The Lembeh Strait is known to scuba divers far and wide as the world's muck diving capital. Last weekend we decided to go and see what all the fuss was about and hunt for some monsters lurking in the deep.
To the uninitiated, muck diving may perhaps sound like the unenviable chore of a farm hand tasked with keeping the stables in order. In fact, muck diving is all about diving to the ocean floor in search of unusual critters with even more unusual names, like the hairy-frogfish (see the featured pic of this post), nudibranchs, the hairy-squat lobster or flamboyant cuttlefish (I can't help being reminded of the Curious Squid from Terry Pratchett's Discworld series). During these dives the prize isn't fields of brightly coloured tropical coral and pretty fish, but the chance to see life but not quite as we know it.
We began our journey in Manado; many resorts in Lembeh have a sister operation running on the Bunaken islands (just off the coast of Manado in the north-west), and they will take you from Manado to Lembeh via a private car (costing around 400k-500k per person). Despite being coast to coast, the journey takes just over an hour by car, and we didn't really fancy paying this much each for such a short trip. We did some googling, asked at the hotel, and found it was feasible to get to Lembeh from Manado for a fraction of the price.
We first needed to get an angkot (or "mikrolet" around these parts) to the "Paal 2" bus station. This was simple enough, each mikrolet has a sign in the window and sometimes on top, and we just waited outside on the main road near our hotel (the "Top hotel") until one passed us after 10mins. We had a lot of luggage and had to pay for a suitcase and ourselves, which ended up costing us 20k (2 people, 2 big bags). Arriving at the Paal 2 station after about 20mins, we quickly spotted the Bitung bus, boarded and again had to pay for the bags (11k x4 = 44k in total). Reassuringly the locals seemed also to be paying 11,000Rp. The bus isn't the newest and there was no AC, but it is more than just a van, and conditions are not too bad or cramped for the 1hr15min journey. Guning Klabat provides a nice backdrop that can be seen most of the way as you transverse the narrow tip of Sulawesi. Finally, we arrived at the Tangkoko terminal and found another mikrolet to the pier Ruko (again 20k with bags). At the pier, you can either charter a boat (expensive at 100k-200k) directly to your resort, or get a public boat over to the Lembeh pier (6k pp), but then you're stuck with ojeks and only the power of your legs to make it to your actual resort on lembeh (sometimes tricky with luggage through the hills).
Palau Lembeh is not far from the mainland, but the boat is quite slow, maybe 15-20mins to get there. We got the chartered boat as we had a lot of luggage, so in total the trip cost us each 10k+22k+10k+50k = 92k, much cheaper than paying 20 Euros each, and took us around 2-2.5 hours.
Most of the accommodation in Lembeh is resort-like accommodation for people on holiday with lots of money. There is a place called Daniel's home-stay however that is a little cheaper, but at 25 Euros still a bit pricey by Indonesian standards. I have to confess we read the terms and conditions incorrectly for Bastionas resort, and thought that a budget room without AC was just 25 Euros per night for the room, when in fact it was 25 Euros per person per night for such a room. Oh dear. It was definitely our most expensive accommodation so far in Indonesia, but the room and resort are very nice, and the food was absolutely great. Nasi and Mie Goreng is great, but every now and then you just want a nice bowl of cereal and some yogurt!
This being the first time we had tried muck diving, neither of us knew what to expect. Our dives were at Goby Crab and Kelapa Dua (two coconuts), yes, we only did two dives unfortunately, being on a budget is tough, and diving does not come cheap you know!
Muck divers take their underwater photography very seriously, and everyone on the boat had some serious looking kit. It felt like we'd stumbled into the midst of a nature documentary film crew. The boat and accommodation are well-equipped to deal with camera maintenance. We had bought an underwater camera housing for our (very unfancy) camera whilst in Manado that made claims of being water-resistant to 20m. Nervously, we took it with us on our first dive. It didn't shatter or leak to its credit, however, by 3m down, we knew we'd wasted our money; the housing has a soft rubber area for pressing buttons on top, and the pressure just sealed it and the buttons permanently down, making photography impossible. Obvious in hindsight, but there you go...If buying one these water-resistant cases for your compact camera, make sure you get the type with the external button pressing mechanisms and not just a thin rubber sheet covering the buttons. I guess we have a camera case good for snorkeling now at least!
Muck diving isn't as immediatly thrilling as your normal tropical coral diving. The seabed in Lembeh consists of black sand, cigarettes and empty bottles :), but the critters seem to love it down there and even seem to make these knick-knacks their homes. There isn't much in the way of coral or schools of iridescent fish, but it's interesting none the less, and it was very different from our other diving experiences so far. We didn't see the most sought after critters, like the hairy frogfish or mimic octupus (so-called because it can imitate other animals such as sea snakes, crabs and worms), I guess you need to stay for more than 2 dives for that. We did, however, see Stone fish (they really do look like rocks until they move), Manta shrimp, dragonet, Lion fish, flounder, sea spiders, pipefish, flying gurnard, and lots and lots of colourful nudibranch. It's a strange world down there!