Siladen: the impetus for my recent scuba certification and exploration of the underwater world. Thankfully I followed through with my studies, my pool session, my mask clearing and my open water certification. Had I not, I would have missed half of this glorious experience by merely sitting on the surface of a magical world below.
Two of our good friends traveled across the Pacific, stayed with us in Singapore for a few days and then we all boarded a flight for Sulawesi, Indonesia. They are divers — experienced divers. Mr. Producer and I are beginners — just beginners, but it was these two friends who encouraged us to get certified and who suggested this trip to Siladen Resort. Nice choice, Christine and Rob! It was spectacular.
Siladen Resort is on Siladen — a tiny island off the coast of Sulawesi in Bunaken National Marine Park. The park was established in 1991 and fishing in the park is relegated to certain zones, allowing marine life to flourish in relatively peaceful water. There are reportedly more than 90 species of fish and 390 species of coral in Bunaken. Sea depths around the islands of Bunaken are between 200 and 1,800 meters — over a mile deep!
Our departing flight was delayed about two hours — Mount Lokon (one of Indonesia’s 150+ volcanoes) had erupted the evening before our arrival, sending ash and smoke into the air. The air had to clear before we could safely land in Manado on the island of Sulawesi. I’ve never been delayed due to a volcano, and it made me wonder how the little Manado airport would determine when the particulate matter in the sky had cleared enough for a safe landing. Regardless, we did land safely in the late afternoon and found that most locals didn’t even know why the plane had been delayed. Percolating volcanoes are not a big deal in this part of the world.
Our ride was waiting so we climbed in the van and drove 20 minutes to a jetty where we boarded a boat to Siladen (just out of frame in the photo from the plane). We were just in time for sunset — and a great one at that.
Siladen Resort is a sleepy little place without much fuss. Most people come to dive and spend their days out on the dive boats, then return to the resort to relax, eat, sleep and do it all again the next day. About 20 villas, beach front and garden view, accommodate all the guests. Each villa has a front porch, thatched roof and big outdoor bathroom. There’s no pretense here — it’s just a low-key, friendly and comfortable place next to the ocean where the focus is on the fish, not on you. I loved it here — door to door from Singapore doesn’t take long, yet it feels a million miles away.
There’s something unreal about tropical island color in this part of the world. It looks as though the saturation is pushed, the yellow ink is high, the blue has a fluorescent quality and everything just sings. I often find myself shooting a photo, then reshooting it again because I can’t believe the color I’m seeing or that I fully captured it the first time.
Siladen Resort has three dive boats — just enough to accommodate varying skill levels and interests of all the guests. Fifty-two dive sites are noted on the map, and most can be reached in 20 minutes or less. Stephan and Valentine, recent arrivals from the Maldives, are dive instructor and dive master along with a great crew of local guys who know all the secrets of the surrounding ocean like currents, tides and where to find the big fish.
Here’s one of the few photos I took of something I saw in the ocean — a blue sea star in the shallow water along the beach. Without an underwater camera, I’m left with just words to try to describe the amazing, prolific creatures living around Siladen. So here goes — a few broad verbal strokes to paint the picture.
Siladen was my introduction to wall diving. At the surface, what I perceived as merely the end of the reef was just the beginning of a deep, steep drop off to the bottom of the ocean. The subtle topography of most of the land at the surface gave no indication of the vast canyon walls below, so I had no idea what to expect from our first dive. Deflating my BCD, I slowly descended about 50 feet under water, constantly equalizing my ears and keeping an eye on Delly, the dive master. Reaching our starting depth, we signaled “OK” and began our slow drift along the wall. Already, the contrast was mind-blowing. Look to the left and see a bizarre world of plant life and infinitesimal creatures. Look to the right and see deepening blue with no end and no bottom. It reminded me of rock climbing — being so intimately connected to the wall in front of you while seeing and feeling the unusual space behind and below you.
Hundreds of fish swam along at similar depth, their stripes and colors unlike anything on land. Purple, orange, teal, electric blue — in my next life can I be a fish designer? A huge turtle, two feet in diameter, surveyed the wall and eventually stopped to rest on a shelf. An anemone with pearly tentacles waved in the current as tiny little fish hovered above it. Delicate corals with intricate patterns were rooted along the wall, and purple and yellow sea squirts amazed me with their complementary colors. Yet I looked out again into the deep blue and saw a Napolean wrasse, parrotfish and elusive blacktip reef shark far below. And just like that, nearly an hour had passed yet my mind was blown beyond any measurable capacity. The beauty, life, visibility and peacefulness underwater was astounding.
