Lembeh Strait diving

Sulawesi diving

star gazerThe Lembeh Strait, Manado, North Sulawesi has become a mecca for hard core muck divers and macro photographers. Introduced to the world in the mid 90’s it has grown in popularity. There are now several dive resorts on the shoreline and a few liveaboard boats service the area as well. Divers from around the globe now flock to the Lembeh Strait to see the weird and the wonderful. Serious underwater photographers never want to leave.

The Lembeh Strait is a narrow channel that separates Lembeh Island from mainland Sulawesi. The reefs at Lembeh are poor, mostly small sandy reefs and rocks. The visibility isn’t great either as the seabed is black volcanic sand. The water temperature can be cool at times, maybe down to 24°C (normally 26-28°C).

None of that should put you off though because the marine life is awesome. Lembeh is one of the few places that does live up to it’s billing. Most divers exit the water from each dive amazed at what they have seen.

If you don’t like muck diving when you arrive at Lembeh, the dives will convert you. If you have a wish list of critters that you want to see, tell your dive guides and they will find most of them for you. From flamboyant cuttlefish to mimic octopus, stargazer to pegasus seamoth, snake eels to rhinopia. The list goes on and on.

seahorseThe bio-diversity of the water is such that there is just more macro life at Lembeh. Critters that are almost impossible to spot elsewhere are abundant. It’s possible to see ten pygmy seahorse on one sea fan, twenty bobbit worms on one night dive. Every dive is an adventure, hunting for stuff that you’ve always dreamed of seeing and photographing.

Dive guides are experts at finding every critter. Most dives are shallow and currents are minimal so bottom times can be long while you hunt for the cool stuff. Night dives are also amazing at Lembeh, often producing more astonishing finds than the day dives.

The Lembeh Strait can be dived all year round. June to December are the busiest months with September and October having the best conditions overall. Visibility drops in August but the marine life is particularly abundant at that time.

Much of the best diving is accessed simply by walking onto a house reef from shore. Other dive sites are no more than a short boat ride away. Liveaboards here are effectively floating hotels, moving very little in the narrow channel and transfering divers to the dive sites by tender.

Lembeh Strait dive sites

pygmy seahorseAngel’s Window dive site is at the northern end of the Lembeh Strait on the Lembeh Island side. This dive site is actually a nice reef dive with soft corals, sponges, feather stars, sea squirts and gorgonian sea fans covering a submerged pinnacle. It makes a pleasant change from some of the murkier sites and has better visibility. Maximum depth is 30 metres.

At 25 metres there is a swim-through surrounded by schools of reef fish including snapper, fusilier, sweetlips and trevally. This is the window that the dive site is named for. Nearby schools of angelfish, bannerfish and batfish hang out. You will also see moray eels and lionfish.

Of course the macro stuff is still there. Look in the red/pink gorgonian sea fans for pygmy seahorse, these small but perfectly formed beauties are always there somewhere. You’ll need good eyes to find them though as they are smaller that your fingernail. Many divers take a magnifying glass with them to get a better look.

Nudibranchs and sea slugs are numerous in various shapes and sizes, their bright colours acting as a warning to predators of their poisonous skin. Shrimps and gobies are aslo abundant. Look too for crabs such as hermit, zebra and decorator crabs. Red octopus can also be seen.

Just as much life can be found on night dives. Parrotfish, moray eels and cuttlefish can also be seen. Look out for stargazers bulbous eyes peering up at you plus more crabs and shrimps. Turn off your torch to see the masses of bio-luminescence in the water, an indication of why the marine life is so prolific here.

At the southern end of the Lembeh Strait another sunken Japanese WWII freighter lies in 30 metres of water. The Bimoli Wreck was heavily damaged by torpedoes and is well overgrown with corals and encrusting sponges.

Some larger fish can be seen above the wreck including barracuda and jacks. Schools of snapper and fusilier are present. Critters include lobsters, crabs and other crustaceans.

Ammunition can still be found around the wreck.

The shallowest part of the wreck is at 18 metres. There are sometimes currents here.

squat lobsterCalifornia Dreaming is the northern most dive site of the Lembeh Strait on the Lembeh Island side.

