There are many reasons to visit the Indonesian archipelago, but a big reason is diving due to the various locations available. After all, Indonesia is located in the “Coral Triangle” within the marine waters of Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste – a region with more than 500 reef-building coral species and an epicenter of marine biodiversity. Geographically, Indonesia has 17,500 islands scattered over both sides of the equator and spread out in an area that is over 700,000 square miles. You’ll find some of the finest reefs in the world there, but the main reason for my trip to Indonesia was to try muck diving in Lembeh Strait – North Sulawesi.
Getting it “Strait”
Just the word “muck” evokes images like the Pines River in Revere, Massachusetts which usually (if not always) has dark, murky water – to see the bottom your face must be less than a foot away from it. But the Pins River is only 50 miles from home. Lembeh Strait in North Sulawesi is over 9,000 miles away. It’s been two years since my last visit to Indonesia but I’ve been anxious to return and see more of the underwater beauty.
Although Lembeh Strait was at the top of my list, I also considered stops on Bunaken Island as well as Raja Ampat, West Papua. Bunaken Island is known to have excellent wall diving and Raja Ampat is known for having very healthy coral reefs and many species of fish.
So, I started planning and lucky for me a Google search turned up www.divesafariasia.co.uk. Ben Stokes, co-owner of the company, was offering a Trans-Indonesian trip that sounded perfect, and it was. I contacted Ben and he later phoned me that evening to go over details as the trip was departing in less than a month, and there was one spot left. Lembeh Strait was not part of his group trip, but he kindly offered to set up that portion for me, and I would simply go and meet the group the following week in Bunaken Island. By mid-November 2013, I was heading to Indonesia for 18 days.
Ben set up Kungkungan Bay Resort for me on the black sand shore of Lembeh Strait. This is a luxury sea level resort with a professionally run dive shop on-site. The accommodations are superb; a beach front cottage just steps from the water. It had a living room and a large separate bedroom that had a walk in stone shower – and its location is picture-perfect. The resort’s restaurant is open 24 hours with a full-service menu. There is wide variety of deliciously prepared food of quality ingredients. They even smoked their own bacon! The professional and friendly staff ensures you will have a pleasant stay at KBR.
Boat and Shore Diving
The dive operation www.divekbr.com is run very smoothly by Manager Stefan Soh. They offer two boat dives in the morning, one afternoon boat dive and a night dive. There is unlimited shore diving from the long dock, so you never get sand in your gear. All you have to do is let the staff know that you will be going on a “shore” dive. They will have all your gear ready for you on the dock where you will be doing a giant stride in the water. When you are done with your dive there is a ladder to climb out. The staff is always there to help with getting in and out of the water. Shore diving from KBR is done at slack water only due to the currents – but it’s really the current that drives great visibility and fosters an abundance of strange and wonderful critters.
The term “muck” has been used to describe the diving in Lembeh Strait, but that’s really a misnomer. Here’ “muck” simply refers to the black sand, lack of natural hiding spots, and a stark environment many critters have adapted to live and thrive in. So it was quick to see that visibility is far from zero.
Lembeh Strait is sometimes called a muck diving mecca – and for good reason – it’s the reason divers from all corners of the globe go search of the most unusual critters. It did not take long to discover that any critter with odd shapes, copious amounts of hair, psychedelic colors, deadly poisons, cunning camouflage (or prefers to carry other marine life on its back) will simply thrive in Lembeh Strait.
My first dive was a site called Palau Abadi located close to shore across from the very busy city port of Bitung. The site is also next to many fishing boats that were moored. My first thought was; “What could possibly be here besides floating debris?” We all did our back roll and descended to the black sandy bottom, but the visibility was far better than I initially pictured in my mind.
The action started right away when my dive guide Liberty pointed out a peacock mantis shrimp, a juvenile painted frog fish, a xeno crab on sea whip, then an orangutan crab, a frog fish, a sea whip goby, a ghost pipefish, a blue ring octopus, a shrimp fish, a Lembeh Sea Dragon, and a Cuttlefish egg with the developing embryo – all in the first twenty minutes of the first dive. The action just continued throughout the day and the remainder of my stay at Kungkungan Bay Resort.
