INDONESIA - June, 2005

(Click here for the pictures from this trip.)

This year marked our third visit to Sulawesi, Indonesia (the Manado area in the NE corner of the country) and the Murex Diving Resort. There’s a very simple reason we’ve been eager to return here: The diving is simply spectacular. That’s not to say you don’t get a ho-hummer every now and then but with the profusion of life encountered in the waters surrounding Manado, it’s pretty hard not to have an enjoyable dive. We’ll get to the details in a moment.

Our group this year consisted of Pat Bryan, Leigh Chapman, Stefan Mason, Laurie Powers, Jay Wilson, and Denise Lawrence (all first-timers to Murex) and Elaine Bern, Marilyn Lawrence (no relation to Denise), and myself (all veterans of previous visits). It’s always interesting watching a group gel over the course of a trip and this group got along famously together.

Before we get to the specifics of the trip, one of the first things to address is the subject of terrorism. A history of internal political unrest along with a US State Department-issued travel warning make some Americans uncomfortable with traveling to this region. All we can tell you is that we didn’t see any of these sorts of problems nor did we feel threatened or unsafe at any time. There were certainly plenty of tourists about, both from the US and other countries, while we were there. That’s not to say you shouldn’t exercise good judgment but also bear in mind that Indonesia stretches out over 3000 miles and much of the ruckus has been happening in Jakarta and Bali which are as far from Manado as Chicago is from Los Angeles. And while the situation could certainly change in the future, we had much more problems with traffic snarls in Manado than we did with anything else.

Getting to Manado is always time-consuming. But it gives us a chance to once again sing the praises of Singapore Airlines who is, in our opinion, simply the best airline in the world. We flew LA-Tokyo-Singapore on the first leg and it’s as a delightful as a long flight can be. Aside from exemplary service, Singapore Airlines also now has a thing called “Video-On-Demand” which means that, from your seat, you can access any of the 30 or so movie selections on their master on-board computer at any time you want (plus numerous TV shows and video games), pause it, fast-forward, rewind, etc., all with the push of a couple of buttons. It certainly helps make the 20 hours it takes to get there a bit more pleasant. (It also helped that we were seated in the back of the plane, rows 61-64, where the outside rows are only two across.)

For our 8-hour layover in Singapore at the fabulous Changi International Airport (think “hi-tech” and “shopping mall” and “airport” and put them all together) we once again took advantage of the Transit Hotel in Terminal 2. It’s only available to passengers continuing on to another destination (you’re never outside the passenger-area of the airport) and rooms are reserved in 6, 7, 8, or 9-hours blocks. Be sure to reserve ahead of time as the place is usually fully booked. Best of all, even though the airport has numerous “Free Internet” computer terminals available to passengers (which were usually occupied), I discovered an unsecured Wi-Fi signal in the lobby of the Transit Hotel so was able to use my own laptop there to check e-mail. Minor thing but a nice surprise.

After getting some sleep in Singapore, we boarded our 9AM Silk Air flight for the 3-hour journey to Manado. Upon arrival, we experienced the relatively new “Visa on Arrival” that Indonesia has instituted. The short version is that they charge you $25US to come into the country (they prefer new bills - they also charge you $10US to leave) and you pay it right before you hit the Immigration desk. Then you collect your bags, sail through Customs (they usually just smile and say “Have a good dive trip”) and you’re met outside by the Murex staff, who load your bags onto their truck, and herd all the passengers into their new air-conditioned mini-bus (a welcome improvement over our last visit) for the 1-hour drive to the resort.

To say the drive to Murex is interesting would be an understatement. Since the last time we were here (four years ago), it seems like the traffic has doubled and there’s a ton of new construction (mainly big shopping malls) going on. And riding as a passenger in Manado is an experience in itself. When we’ve been there before, we commented on how there were no lines on the roads, drivers passed at will (giving a polite “toot-toot” on the horn as they went by), and it’s amazing that no one gets killed but somehow it all seems to work.

Well now they’ve actually a single line on the road (down the middle) . . . but it seems more like a suggestion than a rule. Cars pass close together, there are some short stops, there aren’t hardly any traffic lights, yet somehow it all seems to work. But we were quite happy to reach the grounds of Murex, situated SW of Manado proper and right on the water.

Murex is quite comfortable and has a very unique feel to it (and I mean that in a good way). They’ve got a total of twenty rooms spread out over their property and each air-conditioned room has two beds, nightstands, a closet, desk, chairs, bathroom with a shower (it’d be nice if they could generate more water pressure), a drying rack, a mini-refrigerator, plenty of room to move around, and a front porch. In addition, there’s a communal dining area where meals are taken, three gazebos with tables and chairs overlooking the water - perfect for hanging out and for early-morning tea and coffee, a large open deck, and a dive gear storage area. (If you go to their website - www.murexdive.com - there’s an interactive map that will give you a bird’s eye view of all of this.)

