Amazing Manado By Michael D’Oliveiro

This time we just let speak our former guests, having a talent for writing

A volcano looms over you while vibrant marine life teems beneath — Sulawesi’s Manado is quite the diving destination.

Diving in the shadows of a volcano is a daunting prospect. Foremost on my mind was this: What would my escape route be should the volcano blow its top in the middle of a dive?

Luckily, after a bit of research, I realised that Indonesia’s Manado Tua is a dormant volcano. What is far more talked about when a conversation turns to this volcano is its reputation as an icon for one of the best dive destinations in South-East Asia.

I caught a glimpse of Manado Tua from the plane as I was flying in. It’s a Mt Fuji-like vision that has become synonymous with the Bunaken Marine Park. From airport to resort, our one-hour journey that cut through Manado town was a serene one punctuated by images of quaint bungalows and shopping hubs — surprising for such a remote location.

Many beautiful churches could be seen along the way, too, as Manado is primarily a Christian town, whose inhabitants co-exist happily with its Muslim minority. We stopped for a few sticks of ragey, a common pork satay found all over town, and for a taste of the delicious Bubur Manado

From there, we drove straight to Tasik Ria Resort. The property greets visitors with its discrete, wood-chiselled facade. There’s the obligatory pool with chalets all around the grounds. One either gets a view of the pool or the sea. The dive centre is located at the end of the property adjacent to the games area and jetty.

My companions were an American couple and, surprisingly, a Malaysian couple. As the sun comes up fairly early in this part of the world, we too were up early the next day.

Our comfortable dive boat took us straight to Bunaken Island on a flat, mirror-like surface. An hour later, we were moored off the dive site known as Lekuan 3, off the south coast of the island.

Manado-Bunaken is characterised by steep gradients. These got steeper as we swam along, forming an almost wall-like topology (though not quite true walls like in Sipadan). I was impressed by the variety of coral cover. They were mainly soft coral like sponges, but also dotted with staghorns and seafans all the way through.

Marine life was abundant and lively. We stumbled upon a green turtle napping under a coral outcrop and several trumpetfish loitering around the reef. Later, we spotted a dog-faced pufferfish who seemed anxious to avoid us, like a friend who owes you money. The usual bannerfish, batfish, royal angelfish and even a crocodile fish put in an appearance, flitting in and out of their holes like denizens of a marine grotto.

Towards the end, another green turtle crossed paths with us amid a shoal of blue-and-gold fusiliers. The slope had flattened out slightly but not the vibrant fish life.

We decided to explore further along Bunaken’s coastline, trying out Alung Banua. The terrain was similar but this time with some interesting swim-throughs. More trumpetfish could be found, particularly the yellow ones and a large black adult. They are harmless creatures known to pose for a photo, and these ones happily obliged. We also came across the unique non-spotted butterflyfish.

At the end, a large school of batfish gave us a send-off to our safety stop.

On the way back, we made one last stop at Tasik Ria’s own house reef. Resort house reefs are usually something to be scoffed at, being little more than a derelict reef devoid of colour. But not here. This one turned out to be a true gem, sparkling with staghorns, table coral and giant clams.

We were treated to juvenile ribbon eels and groupers, various kinds of lionfish — both common and spotfin — plus a Batfish and assorted hangers-on. My divemaster guide even managed to dig out a porcelain crab from the sand. We were told to expect baby white-tip sharks and, sure enough, I spotted one sleeping under a rocky ledge.

A huge vertical swim-through was the highlight of this dive, encrusted as it was with lots of colourful patches and a few nudibranchs.

Our next few days were indeed spent in front of this house reef, which was literally a real stretch. The night dives at Critter Circus were a delight, yielding all kinds of crustaceans.

For another “wall” dive, we went to Tanjung Kelapa, which didn’t disappoint, managing to replicate the kinds of delights we saw in Bunaken.

On the last day, we even had time for a muck dive at Poopo.

It was time to whip out the macro lens for a glance around the sandy seabed. Once again, unique creatures like the cowfish were spotted while a pair of blue-spotted stingrays also showed up.

Amazingly, from coral to coral, we encountered quite a few lionfish, up to 20 during the entire dive. To top it all off, we sighted a resting banded sea-snake, the curious thorny seahorse and the weedy scorpionfish.

A new site nearby capped a great trip. It really showed the vastness of the Tasik Ria house reef. Though often strewn with coral rubble, it was pretty healthy for the most part. A long, languid drift dive uncovered a blue-spotted stingray, octopus, lionfish, shrimp, more trumpetfish, nudibranchs and the striking blue ribbon eel.

And these were just the ones I remembered.

The resort stay was comfortable even if it was no five-star hotel. If you’re looking for white, sandy beaches, this isn’t the place to be at, either. My room included a TV, air-con and a decent bath. The food, served at the spacious restaurant adjacent to the lobby, was wonderful. The service was first-rate. I even managed to try an authentic Manado spa session which was the equal of any I’ve experienced before.

On the way back, I grabbed a few tourist souvenirs and a packet of the famous Kopi Manado. It’s a must-try for those keen to try robust Sulawesian Arabica coffee. But what I really enjoyed was the fact that Manado was a beautiful, peaceful town that managed to deliver the most ideal diving experience without the usual annoying crowds down below. I mean the divers, not the fish.

AirAsia no longer flies to Manado but I suspect things may change once people realise what a gem it is.

This octopus, and its smaller blueringed cousin (below), were spotted on the dive; coral galore in a pristine environment

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