TRAVEL NOTES FOR INDONESIA - LEMBEH STRAIT
- N. Sulawesi - [AUGUST 2009]
WHERE IS LEMBEH?
The Lembeh Strait is a small stretch of water located in the North East Sulawesi region of Indonesia. The Sulawesi Region is the world's eleventh largest island, and it covers an approximate area of 67,413 sq miles (174,600 sq km).
When diving in Lembeh, it's all about the muck and the critters. Beneath the hustle of boat traffic which flows between Lembeh and the coastal city of Bitung, there exists an incredible underwater world that is full of some of the most amazing freaky creatures that you will see anywhere on the planet.
When you descend into this murky underwater world, you realize right away that this place is very different from the norm. There are no plummeting walls into some deep abyss, there are no swim-throughs for which you can play and explore, there are not many patches of colorful and pristine coral to adore. What Lembeh does have is muck. And it is some of the best muck you will find anywhere.
||The word 'muck' is not really a flattering description, when in reality the bottom is covered mostly with black volcanic sand; so it kind of looks mucky. When diving in Lembeh you notice right away that there are not a lot of natural underwater features or terrain. It's pretty flat in most places with only man mad objects like old tires and glass jugs scattered here an there. All these reasons lend to a very unique and yes, sometimes mucky feel.
But it's this unusual mucky environment which is home to so many incredible species of life. Everywhere you look you see another weird creature. Before you even have time to snap off a few shots on your camera, the dive guides are pointing out another creature. This is some great entertainment.
On a typical dive you will descend to a sandy bottom and as you settle to the bottom and adjust your eyes, you start to see unusual things all around you. Octopuses crawl out from coconut shells, cuttlefish change shape and color, frogfish and pygmy seahorses blend into their environment and wait for a meal to swim along. Everywhere you turn there is something unusual to look at. The place is literally crawling with freaky critters.
One thing you'll notice when you dive in Lembeh, is that all the marine life is very small. It's almost as if you have left the normal sized world and you enter into Pygmy-world where everything familiar has been shrunk into a miniature version of the original. Bring along your macro lens or your super-duper macro lens for your camera when you go diving there. If you aren't taking underwater pictures, consider bringing a hand held magnifying glass for underwater critter spotting.
DIVING CONDITIONS IN LEMBEH:
The visibility in the strait is usually pretty good, but depending on the specific location it varies. In some dive sites we had about 50 ft visibility, and in others we had closer to 25 - 30 ft visibility. Honestly, you don't think too much about the visibility because most of the time you have your head down scouring the bottom for tiny creatures.
The water temps were pretty warm on our visit in August. A 3mm suit was adequate, although at times I did get a little chilly towards the end of a 80 minute dive. There are some very distinct thermoclines in the water, and in some places the water can get very cold, but most of the time the water was warm and pleasant. In general, there are not many strong currents in the Lembeh Strait.
In all, ours was an amazing experience to go diving in Lembeh. It's hard to describe all the nuances of the trip, because it is such a unique experience. Every day we saw new things that we had never seen before, which made it exciting to jump in the water every day. It's great to know that places like this still exist on earth. I can't wait to go back.
See the maps... See how to get to Lembeh...
DIVING & SLEEPING @ THE NAD RESORT (Lembeh Strait)
During our visit we stayed at the NAD Resort. The grounds at NAD-Lembeh are small but very well cared for and adequate. The rooms have mosquito nets for the beds, fans, air conditioners, western style toilets, shower, sink and hot & cold running water. The maid came in each day and cleaned the rooms, so they were always well kept.
Just like most places in Lembeh Strait, NAD is a haven for underwater photographers. Most of the people staying at NAD were diving every day, 3 times a day, and the camera bins on the boats were loaded. Be prepared for a lot of photographers trying to get the best shot. This can be a bit of a problem with some less-considerate photographers. This is why it is important for photographers to uphold a good code of conduct. It is good camera etiquette to be polite and take turns. Don't be the pushy photo-hog that ruins the fun for everybody on the dive. And please be careful not to kick sand up when you are done taking your picture, the next person waiting to take a picture will thank you for it!
