North Sulawesi is home to Bunaken National Park, Gangga Island, and Lembeh—which are some of Indonesia’s most beautiful and tranquil snorkeling destinations. Manado is the capital city of North Sulawesi Regency and is where all the flights will arrive and depart from.
From Mando Airport it’s just a quick car ride to the harbor followed by another quick and comfortable boat ride to one of Bunaken National Park’s resorts. There are many great resorts in the Bunaken area, but our go-to resort for our snorkeling safaris is Siladen Resort & Spa, which is located on Siladen Island—the smallest of the islands in Bunaken. The Bunaken area is comprised of five tropical islands, one of which is a stunning dormant volcano called Manadotua. The islands are all quite close together making travel times between the different island’s snorkeling sites quick and easy.
Lembeh is a beautiful island just off the northeastern tip of Sulawesi. It is easily accessed by boat from Bunaken with good weather, or by car should the sea conditions not be ideal for a boat transfer. This area is quite volcanic with several semi-dormant volcanoes clearly visible on the horizon. Every now and then, if you are lucky, you may see one of them give a little smokey ‘burp’. Like Bunaken, there are a number of fantastic resort options, but our go-to resort is Lembeh Resort as they are not only one of the oldest and most reputable resorts in the area, but also very well set up to accommodate snorkelers.
Gangga Island is a small tropical island fringed by white a white sand beach and sits just off the northern tip of Sulawesi. Gangga Island does have a very beautiful boutique resort that is well equipped for snorkelers, however, for the snorkeling safaris we typically snorkel Gangga island via day trips from Siladen Resort or Lembeh Resort. It’s only about a forty-five-minute boat ride from either location and can be comfortably done as a full-day trip. Most of our snorkeling safaris to North Sulawesi will include stops in both Bunaken and Lembeh, as well as the Tangkoko Nature Reserve so we try not to minimize the check-in and check-outs.
The snorkeling in North Sulawesi is particularly awesome for a number of reasons. First of all, the currents in this area of Indonesia are generally very mild. During certain moon phases there may be a bit of current, but nothing outrageous by any means, and because the snorkeling sites are so expansive we can very casually drift over the stunning reefs. The second thing to note about North Sulawesi snorkeling is that we have these three areas—Bunaken, Lembeh, and Gangga Island to choose from or combine into one epic snorkeling safari. The snorkeling experience is very different for the three locations, and since the transfers between the different locations only takes a few hours it’s very easy to indulge in the best snorkeling of North Sulawesi.
The snorkeling in Bunaken National Park is your classic reef-snorkeling experience. Each of the different islands in the marine park has an expansive coral shelf or plateau that skirts the entirety of the island extends for hundreds out from the shore. The reefs gently slope away from the shoreline and eventually plunge into vertical walls pocked with crevices and overhangs where green turtles rest. The reef tops are generally made up of hard corals like table coral, stag-horn, and lettuce corals with some beautiful colonies of sponges, sea fans, and the brilliantly colored soft corals mixed in.
Snorkeling around Lembeh is a very different experience when compared to Bunaken National Park. Though both areas are clearly volcanic, only Lembeh has that the nutrient-rich volcanic black sand that seems to be a breeding ground for all the cool and highly unique critters like nudibranchs, seahorses, and a myriad of octopus species.
The channel between Lembeh island and mainland Sulawesi is known as Lembeh Straight, and this particular area is world-famous for its muck snorkeling. In the area around this channel, you’ll find a mixture of sloping coral reefs, miniature walls, and the classic sandy substrates scattered with corals and sponges where any number of benthic critters could be hiding. Further south around the corner you’ll find more typical reef scenes where hard and soft corals dominate the underwater landscape. In the main strait there can be a stronger current given the fact that as the tide rises and falls a lot of water is pushed through this narrow channel, but, because Lembeh island is riddled with numerous bays thanks to its undulating coastline, you’ll hardly notice the current at all.
The snorkeling around Gangga island is characterized by shallow sloping reefs, some of which continue to gradually slope away as you get further away from the island, while other reefs abruptly turn into walls similar to Bunaken. The makeup of the reefs is a mixture of hard and soft corals which can come right up to the surface at times. In certain areas you’ll have a break in the reef where you’ll find rivulets of beautiful white sand with little coral islands scattered along these sandy ‘streams.’ Like the other areas of North Sulawesi, snorkeling around Gangga Island is easy and casual but still full of beauty and excitement!
