Lembeh

Elusien's Trip Report

October 2012

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1.444769° N, 125.238736° E
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Background
Bitung
Bitung
Chalet
Chalet
Volcano
Volcano

In October 2012 we flew to Lembeh in North Sulawesi, Indonesia for a dive holiday. The dive trip logistics were organised by a very efficient and helpful lady, Gracia from Safari Tours & Travel, who are based in nearby Manado. We looked at doing all the booking ourselves, but found that we could actually save money by going through this travel company as they could get much cheaper fares for our internal flights with Lion Air. In the end, we ourselves booked the flights with Emirates to Jakarta and the airport hotel there, while Safari Tours booked the internal flights to/from Manado and the transfers between Manado and the NAD Resort on Lembeh Island. We'd definitely use Safari Tours again. The dive resort is run by Zee and her husband Simon Buxton (a keen dive photographer), and their really cute daughter, Bella.

Formerly North Sulawesi was called Celebes and was part of the Dutch state colony of the Netherlands East Indies from 1905. It gained independence in December 1949, becoming part of Indonesia. Sulawesi is the world's 11th largest island (Ellesmere Island - Canada [10th] is about 5% larger, while Great Britain [9th] is about 10% bigger). Cyprus is the 81st largest, 18 times smaller! The Lembeh Strait is the 12km long stretch of water that separates Lembeh Island from the North Sulawesi mainland. It is considered by many to be the "muck-diving" capital of the world, a veritable treasure trove of weird species of sealife. The town of Bitung, which is the main port for the northern part of North Sulawesi since the port at Manado silted up, is situated about half way along the strait.

North Sulawesi is on the Pacific Ring of Fire and has several active volcanoes. In fact on the Sunday we left Cyprus one of the volcanoes, Mount Lokon, erupted and produced a loud blast that could be heard six kilometers away from the top of the Tompaluan crater. The eruption produced lava and spewed volcanic ashes about 1km into the air. A few weeks earlier it had erupted and dusted parts of the provincial capital Manado with a half centimeter layer of gray ash.

NAD Resort
Mandarinfish
Mandarinfish
Orangutang Crab
Orangutang Crab
Lobster
Lobster
Solar-powered Nudibranch
Solar-powered Nudibranch
Urchin
Urchin
Nudibranch 2
Nudibranch 2

NAD Resort click on the logo below tripadvisor

Quiet and peaceful.
Not "touristy".
Very friendly and helpful staff.
Great dive centre.

The resort is right on the shore of Lembeh Island. You can kit up and take 2 steps to be in the water and swimming to the house reef, on which there are a couple of small wrecks. We used it the first day to check out Sue's new Canon Powershot G12 camera and WP-DC34 underwater housing. Sue also got a Sea & Sea YS-01 strobe with I-DAS arms, which we also tested out, but which we only used a few times - it only arrived a few weeks before we went on holiday and we really hadn't had time to familiarise ourselves with it. We got the strobe/arm package from a company in Seattle USA, Ocean Optical Sales and it was still cheaper getting it shipped to Cyprus and paying the import duty than it was buying it in the UK!

Unfortunately the WP-DC34 housing does not have a proper port for firing the external strobe, but my 1959 Blue Peter badge came in useful and I managed to rig up a Heath Robinson one using a plastic milk bottle, black guttering tape and 3M Dual Lock tape which worked fine. Because of the fact that the lens port on the underwater housing is quite deep, macro shots using only the internal flash often have the shadow of the port on them in the lower right corner, even when the diffuser is used. To get over this this we used to zoom out about half-way to bring the lens closer to the front of the port. This is a problem for other digital cameras too that have long zoom fixed lenses.

Canon G12 Underwater Settings

The settings usually used were:
Program mode:TvISO:320
Speed:1/160 secFlash:On (±0)
eV:±0Zoom:½-way (10cm - ∞)
WhiteBalance:UnderwaterAF Frame:Flexizone
AF-Point Zoom:OnServo AF :Off
Continuous AF:OnAF Assist Beam:Off
MF Point Zoom:OffSpot AE:AF point

NAD is a real diver's resort, not set up for casual holidaymakers - no swimming pool or stunning beaches. It is also well appointed for underwater photographers, both professionals and newbies. There is a camera room, where you can set up your camera equipment before and after the dive and a computer room for transferring photos and such-like. A new large bar area was being built upstairs while we were there. A free (but sluggish) wi-fi connection is available. We mainly used it for e-mail and to check on our return flights. There is a small jetty where the dive boats moor. There are two types of accomodation at the resort: the normal rooms and the Deluxe Chalets (see the NAD website o the Trip Advisor report). We stayed in a deluxe chalet that was of a good size and clean, with air-conditioning and an en-suite bathroom. This was more than adequate for us. There was more than enough cupboard space for our clothes, again as usual, we brought too many clothes.

