The moment we saw the picture below of Siladen Island, we knew wanted to experience Bunaken snorkeling, and we were able to in 2023. Bunaken National Marine Park is in North Sulawesi, Indonesia. And it was a great experience. The reefs overall are in excellent health, have a nice variety and number of fish on them, and there are lots of Green and Hawksbill Sea Turtles.
It may not be our most favorite Indonesia snorkeling destination (we are spoiled), but it is still fantastic, and it is relatively easy to get to, with a number of accommodation options that are fairly affordable. This makes Bunaken snorkeling a much more accessible destination for many snorkelers on a budget, and it is certainly going to offer better snorkeling than what you will find around Bali. And if you are comparing the reefs to the Caribbean or Hawaii, Bunaken snorkeling will blow your socks off.
Watch Our Bunaken Snorkeling Video
If you watch our video below you will get a good sense for what you can expect from Bunaken snorkeling. This was from just four days of snorkeling the area.
More About Bunaken National Marine Park
Bunaken National Marine Park is located on the northern tip of the large island of Sulawesi, in Indonesia. The park is a 343 square miles (552 km) and includes the five islands of Bunaken, Manado Tua, Mantehage, Nain, and Siladen, and two sections of the Sulawesi mainland shoreline. Located within the famed Coral Triangle, the park is known to be habitat to nearly 400 species of corals, as well as a large variety of fish, turtles, and other sea creatures.
The park was established in 1991. One source told us that sustenance fishing is allowed, with some limits, and some patrols and other efforts do attempt to keep illegal fishing out. But many fishing limits were dropped during COVID, and have not yet returned. The park is run by the forest service, with no marine scientists involved in oversight. Recently though there have been some good steps made to improve the park protections.
Another factor of the park is its proximity to Manado, which has a population of nearly a half million. So in some conditions and seasons trash on the water can be an issue. Although truthfully, trash is an issue in nearly all of Indonesia’s waters we have snorkeled, even in highly remote areas with little population.
But this close proximity to Manado is also one of the desirable features about Bunaken snorkeling. It is a relatively easy city to fly to. From the airport it takes about 30 minutes to get to the water, and another 30 minutes by boat out to the islands. You could also combine a trip here with some snorkeling at Lembeh, which offers some unique and interesting creatures to see, and also to Bangka Island.
Where We Snorkeled at Bunaken
We joined a guided group snorkeling trip that our trips partner offered, and were based out of a resort on Siladen Island (more about the resort below). The resort ran us over to a variety of snorkel spots by boat, primarily around Bunaken Island, and a spot off Manado Tua. All the snorkeling spots are fairly close in this area, requiring a 10-20 minute boat ride.
We also snorkeled the house reef at Siladen. And for part of a day we enjoyed watching a local superpod of dolphins from the boat.
We only had four days for Bunaken snorkeling, so our experience was not exhaustive by any means. We were not able to snorkel along the mainland shore for example, which apparently has some unique creatures on a “muck” type bottom, although not black sand like in Lembeh.
What We Saw While Snorkeling Bunaken
Overall Coral Health
The overall health of the reefs was very good. There is a nice variety of hard and corals, and the density of the reefs is fairly high, and there were lots of colorful sponges in different sizes. When we were there, some snorkel spots had some very hot water flowing off the shallows, and there was some bleaching happening in some corals and anemones. Although we expect that those would have recovered as the water temperatures changed. Generally in very shallow areas, where the tide goes all the way out and leaves the corals dry, the coral health is not great. But overall, in the normal Bunaken snorkeling depths, the reefs were healthy, alive and colorful.
One reason Bunaken snorkeling does not quite compare to some other destinations like Alor, or Raja Ampat, is that the variety of corals and ecosystems, from spot to spot, is not tremendously diverse. You tend to see similar things at each spot.
Fish Variety and Quantities
The fish quantities in Bunaken were very good, although not as great as in other areas of Indonesia that are more remote and offer more fishing protections.
While Bunaken snorkeling, you can expect to see a lot of smaller, colorful reef fish, including big schools of Pyramid Butterflyfish, fusiliers, Sergeant Majors, snappers, clouds of damselfish, chubs, Moorish Idols, and Red-toothed Triggerfish.
In terms of unique fish, the skinny Razorfish, that swim vertically were on many reefs. We also saw a number of different eels on the reefs.
But we did not see many larger fish species. And we saw no sharks or larger rays, although we saw several of the small Blue-spotted Rays.
If you want to see much larger schools of fish, larger species, sharks, manta rays, octopus, and other creatures that are normally hunted, then try to get yourself to Misool, Indonesia, our favorite snorkeling spot on Earth.
