Muck Paradise

Story by Nila Murti

Lembeh strait is often called the muck diving capital of the world.

For the uninitatied, muck diving is a term for diving not in colourful coral reef areas, but in barren bottoms, which is often sand, or coral rubbles, or even silty and muddy sand. Hence the term muck. It doesn’t sound very interesting, but here is a place where people look for all sorts of exotic creatures, the weird, the rare, the special and unusual, the ones that are not normally found in the usual coral reef environment. People flock to muck diving areas such as Lembeh armed with cameras to take photos of these wonderful monsters.

Lembeh is located in North Sulawesi, Indonesia (note: Sulawesi is often called Celebes in maps), a 12 km long strait separating the mainland Sulawesi and the Lembeh island. At the southern part of the strait is a town called Bitung, which is a quite busy port town. As a consequence the strait is quite a busy sea way with often a big barge carrying logs cruising slowly by. The channel is narrow and shallow and the more than 30 dive sites are located in both sides. The mainland side has mostly black volcanic sand bottom while the Lembeh island side often has creamy coloured carbonate sand, which is derived from the older rock that formed the land. This older rock is covered in the mainland by lava and lahar poured forth by the volcanoes dotting the landscape.

In most sites the bottom would be gently sloping or gently undulating, and rather featureless. Sometimes it felt like underwater desert and we would doubt that we’d see anything. But then the guides would start showing us here and there the strange critters. Sometimes the first few minutes were uneventful, but we normally search around eagerly, then critters after critters suddenly appear as our eyes get used to spotting the unusual. In most dives we spot maybe about half a dozen creatures from our celebrity critter list, along with tens of the background singers. We never did come back without anything to tick off the list.

In every site, the bottom would be characteristically strewn with rubbish. Bottles, cans, shoes, bags, plastics, you name it, all sorts of humanity’s refuse can be found here. It sound so untempting but the critters in Lembeh have somehow adjusted themselves to human carelessness. In this dive we saw an octopus making a tea cup its home. In one of the books on Lombok there’s a photo of a hermit crab using a bottle instead of a shell as its mobile home. Various juvenile forms of fish could be found hiding in cans, bottles and rags.

This was our second visit to the area. We were here only for one day in 2005, on a side trip from diving in Bunaken. We were hooked. This time we allowed 3 dive days to explore Lembeh, but even this is not enough. To cover the diversity of the area we need probably a full week of diving. For even though people come here for muck diving, Lembeh also has some coral reefs and wrecks which sound so interesting. But that will have to be done in our next trip. This time we focus solely on muck diving and macro photography.

The celebrity list is long in Lembeh. The highlights include the following:
1. The frogfishes: hairy frogfish (Antennarius hispidus), striped frogfish (Antennarius striatus), giant frogfish (Antennarius comersonii), painted frogfish (Antennarius pictus), warty (or clown) frogfish (Antennarius maculatus). We met the giant, the painted and the warty types only this time. But we did see the striped and the hairy ones in our previous trip.

2. The scorpionfishes, lionfishes and leaf fishes: weedy scorpionfish (Rhinopias frondosa) and its smooth cousin (Rhinopias eschmeyeri), ambon scorpionfish (Pteroidichthys amboinensis), Spiny devilfish (Inimicus didactylus), leaf scorpionfish (Taenianotus triachantus), Cockatoo waspfish (Ablabys taenianotus), stonefish (Synanceia verrucosa). We met the smooth Rhinopias, the devilfish, leaf fish and waspfish, along with the usual scorpionfishes – tasseled scorpionfish (Scorpaenopsis oxycephala) and a scorpionfish that’s maybe a shortfin scorpionfish (Scorpaenodes brachyptera) and the hordes of lionfishes – common lionfish (Pterois volitans), spotfin lionfish (Pterois antennata), zebra lionfish (Dendrochirus zebra) and shortfin lionfish (Dendrochirus brachypterus).

