As we walked along the harbor in Mandao, we realized that the public boats to Bunaken were not casting off on Sundays. The city mosque outside our hotel window was going on and on for hours (it seemed more like a chatty radio program) – so staying another night seemed like an unbaerable option. Instead we got convinced by a local boat owner to go with him. We left “main land” (Sulawesi = worlds 11th largest island) and headed out to the open sea. Bunaken Marine National Park is home to thousands of species of fish, corals, marine mammals etc. and we could not wait another day to be at this magical place.
When we reached Bunaken the boat driver helped us carrying our luggage to a resort. My suspicions that he would fool us, turned out to be unnecessary paranoia, as he lead us to a cheap but genuine little hotel by the beach. As the meals were included, it gave us time to explore the nature instead of searching for cheap restaurants.
We spent most of the days snorkeling or diving and exploring the wildlife underwater. Sea turtles, clown fishes and sea stars coloured the coral reefs along with millions of other fish. It’s a truly enchanting world, which gave us whetted appetite for more.
But this underwater world is in danger. Although human threats such as overexploitation, are big, the biggest threat for this coral reef at Bunaken comes from the Crown of Thorns starfish. This starfish is a carnivorous and its favourite dish is corals. One individual can consume up to 6 square meters of coral reef per year. Before the high numbers of this starfish became a problem, it stopped fast growing species of coral species from out competing the slower growing varieties. This is an important role in the ecosystem to maintaining biodiversity, but what we see today are outbreaks which causes big damage the reefs instead. The explanation for the exploding numbers is simple. The numbers of Napoleon fish which feeds on the Crown of Thorns, has plummeted, allowing the population of this starfish to grow freely. Diving operations on Bunaken island were working on removing starfish to prevent the overpopulation. However this is only a short-term solution and the number of Crown of Thorns are still increasing. The example of Crown of Thorns is a good illustration of how sensitive ecosystems can be.
Bunaken itself is a beautiful island and it was nice to take a walk through the main village and get in contact with the local people. The world championship in fotball had just started and flags were put up over every house, showing proudly which team they cheered for. One could have believed that we were in Germany! Everyone was curious where we were from and it was an easy way of making ourselves popular. People had fun over that Wilhelm’s country Sweden didn’t qualify, which I thought was funny. Although Indonesia didn’t play themselves, people stayed up until 1 am or even 4 am to watch the games. Late in the evening or in the early morning hours we sat next to the beach and watched together with the local people. The games which Germany played were the most important, unthinkable to miss.
Dolphin tours are classic tourist attractions in any sea with high numbers, and due to the likelyhood of seeing dolphins, we could not say no to a relaxing day at sea. In a small boat in a group of 6 people we headed off in the morning out to the vast archipelago. Our tour guide had a better eye to catch dolphins than we had, so while he was looking for them we could rest and enjoy. The morning hours are perfect to see dolphin since they have their breakfast then. As the environmentalists we are, it might seem weird that we chased the dolphins. However the dolphins came to the boat willingly to jump with us, and we experienced how fast they are gone when they got bored of us. Some species of dolphins are also willing to swim with people which we tried. On command we sprang from the boat to see them under water.. but they disappeared in a jiffy. Apparently these dolphins weren’t so fond of that, so we headed off to enjoy the snorkling once.
At the last day of our stay we decided to finally delve deeper into the underwater world. I’ve never been diving before, so I was excited and nervous. However, the instructor seemed skillful as he taught me about the equipment, boyancy, communication under water etc., so after a short while I felt safe with him.
The waters around the islands here are very shallow, until you reach the drop. To swim over a vertical drop for the first time is a daunting feeling. It felt like I was hovering weightless over a cliff, with a bottomless hole ready to devour me as soon as gravity starts working again. But in this world, you are truly weightless. When diving it’s as if a new dimension has been added where you may move up and down just as easily as back and forth. It’s amazing, and the diversity of fish, the beautifully colored corals and sea turtles meeting you eye to eye only inches away, makes it all overwhelming. Diving was for sure the highlight of Bunaken!