Above: A blue-ringed octopus.
There’s a place in Sulawesi where the diving will take your breath away—and it’s not where you might think
By Jason Tedjasukmana
Photography by Barbara Makohin
Most people, whether or not they dive, have heard of Bunaken, the national marine park in North Sulawesi famed for its big fish and stunning coral reefs. Yet just an hour’s drive to the east awaits the lesser known—but no less alluring—underwater world of the Lembeh Strait. With more bug-eyed critters than a George Lucas movie living in its black sand, Lembeh is a spectacle to behold and one that can leave you breathless, even if you still have air left in your tank.
Muck diving, as the sport is known, primarily attracts seasoned divers in search of the strange species that thrive in this silty environment. Underwater photographers might spend an entire dive looking for a pygmy sea horse, harlequin shrimp, or hairy octopus. Those new to diving, however, will welcome the mild currents and shallow straits, not to mention the abundance of dive sites.
On the edge of the straits is Kungkungan Bay Resort (Bitung; 62-438/30300; divekbr.com; doubles from US$150), the oldest resort in the area, situated across from Lembeh Island. The farthest dive site is only 15 minutes away by boat, which means that guests have enough time to make at least three, if not four dives per day. Each of the 17 bungalows faces the water and is complete with air-conditioning and—surprisingly, given the remote locale—very hot fresh-water showers. The resort has its own smoker for the many varieties of pork served in this majority-Christian corner of Indonesia.
While it takes patience and an experienced guide to track down whatever may be lurking about in the murky waters, the lure is enough to keep you coming back for more. “I think it’s safe to say we’re obsessed,” says third- time Welsh visitor Alan Felstead from Cardiff. “You can see coral in many places, but you never know what you’re going to find in the muck.”
“A lot of the creatures here are hard to find elsewhere,” explains Kaj Maney, Kungkungan Bay’s dive operations manager, who has previously worked in Malaysia, Fiji, and around the Caribbean. “And I don’t think there is anywhere in the world where they all exist in one place.” Maney and his wife, Barb, take photos and shoot videos for the resort’s blogs (divekbr.com and liquidguru.com) with almost religious fervor, uploading their latest discoveries as fast as their viewers devour them.
So rich is the biodiversity that Maney has listed nearly 160 creatures in the past year alone—among them snapping shrimp and red frog spanner crabs. “Bitung is the muck diving capital of the world,” he adds. “It’s the nutrition in the water that leads to such variety.” If that’s not enough to get you back in the water, the couple hold regular viewings to give their guests a taste of what they might find on that next dive, leaving little doubt that life may even be stranger than science fiction.
Originally appeared in the October/November 2011 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Mucking About in Lembeh”)