The electricity is 220V and was generally reliable (though we had a couple of small power outages) but be aware that Indonesia uses “snakes eyes” plugs so you’ll need an adapter. In fact, there are TWO kinds of these plugs. I found that the adapter with the slightly thicker prongs worked best. Because I had a lot of things that would require charging (laptop, portable HP 375 printer, cameras), I also brought with me two American-style power strips. That way, I only needed one adapter, plugged power strip #1 into that, and strip #2 into #1, and I had plenty of outlets.

A word of caution though: Be sure to check your chargers for acceptable voltage ranges. It should be printed on the plug. Many are good up to 240V (mine read “100-240V”) so shouldn’t be a problem. But if it’s listed at less than 220V you need to be careful you don’t burn it up with the higher voltage. I had one small battery charger that suffered that fate. However, voltage converters, which will knock the 220V down, can also be used for lower-rated chargers.

You may have just wondered why I brought a portable printer with me. The HP Photosmart 375 is a small, relatively lightweight printer (under 3 pounds) that creates 4”x6” prints directly from your memory card. It was easy to carry, it’s rechargeable, and I used it during the week to make prints to give as gifts to the various staff people as a thank you. I gave them pictures of themselves, pictures of animals they had spotted for me, etc., etc. It certainly didn’t replace the cash tip we left at the end of the trip, but it seemed like they all welcomed the gesture. The printer itself costs under $200, each print costs maybe $1 and take 60-90 seconds to run, and was a very personal way to say “Thanks.” IMHO, it’s a great toy to buy and take with you if you’re into photography . Back to Murex . . .

Meals were all taken in the communal dining area. Everything is served buffet style. Coffee and tea as well as bread for toast (in the world’s slowest toaster) were generally available around 6AM. Breakfast itself started at 7AM (the boats leave around 8:30) and offered choices of pancakes, sausages or ham, eggs of varying styles, rice or noodles, two or three types of dry cereal (with milk), fresh fruit, yogurt, and probably some things I’m leaving out. Dinner was served each day at 7PM (though they held it later for us the night we had a boat night dive) and featured various fresh vegetables, rice &/or noodles, and a chicken, a beef, a pork, and a fish dish. One nice touch from past trips was that they had little signs in front of each dish telling you what it was. They didn’t have that this time. No big deal because you could always ask but the signs made it a bit easier and would be a welcome return.

We had lunch each day out on the boat. It was prepared in the morning and placed in warmers and we’d have it between our second and third dives. Nothing fancy but it certainly hit the spot and usually was similar to the dinner fare. And it was always nice that they handed out Coca-Colas on the boat to go with the meals.

Although the general Murex package is 2-dives daily, I always book us on a 3-dives daily package. (You can also do unlimited shore dives on the House Reef at no extra charge.) Seems to me that’s a long way to go for only two dives a day and each extra dive only adds $20 to your package. In addition, our package included one boat night dive, a 3-dive day up at Bangka Island, and a 3-dive day at Lembeh (all of which we’ll get to momentarily).

Each dive day begins with a check of the board to see what boat you’re on and where you’re scheduled to go. The boats are traditional Indonesian-style craft, low to the water, about 50 feet long, maybe 10-12 feet wide, with ample seating room for everyone. They use aluminum 80cf tanks which were consistently filled to 2850-3100psi. Best of all the boat have a working head (well, at least our boat - Makarena - did). It’s just a simple marine head behind a door but it was nice to have and beat the hell out of the “prop checks” that we had to do on past trips.

One of the nice features at Murex is that the staff loads your gear onto the correct boat (everyone’s assigned a large plastic milk crate at the beginning - two divers per crate) and will have your reg and BC hooked up by the time you board. Double-check to make sure everything is there and you’re ready for the roughly one-hour crossing over to Bunaken Marine Park.

A moment for a pet peeve. I’m one of those guys who doesn’t like walking around in wet gear with my booties going squish-squish. One thing I’ve never been too fond of is that fact that Murex doesn’t have a dock. In the morning, the boats are backed in as close to shore as possible but you have to wade out into calf-to-knee deep water to board. In the past, I’d always take off my shoes and socks, wade out, board, dry myself off, and put my shoes and socks back on. (My family doesn’t call me “Sir Delicate” for nothing. Also helped cement my Indonesian nickname - Opa Gila aka “Crazy Old Man“ - in their heads.)

