Diving in the Lembeh Strait
Mention Lembeh scuba diving to any serious underwater photographer and their eyes come over all misty and distant. No place on the planet gives you the chance to see more shy critters such as the mimic octopus, flamboyant cuttlefish, harlequin shrimps, skeleton shrimps and innumerable nudibranchs.
The fish also include the usual tropical reef suspects but also the more bizarre: Ambon scorpionfish, snake eels, stonefish, sea robins, stargazers, devil fish and even the weedy scorpionfish. There are also beautiful seahorses including pygmies, pegasus,
mandarinfish, ghost pipefish and the endemic Banggai cardinalfish. Lembeh Strait dive resorts have a higher than average rate of return customers as enthused first-timers return year upon year, never tiring of the wonders of this undersea paradise.
There are many diving places which claim to be the best and very few get close but it is difficult to imagine a better place in the world for critter hunting, or muck diving, than Lembeh. No more than a few breaths go by between one bizarre and exhilarating sight and the next. If you've tired of night dives, then try one in Lembeh - they are simply fantastic. We don't know of a better place for after dark encounters with extraordinary marine life.
Including the wrecks and more traditional reefs, there are over 30 sites to choose from, all within 6 or 7 kilometres of the dive resorts, or just a few minutes boat ride across these calm, lake-like waters. It's easy to understand why scuba diving in the Lembeh Strait has a reputation that's hard to beat among discerning divers that want easy and convenient access to exceptional diving opportunities with bizarre marine life that you simply can not see in other destinations.
Dive Site Descriptions
Aer Perang - The formation of this dive site was influenced by a World War II warship that blasted through the rocks in order to reach fresh water. The name literally means 'War Water'.
It is a relatively shallow sand slope that is home to many rare species of octopus. Finding them hidden in nooks and crannies or under the sand takes some skill due to their expert ability to camouflage themselves. The mimic octopus in particular can change colour, shape and even the texture of its skin to blend in with their surroundings, and often they can be spotted here.
For scuba divers, an encounter with a wonderpus is even more unique as this species is endemic to Indonesian waters. It is very similar to the mimic octopus, but has well-defined white spots on the mantle, and bars on the arms.
While waiting for the octopus show to start, you may notice pairs of Pegasus seamoths using their pelvic fins to 'walk' along the bottom in search of worms and small prey. Recently, a hole at a depth of 15 metres has become home to a pair of rhinopias. The jury is still out as to whether they are the common red type, or the more rare pink variety. You might want to have a look to decide for yourself.
The calm conditions make this the ideal place to enjoy your first night dive in Lembeh where you will see stargazers peeking out at you from the sand with just their eyes and mouths showing. Aer Perang is an excellent site and a must for all lovers of cephalopods.
Angel's Window - If, during your stay, you are growing tired of black sand, among some of the most amazing and bizarre, rare creatures on the planet, Angel's window gives you the chance to do a bit of reef diving. More than just a change of scene, however, this site is in fact a beautifully decorated pinnacle whose tip lies just below the surface, off Lembeh Island.
As you work your way down you will be struck by a vast field of soft corals with more orange and green on display than St Patrick's day in Dublin. Further down, the pinnacle base flattens out to the north and south which is home to sponges and sea fans harbouring knobbly, pink pygmy seahorses, whose presence is all but guaranteed.
Also look out for red octopus who often are found slithering around this area. Nudibranchs in various hues, pinnate batfish and schools of angelfish are likely to keep you amused as you make your way to Angel's window. This swim-through is at 22 to 25 metres. The window's walls are covered in crinoids and featherstars so it is advisable for divers only to swim through if they can be sure of a contact-free penetration.
The topography of the site allows for a spiral downwards to a possible depth of some 30 metres and a similar spiralled ascent past the golden trevally and snappers into swarms of square-spot anthias as you reach shallower water. Totally different from the usual Lembeh scuba diving experience and a wonderful site in its own right, be sure to include it in your dive plan.
