Sunday, July 24, 2005

Sulawesi, Indonesia, July 2005

Looking for critters specialized in remaining strangely invisible.

travel blog

Indonesia - info sheet

VisumA visum is required for Belgian citizens! And there's a departure tax of 75000 Rp. In Copenhagen, a one month visum can be obtained from the Indonesian embassy within 2 weeks. Besides your passport you must bring two pictures, a copy of your travel documents, fill in an application, and pay 350 DKK.
Transport• Flight from Copenhagen to Frankfurt: 80'
• Flight from Frankfurt to Singapore: 12h
• Flight from Singapore to Manado: 3½h
• Taxi from Manado airport to Manado city: ½h.
• Boat transfer from Manado harbour to Bunaken: 25'
TimeN-Sulawesi time = Copenhagen summer time + 6 hours
WeatherAir temperature: 30°C. Often overcast with some downpours every couple of days. Water temperature: 28°C.
Currency1 USD = 9000 Rp (Indonesian Rupiah)
LanguageEnglish is spoken by some.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Singapore

It's a 45' ride from Murex Manado to the airport. Followed by a 3,5 hours flight to Singapore. The airport's left-luggage charges about 5 SGD/bag/day. Not cheap, but very convenient. The MRT to Bugis takes about half an hour or so. We've got 24h to shop, before continuing our journey back to reality.

After previously having tried trendy Japanese conveyor-belt sushi (3-6 SGD/plate) and popular food court Chinese noodles, we now choose for a no-nonsense dinner served on banana leaves in an Indian eatery (4,5 SGD).

From Little India to China Town only takes 5', thanks to Singapore's speedy MRT. Most of the smaller stores are closed on Sunday, but not the big shopping centers like Sim-Lim Square, Funan Digital-Life Mall or Raffles Shopping Arcade. In Singapore, to shop is to be. And with the bargains to be done here, it's hard to resist the urge to acquire a few things just to confirm your existence. In my case: Arena & Speedo swimming trunks (35 SGD/piece), 'Shadow divers' by Robert Kurson (20 SGD), 'An essential guide to digital underwater photography' by Michael Aw (25 SGD) and a pair of Merrel walking shoes (50 SGD). I managed not to buy an ultra-portable Sony Vaio laptop (3700 SGD) for writing my reports while on the go, a Suunto Mosquito dive computer (500 SGD) as back-up for my Vyper, and a lot of other things.

Before you know it, time's up, and you've got to head back. From City Hall to Changi airport, 45' by MRT (1,5 SGD).

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Murex dive resort outside Manado

While aboard the Liburan, a headline in a dive magazine jumped out at me: 'Betlehem, better than Lembeh'. Betlehem being pretty near to Manado, we decide to leave Bangka a day earlier, to check it out.

From Bangka we're first transferred to the mainland, stepping off the boat onto the black sand beach of a small fishermen's settlement. Our pick-up arrives soon afterwards and drives us to Murex's dive resort just outside of Manado. A long 1,5 hour ride, through the city's maze of lanes. Once there we're given a nice bungalow with a remarkable sense of privacy, thanks to lush vegetation and cascading water, creating a double wall of green & white noise.


The next day we're on our way to Betlehem. Hoping to see a rhinopia scorpionfish. But they're here no more. Still, it's an enjoyable muck dive with four seahorses, a weedy spider crab, some anemone crabs, several nudibranchs, a line of sharp looking razorfish and a school of small barracudas.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Murex dive resort on Bangka

On our way from Lembeh to Bangka, a pod of dolphins graces us with their presence, effortlessly riding the ship's bow wave, before veering off to go somersaulting in the stern waves. The crossing only takes a slow 2 hours, after which the Liburan drops us at Murex's small resort, where we accommodate ourselves in one of the spacious sea view bungalows. Our guide here is Kennedy, who does his best to keep all the tourists satisfied. The food's excellent and for once there's no noise disturbing the peace.

