The pristine islands are scattered across the Celebes Sea in North Sulawesi, and the northernmost archipelagoes share the seas with Mindanao – in the Philippines, Sitting just above the equator, this is a tropical destination ruled by the monsoon. Besides, this is an outlying part of Indonesia and the travellers should be aware that proper planning is essential.
Surrounded by lush tropical peaks, Manado Bay serves as the gateway to North Sulawesi, particularly for those diving at the volcanic islands of Bunaken, Lembeh and Bangka, but also the outlying Sangihe Archipelago.
The Bunaken Islands offer the most attractive diving locations, including the islands of Bunaken, Manado Tua, Mantehage, Nain and Siladen
Further north, Bangka Island attracts with surreal beaches, pristine nature and world-class diving sites. Lembeh Island is renowned for muck diving and underwater macro photography. All of these three destinations will not be cheap, that is for sure, but there is a wonderful alternative for the budget travellers and adventurers who don`t mind getting out of their comfort zone, the isolated Sangihe–Talaud Archipelago.
WHY IS BUNAKEN MARINE NATIONAL PARK SO EXCEPTIONAL
Bunaken Island National Marine Park exhibits the highest level of biodiversity in the world, with outstanding fish variety and world-class wall diving.
The crystal-clear warm sea contains an astonishingly high number of different species, whether corals, sponges or fish. When scuba diving in Bunaken you can see seven times more genera of coral than in Hawaii, 33 species of butterfly fish and more than 70 per cent of all fish species known to live in Indonesian waters.
Ocean currents sweeping into Bunaken bring a steady stream of nutrients, providing sustenance for the area`s abundant marine life, including huge schools of black triggerfish, barracuda, moray eels and sea snakes. Napoleon wrasse, angelfish, sea turtles, blue ribbon eels, stingrays, eagle rays, snappers, groupers and sharks can also be seen.
Tourism is well-developed on the Bunaken Islands, with accommodation ranging from backpacker cottages to 5-star resorts, plenty of restaurants, massage & spa options, tour operators and open water dive courses.
Generally, Bunaken is considered as a fairly expensive travel destination filled with upscale dive and holiday resorts, and even the simplest accommodation is quite costly.
TO GET THERE: take a public ferry to Bunaken village from the river behind the warungs at Pasar Bersehati in Manado, or a private boat from behind the Celebes Hotel in Manado. NOTE transport from Manado is usually arranged by your resort in advance.
No roads, no stress and no worries; perhaps these are the reasons why the Bangka Island gained such popularity. There are excellent snorkelling and scuba diving sites suitable for both beginners and experienced divers. Reef inhabitants include white and black tip reef sharks, giant sea turtles, Napoleon fish, pygmy seahorses, dugongs, dolphins, and even occasional whales.
On land instead, Bangka’s fauna includes wild Timor deer, Tarsius and Maleo and there are several lovely jungle trails. Besides, the Bangka Island is renowned for its divine beaches and secluded bays and a perfect place to unwind.
TO GET THERE: Bangka is about 90 minutes Manado, using a combination of car and boat. It is not easy to get there independently, but it is not impossible. A public orange boat leaves daily from Likupang Beach (mainland) to Lihunu (Bangka) where you have to hire a small canoe to take you to your hotel. NOTE most resorts will arrange transfers from the airport for their guests.
Lembeh Island stretches along the other coast of the northern tip of Sulawesi, facing the Maluku Islands. The island is separated from Sulawesi by the Lembeh Strait known for its colourful marine life, especially sea slugs.
Muck diving is a very particular type of diving – if you are a fan of the tiny sea creatures and have a sense of detail, this is a spot for you. Underwater macro photography here is at its best; the Lion Fish, Giant Frog Fish, Hairy Frog Fish, Mimic Octopus, Blue Ringed Octopus, Banded Sea Snake, Banded Eel, Mandarin Fish, Orangutan Crabs, Manta Shrimps and others.
Lembeh is easily accessible from Bitung, and there is a good tourist infrastructure with lots of dive resorts and diving expedition operators.
