I have been called many names in my life (some not reprintable here) but perhaps the sweetest sound Iíve heard lately is the cry of "Opa Gila!!!" that emanated from the lips of the Murex staff when we arrived for our return visit to explore the waters of the Sulawesi area.

Opa Gila was a nickname Iíd acquired last year on our first visit to Murex. And while it has a lyrical sound to it, "Opa" is an Indonesian term for a respected male elder (the female equivalent is Oma) and "Gila" means "crazy" so basically theyíve taken to calling me "Crazy Old Man." But it sounds cool, seems to fit my personality, and they all seem to enjoy shouting it out as much as I enjoyed hearing it, so what the hell. But Iím jumping ahead.

Our group this year consisted of Tom & Bobbie Beuthin, Leon Slavin, and Marilyn Lawrence (all four veterans of last yearís trip) as well as Rob Szymanski, Elaine Bern, and Elisabeth Sykes.

Unfortunately, one of the problems with getting to some of the really spectacular diving locations in the world (ands this area CERTAINLY qualifies) is that it takes forever to get there. Our routing took us from LAX through Tokyo to Singapore, overnight in Singapore, and then directly into Manado.

Once again we flew Singapore Airlines and once again we were absolutely thrilled with the service, quality of food, and everything about the trip. Singapore Airlines is generally rated the #1 airline in international surveys and itís easy to see why. Basically, they do whatever they can to make your journey pleasant.

And Changi International Airport in Singapore is truly also one of our favorites. First off, theyíve got the fabulous Transit Hotel, a godsend to travelers like us who have a layover long enough to want to go to sleep but not long enough to really need to go to a hotel in the city. In our case, we had about nine hours and were able to check into the Transit Hotel which inside the international terminal (so you donít have to clear customs and immigration). The hotel rents rooms in 6-9 hour blocks and is designed to move people in and out quickly. So we were able to get a reasonable nightís sleep and have a nice shower in the morning to boot.

The Changi Airport itself is a marvel. Whoever designed it realized that international travelers would have time to kill and money to spend so itís designed with travelerís needs and comforts in mind. In addition to restaurants, television kiosks, a movie theater, and a cyber-cafe, there are tons of stores in which to go shopping. Itís almost as if you took the Beverly Center and Century City, combined them, and allowed planes to land in the parking lot.

Itís a 3-hour flight from Singapore to Manado and in the year since we were there, they opened a new wing to the international terminal which is a tremendous improvement over the chaos of last year. This year, we arrived in a sleek, modern, air-conditioned building, and were met outside by representatives from Murex. We loaded our baggage into one truck, put ourselves in two other vehicles, and arrived at Murex an hour later.

A quick word on the Indonesian political situation. We simply didnít see any unrest the entire time we were there. Now perhaps our situation was unique (Manado and Sulawesi have been spared the religious and political troubles that other parts of Indonesia have experienced). And thereís no telling what might happen when/if President Wahid is removed from office. But we didnít experience anything. However, if youíre planning an Indonesian trip in the future (1) buy travel insurance, and (2) check out the up-to-date situation with knowledgeable and reliable sources before you depart.

In a word, Murex is . . . delightful. Itís right on the water, amongst lush foliage, and is just a lovely place to spend a week. And because weíd been there before, we were able to secure what we thought were the "best" rooms from the twenty that make up the resort. (Bobbie & Tom probably had the best deal as they got a room that was really a cabin unto itself, with a brook running along one side and open space on the other side.) All the rooms are air-conditioned, have bathrooms en suite, and offer a front porch thatís wonderful for hanging out and socializing.

Thereís also a large wooden patio just off the waterís edge with four or five tables and chairs that became our morning ritual. Weíd usually meet around 6AM, grab some coffee and tea, and just sit around and watch the sun come up, hunt for shells along the beach, compare notes on the previous dayís dives, talk about the upcoming dives, and just generally chill out until breakfast was ready around 7AM.

Meals at Murex were again tasty and food was plentiful. Since lunch is served on the boats, you only have breakfast and dinner in the Murex dining area. Breakfast generally consisted of a selection of fruits, toast, pancakes, eggs, cereal, and other goodies, while dinners ran the gamut with combinations of chicken, pork, fish, rice, veggies, and all kinds of goodies. All meals are served buffet style so you just grab a plate, get what you want, and chow down.

