It takes some effort to reach the northern coast of Sulawesi for the Passport to Paradise dive trip, but the reward is well worth the journey. The trip offers divers a chance to visit three different hotels around Sulawesi. Each of these has its own vibe and friendly staff. Because of the varied locations, dives cover a full range of underwater habitats. And with the option of a boat transfer between hotels, you’re sure to explore some isolated areas as well.
What to expect
Trips start in Manado at the Murex Manado hotel. Our trip was a 4-3-4, meaning four nights at the first location, Manado, followed by three nights in Bangka and four nights in Lembeh.
Every day starts with a breakfast by the sea, followed by two morning dives. The boat returns after the second dive and heads out in the afternoon for a third dive. Each hotel offers a house reef, shore dives, night dives and other specialties. Each of the three locations has unique marine habitats as well, and dive staff plans daily trips according to the weather conditions and experience of their group.
The trip starts in Manado across from the Bunaken National Park, with sheer reef walls and deep azure water. Oh, and the sea turtles — there are so many you’ll get tired of them (not really). At the top of the reef are shallow banks, with bright, branching stony corals.
Nearshore, Manado has some exception muck dives with a good chance to spot some flamboyant cuttlefish. There are some huge colonies of Euphyllia hammer coral as well, and a creative coral-restoration project made from old motorbikes.
After a few nights in Manado, the trip continues by boat to Bangka Island. The ride takes about 1½ hours and you stop for two dives along the way. We visited a nearshore reef wall, with some of the most diverse coral species I spotted on the trip, as well as a shallow Acropora on the shores of a fishing village. Dive sites will vary, however, depending on the skill level and interests of your group.
Once you arrive at Bangka, you’ll struggle to make out any noise other than the sound of gentle waves breaking on the shore. The island retreat is calm and quiet during the day, with limited electricity. You’ll do three dives per day here as well, with two in the morning and one in the afternoon. Dives can be on the exposed side of the island, with swift currents and walls of soft non-photosynthetic corals. Or, if the weather is acting up, you can dive on the protected side of the island and visit shallow coral lagoons.
A favorite site in Bangka was around the top of the island in a bay called Tanjung Merah. This shallow dive has a range of coral habitats starting from 50 feet (15 m) up to just a few feet of water. The deeper reefs are filled with stony corals, while the shallows come alive with pastel-colored leather corals.
Just when you think your trip couldn’t get any better, it’s time to pack your bags and head to the last stop of the trip, Lembeh Resort. This area is famous for muck diving on black, volcanic sand and is home to some of the world’s strangest critters.
Lembeh Strait is one of the most biodiverse habitats on the planets. Pipefish, cuttlefish, octopus, frogfish, and nudibranchs are common on every dive. But, as a coral-lover, I was drawn to some of Lembeh’s rare and unusual coral specimens.
After a handful of dives, the diversity of large polyp corals like Trachyphyllia, Catalayphyllia, Goniopora, and Blastomussa blew me away. Lembeh is famous for strange critters but don’t forget to admire the unique coral species.
After 11 days and 30 dives, the Passport to Paradise trip comes to a perfect end in Lembeh.
Because so many divers consider Lembeh the holy grail of diving, it’s not off-the-beaten path per se, but when combined with Manado and Bangka, this adventure fits perfectly into the road- less-traveled category.
It may take a few days to arrive in Manado, but once you’re there, it only takes minutes to feel at home. You won’t be disappointed with the diving in Sulawesi and the Passport to Paradise trip is the ideal way to explore this world-class diving destination.