WHAT MAKES LEMBEH STRAIT in North Sulawesi, Indonesia, the world capital of critter-diving It’s the number of different critters. Over five days and 17 dives I photographed around 150 different species, and failed to capture successfully a whole lot more.
I say “around 150” because some species are so similar that I just can’t tell. Some are common, like mantis shrimps and broadclub cuttlefish. Others are rare, like pygmy sea dragons. Some are scientifically “undescribed”, so have no unique Latin name.
Yet others are widespread but get spotted only when you have both an expert guide and an uncluttered environment such as black sand.
Lembeh Strait is an eight-mile channel with an average depth of 30m, through which strong tides funnel water and nutrients.
Lying in the middle of the region of maximum marine biodiversity, its marine habitats range from black sand and muck to wrecks and coral pinnacles.
I can’t write about 150 species in anything short of a book, so here is a selection of my favourites, chosen for their cuteness, weirdness, tininess, colours or rarity.

SEAHORSES AND PIPEFISH
Seahorses score top marks for cuteness, especially pygmy seahorses. Smaller than a fingernail, pygmies are so inconspicuous that they were discovered only in 1969, when one was noticed on a gorgonian sample in a laboratory.
In Lembeh any site with gorgonians seems to have a colony of pygmy seahorses.
The common pygmy seahorse has knobbly tubercles that provide camouflage on a gorgonian with extended polyps.
The other species I saw was Denise’s pygmy seahorse, which looks like a skinned cat, camouflaged for a gorgonian with polyps contracted. Originally thought to be a juvenile or variation of the common pygmy, it was identified as a separate species in 2002.
Pygmy seahorses are one of the most difficult targets for photographers. Gorgonians are usually located on coral walls, so there is rarely anywhere to rest and form a stable base.
Gorgonians waft in the current, so holding a distance to focus is a challenge. Just holding my camera in the right direction to find them in the viewfinder proved difficult, so the guides used their pointers to lead me in until they were sure I had the seahorse located.
The black sand and muck of many Lembeh dive sites also provides ideal territory for larger species such as the common and estuary seahorse. Old rope, a scrap of weed or a loose mass of sponge provide the sort of anchors they can wrap their tails around.
Related to seahorses, Lembeh has many pipefish, including ornate and robust ghost pipefish, beautifully camouflaged within their immediate surroundings.
Somewhere in between seahorses and pipefish are sea dragons. Most divers have a mental picture of the leafy sea dragon native to southern Australia, but Lembeh pygmy sea dragons are so tiny and well camouflaged that they look like scraps of grubby hydroid, and were discovered only in 2007.
They have since been found further afield. So tiny are they that I could pick out detail only by looking at my photographs after the dive.

SLUGS
If some sea-slugs survive by camouflage, the vast majority of tropical nudibranchs exhibit wonderful colour that shouts out “eat me if you dare”, vividly advertising that they are either nasty-tasting or poisonous, or are imitating another nudibranch or flatworm that is toxic.
I doubt if I would have found a Lembeh pygmy sea dragon without an expert local guide, but once you have your eye in, everyone can spot nudibranchs.
Nudibranchs travel on a slug-like foot. They have external gills, two rhinophores standing up from their heads that are smell/taste sensors, and often also a pair of tentacles for feeling ahead.
About a quarter of the species I photographed were nudibranchs, few of which have common names.
How do I pick a favourite
The nudibranch I least admire is Gabriela’s tambja, a rather flat green and yellow. Another problem nudi is the blue dragon, too long and thin from a photographer’s viewpoint to get an interesting shot of the whole body, forcing you into head-only portraits.
With a few others discounted, I find it hard to choose between the hairy orangeness of Crimora lutea and some colour variations of redline Flabellina, or the knobbly orangeness of Batangas halgerda and red bumpy Gymnodoris, r the frilly orangeness of fishnet Hypselodoris – and that’s just a few predominantly orange slugs.
Those with a strong white element stand out well from the background. White mantle Glossodoris is brilliant white with a cream border, while Tryon’s Risbecia surrounds the white with a beautiful purple border and has a contrasting mottled back.
Bullock’s Hypselodoris simply adds orange rhinophores and gills, while bumpy Mexichromis adds an orange border and purple bumps, and Emma’s Hypselodoris has darker brown features and stripes.
I like head-on shots, so my nudibranch of the week was one I hadn’t seen before, the orange and white mottled with blue and yellow border girdled Glossodoris.
Sea hares are also slugs, but they have a shell under their mantle and are usually well camouflaged to match whatever they are grazing. Again selected because I have never seen
one before, the grass-blade sea hare is perfectly camouflaged to live in sea grass.

