“IT’S NOT THE SAME NOW, you know. So many new resorts, too many divers – and the critters have all gone. We won’t be going back there again.”
Pam had spotted me midway through a Heathrow to Singapore flight. We had met almost a decade before at Kungkungan Bay Resort on the Lembeh Strait, and since then she had been a regular at my Dive Show presentations. She was on the way to Bali – I was heading back to Lembeh.
She voiced what I had secretly been fearing. When I last filmed in Lembeh, there was only the one resort, never more than half-a-dozen divers on a site – and it was critter heaven.
Now there were more resorts than I could count, liveaboards targeting the strait, and worrying tales of the impact of this high-pressure diving on the unique eco-system.
Strangely, my introduction to Lembeh had occurred not through any travel agent or magazine article, because back then it was still unknown to all but a few. I learned of Lembeh on the dive-boat Febrina in Papua New Guinea.
Despite a five-dive day, an American diver had brought along his slides, and was determined to give us an after-dinner show. All I wanted was my bed, but British politeness won over.
Grabbing the seat nearest the stairs, my plan was to sneak away unnoticed the moment the lights were dimmed.
I was halfway to the stairs when the first image on screen stopped me in my tracks. It was a creature I had never even dreamt existed – a hairy ghost pipefish.
An array of bizarre and fascinating alien sea-beings followed. I was no dive virgin – I had already made more than 10 films, and sold a series to National Geographic. I thought I had seen it all, but the slide show taught me that the adventure was really just beginning.
A new door had opened, and I was keen to go through. A month later, I was in Lembeh for the first of many visits.

IN THE LAST FEW YEARS of the 1990s, I spent hundreds of hours filming in Lembeh, thanks to the amazing support and hospitality of Kungkungan Bay Resort. I made five films there that sold to TV stations worldwide, and won multiple international awards.
The success of the films was due to the seemingly unlimited supply of amazing creatures and astonishing behaviour found on the featureless black-sand sea floor.
Eventually, I moved on to other projects and left Lembeh behind, but every year images and films from other image-makers continued to sweep the board at international film festivals.
I had now thought up a project that would take me back and, I hoped, result in a new film for National Geographic.
Or would it Going back can mean disappointment. Places change, and the word on the diving streets was that Lembeh was yesterday’s hotspot and today’s has-been.
Pam was right about some things.
Yes, there were far more dive-boats – at scheduled dive times, a small flotilla emerges from various jetties and beaches. Ten years ago there was only the one dive resort, Kungkungan Bay – the mother of Lembeh diving, fondly known to afficionados as KBR. Now there seem to be more dive-boats than fishing-boats zig-zagging the strait.
There is an agreement between the principal dive operations that no more than two boats should dive any one spot at once. Unfortunately, few skippers seem to abide by this, so although there are around 55 named dive spots, several often converge on a single small patch of sea floor.
When this happens in the usually low visibility of the strait, confusion can reign, with divers tagging onto the wrong group. Find a subject, and as soon as you settle down to film you become a magnet to strobe-flashing and sand-kicking idiots who crowd in to share your find. Tank-tappers and underwater bells and horns create an irritating and disorientating cacophony.
If there is an undersea version of road rage, I have it... particularly towards that woman who on two consecutive days emerged from nowhere, flashed her camera several times into my lens as I was filming, then, stirring up a sandstorm with her fins, dashed on to grab the next subject.
And the Italian whose photo technique was sheer kamikaze raid as, with no buoyancy control, he dived on a subject, flashguns blazing, closer and closer until he hit the sea floor, creating an eruption of fine silt.
But these dives are not the norm, and more often than not your boat group will have a site to itself.
Yes, there are many more resorts now, and many options as to how to dive the strait. While KBR remains a well-deserved favourite, a variety of resorts, day-boats and liveaboards provide many ways to dive Lembeh – something to suit every budget.
Some will invariably fall by the wayside, but others offer fantastic facilities. The latest to open is Lembeh Hills Resort, and with many ex-KBR staff running the diving and other services, there is a wealth of knowledge available. Name your critter and they will usually deliver.
The resort itself offers comfort and luxury, impeccable friendly service, an incredible menu plus every facility from fitness room and infinity pool to in-room Internet and huge flat-screen TV.
The great asset of North Sulawesi is its population. It’s known as the Land of the Smiling People, and everyone you deal with is happy and helpful.
One of my most unusual underwater encounters was with a dive guide I hadn’t seen for several years. Spotting me under water, he swam over to shake my hand and give me a big welcome-back underwater hug!
So the diving – was Pam right
Absolutely and categorically not. Don’t come to Lembeh expecting instant gratification – there are no spectacular reefs or shoals of fish. Go slow. Settle on the sea floor and just wait – the longer you watch, the more it comes alive, and the cryptic creatures move and give their presence away to the patient observer.
Spiny, ugly, bizarre – beauty is rare on this seabed, where survival is a combination of invisibility, deception and armour. I won’t fall into the mistake made by most writers about Lembeh, whose articles become a check-list of the critters they have seen. Trust me – they are all still there.
Most first-time visitors to Lembeh have a hit-list of critters they want to see, usually topped by pygmy seahorse, frogfish and mimic octopus.
Over the years, the wealth of knowledge shared between dive-guides means that generally you tell them what you want and they deliver. Few visitors leave Lembeh without ticking every box in their mental wish-list.
But there is so much more to this place, particularly to the film-maker who wants more than mere portraits.
To the observant, there is a non-stop exhibition of behaviour to savour, much of which cannot be predicted or delivered on cue – it’s a matter of the longer you spend under the water, the greater the chance of those unique encounters that make a trip.
Gruesome nocturnal bobbit worms shooting from the sea floor to grab a fish between their evil curved pincers. Two male hairy frogfish bouncing along in competitive pursuit of a larger female.
A giant mantis shrimp spearing its prey before dragging it down into its perfect tubular burrow.
A blue ring octopus capturing a crab. A flamboyant cuttlefish lumbering over the sand, shooting out its tentacles at prey. Octopus building homes from coconut shells... The unexpected can, and so often does, happen under the sea in the strait.