The diving here is mainly around pinnacles overgrown with soft corals or along sloping walls. Currents can be pretty strong depending on the tide. Making it totally impossible for me to photograph the tiniest seahorse I've ever seen. Actually, it being only a couple of mm tall, I can't even say I had a good look. Not a dive goes by without at least one frogfish being spotted. Considering they pretend not to be there for a living, it must seriously undermine their self-confidence to constantly be in the center of divers' attention.

Dedi had some problems with his ears, so I left my eardrops on the Liburan. Only to get hit a couple of days later by a double ear infection myself. Despite preventive action. Luckily some Dutch divers staying in the resort had some eardrops I could use. But I still had to stay dry for three long days. I guess there must have been something nasty in the water, because three other tourists also had ear problems during our stay on Bangka.


My favourite site here is actually located on the mainland. A 15' crossing from Bangka, Paradise Pier is first class muck diving with more critters per square meter than I've ever seen. The pier is heaven for all kinds of creatures, from refuge seeking juvenile batfish to hidden daemons waiting in ambush for innocent souls. Hot springs keep the water temperature comfortably warm. An ideal playground for photographers indeed. But beware where you put your hands!


A sea fan is home to several wonderful harlequin ghost pipefish. At some point four of them even posed together. With sunlight in their back they almost seem to have a halo. A beautifully colored frogfish, inspired maybe by the pipefish's typical head down position, tries hard to keep his precarious upside-down position between a sponge's arms. Among paradise's rubble you can find devil scorpionfish and false stonefish, moody cuttlefish and small seasnakes looking for some morsel. Nudibranchs are all over too, should you run out of usual subjects.


Surrounding the pier are three different habitats: seagrass, sandslope and coralreef. There I saw green pipefish, baby frogfish, small stingrays darting out of the sand, a whole colony of frantic hingebeak shrimps and even a hovering army of ghost shrimps...

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Liburan live-aboard in Lembeh strait

For 150000 Rp, Ron arranges a boat to bring us back to Manado, as there's no public crossings on Sundays. It's a rainy boat drive, together with some islanders going to the big city for some shopping. At the mooring quay, Mr Anky is waiting for us, and brings us to Bitung, N-Sulawesi's main harbour city and the Liburan's home base. A 1,5 hour drive. After settling the payment, we're then brought to the Liburan, a basic live-aboard that will be our floating home for the next week. The crew gives us a cordial welcome, taking care of everything as we settle in. Dive gear is set up immediately, as they fully expect us to go diving straight away. We don't object.


The Liburan can supposedly take up to eight passengers, besides a crew of at least six. However, as it happens to be, we're the only ones to have booked this trip. So we've got the whole ship for ourselves, and the full attention of the very friendly crew. A real luxury. Now, I can't imagine eight divers on this rather small ship, as even six would be crowded. The crew's the most professional I've ever seen in Indonesia, working together efficiently as a team, to make our stay as pleasant & comfortable as possible. Rudi, the German owner, isn't there, but Ferry, the captain, and Dedi, the dive guide, make sure everything goes smoothly.


After lunch and a small siesta, we're ready for our first dive. The site: Aer Prang. 70' later we surface, after having seen a small blue-ringed* octopus, a rare golden-orange* giant mantis shrimp, a fingered dragonet, a big stone fish dug out of the sand by Dedi, a seahorse, a black crinoid squat* lobster and various nudibranchs. Without a doubt one of the most fantastic intro dives I've ever had. Now this is what I call muck diving extraordinaire! Am I glad I just acquired a digital UW camera, allowing me to shoot and shoot without concern of running out of film.