Hairball - As you listen to the dive briefing and look at the site map you may feel a sense of déjà vu. The muck diving sites all sound the same - gentle slope, black sand, patches of activity, a few sunken logs. Hairball however, often emerges as a king among kings in the Lembeh Strait.
On a day dive here you are likely to run into a few quite large seahorses proudly going about their business unperturbed by divers. For frogfish lovers this is your spot. The question is not 'if' but 'how many?' White, yellow, black, hairy, giant ... you name it! Add to this the occasional encounter with an octopus lurking furtively inside half-buried coconut shells and you can see the reason for this site's popularity.
Night time, as with many sites here, turns the excellent into the unbelievable. Dreamlike oddities haunt hairball at night. Successfully spotting a buried stargazer, eyes cast up to the heavens, will keep you happy for a week. More frogfish, cuttlefish, cuttlefish eggs (with moving pre-hatched babies!) decorator crabs and Spanish dancers are but a few of the collection of wonders that Hairball spits out.
Good dives here cannot be overstated and are unlikely to be forgotten.
Jahir - Jahir is one of the newest dive sites discovered in the strait and was named after the guide who first found it. Jahir is a site that in many ways typifies Lembeh, with black volcanic sand that you will slowly cruise over with your nose close to the sea-bed.
In fact, perhaps your nose should not be too close, since the site features large numbers of purple heart urchins and therefore a thousand sharp spines. Among the spines you can look out for beautiful little zebra crabs sheltering among the safety of these protective spears.
You can reach as deep as 30m here which can easily happen, if your focus is too much on the visuals and not on your depth. Distractions include mimic octopus, tiny frogfish, hairy frogfish and ornate ghost pipefish. There are also honeycomb moray eels and long horn cowfish to keep you entertained.
Jahir is fantastic as a day dive and positively spectacular at night when any manner of weird and wonderful critter can step into the spotlight of your torch. Chief among those great sights would be the eyes and down-turned mouth of the entrenched stargazer. What appears to be nothing more than the semblance of a face is in fact a rather large and bulky fish, its eyes set on the heavens.
Makawide - This spot is situated between 2 large boulders rising out of the ocean which offer amazing scuba diving opportunities over coral patches as the gradual slopes descend beneath the waves of the Lembeh Strait. Despite being right in the middle of the channel, currents are generally calm.
Between 15 and 25 metres, your chances increase for unforgettable and unique encounters with the macro life that is so typical of Lembeh. This is one of the best spots for avid underwater photographers. Hippocampus seahorses are usually hard to see but you will be surprised at how easy it is to spot their tiny red bodies when offset against the black sand.
On the other hand, you might find it harder to identify their cousin, the ornate ghost pipefish, due to their incredible concealment skills. Also hidden in plain view will be the hairy or painted frogfish.
Sea whips are plentiful as you descend, providing perfect homes for black coral crabs and the miniscule Pontohi pygmy seahorse. Perfect eyesight is definitely required … or a good dive guide!
Mawali Wreck - This Japanese World War II steel cargo ship wreck lies completely on its side on the strait's seabed in water ranging from 15 to 30 metres. As the sight of the wreck begins to take shape beneath your fins you will marvel at just how beautifully encrusted it is with crinoids, black coral trees and soft corals.
The 60 metre long structure is home to lots of fish predominantly enormous specimens of scorpionfish and lionfish, and several spotted barramundis. Look closer and you will find the other unusual suspects such as crabs, nudis and pipefish. All manner of sunken junk seems to get called an artificial reef these days but the Mawali wreck truly is a fine example.
As you dive around its lower reaches you are aware that from the shape of the structure it is a wreck on its side but to cruise over the top of the wreck (formerly its port side) it is impossible to see any signs that it is a ship, such is the reef covering. Nature has well and truly reclaimed this lump of man made metal and it looks splendid.
It is also worth paying attention on your ascent here. Check out the buoy line here which is also absolutely covered in activity. There is enough to see here to help you run down your safety stop without even noticing. A really nice dive and an interesting change in the Lembeh Strait to see so much colour.
