Lembeh Strait, Bunaken Island Indonesia: Diving

Diving into Indonesia

By Gregory Kruse

Buneken Island, Indonesia. A great dive site. Gregory Kruse photos.

How little we knew about Indonesia when we headed out to Sulawesi to go diving. A huge island nation with a population over 200 million, 5,000 kilometers from one end of the archipelago to the other, more than 17,000 islands, several of the world’s most famous historical monuments, and about 20% of the coral reefs on the planet.

And some of the friendliest people you will find anywhere, quick to smile, courteous, patient, tolerant of the foibles of foreigners, and quick to help a traveler in need.

Lembeh Strait and Bunaken Island are two iconic dive destinations at the extreme northern tip of Sulawesi. That’s the island that looks a bit like a starfish surrounded by a litany of exotic destinations: Kalimantan, the Moluccas (the original spice islands), Raja Ampat, Irian Jaya, … It lies amidst a myriad of seas nestled in the heart of the Coral Triangle.

This Triangle stretches from the southern tip of the Philippines to the island of Bali in the west and the Solomon Islands in the east, and has the greatest marine biodiversity of any region on earth, making it the ultimate divers’ paradise.

Our dive trips usually take us to very remote, almost uninhabited islands with minimal signs of civilization and pristine aquamarine seas.

Devil scorpion fish
Devil scorpion fish

When we found ourselves chugging across a narrow strait of dark water, busy with small boats, looking back at the port of Bitung with towering derricks and freighters at anchor just off shore we knew that we were in for a very different dive experience. Just ahead, Lembeh Island was verdant with abrupt white limestone cliffs and no visible habitations other than a few small brown roofs almost hidden in the lush green.

What’s in the Muck?

“Muck diving” doesn’t sound very inviting, but this is the claim to fame of the Lembeh Strait, the narrow channel between Lembeh Island and the eastern side of North Sulawesi. Mainly lacking the beautiful plant and animal life of colorful coral gardens, the Lembeh Strait is more like a vast mud flat between the two islands.

The subaqueous topography is not only flat, brown and uninteresting, but the many small villages that line the strait sow it with the detritus of civilization: beer bottles, tin cans, broken crates and barrels, coils of abandoned cable, even plastic bags and junk food wrappers.

Oddly, it is home to many of the most interesting, exotic, and even dangerous creatures that inhabit the shallows of tropical seas. The Stone Fish and the Blue Ring Octopus are among the most venomous creatures on earth, albeit generally complacent and never aggressive if left undisturbed.

Lion Fish are beautiful predators, as are several types of Scorpion Fish, too; all pack a nasty sting if you mess with them. Even the Clown Fish here (you know, like the famous Nemo), normally a shy colorful little creature, will bite divers who invade their territory.

One little guy about 2 inches long viciously attacked my wife as she was trying to photograph a porcelain crab scrambling across a beautiful white anemone, the clown fish’s home territory,

It nipped her finger so hard that it showed a tiny round bruise for days. It was hard to keeping from laughing as I watched this drama unfold. Yes, I admit, I did not warn her that I saw it coming…Each dive surprised us with an ever greater variety of odd and unusual critters, far more than we would see in half a dozen dives elsewhere.

Coconut octopus

Ghost Pipefish, Leaf Fish, Frog Fish, Hairy Frog Fish, Peacock Mantis Shrimp, Seahorses, Pygmy Seahorses, Moray Eels, Ribbon Eels, Squid, Cuttlefish, Sea Snakes, Rays, and three different types of very interesting and inquisitive Octopi, fascinating and intelligent creatures. I suppose only a diver could get excited about that long list of strange names, but if it piques your curiosity, take a look at: www.lembehresort.com/critters.php

A brilliant collection of photos of some of the strangest creatures you are likely to meet on this earth, under the sea. So, in the end, we had to admit that there was a lot of very interesting stuff down there in the muck.

Andi, our Indonesian dive master, was exceptional. He showed consistently amazing skill at locating the shiest, best hidden, and most perfectly camouflaged creatures hiding in the muck. With his handy erasable underwater slate, he would identify every critter we found.

9000 Dives

With over 9,000 dives, he has a personal relationship with much of the marine life in the strait. One mimic octopus tried to get to know him better by climbing into his wet suit. Not to be missed: orgasmic fish!

If you go to the Lembeh Strait, don’t miss the courtship dance of the Mandarin Fish. They come creeping cautiously from the coral rubble in quiet bays at sunset, wide-eyed and wanton, swishing their little tails and flirting like mad. They are dressed for a party in orange robes with turquoise swirling stripes like scarves wound around their Rubenesque little figures.

