August/September 2006: Lembeh Strait/Bunaken Marine Park, Sulawesi, Indonesia.
33 dives (~32 hours underwater) at 30 dive locations (23.5 m average max depth, water temp. 25-29°C).
~6 hrs video (video housing flooded on first dive on Bunaken due to faulty o-ring on wide angle lens) + ~2,000 photos...
Indonesia Expedition Report
David, James (Dr. Wood), and Joni traveled to Sulawesi, Indonesia in August/September 2006 for MarineBio’s expedition to Lembeh Strait and the Bunaken National Marine Park to shoot underwater photos and video for the MarineBio Network. We spent almost three weeks there diving nonstop in the epicenter of the world’s marine biodiversity. The expedition was successful and David and Joni were able to capture about 2,000 photos and 6 hours of video of some of the most amazing marine life on Planet Ocean.
The first leg of our journey was spent in Lembeh Strait, muck diving capital of the world. David and I arrived in Manado tired from the 24-hour journey from San Francisco, but anxious to get in the water and looking forward to seeing James again. Once we got our passports stamped and collected our luggage, we went outside into the equatorial heat to find our ride to Lembeh, and lo and behold there was Cap’n James waiting for us with Risco, our dive guide. James arrived several days before us and spent some time in Bunaken before transferring to Lembeh, which is on the other side of Sulawesi Island. He managed to overcome both illness with the flu and technical difficulties with his underwater photo equipment during his stay and still collected around 3,000 photos of both his beloved cephalopods and lots of other critters, including the elusive Mandarin fish.
We spent our first afternoon in Lembeh snorkeling off the beach, it was heaven. Though the area was mostly seagrass and "muck," to our surprise, we saw some rather aggressive clownfish, mantis shrimp, a juvenile emperor angelfish, and lots of other fishes around the small reef patches in front of the dive resort. Risco and the other dive guide in Lembeh, Opo, were amazing. Opo has been diving Lembeh Strait for 18 years and is a legend for his ability to spot the highly camouflaged creatures that hide in the muck (which is actually a dark volcanic sand). With his famous metal stick, he would point at a creature right in front of our faces – and sometimes we still had trouble seeing it! Then suddenly a frogfish, ghost pipefish, demon stinger, weedy scorpionfish, seahorse , or other well-camouflaged creature would appear. Other species weren’t camouflaged at all. The vividly colored nudibranchs and creatures like the flamboyant cuttlefish or sparkling urchins added a welcome splash of color to the gloom. Opo’s enthusiasm and joy at watching our faces as we discovered the crazy creatures made our experience in Lembeh unforgettable.
The dive sites we dove in Lembeh included: Police pier, Nudi Falls, Air Prang, Jahir, Nudi Retreat, Hairball, Hairball Two, Aw Shucks, and Pantai Parigi, to name a few. Both the day and night dives were spectacular in Lembeh. Often the first 30 minutes of the dive were spent swimming around the murky water looking at an endless expanse of black/brown volcanic sand wondering whether we’d ever see anything more interesting than a passing jellyfish, when suddenly we’d spot an octopus, then a cuttlefish, then a seahorse. This happened on almost every night dive, which made them all the more fun and exciting, but also made me question whether Opo was keeping critters in his pockets until the last few minutes of the dive when he would strategically place them just to see the look on our faces!
After a week of diving in Lembeh, we left for Bunaken somewhat reluctantly because Lembeh was so amazing. The journey between the two resorts was long and we were more tired at the end of it than we were from the trip between the US and Indonesia! It’s only a 2-hour car ride, but because of the boat schedules we got “stuck” at the “Mega Mall” in the port city of Manado for 4 hours. We arrived at the resort hot, tired, and ready for a cool shower.
We began diving the following day and, though David has been to Sulawesi before, we were both astonished at the coral diversity of the first wall we dove and the critters were amazing as well. We saw blacktip sharks, enormous green turtles, a huge variety of reef fish, black and white banded sea snakes (called sea kraits), mating Mandarin fish… etc etc. And a huge variety of anemonefish who were very protective of their homes. As friendly as Nemo seems, in reality they don’t like big critters (humans) near their anemone homes! One actually bit me (a very cute ocean moment) and another bit the edge of David’s shorts and tried to tug him away.
What makes Bunaken so special? Well… it’s located at the epicenter of the Planet Ocean’s marine biodiversity. There is an enormous variety of hard and soft corals, which helps maintain high levels of diversity among other species in the park by providing a wide variety of food and shelter. It is thought that more than 450 different species of hard corals can be found in Bunaken - compared to about 60-100 species in the Caribbean. There are thousands of reef fish species. Bunaken is also notorious for the Coelacanth found there in 1998. Coelacanths were thought to have gone extinct 80 million years ago until one was discovered off the coast of South Africa in 1938, which later led to the discovery that coelacanths were actually alive and well and indigenous to the Comoros Islands. That is until another one was discovered in North Sulawesi in 1998. This living fossil is called "raja laut" by local fishermen, which means “king of the sea.” The Comoros and Sulawesi species are thought to have diverged 5.5 million years ago, but research into the two is ongoing and a final description is not yet available.
