Project Description





Highlights: Geology of Indonesia / Endemism / Darwin & Wallace / Coral reef ecology / Marine mammals / Lowland rain forest / Flora & fauna / River hydrology & ecology / Conservation issues

Super Natural Sulawesi – 8 Days

It is hard to imagine a more perfect trip for a science field study, or anyone with a love of nature wanting to greatly expand their horizons. In addition to the world class snorkeling the trip offers, there will be swimming with sea turtles, boating with dolphins and whales, searching for dugong in sea grass lagoons, a two-day rafting expedition from the mountains to the sea and climbing to the crater rim of a dormant volcano.

“Super Natural Sulawesi” also offers those truly magical moments – like sitting quietly at dusk deep in a lowland tropical rainforest waiting for a family of tarsiers to emerge from the hollow chambers of a strangler fig tree. Watching them leap from tree to tree like little Yodas as they set off on their nightly insect hunts is an indescribable experience. During intimate moments like this, describing Sulawesi as “supernatural” is an understatement.

The islands amazing story began 40-million years ago when a northward moving Australian plate crashed into the Asian plate creating the eastern portion of the land mass. Eastern Sulawesi continued to move northward until it collided with western Sulawesi about 15-million years ago. This tetonic scrum created the world’s most bizarre shaped island and resulted in mind-boggling biodiversity. As each plate carried with it different flora and fauna, Sulawesi became like nowhere else on earth.

This mixing of plants and animals created a biological transition zone between Australia and Asia called Wallacea, named after Alfred Russel Wallace the great naturalist that made the discovery and inspired Charles Darwin. Sulawesi is the largest island in Wallacea and has one of the highest levels of species endemism in the world. Of the known Sulawesi fauna, 62% mammal, 27% bird, 32% reptile and 76% amphibian species are found here and nowhere else.

Nowhere outside of the Galapagos can students discover such a wealth of unique species, and the island’s mega-diversity is by no means restricted to the land. The marine waters off the northeastern tip of Sulawesi are considered the global epicenter of marine biodiversity with higher concentrations of marine life than the Great Barrier Reef. The five islands that make up Bunaken National Park alone are home to over 1500 species of fish and 300 species of coral.

Diving or snorkeling Bunaken will give students the opportunity to see sea turtles and schooling fish such as barracuda, tuna, jacks and snapper. What sets North Sulawesi truly apart, however, is the chance to see tiny rare animals such as nudibranchs, leaf-fish, frog-fish, pipe- fish and seahorses. While cruising around the islands by boat, dugong, pods of dolphins, pilot whales, and even orcas and sperm whales are regularly seen. Even more extraordinary is the discovery of coelacanth in these waters. This 360 million year old relic of the “great age of fish” in the Paleozoic era was thought to be extinct for the past 65 million years. In 1997, a tourist couple saw a coelacanth in a Manado fish market. Since that time, fishermen in Manado Bay have caught several more of these living fossil fish.

Study Focus: coral reef ecology / Sulawesi biodiversity

  • Students arriving directly in Manado on flights from Singapore or Jakarta, or via Makassar if flying from Kuala Lumpur, can easily obtain Indonesian visas on arrival.
  • After being greeted by our staff, students will be transported by mini vans 30 minutes to Tongkani pier where they will board a charter dive boat for the 30-minute cruise to world famous Bunaken Island.
  • Bunaken is one if five islands that make up Bunaken National Park, an area that boasts some of the top ten dive sites in the world along with what are arguably the richest marine waters for biodiversity.
  • We will check into our lovely lodge for two nights and enjoy a delicious lunch before exploring the incredible coral reef right at our doorstep. Visibility here is superb and the variety of living corals and fish will dazzle even the most jaded diver.
  • Following dinner this evening, we will have a study session on reef ecology as well as the geological history of Sulawesi and how it contributed to the island’s mega-diversity.

Overnight: Raja Laut Dive Resort, Pangalisan Beach, Bunaken Island

Study Focus: marine mammals / sea turtles / island ecology

  • Sunrise over Manado Bay can be spectacular as we wake up for an early breakfast and set off by boat for a full day at sea.
  • The waters surrounding Bunaken National Park are exceptionally rich in fish and giant squid that attract great pods of dolphins, pilot whales, orcas and even the world’s largest toothed animal – the sperm whale.
  • Cruising around Bunaken, Siladen and Manado Tua islands, while searching for these marine mammals, we will have many opportunities for snorkeling at unique locations. A sea grass lagoon on the south side of Bunaken is a favorite feeding area for dugong, the marine mammals that gave birth to the myth of mermaids. Not far away is “turtle city” a spectacular section of reef that attracts huge green sea turtles.
  • We will stop for lunch on Siladen Island with its beautiful white sandy beaches or on Manadau Tua Island where students can climb to the top of its perfectly cone-shaped volcano.
  • Returning to our lodge at sunset, we will enjoy a delicious seafood dinner and a campfire on the beach to share songs and tales from our day’s adventures together.