TO GET THERE: any diving resort will normally arrange your transfer to Lembeh. However, you can travel independently from Manado to Bitung Port (2 hours) and then 10 minutes via a boat until you reach Lembeh.
SANGIHE ARCHIPELAGO (SANGIR ISLANDS)
Sangihe Archipelago, also known as the ‘Sangir Islands’, is a remote group of islands situated in the north-east Sulawesi. Not far from the Philippines, the islands`setting within the Coral Triangle and within the Ring of Fire indicates that this is a volcanic territory stuffed with spectacular seascapes and underwater images.
The Sangihe tectonic plate, along which the archipelago is stretching, is very active, yet the shaky islands don`t prevent the scuba divers from visiting.
Whereas the islands of Bunaken, Bangka and Lembeh are almost exclusively focused on diving and snorkelling the Sangihe Archipelago offers way more than that, however, this is a path less trodden, and it requires good planning, lots of time and adventurous spirit to travel around.
4 SANGIHE ISLANS TO VISIT
1.Tagulandang Island (Sitaro) is a virgin isle with staggering volcanic scenery and powdery-soft stretches. It is a perfect beach escape with excellent snorkelling locations, dolphin watching, fishing, trekking and you can even climb the magnificent 723 m high Ruang Volcano.
TO GET THERE: there are daily ferries from Manado Sagnier Terminal, 3 hours
2.Siau Island (Siao), well-connected to the Maluku Islands (Morotai), is rather suitable for the adventurous traveller. The island is known for Karangetang Api Siau – one of the most active volcanoes in Indonesia, constantly erupting and spewing lava.
Siau`s offshore islands might be some of the most spectacular in terms of scenery, particularly the Mahoro Island that can be reached by boat from the town of Ulu.
Siau Islands is a pristine paradise that could someday be a perfect vacation destination with a great potential for tourism, although not many foreigners pay a visit. There is just a couple of basic guesthouses and no Western restaurants but one can easily stay with the local families and get cooked fresh meals. The locals are friendly and not money-hungry and they will happily take you around the island by boat or to the jungle to find the rare tarsier.
Volcano climbing is a nice option too if you are fit. Bring your own snorkelling gear and some cash as there is no ATM.
TO GET THERE: there are daily ferries from Manado Sagnier Terminal, 4-5 hours
3.Sangir Besar is the most outlying yet the main island. It has an airport and naturally, it is the easiest to reach. Mount Awu (1320 m) is the island`s jewel – majestically towering over the turquoise waters of the Celebes Sea. The mountain can be climbed from Tahuna – the main town and port.
TO GET THERE: fly from Manado to the Naha Airport in Tahuna, 1 hr
4.Talaud Islands is the northernmost territory in eastern Indonesia, bordering the Philippines. The archipelago`s largest island is Karakelong whose steep, forested ridges are fringed by a wide reef. It rises from the sea up to 680 meters and their slopes create ideal conditions for ebony, ironwood, coconuts, vanilla, nutmeg and cloves.
Nature lovers will want to visit the Karakelang Island Animal Sanctuary, covering 24,669 hectares, is home to several rare species of animals. Beo is the main town where you can rent a scooter and drive around the island, and if you have your own snorkelling gear you might want to pull over at any beach and wade in the warm shallows.
There are numerous offshore isles and tiny islets and they are best to explore by boat. Independent sailors and yachters love this secluded part of Indonesia. For instance, Sara Besar is a idyllic uninhabited island and highlight of the Talaud archipelago for its beaches are just surreal. Visitors can take a boat tour from Lirung and snorkel, swim or just walk along the empty beaches.
TO GET THERE: fly from Manado to Melonguane Airport or take a slow boat from Manado to Karakelang (15 hrs voyage)
WHEN TO TRAVEL
The dry season runs from May to October, when the visibility is the best.
HOW TO GET THERE
Fly to Manado.
For all domestic flights check out Lion Air, Garuda Indonesia or Sriwijaya Air
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