SULAWESI, INDONESIA - September, 2008

(Click here to see the pictures from this trip.)

I am never diving Indonesia again.

It’s simply too much work. First of all, there are tons of animals to see so you’ve got to figure out what all the “mystery” species are that you’re seeing. Secondly, a trip to the Lembeh Straits will show you a lot of weird and unusual creatures that are likely on your “I-wanna-see-list” depriving you of something to look forward to on future dives. Thirdly, each dive has one or two amazing things you’ll see which means you’ve got to talk with your fellow divers about the great dive you just had and that’s just too much social pressure. Fourthly, the Indonesian people are really nice and helpful which means YOU’VE got to be relaxed and friendly and who needs that? And finally, with pristine vertical walls, good-to-great visibility, tons of fish and non-fish life, you’ll likely have a good time on every dive depriving you of chances to complain about the crappy time you’ve having and how can anyone possibly be happy if you can’t complain of being miserable???

Or maybe not . . .

Hopefully you know me well enough to understand that the previous is all written with tongue firmly in my cheek. I LOVE diving Indonesia, specially in the Sulawesi area and more specifically with our good friends at Murex Dive Resort. In fact, this year was one of our best ever in terms of the variety of creatures that we saw along with the diving conditions. We had a nice “compact” group this year consisting of six people: Cecilia Alleguez, Tamar Toister, Marilyn Lawrence, Elisabeth Sykes, Laurie Kasper, and myself.

Getting to Sulawesi (Manado is the name of the city - Sulawesi is the name of the region) isn’t all that bad, at least not as long trans-Pacific flights go. Total time in the air is close to 20 hours but the flights are broken up as LA-Tokyo (just under 11 hours), Tokyo-Singapore (6 hours, plus an 8-hour layover), and then Singapore-Manado (a little over 3 hours). We flew Singapore Airlines to Singapore and then Silk Air into Manado.

A couple of things to know about the flying portions if you’ll be doing this trip in the future.

First of all, Singapore Airlines is still the best airline I’ve ever flown. They treat you nicely, feed you all the time, there’s an in-seat entertainment center so you can watch whatever you want whenever you want, and they do everything they can to make a long flight comfortable.

Assuming you’re flying coach, the hot ticket is to get in rows 61-64, seats A/C or H/K. The normal configuration of the plane is 3/5/3 but because the fuselage narrows at the back, the seats there are 2/4/2. This gives you a bit more room to place things on the floor or even stretch out a bit and there’s an area behind row 64 that’s good for standing to stretch out legs and get the blood flowing. Plus the bathrooms are in the back. Singapore does meal service back-to-front so you get fed first, too. There are only 8 of these seats so you may have to finagle to get them.

Airlines are making a lot of noise these days about bag size and weight as well as enforcing carry-on restrictions and I was a bit concerned about what we’d find when we checked in. They definitely are weighing every bag and if you are an ounce over the weight limit (2 bags @ 50 pounds each) they’re either going to have you remove something from the bag or charge you.

Although they’ve stated in their news releases and to me on the phone that they’d be weighing carry-ons as well (15-pound limit - hell, my rollerboard bag weighs 10 pounds when empty . . .), that wasn’t an issue leaving from LAX. However, the Silk Air folks in Singapore did squabble when we checked in for the final flight and told me that my rollerboard was too big for the overhead. I protested and told them it not only fit in the overhead but that it contained camera gear and I didn’t want to part with it. They insisted. I protested. Then they said (pointing to my smaller red “personal” bag), “Then check that one.” How checking a smaller bag made my too-big bag suddenly acceptable sizewise is beyond me but I relented. (And - of course - there was PLENTY of empty space in the overhead storage compartments.) But the gate-checked bag arrived safely as did the rest of our stuff.

During our 8-hour layover in Singapore (arrived at 1AM and left at 9AM), we were able to take advantage of one of the three Ambassador Transit Hotels located within the airport proper. This means that after landing, you don’t need to clear Customs or leave the secure area of the airport. You go from your gate to the hotel and go to sleep. Rooms can be booked in a 6-hour block with a three 1-hour extensions so the max time you can stay is 9 hours.

