National Parks are wonderful for the future of wildness preservation for our posterity. We are all familiar with the “classics”—Yosemite, Yellowstone, even the Channel Islands National Park. So much the better when the preservation concept of a national park is applied to an underwater wilderness. Even less developed counties throughout the world have now picked up on the idea of underwater national parks. One of the newer parks, and more spectacular, is Bunaken in Indonesia.
Perhaps the world’s most spectacular vertical coral walls are here that, at low tide, drop vertically from inches deep water to thousands of feet of blue abyss. At one place while floating on the surface snorkeling, my face and shoulders were nearly in the reef, and my feet were hanging over hundreds of feet of water.
This is, however, more than just a spectacular drop-off. It is what lives on it that is the big attraction. It should be enough to say that this area has the largest marine biodiversity of any place in the world. Simply said, the seas here hold the largest variety of sea life. Here is every color and hue imaginable, every shape and size, some hidden, others gaudy.
But as you slip down the coral face, what strikes you first are the huge sponges and sea fans. Some of the convoluted sponges are over eight feet in size and stick out from the wall five feet. One sea fan was as tall as me, with fins on! It was over eight feet of red ocean lacework.
And the coral, oh the coral! In a recent survey, two diving scientists counted over 200 species of coral on one dive alone! The two corals that stick in my mind the most, and I am not even sure exactly why (probably the odd colors) are the deep green branching coral and a brain coral that had pink ridges and bright green valleys. Bright orange and purple soft coral hang from some of the ledges. I will look up all these species when I get past the book chapter on nudibranchs. Every 15 feet we encountered a different nudibranch, each more brilliantly colored than the next.
Between dives we were approached by the park ranger boat, checking for park compliance which includes, amongst other things, purchased permits that help fund the patrol. Other regulations include no gloves, to discourage the potential damaging touch of human hands, and the no-take of anything, including dead coral and empty sea shells. They also check for illegal fishing. Only the locals are allowed to fish, using traditional minimal impact techniques. The Indonesian authorities are serious about preserving this reef. But Indonesia is a poor country. They have been relying on subsidies from outside sources, including the U.S. Government. Unfortunately, funding has been terminated due to budget cuts. Concerned parties are now scrambling for alternate sources.
As the day of diving wore on, the tide rose, covering the upper reef with enough water to spend much of the next dive upstairs. After cruising the
finest wall dive in my life with lionfish, schools of jacks, a turtle, white tip sharks, and more colorful reef fish than I care to count, I headed to the upper reef for a safety stop and what turned out to be the most enjoyable portion of the dive. The water is exceptionally warm on top. A huge Neopolean wrasse, probably 200 pounds worth, cruised by. A school of snapper hid from the mild current behind a coral head. And activity was everywhere. There was a cleaning station on the right, another on the left. I wanted to find a sand patch to settle down without touching the coral but had trouble finding a spot that wasn’t covered with living coral! Eventually finding a spot, I watched a barracuda move in for lunch. Turning my head again, a school of 50 or so bat fish cruised toward the lip of the wall looking something like an open crate of silvery hubcaps in synchronous motion. Next time I come here I will visit at high tide and spend my entire dive on the upper reef. But the wall will call again.
Bunaken is fairly easy to reach as the major town and international airport of Manado is nearby. Malaysia Airlines makes regular flights to the town, as well as flights from Los Angeles into the country and Malaysia, another diving paradise worth a look. There are several resorts along the coastline near Manado including Murex Dive Resort, a fully scuba dedicated facility. Murex also has a live-aboard dive vessel serving the furthest reaches of the National Park and remote islands beyond. In addition, they are also affiliated with a resort at Lembeh on the opposite side of the peninsula and yet another small resort on Bangka Island near the tip of the peninsula. Each offers a distinctly different kind of diving experience, Lembeh with its unique macro critters and Bangka’s high-charged current diving with magnificent pinncales and forests of soft coral. For more information on Murex, and their affiliated resorts on the northern Sulawesi peninsula, visit www.murexdive.com on the web.