It is less of a muck dive than some of the other Lembeh Strait dive sites. It tends to be less murky with better visibility, often as good as 25 metres. However on other occasions visibility can be as low as 5 metres. The maximum depth is 25 metres and there is a plateau at around 15 metres. Currents are mild.

The coral is more colourful here with coral gardens of large orange tree corals and pink gorgonian sea fans. Christmas tree worms, feather stars, sea whips and sea squirts add even more colour. There are plenty of reef fish including butterflyfish and parrotfish. Moray eels can be seen. So too can shy ribbon eels, poking out from their rubble burrows. Mantis shrimps, both spearer and smasher varieties can be found inside and outside their holes. Flatfish can be found in the sand along with any number of shrimps and partner gobies.

Nudibranchs are numerous, as on all Lembeh Strait dive sites. Other crustaceans to look for include pretty pink squat lobsters, decorator crabs, emperor shrimps and Coleman’s shrimps. It’s worth looking in every sea fan and along every sea whip, there is normally something small living there, often it’s no bigger than your fingernail. This is another Lembeh dive site where you may well be underwater saying to yourself, “what on earth is that!” as your dive guide points out another weird critter that you’ve never seen before. Head straight to the fish id book after the dive and try to find it.

dragonetsDivers at Critter Hunt do exactly as the name suggests. It’s a typical Lembeh dive site with a sloping black sand bottom down to 25 metres. What at first sight may look like a boring reef soon reveals itself to be a haven for the exotic marine life that Lembeh Starit divers come to expect.

Small patches of rubble, coral, sponge and crinoids are home to the usual suspects like painted frogfish, leaf scorpionfish and common lionfish. Blue ribbon eels, mantis shrimps and sailfin gobies can also be found among the rubble.

Crabs include decorator crabs, hermit crabs, spider crabs, zebra crabs and orangutan crabs. Also look out for pink squat lobsters and cleaner shrimps in bubble coral and soft coral.

Seahorses can be found as can dozens of nudibranchs and sea slugs.

Blue ringed octopus are possible finds here but be careful because these tiny critters, smaller than a golf ball are among the most toxic creatures in the world.

Long armed octopus are also present, don’t mistake these for mimic octopus. And don’t mistake mimic octopus for sea snakes or sea stars or what ever else they decide to imitate.

On night dives you may be able to see mating dragonets as well as flying gurnards and stargazers.

hairy frogfish Lembeh Strait divingHair Ball. This wonderfully named Lembeh dive site is often a favourite that divers like to do several times when they visit the Lembeh Strait. Located on the mainland side of the strait, the topography is similar to many of the other dive sites with a sloping black sand bottom. There are patches of reef and some sunken logs that are full of life.

Maximum depth is around 25 metres. Visibility is murky, this is a proper muck dive. Close by is Hairball II dive site which is very similar.

Divers can find frogfish all over this dive site. They range in size and in colour including red, orange, yellow, white and black. There are also hairy frogfish here.

The frogfish are excellently camouflaged, often looking like a piece of sponge. They are sometimes seen in pairs. Lucky divers will get to see them fishing with their antenna.

Also common at Hairball are seahorses. The large variety are seen here, also in various colours. Look inside coconut shells for octopus. Look around sunken logs for nudibranchs and zebra crabs.Cardinalfish and juvenile batfish are often seen at Hairball II.

Night dives are also very popular at Hairball. Cuttlefish can be seen as well as more octopus. Highlights are Spanish dancers and stargazers staring upwards from the sandy bottom.

bobtail squidThe Mawali Wreck is a 65 metre long steel Japanese WWII cargo ship that sank in 1943 when she was scuttled by her crew. She now lays just off the Lembeh Island coast on her port side and has become completely encrusted with coral, crinoids and sponges. This is one of the most colourful of the Lembeh Strait dive sites. Maximum depth is 30 metres.

