INDONESIA - July, 2011

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

As I’m starting to write this, I’m 39,000 feet over the western Pacific, en route to Tokyo, and then home to Los Angeles. In all, today's trip will take over 24 hours door-to-door and that’s only because we started in Singapore, slicing about 5 hours off the total travel time. What dive destination could possibly be worth investing this amount of time trapped in the flying tin tube known as an airplane? The answer is Indonesia, specifically north Sulawesi where we dove Bunaken National Park and the Lembeh Straits with our good friends at Murex Dive Resort.

This was our first visit back in three years and we had a dozen in our group this year: Marilyn Lawrence, Betsy Suttle, Donna & Cecilia Quigley-Groman, Deborah Butt, Tamar Toister, George Schneider, Britt Evans, Ceci Alleguez, Sherwin Isenberg, Laurie Kasper, and me (Ken Kurtis).

In a nutshell, the diving in Sulawesi is really spectacular, there are gazillions of fish, you’re likely to encounter species you’ve never seen before, and it will all leave you very impressed and eager to return. More on that in a moment.

You’ve all heard the old saying “Getting there is half the fun” but in our case it was true because we were flying out on Singapore Airlines and their just-instituted Airbus A380 service from LAX through Tokyo and into Singapore. We really liked the plane, especially given the amount of time we spent on it.

The A380 is a double-decker plane and is the largest plane in the world. The main deck is mostly economy with the very front being assigned to the Suites (their name for First Class because each “seat” is really a small one-person suite). The upper deck is about 2/3 Business Class (also pretty nice & roomy) and 1/3 economy. We chose to go the upper deck route because the seating is 2/4/2 (instead of 3/4/3 down below) and it seemed like we wouldn’t quite feel like cattle. (Singapore Airlines has the plane configured for 471 passengers, mostly Economy class.) We were pretty happy with our choice of seats.

However, I had some serous concerns about carry-on (a key thing for me since I carry all my photo gear in a rollerboard). I’d read that the overhead bins on the upper deck were not big enough for a rollerboard. Not true, although the upper deck outer bins are not as deep as the main deck ones and the upper deck outers also not as big as the upper deck middle ones. But not a problem.

I’d heard Singapore Air might be enforcing a 7kg (15lb) limit on carry-ons. (It’s posted on their website that way.) Also not an issue as they didn’t inspect carry-ons at all. There’s not only plenty of overhead storage (both main deck and upper) but the upper deck window seats, because the curvature of the fuselage requires the seat to be about a foot away, have a little side storage bin which holds an awful lot (but these are only on the upper deck, not the main deck). And it’s right at your elbow so it’s really convenient.

We all really like the seats. There’s about 3-4 more inches of pitch (legroom) than on most other planes, each seat has a footrest, there’s a shared power outlet between each Economy seat, and the video screen (embedded in the back of the seat in front of you) is an impressive 10 inches diagonally. On top of that, they’ve got a gazillion movies, TV shows, music, and plenty of other stuff to keep you occupied for hours and hours.

One complaint is about the bathrooms. It wasn’t a huge issue (although a slight inconvenience) but they’ve only got two in the upper deck economy section for about 90 passengers, so there’s almost always a line. It’s a similar ratio on the main deck. A couple more bathrooms in each section of the plane would be nice. And you can always take the rear stairs down to the lower deck to use the two at the back of that area.

Overall, we liked the A380 a lot and it made the long flights a lot more tolerable. If you’ve got an option to book an A380 (Qantas and Emirates also fly them), especially for a long flight, go for it.

And if you’re planning on going to Sulawesi, be sure to look up our friends at Murex Dive Resort. I’m sure there are other good operators in the area but we’ve been diving with Murex since 2000 and have always had an exceptional experience with them. This year followed that form.

One thing that I’ve always liked about diving with Murex is that we have a lot of flexibility. The walls and dive sites at Bunaken National Park, straight across the bay from Murex, are simply stunning. But when you go to Sulawesi, you have to experience the “muck” diving to get the full feel of the place.