While the rooms are affordable (less than $100) they are not commissionable to travel agents. If you’re booking your trip through an agency, they may not tell you about the Transit Hotel or may try to book you into an airport or off-site hotel because they’ll make a little money that way. So you may need to either specifically request your travel person to book this or just book it yourself on-line (http://www.airport-hotel.com.sg/).

Once in Manado, the Murex staff was there to greet us, grab our bags and load us (and the luggage) up for the hour ride to Murex. It’s not that Murex is all that far from the airport (you go from the NE part of the city to the SW) but the traffic is such that it just takes a while.

Murex has made some improvements since our last visit there in 2005 (not that we had any major complaints back then). They’ve knocked down a couple of buildings and put up new ones (slightly larger rooms), they’ve added a camera room just off of the dive shop, and they put in an infinity pool with a great view of the sunset each evening.

Good news: Murex’s prices haven’t changed much since our last visit three years ago. Bad news: The prices are now in Euros instead of dollars. Given the current exchange rate, that effectively means a 50% increase over what we paid in 2005. It’s still quite affordable (and especially because everyone in our group flew into Singapore on free mileage tickets) but just something to be aware of when you’re figuring out your budget. And with the global economic crisis the value of the dollar against the Euro has actually strengthened by about 20% just in the month since we were there, so it’s cheaper now (October) than what we paid in September

One thing I liked a lot is that the “standard” day now is a 3-dive day rather than just two. In the past, we had to request the third daily dive and paid extra for it. So this is not only better overall, but it also somewhat mitigates the pricing changes.

A typical day at Murex would go like this: Coffee/tea available after 6:30 and breakfast starting at 7AM, leave on the boats sometime between 8:30 and 9AM, 1-hour ride over to Bunaken, dive #1 around 10AM, snack, dive #2 around Noon, lunch on the boat around 1PM, dive #3 at 2PM, back at Murex around 4PM-ish. You’re also then free to do House Reef dives but no one in our group wanted to do that this trip. Dinner was served in the main dining area at 7PM.

One nice touch they did for us (and there were many) in the dining area was that they set aside a table for our entire group and had a sign on it so we always had a whole table for all six of us for each meal that we took there.

Another nice touch was on a much more personal note. As there’s no dock at Murex, the way you board the boats is by wading out into the water about shin-to-thigh deep (it’s as close as they can pull the boats in) and board the boat. But this means you get all wet. And even though we’re divers (and I know this sounds rather wimpy), I’ve just never liked that. I really like keeping my shoes and socks on.

When we were there in 2005, they solved this dilemma for me by building a plank ramp so I could go from the sand to the boat without getting my feet (and shoes and socks) wet. And I was absolutely delighted to see that, prior to our very first dive, they had remembered my wussiness and had a ramp (actually two long benches) all set up for me and the group.

The point of all this is to emphasis how much they are willing to go out of their way to make sure that you have a good experience while at Murex. I can’t count the times they said to us, “Whatever you want.”

Before we get into the details of the dives, we also want to single out Basra who was our lead divemaster. I remember him from the previous trip and he was simply excellent. Not only was he always polite and courteous and wanted to find out what we wanted to see, but he was very good at spotting animals underwater and making sure that everyone got to see them.

We also want to sing high praises for Oni, our other divemaster, Marlon, our great boat captain, and Hanni, the deckhand. All of them did whatever they could to make sure we had a great time.

In short, the diving around Murex & Sulawesi is simply excellent. You’ll be doing one or two types of dives: a reef dive or a muck dive.

The reef dives can be anywhere from good to spectacular. The reefs are in excellent shape, the walls are sometimes nearly vertical, the fish life abundant, and the visibility often approaches 100 feet with water temps in the low-to-mid 80s. As you’ll read further down, we had some great reef dives including some incredible turtle encounters.