Lembeh strait is not that long actually, and there's absolutely no need to be on a live-aboard. All the dive sites are within a short boat ride of the resorts here. But make sure that they have a 'maximum 4 divers per guide' policy. Especially if you're into photography. In our case it couldn't have been more perfect, with Dedi as our personal guide. For a trip like this to be successful, the guide's the one who has to deliver. He's got to find the critters. Knowing where to look is one thing, seeing is another. Especially in Lembeh, where what you see is not always what it seems. On the strait's mainland side, the sloping bottom mainly consists of black lava sand. Here's where incredible critters roam and hide in full sight. Pretending to be sponges, weed or sand. You could spend a whole dive without seeing any of them but for the guide's gift of detection.

I spent about 3,5 hours underwater every day, doing 18 dives in all, seeing at least one (for me) new critter on 14 of those. I've marked them with an * in this report. It's truly amazing actually. Normally I'm happy to see just one new creature on a whole trip.


After our wonderful first dive, Dedi kept us thrilled with more of nature's amazing creatures: Giant, painted, warty, hispid* & white-striped hairy* frogfish; a yellow* shortfin lionfish; devil, leaf & ambon* scorpionfish; false, reef & estuary* stonefish; cockatoo & longspine* waspfish; velvetfish*; pink & yellow* pygmy seahorses; various kinds of hippocampus; a winged* pipefish and two robust* ghost pipefish; a pair of scrambling seamoths; a mimic* octopus quickly floundering into its hideout in the sand; cuttlefish; blue, black & yellow ribbon eels, snake eels and several moray eels; longnose*, bubble-coral, cleaner, anemone, emperor & mantis shrimp; hermit, box, boxer, anemone, decorator, whip coral & soft coral crabs; tiny pink squat* lobsters on a sponge; cockatoo* flounder; flying gurnard; mandarinfish* romancing at dusk; coral & banggai cardinalfish; a small bamboo* shark; stingrays; tiger & egg cowries; electric* clams; lots of nudibranchs and a polyclad flatworm.


This list is by no means complete, but it should give you an idea. Besides being a magnet for critters, the strait's sandy slopes are also a kindergarden for various fish species. One thing we did not see, is the rhinopia scorpionfish. Next time maybe.

On the Lembeh island side of the strait, corals are more abundant, with plenty of soft corals and sponges, should you get bored with the black sand. There's even a wreck or two.

Sunday, July 3, 2005

M.C. homestay & dive center on Bunaken

As agreed beforehand, Ron, the Dutch manager of M.C. DiveBunaken picks us up behind the Celebes hotel at 10am, for a free 25' boat ride to his homestay on Bunaken, right beside the village, facing mainland Sulawesi. At 9 Euro pp/night, including three meals, it's a bargain. The food is excellent. Even though we had fish and rice twice a day, for most of the week, I never got tired of it. Coffee, tea and water are free of charge. With even a big 19l water bottle in the bungalow for our convenience.


The bungalows are basic, with an Indonesian style mandi and a small terrace. They're a bit too dark for my taste, but OK. All the front row bungalows are being renovated at the moment. There's no power during the day, but at night the homestay is connected to the village's generator. The village's proximity is a bit of a nuisance due to the noise from the public addressing system in the evenings and mornings. Imagine a woman rallying people to donate for a new church or house for the priest, every evening, again & again. And religious pop songs at 5am... Interesting local customs indeed.

Two boat dives cost 35 Euro (including, I think, equipment). There's a 7 nights (room+meals), 10 boat dives and 1 night dive package for 210 Euro. Visitors must pay a 150000 Rp Marine Park fee, valid for one calendar year. Jimmy, one of the two dive guides, is friendly, but doesn't speak much English.


The wall dives around Bunaken are relaxed and nice, with quite a few soft corals and big barrel sponges. Fish life is abundant especially at reef corners, but don't expect anything bigger than an occasional napoleon or a turtle. With a bit of luck though, you might spot an eagle ray passing by or a reef shark down below. And if you're really really lucky, as was a Vietnamese girl during our stay here, a juvenile whale shark might cruise in from the blue for a closer look!


