitious individuals have also taken Divemaster and Instructor courses and now work at the resort.
See you later
We experiences the best of what Bunaken National Marine Park has to offer, both from a wide-angle and macro perspective. In a relatively few days of diving, we saw everything from juvenile frogfish, ornate ghost pipefish and seahorses to reef sharks and probably close to 100 turtles.
Worth noting is that some dives might turn into drifts when the currents pick up. So it helps if you’re comfortable with drift diving, or have previous experience of diving in currents.
When leaving, we didn’t say goodbye, but “see you later”. A big thank-you to the whole team, especially to Ana and Miguel, who made us feel at home in their paradise. We will be back!