An Underwater Odyssea in Northern Sulawesi
By Dave Harasti and Suzanne Offenberg - June 2007
There are many fantastic diving destinations surrounding the Australian continent including locations such as Papua New Guinea , Solomon Islands and East Timor . Most Australians visit these locations as they are easy to get to and travel time is not too long. However if one was to venture a little bit further a field into the Indo pacific region they would soon realise that diving in places such as Indonesia is relatively easy to achieve!
Rather than tread the more beaten paths we were after a destination that was relatively different and not one of the ‘standard' locations. After seeing some great underwater pics from various photographers around the world we ended up selecting North Sulawesi as our new diving destination as neither of us had dived in Indonesia . And we made an excellent choice as we were well rewarded with unspoilt coral reefs, a huge diversity of marine life and extremely uncrowded resorts; it turned out to be an underwater photographer's dream destination! Over the two week trip we sampled both the land based and live aboard options and were not disappointed by either!
Getting to North Sulawesi is much easier than it seems after discovering its location on a map! The flight from Sydney to Manado is effectively classed as a direct flight via Singapore and as a result we had to spend a night in Singapore on the way over. The overnight is included in the airfare and Singapore Airlines transported us to a 5 Star Hotel for the night before taking us back to the airport in the morning – it couldn't have worked out any better! The flight to Manado is with Silkair, a subsidiary of Singapore Airlines, who now fly to Manado 5 times a week from Singapore so it's very easy to get to. The flight back involved a three hour lay over at Singapore to change planes which allowed us to get in some much needed duty free shopping!
As part of our two week trip we spent 3 nights staying at Kima Bajo resort, probably the nicest (and most expensive) resort in the Manado area. The Kima Bajo resort is located a short 25 min drive from Manado airport and is simply stunning with the resort built on a large hill with large bungalow rooms covering the grounds. All the rooms are air conditioned and very roomy and the service provided by staff was exceptional. The only downside to the resort is that all the rooms are based at the top of the hill whilst the restaurant, swimming pool and more importantly the bar were based at the bottom. After walking up and down the hill several times a day we started to gain an understanding of what Sherpa's go through!
Based at the resort is the dive operation ‘Odyssea Divers' with whom we spent the next 3 days diving with. The Odyssea operation is conveniently located on the waters edge next to the Kima Bajo swimming pool and restaurant/bar. A great thing about the Odyssea setup is that they have a dedicated camera room with plenty of chargers and adaptors available for batteries, laptops etc and also a computer to download and copy your photo's to CD. The camera room also meant that one didn't have to lug their camera equipment back up the Kima Bajo hill!!
Whilst Kima Bajo is a simply stunning resort it does come at a price with rooms costing between $110 - $300 US a night, rather expensive for Indonesian accommodation! On the upside to this, Odyssea Divers are currently in the process of building a brand new resort specifically designed for scuba divers and in particular photographers. The new resort is called ‘Cocotinos' and is located opposite Kima Bajo on the shore of Wori Bay with a fantastic view of Manado Tua, a dormant volcano across the Sulawesi sea.
The Cocotinos resort is currently under construction and when it opens in October 2007, it will offer much more reasonable accommodation prices whilst providing the same level of exceptional service. Cocotinos will have 18 Duplex Villa Rooms or you can pamper yourself by staying in the fancy Grand Suite with its own spa bath! Single, twin-sharing or triple-sharing options are available to cater to groups of all sizes. All the rooms are being built with air-conditioning, fan, safe-deposit boxes, hot water and a large number of power points! Other features of the resort include a large swimming pool, dedicated camera room, restaurant and bar on the waters edge and wireless internet access is to be made available.
The diving from Odyssea is extremely diverse and varied. Odyssea run daily trips to Bunaken and Siladen Islands which are famous for the large coral wall drop offs, clear water and unusual marine life. They will also travel to some of the more remote divesites if there is enough interest. However, it was the diving around Wori Bay and the local Odyssea reefs that captivated us. As we had already stayed on Bunaken Island the previous week we spent the 3 days with Odyssea diving on their local reefs and were well rewarded with some excellent critter finds. These divesites are all conveniently located within a 10 min boat ride of Odyssea Divers.
