Muck diving in Indonesia - trip report & pics

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Posted by Jim Lyle on October 24, 2007 at 22:17:22:


Indonesia – Part I Lembeh

Just offshore is a small coral head covered in antler coral. In this maze of coral, live mandarin fish (Synchiropus splendidus). At dusk, they mate. The smaller male searches for receptive females; when he finds one, they do a little dance; look deeply into each other’s eyes; decide the time is right; rise together up into the water column for a few seconds; and then culminate the union in a swift explosion of sperm and eggs before quickly disappearing back into the coral. Then, they go off in search of other partners and do it again, and again, and again. For u/w photographers, the trick is to not scare the happy couples with your lights before they make the decision to join in coital bliss. Once the choice is made, they are distracted enough so you can shine a focus light on the busy couple and take their picture.

I can hear it now, “Was that as good for you as it was for me?” “Oh, yes! I even saw a brilliant flash of light at the culmination of our union!” One male mandarin was so exhausted from his Herculean efforts that he floated up into the water column, unable or too tired to swim back into the protection of the coral. Our dive guide, Bimby, gently placed the enervated fish onto her hand and returned him to his home where he could recuperate for the next evening’s exertions. This was just one of the great experiences we had at Lembeh Resort.

So, where is Lembeh Resort, you ask - Indonesia, on the Island of Lembeh, just off the north tip of Sulawesi.

How do you get there? From Singapore, you fly to Manado, transfer to a bus for a two-hour ride through the country to Bitung, and then board a boat for the fifteen-minute trip across Lembeh Strait to the resort.

The resort consists of 14 rooms in 12 cottages, with a maximum of 28 guests, scattered at various elevations up the slope from the main buildings. In the cove are the central restaurant/office building, swimming pool, dive shop, camera room, and gear storage.

Water temps in October averaged 82-83 degrees F. Most people were comfortable in 3mm or 5mm wetsuits. Visibility was about 30+ feet on the good dives and less on others. We had little or no currents to worry about, except during one dive on a pinnacle. Lots of boat traffic in the Strait, but all dives ended at the boat.

Striped catfish (Plotosus lineatus)

Lionfish (Pterois volitans)

[We watched the luggage go around and around the carousel at the airport in Manado, North Sulawesi, Indonesia. Slowly, it dawned on us that our bags were not going to magically appear. We asked if they had unloaded all the bags? “Yes, sir.”

The unthinkable had happened; all, of our luggage was lost - four bags containing all of our clothes and scuba gear To make matters even worse, the next plane from Singapore was not scheduled to arrive for two days.

So, we filled out the claim forms and, with heavy hearts, joined the group, already in the bus, for the ride to Bitung. There, we transferred to small boats that ran us quickly across the channel to the resort, perched on a hillside above a pretty little cove.

Silk Air had given us R600,000 (about $30US each) for clothes – I bought a couple of t-shirts. They also said they would pay for up to four days of rental for dive equipment while we waited for our bags to show up. The alacrity, with which the money was produced, indicated that this was not a rare occurrence.]

Colorful nudis (Hypselodoris bulloki)

(Chromodoris magnifica)

After filling out the releases, registration cards, showing our C cards, and getting briefed, we located our rooms. WOW, pretty much describes the accommodations at Lembeh Resort. Our room consisted of a living room, huge bedroom, and indoor/outdoor bathroom & shower; I’ve seen smaller houses. The rooms are arranged in double and single buildings up a steep cliff, with some perched high on the hill – many, many steps up the hill – the nosebleed section. Nearest the water is the storage area for dive gear, the camera room (think big), the dive shop, and the office building with the restaurant on the top floor.

Although our luggage didn’t make it, I did have my camera, underwater housing, strobes, arms, chargers, etc. – enough for me to take pictures.

Originally endemic to Banggai Island, Banggai cardinalfish are now breeding in the Lembeh Strait. We were told that smugglers of illegal aquarium-fish, dumped their cargo overboard while being chased by the Indonesian police and they seems to like the local conditions.

Banggai cardinalffish (Pterapogon kauderni)

Great camera room with both 110 & 220 Voltage outlets. The crew is very careful with your precious equipment. Several large rinse tanks, for camera's only, on shore.

Snake eel (Ophichthus cephalozona) being cleaned

Camera room

The resort maintains an extensive library of reference books to identify the strange critters that call Lembeh home.

Cockatoo waspfish (Ablabys taenianotus)

Cowrie on soft coral (Pseudosimnia sp)

One the first day, after a breakfast buffet, we donned our wetsuits and were briefed on the dive site for the first dive. We were split up on four dive boats, with two groups of three on each boat and two DMs. The dive sites were only a few minutes away from the resort, so we returned between dives for our surface intervals. Dives were scheduled for 8:00, 10:30, and 2:30, with an optional night dive and unlimited shore diving. Nitrox was available – 32%

(Hypselodoris infucata)

(Cadinella ornatissima)

Food – wonderful! Breakfast and lunch buffets and a sit down dinner with a choice of several entrees. In additional to traditional Western fare, there were many local dishes to sample. The eating area is on a balcony and all meals were open air. We asked them to put the tables together so our group could mingle at meals. Special diets can be catered to. Executive Chef Deky Wuy even offers cooking lessons! Snacks mid-morning & mid-afternoon, with tea, coffee and water available all day long.