Dark blue fins swish and swirl like geisha fans with ever greater frenzy as they strive to attract a mate. When they finally pair up, they are quickly overcome by the URGE, and swim spiraling up above the safety of the rubble, oblivious to all danger, belly to belly, in their moment of ecstasy.

Humpback scorpion fish

Swimming in the Primal Soup

The return boat ride to Bitung and a couple of hours driving on winding little country roads took us back across the North Sulawesi peninsula toward Bunaken Island. We stood on the jetty where our taxi left us, our gear piled around on the concrete quay, and marveled at the many green islands lining the horizon far off shore. Our boat was aground on the tidal flat, listing heavily to one side, waiting for the incoming tide. A sign of things to come, perhaps?

But the tide came in, we waded aboard, and the awkward little craft, cramped and stuffy, surged and wallowed across the mostly calm sea toward a tall green volcanic cone in the distance. This was more like it. Green islands scattered across wide blue seas under an enormous sky, promising an infinite variety of bays and reefs to explore.

Bunaken National Park was established in 1991, one of Indonesia’s first marine parks. It is very rich in coral gardens, harboring an enormous variety of corals and reef fishes due to its location in nutrient-rich deep water currents that flow among the five islands in the park.

They say there are 7 times more coral genera in Bunaken Park than in Hawaii, and the park harbors 70% of all known fish species in the western Indo-Pacific. Learn more about the park, and its role in the development of marine conservation in Indonesia, at http://www.north-sulawesi.org/bunaken.html.

Deep waters between the islands make for dramatic wall dives. Fringing reefs line the shore, offering spectacular snorkeling at high tide. Then, just over the edge of the shallows, the sea drops suddenly to a great depth along vertical walls.

Cha Cha Dive resort.

Channels are 1,800 meters deep between some of the islands, a welcoming environment for even the greatest creatures of the sea. These deep cold waters are also extremely nutrient rich in micro-organisms that ultimately sustain most life in the oceans.

Diving in Bunaken requires dropping into the sea just beyond the reef, and descending to dive depth of 30 to 40 meters along a wall. Current can be very gentle to quite strong, and sometimes takes you along the wall in one direction, then as you begin to ascend, carries you back the other way.

It is an almost cinematic experience. You are carried along past rough walls and overhangs where there is not a millimeter of rock unoccupied. The walls are laden with generation after generation of life forms, struggling to maintain access to the life-giving currents sweeping past.

During one dive, we suddenly felt the water temperature drop several degrees. We were swimming through a rush of upwelling cold water, bearing a rich cloud of phyto-and zoo-plankton, visible as a swirling mass of bright particles, a flood of nutrients for all the creatures hugging the wall, and the huge schools of reef fish congregating below.

Looking down, as far as I could see in either direction, a vast school of unidentifiable fishes were flashing about in this banquet from the deep, like a river running along the face of the wall. We found ourselves swimming in the primal soup of life.

It is easy to be mesmerized by the masses of corals, the morays and nudibranchs and other creatures clinging to the walls, but look out and down into the sea around you, and you will see sea turtles, giant Napoleon Wrasse, and the occasional shark.

From the tiniest nudibranchs clinging to the coral to the great whales and whale sharks who migrate through these channels, Bunaken National Marine Park offers a window on the extraordinary diversity of life in the sea. You will never remember all the different fishes you see on a single dive!

Getting There

We went through Bangkok because it is the low cost hub for SE Asia, and then on to Jakarta by Air Asia. Be warned, Air Asia is the low cost carrier in the region, and keeps costs down by offering only minimal services. We had to claim our bags in Bangkok, and check in again for the Jakarta leg on Air Asia.

We could not check our bags through, because Air Asia has none of the necessary agreements with other carriers. This means you may need a Thai visa and health card check, depending on your nationality and point of origin. Otherwise, the food is good and service was excellent on Air Asia.

Within Indonesia, Garuda Airlines is vastly improved in recent years, but on-line booking is a challenge. You will need a local travel agent to make arrangements for you. Try Manado Safari Tours. They can make travel, lodging and diving bookings for many destinations in North Sulawesi.

greg-cruzeThere are quite a few lodges along the Lembeh Strait. Lembeh Resort offers very nice accommodations, a decent restaurant, and a first class dive shop. It also has excellent facilities for photographers, including a very professional house photographer to help with the challenges of underwater photography.

It is best to stay at one of the many lodges on Bunaken Island that offer easy diving just off shore. From there, fifteen or twenty minutes across calm seas will take you to dive sites along the reefs and walls that surround the island. Bunaken Cha Cha, run by Rafe and Reiko, offers great food and warm hospitality.

Although the journey to North Sulawesi is long and arduous, the peace and beauty of the coruscating sea, brimming with the extraordinary richness of marine life, makes it worth the effort.

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