INDONESIA - July, 2012

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

I get asked frequently - and not just about Indonesia - "Why do you get going back again?" And my answer is usually the same: "I wouldn't go back if it wasn't good." One of the conundrums when you take people diving for a living, is whether you go to new places each year, or whether you re-visit the same places you've been to before.

The advantage of going somewhere new is that it's fresh and exciting. The downside is that you don't always know exactly what you're walking in to, the dive operation doesn't know you (the trip leader), and you may not know the ins and outs of the new destination. But that's also half the fun and a lot of people definitely like to go someplace different, which was part of the success of our Dominica trip this year.

On the other hand, the advantage of re-visiting a place that you liked is that you've already established a relationship with the dive operation and resort (if land-based), you probably have at least an inkling of the good sites vs. the bad sites, and you know what's commonplace and what's unusual so you know what to get excited about when you see it, as you'll see later on.

(The California version of this is that when I take new students on their first dive, they get SO EXCITED as they eagerly show me their unique find . . . A SEA CUCUMBER!!!!! It's new for them so it's all in the perspective. The other side of that is a buddy of mine who got certified in the Sea of Cortez. On his VERY FIRST DIVE, as he was about to start clearing his mask, a Whale Shark came by and hung with them for about 10 minutes. At the end of the dive when they got out, his instructor was almost speechless. My buddy said, "That was pretty cool. What else do you get to see?")

So the reason we like going to back to Indonesia, and specifically to our friends at Murex Dive Resort in Manado, is that the diving is simply fabulous.

Manado, in the NE corner of Sulawesi (which is in and of itself in northeastern Indonesia), is at the heart of what's called "The Coral Triangle." Simply put, it's thought to be where life on earth most likely started. The species counts in this region, both for fish and inverts, is higher than anywhere else in the world. I may not have the numbers exactly right, but it's something like 4,000 species of fish in the Manado area. Move a little further east to Palau and you've got about 1,500. Move to Hawaii and you've got 700, and get to California and you're looking at just under 300. The school of thought is that, as species try to expand territory and migrate outward, they don't all make it. That's why you start to see species counts drop off as you move away from The Coral Triangle.

So suffice it to say that it's a cool place to dive with the chance of seeing things you've either never seen before or can't see other places in the world. And it also offers you a choice between reef dives on fairly pristine, almost-vertical walls, and muck dives.

Muck dives, in case you don't know, are dives over what appear to be lifeless, sandy areas. But as you poke around and keep your eyes open, you see some of the marvelous things such a Cockatoo Waspfish, Napoleon Snake Eel, Lionfish, Helmut Gurnard, Blue-Spotted Stingrays, juvenile Flamboyant Cuttlefish, Frogfish, Stargazer, Emperor Shrimp, and a juvy Giant Sweetlips . . . and that's the actual list from our very first muck dive of the trip. It’s amazing how these amnimalsadapt ot living in a trackless world with no practical places to hide. And we got to do a muck dive in what has to be the Mecca of Muck, the legendary Lembeh Straits. But more on that later too.

It was a small group this year, only five total: Vick Thomas & Elisabeth Sykes, Sherwin Isenberg, Ceci Alleguez, and me. This was the first Indo visit for Vick; everyone else had been to Manado at least one other time. (As for me, I think this was my sixth trip there.)

This is also a good time to point out that the group almost didn’t include me as there was a little issue at Immigration about whether they'd let me into Indonesia or not.

It seems that the visa they issue you takes up a full page of your passport (they paste it in) and I didn't have a entire empty page. The Immigration guy (Stenley) was very nice but was talking about how he was trying to be nice and approve the visa and if the plane had been on time (we were three hours late getting in) they might just have sent me back to Singapore but he’d see what he could do. I wasn't sure if he was fishing for a little financial "encouragement" or not but eventually he said he'd approve the visa and pasted it in on a page that only had one of the four passport stamp squares filled in. Ironically, I also saw him at the airport on the way out of Indonesia and he couldn't have been nicer and asked how the trip was and everything.

