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LEMBEH’S MAGNIFICENT MUCK CRITTERS

By Nigel Marsh & Helen Rose

 

Over the years we have dived some amazing muck diving destinations in Southeast Asia and seen some weird and wonderful critters. But these muck sites were only an entrée, as we had been building up to the main course, a visit to the incredible Lembeh Strait.

 

Located at the north-eastern tip of the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, the Lembeh Strait is the perfect habitat for muck critters. The seafloor is a combination of black sand, coral rubble and pebbles, and the waters of the strait are calm but washed by tidal flows. Also Lembeh is at the centre of the richest marine waters of the world, the Coral Triangle. All these factors have turned Lembeh into the muck diving capital of the world.

 

For the last year I have been working on a dive guide book to muck diving, so our visit to Lembeh was the final stop in an amazing muck adventure. For our week long stay we booked into the newest dive resort in the area, the Cocotinos Lembeh Resort. Located on the mainland side of the strait at Makawidey, the resort is right in the middle of the action, with most dive sites only a 5 to 10 minute boat ride away.

 

We arrived at the resort in April, a few weeks before the official opening, so the finishing touches were still being completed. This boutique dive resort has very comfortable air-conditioned rooms, with a restaurant, bar and well equipped dive centre. The pool and a few rooms were still being finished during our stay, but doing four dives a day we didn’t really miss the pool as between dives we were too busy reviewing images and drying out.

 

The dive centre at Cocotinos is run by Odyssea Divers. They have a great setup with camera room, large wash tubs, drying racks, a good range of hire gear and a spacious dive boat. Four dives a day are scheduled, and as the dive sites are so close they are done as single dive trips. But the most important factor of diving Lembeh is a good dive guide, as without one you will miss many of the fabulous critters that are very hard to find. Our incredible dive guide was Iwan Muhani, who has been diving at Lembeh since 1995, and was taught to dive by the legendary Larry Smith. Iwan can not only find every critter that you want to see, but is a wealth of knowledge about these amazing muck animals.

 

During our week long stay at Lembeh we explored over twenty dive sites, revisiting a few favourite sites several times. Our first dive at Tanjung Kubur was a great introduction to the area, with this site being a mix of sandy slope, coral rubble and coral reef. The critter action started from the first minute when we saw a species that we dearly wanted to photograph, a Banggi cardinalfish. But after taking a dozen images we suddenly realised that there were masses of these fish all over the bottom. On this dive we also saw thorny and common seahorses, winged pipefish, mantis shrimps, cuttlefish, nudibranchs and two tiny Pontoh’s pygmy seahorses.

 

We dived similar mixed muck sites at Serena Pata, Nudi Falls, Aw Shucks, Critter Hunt, Police Pier and Pantai Parigi. At these sites we photographed some incredible critters, like painted frogfish, pygmy pipehorses, sawblade shrimps, comets, banded pipefish, hairy shrimps, Pegasus sea moths, greater blue-ringed octopus, tiger shrimps, a wonderpus and ghost pipefish. But the best of these mixed muck sites was Bianca, where we dived under the boats in the nearby harbour. The sand at Bianca was a good spot to see cockatoo flounders, mantis shrimps, nudibranchs, bent-stick pipefish, shrimp gobies and many other species. But we spent most of our time exploring the coral rubble as living here were blennies, dragonets, pipefish, warty frogfish, painted frogfish and dozens of splendid mandarin fish. The mandarin fish at this site are out during the day feeding, and we found we could easily take photos of these usually shy fish.

 

As good as the mixed muck sites were, we really loved the critter action on the true muck sites with black sand, these are the muck sites that made Lembeh famous. At Aer Bajo our cameras went into over-drive photographing critter after critter – Ambon scorpionfish, cockatoo waspfish, painted frogfish, demon ghouls, seahorses, cuttlefish, coconut octopus, lionfish, decorator crabs and even an imperial shrimp riding on a solar nudibranch.

 

Other great black sand sites we explored included TK, Air Pang, Jahir, Rojos, Makawide, Hairball and Slow Poke. At these sites we saw snake eels, sand divers, fingered dragonets, ghost pipefish, hairy frogfish, grinners, garden eels, flamboyant cuttlefish, oriental sea robins, orangutan crabs, razorfish, shrimpfish and some very bizarre nudibranchs. These black sand sites were also great for night dives, with a completely different set of critters emerging after dark. At night we saw Bobbit worms, stargazers, long-arm octopus, big-fin reef squid, coconut octopus, fireworms, box crabs, prawns, bobtail squid and many other wonderful creatures.

 

But Lembeh is not all about muck, and for a bit of variety we also dived a local shipwreck and a coral reef. The Mawali Wreck is one of three Japanese shipwrecks sunk during World War II in the Lembeh Strait, but this is the only one that divers can explore. This 90m long cargo ship rests on its port side in depths from 18m to 30m. The wreck is covered in corals and a surprising amount of fish life, including schools of barracuda, trevally, batfish and fusiliers. You will see more big fish on this wreck than at any other dive site at Lembeh. Exploring the wreck we had 15m visibility, allowing us a good view of the structure. We explored the cargo holds and saw winches, the masts, the bridge and the prop. Many reef fish also populate the wreck, and we encountered a whitetip reef shark cruising around the stern area. This was a great dive that we could have done more than once.

 

Many visitors to Lembeh are very surprised to see wonderful corals at many of the muck sites, but with tidal flows through the strait, corals flourish in the shallow water. The northern end of the strait is where the best reef dives are found, with one of the best sites being California Dreaming. We only dived this reef to see a boxer crab, but also saw fabulous corals decorating the reef wall. Currents sweep this site and have allowed beautiful soft corals, sponges, sea whips and gorgonians to bloom. Numerous reef fish populate this reef, but the highlight was all the smaller critters – nudibranchs, pygmy seahorses, pygmy pipefish, orangutan crabs, commensal shrimps, squat lobsters and xeno crabs. We thought we were going to miss the boxer crab, but Iwan finally found this elusive crustacean with anemone boxing gloves.

 

We had a brilliant time at Lembeh, capturing images of a great assortment of critters, allowing me to finish off the muck diving book. The muck diving at Lembeh is outstanding, and combined with a great resort like the Cocotinos Lembeh Resort, we found it the perfect destination for a fabulous dive holiday.

 

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