"$&^% that's cold!"
This was the first thing I loudly thought to myself as I rolled off the side of a very questionable local boat into the Lembeh Strait. After diving in 80-degree water for the last several days, the 72-degree water came as a bit of shock, and I found that I was significantly underdressed for the occasion in a 1mm tank and dive pants. Poor planning that compounded a bit through the dives that day.
"Aaaand I can't see !*%$."
That was thought number two as the visibility was 15 feet or less in many spots with a ton of sediment and nutrients in the water. Not terrible by any stretch, but in contrast to Bunaken it was like fumbling around in the dark for a bit until I could get my bearings. Once we got everyone in and settled, we started following Deeker (our guide) down towards the bottom.
The Lembeh Strait is considered to be one of the best spots in the world to observe and photograph macro marine life. Located in North Sulawesi at the eastern end of the Indonesian Archipelago, it is a wonderfully unique place. The bottom of the strait is completely black volcanic sand that has been deposited there over millions of years by more than a dozen active volcanoes in the immediate region.
Arriving on the bottom (between 50-75ft. deep) with camera in hand we combed the sand hoping to run into its many small and colorful residents. It didn’t take long at all to run into several interesting creatures, including the Devils Scorpionfish pictured above, and then several Frogfish that were much easier to spot against the black backdrop of the bottom. Frogfish typically are masters of camouflage in whatever environment they find themselves, but in Lembeh, the areas of coral and vegetation are sparse, making it much simpler to focus in and find them.
After an intriguing first dive, we surfaced and spent some time on the roof of the boat warming up and taking in the scenery of volcanic calderas, jungle, and a smattering of resorts and local villages. The weather was absolutely perfect, and you couldn’t have asked for a more relaxing surface interval.
The serenity continued until one of our group managed to step through one of the floorboards in the boat, which immediately brought the seaworthiness of the vessel back to the forefront of everyone’s mind. This issue was easily rectified by putting the camera holding bucket over the hole. Out of sight, out of mind, right?
"This is still unreasonably cold."
Same thoughts from dive one went through my head as we rolled in for dive number two and got back to combing the bottom. This go around was a little more productive than the first dive now that we were better acclimated and had some idea of the animals we were looking for. Deeker continued to be our eyes in most cases and pointed out the local wildlife with an adeptness that only comes with years of experience and hundreds of dives in the area. I even managed to run into a couple of seahorses on this dive, which was a first for me in all the years I have been diving.
Underwater photography in Lembeh proved to be a significant challenge for my limited skillset. The nutrient rich waters create a lot of backscatter and the green hue to the water makes capturing your subjects with a decent background difficult. Strobe positioning and managing shutter speed is key here, and requires a lot more practice than the four dives I spent doing it. After struggling with this for about an hour, but also managing to enjoy the litany of creatures we encountered, we headed back to the boat to warm up and knock out our second surface interval.
Dives three and four went well, even though the final dive had to initially be moved due to a sudden school of jellyfish surrounding the boat as the Captain was mooring the boat. I have no idea what kind they were – I just know that the Dive Guides wouldn’t let us get in the water, which honestly is all I need to know about them.
At the end of a full day, we made our way back to the docks, and a lot of relieved looks as we drug our gear off the boat and back to the van. As we pulled away into what would be a five hour van ride due to some low power lines and a couple of large trucks, I reflected on the unique experience of diving Lembeh and my new found appreciation for muck diving. While pelagic life and reefs that go on forever are beautiful and awe-inspiring, some of the most amazing things in diving are in the smallest of details.
The Lembeh Strait is a jewel of biodiversity and is extremely unique both in its flora and fauna. It also happens to be directly adjacent to the city of Bitung and a major shipping lane through the region. On the surface, this would seem concerning in regard to conservation and ensuring that the shipping and economic boom being experienced in the region doesn’t have adverse effects on the local ecosystem. Despite all of that, local businesses and authorities are working diligently to ensure that shipping practices in the region create minimal impact on the wildlife in the strait. These efforts and policies coupled with local dive operations running sustainable businesses and conducting frequent trash cleanups will hopefully ensure the strange creatures of the Lembeh Strait are around for a very long time.