During the surface interval on the boat, as I wait for the next dive into a site in Bunaken National Marine Park, Northern Sulawesi, the crew from Tasik Ria Resort unexpectedly strikes up a tune. One strums on a guitar, another picks the strings of a ukulele and the captain uses the side of the dive boat as a drum. After renditions of Indonesian music, they present some well-known retro pop songs, at which point I lustily join the band. Time to kit up in our wetsuits and don our tanks comes way too soon. Story by Gillian McLaren.
We roll back into the tropical water system of the Celebes Sea, into a parallel universe with a seagrass plain and coral reef, alive with sea creatures. Part of the epicentre of the renowned coral triangle, there are 400 species of coral within Bunakan and over 70% of the known fish species in the Indo-Western Pacific. I see so many different fish that I know I will battle to remember them all when I write up my logbook. We fin past Emperor angelfish, Bluestripe snapper, Titan triggerfish (which I give a wide berth to as one snapped at me some years ago when I swam too close to its nest), Napoleon wrasse and streaming schools of fusiliers. The Banded Coral shrimp and a minute Pygmy sea horse are so cute, I rue not having brought my magnifying glass with me on the dive. Nudibranchs in their colourful finery, my favourite critters, are abundant. Seeing a turtle is always a thrill and I am not disappointed at this site.
To our dismay, we surface amongst bobbing plastic bottles. The crew are apologetic and explain that the infrastructure in Manado – the nearby city – is behind the times, that locals have no rubbish removal, so non-biodegradable items are washed into the sea by the rain, then distributed by the currents. Apparently, most of the hotels and resorts keep their own beaches clean and organise projects to educate the local people, to dissuade them from using plastic. The diving is rich and awe-inspiring, so I soon look past the occasional plastic bag suspended underwater, like a new species of jellyfish.
Back onboard we are welcomed with fresh fruit, a towel and cold water, then motor back to the dining room on the resort’s private jetty, for lunch. I have chosen to dive on Tasik Ria’s smaller boat, but they also have a large boat with a sundeck, which has its own kitchen, so guests may stay out for the day, to have snacks like Pisang goring between dives, as well as a hot buffet for lunch. Guests that prefer to snorkel are guided over shallow reefs, where starfish, ghost fishes and turtles are frequently spotted.
As I am using Nitrox, I am not tired after my dives, so I swim a few lengths in the resort pool, after enjoying the outdoor shower in my cottage. In the late afternoon, I walk up to the local village to meet more of the people of Manado. Busses are brightly painted, motorbikes carry up to five people and cars are rare. They all whizz past, hooting to warn me of their presence, then wave joyfully. I am given a warm reception and invited into the simple shops and homes, to chat in sign language and smiles. Street photography is particularly fulfilling here, as people are shy but open to my requests for an image.
The open-sided Jetty Bar is the perfect spot for me to watch the sun setting over the ocean. Local visitors nip in for a drink and to play billiards, so it is festive, with karaoke on some evenings. Dan Green, the resort manager, is a delightful host and conversationalist, who adds to the friendly and relaxed vibe of the resort. I stroll back to my sea view cottage through the tropical gardens, with palm trees silhouetted in the moonlight, reflecting on my perfect day. www.tasikria.com
GOOD TO KNOW:
Non-diving adventure opportunities in Northern Sulawesi:
• Volcano trekking tour
• Minahasa Highland tour
• Tangkoto Nature Reserve tour
• White water rafting
Flights from ORTI in Johannesburg and Cape Town International Airport depart every day. Three additional flights (SQ481) will depart from OR Tambo International Airport on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday evening at 2230 hrs and arrive in Singapore the following day at 1455 hrs. The return flights from Singapore (SQ482) will also depart on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday afternoon at 1635 hrs and arrive in Johannesburg at 2110 hrs on the same day. Flight time to Singapore is usually ten hours twenty-five minutes. The A350-900 has an extra-wide body and high ceiling. Air is filtered to remove impurities and is completely replaced every 2-3 minutes. Business Class is exceptional, with fully reclining beds, personalised service, plus fine cuisine and wines.
From Singapore, fly SilkAir to Manado, where Tasik Ria Resort can organise a driver to transport you to the lodge. The journey is a pleasant 75 minute drive through Manado and surrounding small villages.
VISA FOR SINGAPORE AND INDONESIA:
No visa is required for South African passport holders
WHAT TO TAKE:
Singapore and Indonesia are hot and humid all year round. Lightweight, breathable clothing – especially pure cotton – is best, with a hat or portable umbrella to protect you from the sun, or a flash rain shower. Consider comfortable closed shoes if you would like to walk to explore in Singapore or nearby villages from Tasik Ria Dive Resort, but sandals or even slip slops will suffice. Remember your wetsuit or second skin for diving or snorkelling, plus a hand lens to magnify the exquisite tiny creatures.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED ACCOMMODATION IN INDONESIA:
• If you extend your trip, consider experiencing exciting muck dives, from White Sands Beach Resort in the Lembeh Strait. www.eco-divers.com/new-eco-divers-resort-lembeh
• Dive into Lembeh is situated on the mainland of the Lembeh Strait, in Kasawari Bay, with black volcanic sand beach and nearby coral reefs.
• To dive the renowned area of Raja Ampat, visit MahaRaja Eco Dive Lodge, on a private island. Simply stroll off the white sands of the beach or off the wooden pier, to snorkel and dive with Bamboo sharks, Wobegongs, Dugongs, nudibranchs and turtles. Plus hundreds of reef fishes.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED ACCOMMODATION IN SINGAPORE:
• The Jen Tangolin has chic, compact rooms with quirky décor – expediting some cute selfies – a fifteen minute stroll from Orchard Road, the famous shopping belt for designer fashion and other kinds of retail allure. Tuck into the Chilli Crab at Ah Hoi’s Kitchen, one of the four hotel restaurants.
• The Outpost Hotel Sentosa is a trendy adults-only hotel, with clean black and white design, amenities by Appelles and an infinity pool looking out onto the harbour. Choose between sea, island or pool view rooms. Note the high tech room toilet, a cutting edge design where two guests may set individual programmes for front or back spray, the temperature of water jet, whether water oscillates or streams freely, heated or cooled seat and preference for night light on the seat.
• Crowne Plaza Changi Airport is perfect for a luxurious overnight stay, walking distance from Terminal 3. Multi-cultural breakfasts are served from open kitchens. I loved my room facing the runway, as it is quiet, with an absorbing view of aeroplanes – one of my passions – through floor to ceiling windows.