Muck dives aren’t as bad as the name might imply. They’re dives that are done over a sandy bottom (usually dark sand) and sometimes adjacent to a reef. Visibility is usually lower (20-40 feet) and sometimes the water temp is a couple of degrees less but there are amazing things to be found in the muck. In fact, this is the are where some of the most amazing creatures (Pygmy Seahorses, Ghost Pipefish, all sorts of Lionfish, numerous Nudibranches, and many more) can routinely be found. Doing a muck dive is like opening Christmas presents because as you’re unwrapping, you never know what treasure you might be about to find.

One of the things I like about Murex is the location because it gives you access to numerous areas. Bunaken Marine Park is roughly an hour ride across the channel. The Lembeh Straits are about a two-hour overland drive away. But there are also other spots accessible to Murex that other operators either can’t or don’t go to.

One of those is Betlehem (and it really is “Bet” not “Beth”) which is supposed to stand for “Better Than Lembeh”. It’s a muck area to the west of Murex that they’ve been diving for a few years now. And because of it’s location, it’s not a convenient run for a lot of other operators so Murex frequently has the place to themselves.

It was at this site that we had one of our most amazing encounters on this trip because we ran into some very large squid who were mating and burying their eggs. It was really incredible. One the first dive, there must have been 25-30 squid. By them time the second dive rolled around, the numbers had dwindled to a dozen or so.

But, like what we see in Redondo Canyon in Los Angeles every fall/winter, the squid would come in, search for a sea-grass area that already contained some eggs, and lay more into the brood. Best of all, they didn’t seem too bothered by us sitting around and watching the entire spectacle.

And bear in mind that these squid are much larger than their Redondo cousins. While the Redondo ones are maybe 8-10 inches long, these guys easily measure 2-3 FEET each. Very impressive. And really interesting to watch them jockey with each other or try to mate or even just glance at us and check us out. We were quite happy to sit there (it was only about 10 feet deep) and watch the whole spectacle for 30 minutes.

And then it got even better. We moved to another area of Betlehem where Basra spotted not one but TWO Pygmy Seahorses, side-by-side, sitting on a seafan. Simply amazing. We actually found a few more but never another pair sitting together.

I joked about it at the beginning, but one of the “problems” in diving the Sulawesi area is trying to figure out where to dive because there really are a lot of options. A week (we actually dove for eight days) is simply not enough. If you can do two weeks, go for it. For us, we did two days of reef diving to sort of get our head in the game and then alternated between a day of muck diving with a day of reef diving.

And be sure to bring plenty of juice for your camera and large memory cards (I pity those who still shoot film). On one dive (in Lembeh), I managed to crank off a gazillion shots. As I noted in my logbook, “You know there’s a lot to see when you realize at the end of the dive that you’re gone through over 250 shots in the course of an hour.”

Much as I love Betlehem, there’s simply nothing in the world quite like the Lembeh Straits. From Murex, Lembeh is about a two-hour drive through the Indonesian countryside to the Bitung Harbor, where you board a boat and journey up the Straits.

I don’t know what it is about these waters, but they have attracted probably the most unusual collection of fish and other animals that you’ll find anywhere on the planet. We started our first dive off at an old favorite called Nudi Retreat (this is where I cranked out 250 shots on a single dive) and I’ll let my logbook tell the story: “We dropped right on to a yellow Frogfish. That was followed in short order by a Helmut Gurnard, two Gypsy Sea Moths, a Cockatoo Waspfish, and then another pair of Gypsy Sea Moths. Pretty amazing. And that was all only in the first nine minutes. Found Mantis Shrimp, mating nudis, and a juvy Many-Spotted Sweetlips. Laurie made an excellent find with a Spiny Devilfish. Really hard to spot but easy to see once he spread his wings. Lots of other nudis including the rare Banana Peel Nudibranch. A few Clownfish rounded it all out as did numerous Banggai Cardinalfish. VERY productive dive.”