Nudi Falls - Your diving boat will tie itself to both a low impact anchor as well as some over hanging trees at this site near the water's edge. The sheltered nature of the bay and the proximity to the land makes it feel like a lake dive. You will notice, as you roll over the edge, that the water is normally a degree or two cooler than at Bunaken.
You will start slowly down over a dark sandy slope to about 25 m where the bottom is covered in soft corals like a bed of cauliflower. Look out for ribbon eels and shrimp and goby partners around here before coming to the mini-wall that is this site's main feature.
On the floor and the rocky base of the wall is where you can spot most action with flying gurnards, frogfish, mantis shrimps and pipefish all likely to be around. While amusing yourself here, your Lembeh dive guide will likely be scouring a fan on the wall for pygmy seahorses. These tiny, cute, little creatures must be the highlight of any dive as they seem to stare impassively ahead puffing their cheeks.
As you'd expect from the dive site's name, there are simply stacks of nudibranchs. Gliding over gooseberry ascidians and stinging hydriods, nudibranchs sense water movement with horn-like organs on their heads called rhinophores. The colourful frills on their backs are their gills. These shell-less members of the snail family eat sponges, hydroids, and ascidians that are poisonous to other creatures, incorporating their toxins. Like many other animals, nudis advertise their toxicity with bright colourations.
Your final few moments here can be spent poking around the shallows by the wall near the boat where lionfish, banded pipefish and the eponymous nudibranchs bring your finger pointing tally up to an impressive number, such is the amount of interesting specimens at Nudi Falls. One of the favourite dive spots in the Lembeh Strait.
Nudi Retreat - This is yet another great site featuring a gentle reef slope that starts from a sheltered cove on the Sulawesi coast and descends gradually to a depth of 28 metres. Offering more coral than many of the dive locations you will find on the Lembeh Island side of the strait, healthy soft coral and anemones abound, playing host to probably the world's most popular fish, the anemone fish.
Typical of the muck sites of Lembeh, there are always many weird and wonderful critters for your holiday snaps. For short periods of the year you will be able to capture the much sought after blue ring octopus. Although care needs to be taken as their venom can be deadly, a picture of this diminutive creature will be a rare and a once in a lifetime trophy.
Other walk-ons in your underwater show are dragon sea moths (also known as Pegasus sea moths) moving along the sandy bottom and boxer crabs hiding among corals. A real treat is coming face-to-face with a juvenile flamboyant cuttlefish. Their colours are a lot brighter than their parents making for great photo subjects. Take care near the coral because the resident scorpionfish can change their colours to be almost invisible while they await their prey. Don't let your stray hand be the prey!
If you are drawn to this site with the goal of spotting nudibranchs, then you will not be disappointed. As the name suggests, the corals are bejewelled with many different varieties of these tiny stars.
Pantai Parigi - Believe it or not, Pantai Parigi is actually the only white sand muck dive site that you will find in the Lembeh Strait, an area dominated by black sand. This bay, on Lembeh Island itself, has exceptionally healthy and dense coral cover in the shallows, then a gentle white sand slope. This site is named after the fresh water well in the village and the nearby beach: "Pantai" means 'beach' and "Parigi" means 'well'.
As you start your dive, in the more shallow part of the site around 5m, there begins an area of coral blocks on white sand where you can find pipefish, and nudibranchs such as Chromodoris Magnifica and the reddish and splendid Chromodoris Reticulata.
As you proceed into the deeper part of the site, the white sand gives way to the more familiar black. Here you can keep a look out for frogfish and Pegasus sea moths slowly making their way over the substrate. Mimic octopus are not uncommon in this area, particularly at certain times of the year such as April and May.
Pantai Parigi is also a great site for running into some of Lembeh's most sought-after but feared creatures - the blue-ringed octopus. Often no bigger than a thumbnail, with vivid blue rings, these little beauties can cause excruciating pain and even death if they bite. It will certainly hurt like a ´beach´ and you won't be feeling too ´well´.