Our favourite sites were Odyssea Points 1 & 2, Aba Reef and the Wori Bay House Reef. Some of the fantastic marine life that that we encountered included lots of different robust and ornate ghostpipefish, estuary seahorses, a rare pipehorse species, leaf scorpionfish and the highlight discovery was a small juvenile painted frogfish living at the base of a gorgonian fan. We were so impressed with the Odyssea reefs that we ended up forgoing on the planed afternoon R & R to do more diving!
After 3 days diving from Odyssea Divers' land based resort it was time for the next part of our adventure. We headed over to the busy port of Bitung , located on Lembeh Strait, to board the new liveaboard vessel ‘Odyssea 1'. Odyssea 1 is a purpose built liveaboard that commenced operation in April 2006 and travels around the divesites of North Sulawesi, Central Sulawesi, Moluccas Sea , Halmahera Sea and Raja Ampat.
As soon as we boarded Odyssea 1 it was obvious that this was the best liveaboard we had ever set foot upon. This boat has been perfectly set up for divers and the attention to detail is incredible. From the dedicated camera room with its plentiful chargers and adaptors and a computer setup to download/copy photos to the library room with numerous reference books, everything has been considered to meet a divers' needs. The boat has 2 Staterooms and 6 Deluxe Cabins (2 Single/Double, 4 Twin/Double or Triple Sharing) and all cabins and staterooms have an en-suite shower (hot & cold) and toilet. The other benefit is that all soft drinks, snacks, chocolate etc. are included so that the only thing we had to pay for on the boat was Nitrox, souvenir t-shirt s and the Bintang Beer bill!
This boat can only be described as a perfect dream for photographers. The dive deck not only has racks for tanks and dive gear but also has enough room for large benches specifically for each individual's camera gear, not to mention that each station comes with 2 towels – a blue one for the diver and a red one for the camera! They really have got their priorities right on Odyssea 1! In the activities room they even have a large TV hooked up to an Xbox if one feels like escaping from reality – not that we wanted to do that with all the great diving to be had and photos of critters to look at!
Our trip onboard Odyssea 1 was only for 3 days however in that short period of time we still managed to squeeze in 9 dives before resting the mandatory 24 hours before our flight home. The first day was spent diving some of the sites in Lembeh Strait and we visited sites such as Nudi Falls , Hairball, Police Jetty and Tanda Rusa. For those unaware, Lembeh is a ‘muck' diving paradise and is probably the best ‘macro' spot in the world to see weird and exotic creatures. We encountered species such as the Mimic Octopus, Hairy frogfish, Flamboyant Cuttlefish, Cockatoo Flounder and the appropriately named Devilfish! Lembeh is easily the best place that we have visited for underwater photography.
Early the next morning the boat headed north to visit the divesites around Bangka Island . Bangka Island is renowned for its walls of soft colourful corals and clear blue water and we were fortunate enough to have 3 excellent dives here. It was on one of the dives at Bangka Island that the group encountered a dugong whilst underwater – this would have been an awesome experience if our camera didn't have a 90mm macro lens on it! Fortunately one of the guests videoed the whole event and we saw some great close up action of the dugong! The other highlight on the dives was a Giant Frogfish sitting in amongst the soft corals at a depth of 30 metres; he was the biggest frogfish we had encountered all trip! That afternoon there was dusk dive under the famous Paradise Jetty that we had to miss out on due to the fact that we were flying the next day however it just made us more determined to come back to see it for ourselves!
Odyssea 1 tradition holds that on each trip, one night's dinner is held as a BBQ on a local beach and for us this was held on Bangka Island . The setting was perfect; a white sand beach and palm trees all it up by a bonfire and moon light. A couple of crew had set up camp earlier that afternoon so when we got to the beach at dinner time we were greeted by a feast, and the entire crew had come on land to provide the musical entertainment – it wasn't long before everyone was dancing! It was at this BBQ that everyone discovered the Captain of the boat was actually a ‘Guitar playing Casanova' – he'd be an odds on favourite to win the next Australian Idol!
The next morning we woke to see a beautiful sunrise over Bunaken Island and unfortunately it also signalled the end of our two week trip. We had just experienced some of the best diving that we had ever encountered and between us we had over 3,000 images to remind us of this great diving destination. The trip was so good that we are already making plans to go back later this year to experience the Cocotinos Resort after it opens. For additional information and more images of diving in Sulawasi please visit www.odysseadivers.com.