On land, the days were hot but we walked along the path and explored the local village. There are no cars on the island, only foot traffic. The houses are quaint and well kept. A few structures are being built or replaced. We were greeted with smiles and people seemed generally happy that we were there. About 90% of the employees of Siladen Resort are from the island, so staying at the resort has a direct impact on the local economy. Tourism creates jobs on Siladen (housekeeping, landscaping, food and beverage servers, tour guides, dive masters, etc.) and people in related industries (fishing, farming, etc.) benefit as well.
Kids were out one day with a wispy sheet of plastic, moving it around from tree to tree as a young girl poked up at the branches with a long piece of bamboo.
She took aim at hanging fruit and then jabbed with the stick to dislodge it. What came down, and what they were catching, were deep purple berries (or cherries?) that left dark, sticky blots on the sidewalk. As I was photographing one, a smiling woman approached me and said “makan”. I thought she was telling me the name of the fruit, but actually makan means “eat” in Malay. Yes, these should be eaten!
What paradise along the coast of Siladen — quiet water, changing sky and a waiting lounge chair.
Manado Tua is another island in Bunaken, not far from Siladen. It’s the tip of a dormant volcano and the focal point of all my sunset photos. Clouds swirled around its apex as the sun set and colors changed, and another day ended in Indonesia.
Diving the next day was equally spectacular — the guys did an advanced wreck dive at a Dutch cargo ship from the 1940s. I’m not working on advanced certification — I’m just happy to be able to breathe underwater and look at pretty things. Shortly after surfacing we were all on top of the dive boat chatting away when I heard an unusual muffled explosion. It sounded big. I scanned the water and the shore for the source of the noise but didn’t see anything. Duh! An explosion like that can only mean one thing. Stephan pointed to the sky behind us. Lokon had erupted again, creating a massive cloud in the sky. This was becoming a vacation of firsts.
Subsequent dives brought more fish and more firsts. I did my first sunset dive, hoping to see mandarin fish — fantastic little creatures who “kiss” at dusk. We floated and waited, and floated and waited. But a fellow diver had a camera with a flash, and after one lightning blast with that device I think the mandarin fish closed the shutters and called it a night. We returned to the boat using a torch to light the way — me feeling on the verge of vertigo as light hitting the surface and the ocean floor disappeared, leaving me in darkness with no visual reference of direction.
My last dive of the trip introduced me to current and the importance of not freaking out when you feel as though you’re going to drift off into the big, blue abyss. My fin strap had come undone so I was wildly kicking with one foot, trying not to lose my fin or drift away from the group while I signaled to Delly that I needed help. He saw my panic and swam over to put my strap back on. In the meantime, my eyeballs felt like they were going to implode into my head. Oh, mask squeeze! Another first. I exhaled and pulled the mask away from my face and released the suction. Calm was restored as we drifted along with the current, dodging boulders on the ocean floor like we were playing a video game. Wow, what a trip.
Later that afternoon, Chris and I strolled to the east edge of the island with picturesque palm trees reaching toward the sky.
We returned to the bar for afternoon cocktails and watched a tiny sand crab drag his shell across the beach — like a human crossing the Sahara carrying a roof overhead. I don’t think I’ve ever been on a vacation where I’ve seen so much non-human life, big and small. Even the tides, currents and erupting volcano were reminders that the earth moves and breathes independently from us.
The boat bar, on the sand along the shoreline, was a great spot for sunset and drinks before dinner.
Grilled fish and a huge buffet with our toes in the sand! I know, I see the irony in swimming with the fish and then eating them for dinner. But fish are caught by local fishermen in sustainable, zoned areas of the marine park, then sold to resorts at a fair price. Generally speaking, there is a positive correlation between tourism on Siladen and the economic outlook for Siladen’s residents. There’s a great report online that studied the effects of Bunaken Marine Park on the general area — a very interesting read on how designation of the park has affected fishing, jobs, conservation, poverty, health, education and even jealousy among the island communities.
On our last day we went out in search of dolphins and pilot whales. We didn’t find the pilot whales, but a flurry of activity in the water eventually led us to the dolphins. Dozens and dozens swam, surfaced, exhaled, jumped and followed next to the boat.
Taking turns, groups of two and three and four would swim alongside, then duck away into deeper water. We kept slowly circling, taking photos and marveling at their playfulness.
One last jump, then we turned and headed back to Siladen to go snorkeling on the reef. Snorkeling — yet another amazing experience filled with immense marine life! Cornetfish, spotted rays, clown fish, tuna, barracuda, nudibranchs, brain coral, staghorn coral and breathtaking anemones with hundreds of tiny tentacles dancing in unison. A protected ocean is astounding — a wonderland of life and color and imagination. More marine parks, please.