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Bunaken National Park
The Bunaken National Marine Park was formally established in 1991 and is among the first of Indonesia's growing system of marine parks. The park covers a total surface area of 89,065 hectares, 97% of which is overlain by sparkling clear, warm tropical water. The remaining 3% of the park is terrestrial, including the five islands of Bunaken, Manado Tua, Mantehage, Nain and Siladen. Although each of these islands has a special character, it is the aquatic ecosystem that attracts most naturalists.

The waters of Bunaken National Marine Park are extremely deep (1566 m in Manado Bay), clear (up to 35-40 m visibility), refreshing in temperature (27-29 C) and harbor some of the highest levels of biodiversity in the world. Pick any of group of interest - corals, fish, echinoderms or sponges - and the number of families, genera or species is bound to be astonishingly high. For example, 7 of the 8 species of giant clams that occur in the world, occur in Bunaken. The park has around 70 genera of corals; compare this to a mere 10 in Hawaii. Although the exact number of fish species is unknown, it may be slightly higher than in the Philippines, where 2,500 species, or nearly 70% of all fish species known to the Indo-western Pacific, are found.

Oceanic currents may explain, in part, why Bunaken National Marine Park is such a treasure trove of biodiversity. Northeasternly currents generally sweep through the park but abundant counter currents and gyros related to lunar cycles are believed to be a trap for free swimming larvae. This is particularly true on the south side of the crescent-shaped Bunaken Island, lying in the heart of the park. A snorkler or diver in the vicinity of Lekuan or Fukui may spot over 33 species of butterfly fish and numerous types of groupers, damsels, wrasses and gobies. The gobies, smallish fish with bulging eyes and modified fins that allow them to attach to hard surfaces, are the most diverse but least known group of fish in the park.

Emperor Shrimp on Nudibranch
Emperor Shrimp on Nudibranch (© Silent Symphony)

Biologists believe that the abundance of hard corals is crucial in maintaining the high levels of diversity in the park. Hard corals are the architects of the reefs, without them, numerous marine organisms would be homeless and hungry. Many species of fish are closely associated with particular types of corals (folious, branching, massives, etc.) for shelter and egg-laying. Others, like the enormous Bumphead Parrotfish, Balbometopon muricatum, are "coralivores" and depend on hard corals for their sustenance. Bony mouth parts fused into an impressive "beak" allow these gregarious fish to crunch corals like roasted peanuts.

Some 20,000 people live on the natural resources of Bunaken National Marine Park. Although there are inevitable conflicts between resource protection and use by people, the Indonesian government is taking a fairly unusual and pragmatic approach to park management. The idea is to promote wise resource use while preventing overexploitation. Local communities, government officials, dive resort operators, local nature groups, tourists and scientists have played an active role in developing exclusive zones for diving, wood collection, fishing and other forms of utilization. Bunaken Marine Park has become an important example of how Sulawesi, and the rest of Indonesia, can work to protect its natural resources.

Bunaken - The Best Wall
Bunaken - Lekuan 2 Bunaken Island offers a plethora of wall experiences for visiting divers. Everyone has their favorite site and mine is Lekuan 2. Judging from the number of divers who frequent the site, many agree with me. The reasons are obvious immediately upon entry. You can't help but notice the high concentration of schooling fish from the drummers and fusliliers that greet you as you begin your descent, the blizzards of brightly-colored anthias you pass along the edge of the reeftop, continuing to fall through the clouds of pyramid butterflyfish and bannerfish underneath. The variety of reef fish is astounding: you could pick out over 20 species of butterflyfish alone if you so desired.

The start of the traditional dive offers small treasures as candy crabs frequent the beautiful soft corals in the area, often adorning themselves with a sprig of live soft coral they've affixed atop their head. The faerie crab, a fingernail-sized squat lobster that's pink and hairy can be found by a discerning eye peering among the outer folds of barrel sponges. But don't become engrossed with the macro life so much that you miss any of the larger residents: sharks that pass you by below your fins, napoleons wrasse or bumphead parrotfish above you, or turtles out in the blue off the wall.

Toward the end of the site, the Lekuan point, the current predictably picks up just as you notice the schools of redtooth triggerfish around you. Sharks enjoy the current as well, often coming up to only five meters in depth to cut over the point to Lekuan 1. Resident napoleons, giant trevally, jacks, batfish and solitary giant barracuda are predictably seen along this stretch, but smaller denizens such as leaf scorpionfish are common as well, keeping your attention divided between the lush wall and the blue ocean.

With the wall going from only 2-5 meters along the top to 50-70 meters along the bottom, where a narrow shelf exists before the wall continues to plunge into the abyss, you can alter your depth to find an entire new set of attractions dive after dive. Boredom is definitely not an option.

