THE ELUSIVE WUNDERPUS! When Alice went in search of the white rabbit, her journey at the bottom of the rabbit-hole rewarded her with many wonders other than the rabbit itself.
My trips to North Sulawesi have echoed this journey (including the constant and satisfying “EAT ME”, “DRINK ME” instructions).
However, for 25 dives the wunderpus has laughed from its sandy lair as I yearn for just one measly glimpse.
Following seven nights in Manado my dive-crate, buddy and I had a smooth two-hour transfer from Tasik Ria to its sister resort, Dive Into Lembeh. The resort is actually still on the mainland at Kasawari Bay looking out onto Lembeh Island, so no boat is required. You are diving the nearby Lembeh sites, however.
Co-owners and managers Steve and Miranda Coverdale have had an impressive 45 years between them in the dive industry. Their CVs include teaching and guiding trips in a variety of Red Sea destinations, Sudan and five years at another top Lembeh resort. Dive Into Lembeh is just 18 months young, and the couple refer to it as their “baby”.
Steve gave us a thorough tour of the facilities and briefed us with meal- and dive-time info, all the while grinning enthusiastically like the Cheshire Cat. He is super-proud to have had input into the design and layout of the resort.
Sulawesi is Indonesia’s fourth biggest island. Lembeh – in the north – is one of the region’s three National Marine Parks (along with Bunaken and Bangka).
The strait itself stretches for 10 miles between narrow Lembeh island and Bitung City, with plankton being carried on currents from the Molucca Sea. It is the muck-diving capital of the world, boasting 50-plus dive-sites.
On our four days’ diving we didn’t need to venture more than five minutes away from the resort in the boat, with its two 100hp engines. Sometimes we shared the boat with three or four other divers; sometimes we were alone.
Within this distance there are muck-sites, rubble slopes and coral areas.
The resort is sandwiched between two of the best dives in the strait: Aw Shucks to the north side and Hairball to the south. Aw Shucks is a combination of muck, whips, barrel anemones and staghorn and table corals (which house the famously tiny pink-eyed goby and green hairy goby). The resort’s mascot – the Lembeh seadragon – also lives there.
Hairball is pure muck, and is dived “Lembeh style”, zig-zagging across the black sandy bottom. You might find decorator crabs and Ambon scorpionfish hiding among the (what I call) underwater tumbleweed.
FOR THE SUPER-MACRO LOVERS, expect to be gifted with the affectionately named “Sean the Sheep” Costasiella, which can often be found sucking chlorophyll from a fallen leaf, or a 2mm hairy shrimp decorated with eggs.
Of course, the Lembeh Strait is a macro-photographer’s paradise, but there were moments when I longed for my fisheye lens. Coconut octopuses, we learnt, are as intelligent as rats. They use tools such as shells which they a) hide in and b) hide in specific places, to be retrieved later!
Muck is not a forgiving environment in which to try to be inconspicuous for some species. Coconut and mimic octopuses are perfect subjects for close-up wide-angle photography and GoPro footage. You can almost hear the cartoon legs running under Fred Flintstone’s car as the octopus picks up its shells to scarper up the black sandy slope!
Photography is big here, with most resorts boasting “state-of-the-art” camera-rooms. This resort is no exception, with 20 camera-stations, plenty of light, fans, anti-slip mats and towels provided. There are numerous charging points at each station, with surge protectors and areas for storing your bag/Peli-case.
The dive-team will carry your camera to and from the boat as instructed. There are two huge rinse tanks just for cameras, and baskets for you to leave them in, both for transportation and to prevent rolling on board.
The camera-room is locked at 10pm and a security guard sits close by. However, should you wish to prepare your camera in your bungalow instead, there is masses of desk space.
Expect a liveaboard-style schedule: a dive at 7.45 on the reef before other boats arrive; breakfast; dive two at 10.45; lunch; dive three at 2:30; tea and cake; and a night-dive at 6pm.
Other dives on offer as extras are mandarinfish dives at dusk and Banka Island trips (faster, bigger boat with toilet). The first three dives as listed above are included in your package, and diving Aw Shucks or Hairball with your buddy from the beach is free until 6pm.
Following the recommendation of photo pro Saeed Rashid, my buddy and I chose to see the stuff nightmares are made of – the bobbit worm. Fans of the films Dune, Return of the Jedi and Tremors will revel in being very afraid in the dark of these ambush predators. For scaredy-cats like me, you will spend the majority of the dive being thankful for bringing a 5mm long wetsuit!
