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.

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