Part 1: Lembeh’s Little Monsters
Royal Blood’s rock track “Little Monster” was one of my favourite chart hits of 2014. Maybe it’s the snarling lyrics, the thumping drum beat or the catchy bass guitar riff that gets into your head and won’t leave? Or could it be that the title reminds me of a real-life little monster I once encountered on a dive? The “monster” in question, of course, was a Stargazer and anyone who’s ever been fortunate to come across this most bizarre of fish should get my monster reference. (Actually, can a thing that buries itself totally below the sand, leaving only a shrimp-shaped lure protruding in water to tempt in an unsuspecting victim, actually qualify to be called a “fish”?)
The place was Lembeh, a narrow 10-mile-long strait between Lembeh Island and the mainland of Sulawesi Island in Indonesia.The Stargazer looks like some kind of flatfish to all intents and purposes. Even when it’s not completely covered by sand, all you can see of it are a lure, huge mad staring eyes and two rows of teeth that would make Hannibal Lecter’s mask-maker proud. However, this view from above hides the truth about the Stargazer, which is that it’s a pretty fat animal that resembles a bulldog with gills. Amazingly, it can dig itself right down into Lembeh’s soft black volcanic sand, in just a few wiggles, till it completely disappears – and I mean completely! Then it sits, staring upwards towards the moon and stars, and it waits until a passing little fish gets curious about the shrimp bobbling about just above the sand and wanders over to take a closer look, to check if it’s indeed an edible morsel. That’s when the Stargazer strikes. Blink and you miss it! In a split-second and a puff of sand the unsuspecting fish is confined to history and the Stargazer has his meal. (“I’m having a fishy friend for dinner…”)
Stargazers aren’t monsters, of course, they’ve just brilliantly evolved to make it through their life cycle in one of the harshest marine environments on earth. The most striking feature of the Lembeh Strait is that, well… there aren’t any! You see, what makes Lembeh famous is the “muck diving”*, a way of describing the divers’ experience of diving over flat black volcanic sand. Not the most attractive of expressions, I grant you, but we’re actually the richer for it, because it’s this unforgiving habitat that forces species who live in Lembeh to “adapt or die”. To live on a flat sandy bottom, every species in Lembeh, without exception, has to do something pretty special or it won’t make it past breakfast. So the order of the day is camouflage.
This is the realm of the pink Pigmy Seahorse that nestles in pink coral and grows lumps so that it looks like just a piece of the coral to any uneducated passer-by; the Coconut Octopus that grabs the two halves of the coconut shell and pulls them in around its body until it’s gone and all one can see is an inedible coconut lying on the sand; the Mimic Octopus that changes both its shape and colour to perfectly imitate more threatening species such as sea snakes or flounders. Not to mention Frogfish with perfect impressions of sponge and Stone Fish with perfect impressions of, erm, stones. And then there’s the Stargazer.
So it isn’t strictly true to say that Lembeh is featureless. To be fair, several Lembeh dive sites are covered in the most glorious coral walls and there’s even a couple of WWII wrecks thrown in to round off this most unique of spots and put it firmly in the “world class dive destinations” category.
It’s a year-round destination, with tropical weather, flat seas and a backdrop of jungles and volcanoes. A populous region of Indonesia, North Sulawesi offers excellent resorts and dive centres to round off the offering on the ground. Getting there is comfortable, with flights on Singapore Air/SilkAir via Singapore Changi Airport and you can combine a stay in Lembeh with a Singapore Stopover on the way home. Alternatively, opt for some superb wall diving at Manado’s Bunaken National Park (next month’s instalment), or even combo further afield with Indonesia’s other iconic dive spots of Raja Ampat, Bali or Komodo (all also coming in future editions of our Indonesian dive guide).
For Underwater Photographers, Lembeh is arguably the best underwater macro photography location on the planet. It really is as simple as that.
Lembeh has easy diving, but actually I’d say it’s more suited to experienced divers. Why? Well, when you think you’ve seen it all, that’s the time to go to Lembeh!
*The term Muck Diving was first used by Larry Smith, our dear friend who sadly passed away a few years ago. Larry put Lembeh diving on the map and was instrumental in training Lembeh’s guides. His legacy is the understanding, sense of wonder and pure enjoyment that hundreds of divers now enjoy in Lembeh each year.
For more information, visit www.diversetravel.co.uk/destinations/indonesia.