N I G E L M A R S H P H O T O G R A P H Y
U N D E R W A T E R I M A G E S A N D A R T I C L E S
CRITTERS WITHOUT THE CROWDS
By Nigel Marsh & Helen Rose
Indonesia is home to some of the best muck diving on the planet, but as Nigel Marsh and Helen Rose recently discovered it’s great to explore a new area, especially one without the crowds.
We absolutely love muck diving and get immense enjoyment finding and photographing all the cute, weird and bizarre critters that you only find on soft bottom environments. However, one thing we hate about muck diving is crowds, which can be a problem at some very popular muck diving destinations – too many divers, too many fins, too many pointy things poking the animals and too many paparazzi-like photographers elbowing fellow divers out of the way. So it was a wonderful surprise to find an incredible muck diving site in Indonesia that few divers had heard about, the little known Sekotong on the island of Lombok.
Never heard of Sekotong, don’t be surprised as few divers would have, as this area of Indonesia has only recently opened up to divers with the establishment of a handful of resorts and dive operations. One of those resorts is Cocotinos, a boutique four star resort that caters to divers or anyone looking for a secluded holiday destination. Cocotinos opened their first dive resort in Manado in 2007 and opened a second resort in Sekotong in 2010, in an area known as the secret Gili Islands.
Located in the south-west corner of Lombok, Sekotong is one of the easier destinations to reach in Indonesia, just a twenty minute flight from Bali or a slightly longer direct flight from Singapore or Kuala Lumpur. Arriving at Lombok’s Praya Airport we were met by Ketut, our driver from Cocotinos who loaded our bags and then drove us to the resort, a hair raising seventy minute drive with Ketut thinking he was in the Lombok Grand Prix! Fortunately he was an excellent driver and the roads in Lombok are some of the best in Indonesia, so we arrived in one piece, but with a few more grey hairs!
The Cocotinos Resort is located on a three hectare coconut grove and has its own private beach. We fell in love with the location as soon as we saw the view from the restaurant – a ring of distant mountains, a calm bay dotted with islands and clear water lapping on the clean sandy beach. It was easy to see what inspired them to locate the resort in this prize location. We checked into our garden villa, placed our dive gear in the basket left at our front door, then hit the bar for a few cool Bintangs while we soaked up the view and the relaxing atmosphere.
The next morning we met Syainal Hamid, the manager of Odyssea Divers that run the dive operation at Cocotinos. Syainal explained that they schedule a double dive in the morning and a single dive after lunch, plus night dives on demand. Most of the dive staff are originally from Manado; this was a bonus as they are experts at finding small and unusual critters.
With the two of us the only divers staying at the resort Syainal asked us where we would like to dive; our instant reply was Wills Beach, the premier muck diving site in the area. When Cocotinos first opened the resort at Sekotong they invited well known Australian underwater photographer and marine biologist David Harasti to visit and help them find some new dive sites. A range of interesting site dives were discovered during David’s stay, but the one he most raved about was Wills Beach, which he named after his son and compared to the best at Lembeh Strait. It was on David’s recommendation that we were at Sekotong, so we were super keen to see Wills Beach for ourselves.
Motoring to the dive site, most are ten to thirty minutes from the resort; we passed picturesque bays, small villages and numerous small islands. We were a little concerned about dive conditions before we arrived at Sekotong, as it is located in the notorious Lombok Strait, a deep water channel between Bali and Lombok. The last time we dived in the Lombok Strait was at Nusa Penida to see mola mola and manta rays, and had experienced strong currents and cold thermoclines from up-wellings. We needn’t have worried as the waters off Sekotong are very sheltered, providing calm conditions and only gentle currents.
Arriving at Wills Beach our dive guide Mamang gave as a quick briefing then it was into the water. Diving in the wet season the visibility was a little green at around 12m, but more than enough for macro photography. We hit the sandy bottom at 6m and straight away our attention was drawn by a juvenile blue razor wrasse. These lovely fish with their sail-like fin are always difficult to photograph as they dive into the sand as soon as you get anywhere near them, but this one was content to pose for our cameras.
