critter/ muck-diving on the Lembeh Strait
Most people who consider visiting Indonesia seem to focus on its many sunbathing, spa and shopping opportunities. While we can admit that we too were seeking some of the same when we first stepped off the plane in Manado, our experience was ultimately altered by the fact that North Sulawesi is home to some of the best snorkeling and Scuba diving in all the world!
While we are not professional divers by any sense of the term, your Set of Drifters always enjoy trying something new. And let’s face it, we’re suckers for open waters, particularly when they are so crystal clear and warm! While we assumed that our limited experience with snorkeling and diving would prohibit us from really engaging in all that Manado has on offer, our friend Danny bent over backwards to make sure that we got our feet, and everything else, considerably wet during our four-day stay in town.
For novice divers, it’s worth noting that the waters around Manado are home to some of the best conditions in all the world. Diving is possible year round thanks to consistent climate that promotes water temperatures of about 28° to 29°C/ 82° to 84° F. (At one point, we were so warm while snorkeling near Bunaken - see below - that we purposely had to dive lower just to remain comfortable in our wetsuits.) And while visibility is mostly very good, North Sulawesi, and particularly the Lembeh Strait, is known the world over as “critter country,” a term used to describe the odd undersea creatures that lurk just beneath the sand, hidden out of view. This my friends, is what they call “muck-diving,” and it is not for beginners.
Critter-hunting involves descending into the murky depths of the waters many meters below the surface and via some pretty strong currents. Those that consider diving their main hobby (or obsession?) have found “Mecca” here. Though we ultimately visited the Lembeh Strait for only a number of hours on one day, it was soon apparent how much joy and excitement emanated from its waters. Here, experienced divers returned from their underwater treks, thrilled to have captured rare images of some of the most bizarre, alien-like creatures Earth has to offer!
Our visit to the Lembeh Strait began with an early morning journey to the port of Bitung. After about an hour or so of driving on the only road from Manado, we finally arrived at the small marina that would be our gateway to Lembeh. While we chowed down on pia kacang (peanut filled pastries not unlike empanadas), two young local kids splashed around in the water and played the “bule”/ “chocolate” game with us (see "Koha and Agote" below).
Soon enough, a boat issued from Lembeh Resort arrived to escort us across Lembeh Strait. After passing over 50 different dive sites along the way, our vessel finally approached what we could only describe later as "Fantasy Island." Picturesque Lembeh Resort (see “digs”) is so well positioned in a cove across the strait from Bitung, it almost feels as if it were created from the magic dust of a Disney Imagineer’s tool kit! The diving outfit here is called “Critters@Lembeh,” and it just so happens that our friend Danny is the proprietor of the venture!
Thanks to this connection we were assured a dive that day, even if neither of us had any real Scuba experience under our weighted belts. (Set of Drifter Brady had tried Snuba a couple of times in visits to Molokini Crater in Hawaii.) Danny had some meetings to attend that day so he left us in the capable hands of his dive center staff. The friendly front office team was so helpful, quickly putting us novices at ease with their smiles as they suited us up in some rather unfamiliar gear. (Special shout-out goes to Linda who let us check our email on the office’s computers!)
After indulging in some tasty lunch foodstuffs at the Lembeh Resort restaurant, it was time to pair up with a dive instructor. Danny assured us that a gal named “Dimpy” would be our best fit, and he was right. A full-on Marine Biologist by trade, Dimpy was as patient as she was knowledgeable. She took us through each step of the process, from figuring out how to mount our tanks all the way through the concepts and practice of buoyancy. The class was quick - but not rushed - and held inside Lembeh’s training pool that, ironically, featured a small plastic turtle on the floor, seemingly a target for beginners learning how to navigate a coral reef.
After the class, we sauntered into the nearby waters of Lembeh Resort’s house reef. At first, we were both a bit nervous. Thankfully, the delivery of Dimpy’s instruction quickly allowed us to ease into the 30-45 minute dive. She carefully led us past a number of faux wrecks and other structures that helped to propagate coral building and other habitation. In only a short time, we became witness to a number of intriguing creatures that we probably would have missed without Dimpy’s well-trained eye. Using an etch-a-sketch type of notepad, she wrote down the names of the various fish, nudibranch and coral species that passed by our masks. We were particularly impressed with the trumpet fish, though perhaps a bit surprised to see so many lobster running amok (no pun intended) in the shallow waters near the shore.
Feeling somewhat vindicated that we survived our first dive, we spent the rest of the afternoon and evening relaxing poolside, watching the sparrows dip their beaks in the water as they zoomed by. A tremendous sunset that highlighted the nearby Gunung Klabat crater soon followed, and you can be sure we weren’t the only ones hovering near the shore to snap pictures!
