For the past week, we’ve been in snorkelers’ paradise. There are few things that we both love more than swimming over a brightly sunlit reef, gazing at the multicolored corals and fishes below. When the waves are high, the currents are strong, or you see something large or unexpected, it’s exciting. When the sea is calm and your breathing gets slow and steady, it’s meditative.
Snorkeling is a big part of our travels, so much so that roughly one-fourth of our backpack space in Southeast Asia is devoted to carrying our snorkels, masks (Melissa’s has her glasses prescription built in), rash guards, and special portable mini fins. We’ve been known to go well out of our way for good snorkeling sites, and that’s what drew us to Sulawesi, Indonesia.
Indonesia—a collection of more than 900 inhabited islands (and thousands of uninhabited ones)—has one-fifth of the world’s coral reefs. Some of them are around Sulawesi, the second-biggest island in Indonesia. Sulawesi is shaped a bit like a skinny starfish, with five long peninsulas and some 6,000 km of coastline. Geologists believe it was formed by two landmasses that collided and spun around to form tentacles.
One of Sulawesi’s prime snorkeling areas is the handful of small islands off the coast of its big northeastern port city, Manado. Of those islands, the most populous is Bunaken, with a few thousand people and a dozen or so dive “resorts.” That’s been our base for the past week of underwater delights. (It’s one of the more accessible parts of Sulawesi. You can fly to Manado from Jakarta or Singapore, take a taxi to the harbor, and with a one-hour boat trip be on Bunaken.)
In our snorkeling past, we’ve seen some reefs that don’t have much healthy coral but have lots of colorful, interesting fish (the Caribbean) and reefs that have lots of healthy coral but few fish (the Philippines). The best places have both (the Great Barrier Reef 11 years ago; Roatan, Honduras, seven years ago; and Jemeluk and Menjangan, Bali, two years ago). Bunaken is another of those places, with the added attractions of a beautiful setting, lots of dolphins and sea turtles, and good shallow-water snorkeling spots that you can reach from shore or with a short boat ride.
Bunaken is entirely surrounded by a shallow fringing reef that drops abruptly into deep water. Divers love diving down the sheer coral wall, while snorkelers can float above it and see a huge variety of marine life—hard and soft corals, giant clams with blue or purple lips, orange sponges, speckled eels, hawksbill turtles, and so many tropical fish that sometimes they form a column from the top of the wall to the surface of the water that you can float right through. It’s like swimming in a giant aquarium, with so much going on that your eye doesn’t know where to rest. And if you lift your head out of the water, you see green islands all around you, including a perfectly cone-shaped extinct volcano, covered in vegetation, looming over Bunaken on its own small island.
One quirk of Bunaken is that there are frequently currents running along the edge of the reef. If you swim out to the reef from shore, you need to snorkel first against the current so that when you get tired, you can turn and ride the current back to where you started. But if, as we usually do, you go out on the dive boats and snorkel over the divers, you can drift along as far as you please and the boat will pick you up.
On most of our snorkels, we’ve seen large hawksbill turtles swimming gracefully in the deep water just past the wall. Usually, they’re such powerful swimmers that you can’t keep up with them. But one lucky morning, I spotted a turtle about 10 feet directly below me. It was in the same current I was, and we drifted along together, me above and it below, so I got a wonderfully long look. Shafts of sunlight were streaming into the water all around us, plunging into the deep blueness below, and the effect was magical.
Another wonderful wildlife experience was the morning we got up at dawn to take a boat to see the hundreds of dolphins that live near Bunaken. At that hour, the only boats around were ours and a few fishermen’s wooden outrigger canoes (because where the dolphins go, there are tuna to be caught). At first, the dolphins were hard to spot, but soon when we scanned the water we saw clusters of fins and tails breaking the surface in three or four places around us. Then the dolphins were right by our boat, swimming in front of it or twisting along the sides as though riding the slipstream. So sleek and fast and beautiful and wild—all we could do was beam and keep saying “wow.”
Things aren’t perfect on Bunaken, which may be a good thing because otherwise people like us would never leave, and this beautiful spot would be overrun. The island is close to the equator, so it’s very hot, and it lacks the ocean breezes that make some tropical places tolerable. (The mangrove trees that line the shore, although wonderful for the environment, block offshore winds.) The power supply isn’t strong enough for air-conditioning (only fans), and it cuts out for several hours each day. Cell phone reception and Internet access are also intermittent. The rustic cabins at most dive places look romantic in photos, but the reality includes sand everywhere, lots of ants, and insect bites when you venture out from under your stifling mosquito netting.
Perhaps the biggest drawback of Bunaken is that its wells are very brackish. Drinking water is shipped from Manado in big jugs, but the water in showers and sinks is saltwater. As a result, your skin and hair feel dry and tacky, and you never really feel clean. After a few days, that can really get to you. A man from mainland Sulawesi who now lives on Bunaken told us that whenever he goes home, he takes about 10 (freshwater) showers the first day to wash off all the salt. Sad as we’ll be to leave these beautiful reefs, it will be nice to feel less like a fish and more like a human being again.