With 325 species of reef fish and counting, North Sulawesi is a paradise for those snorkelers who just can’t get enough of that hunt for those flamboyantly colored reef dwellers. So, with that in mind, the majority of our time spent snorkeling in this area is enjoying the explosion of color caused by the jaw-dropping density of these beautiful species, while also searching for those slightly more elusive species like leaf scorpionfish and stargazers. Depending on where you are in North Sulawesi though will change a lot in terms of what you’ll see.
For example, Bunaken and Gangga are more your typical tropical coral reef systems, so you’re more likely to spend your time looking for species like anemonefish, lionfish, longfin bannerfish, and butterflyfish, while enjoying the schools of chromies and anthias inundating the hard corals, and clouds of red-tooth triggerfish and fusileers in the blue. Also, because Bunaken in particular has been so good at protecting their nesting sea turtles, you will no doubt see many dozens of green and hawksbill turtles munching on the corals or just lazing about the reef. Finally, though encounters are slim, a passing dugong is not an impossible sight as guests from one of our 2018 Borneo-North Sulawesi Snorkel Safaris will tell you.
Lembeh, on the other hand, is a very different snorkeling experience when it comes to marine life. We can of course find all the same colorful reef dwellers like lionfish and anemone fish. However, because the area is such a global hot spot for rare or hard to find species like devil scorpionfish, Banggai cardinalfish, seahorses, unique species of frogfish, octopus, and cuttlefish—not to mention a never-ending parade of nudibranchs, we tend to spend our snorkeling time searching for creatures like this.
Likely Marine Life Encounters
North Sulawesi Snorkeling Season
North Sulawesi makes a fantastic snorkeling destination as it has a much more mild climate and isn’t typically affected by the harsh annual monsoon season. Snorkeling in North Sulawesi is suitable year-round. Between July and October chances of rain are much less with air temperatures consistently in the high seventies to low eighties. From November to June chances of rain are a bit higher, and it typically comes in the form of a tropical afternoon shower leaving blue skies behind. Air temperature will be about the same as they are during the drier months. Water temperatures are the warmest from October to March with average temps in the low eighties, while July and August see average water temperatures in the mid-seventies.
Marine life encounters really don’t change too much throughout the year as most of the inhabitants aren’t migratory species. On any one of our snorkeling safaris to North Sulawesi, you can expect to cruise over beautiful reefs, clouds of colorful reef fish, a bounty of unique critters, lots of turtles, and even the possibility of witnessing a nest of baby turtles hatching and making their mad dash to the sea!
Snorkeling Holiday Examples
With the variety of guide-led group snorkeling safaris that we offer, there are a number of ways to snorkel in North Sulawesi.
Sulawesi is locating pretty much smack-dab in the middle of Indonesia, and because the Mando Airport has direct access to other popular snorkeling destinations like Borneo and Raja Ampat we often run our North Sulawesi Snorkeling Safaris in combination with another destination like Raja Ampat. These combination tours are a great way to experience the best of North Sulawesi wile also being able to explore other top snorkeling spots in Indonesia.
We do also offer one photo-centric snorkeling safari called the Sulawesi Photo Safari. This tour is led by our Snorkel Venture photo pro, Alex Lindbloom, and is aimed at those snorkelers who wish to improve their underwater photo skills. Because North Sulawesi has such amenable conditions and a vast array of beautiful underwater subjects, it makes for a pretty outstanding tour.
Regardless of whether or not you are on one of our combination snorkel tours or a photo safari, the logistics will by and large run the same. If the tour starts in North Sulawesi, you’ll be picked up at the airport by the resort staff and transferred to Siladen Resort, where we will all meet. If North Sulawesi is the second stop on our tour, we will fly together from wherever we are coming from and be escorted to the Siladen by the resort’s staff as a group.
Every day after breakfast we’ll jump on our own private snorkel boats complete with guides and head out for at least three different snorkels on three different sites. The resort’s fantastic house reef is also always open for those that want to spend a day relaxing at the resort and snorkel at their leisure, or for those that just haven’t had enough and want to spend every waking moment in the water. For the photo safaris, the evenings will usually revolve around a lecture/presentation where Alex will discuss the nuances and techniques of underwater photography. As with just about all our snorkeling safaris, all meals, snorkeling, accommodations, transfers, and internal flights are included. Alcohol and rental equipment are generally the only additional costs.