North Sulawesi Unplugged

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North Sulawesi Unplugged

October 13, 2011 - 23:18

I can’t help likening this island to a chromosome. It’s contorted shape not only looks like one, but also has its different features spread out along different points even when you zoom in. Our focal point is the northern region. On the western side of the tip, we find Bunaken national park with its majestic drop-offs, on the top of the area around Gangga Island, and on the eastern side, Lembeh, famous for its critter diving.

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Previously known as Celebes, Sulawesi is Indonesia’s fourth largest island, and it is at its northeastern tip where we find the region famous for having a number of the best dive spots in the world. It can only be the most ignorant or newly minted divers who haven’t heard the names Manado, Bunaken or Lembeh uttered somewhere. Lesser known is it that this region is called the Minahasa, and the inhabitants, the Minahasan. Originally inhabited by Malay-speaking peoples, the region was first colonized in the 16th century by the Portuguese. It was the Portuguese who first to referred to Sulawesi as ‘Celebes’. The meaning of this name is unclear, but originally, it did not refer to the entire island as the Portuguese thought Sulawesi was not one island but an archipelago. The modern name, ‘Sulawesi’, possibly comes from the words sula (‘island’) and besi (‘iron’) with reference to the historical export of iron from the rich iron deposits at Lake Matano in the Southern end of the island.

The Portuguese were soon followed by the Dutch who left the most significant imprint on the area. Manado, the regional capital and cultural center of the Minahasa people is a former Dutch stronghold and the center of the Dutch settlement in colonial times for which reason North Sulawesi still retains many traces of Western influence. The Minahasa identify themselves strongly with the Dutch language and with 97 percent of the population being denominated as Christian—most are protestant, Lutheran—North Sulawesi stands out as a Christian enclave in an otherwise predominantly Muslim Indonesia. It is said to have the highest density of church buildings in Indonesia, with approximately one church for every 100m of road.

For a long time, Manado prospered through trade with the nearby Philippines and the spice trade with the rest of the world, but was badly damaged by bombing during the Second World War. In any case, most divers would head directly from the airport to the nearby resorts along the coast and on the surrounding islands, so let’s get on with it, and dive right in...

Bunaken National Park

The boat stops right in front of the reef. The surface is as smooth as glass, and the top of the reef is densely covered by hard corals. On the outer side of the reef, the water seems clear as crystal, and suddenly, we realise that our fins are dangling over an endless dropoff. I find myself longing for having my own twin tank, wing jacket and deco tank with me here—that would have been ideal. Fans of deeper diving will be thrilled at this spot.

Since there is no continental shelf here, the depth rapidly reaches more than 200 metres where there is a small plateau before it continues down into the deep blue of the open ocean. This unique topography is the cause behind the often strong currents and good options for encountering big pelagics.

As we slide in, we marvel at the protruding fan corals, huge sponges and big bushes of black corals that are covering the wall. At 30 metres, we stop our descent. The current gently pushes us along the wall.

I suddenly note a large green turtle sleeping right next to me under an overhang on the reef. She does not seem to be the slightest perturbed by my presence. Right here in the heart of the national park, she appears to be neither afraid of intrusive divers trying to grab, or touch her, or of fishermen trying to catch her. Patiently, she bears with the repetitive flashes as I take series of turtle portraits. She doesn’t even seem to acknowledge my presence with a blink of an eye —what an amazingly relaxed turtle.

Suddenly, Monica, the diveguide, is trying to grab my attention by waving her hands vigourously. It turns out that she has spotted quite a rare nudibranch on the wall. It is a really nice specimen, but unfortunately, I have chosen to bring my wide angle setup today. Instead, I focus in the hanging gardens of soft corals, blazing red whip corals, huge gorgonians and pretty barrel sponges—one motif is followed by the next. And, fortunately for me, it is apparent that is not the first time Monica has worked as an underwater model. She not only guides me in a very professional manner but is also a perfect model.

Wherever I turn my gaze, there is some sort of action. While two sharks on patrol glide past underneath us, we watch as an understandably apprehensive school of tunas hurry in the opposite direction. As our air reserves drops towards the 50 bar mark, the current push gently into a shallow bay. It is a region where in former year’s invasions of the predatory starfish Crown of Thorns laid waste to huge swathes of coral leaving the reef dotted with white patches of dead coral half a meter across.

To remedy the damage, artificial reef structures have been set down to encourage new growth of coral in the region. These three dimensional structures are made from a special open-pored ceramic that doesn’t react chemically with sea water and serves as an optimum substrate for the coral larvae. An ingenious but rather costly fix.


Environmental protection, especially as regards to the reefs, goes back a long time on Sulawesi. The highly regarded Bunaken National Park was created 17 years ago as one of (...)

Originally published

on page 31

X-Ray Mag #24

June 22, 2008 - 20:05

Our main travel feature in issue is North Sulawesi where Wolfgang Pölzer visits Bunaken and Lembeh. Harald Apelt takes us to another Mediterranean pearl, the picturesque little port town of Kas in Turkey, while Arnold Weisz takes another dip in Brazilean waters by visting Ilha Grande, the resort island with no cars. Arnold also writes about the coral trade. Kurt Amsler shows us how to make great black and white images but, more importantly, he continues his mission to save the seaturtle from illegal hunting in Indonesia. Our new dive doctor, Kevin Chan MD, from Singapore writes about diving with asthma. In our new column, GirlDiver by Cindy Ross, we find out where the girls are. This issue's unique dive site is Lake Thingvellir on Iceland, and the portfolio section features painter Jens Poulsen of Denmark.