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There are absolutely gobs of different anemonefish, and their anemones. Although there were a number of bleached anemones, due to the hot water. And we found a couple of Leaf Scorpionfish, which makes Bunaken snorkeling unique.
The variety of fish types from spot to spot remained fairly consistent.
Other Creatures We Saw
We saw many different types of sea stars, like Cushion Sea Stars in many colors, Chocolate Chip Sea Stars, and the wonderful Blue Sea Stars. The reefs of Bunaken are known to host many colorful and tiny nudibranchs, of which we spotted a good number. There are also commensal shrimps and crabs in the anemones, like the Porcelain Anemone Crab below you can spot if you look. We also saw some beautiful colorful clams and a number of cowries and other snails.
You are nearly guaranteed to see numerous sea turtles while Bunaken snorkeling, both Green and Hawksbill. In fact the only destination in the world we have snorkeled that had more turtles was Maui. We saw a number of truly giant Green Sea Turtles as well.
Bunaken Snorkeling Depths
The underwater topography at the spots we visited was relatively consistent. You snorkel close to the islands on fringing reef plateaus, that gradually get deeper, and then most often drop off to a nearly vertical wall down into the deep. Depending on the tide height, you can often snorkel in nice shallow depths on top of the reef, for closeup experiences with fish and corals. And the depth at which the reef turns into a wall is shallow enough that snorkelers who don’t freedive can enjoy the drop-off edge, and will be able to see sealife down the wall.
On lower tides, at some Bunaken snorkeling spots, there may not be enough depth to go very far over the reef top. But in those situations you end up being very close to the reef edge, and get a great closeup with fish and corals that way as well. If you do freedive, the walls are wonderful to explore.
And there are areas with a more gentle reef slope, that allow more cruising around over the reef, in nice shallow depths. So unless you really don’t like snorkeling over drop-offs, we consider the topography in Bunaken to be excellent for snorkeling.
There were certainly currents at nearly every Bunaken snorkeling spot we visited. Stronger in some spots, and more gentle in others. Generally the currents are not an issue, because you always swim with them, and the snorkel boat will pick you up wherever you end up.
Of course if you are snorkeling by yourself, on a house reef, you must be very cautious about the currents, because you could be caught in a current that is stronger than you can swim. Normally though you can find relief from the current by swimming into shallower areas over the reef, as the currents tend to flow fastest along the walls around the islands. This is not always the case though.
One feature of the currents at Bunaken, which was almost annoying at times, was that they would change direction very regularly. So you might be snorkeling along, and then have to switch direction for 10 minutes, and then suddenly have to switch back, which may mean snorkeling back and forth over the same area. We had that happen a surprising number of times during a single snorkel. It is just something to be aware of. Go with the flow!
Siladen House Reef Snorkeling Tips
From what we were told and experienced, the best snorkeling on Siladen Island is along the reef to either side of the village boat jetty, toward the south end of the island. This area is considered the “House Reef,” both for the Siladen Resort where we stayed, and a number of other accommodations on the island.
If you are staying at the Siladen Resort, the easiest way to snorkel this area is to walk down the center of the village road (dotted yellow line on the map) until you reach the jetty (or the resort can drop you off by golf cart). You could also walk down the beach. It takes about 10 minutes, and the ground and beach sand are very hot, so footwear is necessary. There are no steps down into the water at the end of the jetty, so you need to walk through the shallows next to it. We highly recommend footwear, because very poisonous stonefish and rays could be mostly submerged in the sand.
You will want to snorkel both right over the drop-off, and over the shallow coral shelf. The health and variety of corals in this area is very good, and there is also a nice variety of fish. We found loads of different anemonefish on the house reef, the vertical swimming Razorfish, and schools of other reef fish.
Much of the reef that is right in front of Siladen Resort is very shallow, and goes dry on a low tide, so you should not expect much coral until you get near the drop-off, which is a long way out, 1200 feet (376 m). You can snorkel in the area on a high tide, but must be careful not to stand on or damage the seagrass. And be aware that very poisonous stonefish, and rays, may be mostly buried in the sand, so definitely do not venture out in bare feet.
Those shallow areas can be fun though, to see different creatures in the seagrass, and you are sure to find a ton of sea stars. Turtles also frequent the area to munch on the grass. Generally speaking though, it is not ideal snorkeling, and the area indicated on the map above is better.
Cautions Snorkeling Siladen House Reef – Currents and Boats
There are regularly strong currents along the reef edge, that are potentially stronger than you can swim against. And the currents can change direction suddenly and often. The currents looked to be strongest around the point. So we don’t recommend going beyond the southern point, where you cannot be seen.