We were each allocated a crate in which we kept our dive gear. This was stored in the dive centre overnight. The crate was loaded on the boat by the dive personnel each morning and the kit was cleaned by them when it was brought back. Beer and soft drinks were available, but not wine or spirits, since the price of this is much too high to make it a viable option. We had brought some vodka and gin with us and purchased a couple of bottles of Sprite following the afternoon dive to have a gin/vodka and Sprite each evening before dinner. We also brought a very nice bottle of Maratheftico red wine to have on our wedding anniversary. On that evening Sue made cocktails for our circle of friends there and Zee got the cook to bake us a very tasty cake.

Everyone, including the hosts, shared a long table for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Breakfast consisted of cereal, toast, eggs done the way you asked for, and lovely fruit, including Neil's favourite - pineapple. Lunch and dinner also had fruit as well as soup, vegetables, rice/potatoes, usually a spicy chicken/beef/pork dish and cake - the same cake you got next day on the dive boat, yum! Rio looked after us in the restaurant and the chef was open to suggestions, such as when we mentioned how much we liked sashimi and it magically appeared as a starter for dinner on our anniversary.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • It is geared to diving (especially underwater photography) and it does this very well;
  • The deluxe chalet we were in was clean and well kept.
  • You can use the electrical sockets in the room for charging camera batteries, Kindles, iPads etc. you can also use the facilities in the camera and computer rooms (we brought a 3-way adapter - useful).
  • All of the staff were very pleasant and friendly and couldn't do enough for you;
  • The food was good. Though lacking in choice this was made up for in the quality of the meals and in the standard of cooking;
  • You are treated as if you are family, rather than guests, eating together and sitting and chatting afterwards.

Cons - Our only complaint

  • There is no fridge in the room to keep your water, chocolate and gin cold;

All in all we were very pleased with the NAD resort and would definitely go back.

Dive Centre and Diving
Seahorse
Seahorse
Blue-ringed Octopus
Blue-ringed Octopus
Pygmy Seahorse
Pygmy Seahorse
Hairy Scorpionfish
Hairy Scorpionfish
Hairy Frogfish
Hairy Frogfish
Red Frogfish
Red Frogfish

Mares MR12T Regulators

Regulators

The dive centre staff are very easy going and there is no rushing about. The dive guides are great, how they can find tiny little critters smaller than the size of a pea for you to photograph is beyond me. There were never more than 4 divers per guide, ours were Steven, Joni and Paulus. They would find something interesting for us to photograph, then while we were doing that they'd find the next little critter for us. At one point I had a minor problem with my new Mares MR12T regulators, the DIN version of which Sue and I got just before the holiday. Paulus and Simon had a look at them for me and soon sorted the problem out for me with the help of a spanner. Nitrox is available and because we were doing a lot of diving we used this the whole time we were there. Because of the design of the boats, all our dive entries were backward rolls off the sides.

All of the dive sites, apart from the House Reef, were accessed by boat. At most we had 8 divers on a boat. Most of the divers had underwater photographic equipment, ranging from Neil's Canon Digital Ixus 960, to top-of-the-range DSLR cameras. After your backward-roll entry, the boat crew would pass your camera to you and take it from you before you climbed back onboard at the end of the dive. Lembeh is a a photographer's destination. The creatures you can see are fantastic and so many are congregated into such a small area.

Comments on the dive centre

The facilities are good, with a cleaning tank and drying area.
The staff are friendly, helpful and very capable.
The dive guides spot amazing creatures for you.
The staff transport your gear to and from the dive boats.
If you need assistance just ask
(e.g. if you need to remove your BCD and tank
before climbing back on the boat).
The staff rinse and dry your kit on returning from diving.

Almost all of the dive sites were stunning because of the weird and wonderful creatures you could find. In many cases there was sand and rubble, but the creatures that the guides spotted there were incredible. If you have ever tried to take a photo of a Pygmy Seahorse sitting on a coral fan the same colour as the seahorse, you will know how difficult it is: first to spot them, even when the guide is pointing to them, then to get them in focus. The challenge that this sets is part of the fun of the dive. We took over 3000 underwater photos on this holiday, whittling them down to 900 when we got back home.

