Sulawesi (formerly known as Celebes) is one of the four larger Sunda Islands of Indonesia and is situated between Borneo and the Maluku Islands. Sulawesi is the world's eleventh-largest island, covering an area of 174,600 kmē. The island is surrounded by Borneo to the west, by the Philippines to the north, by Maluku to the east, and by Flores and Timor to the south. It has a distinctive shape, dominated by four large peninsulas: the Semenanjung Minahassa; the East Peninsula; the South Peninsula; and the South-east Peninsula. The central part of the island is ruggedly mountainous, such that the island's peninsulas have traditionally been remote from each other, with better connections by sea than by road.
The island is subdivided into six provinces: Gorontalo, West Sulawesi, South Sulawesi, Central Sulawesi, Southeast Sulawesi, and North Sulawesi. West Sulawesi is a new province, created in 2004 from part of South Sulawesi. The largest cities on the island are Makassar, on the southwestern coast of the island, and Manado, on the northern tip.
The trip from Boston, MA, to Manado, which is the northern airport in Sulawesi, is long by any standards. We flew Virgin Atlantic from Boston Logan to Heathrow, then had a short layover, and next flew Singapore Airlines. Once again, after another layover we flew Silk Air to Manado. Then we had a 'short' car ride to our first destination, Santika Hotel & Thalassa Dive Center.
Although the total flying time is ~25 hours, these are the airlines to fly to keep it somewhat bearable (those who do this type of travel for work have a tenacity that we cannot even begin to understand). The attentiveness of the airline staff, the comfort of the seats, and the quality of the food is so far superior to anything we have ever found in a US airline that they cannot be compared even when you are at the Platinum level.
While on Sulawesi we stayed at two different places: Santika Hotel & Thalassa Dive Center. and Kungkungan Bay Resort. In both locations we stayed in a villa, which we enjoyed. Everything was clean and comfortable. The food in both places was also quite good. When we travel, we tend to shy away from the fancy meals and actually prefer the local fare, which, in this case, was great. One interesting note was that Hotel Santika was largely empty, BUT Kungkungan Bay Resort was full due to an underwater photo shoot-out held by Scuba Diver Australasia. The weather was, as expected, warm but rainy.... Mid-to-late November is the start of the rainy season and it generally rained some of the day. Fortunately we were diving, so it made little difference.
Diving was an interesting mix. When we planned the trip, we read about muck diving at Lembeh Strait and decided that should be one focus. The other focus would be the wall diving on the west side of the northern peninsula.
While we were at Hotel Santika we dove in Bunaken National Park, which was interesting from the perspective that all our previous diving had been in the Caribbean (with the exception of Hawaii), and this was quite different. One downside was that dive masters (DMs) had not told us that these were going to be drift dives, and when we jumped in, the currents were as strong as we had ever seen. In fact, the currents pulled us up and down as well as north-south, east-west. One example had a current lift us ~40ft in 90 seconds, another had us kicking up just to stay at a constant depth. This made for some particularly 'interesting' dives since no dive was shorter than 65 minutes.
All the dive sites were within a ~15-minute boat ride of the dive center, and the DM-to-diver ratio was no more than 1:4 at all times. Those DMs are invaluable because they know what lives where underwater and can take you to all the good stuff. During each of our 3 dives/day, we had the same DM, which made for some nice continuity. He showed us the biggest giant clams we've ever seen and pointed out multi-colored nudibranches that looked like creatures from outer space. Mostly we did wall diving, and the coral and critters were lively and abundant. This is not the land of big fish, but the variety and quantity of undersea life more than made up for that.
After each of our 2 morning dives, we were brought back to the dock for lunch at the dive center, which was always very delicious and homemade. A local villager served as the resident chef. Before we knew it, it was time to head out for our afternoon dive, again on an uncrowded boat to a flourishing underwater locale. The ONLY negative was that NITROX was unavailable.
Diving in Lembeh Strait was remarkable in a very different way. Our first reaction upon jumping into the water and descending was "it's a shame that there is so much trash out here." But once our guides started pointing out stuff, it was far better than anything we had seen anywhere else. An unexpected fortuitous aspect of the timing of our trip was that the annual Scuba Diver Australasia Photo Shoot-Out was taking place while we were at Kungkungan Bay Resort. As a result, the DMs were at their best, and every dive was better than the previous one. We saw pygmy seahorses -- 10 on 1 sea fan alone -- and frog fish the size of footballs. Amazing lionfish, sea moths, gunards, and scorpion fish were hiding in every crevice. All in all, we found no compelling reason to return to Bunaken National Park, but we would return to Lembeh Strait without hesitation. A sample of our pictures can be found here.