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  • Between Asia and Australia, stretched over 3,000 miles of tropical ocean are the 13,000 islands of Indonesia. The fractured, scattered landmasses are the result of immense volcanic activity, which continues even today; smoking volcanoes on the horizon are common sights when traveling through this fascinating area. A country of many different cultures, histories and climates, Indonesia is also a biological melting pot, its immense collections of plant and animal life the product of both isolationism, in some island groups, and cross-migrations of species from the Asian continent and the islands of Papua New Guinea and Australia.

    The marine environment is perhaps even more complex. In the center of where life in the ocean is thought to have first begun, its reefs, nutrient-rich bays and wild ocean pinnacles are filled with corals and other invertebrate life of every description, unusual, exotic fish—like leaf fish, pipefish and scorpionfish of more varieties than most of us ever thought existed—and large pelagics.

    We recently had the opportunity to explore what is considered Indonesia’s best diving area, in North Sulawesi. Located in the middle portion of the country’s sprawl of islands, Sulawesi is virtually due south of the Philippines, only a few hundred miles away; the center for diving there is the port city of Manado. From the area’s resorts, which include Kungkungan on Lembeh Strait, which has made “muck diving” famous (see the May 1999 issue of Skin Diver), there are many different dive sites that can be reached. We enjoyed a new opportunity, however, on a dive live-aboard, the Pelagian, which is now supplementing its normal Thailand itinerary by spending part of the year in Indonesia.

    Getting There
    Manado, Indonesia, the departure point for Pelagian’s voyages, is reached via Singapore Airlines, with a change of planes in Singapore to a Silk Air flight. Passengers are met at the airport for a van ride to Kungkungan Resort, where they board Pelagian.
    Departing the Kungkungan Resort, we sailed nearly 150 miles to the north, diving a series of island groups and remote pinnacles. We visited the dive sites around Bangka, Manado Tua, Biaro, Bunakan, Neneung, Para and Manghetang, and went into the Sangiche Islands further north. On some trips, Pelagian also will travel far to the northeast, reaching the remote islands of the Tuland group.

    Dive Log: We have moved during the night. Dawn is one of those that covers the entire sky. High, wispy clouds are painted in rose hues from horizon to horizon. We are surrounded by dark, hilly islands that rise from the slick, flat ocean. Directly behind us is a perfect volcanic cone with evenly proportioned sides, its craggy, concave top spilling a long plume of smoke; a brooding, dark mass in the gentle pink sky.

    The diving was varied, changing with each new dive site, but several distinct types were the most usual. Around the first groups of islands to the north of Sulawesi, those of Bunakan and Manado Tua, there were sheer walls that dropped from near the surface to a reported thousands of feet. Their faces were covered with soft corals, wire corals and gorgonian fans. There were a great number of tropicals and clouds of basslets and damsels, and on several dives, we saw Banded Sea Snakes that let us approach without concern.

    Dive Log: The sun is already blazing as we slip into the smooth water near a jumble of rocks that emerges from the dark surface along the island’s tip. As we descend, we see large, upthrust peaks that reach up from the distant bottom. They move and shimmer in the mild current; they are completely covered by masses of orange and yellow soft corals, sponges, sea squirts, gorgonians and colorful anemones. I have never seen a place so colorful and so full of crowded life. If this was a painting, no one would find it believable; if it was an aquarium, it would be considered overdone...

    The Political Situation in Indonesia
    With everything in the news recently about the political situation in Indonesia, readers may wonder about the reasonability and safety of planning a dive trip there. Fortunately, Indonesia’s troubled areas are few and are very localized; with 13,000 islands separated by ocean and spread out over an area the width of the United States, the vast majority of the country remains peaceful, with tourism uninterrupted.

    Sulawesi and its surrounding areas are the same quiet, friendly places they have always been, and they continue to be extremely popular with tourists from around the world.
    Off Bangka and Biaro, there were numerous pinnacles off points of the islands, current-swept areas of incredible life. Large schools of fish congregated, sometimes just a few feet offshore, in the shadows of dramatic spires of rock, some of them rising nearly 100 feet and more into the sky. In the food-filled water, invertebrate life, such as gorgonians and soft corals, was thick and plentiful.

    The recently rebuilt Pelagian (previously called Fantasea II) is a 115-foot-long motor yacht with an 8,000-mile ocean cruising range. Serving only 12 passengers, she is air-conditioned throughout and has six cabins ranging from standard to a master stateroom. All have private bathrooms, and three have a third bunk for groups or families with children. There are full video and stereo facilities, E-6 processing, a large dedicated photo room with 110AC charging facilities and two diving dinghies. Meals are both European and Thai specialties. For complete information on diving with Pelagian, contact Tropical Adventures, 111 Second Street North, Seattle, WA 98109; tel (800) 723-4530; fax (206) 441-5431; e-mail or visit the web at
    At Neneung, classic, open-ocean pinnacles rose straight up from deep water, miles from anywhere. Composed of what appeared to be pink granite, the structures were covered with vegetation at their tops and were the nesting areas for colonies of boobies. A magnificent White-bellied Sea Eagle had a nest atop one of the rocks; she soared away as we approached. Below the surface, there were turtles, schools of batfish and Oriental Sweetlips, and Napoleon Wrasse. Cup Corals covered the smooth, slabbed sides (this place would be spectacular at night) and off one of the spires, a pristine, hard-coral garden lay spread out for hundreds of yards.

    Dive Log: We are anchored inside the island’s curve, just off a dark sand beach. The sky is deep, purple-black; the Milky Way is so visible and bright you can see its depth, as though it is a cylinder of bright dust suspended in the sky. Under the surface, it’s nearly the same. The water is full of organisms and phosphorescence flashes everywhere. Huge masses of Silversides glow and sparkle as they shift in the dark water. Squids are spread out in every direction, feeding in the rich soup. Across the sand bottom, there are trails from shells, and I see many lionfish, there, there and there again.

    In the still bays where we spent the evenings, there were rich coral, grass and sand beds that began near the shore and extended out into deep water. They were very prolific breeding grounds for invertebrates and numerous bottom-dwelling fish, such as lionfish, pipefish— we found a pair of rare Leaf Pipefish on one dive—and many different puffers. They weren’t textbook dive sites; they just happened to be so full of life they were quietly spectacular.

    Dive Log: At the dive site called Volcano, the water is clear and blue, despite the bubbles that rise through it like in some gigantic Jacuzzi. A yellow coating covers everything, sulfur coming up from deep in the earth. Where there is sand, we push our hands in until the temperature nears discomfort; this is weird—underwater, feeling heat flowing up through the bottom. Off the front side, it is an eerie scene constructed of black slabs and walls decorated here and there with huge, black coral bushes, pale in the deep blue.

    Off Para and Manghetang Islands, there were seamounts that just reach the surface, rising up from the depths. Huge schools of fish swirled about in the constantly moving water; we saw barracuda, Horse-Eye Jacks, fusiliers and batfish in great numbers. Also near Manghetang, there was perhaps the most unusual seamount of all—a live volcano topped by basalt columns and sulfur-covered rock.

    In the days of voyage, we passed by many islands, seamounts and pinnacles scattered over a vast area. We stopped at only a few, the ones that had been dived in the previous weeks by Pelagian’s crew or recommended by other dive operators in the area. Undoubtedly, we missed as many great dives as we made, and there’s little question that more and more sites will be discovered as Pelagian continues her expeditions. This huge, complex region, formed of fire and so filled with life, has scarcely been touched by underwater exploration—so many exotic surprises certainly await, just beyond the curved horizon.