We used to download the photos (almost all of which were in JPEG format, some were in RAW) onto the iPad each evening for two reasons, firstly as a safety measure, in case something were to go wrong with the memory card in the camera; secondly to get a better view of what we had managed to capture than could be seen on the camera LCD screen. The iPad is great for this, it's lighter than my laptop and easier to transport and fire up. However I wouldn't edit the pictures there, I'd rather wait till I got back and tidy them up using my home PC. The main reason being that it's relatively easy to get the photos onto the iPad, but Apple don't make it easy to copy gigabytes of pictures off this tablet, whereas with a PC/laptop it's simple to do this using a USB memory stick.

A Typical Day

7am
Breakfast, prior to which we would prepare our underwater cameras and get our bag together - sun cream, sweets, water etc.
8am
Leave on the dive boat, the dive kit would already be there for you to check.
8.30am
First dive (usually 50 - 70 mins duration) followed by a 1-hour surface interval.
11am
Second dive, then back to the NAD Resort.
1pm
Lunch.
2pm
Leave on the dive boat for the afternoon dive.
4.30pm
Possible unaccompanied dive on the house reef.
6pm
Possible night dive or Mandarin dive.
7.30/8pm
Dinner with Zee, Simon and fellow guests (time dependent on whether or not a night dive was done).

On a large number of the dives we saw some absolutely fabulous frogfish. In one instance there were 4 of them within spitting distance of each other. We really wanted to see and photograph a Hairy Frogfish and it was fantastic when Steven our guide found one for us. There were a large number of nudibranchs, one of which was called locally the "solar-powered" nudibranch. We also wanted to see and photograph a Blue-ringed Octopus, whose bite is one of the most venomous of all underwater creatures, causing paralysis and death. Michael Crichton wrote a novel "State of Fear" in which an eco-terrorist used blue-ringed octopuses as a means of assassinating his victims. Again Steven found one for us, it was about 4cm in length and we didn't know what it was at first until we looked at it on the camera's LCD screen and saw the blue rings when we focussed in for the shot. Other octopuses that we saw, apart from the "normal" variety, were the Wunderpus and the Mimic octopus, both of which are fantastic.

Of the really small critters, we were dying to see an ornate ghost pipefish, which we did and which is shown as the title photo above. Amongst other things we saw Seahorses and Sea Dragons, crabs, some smaller than the size of your little fingernail, Dragonets, Harlequin (and other) Shrimp, Leaf fish and Flying Gurnards. There were some lovely Cuttlefish on some of the dives, including a Flamboyant one. On the Nudi Retreat dive there is the most amazing Electric Clam in a fissure within a shallow cave. It is brilliant red and you can see it pulsating with flashes of electrical activity all over its body. I have never seen anything so strange before. To see a video of this and other weird and wonderful creatures taken by Inge Onderwater, she and Rion, her husband, were two of the divers we met at the resort, watch it below, or go to: http://youtu.be/74iSVcvgZMk.

Lembeh Dive Video

One day we spoke to Zee and Simon to say that five of us wanted to do some diving at the northern-most tip of North Sulawesi. A boat was laid on and we travelled along the mainland coast for a couple of hours until we reached the Paradise Resort. Here we dived Paradise Pier, which was amazing. Besides the large numbers of small critters that we saw, when we swam under the pier itself you couldn't see the surface because of a shoal of thousands of Glassfish. There were large Batfish and schools of Barracuda. There was a thermal vent spewing out a very hot water spring. There were Nudibranchs and a myriad of fish and soft corals that were growing on the pier struts - it was amazing. On another day we took a different day trip, though this time not so far away, to the other side of Lembeh Island itself. This too was a good day's diving featuring a couple of wall dives.

Summary
Wunderpus
Wunderpus
Clown Frogfish
Clown Frogfish
Dragonet
Dragonet

This was a brilliant holiday. The resort was very good and the guys there were fantastic. The dive guides are amazing and very patient. They realise that you have to take your time when taking photos and don't hurry you. The creatures you see are out of this world - if you love muck diving you'll think you've died and gone to heaven here in the Lembeh Straits. The weather was very hot, except for the day we had a downpour. The boats are well provisioned and there is plenty of shade on them, which was useful during the surface intervals.

We would definitely recommend the Lembeh Straits as a diving holiday destination and the NAD Resort in particular as a resort and dive operator. We would very much like to return to NAD in the future. The opportunities it provides for taking fantastic photos of fabulous critters are amazing. For more (higher-resolution) photos and videos, click on the icons ( & ) at the top.