Simply put, “muck” not only isn’t as bad as the name sounds, but can be truly exhilarating. The “muck” simply refers to near-shore sites that are usually scattered corals, a sandy bottom (the “muck”), and some of the most fantastic and unusual creatures in the world.

The muck is where you’ll find such creatures as the Pygmy Seahorse, Ambon Scorpionfish, Hairy Frogfish, Ghost Pipefish, Napoleon Snake Eel, Gypsy Sea Moth, various Rhinopias, Mimic Octopus, Wonderpus . . . the list goes on and on. And then throw in nudibranches of every color and hue and you’ve got some truly spectacular critters to discover.

The downside of all of this is that the water is usually a few degrees cooler (low 80s), the vis is a bit lower (20-30 feet but occasionally as much as 50), and you’ve got to watch your buoyancy because you can stir up the sand/muck and destroy whatever vis you’ve got. But the extra effort’s worthwhile.

A dozen years ago, the Lembeh Straits were where you went for muck diving in Sulawesi and its still pretty special. But Murex and the other dive operators have worked hard to “discover” other muck sites closer to their operations and now in 2011 there are a myriad of choices.

One of our favorites was City Extra which is literally a 10-minute ride from Murex. That’s where we first encountered the Ambon Scorpionfish and the Hairy Frogfish. (See the pictures.) At first, when our guides Basra and Opo pointed this out, I just thought it was a piece of schmutz that they were pointing to. But then the schmutz moved. And there’s simply no way I would have spotted these guys on my own. Not only were they a LOT smaller than I thought (they were maybe two inches long and I’d thought each would have been a lot bigger) but until you’ve seen a bunch of them your mind is not really attuned to spotting them.

So this experience alone underscores why you need a good dive guide. Basra and Opo (along with Hanny) are among the best. Because they dive nearly every day (they each probably do close to 1,000 dives a year), and because a lot of these creatures don’t roam too far, you can almost literally tell them what you want to see and they’ll (1) know where to find it, and (2) can usually find it once you get to the site. And whether it’s diving on the reef or in the muck, the guides at Murex do a really good job of making sure everyone gets a chance at the “special” creatures.

But one of the problems in these instances, and with group diving in general, is that it’s easy for the photographers to hog the special creatures and as they blast away trying to get that perfect shot, without giving others a chance to see what’s going on. And since we had eight photogs in our group we made a rule that I called “30 or 3”.

You had up to 30 seconds or three shots, whichever came first, to monopolize the creature. Then you had to move out of the way and let someone else in. You could certainly circle to the back of the line for a second go or - if no one was waiting - do another round of 30 or 3. It generally worked out pretty well and just really emphasized to everyone how important it is to share.

So with the availability of both the reefs at Bunaken and the muck spots (and yes, we did a day at Lembeh - I‘ll get to that in a bit), we were able to get the best of both worlds. Generally we would do a day on the reefs (3 dives), then the following day we’d go to the muck, reef next day, etc. And a few days, we even did two reef dives and then one muck dive after lunch (which is something you can’t really do if you’re staying at the resorts in the Lembeh Straits).

The reefs at Bunaken National Park are in very good shape. Part of that is because it’s officially been a marine park/sanctuary since 1991. And the locals seem to have a great amount of respect for the reef.

I think another reason the reefs are in such good shape is that there are an awful lot of vertical walls. That minimizes the amount of opportunities divers have to crash into the reef. Because instead of making contact with the reef and causing coral damage, bad bouyancy mean you plummet a bit. So the topography helps.

So does the presence of replenishing currents, which can be quite strong at time. There are sites (Lekuan 3) which are fairly sheltered from currents but there are others, certainly ones around Manado Tua and the backside (north side) of Bunaken, that are very exposed. And while the general plan is simply to drift with the current, the currents sometimes change on you in the middle of the dive. So what was a drift with the current, now becomes a struggle into the current. No problem. The guide just signals everyone to turn around and you drift again, now in the direction from whence you came . . . unless the current reverses again. There was one dive we did where we must have reversed direction four or five times, like ducks in a coral shooting gallery.

