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A Guide to Scuba Diving in Sulawesi and the Derawan Islands

The muck paradise of Lembeh Strait gets a lot of love, but Wakatobi, Bunaken and the Derawan Islands all deliver world-class dives.
By Steve Jones | Authored On March 25, 2019
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A Guide to Scuba Diving in Sulawesi and the Derawan Islands

Wonderpus Octopus

Wonderpus Octopus

Jennifer Penner

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Ask any seasoned critter aficionado about their top dives, and there’s a good chance many are in Indonesia’s Celebes Sea. This is with good reason; the area is renowned for its muck diving — the art of pursuing rare, wonderful and sometimes downright weird creatures on seemingly featureless sand and even among piles of rubbish.

Yet this region has considerably broader appeal, placing it firmly among the world’s top dive locations. Crystal-clear blue water, daunting drop-offs and fast-flowing currents can all be found in the Celebes’ impressive repertoire of diving experiences, all in an area that contains some of the richest biodiversity to be found underwater anywhere.

Several factors combine to make this area so special. First, it lies at the convergence of the Pacific and Indian oceans within the Coral ­Triangle, the epicenter of all coral life. Second, there is enormous variety in the ­underwater topography. Sheltered sandy areas are a haven for ­unusual species, yet a short journey away you might find vertigo-inducing walls ­frequented by pelagic sharks and turtles. Sulawesi Island is bigger than Florida, yet until now, only a fraction of its vast coastline has been explored. There are comparatively few established diving destinations — Lembeh Strait and Bunaken National Marine Park in the north and ­Wakatobi National Park in the south are the legendary exceptions — or you can even head farther off the beaten track to the Derawan Islands. Lying in the western Celebes Sea, they offer both roaring drift dives and sedate muck dives — again, perfectly illustrating the signature variety on offer in this ­remarkable region.

Scuba Diving Conditions

Water temp

Sea temperatures are between 75 and 85°F


In the coastal areas, 30 to 60 feet; offshore 100-plus feet


Rainy season is ­November to March, but most destinations in the Celebes Sea are divable year-round

Signature Diving Sites in Sulawesi and the Derawan Islands

Lekuan, Bunaken National Park

This park is an important reserve covering nearly 350 square miles; Lekuan fully embodies the Bunaken experience. Schools of butterflyfish intermingle among sponges, sea fans and soft coral, competing for space on a plunging wall, and creating a magical backdrop for turtles and schools of trevally in crystal-clear water.

Nudifalls, Lembeh Strait

Lembeh Strait is a showcase for bizarre creatures, and Nudifalls exemplifies the diving here. A wall — adorned with sea fans — shelters ­expertly ­camouflaged pygmy ­seahorses and the ­multitudes of ­nudibranchs that gave the site its name. Among soft corals on the sandy ­bottom are myriad species, ­including eels, frogfish and even the ­coveted Rhinopias.

The Channel, Maratua, ­Derawan Islands

Lovers of less-dived regions will find the Derawan Islands of great appeal. One of the highlights is the Channel, an exciting drift dive near the island of Maratua, which can be awash with strong currents, bringing you past large barracuda schools and rays while you race over a reef patrolled by gray reef sharks.