The wreck between Manado and Bunaken is definitely worth a dive. Especially for wide-angle photography. With a maximum depth of about 39m, it's a bit deep, but it allows some nice swim throughs.

Saturday, July 2, 2005

Manado

Only a short flight away from Singapore, but a whole other world. There are no trolleys in the arrival hall. Besides it being only a short stroll to the outside, they would cause too many jobless porters. After having checked our options, we take a taxi, for 50000 Rp, from the airport to the Celebes Hotel, a slow 30' minute ride due to some traffic jam.

The Celebes is perfectly located close to the harbour, right where the small boats moor and depart for Bunaken. The basic room, at 50000 Rp for two, including undrinkable coffee and a toast for breakfast, is just four walls around a bed, but we don't need more. It's just for one transit night anyway.

Having nothing else to do, we walk around town. Checking out some supermarkets & malls. They're quite something actually. Besides the AC being rather chilly when entering from the sweaty streets, you almost get blasted off your feet by the noise level of the public announcements and music. I mean, it's just impossible to think, let alone talk, while in there. But Indonesians seem to like it. The louder the better.

A Coca-Cola can costs about 3000 Rp, as does a 1,5l bottle of water. You can get a basic meal in a street side eatery for 6000 Rp.

Friday, July 1, 2005

Sea&Sea DX8000G underwater camera

Though branded as a Sea&Sea underwater camera, it's actually an eight megapixels Ricoh Caplio GX8 digital compact camera in a polycarbonate Sea&Sea underwater housing.

At time of purchase, this camera was the best solution considering my requirements: a very compact underwater set-up both with wide angle and macro capability, at least 5MP, no shutter-lag to worry about, a maximum depth rating greater than 40m and an affordable price tag.


Sea&Sea's housing perfectly envelops Ricoh's GX8 compact camera, and allows easy access to all its functions.

Very compact package. I want to be able to take the camera into caves & inside wrecks, so the smaller it is, the better. Besides, with my dive gear already taking up most of my travel weight allowance, I just can't afford an extra case with bulky camera equipment. Another advantage is that the DX8000G's small size allows for some great shot angles from 'dirt'-level.

The 0.6x wide angle conversion lens, which can be put on or taken off underwater, turns the already wide 28mm* into a very wide 17mm* lens (* focal lengths are 35mm film camera equivalents). Perfect for pictures of large subjects - when they dare come close, underwater sceneries or wrecks.

Zoom range. With a 3x optical zoom lens going from 28mm* wide angle to 85mm* portrait, I can take both diver pictures (without having to back off too far) and super-macro shots of pretty tiny subjects (as close as 1cm with wide angle or 10cm with tele lens).

Zooming badly affects image quality, making it quasi useless.

Maximum depth rating of -55m.

Auto-focus. What a great feature after the manual guessing with Sea&Sea's analogue Motor Marine II EX.

The camera does have some trouble auto-focussing in low light low contrast situations. There is however also a manual-focus option, but I haven't bothered yet to try it out.

Lacking optical image stabilization, a.k.a. anti-shake, it's hard, though not impossible, to get sharp pictures in super-macro mode due to hand shake, body movement or restless subjects. You really need to be able to stabilize yourself (e.g. with a stick). Plenty of light of course helps too.

Instant feedback! Allowing for corrective measures on the spot when necessary.

Rather small 1.8" LCD.

MMC or SD memory cards up to 1GB. I kind of like the fact that I can use these multi-purpose memory card formats, in stead of the more brand specific ones like xD, compact flash, memory stick, etc. I use Sandisk SD Ultra II (512MB) & Extreme III (1GB) cards, good for about 150 & 300 photos respectively, in JPEG format at maximum resolution (3264x2448 pixels).

Internal memory of only 26MB. A joke really. But as far as I know, this is the case with most digital cameras, e.g. none really have any useful internal memory.