(Chromodoris kunei)

(Flabellina rubrolineata)

Tours, massages, spa & aromatherapy services can be arranged for you at the front desk.
Side trips to the Tangkoko National Park, Minahasa Highlands, Mahawu Volcano, and Bitung market can be arranged at the front desk.

(Rhinopias frondosa)

Lembeh Resort even has laundry service (for our two t-shirts)! Voltage is 220-240 Volts with two-pin sockets. Adapters and hair-dryers are available. There was a safe in our room, but we never locked our door. Bug spray and repellant candles are provided – we only saw a few mozzies and DEET kept them at bay.

Blue ribbon eel (Rhinomuraena quaesita)

Boats – towels, drinking water, radio, O2 kit, and first aid. Back roll entries and side-ladder exits. The crew handles all your gear for you, once they learn how you want it.

Shorttailed pipefish (Trachyrhamphus bicoarcticus)

Hairy frogfish (Antennarius striatus)

We dived the ubiquitous aluminum-80 tanks, with larger and smaller tanks available for the large and the small.

Filefish face

No service charge is applied to the diving bill, so a group tip is appropriate. Tips are pooled among the DMs, boat crew, etc. – tipping directly to individuals is discouraged.

Frogfish (Antennarius sp) are everywhere!

[Our luggage arrived, two days late. Yay, clean undies!]

whipgoby (Bryaninops sp)

shrimp (Perclinines sp)

The beautiful, the ugly, and the unusual!

Stargazer (Uranoscopus sp)

The diving was wonderful, beyond expectations. I knew Lembeh was the muck diving capital of the World, but I didn’t realize how much else there was to see. Much more coral reef than I had thought and, of course, the muck. What is muck diving? Imagine a sloping black sand bottom with very little structure anywhere. Most dives were spent slowly moving in a large circuitous path, looking for critters. Thank God for the dive guides, who pointed out little creatures that most of us would have never seen.

Spiny devil (Inimicus didactylus)

Ornate ghost pipefish (Solenostonus paradoxus)

Ambion scorpionfish (Pteroidichthys ambionesis)

Pegasus seamoth (Eurypegasus draconius)

We saw many weird critters: lots of new nudibranchs, several species of frogfish, several species of octopus, and four species of pygmy seahorse, to name a few. Lembeh is an underwater photographers dream – a target rich environment of colorful critters found nowhere else. Theory says that Indonesia was the part of the ocean most removed from the ice sheets during the last ice age; species survived there that didn’t make it elsewhere on the planet; hence, lots of very strange and weird animals.

Lembeh is also a good place to see "solar powered nudibranchs." These cryptic seaslugs, incorporate zooanthele into their cerrata where they generate sugars through photosynthesis, in a mutual symbiosis.

(Phyllodesmium longicirrum)

(Phyllodesmium kabirianus)

(Phyllodesmium rudmani) was only recently described. It looks so much like a soft coral, you have to look twice to see that it's really a seaslug. This is the nudibranch:

This is the soft coral (Xenia sp)

7:00 AM breakfast buffet
8:00 AM dive briefing
boat dive #1
10:30 AM dive briefing
boat dive #2
12:00 noon lunch buffet
2:30 PM dive briefing
boat dive #3
7:00 PM dinner

emperor shrimp (Periclimenes imperator)

cowfish (Lactoria comuta)


Plus, shore dives before breakfast, after the third boat dive, before dinner night dive, and/or after dinner night dive for the hard core. You can also pay for the guided “mating mandarin fish” shore dive.

Thecacera pacifica Looks like Pikachu from Pokeman!

Flambouyant cuttlefish (Metasepia pfefferi)

After the first day, the boat crew rinses you dive gear and sets up your equipment for you. After a dive briefing, you walk the few steps to the boat where everything is waiting for you. The crew quickly learns how you prefer things and makes sure they are done right for you. Towels, fresh fruit, and water are offered to you at the end of each dive.

(Halgerda okinawa)

Mantis with eggs (Odontodactylus scyllarus)

On the last dive day, the crew washed, rinsed, and hung all of our dive gear for us. IMHO, a nice touch.

Robust ghost pipefish (Solenostomus sp)

Coral shrimp (Tozeuma spp)

squatlobster (Allogalathea sp)

Of course, one reason to visit Lembeh, is to see the mimic octopus and the wonderpus. Our group found a wonderpus - much smaller than I thought they were.

Wonderpus (Octopus sp20)

Other octopus

After Lembeh, the group flew to Bali where we spent two nights before going on to Wakatobi.

Anemone hermit crab

Terima kasih,

Camera – Olympus E-330 in an Ikelite housing with dual, Ikelite DS-125 strobes. I used a Zuiko 50mm lens on nearly every dive (with the 2X crop factor of the Olympic camera, that’s a 35mm film equivalent of 100mm.)

Travel Agent – Sue Pantle susan@uncommonadventures.com

Lembeh Resort’s webpage.

My webpage.

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