Overnight: Raja Laut Dive Resort, Bunaken Island

Study Focus: community service project / nocturnal animals

  • Right after breakfast this morning we hike the short distance from our lodge to the charming village of Bunaken for a community service session with the village school.
  • Bunaken is a proud Christian community with a towering church and the village is kept immaculately clean. Sadly, the beach here is not. Flotsam and jetsam from the fishing boats, river run off from Manado, as well as local disposal of trash are impacting on this world-class marine area as never before. Part of our message at the school will be to show how trash can impact marine animals.
  • Leatherback sea turtles prey heavily on jellyfish, but often mistake floating plastic bags for their prey. When they ingest plastic it clogs their gut and kills them. Marine birds like albatross, frigates and terns have similar problems with plastic cigarette lighters that look like squid when bobbing at the surface. When the seabirds swallow the lighters and later regurgitate them as food for their chicks, it clogs the gut of the chicks and kills them.
  • Part of our mission with the local children will be to get this message across through posters and a beach pick up campaign that focuses on litter that would most impact wildlife. The amount of trash ending up on the shores here is too staggering in volume to address as a school project, but we can target plastic bags and cigarette lighters. With every high tide/storm combination much of this litter re-floats and gets carried away by currents to pose further threats to sea turtles and marine birds, so proper disposal is crucial.
  • Following our morning session with the local students we will return to our lodge for lunch and then board our boat for the 30-minute cruise back to the port. Here our mini vans/bus will be waiting to transport us 1.5 to 2-hours to Tonkoko Wildlife Reserve on the eastern tip of Sulawesi’s northern peninsula.
  • We will check in to our lodge – Tongkoko Dove Resort – and then drive a short distance to the wildlife reserve to begin our first hike in the forest.
  • Tonkoko has an amazing lowland tropical rainforest right near the sea with an unusually high density of strangler fig trees. These trees not only provide copious amounts of figs for wildlife in the reserve, but also homes for the world’s smallest primates – the nocturnal tarsier.
  • Our guides will lead us along a trail to a huge strangler fig tree and provide palm mats for us to sit on while we wait for dusk to approach and the magic to begin. Listening to the changing forest sounds from day to night is spellbinding, but the showstopper will come right at dusk when the Yoda-like tarsiers come out from hiding. With their tiny furry bodies, huge yellow-green eyes and suction pad fingers and toes, they are Earth’s best version of aliens.
  • Returning back through the forest with flashlights, we will search for other nocturnal animals before returning to our lodge for showers and a delicious dinner.
  • Our focus for discussion this evening, around a candlelight session in the resort’s pagoda, will focus on Sulawesi’s endemic animals and “keystone species”. By the end of the session students will know why the local peoples penchant for eating fruit bats will also eliminate the tarsiers.

Overnight: Tongkoko Dove Resort, Tonkoko Nature Reserve

Study Focus: lowland rainforest ecology / tree planting service project

  • Everyone rises early this morning for a good breakfast before we set off on our forest trek. This is the best time of day to see some of Sulawesi’s endemic species like black macaques, the lavender kingfisher, the red knobbed hornbill and the marsupial cuscus, so we don’t want to miss it.
  • It would be hard to find a more spectacular tropical forest for strangler fig trees than Tongkoko. In addition to amazing wildlife encounters, students will have the opportunity to climb inside the hollow chambers of trees that are centuries old and massive in girth. We may even find some slumbering tarsier families escaping the heat of the day in these Avatar-like magical trees.
  • By 1:00 pm we will head back to our lodge for a delicious lunch and a chance to rest or catch up on journals before our next outing.Everyone rises early this morning for a good breakfast before we set off on our forest trek. This is the best time of day to see some of Sulawesi’s endemic species like black macaques, the lavender kingfisher, the red knobbed hornbill and the marsupial cuscus, so we don’t want to miss it.
  • There is no better way to protect wildlife today than to protect and expand on wildlife habitat. We will do just that on a private tract of land adjacent to the wildlife reserve border.
  • Students will have the opportunity to become part of the solution for Sulawesi’s wildlife, and offset the carbon footprint of their trip, by planting wild fruit and nectar trees to attract birds and mammals on the protected lands of our lodge.
  • Dinner this evening will feature local specialties and the talk that follows will focus in on local lifestyles in preparation for our next days study focus.