But the point here is that if you're going to Indonesia (and a few other countries have the same requirement) make sure you have an entire blank page available in your passport or you, too, might get hassled a bit.

Once again, we loved the accommodations at Murex. The rooms are all fairly big with good storage (rooms 7 & 8 are especially large), large bathrooms en suite with showers (no tubs), a front porch, and each room has it's own A/C as well as a ceiling fan.

Meals are all taken in the open-air (and well-covered) dining area. Because our general plan was three dives/day, we had breakfast (starting at 7AM) and dinner (starting at 7PM) there each day (lunch was out on the boat between dives). Overall, the food's pretty good and we were VERY excited to see they got a new toaster that actually toasts bread in a reasonable amount of time. (We used to refer to their old one as a Crock-Pot Toaster because it took so long.) But for breakfast, they'd always have breads and fruits, along with cereals, eggs, rice or noodles, and usually pancakes, plus coffee, tea, and juice.

Dinners were likewise a veritable feast. There was always some sort of a soup to start, choices of beef, pork, fish, &/or vegetarian dishes, with rice or noodles, plus salad to top it all off. You didn't walk away hungry. And one of my favorites was one night when they had a spaghetti dish with a really tasty meat sauce mixed in. All good stuff.

The general dive plan each day was to leave Murex around 8:30AM (we had a boat just for our group) and we'd return around 4PM. In past years, we'd alternated between reef days and muck days. When I first started diving with Murex in 2000, the only muck diving was at the Lembeh Straits. But since then, they (and other operators) have "developed" muck sites all along Manado Bay where the resort is located. This doesn't mean that they created these sites since they were obviously there for a while. But someone eventually said, "We should start looking along our own shoreline" and they've discovered some really great locations. So we'd either spend a day over at Bunaken Marine Park diving the reefs, or we'd spend a day cruising along the shoreline diving the Manado Bay muck sites.

But this year, we decided to mix it up a bit and frequently did our first two dives over at Bunaken as reef dives, came back across (it's about a 12-mile run from Murex to Bunaken) and had lunch while we motored, and then did our third dive of the day as a muck dive. This generally put us fairly close to Murex, so it made for a much easier day (or a longer third dive if we wanted to) since we occasionally finished up the final dive of the day as early as 3PM.

I've also got to throw in words of praise for our dive crew. Our lead DM is Basra, who we’ve had multiple times before and gotten to know well. (If you ever go there and see him, be sure to admire his nice, yellow St. Moritz watch.) Wonderful guy, excellent at spotting things, and keeper of the "Opa Gila Ramp" which is a long plank that they constructed last year so I don't have to walk through the water (I like to keep my shoes and socks on - long story) when I’m getting on the dive boat. Apparently, they just keep this stored until my next visit and then dig it out again.

We also want to give strong praise to Hanni, who was the second DM and aiding Basra. Also a great spotter and very patient with photographers. Rounding out the group were Denny, who's the deckhand for the boat, and Jerry, who's the captain. (Our normal captain, Marlon, was working elsewhere because his boat is in being repaired.) Both Denny & Jerry were great at helping people in and out of the water but Denny especially was the go-to guy as he'd get tea ready for us between dives, would lay out lunch when it was time for that, made sure everyone got between-dive snacks, and helped unload gear at the end of the day. (The job must take it's toll however, because he's got more gray hairs this year than I remember from last year.)

They all speak decent-enough English and they'll sometimes go back and forth in Indonesian if they're not sure how to tell you something. Basra’s English is especially good and what's even more amazing is that he taught it to himself. Elisabeth asked him if he learned English in school and he said no, that he didn't speak ANY English when he started working at Murex fourteen years ago. But they encouraged him to learn English and so he paid close attention when others gave dive briefings and that, as well as talking to the guests, enabled him to pick it up. He's also not afraid to ask what a word is if he doesn't know it or understand it

Everyone at Murex speaks fairly good English but I'm convinced that the first words they learn are "Yes" coupled with "I'm sorry." Anytime you ask for something, the answer will inevitably be "Yes . . . I'm sorry." Although when you think about it, if there are only three words in a language you're going to learn, those three can probably take you pretty far.

