Archipelago Journal : Bunaken

Meaning ‘place to land’, Bunaken in the far north of Sulawesi is an unforgettable island paradise renowned for its underwater beauty and unspoiled white-sand beaches.

Words by Valentino Luis

In less than 10 minutes, the fishing rod held by Pak Antameng suddenly arches. “Got it!” he murmurs happily. He quickly pulls the fishing line and a tuna, its fat silvery body floundering, emerges.

“There are lots of fish like this, so I enjoy coming here,” he explains. I had met Pak Antameng earlier that morning at Pangalisang beach in the east of Bunaken, near my lodging. Without hesitating, I had asked if I could board his boat to go fishing with him.

Pak Antameng’s favourite fishing spot is north of the island at Tanjung Parigi. “Our ancestors, the first settlers on Bunaken, lived at Tanjung Parigi. They came from the Sangihe Islands, located between Sulawesi and the Philippines,” he explains. Pak Antameng tells me that there is an old well left by his ancestors at Tanjung Parigi. “When the Netherlands ruled Manado and the neighbouring islands, the residents of Tanjung Parigi were ordered to move to the south of Bunaken,” he continues.

I had arrived on the island the previous day. It only takes half an hour by speedboat to reach Bunaken from Manado, the capital of North Sulawesi province. The boat trip teased the eyes not only with a vista of the volcanic island of Manado Tua, but also with a clearly visible carpet of coral. Many boats on the Manado–Bunaken route have glass bottoms so that passengers can enjoy the underwater view; catamarans are typically used and have become more common in the region as Bunaken has gained popularity as a marine tourism destination.

Bunaken is said to be a trailblazer of sea tourism in Indonesia, especially for diving. The island in the shape of a greyhound’s paw has been famous for decades in the records of divers, a long time before other destinations such as Komodo, Weh, Wakatobi, Alor, Togean or Raja Ampat were well known. Starting from the mid-1970s, when a group of international divers conducted an undersea exploration, Bunaken has become known for its staggeringly rich biodiversity and fascinating coral cliff structures.

Bunaken National Park was declared in 1991, covering an area of 890km², of which just three per cent is land – Bunaken itself and its four flanking islands. The marine life is wondrously diverse, with up to 3,000 species of fish and almost 400 types of coral. The underwater coral contours feature steep cliffs as well as caves where unusual types of fish dwell. “Our waters are where the sea king fish lives. In the past, this fish was considered cursed, but now it has become an idol for visitors,” Pak Antameng tells me. The sea king fish is none other than the coelacanth, a formidable creature that can grow to more than 2m, older than the dinosaurs and once believed to have been extinct for 60 million years. “I have seen a video of it, but I have never caught one myself. Sometimes I imagine meeting the sea king,” Pak Antameng says dreamily.

Although it has been popular as a tourist destination for decades, Bunaken has not undergone drastic change. The island is still dominated by its green zone, and residential dwellings are concentrated at the southern cape, along with dive centres, homestays and cafés, while most of the resorts have chosen quiet locations along the coast. It is the same with the nearby islands. For example, Siladen Island is surrounded by fertile coral and clean white sand. “Most of the land on Siladen is still empty. There are only six places to stay here, enough for our small island,” says Sarah Sangari, the owner of Jonaths Cottage, as she greets me upon arrival. Siladen only covers 31.25ha and is pleasurable to wander around as there are no motor vehicles. It’s an idyllic place to watch the sunset after a day of exploring the scattering of pure white-sand beaches on the quiet eastern coast.

To the north is Mantehage Island with its vast mangroves. “Mantehage has more mangrove forest than it does land,” says Sarah with a laugh. There is no visitor activity there; nature is left to its own devices. But to the east is Nain Island, which has recently attracted the attention of walkers because of its broad stretch of coral and long sandbar. In fact, travel packages now choose Nain Island as the first stop on the way to Bunaken.

Overcome by curiosity, I decided to visit Nain. The shallow sea is very wide, so that I seem to float across a giant turquoise pool. The majority of inhabitants are Bajo people, who are known as accomplished sailors. Their stilt houses line the western edge of the island, stretching out to the sea. Zainal, one of the residents, tells me that the ancestors of the Bajo have inhabited the island since 1900. He takes me to Sumur Jere, a source of freshwater that he says has never run dry and has special properties. “For couples who are having difficulty producing children, they can drink the water from this well,” he says earnestly.

Zainal and his family work as fishermen and seaweed farmers. Almost all the people of Nain Island do the same. A local favourite is smoked roa fish (Hemiramphus Brasiliensis), which has a very rich flavour and is perfect with chilli sauce. When I tell him I would like to see the sandbar, Zainal is very enthusiastic. He brings along several of his young nieces and nephews and we set off in his boat towards the southeastern edge of the island. “We call it Dosa beach (Sin beach),” he says, but declines to elaborate. “That is a story from the past,” he answers briefly.

When we arrive, Dosa beach is already populated with visitors, but because the tide is receding, we can walk on the long stretches of sand and still feel as if there are no other wanderers apart from ourselves. Lots of young people from Manado sell tourism packages to visit here, bringing along beach umbrellas or inflatable sofas to complete the photos for their guests. “Sometimes people camp at Nain Kecil Island,” explains Zainal, pointing to the east. Near where we stand is a dive spot called Jalan Air Point, which is often visited by schools of stingray.

However, of the five islands, Bunaken boasts the most dive spots, with at least 18 sites. Boats carrying groups of divers going back and forth are a common sight, because every corner of the island has its own charm. Lekuan 1-3, Celah-celah and Sachiko’s Point are three of the most popular dive spots. After several days of exploring, I still feel there is much left to discover. I make a vow to return and visit volcanic Manado Tua Island, the original site of settlement before Manado was moved to the mainland of Sulawesi (Manado Tua means ‘Old Manado’).

Furthermore, as a mountain lover, I am tempted to climb the slopes and reach the volcano’s peak. According to Pak Antameng and Zainal, Manado Tua is a haven of protected forest, full of birds, with superb coral at its base. “The sea king, the ancient fish that I told you about, is often found there,” Pak Antameng says. “If you come again, perhaps we can go there together.”

For further information, please visit www.garuda-indonesia.com

Jakarta to Manado


Flight Time three hours.

Frequency14 times a week

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From Colours July 2019

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5 Senses – Taste
Woku Belanga

Bunaken cuisine is similar to that in Manado, with some island influences. With local fish as the main ingredient, woku belanga is a soup made with a blend of herbs as well as three types of aromatic leaves: bay, orange and pandan. It is best enjoyed warm after swimming or diving.