Asia Dive News : Dive photographers discover the delights of the Lembeh Strait
Text and photo by Andrea & Antonella Ferrari
The world's full of triangles. There's the Golden Triangle, the Triangle of the Bermudas…and then of course, most relevant of all to us divers, there's the Macrolife Triangle, that blissful figure made up by the Malaysian islands of Lankayan and Kapalai and – at the northern tip of the Indonesian island of Sulawesi – the Strait of Lembeh. Everybody today knows about muck diving – the concept of looking for strange and grotesque macro critters in coral-poor areas with medium or downright bad viz – but not everybody knows this is where it all began, circa fifteen years ago.
A young US diver and entrepreneur just happened to discover the then-unknown place – a sea channel less than 40 meters at its deepest and less than one mile at its widest, leading from the harbor town of Bitung to the open sea on the eastern coast of Northern Sulawesi – at the same time falling in love with a plantation set in an idyllic little bay between a rugged jungle-covered rocky slope at its back and the black volcanic sand beach on its front. Ditto, the legendary Kungkungan Bay Resort was born! It soon became a famed destination all over the world for unusual, spectacular species, especially in the most affluent areas of the US – but the catch was in its very high price policy, which put it outside the range of common mortals. Now, luckily for the rest of us commoners, the new price policy put in place by the new management of Eco Divers has given KBR a new, joyful lease of life. People are flocking from all over the world, filling to capacity the lovely bungalows by the sea, and both a brand-new spa and a beautiful swimming pool have been added to the grounds. With several more small resorts now springing up close by and the Lembeh Strait soon to be declared a Marine National Park by the Indonesian authorities, the future of this unbelievable dive destination seems at last truly assured.
A UNIQUE LOCATION
What is so special about the place?
Well…everything. KBR, being the first dive resort, was able to pick the best location, and its setting is truly idyllic. The surrounding panorama above water is simply enchanting – steep rocky slopes covered in thick greenery, sea eagles soaring above, colorful local fishing boats passing by. But it's the diving which makes Lembeh so unique. Being close to a very deep water area featuring daily cold-water upswellings, the sandy and silty sea bottoms of the Strait of Lembeh host an enormous variety of rare species which are common here but almost unheard of eveywhere else. Even common species here come in dazzling and unique color phases, this fact being due both to the dark volcanic sand they're living on and some other undiscovered factor. The weird, the grotesque, the rare and the downright absurd are a daily occurence on its dive sites. This is a destination where it's not uncommon to find holy grails like Rhinopias, Ambon Scorpionfish, Mimic Octopus and Wonderpus, Pygmy seahorses, Blue-ring octopus, Hairy octopus, Flamboyant cuttlefish, Boxer crab and tiny orange-rimmed baby Batfish on a daily or weekly basis: a place where after a few days it's easy to become so spoilt that you'll just give a passing glance and no more to uncommon species like Painted and Clown frogfish, Thorny seahorse, Cockatoo waspfish or Mandarinfish. The only uncommon species which has been consistently eluding us until now has been the Harlequin shrimp. But that is not all: as the Lembeh Strait, which has become so famous for its world-class muck diving, offers in fact first-rate coral reef dives on quite a few spots, such as Angel's Window or California Dreaming. We know: we've been able to photograph there some very rare species of butterflyfish and wrasse we'd never seen anywhere else! In any case, and whatever you're looking for (well…except sharks), the Lembeh Strait offers unsurpassed photographic opportunities. The diving is very, very easy – shallow water, no currents, unbelievably good and very experienced dive guides. Most dive sites are just a few minutes away by KBR's speedboats – and after night dives (something you do NOT want to miss here!) you'll always find a warm, dry towel and a mug of hot chocolate waiting for you back on the boat. KBR and the other resorts normally offer three daily dives – two in the morning and one in the early afternoon, plus night dives and unlimited house reef diving: groups are kept to a minimum, no more than four divers for each guide, for maximum freedom and photo opportunities. Given the tight dive schedules (and the longer than usual dives you'll be enjoying, even if the official limit is 45 minutes) being on time at dive boat departure time is of paramount importance for everybody, so be punctual. One last recommendation: the fascinating array of Lembeh marine species requests some reading beforehand to be fully understood and appreciated, so be good and do your homework – there's plenty of great guidebooks out there to prepare you for this bit of underwater paradise!
A FRAGILE ECOSYSTEM
The Lembeh Strait is an almost unique ecosystem, and as such it deserves all the protection we can give it. While most resorts are today enforcing a strict no-gloves dive policy (something we actually do not agree with, as we believe fingertip control can actually avoid damage by clumsy divers), it is a fact that the success of the place has led to an esponential increase in the numbers of resorts and consequentially visiting divers. Some dive sites – especially the most famous ones – risk being overdived, provoking the disappearance of those same rare species people are coming to see. Declaring the area a National Park is very good news indeed, but at the same time it is imperative for all the dive operators in the area to agree on common, strict rules: divers, especially photographers, must learn not to pester their dive guides with obsessive requests (which will lead to excessive disturbance of the environment to satisfy their gluttony), and a firm rotation on the most frequently visited dive sites like Hairball, Jahir or Nudi Falls must be enforced as soon as possible. Lembeh is a fragile masterpiece, and none of us wants to see it broken to pieces by visiting uneducated divers or overenthusiastic dive operators.
Kungkungan Bay Resort and other dive resorts on the Lembeh Strait can be easily reached with a couple of hours drive from Manado: your travel operator will arrange everything from you. One word of advice: water temperature in the Lembeh Strait is appreciably lower on average than the rest of Indonesia (think 26/27 C°), so a 5mm wetsuit or a vest under a 3mm wetsuit will be handy. A full hood will also help in avoiding head- and neck-aches in the cold water. Stinging hydroids are also prevalent on several dive sites, so be prepared to get stung and avoid touching anything underwater. KBR offers a screened, very well equipped camera room by the dive center where shutterbugs can leave their equipment overnight to dry and reload batteries: power is on 24 hrs a day, 220 and 110 volts are both available. Dive guides are eagle-eyed and very motivated, being very proud of working here: this is a place where a good tip is mandatory. No visas are needed upon entry in Indonesia, but nationals of several western countries – including ours – have to pay an hefty fee in Manado Sam Ratulangi airport's immigration office both when entering and exiting the country.
You can see more of Andrea & Antonella Ferrari's beautiful images and stories on thier website: www.reefwonders.net