RESTING BETWEEN DIVES, we enjoyed reading under an oriental umbrella at the 18m infinity-style pool, glancing at the many reference books in the lounge area, bird-watching or walking on the black-sandy beach (my love of volcanic sand must stem back to my Goth days).
An example of the foodie delights found in the open-air restaurant included broccoli soup, BBQ garlic chicken, fish tofu, jackfruit in coconut milk and chocolate mousse – just a light lunch, then! All food is fresh and organic, purchased daily from the local market.
Two pastry chefs cook cinnamon buns, potato bread, banana cake and warm teacakes smothered in lashings of butter and sugar. Bananas, pink guava and lemongrass are all grown on site. Eat, sleep, dive, repeat…
Some time after the third dive (for safety reasons) your 39.5° hot-tub (yes, hot-tub) will be activated. I couldn’t imagine why in humid North Sulawesi you would need one, but I’m converted. At 5.30pm, as the sun dips behind the horizon, you can sip on a cold beer and watch the dolphins follow the squid-boats up the Lembeh Strait. Perfect!
As I lay there, I reflected on the Ceratosomas, Phyllodesmiums and Mexichromises with which the day had rewarded me, and pondered about asking Santa for a 105mm lens for Christmas.
Evening time is of course Bintang time, and the silence is broken only by the waves crashing on the beach, the hum of the cicadas and the clicking sound of the local geckos. This is the best part of the day to log your dives at the bar, where Balinese cider and wine is also available.
Steve and Miranda were always around socialising with guests and keeping us well-watered. One evening we were treated to a talk and slide-show by a Lembeh regular who also happened to be a tropical-fish researcher and biologist.
We learned of the tongue-eating isopod that lives in the mouths of many clownfish, and the poisonous and venomous flamboyant cuttlefish’s aposematic light show; how the frogfish’s bite is one of the quickest movements in the animal kingdom, and the relationship between the goby and blind shrimp. Having seen most of these animals during the day, we were glued! More seminars and workshops are planned for next year.
Of the 12 dives I enjoyed over four days, my favourite sites were TK3, Aer Bajo 1 and Retak Larry. All three dives were a cavalcade of critter after critter after critter, symbiotic relationships and masters of disguise.
I loved shooting the shy thorny and hairy seahorses, yawning frogfish, emperor shrimps sliding down sea cucumbers and pygmy cuttlefish raising their mantles.
THE DIVE INTO LEMBEH guides will do everything in their power to find your dream creatures without harassing them. They write down (often the Latin) names of what they’re showing you under water, and always check that you’re happy you got the shot before moving on. Their finning techniques above the fine, silty bottom would make the best tec-divers envious!
So did guide Herry (ironic, isn’t it?) locate my holy grail, the wunderpus?
At the 11th hour, in the final few minutes of my last dive, there she was: light brown slender arms extending from a central body, siphons pulsating as she burrowed up from the sand, beady eyes protruding upwards of her bulbous head.
I leaned forward, angled my strobe-arm carefully, rotated the dials on my housing sensing the light and – no battery! My nemesis the wunderpus had eluded me again! I could almost hear her saying “Oh dear! oh dear! I shall be late!” as she scuttled off in search of another burrow.
GETTING THERE: Cath travelled for 13 hours with Singapore Airlines to Singapore, with a connecting 3.5-hour flight to Manado with Silk Air.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Dive Into Lembeh Resort has nine sea-view bungalows (two with panoramic views of Kasawari Bay) all with hot-tub, four-poster bed, air-con, ceiling fan, TV and water dispenser. In addition to the pool there are three massage huts and a fire-pit. Strong wi-fi is available. There are three boats and a nitrox compressor, diveintolembeh.com
WHEN TO GO: Air temperature is a fairly constant 30° year round. Water temperature is 26-29° (coldest July-August). Rainy season usually begins in late September and continues through to March but it remains hot and sunny.
MONEY: Indonesian rupiah but US dollars, sterling and euros are accepted in the resort.
PRICES: Regaldive offers a seven-night package with flights, transfers and seven nights’ all-inclusive accommodation (two sharing) with three boat-dives a day from £2235. Dive Worldwide offers a 17-day twin-centre stay in Bunaken and Lembeh from £2935pp (low season) including flights, transfers, 14 nights’ full-board accommodation (two sharing) and 12 days’ diving.
VISITOR INFORMATION: indonesia.travel