Diving Indonesia's Sulawesi Sea

Divers are usually suckers for tropical islands—little exotic and eccentric dots of land surrounded by all that gin-clear water. This fascination may be no greater than in the vast island chain of Indonesia, which sweeps in a wide arc from the mainland of Southeast Asia to Papua New Guinea for 3,000 miles. Those who keep track of such things say this is the largest archipelago nation in the world—up to 18,000 isles, with only 1,000 inhabited. No wonder Indonesians refer to their country as "tanah air kita"—"our land and water."

For a diver, though, this can be a bit like gazing into the entire starry night sky with no astronomical point of reference. What to do, what to do?

If we were to take just one constellation—or local island chain—to explore in Indonesia, then we'd pick Sulawesi Island and its adjacent Sea. There are good reasons for this. Volcanic Sulawesi is rimmed with 3,600 miles of intricate coastline; offshore, some 110 islands form a halo around it. Because it straddles both the Australian and Asian biogeographical zones, the diversity of life here is both rich and often endemic. Ashore, some 98 percent of mammals are found nowhere else on earth. Formerly called the Celebes, Sulawesi is sometimes still mapped this way.

Pioneered for sport diving only a decade ago, the northern cape of this island, particularly Manado Bay, is a good place to begin. Expect to see the exquisite black-and-white banded colubrine sea snake—full of deadly venom but entirely non-aggressive—along with large schools of pyramid butterfly fish, blackfin barracuda, rays and sharks. Walls here are found not far offshore and plunge dramatically; after a 45-minute boat ride, you anchor near the edge of a wall, so entry and exit are easy.

Biologically, the walls are carpeted with a rich tapestry of hard and soft corals, crinoids and basket stars. There is little human-related sediment to murk things up, and the heavy fishing that often depletes the seas in developing countries is curtailed by a marine park northwest of Manado here—the Taman Nasional Laut Bunaken-Manado Tua. Off Molas Beach, look for the wreck of a steel-hulled Dutch merchant ship.

There are not one but two monsoon seasons out here; the very best times to go are the two months between them, October and April. Expect rain and some wind at other times, which you can work around, except in December and January, when it gets intense.

There is an airport at Manado and a live-aboard serving this area operating out of Irian Jaya. Bargains locally are good; expect to pay $75 US a day for a two-tank dive on an uncrowded boat. Dive sites are still being developed here every day, so "exploration diving" still goes on. While local guides are skilled divers, they may not always be alert to safety procedures. And stinging hydroids make at least a dive skin a good idea. This is a destination for veteran sport divers who are able to take care of themselves in an emergency.


Underwater Indonesia: A Guide to the World's Greatest Diving. by Kal Muller. Periplus Travel Guides. (Distributed in U.S. by Passport Books/NTC, Lincolnwood, IL)

Published: 30 Nov 1999 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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