On the next dive in Lembeh (Pantai Parigi) we came across a Wonderpuss and numerous Ghost Pipefish (to the point where they seemed routine). But it was our final dive (Aerpang) where the big prize lie waiting for us: a Rhinopias. To find him, Basra had to employ a little subterfuge by jumping in first on top of a group from another resort, showing the other guide a dogtag he wears that says “Basra” so that the guide would then take him to the Rhinopias (which he marked) and then he came back and got us.

All of this fails to mention the numerous Blue Ribbon Eels, Black Ribbon Eels, Mantis Shrimp, Blue-Spotted Rays, Clownfish of all ilk, Lionfish, Barramundi Cod, and Ringed Pipefish (including an egg-bearing male), and numerous nudibranches that we ran into. Great stuff.

But this is not to slight the diving at Bunaken. On of our favorites sites was Lekuan I (there’s also II and III). On our very first day of diving, we encountered a HUGE Green Turtle with two large remoras attached to him. He must have been close to six feet from stem to stern. And he allowed us to get fairly close and to follow him around.

Seven days later, at the same spot, we ran into him again. This time we spotted him as he was cruising down the wall and - it pays to be in the right position - I was able to swim on my back underneath him (sort of a neoprene-clad remora) and hung with him that way for three or four minutes. He then ducked into a crevice in the reef and settled in for a nap, all the while allowing us to settle in next to him for a unique photo opportunity.

Most impressive to me at a number of sites around Bunaken were the Red-Toothed Triggers. These are the little dark blue triggers that you almost always see flying around the edges of a reef, especially along walls. There must have been MILLIONS of them. We did one dive (Sachiko Point) where the stream of fish never ended during the entire hour-long dive.

The coral is very healthy at Bunaken (lots of sponges and softer corals), there are tons of fish, and there’s plenty to see. I wrote almost 3000 words in my logbook alone and I won’t bore you with all the minutiae here. But suffice it to say that this report could be a LOT longer.

I think one of the more intriguing spots we dove is a “new” muck dive that’s only ten minutes from Murex called City Extra. They’ve been diving it for less than a year but it yielded some amazing finds for us.

Probably most incredible was one coral head that, when you looked closely, housed not one not two not three not four not five but SIX white Ornate Ghost Pipefishes, all head-down facing the sand and all trying to drift and look inconspicuous. Suffice it to say that I’ve never seen anything like that before.

In fact, City Extra was so good that we decided to make it our final dive on our final day after starting off with two dives at Bunaken. From my logbook: “Early on, Laurie found this teeny little Lionfish - no more than half an inch long - in the sand. Got an active school of Cinnabar Goatfish working the sand. Small little juvy octo as well. Best of all was a chance to revisit the little coral head that previously had held six Ghost Pipefish. Today, there were only four. But something tells me it’s a multi-Pipefish area that will become a regular stop on the tour. Basra located two Longarm Octopi who were in the act of mating. They remained coupled for a while then gave up. Found a very interesting clump of coral that had thousand of Moluccan Cardinalfish hanging out with a clump of fresh squid eggs and a large Common Lionfish in the middle. Found more Ghost Pipefish (yawn!!!!), a juvy Cockatoo Waspfish, and a large Hermit Crab. Towards the end we found a pair (male/female???) of Robust Ghost Pipefish and Basra got phenomenally excited when he found an itsy-bitsy juvy Pegasus (Slender) Sea Moth. I found another Crocodile Snake Eel and we wrapped up with an iridescent green/red nudi and a pair of Porcelain Crabs. You never want these trips to end but this was a pretty good finish to a fabulous eight days of diving.”

On this trip, we also celebrated Tamar Toister’s birthday, along with Tamar’s 300th and Laurie’s 150th dive (on the same dive). Throw in the day we rode back through hundreds of playful leaping and spinning dolphins and you have one hell of a trip. (And I don’t even have room to talk about the two fabulous days we spent exploring Singapore before we flew back home.)

Sulawesi, Indonesia is a great place to go dive. There’s a school of thought that says this is where life on earth originated and that explains why they have so many different species of animals around. Murex is a great place to get exposed to all that this area has to offer. We’ll be going back and whether you join us or do it on your own, this is one place that should provide you with a lifetime of diving memories.


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