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Tags: Indonesia, Manado Dives, Stories

It's complicated in Manado

We travel to uncover the truths about ourselves, and the world around us - and sometimes those truths break our hearts

Unlike the many places I had been before in Indonesia, Manado seemed wholly uncomplicated. There were no dusty highways. No goats in the road. Everything was more or less on time. The budget hotel I found was clean and had a quaint restaurant up stairs with a clear view of Manado Tua (Avon Residence, just in case you are curious).

And the food was tasty throughout. The Minahasa, the regional ethnic group of North Sulawesi (the capital of which is Manado), really do know how to make pork. The fatty Minahasa pork skewers reminded me so much of home I could almost smell the bitter Baltic summer.

With the same light and easy pace I found myself some 20 meters under water in Bunaken National Park, just off the coast of Manado. If there was anything troubling me before it was certainly forgotten as I waved at dozens of green sea turtles and drifted by vibrant coral reef walls.

And then the complexity emerged. In the form of plastics. There wasn’t much. We weren’t getting caught in it. I didn’t see any sea horses trapped in water bottles. But as plastic bags floated by like strange medusas my heart was breaking. The home of so many innocent marine animals was being invaded by a toxic human concoction.

Of course this can be found everywhere — at the most remote and seemingly untouched places. It’s a dirty secret that many dive shops and resorts across the world are trying to hide. It's understandable. No one wants to come see rubbish floating in the ocean.

I found myself in an inner conflict — how can I recommend a place with a plastics problem? Do I take a risk that guest are not going to enjoy their diving experience? Or is it my duty as someone that knows to bring people to a globally meaningful place that is struggling for survival?

The truth is that the worst affected places need the tourism exposure the most. When travellers turn away and tourism dollars disappear, national governments can and will tap other industries that often times are a lot less environmentally friendly. When these places no longer bring in tourism dollars, local governments will turn these special places in the world over to factories, to other more lucrative land uses. We have seen this done over and over again.

In Manado the efforts of the locals are valiant. I met many dive shops, which were involved in locally organised clean-up efforts. They also told me about educational programs that introduce children from an early age to the importance of keeping oceans clean. All of this matters. But Bunaken National Park needs to remain relevant on the tourism map, in order to continue to receive attention from its government as a place that is worth protecting. 

North Sulawesi diving is still some of the most impressive in the world. The walls are epic and teeming with life, the coral is vibrant, and the muck on the Lembeth Straits side is otherworldly. It is not drowning in plastic. But like every beautiful place it is battling with some ugly truths.

The decision to share this is not easy. I’m sweating bullets as I look at the “Publish” button [Who is going to go to Manado now??]. It’s taking a whole lot of small hour delirium to convince myself that it’s a good idea. But this is radical transparency. 

Afterword: This story was written by Lina, Co-founder of Seek Sophie. The complexity that she uncovered at Manado is similar to the complexities that we have seen in our travel throughout the region - where man and nature are frequently in conflict. As travellers, we think that it's important not to look away, not to shy away from the complex truths of a place, and hopefully together we can make change happen. 

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