But there’s always plenty to see. I was very impressed by not only the number of turtles that we saw, but their size. They’re all Greens and one, known as “Rambo”, is close to six feet long nose-to-tail. (There’s a picture of Basra next to him on the Picture Page.) Sometimes we’d see the turtles free-swimming but a lot of times we’d see them tucked into a shelf along the reef wall where they’d take a snooze.

Those small type of small shelves also frequently were the homes of Leaf Scorpionfish (which again underscores why you need a good guide to find these things). They look like . . . well, a leaf . . . and they just sit there swaying in the surge, waiting for a meal to come by. Leaf Scorpionfish come in many different colors and we saw them in white, yellow, red, and pink. On one dive, Basra found a white one, and two feet away was his pink cousin. (We tried to encourage them to sit together but they didn’t take to that idea.)

We also saw quite an impressive number of Red-Toothed triggers on many of the dives. A couple of times we timed the dive fairly well so that most of the fish were trying to get cleaned which meant that instead of a constant flow of fish past a given point, they stop, go into a head-up or head-down position, and hope to get cleaned. From a photo standpoint, this is very good because these guys are REALLY hard to shoot since they’re in almost constant motion. But when they stop to get cleaned, you can actually get in close enough to get a shot of their red teeth (from whence they derive their common name).

One thing we didn’t see a lot of were parrotfish. I’m not sure if this is because the locals hunt them for food or what but there was a noticeable lack of them on the reef walls. We saw some once we got into the shallows, but not in great numbers like you might see in the Caribbean.

And that brings up another point: The Shallows. Because there’s so much to see along the walls, and just because the nature of the walls at Bunaken are so special, it’s easy to forget about the shallow stuff. Fortunately, limits on nitrogen force you to go shallower at some point and that’s when you remember that there’s an almost totally different ecosystem up there in 20 feet of water or less.

One of the first things you notice are all the small fish, especially Anthias and small Damsels, that are hanging out up there and pulsing with the ebb and flow of action, sometimes staying above the reef, and at other times diving for cover in the shallow corals. This is also an area where we ran into some male Napoleon Wrasses, schools of Barracuda, some Giant Trevallies, schools of Goatfish and Snappers, and plenty of Fire Dartfish, hovering above their hole waiting for you to get the perfect shot lined up, and then zipping away just as you pull the trigger.

But no trip to Sulawesi would be complete with at least a day in the legendary Lembeh Straits, definitely the King of Muck Diving in the area. When we’re staying at Murex, we schedule it as a day trip which means we leave the resort by car at 8AM, get to Lembeh around 9:30 (the drive in and of itself through the Manado countryside is interesting), load up, and hit three sites at Lembeh.

Now I’ve had some really spectacular dives at Lembeh before but this trip wasn’t going to be those.(But don’t get me wrong, they were still good.) Lembeh’s the place you go for Pygmy Seahorses and there were times in the past when I’d spend close to an hour trying to shoot them. Bear in mind that they’re about half an inch tall, blend in phenomenally well with their resident corals, and generally turn their backs on you once they realize you’re there.

Basra had already warned us that they hadn’t been able to find as many Pygmies as they had in the past. No one know why. But Basra, Opo, and Hanny, were able to find three for us and we did our best to shoot them. But like I said, tiny and tough. (Maybe that can be there new slogan.)

But even though Lembeh didn’t live up to my past recollections, it still had plenty of to offer us in the three dives we did there. Obviously there were the Pygmy Seahorses mentioned earlier. And I always love seeing the Banggai Cardinalfish. They’ve the best buoyancy in the world, hovering nearly motionless. They were originally only found at Banggai Island to the north but have migrated into the Lembeh Straits in recent years.