When we visited sites like Jahir I, Aer Bajo II and III, or TK 3, there wasn’t any coral and the bottom was black sand only. These locations offered visibility around 20 feet, but I also saw the strangest marine life. On the other hand, dive sites like Nudi Retreat offered a wall covered in hard coral and yellow soft coral. Dive site Angles Window had a wall covered in hard corals, and at 80 feet there was a swim-through with a resident pigmy seahorse. Across from the resort was a dive site named Pintu Colada where we experienced a sandy slope with critters. After finishing the dive in the shallows, there were several healthy coral heads to swim around in the bright shallow water. These dive sites had visibilities that exceed 50 feet. Pintu Colada was also the site of the Mandarin fish dive. This was my first Mandarin dive and we were not disappointed. Several large Mandarin fish greeted us for their mating ritual – this dusk to night dive was truly spectacular.
During the initial dive briefing, the manager invited us to suggest any particular critters that we wanted to see. I arrived with a wish list of “critters” – 32 in fact – and 75% were nudibranchs. The first day of diving, I just wanted to get in the water to see what it was all about. It was incredible, and my guide showed me so much that I practically forgot about my list. When I looked back at the list that evening, the most sought after for me was the “boxer crab”. I couldn’t stand the thought of going home without seeing it, but the following day during the afternoon dive the boxer crab was unveiled in all its radiance.
I saw things there that I never thought I would ever see. It was almost common to see several Blue ring octopus, different species of pygmy sea horses, ghost, banded and robust pipefish, soft coral crabs just to name a few.
Moving Past Lembeh Strait
The second leg of my trip required a three hour drive to Tasik Ria Resort where I would finally meet up with Ben Stokes from Dive Safari Asia. From this point on, I was traveling with Ben and a group of 15 diving at Bunaken Island, and then off to Raja Ampat.
I only had one day of diving Bunaken Island. The spacious dive boat leaves in the morning and stays out near Bunaken Island all day. Lunch is served for all the divers during the surface interval. The dive boat’s guides give a descriptive briefing and are safety conscious. There were four divers to one guide.
The diving here involved gorgeous wall diving with tiny critters sprinkled about. The wall itself is basically vertical and there is some current to contend with, but the visibility was at least 100 feet. There were huge barrel sponges, gorgonians, and big stands of staghorn coral along with giant turtles. There was also smaller stuff including colorful ascidians, soft coral, nudibranchs and more. It was amazing to look around and see all the life.
The third leg of the trip involved a late day flight from Manado, North Sulawesi to Sorong, West Papua. During this two hour flight we crossed the equator into the southern hemisphere. We spent a memorable evening at the one and only Royal Mamberamo Hotel in Sorong.
The following morning, we had a two hour speedboat ride to Mansuar Island in the area known as Raja Ampat and stayed at the Raja Ampat Dive Lodge (www.komodoalordive.com) located on a brilliant white sandy beach with the verdant green mountain backdrop. The cottages were very comfortable with good food and a friendly staff.
The location and setting of this dive resort was absolutely gorgeous. It also had a fantastic house reef, though all of the house reef dives were done by boat (again, sand never ended up in any gear). The crew would have us board the boat at the dock, and the captain would either drop us at the end of the long dock or drop us off further up the reef and then follow our bubbles. We would usually have two guides in the water with two or three divers per guide. The briefings for each dive site were very informative, well-illustrated, and well-planned. Our guides were Dovan and Roy, they did a great job pointing out critters during each dive.
The boat schedule included two dives in the morning and one in the afternoon with a choice of evening or night dive before dinner. After the morning boat dives, we would stop at an uninhabited island or village for our surface interval which included coffee, tea or water along with fresh fruit and baked snacks. One day we visited Arborek Island and had our second boat dive of the day there. It was a fantastic location with a huge variety of marine life. We had macro critters pointed out to us, witnessed giant clams, and watched a school of Napoleon Wrasse foraging in the shallows before parading off to deeper water.