Critters@Lembeh offers half-day “Discover Scuba Diving” lessons for first-timers at the cost of $125 USD (including equipment rental), though longer PADI-certification packages are available at elevated costs. Other dive packages for pros can be arranged in conjunction with stays at the Lembeh Resort (see “digs.”) For those out there who are looking to see some critters, Danny’s dive center at Lembeh is a great place to start, particular thanks to its state-of-the-art photography lab! For a complete, detailed list of dive sites within the Lembeh Strait, check out this link: http://www.starfish.ch/dive/Lembeh.html.
Set of Drifters video: Check out our YouTube channel for video from this event!
Critters @ Lembeh - Lembeh Resort, Pulau Lembeh (short boat ride from the port town of Bitung), North Sulawesi, 011 (62) 438-550-3139
catching the pulse in Koha and Agote
On our first full day in Manado, our host and family friend Danny escorted us on a tour to Agote Mountain. Continuing upwards from his home on a somewhat treacherous road, we first passed through the hilltop village of Koha. This place was fascinating and, thanks in part to a funerary procession, was full of many “pulsations.” If you have not figured it out yet, that translated into many a photo opportunity for your “Set of Drifters.” Simply put, our cameras could not keep up.
We soon realized that we were attracting attention, particularly when groups of young children and teens starting to point at us through laughter and shout “bule! bule!” You would have thought that Brad and Angelina were in town by the way people peered out of their windows and cars just to catch glances at us. To be honest, we were a bit shocked that local villagers would be so excited to see Westerners, yet as would later learn, the people living in the mountains around Manado rarely see any tourists. (We surmise that’s because they’re all out snorkeling in the water?)
Our Javanese guide Herman later revealed to us that the term “bule” actually refers to a rare white buffalo that at some point appeared on the scene due to a genetic mutation of the more traditional brown buffalo. (Skin Deep, a documentary we devoured on the plane ride home, discussed how the human “Caucasian” skin color was also originally the product of a gene mutation found in early settlers who migrated from Africa.) Throughout rural parts of Indonesia, “bule” is used frequently as the nickname for any Caucasian person, or anyone who might look foreign to the locals.
It must be stated that the term is never meant in an offensive way. Ultimately, the rural villagers are thrilled to see you, and may even ask to take a photo with you so that they can show off to their friends that they encountered a “bule” that day. Visitors to Sulawesi, Java (or any other less-touristy island outside of Bali) would be wise to quickly embrace the moniker.
And if you are feeling especially brave, you can even call back to them, “chocolate! chocolate!” Doug’s cousin’s children, a lot of precocious mixed race “Indo” children (i.e. half “bule” and half “chocolate”) promised us that this was normal practice, and when we used it throughout the duration of the trip, the calls elicited copious amounts of laughter from both children and adults alike.
Onward from Koha, we ascended higher up into the mountains and finally reached Agote. The sweeping vistas off of this apex put many a Hawaiian landscape to shame. Deeper into the jungle, a serene setting of rice paddies made for an exquisite trek through the wilderness. The muddy trail we took divided farm land in two and gave us wonderful views both into the forest and out to the sea.
What we found really bizarre up here were a series of elaborate contraptions set up by the farmers to keep the rampant bird population from eating their crop. Their unusual weighted structures were comprised of bamboo sticks and string tied to a random old plastic bag that acted as a “scarecrow.” It seemed surprisingly an effective way to ward off the pesky rice-eaters, though we can only imagine that it would be quite a boring job to just sit out in the field all afternoon and react every time the birds fly!
From here, we descended further down the path into a beautiful forest area deep in the thicket. We would have liked to stay longer as were told by Danny that paths go even further into the mountain, but sadly it had started to rain and the younglings were getting hungry (read: cranky) so it was time to head back. Our feet might have been wet, tired and muddied, but our minds were completely blown by the majestic beauty of this special place. This is the kind of paradise that needs to be enjoyed now in peace before it gets tainted by tourists!
Koha and Agote - located near Manado (trust us, you’ll need a local guide for this one)
Pulau Bunaken National Marine Park
As mentioned above, the fantastic diving and snorkeling opportunities that abound in and around the city of Manado have easily helped put North Sulawesi on the map. Fortunately for us, only a day after our first dive at Pulau Lembeh (see above), we were granted the last two seats on a boat that set out from Manado’s Murex Dive Resort toward the amazing coral reefs that encircle Pulau Bunaken.
