Bunaken is one of Indonesia's most famous diving and snorkeling areas and it draws visitors from all over the world. In addition to banana-shaped Bunaken Island itself, the 890 km2 of marine national park includes the neighboring islands of Manado Tua (a distinctive cone-shaped extinct volcano), Siladen, Mantehage, Nain, and Nain Kecil.
Some 20,000 local inhabitants make their living from the waters in the Bunaken National Marine Park, and this has inevitably led to some conflicts. By and large though, the co-operation between national and local government authorities, conservation groups, business owners and local communities has been very successful here. This has led many to cite Bunaken as a model example of how Indonesia should be preserving its natural marine treasures.
Bunaken was formally established as a national marine park in 1991.
The park is famed for the clarity of its water (35m visibility is common in the summer dry season), the abundance of coral and fish, and for the precipitous "walls" at some sites. Bunaken Timur, right off the east coast of the island and featuring all of the above, is rated by many as the single best dive site in all Indonesia.
In places the water is extremely deep - 1,500 m plus.
Flora and fauna
Bunaken has a quite stunning biodiversity including:
- No less than 70 different genera of coral
- five species of sea turtle
- an extraordinary range of fish - 70% of all fish species that exist in the Indo-Western Pacific Ocean are found here
- white tip and black tip reef-sharks are common
- wonderful resident dugongs
- barracuda and tuna make regular appearances from more pelagic waters
- occasionally saltwater crocodiles
Bunaken is barely a degree above the equator and thus tropical. The wet season, from November to mid-April, brings frequent rains sometimes in storms lasting for several days which freshen the air nicely but also reduce marine visibility. The dry season is from May to October, when temperatures climb to a roasting 35° and visibility reaches a maximum.
Bunaken receives less rain than the north Sulawesi mainland and is well ventilated with sea breezes.
Bunaken is about 45 to 60 minutes by boat from Manado. Most resorts can arrange transfers from the airport for their guests.
Alternatively, a public boat leaves daily except Sundays at 2-3PM from the canal on the north side of Manado market. The departure times are depending on the tide. The cost are Rp 50,000 one way for tourists and Rp 15,000 for locals. It returns to Manado from the jetty in Bunaken village around 8-8:30AM every morning except on Sundays You also can charter a private boat to Bunaken in the Manado harbor (behind the Celebes Hotel). Price is around 400.000 Idr (2013).
As of September 2008, entry to the park costs Rp 50,000 per day or Rp 150,000 per calendar year. Children below 10 years are exempt.
Even though the fee is not automatically levied upon entrance to the park, it is the responsibility of all visitors to pay it and reputable dive shops & resorts will always charge this to their guests. As proof of payment, you will receive a waterproof plastic tag that must be carried at all times. Spot checks are not uncommon by the patrol boats.
The park is managed by a multi-stakeholder board comprising of government and non-government members to include representatives of the 30,000 people who live within the boundaries of the park. Though deemed by some as not being transparent and lacking in effectiveness, the management board together with the water police have, over the years, been able to stop cyanide fishing, dynamite fishing and more recently participated in the release of 700 napoleon wrasse that had been illegally caught in and around the park. Though not perfect and certainly having room for improvement, the management board does have an important role in the conservation of the area and this could not happen without the support of all visitors in adhering to the purchase of the entrance tag.
Pathways connect the various settlements around Bunaken. Many are effectively impassable after rain.
Ojeks are the motorised form of transport around the island, but visitors are encouraged to walk.
Watch out if walking along the coastline, as the beach may disappear when the high tide rolls in.
Tourism on Bunaken has been very much geared towards serious divers over the years but the trend seems to be changing. More and more casual snorkelers are visiting the area as are those who wish to just relax immersed in nature. Possible activities for landlubbers include:
- Beachcombing, especially at low tide when the reef top is accessible.
- Hiking to some of the secluded coves on the eastern and northern part of the island. Trails are poorly marked.
- Fishing, but only outside of the park boundaries. Hire a boat or join one of the local fishermen.
- Dolphin & Whale watching, either on diveboat trips or by hiring a boat privately.
The thing to do in Bunaken is dive, dive and dive. However, the steep walls and occasionally strong, rapidly changing currents mean that many sites cater more to the intermediate/advanced diver. There are beginner-friendly sites too and all dive shops can arrange introduction dives and Open Water Dive courses.