Overnight: Tongokoko Dove Resort, Tongkoko Nature Reserve

Study Focus: North Sulawesi peoples & their environment

  • We’re up early again this morning and heading to the beach to secure our breakfast, just like the locals. All able bodied men gather on the volcanic black sand beach of Batu Putu village at first light to help haul in the fishing boats. For their service, each boy and man is given two small fish for their breakfast.
  • As today is a day of immersion into the lifestyle of local peoples, we too will lend a hand hauling the catamaran fishing boats up the steep sand beach before returning to our lodge for a hearty breakfast – hopefully with some fish.
  • Next on the days agenda is processing copra from coconuts. Students can help pass coconuts to local youth that split them open with a dagger to release the juice, and then help toss them up onto the drying platform. North Sulawesi is a huge copra producing region where the landscape is often described as a “wave of palms”
  • We next visit a sugar making factory and a whiskey still where two different products are produced from the sap of the same native palm tree. Students can help stoke the fires and clean out coconut half shells for brown sugar containers, but they won’t be sampling the whiskey.
  • We now have a 1.5-hour drive to beautiful Tonando Lake, a huge crater lake set in the caldera of an ancient volcano. Here we’ll join the local fish farmers in feeding their stock before sitting down to a delicious lunch of lake fish and lake prawns.
  • Next on the agenda is rice planting or rice harvesting, depending on the season. Students will either get wet and muddy planting young rice shoots, or a bit dusty cutting rice and hauling it to the threshing site. Either way, the experience will not be soon forgotten.
  • Having put in a full days work, we’ll head for home like the locals to enjoy a dinner of traditional delicacies at our wonderful lodge for the night. Set at 700 meters above sea level in the delightful cool climate of the Minahasa Highlands, Onong’s Palace is a boutique hotel that will surely charm us.
  • Ten private cottages, nestled along a ravine with flowing water and giant tree ferns, have panoramic views of Mt. Lokon – an active volcano that towers above Tomohon City. The open-air verandah restaurant will be the perfect place to gather after dinner to brief students on the big adventure coming up.

Overnight: Onong’s Palace Resort, Minahasa Highlands, Tomohon

Study Focus: high elevation birds / river hydrology and ecology

  • Everyone is likely to be woken up this morning by birdcalls as our lodge sits at an elevation preferred by montane bird species. We’ll all have a chance to try identifying some of the species we see before and during our breakfast.
  • We now set off for a two-hour drive by mini vans to the Randoyapo River to start our two-day, 36 km rafting trip to the sea.
  • Karapi Rafting Company boasts 15-years experience in running North Sulawesi’s rivers and their staff team are Indonesia’s National Rafting Champions. They even competed in the World Rafting Championships, running grade 5+ rapids in West Virginia. While we won’t be doing anything quite as extreme as that, we will have the thrill of 3+ rapids in places with quiet pools below them.
  • Following a sack lunch, a safety briefing and an equipment check, we will join the flow of the river for our initial 3 to 4-hour run. Along the quieter stretches of the Randoyapo River there will be time for lessons in river ecology.
  • By late afternoon we will pull ashore to make camp for the night. Everyone pitches in setting up tents, gathering firewood and preparing our wilderness dinner before sitting around a campfire telling stories and singing songs.
  • With the stars shining bright overhead and the song of the river to lull us to sleep, everyone should have a night to long remember.

Overnight: Randoyapo River camping

Study Focus: volcano geology / crater lakes

  • Sunrise over our river camp should be a magical experience as we wash up in the river, enjoy breakfast and break camp to resume our journey.
  • We still have another few hours of thrilling white water rafting ahead of us. By now every student should have a firm understanding of the powerful hydraulics of a mountain river, be able to respond instinctively to the commands of their raft captain, and be familiar with river features like back eddies, chutes, hay stacks and sweepers.
  • By mid day we will reach the sea, the end of the river and the end of our rafting. It’s a two-hour drive from here back to our lodge, but we will break up the trip with a short climb to the summit crater of Mt. Mahawu, a dormant volcano that rises above Tomohon.
  • Here students can survey the incredible vegetable gardens that grow in the rich volcanic soil on the flanks of the mountain and encounter many high elevation birds as they near the forested summit.
  • Each student will have an opportunity to plant a native tree near the summit as part of a reforestation program before heading back down the mountain to our lodge.
  • A special feast will be served tonight to mark our final night together, followed by a closing ceremony where each student will be awarded a program t-shirt and certificate to acknowledge their accomplishments.

Overnight: Onong’s Palace Resort, Tomohon


  • It may be hard for students to believe it’s all over as they eat an early breakfast and set off by mini vans for the 1.5-hour drive to the Manado Airport for their return flight home.
  • As the plane banks out over Manado Bay, students can look down on Bunaken Island and see Mount Mahawu and the Randoyapo River flowing to the sea. It will seem surreal that so much adventure and lifelong memories were contained in such a small area.
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