Exploring Indonesia

– Dive into the Coral Triangle, home to endangered coastal reefs –

Written and photographed by Zoe Smith – 

As the dive guide held up the “ok” signal, I signed back as I floated in the water, letting him know I was ready to go as the waves rocked me. He gave the thumbs-down, telling my dive group to start descending. I raised my left arm, began deflating my BCD and exhaled. I slowly began to sink. Air bubbles escaping my regulator tickled my face, and as they cleared, I caught a glimpse of the whole new world below me.

Boats are docked on the coast of the village in Bunaken, Indonesia on Friday, June 22, 2018. Bunaken is an island off the coast of Manado, Indonesia in North Sulawesi. The island is a popular travel destination for tourists who dive and snorkel. (Photo/ Zoe Louise Smith, zoesmithlouise@gmail.com)

Indonesia’s reef was a bit overwhelming, but in an exciting way. So many unique organisms of all colors and sizes flooded my vision. Schools of fish danced around me, right in front of my mask, allowing me to see unique details on their bodies and fins. Coral of all shapes and sizes blanketed the bottom of the reef. I was unsure of where to look first.

As we started the dive, the guide signaled “shark” and pointed to a cluster of coral. As I approached, I was able to see a small, white-tipped shark resting below a bed of coral. For this shark and so many other organisms, this reef is their home. The health of the reef is integral to their existence; however, the importance of the coral reef and its health doesn’t stop with just the organisms within the underwater ecosystem or even those living on the island. Coral reef health affects those outside of the ocean as well, even those who live thousands of miles away.

Coral reefs are a multi-billion-dollar industry, according to James W. Porter, a Meigs Professor of Ecology at the University of Georgia who is an expert in the field. On a global scale, coral reefs generate $99 trillion U.S.D. per year, $29.8 billion of which is generated from Hawaiian and Floridian coral reefs. Although coral reefs make up only one percent of the Earth’s area, it harbors 25 percent of all marine life, and this percentage is expected to increase by 50 percent with more exploration. The unsettling truth is that continued consumption of fossil fuels has caused the killing, or bleaching, of coral reefs to occur.

Research shows that ocean temperatures are rising. The perpetuated use and burning of fossil fuels is causing this rise. This heat increase may not be on some individuals’ radars because the environment we as humans live in isn’t changing drastically. This is because 93 percent of the heat generated by the burning of fossil fuels is transferred into the ocean. If this heat was not absorbed by the ocean, the earth’s average surface temperature would be on 122 degrees Fahrenheit. This temperature increase in our oceans is similar to our bodies experiencing a high fever; just a few degrees difference can be fatal. Consequently, 50 percent of the world’s coral reefs have died in the past 30 years. The continued consumption of fossil fuels is predicted to kill all coral within 50 years. The death of coral reefs not only effects the ocean ecosystems, but human life as well.

Exploration of reefs is a relatively new endeavor. Coral reefs harbor life with the potential for medicinal breakthroughs, but such discoveries are unattainable if coral reefs become extinct. There are solutions to solve the problem of coral bleaching, but they have yet to be implemented on a universal scale. Prior to the withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord, the U.S. was on-track to implement some of these solutions, such as the utilization of renewable resources and a more available and reliable public transportation system. The challenge that is faced when promoting awareness about coral reef bleaching is that we cannot directly see the effects of increased climate temperatures because of where reefs are located: underwater. This continued “out of sight, out of mind” mentality will cause the death of most coral reefs by 2060.

The ocean is seen from the common area at Panorama Backpackers in Bunaken, Indonesia on Saturday, June 23, 2018. Bunaken is an island off the coast of Manado, Indonesia in North Sulawesi. Bunaken is a popular travel destination for tourists who dive and snorkel. (Photo/ Zoe Louise Smith, zoesmithlouise@gmail.com)

An alternative energy source that would prevent this crisis from occurring and has the potential to be even more lucrative than the fossil fuel energy can be found in Georgia: southern switchgrass can be utilized as biofuel also known as “nature’s solar batteries.” The crop has superior yield potential and is a renewable source of energy. Not only can a lot of the crop be produced to fulfill fuel demands, but there is an infinite amount of this resource; with proper crop management and sustainable agricultural practices, there will always be a return for investors without fear that the supply will run out, unlike fossil fuels. For Georgians, switching to biofuels could mean a booming economy and revamped job market. There is a potential for profitable investments and lucrative returns with support for the industry.

