The Lembeh Straits in the North East corner of Sulawesi, Indonesia are renowned for their muck diving. While you can find coral, most of the dives are on black sandy slopes and bottoms and what makes them interesting is the variety of rare marine life that are hard to see elsewhere: frogfish, octopus, nudibranches, all variety of crustacea and even the SciFi bobbit worm. A reason for this is the proximity to some of the deepest ocean currents in the world that spread rich water along the straits to keep them alive with critters. I suspect that it is also thanks to the dive resorts in this beautiful location who have sought out sites to find this wildlife. Lembeh is also very popular with photographers and the conditions lend themselves well to macro work.
This rather poor map (sorry guys at the dive shop) shows the Lembeh Strait with the mainland on the left and island on the right. It only takes about 20 minutes to get from the North of the map to the port at Bitung in the South by boat so the dive sites are all relatively close. Quite a lot of current can flow through the Strait at times but some of the sites are sheltered and a good option if other sites are not divable.
Retak Larry is a classic muck dive. Starting a a sheltered cove (good with a bit of current around) you drop onto a black sand bottom at around 6m and then swim down a sandy slope to a flat ledge at around 21m. The bottom is mostly sand/silt so you need to take care when finning but there are also small coral outcrops where you can find fish and crabs congregating. We also dived here at night to see the bobbit worms - rather disgusting creatures that shoot out of the sand to grab fish with their strong claws. I found one (below) but did not witness a catch!
Bianca is named after an old liveaboard which has been tied up in the port of Bitung for the past 10 years or so. The dive starts by the Bianca in a rather unpromising spot with oil smears on the water and rubbish from the town but it was actually a good dive. You enter above coral and rubble at around 5m and follow the bottom down to around 20m. Here we found several frogfish, scorpion fish, nudibranchs and crabs before returning to the rubble under the boat where we watched mandarin fish (below) and many other colourful reef fish as we did our deco stop.
Jolaha is a site on the Lembeh Island side of the strait. Similar diving with black sand bottom sloping down to around 20m. We did dive deeper looking for Coleman Shrimp at around 30m on one dive. Here we spot a beautiful zebra batfish with its long feathery fins - I have never seen one before. We also find a pair of eyes peeping out of the sand and when our guide strokes the sand with his pointer a fine coconut octopus comes out to entertain us. No sight of the blue ringed octopus today but you can find them here.
Lembeh is between 1.5-2 hours drive from Manado airport, North Sulawesi. Some of the resorts here are on the mainland and some on Lembeh island where you obviously will need a further boat transfer. Silk Air flies directly to Manado from Singapore in around 3hrs and there are quite a few internal Indonesian connections from Jakarta and elsewhere. Diving in Lembeh can easily be combined with a visit to Bunaken Island and there is a nice contrast between Bunaken's wall diving and the muck diving in Lembeh.
We stayed at Black Sand dive resort, a 6 villa resort on the mainland (above). It is set in fine gardens on the steep hillside and our very comfortable room had great views over the water. Semi-outdoor shower rooms are also beautifully done - we had a beautiful ginger plant in ours. The dive shop is well equipped and three small dive boats with a maximum of 4 divers per guide ensure that the dives don't get too crowded. Photographers are catered for with a camera room where you can strip down your equipment between dives. There is also a nice swimming pool where you can sun yourself between dives. There is now an abundance of dive resorts in Lembeh but I think we chose well.
You can pretty much dive all year round in Lembeh as the straits are protected from monsoons. In April the water temperature was 27-28C - very comfortable in a 3mm wetsuit. A metal pointer is helpful for exploring the sandy bottoms.
For info on my trip to Lembeh including more photos above and below the water click here