What can you say about a diving locale that offers 84ļ water, 100í+ visibility, nearly-vertical walls, healthy corals, and unusual creatures? The only rational response is, "How soon can we go back again?"

The short story is that we had a wonderful time diving in the NE Sulawesi Strait during our visit last month to Murex Dive resort ( in Manado, Indonesia, and saw many unusual and interesting creatures. The long story (with just a bit more detail) follows.

Getting there is an adventure in and of itself. We flew Singapore Airlines (gotta be our #1 favorite airline) from LA to Tokyo (12 hours) and then on to Singapore (7 hours). We spent a short evening in Singapore (and cannot do anything but sing praises for the Transit Hotel in Terminal 2 - great place to catch a few hours sleep and just one more reason why the Singapore Airport has to be one of the best in the world) and then picked up a Silk Air flight directly into Manado (3 more hours).

A quick travel tip for those of you who will be doing trans-Pacific or trans-Atlantic flights on a 747. The standard coach seat configuration is 3/4/3. But because the planeís fuselage tapers towards the tail, the last few rows (61-64 on Singapore Airlines) are set up as 2/4/2, with some extra space between the window seat and the window, handy for storing books and things, or just for stretching out and going to sleep on the floor if you like. In our opinion, these are the seats of choice for this type of a long flight. On top of that, youíre near the bathrooms and you also get fed first. (Special thanks to Reef Seekers diver Bill Driscoll, a Singapore employee, for helping us get those seats.)

We were met at the Manado Airport (what a zoo!!!) by the Murex staff and loaded up (with baggage of course) for the one-hour drive to the resort. Itís not that the resort is all that far from the airport (Murex is SW of the main part of town), but that the traffic in Manado moves so slowly it just takes a while to get there.

The Murex Resort is lovely. Itís set in a lush tropical setting with 20 guest rooms. Some of the rooms overlook a small lagoon and some are set back in the brush overlooking a small stream. All the rooms are air-conditioned and have their own private bathroom and shower. Single supplements are sometimes available and three of our group took advantage of that. Otherwise itís two to a room.

Meals are taken in the dining area which is a short walk from the rooms and just a few steps off the beach. Everything is served family style with plenty of rice, and a choice of chicken, fish, and pork along with vegetables. The food was consistently very good. (You actually only eat breakfast and dinner in the dining room since lunches are typically served on the boat between dives two and three.)

We also should throw in some quick words of praise for the Murex staff. They couldnít have been more helpful. From the diving staff to the boat crew to the kitchen cooks to the housekeepers, they seemed very attuned to doing whatever they could to make our stay pleasant and enjoyable.

The diving was also very good and very easy (our favorite kind). Most of our dives were in Bunaken Marine Park, about a one-hour boat ride out from the resort. Each morning, the boat crew would load all of our gear (you keep everything in a large plastic crate) for us and then weíd all climb aboard. The boats are about 50í long and 10í wide and offer ample space for everyone (we had 11 divers plus 2 divemasters and 3 boat crew). There are padded seats, plenty of shade, water and drinks on board, and room enough for cameras as well. Itís certainly not luxurious, but quite comfortable and adequate for the type of diving we were doing.

Entries are done either with a back-roll or front-roll off the side, or a giant stride off the bow area. Or you can just jump in with your fins in hand and put them on in the water. After the dive, a ladder is hung over the side, you remove your weights and tank in the water (and hand them up), and then climb aboard.

The only inconvenience was in boarding the boat from the resort. Since Murex doesnít have a dock, you have to wade out into knee-deep water to get on board. Itís a minor inconvenience and since most everyone was riding over in bathing suits and lycras, not that big a deal.

A larger inconvenience was the fact that the head on the boat wasnít working. And while you can make the argument that (1) itís a Third World country, and (2) itís no big deal to plop overboard to do, as we came to call them, a "prop check," you can make a similar argument that for a resort to go after an admittedly pampered American diving market and to be considered top-rate, getting the head to work on the boat should be a priority. (I talked with another group leader whoíd been there the previous year when the head on this same boat wasnít working so my impression was that this wasnít a recent occurrence nor high on the list of things to get fixed.) But we didnít let the lack of facilities mar our enthusiasm for the diving.

In a word, it was . . . magnificent. Bunaken Marine Park comprises five islands and although we mainly dove around Bunaken Island, we also dove Manado Tua, a dormant volcano that borders Bunaken to the west, and Siladen, another island that borders Bunaken to the east. No matter where we dove, we were not disappointed.