3. Other strange looking fishes, some ugly, some beautiful: the flying gunnard (Dactyloptena orientalis), pegasus seamoth (Eurypegasus draconis), Fingered Dragonet (Dactylopus dactylopus), Mandarinfish (Synchiropus splendidus ), Jawfish (Opistognathus randalli), banggai cardinalfish (Pterapogon kauderni) and stargazers (Uranoscopus sp). The family of boxfishes and pufferfishes are also resident here, including the yellow boxfish (Ostracion cubicus), Longhorn cowfish (Lactoria cornuta), fine spotted porcupinefish (Diodon holocanthus), blotched porcupinefish (Diodon liturosus), rounded porcupinefish (Cychlichthys orbicularis), black spotted porcupinefish (Diodon hystrix) and various file fish. A celebrity list of Lembeh would also include the barramundi cod (Cromileptes altivelis) of course. Flounders and stingrays are also easy to find here.

4. Pipefishes and sea horses: ghost pipefishes (which we unfortunately did not meet this time), different types of pipefishes and sea horses, both the normal size and the pygmy ones. This time we only met the normal sized thorny seahorse (Hippocampus histrix), but in the previous visit we saw the cute and super tiny Hippocampus bargibanti pygmy sea horse.

5. Various eels, of which the highlight would be ribbon eel (Rhinomuraena quaesita), in their yellow, blue and black variety of colour (colour difference depending of gender and age), banded snake eel (Myrichthys colubrinus), napoleon eel (Ophichthus bonaparti) and block-finned snake eel (Ophicthus melanochir). This time we saw all of the above, along with myriads of moray eels, except for the napoleon eel. One of the banded snake eels we saw, whose colouration mimics the highly poisonous sea snake, ran away from us and dived into the sand. It was amazing to watch how it plunged head first into a mound of soft silty sand and how its long body disappeared centimeter by centimeter in just seconds.

6. Octopuses, squids and cuttle fishes. We saw various squids and cuttlefishes here, but the stars would have to be the octopus who have made a tea cup its home and the Wunderpus (Wunderpus photogenicus). Various baby octopuses and baby squids are to be found usually during the night dive. Various shrimps, crabs and mantis shrimps are easily found. Various nudibranch, from the common Phyllidia types to the exotic hairy Flabellina rubrolineata, Pteraeolidia ianthina, Phyllodesmium longicirrum and the translucent Gymnodoris ceylonica and Halgerda batangas which we saw this time, and other interesting ones we saw the last time.

The highlight of the invertebrates though, apart from the octopuses, would have to be the Electric Clam or Flame Scallop (Lima scabra) which we found to be hiding in a crack in the rocky wall. It seemed to be busy zapping away with its blue lightning bolts of electricity at its prey, and I was wondering if the electric shock would be causing pain to human divers. But I have since found out from one of the sites in the internet that it wasn’t “electricity” at all. It was actually bioluminescent streaks, and the creature is actually a filter feeder. Huh deceiving creatures!

Definitely Lembeh is a paradise of some sort. Muck paradise is not a gorgeous name, but to muck divers it is a beautiful name. We enjoyed so much diving there and we also enjoyed our stay at Kungkungan Bay Resort. The resort is run efficiently by a Brit couple and manned by a group of eagle eyed local dive guides who can spot even the deeply camouflaged creatures. The wooden bungalows and rooms at the resort are very comfortable and the staff are very friendly, attentive and helpful. This resort and its dive center also impressed us by their commitment to conservation. The small bay in front of the resort has been protected for 16 years and the result shows. Corals grow luxuriantly there, like an oasis in an otherwise dry landscape. Guests are not allowed to wear gloves and their dive guides do not disturb the animals excessively. We are definitely impressed by this resort and we will come back!How to get there:

Garuda and several other domestic airlines fly to Manado from Jakarta daily. The flight usually takes about 3.5 hours with one stopover. There are also daily flights from Denpasar. Silk Air fly from Singapore several days a week (check their website). From Manado airport it takes about 1 to 1.5 hours of drive to Lembeh. Better ask the resort/dive centre to arrange for transport.

Photos & Text by Nila Murti

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