Our general plan was for three dives a day, which meant departing no later than 9AM (so weíd be back by 5PM) and traveling for about an hour to Bunaken (pronounced "boo-NA-ken") Marine Park. Although the Park consists of five islands, the places we dove were Bunaken, Manado Tua (a dormant volcano), and Siladen (an island adjacent to Bunaken). The only restrictions (not strictly enforced) were to limit depths to 100í on the first dive, 75í on the second dive, and 60í on the third dive, and to make total bottom times on each dive no longer than an hour. Surface intervals generally were 60-90 minutes.

(TEACHING NOTE: For those of you who donít yet own a dive computer, try running those profiles on any commonly-used dive table and youíll see why we say that, because they compute your diving continuously on a multiple-level basis, computers can help you safely extend your bottom time and, from the perspective of a diving vacation, help you get more bang for your buck.)

The diving at Bunaken ranged from very good to spectacular. To say this is one of the worldís premiere areas to dive probably doesnít do it justice. Conditions werenít quite as good as we had last year, but we generally had anywhere from 80-100í+ visibility, and water temperatures around 84ļ so itís not like there was anything to complain about.

Once again, we marveled at the proliferation of life that abounds along the vertical walls of Bunaken. Because of the underwater topography, thereís generally a current flowing (ranging anywhere from almost non-existent to running pretty good, but always manageable) which means you get very healthy corals, LOTS of soft corals and other invertebrates that depend on a current to bring them food, and pelagics (sharks, turtles, rays, barracuda) cruising just off the wall.

For those who like clownfish (Elaine Bernís favorite), itís like you died and went to clownfish heaven. The species we saw included Pink, Skunk, False (in my opinion, the prettiest one), Clarkís, Tomato, Spinecheek (two varieties), Black, Orange-fin, and a black-and-white one I havenít yet identified. Of course, these guys are inhabiting a variety of species of anemones so youíve got that as an added bonus.

Speaking of fish (and just to put in a small commercial), if youíre heading west of California you MUST pick up a copy of "Indo-Pacific Coral Reef Guide" by Allen & Steene (Reef Saver price is $35.96). The book is 378 pages of incredible information and photos. Best of all, it covers not just fish but also includes plants, sponges, jellies, crustaceans, nudibranchs, corals, worms, shells, sea stars, turtles, birds, and mammals. Itís an invaluable reference tool and my copy has gotten such a workout that Iím probably going to need to replace it soon.

Back to the diving.

We were always impressed by the health of the corals along the walls. Big sea fans (usually with crinoids perched on their tips), tons of sponges and other filterers (the pastel-colored lightbulb tunicates are always a joy to behold), a good amount of what Iím pretty sure was black coral, lots of whip and spiral coral, and a lot of organ pipe coral, which is made up of hundreds of individual flower-like tips, all pulsing/opening/closing with a rhythm only Mother Nature could design.

As we worked our way up the reef to the shoulder of the wall (usually in 20-30í of water), youíd lose the lushness of the vertical wall, and start to pick up more of a rubble-strewn bottom, but one that was loaded with smaller animals such as fire gobies, ribbon eels (both black and blue), cleaner shrimp, porcelain crabs, anthias in multiple species and by the tens of thousands, and all the other assorted animals that make up the shallow reef community.

It was up in these shallower areas that we also encountered a number of large male Napoleon (sometimes called Maori) wrasses, usually getting cleaned. On a couple of occasions, we would see schools of trevallies or jacks coming through looking for an easy meal, and one time I spotted a Giant Trevally (3-4í long) cruising the shallows.

In addition to all of these, we frequently spotted many damselfish, various species of wrasse, butterflyfish, angelfish (the Yellowmasked Angel gets my vote as the prettiest fish on the reef), cardinalfish, groupers, parrotfish (including a huge school of marauding Bumphead parrots), surgeonfish, blennies, and gobies.

Without question, the most spectacular dive of the trip came just off of Bangka Island at a spot called Sahong (at least, I think thatís how itís spelled). Bangka is located at the northern tip of Sulawesi and is about a 2-hour boat ride away. But the diving is certainly worth the journey.

