Exploring the Lembeh Strait


Apologies for the month-long hiatus. The weekends since my previous trip have been packed with land-based activities (really!) and I have not been out for any local dives this spring. But I’ve just been travelling again and I’m back with some curious critters to show you.

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The weirdest underwater creatures have equally quirky names: hairy frogfish, flamboyant cuttlefish, mimic octopus. And there is one place where you can see them all: the Lembeh Strait in North Sulawesi, Indonesia, where I spent seven days diving last week with the very good Eco Divers (more about them at the bottom of this post).

Lembeh is the name of the island in the bottom right corner of this map showing the northern tip of Sulawesi, Indonesia. The channel between this small island and the ‘mainland’ is a world-famous destination for underwater macro photography and critter-spotting.

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The dive sites

The diving is ‘muck diving’ — i.e. sandy or silty bottoms with a few scraggly outcrops of coral but no dramatic reef structures or drop-offs. One site, nicknamed ‘Nudi Falls’, has a very beautiful rocky cliff covered in soft coral but this is an exception — most sites are nothing to write home about in terms of scenery. There is also, unfortunately, a fair bit of trash and junk on the sea bed, especially at the sites nearest the small port of Bitung. The visibility was not extraordinary — five to ten metres most of the time (perfectly comfortable for divers used to Hong Kong, of course!).

And yet in this murky and sometimes dirty water the most extraordinary diversity of critters can be found. At first glance, the sites appear barren and devoid of life. But as soon as you look a little closer, you can find the most remarkable animals. Here’s a selection.

Weird fishes:

Interesting cephalopods:

Cute little juvenile fishes:

Critter combos:

Pipefishes and seahorses:

Various sand-dwellers:

Colourful characters:

Super macro stuff:

Nudibranches and flatworms:

The sheer variety of weird creatures is mind-boggling.

Conditions

Diving in Lembeh was very easy and relaxing. Although some strong currents can flow through the strait, the dive sites themselves are mostly sheltered spots where the water is still (which perhaps explains the lower vis). The dives are not too deep — down to about 20 or 25m, with gradual profiles involving a lot of critter-hunting in the shallows. However, there are two important skills that divers need in Lembeh:

  • very good buoyancy control, so you can hover inches off the bottom easily without touching anything (there are lots of scorpionfishes and stingrays which could put an instant end to your holiday)
  • careful frog-kicking, because the sand is very easily disturbed,  which can spoil the view of a special critter and disturb it (and for photographers, ruin the photo).

In fact, skills I learned during tec training like precision trim and back kicking came in extremely useful in these shallow and straightforward dives, and I think all macro photographers could benefit from taking a tec skills course!

The dive shop

My buddy and I chose Eco Divers for this trip, upon a recommendation from my friend Eduardo, creator of the Hong Kong Society of Underwater Photographers. It was a great choice and the dive shop organised a completely hassle-free dive trip for us.

Where other dive resorts are located on the water, Eco Divers Lembeh have a small resort set in a private garden in the town of Bitung, making them a slightly cheaper option. For keen divers this is not a problem, since you spend the day at sea anyway on a kind of stationary liveaboard boat, the Nautica, and only transfer back to the resort in the evening after three or four dives. This spacious and comfortable boat is moored in between some picturesque rocky islands in the middle of the strait, and all the dive sites are just a few minutes from this base by speedboat.

The service was fantastic too. Our dive guide Horine was an excellent critter spotter. We were able to put in special requests for what we wanted to see (flamboyant cuttlefish! Hairy frogfish!) and enjoy good long dives well over an hour. Plus, the Eco Divers kitchen in Lembeh served up some pretty mouthwatering food: creamy curries and fragrant soups. I would certainly choose to dive with them again.

Conclusion

While the dive sites seem dull on a first impression, Lembeh reveals itself to be a brilliant place for macro photographers and nature lovers with its astounding biodiversity. All the dives are excellent fun as you start attuning you eye to searching for the small things, and it’s oddly rewarding to suddenly spot a super camouflaged flatfish or a tiny nudibranch that you hadn’t realised was right under your nose.

In some ways, Lembeh’s shallow, silty ‘muck’ sites reminded me a lot of Hong Kong diving (like this site), and I’m looking forward to jumping back in the water here with my newly trained eyes to see what more I can find.


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2 comments

  1. Fantastic! Very jealous. Did some diving years ago in the region (Sipadan) and would love to return some day….

    Liked by 1 person

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