I think my favorite thing at Lembeh was a yellow Giant Frogfish that was sitting on black sand. Not only was it cool (especially when it started walking) but I took a huge amount of personal pride because I was the one who spotted it. How Opo swam over it without seeing it is beyond me, but he did. And my enthusiasm over my discovery was not at all tempered by the fact that being yellow made him really stand out against that dark sand. A good find is a good find.

Basra made a good find too and it was also a frogfish. But this was a little purple guy (which I'm pretty sure was a Warty) and was likely a juvenile. We also spotted a Shortfin Lionfish in its yellow-fin phase, a well as a Gathering of Gunnards. (Three of them who kept bumping into each other like Moe, Larry, & Curly.)

But the coolest thing of all was a swimming leaf. Obviously, it wasn't really a leaf but a juvenile Circular Spadefish, maybe 3-4 inches long. If I hadn't seen it moving when it nibbled on some bottom debris, I'd have never noticed it (which is sort of the point since many animals use their coloration as survival camouflage).

You could spend the entire day at Lembeh just marveling at the strangeness of the creatures you see. And that's why some people choose to stay at Lembeh-based resorts and spend multiple days hunting through the muck. Especially if you're a photog and just enjoy checking critters off your mental Critter Bucket List, Lembeh's a great place to do that.

And while we saw plenty of good stuff every day on this trip, regardless of where we were, to me what you see is only part of the story. I think it’s also important to enjoy the operation and people you’re diving with and that’s a big reason that we’ve returned to Murex again and again.

It’s a family-run operation, founded in 1987 years ago by Dr. Han Batuna & his wife and is now managed by their daughter Angelique. The idea of family extends to the staff as many of them has worked at Murex for 10-20 years or more and now their children are starting to work there. And that gives the whole place a really nice feel.

We like the rooms too. They’re definitely Indonesian in style but have a nice modern touch to them. They’ve all got AC, ceiling fans, plenty of storage, nice-sized bathrooms, a balcony or front porch, and they’re just delightful.

The general run of the day was to get up around 6AM for early-morning coffee/tea (sunrise is 5:30AM) with a full breakfast being served in the open-air dining area starting at 7AM. All meals are served buffet style and you help yourself to whatever it is you want. We’d leave around 8:30AM and take anywhere from 30-60 minutes to get over to Bunaken, depending which site we were heading for.

One nice thing they did for us this year, because we had 12 divers, was give us two boats so we could do a group of 8 and a group of 4, Sometimes we dove the same sites, sometimes not. And because the smaller boat was faster, we rotated the 4 on the small boat each day so you’d do two days on the big boat and then a day on the smaller, faster boat.

We generally were back at Murex no later than 4:30PM each day and although the original plan was to do dusk dives each night (sundown was around 5:50PM), that never panned out. Whenever we’d get back, Basra and the crew would unload our gear, wash it out for us and hang it up to dry for the next day, we’d go off and get some coffee/tea or a snack, and it was just sooooo easy to get relaxed and rationalize that since your gear was already washed and drying that a night dive would simply be too much work but we could do it TOMORROW. Of course, as the parable says, tomorrow never comes. Dinner was around 7PM and we all usually petered out by 9PM.

But all in all, we had a great time. We did 24 dives over the course of eight diving days at Murex (nine days overall) and then followed that up with three more splendid days in Singapore (which also breaks up the return trip home nicely). We love exploring Singapore which is a very cosmopolitan and vibrant city, with a great combination of old British colonialism on display as well as some of the more modern touches. There’s always something new in Singapore to go see which this time was the new Marina Bay Sands Hotel & Casino, with the 57th floor Skypark that features an outdoor infinity pool 600 feet up in the air.

And there’s still more to see in Sulawesi. I’ve yet to see a Mimic octopus or a Blue-Ringed octo. And that alone is reason to plan another trip back Wanna come along? Just let me know.

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