By Takako Uno & Stephen Wong
Divers can somewhat be daunted by their first glance of the underwater topography of this North Sulawesi hot-spot as surging tides can be nauseating. Visibility here is usually less than 30 feet, 20 being the average. The already turbid water conditions easily further deteriorate with the mindless kick of a fin, which raises clouds of fine black silt that never seems to settle. Terrestrial and man-made objects alike – tree trunks, coconut shells, glass bottles, tin cans, linen sacks – add to the unique backdrop of the ocean floor. Memorably, we once found a radio cassette player, rather new, with large stereo speakers still attached. Not to forget that the gradually sloping bottom usually has no coral – it’s just plain old muck.
Yet, some refer to the Lembeh Strait as the ‘Weird Critter Capital of the World’ – and you can be sure it lives up to its reputation. Don’t let the presence of litter or the absence of coral turn you off. Any hesitation will soon vanish when a zipper-mouthed Stargazer reveals itself beneath the black sand, when a Mimic Octopus emerges from its lair, or when a Flamboyant Cuttlefish does it curious elephant walk. This is a macro paradise, just waiting for you to discover it. And, Lembeh Strait never fails to disappoint anyone. In fact, if anything, it always manages to exceed expectations.
On our first dive there recently, we saw the spiky Tiger Shrimp, an Ambon Scorpionfish, an unidentified Phyllodesium Nudibranch and a variety of frogfishes. At one point, our divemaster, Liberty, located a minute Gnathophylloides mineri Shrimp on a sea urchin. The cigar-shaped crustacean was like a speck of dust dangling on the host urchin’s spine. It was barely half a centimeter long. We were amazed that anybody could find anything as tiny as that.
Our second dive was a night one at ‘Lettuce-Surprise-U’. This was known as ‘Mandarinfish City’ some years ago, but due to the numerous diver’s visits, the clownish fish had since disappeared. But luck was on our side. The Mandarinfish were finally back, we were told, and we boated over just before sundown. Not only did we see more than a dozen of these cartoon-like fish, we saw Bobtail Squids, Porcupine Pufferfish, Olivia Shrimp and Pea Crabs. The Lettuce Coral colony that the site was named after was growing profusely as well.
Then there was ‘Police Pier’ where we did many dive, both days and nights. The pier is always rewarding, especially if you are an octopus lover. Though it is hard to find the White-V Octopus and Wunderpus elsewhere in the Straits, they popped up frequently around the pier. On one dive we ran into a group of divers who, to our envy, informed us of a juvenile Blue-ringed Octopus they found near a jetty pylon. This is also a nice spot to locate the night Red Luteus Octopus. It was also here that we observed some papa Banggai Cardinalfish with hatched babies in their mouths. The Banggai Cardinalfish father is one of the most dedicated parents in the animal kingdom, as they devotedly mouth-breed fertilized eggs. Even after the babies are hatched, the males still play the protective paternal role. They collect all their miniatures should danger become imminent.
We managed to fit a number of dives at our favorite sites, ‘Hairball’ and ‘Jahir’. The former’s name is descriptive: for camouflaging purposes, its critters sport massive hair-like growth, such as moss and other appendages. There, the frogfish, seahorse, ghostpipefish, scorpionfish, filefish and other hirsute species are easily found. We remember staring in puzzlement for a long time at a hairy rock a divemaster kept pointing, only to realize a Striated Frogfish when it suddenly unreeled its fishing pole. Also blessed with a variety of fish species and a diverse assortment of weird-looking nudibranchs - it was here that we chanced upon the hatching of a baby Flamboyant Cuttlefish and a Hispid Frogfish feeding on a Panther Sole.
Divers who spend a week or two at the Straits will not have to dive the same site often, nor will they get bored of the diving, as Lembeh contains over 50 dive sites. Apart from the rewarding muck dives, the Lembeh Straits has lush coral gardens pulsating with a vast diversity of marine life. Exuberant gorgonian seafans and plate corals can be seen at some dive sites like ‘Goby-A-Crab’, ‘Batu Sandar’, and ‘Serena Kecil North’. To add more flavor to the diving, there are a couple of shipwrecks in the neighborhood - the ‘Rinas Wreck’ and the ‘Mawali Wreck’ are abounded with colorful soft coral and enormous black coral trees. The Barramundi Cod and rolling balls of Catfish are easily found on these sunken ships. Tozeuma Shrimps can be found on the black coral bushes on the side of the hulls.
The Strait has a deep channel over hundreds of meters deep, and whales, Whale Shark, Manta, and even Dugongs have been observed passing through the channel. Because of its geography, currents can sometimes be rather strong, which is both a blessing and a curse. ‘Angel’s Window’, for example, is a pinnacle rising from the deep, which nearly breaks the surface. It has a ripping current, which sometimes results in cancelled dives. But the upwelling of nutrients means that it is absolutely teeming with fish.
If you find yourself all dived out or in search of terrestrial entertainment, Kungkungan Bay Resort here also organizes trips to the 22,000-acre Tangkoko-Batuangus Dua Saudara Reserve. It holds lots of wonderful creatures, including Hornbills, Crested Macaques, endangered Melo Birds, Black Monkeys and the endearing endemic Tarsiers (a tiny primate that is sized as your palm and with huge eyes). Or, you could opt for highland tours to the volcanoes and hot springs on horsebacks. It is clear to see that Lembeh Strait possesses many wonders to satisfy all nature lovers. Looking at the great variety of animals in Lembeh, in the sea and on the land, is like looking into a kaleidoscope of colors – and catching a glimpse of Heaven.
Honestly, we don’t remember how many times we have bothered KBR (guessing 10 times). Coming to KBR always feels like ‘home away from home’, and we may soon re-visit again. Looking forward to that!
About the Photographers:
Born in 1961, in Hong Kong, Wong studied abroad from 1975 to 1987 in Canada & USA. Stephen has been a full time marine-related photojournalist since 1997. He is now based in Hong Kong and has more than 40-years of scuba diving experience (yes, he started in late 1960s)Wong has been capturing underwater images since 1990.
Takako Uno, an avid diver since the mid-80s, is a fulltime underwater photographer. She has traveled to numerous marine locations worldwide and substantially in her native country, Japan.
Takako now journeys with husband and Hong Kong marine wildlife photojournalist, Stephen Wong, on locations being Stephen’s assistant cameraman and, at times, modeling for him.