LIFE ON THIS SEABED is about trickery, concealment, defence and camouflage, and the ingenious evolution of so many different ways of achieving this could keep an army of scientists busy for many years.
Some critters boldly strut the substrate bristling with evil spines and venomous armour. Others blend so perfectly with their environment that it is only movement that gives away their presence. Yet others use anemones, urchins, leaves or debris in which to hide.
And then there is a whole other unseen population that lives under the soft fluid seabed, emerging only at night to hunt, and making Lembeh unquestionably the very best night-
dive location in the ocean.
The Lembeh Strait remains the planet’s most intriguing and bizarre square mile of ocean floor. Pam was wrong – despite the massive increase in divers and resorts, it remains an absolute must for any photographer, videographer and indeed anyone with an interest in seeing the ocean’s weirdest cocktail of sea creatures.
Come back again, Pam – it’s still all here, waiting for you!

Kungkungan Bay Resort, www.divekbr.com; Lembeh Hills Resort, www.lembehhills.com; Lembeh Cottages, www.eco-divers.com; Kasawari-Lembeh Resort, www.kasawari-lembeh.com; Lembeh Resort, www.lembehresort.com

PORTRAIT OF A LEMBEH DIVE-GUIDE
I FIRST MET BEN IN 1998. He had come to the city of Bitung from his home island to the north in search of work, and after jobs in kitchens in town became a gardener at Kungkungan Bay Resort.
A move to the dive department as boat crew led to the chance of learning to dive, thanks to the enlightened training programme at KBR: “When I move to the dive department I see something new, something different – when I look, I snorkel and see, I say wow, it’s amazing!”
This led to eventual promotion to dive-guide. It’s a well-respected job in the region – not only are dive-guides better paid than other staff, well above the local average, but they also attract generous tips from appreciative guests.
A good grasp of English has also helped Ben, but it’s all self-taught:
“I watch the movies, I look at the subtitles, and I say ‘ah, I have to say this!’.”
Ben stopped keeping a logbook some time ago, but averaging 15-20 dives every week he has done well over 10,000 – all within the Lembeh Strait.
Over this time he has developed an incredible instinct for where to locate critters and how to see the best of their behaviour. It’s not something you can be taught, though he and a few other close dive-guide friends do share information about sightings of the strait’s more cryptic critters.
And they also have a secret code of underwater signs so that they can find tiny creatures again in a featureless seabed. “The sea is just like our second world – we go here and find something special and we know how to find it again.”
But he doesn’t share info with everyone. “Some people dive and don’t know how to care for the animals. They dive like crazy. When we take an octopus from its hole, we know to put it back so next time we dive the octopus is still there.”
Ben is now head of the dive department at Lembeh Hills Resort, but his skills as a guide have become in high demand, and he still dives three or four times a day. “It is the best job I could ever have,” he says.
And his favourite critter – that would be the exceptionally elusive hairy octopus.