The reef is now home to impressive marine life including wrasse, grouper, angelfish, bannerfish and butterflyfish. Moray eels can be seen as can octopus. Big lionfish hover over the wreck in gangs, scorpionfish camouflage themselves on the ship’s structure which barely still resembles a ship at all.

As always, crabs, shrimps and nudibranchs are present. Look out for pink squat lobsters and orangutan crabs.

Nudi Falls dive site gets it’s name from the vast number of nudibranchs and sea slugs that can be seen here and a large portion of the dive could be spent studying the brightly coloured critters. However there is much more macro life here than just nudi’s.

The dive site is located on the Sulawesi side of the strait and black sand slopes down to around 25m.

Soft corals are home to a myriad of small reef fish including pretty juvenile oriental sweetlips. Anemones are home to anemone fish and shrimps.

frogfishCommon lionfish, scorpionfish and frogfish are all resident in good numbers. Devil fish can be spotted. The rare Ambon scorpionfish, a member of the Rhinopias family is even sometimes seen here.

There are also several pipefish species including banded pipefish and ornate ghost pipefish. Ribbon eels can be found poking from the rubble. Also look in the rubble for mantis shrimps and sea moths.

Seahorses and common in whites and yellows. Gorgonian sea fans are home to pygmy seahorses, often several to one sea fan.

The great thing about this Lembeh dive, like all Lembeh dives is that there is never a dull moment. There is no cruising along aimlessly waiting for something to appear. No sooner has your guide pointed out one critter to you than he’s found another. Dive times fly by. Camera memory sticks fill up quick!

Police Pier is another Lembeh Strait favourite dive site. It’s a sandy slope down to just 15 metres and the bottom is littered with garbage, cables, rubble and very little coral. Crinoids and sponges do provide some colour but this is true muck diving. All sorts of weird and wonderful critters make their home on the slope and under the pier.

Lionfish hang around the pier’s pillars, waiting for unsuspecting prey. Frogfish and leaf scorpionfish fish can be seen as can large seahorses and banded pipefish.

Banggai cardinalfish are found around rock and coral patches. Flamoyant cuttlefish can be seen over the sand, if you see one, there is normally another close by.

Sailfin gobies can be seen in the rubble with many other goby species. Mantis shrimp and ribbon eels are there too.

Police Pier is also one of the most popular dive sites for a night dive. The rare and unusual bobbit worm can be seen at night, looking like something out of a science fiction movie with it’s large fangs at the end of it’s shimmering body.

Also out at night are cuttlefish, moray eels, snake eels, octopus and dozens of crabs including spider crab, decorator crab and hermit crab. Stargazers can be seen half burried in the sand. Flounders and flying gurnards are also seen.

There are two dive sites at the northern end of the strait on the Sulawesi side that are in front of Teluk Kambahu, a local village. The dive sites are more commonly referred to as TK1 and TK2.

The underwater seascape is a gradual black sand slope down to 30m with small patches of coral and sponge amongst rubble and sunken logs. Sea squirts, algae and the odd anemone add some colour but this is a pretty murky dive site with visibility ranging from 5-15 metres.

This is where the mimic octopus was first discovered in Lembeh and dive guides here are experts at finding them. Unlike most octopus they can normally be found in open sand, not hiding in the reef.

Banggai cardinalfish can also be found at the TK dive sites. They are endemic to the Lembeh region. They are often seen in pairs. Frogfish, leaf fish and scorpionfish are numerous here in many different shapes and sizes. As always, there are plenty of nudibranchs to spot and photograph as well as shrimps and gobies. Look for porcelain crabs on the edges of anemones. Ribbon eels can be found in the rubble as can mantis shrimps, jawfish and the tiny pegasus seamoth. Flying gurnards can be seen skimming along the seabed with wings outstretched.

Night dives are excellent. Dusk dives are good for spotting mandarin fish in the shallow rubble patches. Their mating dance is a wonderful sight to behold. Mating dragonets can also be seen rising briefly off the seabed to meet in mid water before shooting back to the sand. A useful tip is to have a red filter on your torch to difuse the bright light allowing you to see the underwater spectacle without scaring off the dragonets. (A red plastic bag and an elastic band does the job perfectly well).