The other thing I really like about staying at Murex (and yes, I WILL start talking about the diving soon) is that it's like being at the United Nations. One of the great things about diving is that, because you get to travel all over the world, you start to get a non-US-centric view of things. If all you do is spend your time in this country, a lot of times you don't realize how skewed our view of life and perspective might be to others. Our "American" views and thoughts on things do not always translate into "world-view" perspectives. So it's always fascinating, to me, to discuss those things with people from other parts of the globe.

And during our stay at Murex this time, we had we 5 Americans, a family of 4 from Bolivia, 7 Aussies, 2 Spainiards, 4 from the Netherlands, 1 from Belgium, 2 from Singapore, and 2 Japanese (plus, of course, all the Indonesians). Always made for interesting conversations, especially when we'd ask them what they thought of our politics let alone during an election year.

On to the diving. In a word: spectacular.

Water temps on the reef dives ran 82-86º and visibility was maybe a low of 50 feet and a high of 100+ feet. The ride over to Bunaken Marine Park (depending on which boat we used and where exactly wee were going) was anywhere from half an hour to a little over an hour. Nice way to digest breakfast. On the muck dives, the water temps were a couple of degrees cooler and the visibility was generally around 20-30 feet or so (significantly less if we kicked up the sand).

Generally, the plan on a reef dive was to start deep and then work your wall along the wall, gradually going shallower as the dive progressed. There's plenty of good stuff to see along the walls. Depending on how the currents were running (and they could sometimes change in the middle of a dive), you'd get all the usual hard corals, fans, and soft corals, but also might run into Leaf Scorpionfish, eels sticking their heads out of their hiding holes, juvy Midnight Snappers hiding in the corals (they're about 2" long) , and all kinds of cool stuff.

The walls are definitely dominated by two species: Red-Toothed Triggerfish and Pyramid Butterflies. There must be a million of each species. They are literally everywhere you look (and the Red-Tooths really do have red teeth). Sometimes they're coming in and stopping for a quick cleaning and sometimes they're moving en masse, off to some unknown destination as they streak on by you. But it's really neat to see.

The other thing you see a lot of on the walls are anemones and anemonefish, more colloquially known as clownfish. We saw many different species of clowns including Skunk, Orange, Pink, Orange-Finned, Sebae, False (ironically, the same species as Nemo), true Clowns, and Spinecheeks. (Bet you didn't know there were that many different species of clownfish, did you???) On top of that, many of the anemones also played host to various types of Porcelain Crabs. (You can see many of these pix in the SmugMug slide show.)

And I can't leave out the turtles. I think we saw turtles on just about every single dive we did at Bunaken, mainly Greens and Hawksbills. Some of them were a bit wary of divers and some of them couldn't have cared less and were quite happy (?) to have some company ads they foraged along the reef. In fact, I've got as video of one such encounter up on the SmugMug site. The video's only about three minutes but the encounter went on for close to a quarter of an hour.

However, the ultimate prize was at Lekuan 1 when we finally found Rambo. No, it's not Sylvester Stallone but a HUGE Green Turtle who lives on that area of the reef. He's probably six feet long, likely weighs well over 200 pounds, and doesn't flinch when you approach. The estimation is that he's around 100 years old. There's a video of him with Basra right next to him for size comparison on the SmugMug site.

The nice thing about the reef dives, and something that's sometime easy to forget, is that the top of the reef is also fantastic. It's a great place to spend the last fifteen or twenty minutes of your dive (Murex asks for a one-hour time limit overall) so you get a really long safety stop in as well as seeing more really cool things.

Among my favorites up in the relative shallows are trying to find and shoot the Dartfish. There are three main varieties: (1) Fire, (2) Elegant (or decorated), and (3) Two-Tone. the Fires are pretty easy to shoot and the Two-Tones almost impossible because they tend to keep moving and really do dart into a hole if you even so much as glance in their direction. The Fires, on the other hand, wait until the absolute last second to dart away to safety. The Elegants (which I think are the prettiest) are also easy to shoot, but they're almost impossible to find. I think on this trip, we saw all of . . . one. And that was only because Basra pointed him out to me.