There are even smaller ways in which Georgia residents can reduce their carbon footprints that do not change quality of life. For example, raising the thermostat temperature by one-degree Fahrenheit in the summer and decreasing it by one degree in the winter can save homeowners money on their heating and cooling bills as well as eliminate hundreds of pounds of carbon from the atmosphere. Buying locally-grown foods not only supports local farmers and Georgia’s agriculture industry but cuts down on carbon dioxide emissions given off from the transportation of produce. Eating one less pound of meat each week would also cut back on the amount of carbon dioxide emitted. No single rain drop thinks that it is the cause of the flood, but partaking in some of these carbon-cutting initiatives can have a tremendous effect on stabilizing the climate that would consequently save the corals.

For more information about coral reefs on a global scale, check out the 2018 Peabody award-winning documentary, “Chasing Coral.” The film can be streamed on Netflix and is packed with information about this prevailing issue.

Mount Agung is visible from the dorm room view at Bali Reef Divers in Tulamben, Bali in Indonesia on Saturday, July 7, 2018. Mount Agung is a volcano located in Bali, Indonesia. Tulamben is a popular travel destination for divers and home of the popular U.S.A.T. Liberty wreck dive. (Photo/ Zoe Louise Smith, zoesmithlouise@gmail.com)

When it comes to vacationing in Indonesia, diving and snorkeling are popular pastimes for tourists because of the country’s proximity to coral reefs. This underwater ecosphere can be easily accessed by those wishing to explore it. If considering diving or snorkeling in Indonesia, here are some factors to consider before you go.


If not already certified, I suggest getting a diving certification abroad. As someone who received my PADI Basic Open Water certification in Georgia and then my PADI Advanced Open Water certification in Indonesia, I found that there were more benefits to learning abroad. For one, the courses are less expensive and less time-consuming and I was able to learn my skills in the environment where I would be diving.

When seeking out a dive shop to receive a certification, there are some factors to consider, regardless of geographic location. First is the organization through which they certify. One of the most popular internationally recognized organizations is PADI. If certified through them, you will not only receive a diving card but your driving credentials will be in their database, allowing you to dive in PADI certified shops around the world.

In addition to the dive shop’s certification affiliation, make sure your dive guides can give you information about the area in which you are diving. Can the dive guide tell you about the reef, including what organisms can be found there as well as the currents in that area? These are important points that should be gone over in the briefing before a dive.

When considering places to dive, Indonesia has incentive to have more sustainable diving. While I was abroad, I chose to dive predominately in Indonesia because of this. “Indonesia is the most advanced of all developing nations in trying to protect and conserve their coral reefs,” according to Dr. James W. Porter, a Meigs Professor of Ecology at the University of Georgia.

There are many great and diverse diving options in Indonesia. If looking for places to dive and support Indonesian sustainable diving, or simply great places to vacation, here are the locations I visited and recommend:

Warungs are small restaurants that can be found in Indonesia, sometimes family-owned, that serve a variety of food options. There are many Warungs in Bali, Indonesia. Bali is a popular travel destination for tourists traveling in and around Indonesia. (Photo/ Zoe Louise Smith, zoesmithlouise@gmail.com)

The first place I visited in Indonesia was Bunaken, a small island off the coast of Manado, a city in northern Sulawesi. To get to Bunaken, you can fly into Manado and take a 45-minute public or private ferry to the island. For some accommodations, a private ferry can be arranged. If not, a public ferry can be taken one-way for 50,000 Indonesian Rupiah per person which, for me, was about $3.50 U.S. dollars. If taking a public ferry, the ferry will drop you off in the village. From there, you will have to hire a motorbike driver to take you to your accommodation unless it is within walking distance to the village. I paid 25,000 Indonesian Rupiah to get to the east side of the island. You will most likely have to haggle with the drivers to get a fair price.

While there is not much to do on the island besides diving and snorkeling, the island and its reefs are home to lush vegetation, coral reefs, and numerous marine life.  Because of this, Bunaken is perfect for anyone wanting to get away and relax. The area is known for turtles, so regardless whether diving or snorkeling, the chances of seeing multiple turtles are high.

The dive shop where I stayed was Panorama Backpackers. Their accommodation included breakfast, lunch and dinner which was made fresh for each day. My favorite meal was a sweet-and-sour eggplant served with rice for dinner. All the guests eat together in a family-style setting which makes it easier to get to know the people staying at the resort and meet new people. The kitchen can cater to dietary restrictions and preferences as well. Accommodations cost up to 400,000 Rp per night depending on which room you choose.

The dive shop typically takes one dive trip at 8 a.m. each morning to two different locations where you can dive or snorkel. An afternoon dive is usually had around 3 p.m., and night dives can be arranged upon request.

The dive guides are nice and friendly. During our breaks between dives and on our way to and from the dive sites we would sit out on the front of the boat and chat. The guides created a fun and welcoming environment for all by joking around with the divers but were also professional and serious when it came time for the dives.