At first glance, Sahong appears to be nothing more than a rock breaking the surface of the water. Big deal. But once you submerge, your eyes are rewarded with the most incredible array of soft corals that I have ever seen in my life. Not only is there a profusion of life, but these corals come in an amazing combination of colors, some shades of which Iíve never seen underwater. Itís almost as if you took an artist like Monet, certified him, took him on a dive, and then said, "Paint for me what you saw." Yellow, red, pink, orange, white, orange bodies with yellow tips, pink bodies with red tips, purple, and even blue. It was simply breathtaking (a bad word to use in conjunction with diving but we mean it in the best sense here.) If you get to the Sulawesi area, this is a dive you MUST do.

The other must-do dive involved an overland trip (about a 90-minute drive) to the town of Bitung, our gateway to the Lembeh Straits. (The spectacle of the Bitung Harbor alone is worth the journey.) Among many beautiful and rare creatures, Lembeh is also home to Pygmy seahorses, which were high on my personal photographic list.

Now realize that the Pygmy seahorse is only 1/4" or so tall (thatís not a misprint) so theyíre REALLY tough to spot. Fortunately, theyíre fairly territorial, so they donít go far. But to say they present a photographic challenge is an understatement. So I loaded up my N90s with the 105mm macro lens and placed a +4 close-up on top of that and was very relieved when our guide pointed out one seafan with three animals and another with six of them. Although these animals definitely look more like the seafans they live on than the seafans themselves do, everyone got as good a look as possible (the guides also carry magnifying glasses with them to give guests a better view). I took advantage of an especially co-operative little guy (and was able to spend 25 minutes with him) to get the shots those of you who get the e-mail version of this will see on the back page.

But Lembeh is truly an amazing place and for those who donít mind muck-diving (lower vis - perhaps 20-30í - and cooler water - around 82ļ). Itís a critter-hunterís paradise. Over the course of just three dives, we saw the aforementioned Pygmy seahorses, normal-sized Spotted seahorses (a couple of dozen of them), banded and ringed pipefish, Devil scorpionfish (which we took to calling Chicken Leg scorpionfish because of the little leg-like protrusions that stick out from under the fish and help them walk around the bottom), Dwarf lionfish, Zebra lionfish, Striped puffers, Tasseled filefish, frogfish, Bristle worms, stonefish, Cockatoo waspfish, Flying Gunnards, Emperor shrimp, Mantis shrimp, transparent Anemone shrimp, Crocodile snake eels, numerous reef crabs, and various nudibranchs (but not as many as last year because we spent more time on sandy bottoms this year). And remember, this was all done is just three dives over the course of one day.

Now lest you get the impression that ever aspect of the trip was hunky-dory, there was one major disappointment.

Anytime I go on a trip, Iíve always got in my head a list of creatures Iíd like to see and photograph. This year the list included doing a better job than I did last year on the Pygmy seahorse and getting a blue ribbon eel (which I did). I also wanted to see and photograph a ghost pipefish, an animal that is free-swimming but which looks like a branch of coral, and who is frequently "discovered" hiding amongst the corals.

Towards the end of one of the dives, one of our guides, Bernard, excitedly motioned me over to a small coral. And there, hanging underneath in the semi-shadow, almost posing and saying, "Take my picture," was a Harlequin ghost pipefish. I looked at Bernard in anguish because . . . I had just shot my last frame and was out of film!!! But, I did get to take a good look at the little guy through the magnifying glass I always carry with me, and it just gives me one more reason to go back again.

We were able to do 20 dives over the course of our week there (including a really nice night dive). On the way back from Manado, we spent a full day in Singapore and had a grand time exploring this fascinating international city and were able to do a city tour, river cruise, explore their aquarium, and went to the zoo for the Night Safari, as well as downing a few Singapore Slings at Raffles.

All in all, it was another fabulous trip that offered us excellent diving, marvelous creatures, superb attention and service from all of the Murex staff, and memories that will form the basis for many stories that the trip participants will bombard you with. Would we go again? Absolutely. And if thereís enough interest, weíll set the thing up again for the same time frame next year. So if youíre interested, be sure to give us a call.

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