Today, we got up an hour before departure in anticipation of what was to be a major highlight of our trip: a snorkelling expedition at Bunaken Marine Park, just off the coast of North Sulawesi. Spanning 5 islands and their surrounding marine habitats and coral reefs, its clear waters and vibrant ecosystems continue to attract snorkelers and divers from the world over.
A half-hour drive north from our hotel brings us to Thalassa Dive Resort, tucked away near the coast and hidden from the hustle and bustle of the city. Our cabs take us into a winding cul-de-sac lined with flowering shrubs and ivy-covered pergolas, then finally into a quaint gravel driveway. The open-air lobby is quiet and apparently empty except for us, but a bespectacled Caucasian lady quickly emerges and introduces herself as Simone, the owner of the resort. With a warm smile that reaches her eyes, she puts us in mind of a friendly aunt. We shake hands, introduce ourselves in turn and exchange pleasantries while waiting for the rest of our party (the size of our group meant we had had to take three separate cabs).
As if drawn out by the appearance of new guests, a few more staff members emerge from some unseen back office in quick succession. The first is petite Caucasian lady who looks no older than we are. With lightly-accented but clear English, she introduces herself as Maya, our dive guide for the day. Another of our hosts makes his presence known by panting excitedly and running amidst our legs: Nolan, a bright-eyed German Shepherd who graciously accepts our offers of affectionate pets and chest-scratches.
The rest of our party quickly arrives without incident, barring Nolan giving one of our Grab drivers a fright by pursuing him out of the driveway. Maya issues us all indemnity forms, which we duly fill out, as well as individual laminated permits which we are to show in event of a spot-check by the coastguard. From there, we are shown in groups to a small shed where another of our guides – a tanned young local apparently named Rega – helps us pick out our gear.
It is then that we see them – the bites. Our feet are covered with them, in varying degrees of severity: dozens of raised red welts each about two millimetres across. Many of us had noticed them on our feet but dismissed them as some personal ailment, when all this time we had actually been part of a minor epidemic. We surmise that our collective affliction must’ve been the work of the microscopic mites infesting Tangkoko, gorging themselves silly on our blood (upon our return to Singapore, many of us would later be mortified to find the bites “spreading” upwards from our feet, causing a minor panic; eventually, however, we would all recover fully save for some mild scarring and a tale to avoid at mealtimes).
At Bunaken, we went to a total of three different dive sites, spanning across the southern tip of the island. The topography of the sites were similar – coral reefs which extended from the shore into the sea, which then drops down into the depths as if we were on the top of cliffs. Because of this unique topography, we were able to see a myriad of different wildlife, each preferring a specific region. Tropical fish preferred the shallow corals, while larger fish swam along the cliffs. In addition, because of the steep incline of the cliff, there are regions where you can actually feel warmer waters rising from the depths, which was a stark contrast to the otherwise chilly waters. It was surreal to feel one side of my body in warm water and the other in cold.
The sights we saw at Bunaken were simply beautiful and definitely unforgettable. We saw corals of various unique shapes and colours -- some so bright that they almost looked unnatural. The shape and topology of the corals alone would have been enough to enthral me; but even more enrapturing was the sheer biodiversity present. We swam just meters away from schools of tropical fish, and also spotted clown fish and sea snakes. We even had the luck to see multiple sea turtles (green sea turtle and hawksbill sea turtle)! After returning to the boat in between sites, Maya told us that we were extremely lucky to have even spotted one sea turtle.
While we were at our second snorkelling location, waiting to go into the water, I saw what I assumed to be children playing in the sea just next to the reefs. However, upon closer inspection, we realised they were dolphins! Their distinct dorsal fins became visible as they surfaced to breathe. We watched them for probably a minute, before they submerged and resurfaced a few minutes later. We were so close to the pod (probably 50 metres away) that we could clearly hear the sound they made as the breathed through their blowholes. Even Maya said that we were “very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very lucky” to see the dolphins, on top of the turtles that we saw. This remains the best snorkelling experience many of us have had.
Personally, my own previous snorkelling experience was a long time ago, but I still remember the things that I’ve seen then. When asked for a comparison, my only answer was that the experience can’t be compared – the places were different, and we saw different things. However, it was undeniable that the wildlife here at Bunaken is much more breath-taking, and I am happy that sites like these still remain in our oceans. Unfortunately, as we have seen on this trip, while Sulawesi has incredible sights, the threat of pollution still exists.
We had our lunch on a private beach on a nearby island (Pulau Siladen) as part of the programme planned by the resort. As we walked along the length of the beach, however, we could see that the coast was littered with unsightly trash, mostly plastic bottles. Maya had informed us that monthly beach clean-ups are held on this island to clear the trash that washes up on the beach. This meant that all the trash on this beach was only a month's worth. It occurred to me that this was in fact a microcosm of the world's environmental conservation efforts. While the locals struggle to keep the beach and marine park clean, someone else is contributing to the waste that pollutes it. This is definitely not a sustainable solution. As we settled down, we were once again, presented with packed lunch boxes which resembled yesterday’s. As with the locals of Tangkoko, I admire those working in the park to do what they can for the environment. Feeling inspired, as we snorkelled in the last sites, we grabbed whatever trash we saw and brought it back onto the boat with us to dispose of properly.
This entire trip has forced us to confront the real and omnipresent threat of pollution and we realised that even national parks and nature reserves aren’t safe from it. With the wind in our hair and salt on our skin, we headed back to shore, with huge smiles plastered across our faces, immensely satisfied by the experience today. I think it is fair to say that this was truly the experience of a lifetime.