Some of the dive sites we dove in Bunaken included: Lekuan I, II, and III, Gorango, Pangalingan, Mike’s Point, Cela-Cela, Mandalin, and Fukui. We were very surprised that the visibility in each of the sites only averaged about 40 feet; we expected 80-100 foot+ visibility (it was the low season). There was quite a bit of plastic and other debris in the water; we’re hoping that it’s not pollution that’s causing the legendary clear waters of Bunaken to cloud, but the small particles in the water looked more like fibers than plankton.
Fortunately, the trash problem is on the agenda of the managers of the Bunaken National Marine Park. When we first got to Bunaken, we paid the Marine Park entrance fee during registration with the dive resort. I wondered what the fee was used for and remember thinking (cynically) that it probably goes into some bureaucrat’s pocket. I wish I’d asked the dive resort staff during the briefing because, now that I know what the money is being used for, I think those details are worth being part of the dive operation orientation. The dive operators are an integral part of the success of this fee-for-conservation program and the program ensures the long-term viability of their businesses, so they should take the opportunity during orientation to describe how the fees are used.
The Bunaken National Marine Park was established in 1991 to preserve its valuable resources and to regulate problems such as dynamite and cyanide fishing and and other illegal activities such as mangrove cutting for wood and charcoal and capture of endangered wildlife such reef fishes, turtles, and dugongs. The entrance fee program began in 2001 and has helped finance the patrol teams that monitor illegal activity in the park. The funds are managed by a multi-stakeholder management board at the local level comprised of members of the N. Sulawesi Watersport Association, villagers, fisheries, the environmental government agencies, and a local university’s marine sciences department. The fee, about $17US for a one-year tag, is also used for conservation education, village conservation and development programs, mangrove replanting, public wells, garbage disposal areas among other activities. For more information see: eco-divers.com/entrancefee.html
We stayed and dove with Two Fish Divers during our stay in both Lembeh and Bunaken. Overall, we were very pleased with the operation and it fully met our expectations considering it was far more affordable than most of the resorts in N. Sulawesi. Although the accommodations in Lembeh were a bit primitive, we were quite comfortable. We stayed in “beach rooms” in a large wooden house that we shared with another diver. The rooms had two beds, a floor fan and a bathroom with a western-style toilet. There was running water, though it was quite brackish and a bit smelly. My only real complaint was the frequent and very noisy 4-legged nocturnal visitors we had each night (rats). The dining area was a few steps away from the house and had a refrigerator with cold drinks as well as a drinking water cooler. The food in Lembeh was very basic; eggs and toast for breakfast, rice and fish or meat and vegetables for lunch and dinner. There were some noodle and fried rice dishes that were a bit better than most meals. The dive boat was a traditional Indonesian wooden boat with a large deck, which was quite warm and helped take off the chill during surface intervals. In Bunaken, we stayed in Beach View bungalows, which were a bit nicer than our rooms in Lembeh. They had a water coolers in the bungalows, which was convenient. The bathrooms were much larger and the water, though still brackish, was not as smelly as in Lembeh. The bungalows also had two beds and a floor fan. Having only a fan to cool the rooms was a bit more challenging in Bunaken because that side of the island was far warmer than Lembeh. The ocean is much cooler in the Lembeh Strait and there’s a consistent breeze, which made it quite comfortable. The upside of Bunaken was that the only nocturnal visitors we had were the geckos who were more than welcome as both David and I adore them. The food in Bunaken was also more acceptable. More eggs and toast for breakfast, though there was also fruit and cereal. The lunches and dinners were also rice, fish or meat, and either a vegetable noodle dish or some sort of salad. There was also fruit for dessert (papaya, watermelon, bananas, apples, or pineapple) during lunch and dinner.
We thoroughly enjoyed our time with dive guide Risco and credit him for being one of the safer and more attentive dive guides at Two Fish. He was much more familiar with the marine life in Bunaken and helped us find many of the critters we’d hoped to see while we were there. He even found the tiny pygmy seahorse several times, not an easy species to spot even if you know the sea fan it inhabits.
Two Fish’s owners, Nigel and Tina, were also very welcoming and accommodating. They were very good about asking for feedback to improve their resort and services. They were also happy to discuss conservation with us and described their strategies to keep Bunaken and Lembeh healthy. They strive to educate and develop their dive guides to demonstrate respect and care for the marine life there, and it showed. The dive guides were very protective of both the reefs and the critters; they were not afraid to reprimand divers who got too close to the coral or tried to touch the critters. I observed other dive operators ignore the fact that their divers were crushing the reefs with their fins trying to get close for photos. Two Fish has also participated in coral reef and mangrove restoration in Bunaken.
Considering how affordable their prices are, I’d say they’re doing quite well and would recommend them to those of you who aren’t looking for dive travel in the lap of luxury with gourmet food. Video gallery online at: /gallery/video/
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