Diving In Southeast Asia: A Backpacker’s Experience In Indonesia

*Today’s blog post is written by Ankit of AlienAdv

Traveling on a budget and having a passion for diving quite often, unfortunately, means a backpacker must constantly balance both. Even though diving in Southeast Asia is relatively cheap many of the best locations are not. This is why somewhere along my travels I added free-diving to my certifications and not only did I save a heck of a lot of money but I am now able to dive in places that were previously inaccessible due to lack of diving facilities (My first experience was in Puerto Galera – a haven for backpacking and diving cheap). In my articles, I hope to inspire you to visit a few of my favorite locations and give you a little insight into what you can expect in each location. In this installment, I will share my experiences in Indonesia and hopefully inspire you to dive in this wonderful country.

Diving Indonesia

Indonesia has a lot going for it but is rarely discussed among divers, I find this strange. The nation boasts one of the longest coast lines in the world and the waters along those coasts are home to 20% of the world’s coral reefs. With thousands of beaches, beautiful people, amazing food, and bountiful natural attractions Indonesia has always been at the top of my personal “Must See” list.

Underwater life and divers in Indonesia
Underwater life and divers in Indonesia.

Within Southeast Asia there is a large area referred to as the “Coral Triangle” which is home to the majority of reefs on Earth. Indonesia is considered to be the western corner of this triangle. Places like Raja Ampat and the Togian Islands offer astounding biodiversity and leave divers with magnificent memories.

Tip: Although diving in Indonesia and most of Southeast Asia is extremely good year-round the best time to visit is between May and September during the dry season.

Raja Ampat

Situated to the northwest of Papua, Raja Ampat is by far the most popular dive location in all of Indonesia. At times it can be quite busy and it is general agreed among divers that the best way to see this location is the use of a live-aboard dive vessel. As far as a diving trip goes liveaboards are typically the most expensive route, but in this instance I can say that the expense is well worth it. Most of the popular dive spots are located away from the resorts so a dive boat is required anyway and with a live-aboard you can wake up, put your gear on, and drop in on an exquisite coral reef in minutes. From friendly staff to great food the live-aboard diving in Raja Ampat is a great experience. You will likely never dive in clearer waters or see as many different species in one place.

Moray Eel in Raja Ampat
Moray Eel in Raja Ampat.

One of the best features of Raja Ampat are the home-stays available in many of the villages. Of course there are several dive resorts and Eco-resorts dotting the coast line but staying with a local family is by far a much better choice. Aside from the benefit of the cultural experience and friendly people, the local dining is miles better than the more expensive alternatives available in resorts. It’s a lesson I learned a long time ago traveling in Europe; if you want to find the best food in a place you are unfamiliar with just follow the locals.

In addition to diving there are plenty of places to go trekking and kayaking. Renting a kayak is fairly cheap and there are tons of little waterways and coastline to explore. I rented a small kayak last season and spent two days paddling in and out of mangroves and camping on the beach. Of all the places I’ve been in Southeast Asia Indonesia has provided me with the highest feeling of a return to nature. And for bird lovers the Red Bird of Paradise is an amazing sight. Simply put this is an absolute must-see location for any diver or adventurer!

Togian Islands

Now I’m all about adventure, I love going places that are off the beaten path or along the traditional tourist routes, and these islands are exactly that. With all of the gorgeous diving here I am often amazed that there are only three resorts in the area. When you dive in the Togian Islands you truly feel like an explorer adventuring in an uncharted world. After diving for a week along the coasts of these breathtaking islands I never once saw another group of divers, simply amazing given how great the diving is.

Clown Fish 'Nemo' seen while diving in Togian Islands
Clown Fish ‘Nemo’ seen while diving in Togian Islands.

There are so many colorful fish, coral heads, and even the occasional sea turtle to share the current with. On two dives I was even lucky enough to watch a couple sharks visiting a colony of cleaner shrimp. Very cool! If you have an underwater camera you want to pack it for this trip, trust me. I spent so much time taking photos of fans and soft corals that I’m still going through them a year later, roughly fifty thousand of them.

Unfortunately, there are few options for accommodations here and I recommend booking into one of the resorts. The pricing is quite reasonable especially when you take into account the incredible disposition of the locals, the astounding diving, lush nature, and the feel of exclusivity. If you are like me and want to dive in untouched pieces of paradise you simply must go to the Togian Islands.

Bunaken Island

Located in Northern Sulawesi, Bunaken Island is home to the Bunaken Marine Park. This area is one of the most popular dive locations in all of Indonesia and once you’ve visited you understand why. With nearly transparent waters, tons of coral species, sharks, turtles, thousands of different fish, and incredible wall dives it is truly a life altering experience to dive in Bunaken Marine Park. As Southeast Asian diving goes this spot is a close contender for my top spot and certainly sits in the top five. White-tips and black-tips can be seen quite often and the number of turtles will amaze you. If you’re especially lucky you might even see the nearly extinct Dugong. Though I never saw one while diving there are saltwater crocodiles here as well. If you’ve never seen one of these giants before I have to tell you they are spectacular creatures. Seriously, when you see them on TV or online you simply cannot appreciate how enormous they really are.

Dugong (Sea Cow) eating grass in Bunaken island
Dugong (Sea Cow) eating grass in Bunaken island.

There are other great activities available on and around Bunaken Island. Chartered boats will take you whale and dolphin watching. Awesome! There are tons of secluded hiking areas and trails but often you have to ask a local for help finding them. Don’t worry the locals are extremely friendly and they love to show off the beauty of their island. If you do go hiking a local guide is by far the best option, without one you will probably miss out on some breathtaking sites.

The only downside to visiting Bunaken Marine Park is the $3.60 per day fee for visiting the park but if you want to spend a lot of time diving here, trust me you will, you can pay about $12 for a full year pass.

Again, like many places in Southeast Asia, dive resorts are your best bet for accommodations. You can find local places to stay, but it will take some leg work on your part.

Sea snake scouring for food in Bunaken
Sea snake scouring for food in Bunaken.

Conclusions

Diving in Southeast Asia is by far and away some of the best diving in the world and if you are clever about your planning it can be some of the least expensive diving as well. Indonesia is a far less frequented destination but boasts some of the best diving there is. Although not mentioned in this series there are a million other non-dive related reasons to visit Indonesia as well, the Komodo Islands and the temples of Bali for example. But as far as diving and adventure go Indonesia has a lot to offer at reasonable prices. When you start planning your ultimate Southeast Asian adventure please remember to add Indonesia to your list.

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