Summary of Sue's Dives
Date Depth (m) Time (min) EANx Lembeh Dive
10 Oct 2.1 11 - NAD House Reef - test dive for weighting purposes
10 Oct 3.7 62 - NAD House Reef - testing Sue's new Canon G12/WP-DC34 camera/uW-housing
11 Oct 18.9 49 30% Nudi Falls - crabs, pygmy seahorses, nudibranchs, Sea Wasps - excellent dive
11 Oct 24.7 65 31% Serena - loads to see, Clownfish, Ghost Pipefish, Barramuni, Devil Scorpionfish
11 Oct 24.7 52 31% Batu Sader - Pinted Frogfish, Snake Eels, Nudibranch, shrimps
12 Oct 26.2 51 30% Makawide - Coral outcrops, Seahorses, Anemones. Nudibranchs - amazing dive
12 Oct 22.3 60 31% Jellyfish crab, Leaf shrimps, Scorpionfish, Lionfish, Octopus - great dive
12 Oct 23.5 63 31% Pinta Colada - Small Blueringed Octopus, weird Crabs, loads of fish - fantastic dive
12 Oct 9.1 44 31% Police Pier - MANDARIN dive, very privileged to see this spectacle - FANTASTIC dive
13 Oct 26.5 69 31% Nudi Retreat - Hairy Octopus! Pygmy Seahorses! Electric Clam - superb dive
13 Oct 10.7 69 32% Hairball - big Seahorses, 4 Hairy Frogfish! Dragonets, Leaf Fish - excellent dive
13 Oct 18.0 64 30% Pante Parigi - Clownfish, Pigmy Pipefish, Red Painted Frogfish - good dive
14 Oct 20.1 67 31% Paradise Pier - Frogfish, Eels, Ghost Pipefish, "painted" pier struts- INCREDIBLE dive
14 Oct 23.2 61 32% Yellow Pawpaw - Spotted Rays, Eels, Nudibranchs, lots to see - brilliant dive
14 Oct 15.9 66 31% Batu Mandi - Wall dive, fantastic colours and shapes, tiny yellow Seahorse- excellent dive
15 Oct 24.1 60 31% Hairball II - Hairy Scorpionfish, Devil Scorpionfish, much to see - lovely dive
15 Oct 24.7 70 32% Tanyung Kabur - WoW again! 2 baby Cuttlefish (1 hairy!), Pantoi Seahorse - brilliant dive
15 Oct 13.7 73 32% Aer Prang I - 2 Wonderpus, a large Octopus, Clownfish eggs ets. - good dive
15 Oct 12.8 59 32% NAD House Reef - Shrimps, Crabs, Eels, small wreck, Large Grouper - night dive
16 Oct 29.3 54 32% Angel's Window - Pigmy Seahorse, Cowries, Robust Gost Pipefish - fabulous dive
16 Oct 23.8 62 31% Rojos - Lots to see, amazing Stonefish, Hairy Scorpionfish, minute Frogfish - great dive
16 Oct 23.2 57 30% Makawide Pier - Mini Frogfish, Shrimps, Crabs, Prorcupine Fish - good dive
16 Oct 20.4 66 30% Nudi Falls - Incredible tiny Squid, Eels, Crabs and Shrimops- really good night dive
17 Oct 23.5 62 30% Critter Hunt - Nudibranchs all over the place, large Moray Eels - good dive
17 Oct 15.9 70 32% Tandrosa - Much to see, Flamboyant Mantis Shrimp, Dragonets, fantastic Urchins- lovely dive
17 Oct 24.2 65 32% Nudi Retreat - Testing the YS-01 strobe, Robust Pipefish, fabulous Frogfish - nice dive
18 Oct 14.6 63 31% Pulau Doua - Fabulous Crans, amazing wall, huge Octopus, loads of fish - lovely dive
18 Oct 22.3 60 30% Pante Deco - Amazing wall, several Frogfish, lovely corals & sponges - bautiful dive
19 Oct 31.7 62 31% Makawide II - Much to see, Eels, Solar-Powered Nudibranch, Shrimp - fabulous dive
19 Oct 18.6 70 31% Nudi Falls - Amazing Frogfish, tiny Shrimps, Hermit Crab, Nudibranchs - fabulous dive
19 Oct 18.9 62 31% Nudi Retreat - Ribbon Eels, Flambouyant Mantis Shrimp, lot of fish - good dive
19 Oct 6.7 52 30% NAD House Reef - lots of fish and Nudibranchs, but poor visibility - Okay dive
Slideshow (of a few selected photos)

For the whole photo album click on the "Photo Album" icon ( ) at the top.