The North Sulawesi Watersports Association  offers oodles of detail on diving in the park.
All dive shops in the park are affiliated with resorts, so see Sleep below for listings.
Snorkelling is fantastic in front of many of the resorts around the island, with an incredible amount of marine life inhabiting the shallows. Remember not to snorkel without fins as the currents can sometimes be strong and change quickly even when they are not. Pick a reference point on the island and do not stray too far unless you are a very confident swimmer.
The Visitors Centre on Liang Beach sells handicrafts, t-shirts and general souvenirs.
Fish, fish and fish, usually at your dive resort.
There is no natural potable water on Bunaken. Insist on bottled water at all times and ensure that coffee and tea is also made with bottled water.
The local spirit Cap Tikus (literally rat brand) is a distilled palm wine and is actually quite nice on the rocks with a slice of lemon.
Bintang is the number 1 beer in Indonesia and is available cold at many of the resorts.
Most visitors choose to sleep at their dive resort, almost all of which offer full board package offers. Accommodation on Pulau Bunaken is generally expensive for Indonesian standards as the majority of people coming here are on a short holiday trip. There are no budget options for backpackers.
Those resorts on the south and west sides of Bunaken Island are on a strip of coarse yellow sand beach whilst the frontage of those on the east side is a mixture of mangroves and small beaches.
- Bunaken Beach Resort, Pangalisang Beach, ☎ , e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Dive resort, scuba diving and snorkelling. Has its own private beach and a beautiful sea view with mountainous mainland in the background.
- Bunaken Cha Cha Nature Resort (eastern side of Bunaken), ☎ . 10 cottages all with en-suite bathrooms (hot water showers), large balconies, all superior cottages are equipped with A/C. Private white sand beach, "House Reef" with floating pontoon for snorkellers, massage treatments available. Restaurant above the beach, Wi-Fi throughout the resort, PADI dive centre. Skype: bunakenchacha. Packages from US$70 per person/per night ; accommodation & dive packages from US$150 per person/per night..
- Bunaken Divers Seabreeze Resort, Bunaken white sands beach (a short boatride away from Manado), ☎ . lat=.
- Bunaken Island Resort (email@example.com), Liang Beach (North Sulawesi), ☎ . 2 villas (150 m²) and 6 bungalows (60 m²), all in the Indonesian Minahasa style and tastefully furnished. Balinese-style en-suite bathrooms with a hot shower tub and an open-roof shower, Wi-Fi throughout, A/C, grand balconies with large hammocks are standard. Tours can be arranged. Villas & bungalows from €55-79 per person/night including daily 3 meals, coffee, tea and drinking water.
- Bunaken Kuskus Resort, Pangalisang Beach (10 min walking from Bunaken Village), ☎ . Check-in: 12 noon, check-out: 1PM or any desired time. Rp 150,000-250,000 per person/night.
- Bunaken SeaGarden Resort (Dive Resort), Bunaken National Park (east coast of Bunaken Island along Pangalisang Beach), ☎ -, toll-free: -, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Small and cozy dive resort with 7 spacious cottages built in a traditional Indonesian style. For 20 euro per person you already have a nice cottage inclusive good meals, coffee, tea and drinking water. Right in front you will find one of the best dive and snorkel spots of the island. Non divers are also welcome. -.
- Bunaken Village Resort (Pangalisang beach on the east coast of Bunaken). 8 cottages, restaurant, dive shop, beach bar, and swimming pool around a small landscaped garden. Rooms €35-40, 2 boat dives €45.
- MC Bunaken Cottage (at the edge of Bunaken village, facing to Siladen Island), ☎ +62 813 26335199, +62 852 55984558, e-mail: email@example.com. Bungalow with beach view and delicious food. 200,000 Rp per person.
- Cakalang Bunaken Resort and Diving (Cakalang), Pangalisan Beach (A ten minutes walk from the main village), ☎ , e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. A Small resort, only two rooms and two bungalows. Simple and clean. All buildings designed in a modern Minahasa style. Open since April 2012. The resort has its own diving school and is on the beach sheltered by the mangroves and the jungle. Price includes all meals. Free Wi-Fi, water coffee and tea. €20 per person/night full board min 2 pers..
