Written by: Jaii Fredregill
Destination: Lembeh Island, Sulawesi, Indonesia
Visited: May 2019
Lembeh is known for having one of the highest concentrations of rare and unusual sea life. Volcanic black sand coats much of the ocean floor here, creating the perfect backdrop for the small, strange inhabitants of these waters that muck divers and macro photographers travel here year-round to see; some for weeks at a time.
Bobbit worms (Eunice aphroditois) bury themselves in the sand then extend their bodies to ambush prey who trigger the sensor on their antennae. They attack with extreme force, using their powerful jaws and sharp teeth to tear prey apart, often with a single bite.
Those of particular interest can be easily missed by the untrained human eye; taking macro to a completely different level. Many of these creatures are not just uncommon, they are downright weird. We teamed up with Two Fish Divers Lembeh who sent us out with John, one of their local guides, whose ability to spot life in the muck was extremely impressive.
Bobtail squid grow to only 8-cm. They have a symbiotic relationship with the bioluminescent bacteria that live in a light organ in their mantle. The bacteria is fed by the squid and in return it provides the light needed by the squid to blend seamlessly with its surroundings.
Muck diving is exploring what lives in the sediment around the sea floor, primarily the small stuff that hides out here. Blue ring octopus, nudibranchs, frogfish and juvenile species are just a few of the countless critters that can be seen in the muck.
The umbrella slug (Umbraculum umbraculum) is a marine gastropod mollusc that has gills and a flat, limpet-like shell on it's back. These nocturnal snails feed on sea sponges. We spotted this one during our night dive in Lembeh.
It is often more experienced divers who get into muck diving, because the more time we spend in the ocean the more we notice smaller details and how incredible things are down there. However, I believe all that is really required is a curious mind. I am not solely a muck diver, but I am fascinated by the mysteries of the sea that often lead only more mysteries, and new life I had not noticed before.
The life of coconut octopus (amphioctopus marginatus) is not limited to coconut shells, this guy has found a luxury clam shell to call home.
Not everything in the muck is miniscule, there are slightly bigger curiosities to see as well. Frogfish, for example, are large enough to spot, they’re just masters at camouflaging themselves. However, the macro photography is a huge draw from Lembeh and many serious photographers, amateur and professional, travel here with cameras, strobes and giant camera housings in tow.
For some, finding and recording microscopic life becomes a bit of an obsession. Most of us have had at least one day of diving with that photographer that muscles their way through to greedily hover forever over some unlucky animal while everyone else burns through their air waiting for them.
To avoid this, Lembeh resorts have an agreement not to bring more than 15 divers to a site at any time, including guides. You do not have to be a macro photographer to appreciate the diving in Lembeh. You can simply follow a guide who will help you spot the unique life that’s here.
The tiniest wire coral shrimp makes his way along a branch of coral.
If you would like to experiment with photography but aren’t sure you’re ready to invest in the equipment, you can also rent an Olympus TG-5 from Two Fish Divers. Everything in this article was shot with the Olympus TG-5, which is a great all-around underwater camera for those of us who need something more compact to travel with. It is also an uncomplicated option that works well for most macro. Having the opportunity to rent before you buy is always nice, especially when the price point for even a basic camera can be quite high.
June through September and November through January are the busiest months in Lembeh, because these are the months westerners take a vacation. However, the Lembeh Straight is a protected area in a tropical climate, so you can dive here any time of the year. There is no season you are more likely to see a specific species. An influx of angler fish or pygmy seahorse in October this year does not mean you will have the same experience next year. Many who dive Lembeh regularly appreciate this unpredictability and the variety it brings to the diving.
Devil scorpionfish spotted during our night dive.
It is important to choose the resort that is right for you when you travel to Lembeh, because when you are not diving, this is where you will spend all your time. The jungle here is untouched, so trekking is very challenging and other than the resorts there is only a small village where the locals live.
The Two Fish Divers Resort is a comfortable seaside retreat with a bar and restaurant. We stayed in the budget accommodations which are basic with shared showers and toilets. Cottages with en-suite bathrooms are also available. All include meals, Wi-Fi and unlimited water, coffee and tea.
Mimic octopus are said to have the ability to "mimic" other species in order to evade predators.
The easiest way to get to Lembeh is to fly to Manado (MDC) from the Denpasar (DPS) airport in Bali and have your resort arrange all your transportation from there. Lion Air and NAM Air are usually the cheapest carriers, of the two I recommend NAM Air. Lion is now really gouging passengers with luggage chargers. They are also the only airline I have flown with where I consistently find myself praying for safety during landing.
If you are on a budget, you can get your own taxi at the airport for the 90-minute car ride to a town called Bitung. You can also use the Grab app to call a car, but you will need to meet your driver outside the airport near the exit tolls. To get the exit, walk outside the baggage area, make a left, and walk 3-minutes along the sidewalk in the direction you see the cars exiting the airport. It’s not a big airport so this is easy.
More in our tiny shrimp on coral installation.
The challenge is that not all taxi and Grab drivers know Bitung well enough to find the small harbour where you must catch a boat to cross to Lembeh. Two Fish Divers Lembeh was great about speaking with our driver in Bahasa Indonesia over the phone to direct him.
Once you get to the harbor it is just a short 15-minute boat ride across the water to Lembeh. Those dividing their trip between Bunakan and Lembeh cross by land to catch a small boat over, because coming the whole distance by boat takes far longer.