For the next hour this site produced a bonanza of muck critters – cuttlefish, snake eels, jawfish, filefish, sea moths, boxfish, flatworms, pufferfish, soles, mantis shrimps, commensal shrimps, spider crabs, gobies, blennies and many more. We explored the sandy slope to 20m, seeing huge soft corals and sea pens sprouting from the sand, plus numerous anemones that were home to shrimps, porcelain crabs and anemonefish. We couldn’t believe how many species of shrimp gobies resided on this sandy slope; we counted around a dozen species, including a few we had never seen before. We were also impressed by the nudibranchs, which were feeding, mating and laying eggs and again included many species new to us.
But Mamang saved the best until last; working our way back into the shallows he suddenly found us a wonderpus. We were over joyed as this was our first wonderpus and fired off countless images as it slowly strolled across the bottom changing shape and colour. Several minutes later Mamang pointed out a coconut octopus, and then another wonderpus. We surfaced from this first dive amazed by the critters we had seen, and also amazed that we were the only divers exploring this incredible spot.
A few days later we returned for another dive at Wills Beach and exploring a different section of the dive site saw another great batch of critters – shrimpfish, frogfish, ornate ghost pipefish and a long-armed octopus. But this wonderful dive site has also produced mimic octopus, blue-ringed octopus, velvet ghost pipefish, crinoid shrimps, spiny devilfish, gorgonian shrimps, gurnards and Ambon scorpionfish. If that wasn’t enough to whet your appetite Mamang also told us about the dugongs he had encountered here, which feed on the sea grass beds in the area.
Odyssea Divers have around twenty dive sites they regularly visit, but only a handful of these are muck sites, with most being reef dives, so for our second dive we explored one of these reefs at Rangit Barat. The visibility was a little better here, around 15m, and the coral reef was very pretty, covered in soft corals, sponges, sea whips, gorgonians and ascidians. There were also plenty of reef fish and invertebrates to be seen, but not many big fish, apart from the odd passing pelagic. But for us the rubble at the base of the reef provided the most interest as here we saw mantis shrimps, blue ribbon eels and two lovely painted frogfish.
Over the next few days we dived more of these pretty reefs off Sekotong. The corals were just lovely and would have looked good in wide angle images, but with the visibility varying between 10 to 20m, due to the wet season conditions, we stuck to macro photography and were very pleased we did, as each of these reefs seem to have its own special critters. At Rangit Timur it was zeno crabs, dragonets, banded pipefish and Bargibant’s pygmy seahorses, while at Sunken Reef it was harlequin shrimps and whiskered pipefish. Whip Reef was home to some very bizarre nudibranchs, while Gili Gede was a good spot for orang-utan crabs, hairy squat lobsters, moray eels and juvenile batfish.
But as good as the reef diving was it was the muck diving that we most enjoyed, especially the afternoon dives at Kura Kura and Odyssea 3. While there is coral and weed off the beach in front of the Cocotinos Resort that provides interesting snorkelling, they rarely dive this area so Kura Kura and Odyssea 3 are seen as the house reefs, especially as they are only minutes away by boat. They are both very interesting dive sites that seem to have their own particular critters.
Odyssea 3 has a steep rubble bank with patches of weed and corals appearing from time to time. We saw many common muck critters here – mantis shrimps, cuttlefish, upside-down jellyfish, snake eels, commensal shrimps and shrimp gobies, but also saw spiny devilfish, hairy shrimps, two-spot lionfish and many unusual nudibranchs. But always on the lookout for animal behaviour, the highlight was finding a pair of fighting wrasse. These two fish were having quite a battle with their jaws locked and flinging each other about. They were so engrossed in the fight that we could get quite close for photos. We would have loved to know what the fight was about – territory, food, breeding rights, but in the end the reason for the fierce battle remained a mystery.
Kura Kura proved to be almost as good as Wills Beach and has a variety of muck terrains; sloping sand, coral rubble, weeds, rocks and patchy coral. Nudibranchs, cuttlefish, shrimps, crabs and juvenile fish were all common, but it was the weird and wonderful fish that made this site special for us. The first time we dived here we saw two Ambon scorpionfish, several long-snout pipefish and a cockatoo waspfish, while on a return visit it was a tiny juvenile barramundi cod, a lovely yellow coloured velvetfish and a tiny blenny perched on the head of a pipefish.
We may have only had four days of diving at Sekotong but we left the area impressed by the wonderful Cocotinos Resort and the incredible muck diving. We only hope that this area remains a little undeveloped paradise, so when we return we can once again enjoy the critters without the crowds.
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