Another fantastic site worth mentioning is Frewins Wall. I could have spent several days at that one site. It started out as a slope with hundreds of tiny yellow sea cucumbers, but the highlight was a deep cut/overhang that the current took us by. This overhang went on and on with soft coral just draping out of the wall with black coral and gorgonians. It ended with a shallow shelf where we spent some time observing anemones with resident clown fish swimming about; just beautiful.
Raja Ampat had a lot of odd critters, and some were difficult to make out. One of the oddities was a hermit crab with tiny anemones growing on its shell, then the half-inch red crab that looked like it didn’t have legs, but closer observation showed me that the legs were clear. Then, in the white sand, Dovan pointed out a sandy colored 2×1/2-inch flat worm-like critter, but a closer look showed me that it was a tiny flat crab – and these were all spotted on the night dives.
Good Planning and Great Guides
This was truly a fantastic trip! Ben really knows how to put a well-organized dive trip together. It was a long journey but he made everything seem effortless. I enjoyed every aspect of this trip and having him as a guide.
Dive Safari Asia run their ‘Trans Indonesia Tour’ twice a year. The next dates for the trip are:
7th – 23rd November 2014
20th March – 5th April 2015
For more information or to book, call 0800 955 0180 or visit www.divesafariasia.com.
Diving into the World’s Fastest Tidal Rapids
In the mystical waters just north of Vancouver, Canada lies a narrow channel called the Skookumchuck Narrows, or simply “The Skook.” It’s a hidden gem in the Salish Sea that boasts a unique spectacle – a tumultuous dance of tides and currents that draws adventurers and spectators from far and wide.
Imagine this: a channel so narrow and shallow that a single tide can unleash an astonishing 200 billion gallons of water, creating a tumultuous display of standing waves, whirlpools, and currents surging at 16 knots (18 mph or 30 kph). Such speeds may seem mild when driving a car, but the erratic water is a different ballgame. Skookumchuck Narrows is a contender for the title of the world’s fastest tidal rapids, rivaled only by Nakwakto Rapids further up the British Columbia coast.
But there’s a twist – this aquatic battleground isn’t just for adrenaline seekers; The Skook is an oasis for life beneath the waves. April 2023 marked a rare convergence of perfect conditions: a celestial alignment allowing divers to witness The Skook in all its glory. And who better to guide this daring expedition than Porpoise Bay Charters, a family-run venture led by the seasoned Kal Helyar and Ann Beardsell?
Raging currents = an abundance of life
The allure lies not in the danger but in the vibrant marine ecosystem fueled by the relentless currents. Ocean currents act as nature’s turbochargers, transporting nutrients that transform places like Skookumchuck Narrows into underwater havens with colorful life thriving amidst the rocky terrain.
It’s important to debunk the myth that this is a reckless plunge into chaos. Diving The Skook is not about courting danger but choosing the right moment: at slack when the tide turns, the water experiences minimal movement, and the currents are a mere 4-5 knots. Picture this – a scuba diver slipping gracefully between tidal changes, maneuvering with precision as the water changes its course and gradually picks up speed. Timing is everything, and finding the rare dates when daylight piercing through the emerald-green water coincides with navigable water conditions is critical. April 2023 granted us a mere handful of these golden days of nature’s alignment for the first time in four years.
Entering the abyss
As our vessel, under the watchful eye of Captain Kal, approached the infamous Skookumchuck rapids, a tangible excitement filled the air. These cold-water adrenaline-filled dives are the scuba diving equivalent to scaling Everest. The unpredictability of The Skook, where currents can whisk you in any direction, demanded respectful caution from our experienced salty crew.
With a reassuring smile, Captain Kal dismissed the notion of a toilet bowl experience, where divers are pulled in a circular direction by the currents as if flushed down a toilet. He emphasized that they only dived during an easy drift in the current, which was hard to fathom possible in such treacherous waters. Approaching the narrowest section of the channel, where the current was fastest, Kal’s experienced eyes scanned for the telltale signs of slack tide. Tidal ripples slowed, and we entered the water in the few precious minutes within the next year when it was possible to witness Skookumchuck in all its sunny glory.
As we descended into the underwater world, a mysterious algal bloom cast a dark green haze, unveiling a breathtaking palette of colors below. Bright red and pink anemones, neon orange encrusting sponges, and deep purple ochre sea stars adorned the rocky canvas, showcasing nature’s artistic prowess.
