Sponge
 

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IT'S STRANGE TO GO THE OTHER SIDE of the world, to the mysterious Far East, to a country that was never ever in the British sphere of influence, and feel immediately at home. But then theres something familiar about the Eco Divers Operation in Manado, Indonesia. You have travelled for many hours and on more than one plane, but the atmosphere when you arrive seems very British. Thats because it is!
Jim and Cary Yanny set up Eco Divers in the image of the successful operation they previously established in Egypt - Emperor Divers. If you have enjoyed the facilities provided by Emperor elsewhere, youll slot right into things in Manado.
Add to this equation the managers: Steve and Janet Prior are very English, in fact delightfully so. I told them that they reminded me of tropical Essex! You might well recognise Steve, too. He was a manager of Emperor in Hurghada in the past, and before that with his dive school in England, Adventures in Diving. Its no surprise to find that most of the clientele are Brits, too. No wonder the locals all seem to speak English, and welcome us with big smiles and open arms.
Steve is imbued with enthusiasm for the diving in Manado. His introduction to the resort results in new visitors becoming infected with his unbridled passion for the place, even if it is with an Essex twang. He is certainly a character.
The Eco Divers headquarters in Manado is positioned 1 north of the Equator. This is a truly tropical destination with the diving that goes with that. Working with the Tasik Ria Hotel and with food & beverage manager Danny, formerly from Islington, this is a truly exotic holiday but without the risk of being confronted by anything too foreign.
If foreign is what you want, however, day trips into the hinterland of North Sulawesi await those who request it. Its a spice island and quintessentially exotic. There are eight volcanoes in the area, some still active, and they provide a dramatic backdrop.

Mild to wild
The Tasik Ria Resort is built in a French Colonial Indo-Chinese style, with comfortable air-conditioned bungalows set in tropical gardens complete with massive lily pond. Mine fronted onto the beach, and you would feel no guilt at leaving non-diving elements of your family here while you went off diving.
Each day the boats, refined-design versions of the day-boats used by Emperor in Egypt, leave the dock and head for Bunaken Island and its marine park. This is maintained and rigorously policed with funding from the licence that each divers buys in the form of a tag for either one day or unlimited entry through the year (about£9). Nearby are the dive sites around Manado Tua, an active volcano, and three other low-lying islands.
The reefs of Bunaken are perfect and as yet undamaged by diver or boat activity. Recognising the mistakes made in other parts of the world, the Indonesians are determined to preserve their underwater assets. I get the feeling that the dive guides are there as much to point out interesting animals as to make sure divers behave themselves.
It is strictly forbidden to touch any corals and Eco Divers has no hesitation in banning from further diving any divers seen repeatedly doing so. Careless underwater photographers, be warned!
The reefs form steep walls. Currents range from mild to wild but there seems to be no way of anticipating which.
It matters not, because there are few moorings here. The boat normally comes to you when you surface, but its worth taking a marker flag or buoy on every dive, just in case you get separated from the main group. Currents can go in more than one direction.
The walls are covered in massive barrel sponges, other sponges and all manner of corals, including occasional vibrantly coloured soft corals.
Clams pulse and slam shut as you pass over them; anthias flutter in the breeze; eels grin at you; jawfish dart into their holes. The reef vibrates with life.
A wide-jawed current hook can be useful when the current really blows, though you must be choosy about where you stick it. The live corals are positioned so close to one another that finding firm substrate on which to hook can be difficult at times.
More than once, I was inconvenienced by another diver grabbing hold of my line as the only suitable handhold
available. Gloves are not allowed.
Visibility varies. Sometimes wide-angle photographers are hard-pressed to get a clean shot, but those equipped to take close-ups always come back up elated.
Fans of Nemo will be delighted to spot several different-coloured varieties of his close cousins, each guarding a different type of anemone, but with only fleeting distant encounters with Bruce.
I did see the occasional pretty blacktip shark (Carchahinus melanopterus) but, disappointingly, none ever came near enough to get a picture. But its thrilling to see a brightly coloured, air-breathing banded sea-snake hunting for prey in every nook and cranny, seemingly oblivious of the fact that its under water.
These rich reefs are quite different from the rather stark volcanic landscape found further south at Lembeh Strait but, living somewhat in the shadow of the media attention showered on their neighbours and rivals, I did get the impression that the dive guides were all aspiring muck-divers.
They constantly pointed out the ghost pipefish and leaf scorpionfish, which can be quite frustrating when armed with an extremely wide-angle camera. On the other hand, equipped for 1:1 macro, the frustration is equally intense when you come across a great big hawksbill turtle scratching its underside under an overhang and prepared to let you get right up to it.
More than once, I found myself delighting in the detail of a giant
pufferfishs eye, or the texture of the scales on a passing turtles flipper. I didnt even bother with the frogfish that was about 40cm long! The answer is for underwater photographers to go in pairs armed with both types of camera, or use one of these modern digital compacts that can do both.
You really come to respect the eager eyes of the Indonesian dive guides. They see what we miss. I dived partnered solely by Steve Prior on one dive, at a proper muck-diving site called Po-Poh. He took a pointing stick with him but we swam around for half an hour before I realised that neither of us had eyes good enough to spot the smaller critters.
The pointer became more appropriate as a white stick, we joked later, and I headed off to hijack the critters found by another group. Po-Poh is a good place to find larger seahorses, too, of a size that even I can spot.
Even among the sea-grass that I found under the boat, unusual animals were waiting to be found. I watched a marvellous crocodilefish with green lacy eyelashes, leafy eyebrows and tassels that matched its surroundings. That was while doing my three-minute safety stop!
Bunaken Marine Park can offer most of the animals found at Lembeh. There are pigmy seahorses, cockatoo waspfish, frogfish (some in very large sizes), blue ribbon eels, and plenty of colourful nudibranchs.
The difference is that with the profusion of coral that makes up the background, its often hard to see the detail in all the riot of colour. You become so focused on the detail within the reef that you begin to ignore the large numbers of conventionally shaped fish that pass by in open water.
There is something for everyone, from pretty juvenile sweetlips to morose scorpionfish and extremely ugly stonefish.
The boats stay out for the day and usually allow you to do three dives. Sometimes there are hold-ups, like the time we stopped along the way to watch three giant sperm whales basking in the calm sunlit water. Not every animal is tiny out here.
These delays are acceptable, however, and a refreshing alternative to the leaves-on-the-line delays we are used to back home! And if you crave the really bizarre, Lembeh Strait is only an hours drive away.

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A Seahorse at Poh-po

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A juvenile crowned pufferfish and soft coral

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ornate ghost pipefish

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eye of a starry pufferfish

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Tasik Ria Resort

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Spectators on an Eco Divers boat watch three sperm whales basking in the tropical sunshine.

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Last view of a whale sounding

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FACTFILE

GETTING THERE: John Bantin travelled with Singapore Airlines and Silk Air
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION : Eco Divers (www.eco-divers.com) at the Tasik Ria Resort North Sulawesi (www.tasikria.com).
MONEY : Indonesian Rupiah, but US dollars are also accepted
WHEN TO GO : Peak tourist season is July-August, but June and September offer the best visibility and marine life. The wet season runs between November and February.
COST : Dive Quest (01254 826322, www.divequest.co.uk) can arrange packages to Manado. Return flights cost around £700 depending on season. A seven-night stay at the Tasik Ria Resort full-board costs from £471, including a six-day dive-pack including three boat dives with Eco Divers.
FURTHER INFORMATION: www.tourismindonesia.com