And that fact points out the value of having a really good guide with you on trips like these. A lot of these creatures are fairly territorial ands the guides know where to find them. They're also sometimes very hard to spot, so when a guide points (we'd always listen for Basra's "ding-ding" as he tapped a metal wand against a metal rattler) you know he's found something good. In fact, I jokingly refer to my high-end housed Nikon D200 with dual Nikon SB-105 strobes as nothing more than a point-and-shoot camera: Basra points, and I shoot.

The reliance on the guide is what made our second dive at the Lembeh Straits so memorable for me personally because it was one time when i didn‘t have to do it (rely on the guide).

We were at a site called Pantai Parigi and while Basra led the group along, I was maybe 15-20 feet away cruising over the sand, looking to see what I could find, but keeping my ears tuned for Basra’s ding-ding to signal a good find. Then I noticed some movement out of the corner of my eye. Upon closer inspection, it was a small octopus, scurrying over the sand looking for whatever. We'd seen some of these types of octos before around Murex and they many times can change their coloring to exactly match the sand and they simply settle down and wait for a snack to come by and then pounce. But this guy was on the move.

I decided I wanted to shoot him so I my hand out to block his forward progress and that's when I let out a shriek of joy because suddenly, small bright blue rings appeared all over his body. I had stumbled across a Blue-Ringed octopus, something definitely on my Wanna See List (I'd never seen one before), and an animal who's toxin is among the deadliest on the face of the earth. He's deadly but cute and very small, maybe no more than three inches long. I fired off a number of shots (all up on the SmugMug slide show) and then got Basra’s attention and had him bring the group over for a peek.

What we didn’t see in Lembeh this time were any Rhinopias, a type of Scorpionfish, and usually found as Paddleflap or Weedy Scorpionfish. We were told that while they once were plentiful at Lembeh, they are this year nowhere to be found,. No one knows why.

The same thing applies to seahorses. We didn't (other than Pygmy Seahorses) see a single one the entire trip and last year we must have seen hundreds. In fact last year, the were all over the place at City Extra, 10 minutes from Murex. This year, we couldn't find a single one. Basra says they're all gone and no one knows why.

It all goes to underscore the dynamic nature of the ocean and how things change over time, sometime long periods of time, sometimes relatively short. And it also comes back to where we started this discussion, about going back to the same place again. Without the knowledge of what I saw last year, I wouldn’t have noticed the changes this year nor been able to contemplate their significance. I think you need that to get some kind of perspective if you're going to attempt to understand what's going on in the ocean and that’s the argument for visiting places time and again.

There were two other things we found, but more of not less. And neither one of them were necessarily good. One was dive boats and the other is trash.

As Manado has become a more popular destination, the number of dives boats has proliferated. I don't really think it has caused any visible damage to the reefs, not yet anyhow, but it's going to take it’s toll over time When we first came to Manado in 2000, many times we were the only dive boat around. In 2012, there could be as many as 10 dive boats at a given site, depending on weather and currents. There's plenty of space to dive, but now the odds at that you might cross paths with another group underwater.

The odds are also pretty good that you'll encounter trash on the surface. This is especially true of some of the muck sites that are close to shore around Manado Bay. It's just really sad. Some of this is due to a burgeoning population and an inability to deal with the increased amount of garbage produced by more and more people. And some of it was due to rain washing trash down the streets, into the storm drains, and into the ocean. But - aside from the octopi that like to live inside of abandoned bottles - more trash in the ocean can't possibly be a good thing for the fish or the humans who come to visit. It's an on-going problem, not just in Indonesia but in many parts of the world, but it really is dismaying to be finishing a great dive and, when you look up to surface, see all of this crap floating around and realize you're got to find a clear spot.

That all notwithstanding, it was a fabulous trip. As always, our friends at Murex, whether out on the boats or back at the resort, took fabulous care of us. And we are happy to do this trip as often as people want to go explore with us. So if there's interest in going back again in 2013, I'm all for it. Who knows what we'll find then? Maybe that Mimic Octopus who's been hiding from me for all of these years . . .

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