FOOD AT NAD:
The food was very good in my opinion. Every day for breakfast lunch and dinner, the cooks prepare a buffet spread of Indonesian / international style cuisine that has something for everyone. The kitchen looked clean and seemed to be well run. Unlimited coffee, tea, hot cocoa and water are self serve and are available 24/7. Beer is also available for a charge.
EQUIPMENT FACILITIES AT NAD:
They have rinse tanks for scuba gear but you will never need to use them yourself. The staff takes care of everything. You do the diving, they move, rinse, and set-up your gear. Thanks guys.
They have a very nice camera / computer room where everybody can charge their batteries and do camera maintenance. You can leave your electronics in the room over night and have no worries because it gets locked up. There is a couch and reference books in the computer room if you just want to hang out and read.
There is also wireless internet access throughout the entire resort. Very convenient if you need to check or send an email for some reason while on vacation.
DIVE OPERATION AT NAD:
There are about 3 dive boats, but mostly only 2 were used during our visit. They are in good condition and have plenty of space for all the divers. The staff is wonderful and attentive. The dive guides mostly speak english and they are very professional every step of the way. In all I was very happy with the level of experience and professionalism of the dive guides.
After you finish a dive they hand you a nice hot cup of tea or coffee and offer you a plate of snacks. It all makes a very relaxing and enjoyable experience. I have a video walk through on youtube if you want to see the grounds.
GETTING TO N. SULAWESI (MANADO/ BUNAKEN/ LEMBEH):
In order to get the N. Sulawesi region in Indonesia where the Lembeh Strait and Bunaken Isl are located, you must first get to Manado airport (MDC). Manado is located on the west side if the N. Sulawesi region, on the side that faces Bunaken. It is the jumping off place for getting to either the Lembeh Strait or Bunaken marine park. For this reason it is fairly easy to dive in both locations over a single visit and still be able to fly in and out of the same airport.
Once you are in Manado airport it should be easy to arrange your resort to meet you and transport you back and fourth. A boat is needed to get to both Bunaken and Lembeh Strait, so it is best to make your arrangement directly with the resorts ahead of time. Round trip transfers should run about $50 to and from each resort for a small group of people.
Getting to Manado (MDC) airport can be a little difficult, especially if you are trying to plan other connections and other flights on a larger itinerary. This is because there are only a few airlines that fly directly into Manado. The two main airlines that fly into Manado are Silk Air and Air Asia. There are also private airlines available, but I don't know too much about that. Silk Air flys to Manado on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday leaving from Singapore (SIN) airport. Air Asia. flys to Manado on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, flying out of Kuala Lumpur (KUL). Air Asia. seems to have slightly cheaper ticket prices but much worse connection times than Silk Air. Silk Air is much easier to make connections with because their flights leave early and late in the day.
There are lots of airlines and combinations of airlines that you can take in order to get to Kuala Lumpur or Singapore (those two airports make connections to Bunaken in N. Sulawesi). Leaving from the US there were some good deals on China airline, Delta, American Airlines as well as Continental and others. It's important to make sure you account for all the travel time and connections when booking your flight. When we planned out trip it was daunting trying to figure out which flights to take, and it started to consume a lot of time trying to book the best flight for the best price. It eventually became apparent that we could either save a couple hundred $$ or save 15 hours in travel layovers. Eventually the extra cost for a good connection seems well worth the price.
Leaving from New York (HPN) Westchester County Airport, we booked our flight with American Airlines. We made connections in Chicago (ORD) and then in Tokyo (NRT) before flying to Singapore (SIN). The cost from NY to SIngapore (SIN)was about $1200 and then about another $400 to get from Singapore (SIN) to Manado (MDC). Total price was about $1600 round trip per person. It takes about 26 - 28 hours to get from NY to Singapore, so you lose 2 days in travel time by the time you get to Manado.
In my research it seems that most popular route goes from US to Tokyo to Singapore to Manado (via Silk Air).
WHEN TO TRAVEL:
You can dive in Indonesia at any time of the year. In general the best times to go are April through December since the rainy season is between the months of January and March. Prices are higher when you travel during high season. However, in places such as Sulawesi, they have favorable conditions at this time so be sure to check the diving season details for your particular destination of choice. The Indonesia liveaboards season is all year round.