- Cicak Senang Resort (Happy Gecko), Liang Beach, ☎ , e-mail: email@example.com. Five comfortable wooden bungalows on a hillside with spacious bathroom and sea views. Beachside restaurant and bar. Good snorkelling right in front of the resort. Dive center on the premises. Daily dive trips, PADI courses, snorkelling tours and dolphin watching tours. Families with children welcome. €22 per person/night fullboard.
- Froggies Divers, Liang Beach, Bunaken, Manado, ☎ +62 812 4301356, +62 812 4301464, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. A PADI dive resort in the middle of the Bunaken National Marine Park; 12 cozy wooden bungalows with veranda, all facing the sea, ventilator, western type bathrooms with hot & cold water showers, free wifi, free laundry service, Indonesian specialty food, return transfer to airport. 3 new wooden dive-boats; max 2-4 divers per guide. Belgian GM and a PADI instructor who speaks Dutch, English, French, German and basic bahasa Indonesian. Friendly atmosphere and personal service.
- Living Colours, ☎ . Diver-oriented resort run by the shop of the same name. The bungalows are spacious and clean. Rooms €35/person including three meals.
- Lorenso's Bungalows (5 min down the coast from Living Colours). Basic bungalows for Rp 125,000-250,000/person.
- Panorama Resort. The food is good, but you have to buy your own drinking water. Tea and coffee are only available at mealtimes and if you ask for it. Very friendly staff, large amounts of very nice food and patient and friendly German Dive instructor. Heince Pontoh as a divemaster shows you all the little stuff! From Rp 135,000. Rooms for Rp 150,000 have a view on the sea but are quite basic.
- Raja Laut Dive Resort, Pangalisan Beach (email@example.com), ☎ . Check-in: 11AM, check-out: 9AM. Small cosy eco dive lodge with a family atmosphere on the east side of Bunaken Is. Good views, no mangroves on the seafront and direct access to the beach and reef. Accommodation in 60 m² wooden Minahasa style bungalows. King size beds, mosquito nets, big terraces, hammocks, ceiling fans, hot water, guest towels. Diving is in small groups with one dive guide for every 2-3 divers. All dive equipment is included and in new condition, comfortable 15 m diving boat. PADI dive centre with courses of every level. Roberto is an Italian marine biologist and underwater photographer and will help to classify species and giving tips for better shots and special attention for macro photographers. Dive packages with 2-3 dives daily. Restaurant on the beach with fresh fish and an Italian influence. Water, coffee, tea, seasonal fruit included and available all day long. Dolphins, fishing, whale watching and snorkelling trips can be organised. Rooms €25-45 (Full Board), single dive €30.
- Two Fish Divers, ☎ . Small PADI Gold Palm IDC Resort based on Bunaken Island. Cottages are basic but comfortable, and are right in front of the mangroves. The food is reliable, if monotonous. Offers fun dives for experienced and inexperienced divers, with small groups of 2-4 divers per dive guide. Also offers a full range of PADI dive courses from Open Water Course through to Instructor. Rooms from €15/person..
- Daniel's homestay (Bunaken Village). The accommodation at Daniel's Homestay is basic but spacious bungalows fringed by mangroves, and backed by fantastic coral for snorkelling. Attached to Immanuel Divers. It is run by locals, and is good value. Three meals a day, and unlimited tea coffee and drinking water included. Rp 150,000.
On Siladen Island
- Onong Resort, Siladen Island, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. A boutique dive resort operated by Celebes Divers. 7 individual cottages, all with A/C and 24/7 electrical power. Indonesian and Italian cuisine, full service dive shop and a serious marine biology research centre.
- Siladen Resort & Spa, Siladen Island, ☎ . Check-in: 2PM, check-out: 10AM. Boutique resort aimed both non-diving visitors and keen divers. The resort offers 5 individual beach view and 10 garden view villas, a traditional spa, a large salt water pool, dining and in-house PADI diving centre offering a full range of courses.
There are no unusual health risks in the park, aside from the standard set of easily avoided venomous marine critters. Stinging jellyfish are found only occasionally, primarily during the change of the seasons in spring and autumn.
Bunaken is considered to be a malaria-free zone. Nearby areas of North Sulawesi are malarial though (but not rampantly so).
Saltwater crocodiles may be encountered close to river mouths and mangroves, although no official populations survey has been done in quite some time, making it impossible to know whether or not they still exist in the area.
- Back to Manado which is well connected to all major cities in Indonesia.