Simply put, this area of the world offers a type of marine biodiversity thatís hard to match elsewhere. Of the 8 species of giant clam that occur in the world, 7 are found at Bunaken. There are 70 genera of coral (Hawaii has 10) and over 2500 species of fish. (By the end of the trip, Di Krall had recorded 79 species of fish or coral that she personally had never seen before.) Actually there are so many new species that itís hard to keep track and easy to miss something because itís all so visually overwhelming.

Perhaps the one thing most impressive to us was the sheer verticalness (if thatís even a word) of the walls. They pretty much start around 15-30í and just plummet straight down to over 100í, and in some cases over 200í. Because the walls are so steep, it also means that the currents flow pretty much unimpeded parallel to the walls, making for very easy drift diving over most of Bunaken. (Put your compass away and let the current take you where it will. The boat follows and picks you up when you surface.)

The walls are covered with both hard and soft corals. Enormous barrel sponges, huge sea fans, wire corals, tube sponges, black coral, brain coral, and numerous table corals were just a few of the species making up the reefs.

And every now and then, a glance out into the blue would be rewarded with sighting of sharks (white-tip and black-tip), schools of chevron barracuda, Napoleon wrasses (male and female), enormous strings of fusiliers that seemed never to end, turtles, and more.

One thing we noticed was that, even though the walls were spectacular, the really active fish life occurred towards the top of the reef. So our typical dive profile (we were asked to limit our daily depths to 100í for dive #1, 75í for dive #2, and 60í for dive #3 with a one-hour maximum bottom time for each of the dives) would be to cruise the wall for a while and gradually work our way shallower until we got into the really active fish parade occurring in the shallower portions of the reef.

On the top of the reef, we encountered many gobies (some sharing burrows with tiny shrimp), garden eels, lionfish, stonefish, anthias, Moorish idols, pufferfish, boxfish, sweetlips of all varieties, and many, many more. It was just a cornucopia of fish species. (And makes you appreciate what an impossible task it is to see every one of the 2500+ species of fish.)

Much as we enjoyed each of our days at Bunaken, perhaps one of the most impressive days of diving was around the corner when we visited the Lembeh Straits. Itís a 2-hour drive through Manado and across the top of Sulawesi to get there, but well worth the time. The waters of the Lembeh Straits probably are home to more unique creatures than any other body of water in the world.

Diving Lembeh is whatís known locally as "muck" diving. You wonít get the crystal-clear waters to be found at Bunaken. Generally, the vis for us ranged from 15-40í and the water temperature was just slightly cooler at 82ļ. But what a magnificent array of creatures we saw.

Lembeh is perhaps best known for being home to pygmy seahorses. As the name implies, theyíre small. However, I hadnít realized that theyíd only be 1/8" - 1/4" tall. (Thank goodness for macro lenses!!) And they look more like the seafans they live on than the seafans themselves do. In other words, this is a perfectly camouflaged creature that youíll probably never spot without the aid of an experienced dive guide (and a magnifying glass). In fact the story of their discovery is that someone took a picture of a seafan and when they were looking at the shot, noticed something else in the picture, and then went back to the same seafan to see what the heck this tiny thing was.

Lembeh also has more flatworms and nudibranchs than Iíve ever seen in one place in my life. You could spend the entire dive just observing and photographing those animals. And the colors were truly psychedelic. Yellow, green, blue, pink, purple, orange . . . you name it.

In addition, we saw crocodile fish, a flying gunnard, ribbon eels (both blue and black), Pegasus scorpionfish, many species of lionfish, many other species of scorpionfish, cuttlefish, mantis shrimp, pipefish, porcelain crabs, frogfish, and many more. It was the type of diving that, as a photographer, youíre acutely aware of the limitation that having only 36 shots on a roll of film imposes.

All in all, we did 21 dives the whole time we were there (including three night dives). Each dive was unique and offered us something new to see. The Murex staff was very knowledgeable and Bernard and Adry (our two divemasters) proved themselves extremely adept at finding the hard-to-spot creatures and making sure that everyone got a chance to see them.

The diving that we enjoyed at Bunaken represents the reasons people get involved with this sport in the first place - clear blue water (warm, too), healthy corals, tons of fish, and plenty to see. And for the more experienced diver, Bunaken offered a visual delight but Lembeh offered itself up as Critter Capital of Indonesia.

Would we go again? Absolutely. (In fact, a couple of people have already asked about a return trip.) The only changes we might make would be to extend the stay to add another day or two of diving some of the more remote islands that we didnít get to, and to probably add an extra day on the Singapore stopover on the way back. Singaporeís a really neat city to explore and we could have used at least another 24 hours.

Overall, a fabulous experience and one weíd recommend highly to others. Itís a lot of travel time to get there, but itíll be time well invested for what youíll see in return.

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