Surrendering to the sea
Descending further, we felt the force of the tide, like a river yet to subside. Gripping onto rock holds and kicking into the current, we felt like underwater rock climbers. Adjusting our underwater camera settings and getting comfortable with the flow of the water, we marveled at the transformation of the underwater landscape. Slabs of rock, once pounded by the current, now hosted a vibrant community of marine life.
After a mesmerizing twenty minutes of relatively gentle water, the current intensified, signaling the roller coaster drop ahead. We surrendered to neutrality, letting the current guide us along the wall. Boulders and back eddies added a touch of unpredictability; with trust in our abilities and Captain Kal’s promise of a safe pickup, the thrill was exhilarating rather than menacing.
As the current ebbed, we found ourselves in a tranquil cove adorned with green sea urchins, marking the end of our underwater odyssey. The Skook had shown us its splendor: a delicate balance of chaos and life beneath the surface – leaving us with memories as vivid as the colors we witnessed.
About the Author
Nirupam Nigam is a dedicated underwater photographer and fisheries scientist. While growing up in Los Angeles, he fell in love with the ocean and pursued underwater photography in the local Channel Islands. He received degrees in Aquatic and Fisheries Science and General Biology, as well as a minor in Arctic Studies, at the University of Washington. After working as a fisheries observer on boats in the Bering Sea and North Pacific, Nirupam became the Editor-in-Chief of the Underwater Photography Guide and the President of Bluewater Photo – the world’s top underwater photo & video retailer. Check out more of his photography at www.photosfromthesea.com!
US-based divers: explore more close-by dive destinations with Bluewater Dive Travel here.
All photos: Nirupam Nigam
Unveiling Indonesia’s Dive Gem: Welcome to Bunaken Oasis, Where Adventure Meets Luxury
Embark on a journey to a sanctuary meticulously crafted with a single vision: to redefine luxury diving in North Sulawesi. Born from a culmination of global experiences, our resort stands as a beacon, promising an impeccable fusion of opulence and ecological mindfulness.
Nestled in the Bunaken Marine National Park, our commitment to an eco-conscious existence is at our core. With 12 exquisite cottages designed for comfort and splendour, every desire finds fulfilment within our haven.
At Bunaken Oasis, sustainability isn’t a buzzword; it’s our ethos. Our water, purified through innovative means, erases the need for plastic bottles, ensuring every sip aligns with our eco-friendly stance. With pathways weaving through the hillside, nature’s beauty is at your doorstep.
As your boat docks at our private jetty, the journey begins through the elegant Long House, leading to an ethereal infinity pool overlooking the horizon. Beyond lies our haven: a cocktail bar, a panoramic restaurant serving culinary excellence, and a serene spa to soothe your soul after underwater escapades in the awe-inspiring depths of Bunaken Marine Park.
Luxury here isn’t just a notion; it’s a standard etched into every facet of our 70sqm villas. From thoughtfully curated amenities to breathtaking vistas, your stay resonates with indulgence and comfort.
Bunaken Oasis stands as a beacon of ethical tourism, securing recognition for our commitment to nature. With an extensive infrastructure ensuring minimal environmental impact, we’re pioneers in nurturing and enhancing the marine park’s wonders.
Our dedication extends to our garden, where organic produce flourishes, enriching both our cuisine and local community ties. Beyond the confines of our resort, we encourage exploration, offering curated excursions to delve deeper into the vibrant local culture and landscapes, inviting you to discover the mesmerizing depths of Bunaken Marine Park through expert-led diving adventures.
Explore an aquatic wonderland at Bunaken Oasis, offering access to 80 diverse and stunning dive sites. Encounter majestic sea turtles, some so colossal they seem prehistoric, gracefully navigating vibrant reefs.
Discover hidden treasures like pygmy seahorses and intriguing frogfish among the kaleidoscope of healthy coral formations housing over 2,000 fish species.
Join us at Bunaken Oasis Dive Resort & Spa, where luxury meets responsibility, and every moment resonates with the harmony of nature.
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