Almost unlimited number of exposures, with adequate memory-card & fully loaded batteries. No longer limited to 36 film exposures, this gives me the freedom to try again and again with various settings & angles, allowing me to experiment & try things out (without it costing anything).

Image quality is arguably not quite the same as with film cameras. The original JPEGs often have a certain flatness, missing the vibrant quality & depth of celluloid. However, with adequate editing software a lot can be done :o)

→ underwater snapshots taken while shark diving in the Bahamas

Rather poor low-light performance. Due to the small 1/1.8" CCD sensor, using ISO values above 100 immediately results in very grainy images.

While it's really great to be able to take AVI video-clips at 30fps, the maximum resolution of only 320x240 pixels is sub-standard.

Lighting issue: I did not buy an external strobe for this camera, because I don't like the fiber-optic cable slave-mode solution. In my opinion, it drains camera batteries for nothing besides slowing down the camera too much - as it takes several seconds to reload the built-in flash, during which the camera is out-of-action. In stead I've tried to use my dive torches:

Green Force's TriStar Diamond (less than 30W halogen equivalent), with its three little LEDs, doesn't quite come close to providing the necessary light for macro shots, but using it may help afterwards during post-processing to restore some of the reds.

TillyTec's HID 35 (125W halogen equivalent) with flood reflector, in conjunction with TillyTec's LED 1000 (100W halogen equivalent) with diffuser, provided just enough light for an underwater video project in Mexico's cenotes. In the total darkness of the fresh water caves, photography however still wasn't practically feasible with this camera.

Battery type: Two universally available AA cells (alkaline or rechargeable), custom-made high capacity rechargeable battery or AC adapter. So far I've used:

Rechargeable AA NiMH cells from Sanyo (1.2 V, 2300 & 2500 mAh). While kind of satisfied with their performance (good for about 100 shots w/o flash), they completely self-discharge within a week and totally give up after about a year's moderate usage.

+ Rechargeable AA NiMH cells from Ansmann (1.2 V, max-e 2100 mAh). These provide enough power for my camera to be almost always on, even on 2h long dives! Remarkably better than my supposedly more powerful, but unreliable, self-draining Sanyo cells.

Battery indicator: Consisting of only 3 rather imprecise levels (3/3, 2/3 & 1/3), the battery indicator isn't of much use, except as a very rough & unreliable estimate.

Singapore

Singapore's hot & humid. 6 hours ahead of Copenhagen. 1 USD = 1,6 SGD. 1 Euro = 2 SGD. It's probably the cleanest city in the world. And Singapore's pretty efficient mass rapid transportation system, MRT for short, brings you anywhere in no time. Especially with an EZ-link card, getting in & out of the subway is a breeze. Or you can walk. The center's not that big actually.

If you need to find a specific road, street or bridge, check out this pretty cool city map of Singapore. Good old unfoldable city maps are available for free in the airport (among other places) and pretty handy once you're out on the street trying to find a particular place, be it a street, mall or subway station. Street names are well-posted at each intersection to help you around.

We're staying at a backpackers place called the Inn Crowd. They've got mainly dorm beds, but also some double rooms at 48 SGD/night, including basic make-it-yourself breakfast. It's located in Bugis, Little India, close to Sim-Lim Square, a big shopping mall full of all kinds of electronics.

However, the Adelphi's my primary target, as that's where Singapore's Sea&Sea dealer is housed. And I'm lucky. The DX8000G, Sea&Sea's latest UW digital compact camera, has just arrived. Replacing the less than a year old DX5000G. It being brand new, I can't get a special discount, but the promotional price is a pretty good deal. And I do get 3% off for paying cash. After that I can relax. I got what I came for. Besides the camera & housing, I also bought a 0.6x Wide Angle Lens, rechargeable batteries, and a couple of SanDisk Ultra II 512MB SD memory cards (90 SGD/piece).

A Coca-Cola can costs about 1,2 SGD, as does a 1,5l bottle of water. You can have a nice meal for 5-10 SGD.