Remember, if you are in a strong current, you may be able to swim closer to shore, over the reef, and the current may not be as strong. Make sure and notify your resort if you are going to be snorkeling the house reef, with your intended return time, so they can either keep an eye on you, or look for you if you don’t return.
There is also a decent amount of boat traffic, coming to the jetty, and to the beaches along this shore, as well as out along the reef edge. Because of this we highly recommend you use a high visibility marker buoy when snorkeling the house reef.
How to Visit Bunaken and Where to Stay
There are many available flights within Indonesia to Manado (MDC), and a few international direct flights, from Japan and China. From the airport, depending on traffic, it is about a 30 minute car ride to the port, and the boats out to different resorts on the islands within the Bunaken National Marine Park take about 30 minutes as well.
As mentioned, we joined a guided snorkeling group trip that our trips partner offered, and we were based out the Siladen Resort. The benefits of joining a group tour like this are that everyone you are with are snorkelers, so no mixing with divers, and you have a guide who organizes and joins you on the inter-island flights. This is handy because these flights are notoriously late, or get cancelled at the last minute.
So having an expert guide to handle those issues can be very comforting indeed. The guide also makes sure that everything is running smoothly for you at the resorts, and that the snorkel boats are visiting spots that are appropriate for snorkelers.
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You can read more about our experience at the Siladen Resort below, but there are also a number of other resorts within the park that you can find on TripAdvisor, and it is a very doable location to visit without a group.
What Siladen Resort Is Like
Generally we don’t review resorts or businesses, preferring to focus on the reefs. But the following may be helpful.
We really like the Siladen Resort. It may not be as highly polished as some resorts we have stayed at, its facilities and boats are showing their age a little bit, but the place is just very inviting, friendly, and comfortable. It has a summer camp sort of vibe. They provide excellent service, without being obsequious.
They also now own the Coral Eye Resort on Banka Island, and have a package for a combined resort vacation, with a water transfer between the resorts.
The rooms are very nice, and do have A/C. They show a bit of age, with creaking floors, and in small fit and finish ways. The wood exteriors could use a refresh. But it sounds like there is a plan for some updates in 2025. The ensuite open-air bathroom is very nice, with outdoor shower, good lighting, and plenty of room for stuff. The water in the bathroom is not potable, and saltwater is used for the toilets.
But they do provide the best solution for drinking water we have ever experienced in a tropical resort, with a big potable water machine that provides hot or cold water. The rooms have TVs, but it is just four local stations from an antenna, not that we care about watching TV on these trips.
There are raised flagstone paths connecting bungalows with other areas of the resort. They are lit for walking around at night. They have a salt water pool, a nice bar area with a pool table, a treehouse platform for presentations and yoga classes. They have a full service spa where you can get treatments. There is a dive/snorkel building for meeting before going out on the boat. There is a building with an area for your gear to be stored and dried, but the staff mostly takes care of that for you. You will also find some old ovens on the property.
The food was fantastic, and mostly buffet style, with some custom prepared dishes at your request. They were really helpful and careful with our diet limitation. They even baked special little gluten-free muffins, breads and other treats for us. Lunches and dinners most of the time are served out on the beach, under shade trees, with the potential for a cooling breeze. The view from the beach, of the ocean and neighboring islands, was very enjoyable at lunch and dinner. Breakfast is served under the roofed dining area/restaurant.
We were also treated to live music twice. Once, a village singing band of about 50 people came walking down the beach and sang for us, playing on unique handmade instruments, and they were fantastic. Another evening there was a live band with a singer, that was also very good.
The snorkel boats are very good, with a toilet, full shade, and good ladders for getting back on board. They are good sized boats with plenty of room. They show a bit of age from lots of use, but it does not matter. We were served hot coffee or hot tea after each snorkel, with treats and fruit, and water was always available. They even provided a hot aromatic towel to wipe down your face after your snorkel.
The snorkel guides on the boat were great, with a positive energy. They both kept a careful eye on everyone, but also pointed out interesting creatures, like tiny nudibranchs. They did a great job with our gear, before and after snorkels, and getting stuff as dry as possible before we left.
Best Seasons for Bunaken Snorkeling?
We had a nice long chat with the manager at Siladen Resort who has many years of experience in the area, about the best seasons for snorkelers to visit Bunaken. Keep in mind that weather is less predictable than it used to be, but here is what we learned:
- The West Monsoon affects both Siladen and Coral Eye Resorts (their other resort on Bangka Island), so July and August are not great for snorkelers.
- The South Monsoon affects Coral Eye and Lembeh, and it is also rainy at Siladen, from December through February, which is not great for snorkeling.
- The best months to visit for Bunaken snorkeling are March through June, and September through November.