First studied by scientists as recent as 1978, Pulau Bunaken is a low-lying stretch of island that is part of a National Marine Park established in 1991. Consisting of roughly 220 acres that encompass boomerang-shaped Bunaken and four other nearby islands, the National Marine Park is known the world over for its beautiful clear waters and very deep seas. (Some shelves level off roughly 5,000 feet!) This combination makes it the perfect place to go snorkeling or diving depending on your skill level. Being novice divers, we decided to spend the day snorkeling while our boat buddies from Germany, England and The Netherlands headed deeper underwater.
We started our day at Bunaken Timur. Dropped off at the site by our boat, the "Mackarena," we bobbed in the shallow waters, allowing ourselves to be carried down the shoreline of the island by the urging, yet peaceful current. For this first site, we stayed in waters shallow enough do stand in, though of course this is an absolute no-no when snorkeling or diving. You certainly to not want to damage any of the delicate aquatic microorganisms that thrive here. Aside from a horde of colorful fish, tiny nudibranchs and large cobalt blue starfish were the stars of Bunaken Timur. We loved spotting the weird fish that seemed to change color from royal blue to purple upon approach.
After an hour or so, we rejoined the others back on the boat where the crew from Murex fed us lunch and a variety of hot and cold beverages to replenish our energy. One of our favorite treats was served with hot “kopi” (coffee). The hot, delicious donut fritters on board were actually found throughout Indonesia, but when served after a dive, they tasted infinitely better! We relaxed on the deck for awhile before our next dive site, disheartened only by the trail of refuse that collected in the top currents off Bunaken. While the island does house some small villages, the floating barge of plastic, wood and metal has clearly collected most of its waste from the large city of Manado. We read in the papers upon our departure that the National Marine Park has finally teamed up with the Indonesian Navy’s Manado base to clean up the problem. The heady task will require the assignment of three navy platoons!
While we cannot remember the name of the next dive site, by looking at a map of Pulau Bunaken, it can be determined that we were dropped off somewhere near Cela Cela or Lekuan I. (Often, the dive sites around Bunaken are so busy with teams that you have to wait your turn to experience the location.) This was an incredible place. In fact, the super colorful corals and myriad of species of aquatic life that we viewed from this location created one of the best highlights of our entire three-week visit to the country! Thanks to a reef shelf that drops off almost entirely vertical, the diversity that abounds here is stunning. While we were not able to dive as deep as our other boat mates, our snorkeling efforts still brought us in very close contact with a variety of animals, including trumpet fish, puffers, and baby shrimp! Of course, the highlight of this dive site was the gaggle of sea turtles that swam only a few meters below.
After another hour long respite back across the water that resulted in a short nap, we ended up at a third site off of the main island that may or may not have been “Pigmy Point.” Only a hop, skip and a boat ride from Murex, where we began the day’s adventure, this location was rocky and a bit dangerous. And yet, the strong currents and multilayered coral here offered us new aquatic treats to marvel at. It is at Pigmy Point where we experienced multiple families of sea urchins seated on colorful corals that also housed sea horses and other oddities. It was really a perfect day. Our only regret was that we had not rented an underwater camera to take photos.
Murex Dive Resort offers a number of diving packages that set off from their well-equipped resort in Manado (see “digs.") The day-trip snorkeling session we engaged in is priced on their website at 25€ (about $34 USD) per diver/ per day (including boat ride, lunch and refreshments and mask, fin, and snorkel rental). Scuba diving is offered in one, one-four and five-seven day packages. Discounts apply to the longer packages while a single day is priced at 40€ (about $55 USD). This price includes the boat ride, three guided day dives, one unguided dive at Murex’s house reef and the use of weights and tanks. Never been diving before and would like to give it a try? Regulator, BCD and other equipment is available for rent though you will need (and want) to take a class first! Murex offers a number of them at different price points depending on how serious you want to get. Check out their website for more information.
Set of Drifters tip: The Bunaken National Marine Park does charge a small fee to access the reefs, though most resorts who head out to the islands will probably include this in the price of your dive. The actual transaction of the fee is handled by boat so don’t be surprised if you notice a small dingy coming up along the side of your vessel. These are not pirates! For more information on the many dive sites in and around Bunaken, check out the website created by the North Sulawesi Watersports Association. Set of Drifters video: Check out our YouTube channel for video from this event!
Murex Dive Resort & Live-Aboards - Jalan Raya Trans Sulawesi, Desa Kalasey 1, Manado 95361, North Sulawesi, 011 (62) 431-838774, http://www.murexdive.com/
Taman Nasional Bunaken - http://www.bunaken.org/index.php?p=&lang=en
North Sulawesi Watersports Association - http://www.divenorthsulawesi.com