Bruce Moore

"What's Happening?" - Manado Safari Tours Newsletter

The Bunaken Entrance Fee - Your money making a difference!
Now that you’ve arrived in Manado and enjoyed a few breathtaking dives in the Bunaken National Marine Park, you may be tempted to ask: "Just where does my Rp 150,000 entrance fee go anyway"? The answer will probably surprise you, as Bunaken’s entrance fee system is the first of its kind in Asia, and is being held up as a model system by marine conservationists around the world. The most important aspect of Bunaken’s system is that the money collected remains with the Bunaken Management Advisory Board to fund conservation and village development programs in the park – instead of heading to the national coffers as with every other national park in Asia (and many throughout the world)! This makes a world of difference, as it means your money goes towards managing the very reefs you’ve come to enjoy.

Moreover, the funds are controlled by a multi-stakeholder management board comprised of the North Sulawesi Watersports Association, villagers from the 30 villages in the park, local tourism, fisheries and environmental government agencies, and the local university’s marine sciences department. This setup ensures that the money collected is directed to the most important programs needed in the park (as agreed by this diverse set of interests).

To date, the Bunaken entrance fee system has been extremely successful; having been inaugurated on 15 March 2001, the system collected US$125,112 from March 2001 through August 2002, including $83,109 in 2002 alone. These fees were collected from 21,908 domestic visitors and 11,174 international visitors from 43 different countries.

So, you ask, where did that money go? Each year, the management board makes a yearly work plan in which it prioritizes the most urgent conservation issues in the park for funding. For the past 2 years, the unanimous top priority has been the development of a joint villager/ranger/police patrol team to stop destructive fishing practices such as blast and cyanide fishing and other illegal activities such as mangrove cutting and capture of endangered wildlife such as turtles and dugongs. The patrol system, while extremely effective, has also been expensive, costing over $85,000 to date (helped out by $33,000 in grants from WWF Wallacea).

The second priority has been village conservation and development programs aimed at garnering the support of the nearly 30,000 villagers in the park. Over $35,000 in the past year has been dedicated to programs in 24 villages, including mangrove replanting, conservation education for children, and construction of public wells, community information boards, docks, toilet facilities, and garbage disposal areas. The entrance fee has also helped fund a village VHF radio network and has even begun working on the plastic trash problem from Manado, though it is clear that solving the trash problem is a government issue that will require significantly larger funding than the entrance fee can provide. For a detailed monthly update on the financial report from the board, please check the website

Sounds good, but has this money made a difference? Absolutely, according to villagers, scientists and divers alike! Villagers from throughout the park have heralded the development of the patrol system (and the village radio network) – which has allowed villagers to help stop the blast and cyanide fishing that was threatening not only your diving but also their livelihoods and their children’s future! Villager fishers have also reported an increase in fish catches since the bombing and cyaniding have stopped. Scientists studying Bunaken’s reefs have documented an 11.3% increase in live coral cover between January 2001 and September 2002 on Bunaken Island alone – almost unheard of in a time when environmentalists around the world are sounding the death knell for many of the world’s reefs.

Perhaps most importantly to you, this difference is very noticeable to divers. Mr. K.Y. Lee, a dive tour leader from Singapore who has made 38 trips to Bunaken since 1991, says that for the first time in 10 years he is seeing sharks or turtles on almost every dive – he recently made a single dive with 9 turtle sightings! Both Michael Aw and Mike Severns (professional underwater photographers who produced the stunning books Beneath Bunaken and Sulawesi Seas) have likewise commented on their increasing satisfaction with the number of fish in the park. As Mr. Lee enthusiastically claims, "I never get tired of Bunaken’s beauty; every dive here is like the first time." Note that Mr. Lee is putting his money where his mouth is – in the past year he has donated marine VCD’s, t-shirts, and scholarship funding towards village conservation education programs in the park in a bid to encourage Bunaken’s villagers to take care of their resources.

International recognition of Bunaken’s success has also been forthcoming from a number of environmental organizations. The International Coral Reef Action Network (ICRAN) has chosen Bunaken as its single Asian demonstration site for sustainable reef tourism, while the World Commission on Protected Areas (WCPA) Southeast Asian Marine group has selected Bunaken as one of four model marine protected areas in the region. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) continues to expand its programs in the park and uses Bunaken as a model for work elsewhere in Indonesia.

Here in Indonesia, the Indonesian Department of Nature Conservation in Jakarta has chosen to make Bunaken one of its "centers of excellence" for training for other parks. Thirteen other national parks from throughout Indonesia (as well as one each from Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines) have visited Bunaken in the past year and a half to study its management system. With luck, the lessons Bunaken National Park Management Advisory Board these national parks have learned from Bunaken will help ensure that Southeast Asia’s reefs can prosper and be worthy of their title as the global center of marine biodiversity. Happy diving!

Dr. MV Erdmann
Marine Protected Areas Advisor
NRM/EPIQ North Sulawesi

"What's Happening?" - Manado Safari Tours Newsletter

Further Information:
North Sulawesi Watersports Association

Angler Fish
Angler Fish (© Silent Symphony)

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