Police Pier - If you scuba dive here it is likely to be at night. Nighttime and muck share the promise of discovery, so to do a night dive in a place like the Lembeh Strait should be something special, and it is. Police Pier may be an odd name but there is every chance of a 'Sting' coming your way as scorpionfish and lionfish lurk all around. The bottom composition is a dull grey mass, at first glance lifeless but on closer inspection, teeming with activity.
Look out for snake eels with only their stationary heads staring upwards, normally attended to by several cleaner shrimps, stargazers, free-swimming morays, flamboyant cuttlefish, long-armed octopus, and finger dragonets on the bottom.
As you make your way up into the rocky patches between about 15 and 8 metres there is a lot for you to see. The beautiful endemic Banggai cardinalfish are likely to be out en-masse, from miniscule young to fully grown specimens, their numbers can run into hundreds. frogfish too can be lurking around including the giants idly wafting their lure to attract unsuspecting supper.
Your eye seems to catch a different type of crab around every corner including decorator crabs, hermit crabs, spider crabs, countless coral crabs and other bottom-scuttling varieties. This will be another dive of Lembeh that will have you reaching straight for the fish books to try to identify all your weird and wonderful new friends.
Teluk Kambahu (TK 1) - A manageable name for a site which translates as the name of the local Lembeh village bay. Another entry off the boat into shallow water will see you descend over a dark sandy bottom, sloping gently down to 25 metres. To dive here is to snoop through the rubble and in and around sunken bit of wood and nets. Your possible discoveries could run into ridiculous numbers.
Hopping along the floor with clawlike fins, a sea moth will probe with its long nose for food in the soft muddy bottom, levitating briefy to scout for territory. Helmut's flying gurnards glide slowly until they unfurl their fins like wings and streak down a sandy slope. Resplendent in art nouveau camouflage, leaf scorpionfish will yawn as you approach, confident in the effects of their deadly spines.
Normally we at Dive The World try to avoid boring you with lists of fish but the temptation here is too great. Apart from lots of wrasses, pufferfish, anemone fish and the more normal creatures you might encounter, here is a list of what you can expect to see on this muck diving site extraordinaire:
Mandarinfish, Banggai cardinalfish (endemic to this region), white devil scorpionfish, spiny devilfish, juvenile harlequin sweetlips, giant frogfish, painted frogfish, porcelain crabs, purple commensal shrimps, finger dragonet, yellow barred jawfish, razorfish, snowflake moray eels, ribbon eel. The list of likely nudibranch sightings is longer still!
How to Dive Lembeh
If it is only Lembeh you are interested in then we suggest you stay on the island itself where the sites are only a short ride away and the dive resorts are excellent.
If you want to see more than the Lembeh Strait alone then you should consider combining your resort package with a few days in Manado/Bunaken. This way you get to see the full picture of what this splendid area has to offer.
A dive permit has been introduced to combat the problem of floating rubbish in the strait from the nearby villages and port town of Bitung. The small fee is a once-off fee per annum and payable on arrival.
You can go scuba diving in Lembeh all year but the conditions do vary. Water temperatures hit a peak of 28-29°C between October and March. Then they fall to their lowest at 25-26°C in July and August, which coincides with the greatest number of critters. Sightings have more to do with reproductive cycles than the seasonal movement of creatures. The small stuff of the strait doesn't travel far.
October to December has the best visibility. January and February has the lowest visibility, when the water temperature is at its warmest.
During the worst rainy season months of January and February some of the exposed dive sites at the far northern end of the strait may occasionally be out of bounds due to rough seas. Also from the month of June, when the south-east monsoon winds begin, to September, the surface of the strait can become a little choppy.
Good for: Small animals, night diving, underwater photography and advanced divers
Not so good for: Large animals, walls, drift dives and non-diving activities
Depth: 5 - 30m
Visibility: 10 - 25m
Surface conditions: Calm
Water temperature: 25 - 29°C
Experience level: Beginner - advanced
Number of dive sites: ~55
Distance: ~45 km east of Manado (1½ hours)
Access: Lembeh Strait resorts
Recommended length of stay: 5 - 10 days