But this year, after the first day, the Murex staff came up with an ingenious solution. They found a very long plank, put one end on the beach, set the other end on a small stepstool, backed the boat up to the stepstool, and put a rock under the middle so the plank wouldn’t sag, and we now had a way to board the boats without getting our (all right . . . MY) feet wet.

That little accommodation underscores the general attitude of all of the staff at Murex. Whatever you wanted, they would do their best to try to accommodate you. And then seem genuinely happy to do so. Whether it was getting something to eat, getting something in your room fixed, finding critters on the reef, repairing gear, or building you a boat-boarding-ramp, if they could do it they would. We simply can’t say enough nice things about all of the Murex staff (dive staff, kitchen staff, and housekeeping staff) whose attitude and demeanor really help enhance the entire experience.

But we came to dive and that’s what we should start talking about. Over the course of the week, our group did 25 dives which included 3 night dives. Most of the diving was done in Bunaken Marine Park and most of that was around the island of Bunaken. Conditions weren’t as good as we’d had in the past but still quite acceptable: average vis was 60-80 feet (with a couple of dives giving us 100+ and a couple of non-muck dives in the 20-30 foot range), the water temp was around 84-86º (though we had one dive were we “froze” when a current brought in 79º water), and the currents anywhere from non-existent to we’d-better-turn-around-and-go-the-other-way.

But the diving is, in a word, wondrous. Bunaken Marine Park has some of the most pristine walls that you are likely to encounter anywhere in the world. There are literally thousands of species of animals that inhabit the reef. This area of the world offers a type of marine biodiversity that’s hard to match elsewhere. 7 of the 8 species of giant clam that occur in the world are found here. There are 70 genera of coral (Hawaii has 10) and over 2500 species of fish. You simply can’t see it all in one dive let alone on one trip.

And they’re still discovering new species. A few months before we arrived, there was a new species of Pygmy Seahorse discovered at Bunaken, and our guide Samy was extremely proud when he managed to find one for me. (They’re even SMALLER than the Pygmy Seahorses on our picture page. Of course, it was a dive when I was shooting wide-angle . . .)

As amazing as the reefs are, one thing that was very distressing was the amount of plastic and trash in the water. It’s almost as if they’re using the ocean as a garbage dump. It’s mainly on the surface, but you certainly run into plastic bottles and other debris occasionally on the bottom. And since it had rained heavily the week prior to our arrival, maybe a lot of this was garbage that was been washed out from the shore. But it still wasn’t very pleasant to see on a day-after-day basis.

But the diving is wonderful. The general plan was to do multi-level dives with a one-hour time limit. The first dive of the day maxed out at 100 feet, the second dive at 80 feet, and the third dive at 60 feet, with a one hour surface interval between the first two dives and about 90 minutes (and lunch) between dives two and three. But you were always allowed to dive your own computer limits, no one got berated if they went below the designated max depth, and long safety stops were encouraged. (Plus there’s plenty to see in the shallows.)

Typical of our dives was this entry I made in my personal log: “FUKUI - Although it sounds like an obscenity . . . It was actually a nice dive. The site itself wasn’t much to speak of: Lots of rubble mainly, but a great array of sea life, including a HUGE school of tightly packed Batfish. We started out with 5 giant clams that dutifully posed for everyone. Lots of fish activity here, including 4 Barracuda just hanging by the bottom, a pair of Clown Triggers building a nest, and a very strange-looking sea slug at the end that Samy coaxed out from under a rock. Also passed by the ‘ecological area’ where they have artificial structures to provide a home for new coral.”

Basically, diving in Bunaken meant you were going to see plenty of healthy corals (both hard and soft), seafans, whips, sponges, nudibranchs and tons of fish. Over the course of our dives, we spotted thousand of Pyramid Butterflies, Moorish Idols, Anemonefish of every color and hue, schools of Fusiliers that flowed and pulsed with the currents, Dartfish, Parrotfish, Soldierfish and Bigeyes, Hawkfish, Dascyllus, and so many more that if I keep naming them you’ll think I’m lying.