The kinds of dives I did in Bunaken were mainly wall dives and shallower dives in coral stretches. There is not much muck diving, but the Fukui dive site has some sand patches that I found to be beautiful and fun to explore. Star fish were scattered across the site like coins at the bottom of a fountain. Each patch of coral harbored its own flourishing ecosystem, busy with life and movement. Although the site was crawling with life, there was still quite a bit of dead coral in the area which is unfortunately true for coral reefs across the globe. In fact, 50 percent of the world’s coral reefs have died within the past 30 years, and all coral reefs are predicted to be gone by 2068. This means that if fossil fuel consumption continues at the rate that it is currently being consumed, this next generation may be the last to experience the magic of coral reefs. For this reason, I would highly consider not only visiting coral reefs but reevaluating your carbon footprint to help preserve them for future generations. If wishing to visit Bunaken, I highly suggest requesting Fukui as a dive site while there. Regardless if diving or snorkeling, Fukui showcases the prodigiousness of coral reefs.

A pleasant bonus that the dive shop offered its guests was free snorkeling as long as there was a dive trip scheduled during the morning or afternoon. They lent me a mask, snorkel and fins and allowed me to join the dive boat. This is a great perk if you or other members of your family prefer not to dive or cannot dive due to congestion, ear pain, or other problems you can encounter from diving.

If you are considering staying in Bunaken, keep in mind that there is no ATM on the island. Panorama Backpackers and the dive shop only takes cash, but they give you the option to withdraw money and pay in Manado after your stay. Other accommodations may have similar cash-only policies, so it is best to check with them beforehand about their payment methods. A majority of people that I came in contact with during my time in Indonesia spoke English, so getting in contact with owners of establishments and getting to and from Bunaken was manageable.

The ocean is seen from the common area at Panorama Divers in Bunaken, Indonesia on Friday, June 22, 2018. Bunaken is an island off the coast of Manado, Indonesia in North Sulawesi. Bunaken is a popular travel destination for tourists who dive and snorkel. (Photo/ Zoe Louise Smith, zoesmithlouise@gmail.com)

The second place I visited in Indonesia for diving was Tulamben in Bali. Tulamben is home to the popular wreck dive, the U.S.A.T. Liberty wreck. This dive site is a large wrecked ship turned reef that attracts an abundance of marine life. The Boga Wreck is an accessible wreck dive just a short drive down the road. Another popular dive site in the area is “the drop-off,” which is a coral wall. If lucky, you can see pigmy seahorses at this site. Tulamben also has the Coral Garden, which is a shallower dive with some muck diving. If you want to do a dive solely dedicated to muck diving, I suggest Soraya’s Secret. There I floated along the sandy bottom, scouring for life hiding beneath the small patches of vegetation and rocks. While searching, I was able to see an ornate ghost pipe fish, school of barracuda and blue-spotted sting rays.

To get to Tulamben, you can fly into Kuta, Bali, and have a taxi take you to Tulamben. Your accommodations may be able to arrange a driver, or you can charter one yourself. The drive itself is around two to three hours through lush hills and picturesque rice farms. A fair price for the drive one-way is around 600,000 Indonesian Rupiah. I suggest requesting to stop at the Water Temple on your drive to or from Tulamben. The fee to enter the temple is 30,000 IDR, and you can hire a guide for an additional charge.

Tulamben itself is quite small, but there are many dive shops to choose from. The dive shop I stayed with was Bali Reef Divers. The immaculate facility has both dorm rooms and private rooms. I opted to stay in the dorm rooms which has eight bunkbeds and two bathrooms equipped with air conditioning and heated showers. These palatial features made me feel like I was vacationing luxuriously without the grandiose costs. The facility itself is well-kept, and there is conveniently a restaurant at the shop. A striking view of Mount Agung can be seen from the entrance of the dorm rooms, and the shop itself is a five-minute walk from the U.S.A.T. Liberty wreck dive site. If diving with Bali Reef Divers, a bed in their dorm is only 75,000 IDR per night while private rooms are 300,000 IDR per night if diving with the shop. If not diving with the shop, private rooms are 350,000 IDR per night.

For food, there are a handful of restaurants and local eateries. My favorite place to eat was at Warung Preti. This restaurant has a homey feel to it which is due in part to the softheartedness of the woman who runs the restaurant, Ms. Preti. She serves delicious Indonesian food made fresh each day and makes refreshing fruit juices only if the fruits are ripe and ready to eat. The meals were quite affordable, and Ms. Preti’s hospitableness felt like a little slice of Southern home. Just down the road from Warung Preti is a convenience store that has a large selection of goods ranging from hygiene products to snacks. Unlike Bunaken, there is an ATM in Tulamben. Bali Reef Divers allows you to pay with card, but there is a three percent convenience fee added to your bill.

If considering Bali as a destination for your travels in Indonesia, I highly recommend Tulamben.


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