Where you leave no footprints, only effervescent bubbles in your wake, Bunaken National Marine Park is an underwater paradise in the Sulawesi Sea, spreading over 890 km2 off the northern tip of Manado Bay: a boat ride from Manado city. Sitting in the heart of what's known as the 'Coral Triangle,' the proliferation of marine life will leave you gob-smacked when you peer under the ocean’s surface at the living technicolor of 390 coral species, 70% of all fish species in the Indo-Western Pacific Ocean (estimated to be about 2,000), five out of seven turtle species including a resident population of green sea turtles, dolphins, pilot whales and sperm whales, rare endangered dugongs, pygmy seahorses, sea snakes, eagle rays, frogfish plus an array of mollusks and reptiles. It’s an underwater zoo!

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Indonesia's first protected marine park was declared in 1991; it comprises the southern section of sheltered bays and mangroves near the mainland, including Poopoh and Arakan villages. The northern part includes five islands—Bunaken, Manado Tua, Siladen, Mantehage, and Nain. Strong ocean currents swirl past islands, spewing juvenile fish and larvae into calm bays. Volcanic sand has become home to macro creatures, and deep channels are expressways for the ocean currents, migrating dolphins and whales. In the north of the marine park, where there is no continental shelf, the islands literally drop to the seafloor. The water plummets over 1,500 meters into the deep blue in certain sections, creating giant walls.

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There are plenty of accommodation options, either giving you an island lifestyle or a mainland experience for the champagne and caviar ilk as well as mid or budget-conscious travelers—the top resorts include Siladen Resort & Spa, Thalassa Dive & Wellness Resort, and Bunaken Oasis Dive Resort and Spa, to name a few of the flash ones where you are totally and unashamedly spoiled, from chic beachfront huts with views over the water that in no way resembles a Robinson Crusoe rustic hut to stylish beach boho cottages. Many offer packages for some dives and/or snorkeling boat trips included, with most accommodations on a full-board basis. If you are a fussy eater, I suggest checking out the menu before booking—carnivores may have to satisfy themselves with a fish diet! The other option to explore Bunaken National Marine Park is to join like-minded souls on a liveaboard vessel, but remember you will be in close proximity to other people for the duration of your trip. Bunaken Marine National Park is nowhere near as busy as Indonesia's other diving meccas, such as Komodo National Park or Raja Ampat.

While staying on Siladen Island recently, the tides almost defeated me for snorkeling.

If it's too low, it's impossible to get out to the drop-off of the house reef, or if the tide was rushing in, you were jettisoned along whether you liked it or not. It's a balancing act of trying to hit the water during slack tide. It’s easier to jump on a boat and enjoy a drift snorkel as it opens up a world of incredible sights without exerting those fins—the boat will drop you at one point and pick you up at another.

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On one such boat snorkeling adventure, there were so many turtles in an area that I lost count as we lazily floated with the slow current. The drop-off point under the surface is laden with stunning coral gardens of all colors. The masses of reef fish create a sense of swimming in an aquarium with walls of fish schools hanging from the surface before the clear water becomes an inky blue of ghostly swimming shadows in the channel. This was only outdone by swimming to the surface meters from turtles to hear their gasp for breath. Sea turtles swim to the surface for air when active, but if resting, they can stay under the water for up to two hours.

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Mornings are spent in chill-out mode, sipping coffee and breakfasting on the beach. At the same time, the locals are busy sweeping the leaves off the sand, sitting under trees, bathing children in the shallows, or playing games with pet dogs running in and out of the water. Fishermen load rods onto wooden boats, and day-tripper cruisers begin to appear on the horizon.

An afternoon boat trip to see the dolphins created a stir amongst the guests. The day before I went, guests came back smiling from ear to ear, having witnessed a dolphin extravaganza—a circus of adolescent dolphins showing off. When I went out, we must have stumbled on the dolphin nursery as mums and their small calves were everywhere. The most amazing experience was being eye-balled by a pilot whale swimming beside the boat. It's these experiences that linger with you long after the event.

Bunaken National Marine Park is a living wonderland of sea critters—it's a diving and snorkeling nirvana where, at the end of the day, you can sit on a white sand beach with your feet in the water watching the sunset while picturing the marine life-forces under its glossy surface.

Gail Palethorpe, a self proclaimed Australian gypsy, is a freelance writer, photographer and eternal traveller. Check out her website Gail Palethorpe Photography and her Shutterstock profile.