We also spent a day at a “new” muck dive site not too far from Murex. Now don’t let the phrase “muck dive” scare you off. Indonesian muck dives are basically done on sandy bottoms where the most amazing creatures seem to live. The famous dive in Sulawesi is the Lembeh Straits. The new area is known as Bethlehem which the Murex staff says is a derivation for “Better Than Lembeh.” We weren’t sure we’d go quite that far, but we did see some pretty cool stuff such as a Napoleon Snake Eel, numerous species of Lionfish, Razorfish, Fire Urchins, two different type of Seahorses, a couple of Cuttlefish, a mass of swarming Stinging Catfish, a small Gorgonian Shrimp, two different Ornate Ghost Pipefish, three Leaf Scorpionfish, a Ringtailed Cardinalfish brooding eggs in his mouth (yes, “he” is correct because the males tend to the eggs), three different species of Pufferfish, a Mantis Shrimp out and about for a stroll, a deadly Sea Snake and - best of all - the amazing Wonderpuss, an octopus that (similar to the Mimic Octopus) can make itself look amazingly like other creatures. (Our running joke became that the way to tell the difference between the two species was that the Wonderpuss couldn’t mimic and the Mimic couldn’t wonder. Well, it seemed amusing at the time.) Not a bad haul for three dives. Get thee to Bethlehem.

Due to the strong weather that preceded our arrival, our much-anticipated trip up to Bangka Island (where we’d seen some of the loveliest soft corals in the past) was sort of a bust. Low vis and ripping currents spoiled it for us. (And that’s certainly out of Murex’s control.) But the one dive we did on the Pulisan Resort House Reef, even in low vis (no currents thankfully) featured an amazing amalgamation of creatures (including three rather large, yellow Frogfish) to the point that you could spend a week exploring just that reef and probably never get bored.

Perhaps most amazing for us was a night dive that we did on the Murex House Reef. Not expecting much (I’d dove it on previous trips so naturally I didn’t take my camera), I was amazed to end up with the following entry in my log: “HOUSE REEF (night) - Jay and I did this dive and what a great dive it was!!! Dozens of red Basket Stars looked for high spots on the reef, Urchins were out everywhere (including one that grazed my elbow), there were many small Lionfish out hunting, numerous Filefish tucked into the sides of sponges, and even two Reef Squid towards the end. It was almost like every time we found a new part of the reef, there were dozens of treats waiting to be discovered. We saw three or four of the Sea Slugs (red this time), a gorgeous shell, numerous Anemone Crabs, smaller crabs tucked inside the corals, Crinoids all over the place, Banded Pipefish (one of whom was carrying eggs), a weird-looking eel (who never opened his mouth) surrounded by shrimp, and all kinds of good stuff. Just an amazing dive and absolutely worth doing again.”

One of the highlights of the trip was our dive in the Lembeh Straits. Just getting there is an adventure. It’s an overland drive (takes about 2 hours) through the countryside until you end up in the town of Bitung and at the harbor there, which has been considerably cleaned up since our last visit. The boat came in to pick us up and off we went.

The Lembeh Straits (“Lembeh” for short) is known as one of the best muck-diving spots in the world. For some unknown reason, more weird and wonderful creatures both big and small seem to have gravitated here than any other spot in the world. Most famous is probably the Pygmy Seahorse which our guides were able to find with ease (bring a magnifying glass since they’re only about ¼” tall). In fact, we knew the dive would be special when our guide Samy plopped in (we were “anchored” to a tree in about 15 feet of water) and immediately came back up almost laughing and said, “There’s a Warty Frogfish right under my feet!” But Lembeh is more than just Pygmy Seahorses.

Over the course of three dives we saw dozens and dozens of Nudibranchs, small Cleaner Shrimps living in Anemones, a huge Cuttlefish tending to eggs that she had buried inside the safety of a coral head, we watched in amusement as a crab - already wearing one Fire Urchin on it’s back for camouflage and protection - skittered around the sand in a pursuit reminiscent of the Keystone Cops and tried to unsuccessfully capture another urchin to wear as a protective hat , there were Flounder, an octopus that lived inside an abandoned coconut shell, many Frogfish both large and small, an Ambon Scorpionfish (somewhat rare), a Devil Scorpionfish, more full-sized Seahorses, a Velvet Ghost Pipefish, and - best of all because it’s been on my got-to-see list for some time - a Flamboyant Cuttlefish eagerly showing how it got it’s name.

We wound up with a final day of diving in Bunaken, then bade a sad farewell to our Murex friends, spent two days in Singapore (another fabulous place worthy of a report all of it’s own - suffice it to say it’s the shopping capital of the world - and we REALLY enjoyed our stay at Trader’s Hotel) and the winged our way on home, this time on one of Singapore Airlines 777 planes (rows 58 & 59, seats A/C or H/K are the hot ticket).

In short, it was a spectacular trip and one that we’ll look forward to repeating again in the near future. There is an array of sights to see in Sulawesi that makes the long journey to this corner of the world well worth the effort.


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