CRUSTACEANS
I could write separately about the different marine arthropods like crabs, shrimps and lobsters, but sometimes it’s difficult to tell which is which. It was only thanks to a book that I realised that the hairy squat lobster, found on barrel sponges, is a squat lobster and not a crab. So I’m lumping them all together.
I couldn’t ignore the orangutan crab, a decorator crab covered in fine red or yellow hairs that bears a remarkable resemblance to the Old Man of Borneo. This is one of the few decorators that can be identified in situ. Most are so well-camouflaged that they would have to be stripped naked in a laboratory for a positive ID.
Hermit and spotted porcelain crabs are cute and photogenic, but commonly found. More exciting to me was the soft coral porcelain crab, a related critter I have not photographed before.
Exclusively inhabiting white xenia coral, I thought the xenia swimming crab was also a porcelain crab until I looked it up. Similarly camouflaged is the xenia shrimp. At least they are both distinctive, but the many anemone shrimps show massive variations depending on what they inhabit.
Shrimps often adopt the survival strategy of making themselves useful through their cleaning services.
Many hedge their bets by also being transparent and hard to spot. I doubt whether whip-coral and cryptic sponge shrimps do any cleaning, other than grooming their hosts.
The emperor shrimp is also picky about where it lives, which is preferably on any sea cucumbers’ bottom.
I saw them on leopard and brown sandfish sea cucumbers, and they can be seen on other types and also on larger nudibranchs.
The spiny tiger shrimp became an immediate favourite, all orange stripy knees and Tigger-like elbows. But it was pipped to the post as crustacean of the week by the enthusiastic cheerleading of a tiny mosaic boxer crab waving its anemone pom-poms.

CEPHALOPODS
Squid, cuttlefish and octopuses range from a centimetre or two to more than 1m in span, and their ability to change both colour and texture makes telling some apart very tricky.
A juvenile broadclub cuttlefish can look smooth, bunched up and any colour from biscuit to black, suspiciously like a bobtail squid, or it might feel like looking spiky and mottled to match a patch of algae.
Perhaps this is because some species of bobtail squid are poisonous. Or it may be that both species strive to hide in a similar way.
A pygmy or dwarf cuttlefish can also be confused with a juvenile broadclub cuttlefish, especially when both are hiding in a tangle of sponge or algae. Both go all spiky and mottled to match the environment, so it’s hard to pick them out, let alone tell them apart.
Reef squid are more obvious, swimming midwater and tending to shoal. An unexpected bonus when diving the Kapal Indah wreck was a shoal of 20 or 30 reef squid by the stern, as you might see pouting or pollack on a UK wreck. They were busy mating and laying eggs.
About the only changes a flamboyant cuttlefish makes is to flare its yellow border and look more vibrantly purple when you swim above it, a gentle reminder that its flesh is highly poisonous. When hunting it slides out two silvery feeding tentacles to snatch its prey, not unlike the guide’s stainless-steel pointers.
Also easy to distinguish are coconut octopuses, amusingly possessive of their shell-homes, and ready to pull them together and hide if needs be.
I did have some minor disappointments with octopuses. I was always on the wrong boat when a blue-ringed octopus was sighted, for example.
And while I saw several mimic octopuses, they were not mimicking. They can look like wunderpuses, the distinction being a U-shaped marking on their backs, the bands on their arms, and horns above their eyes. Perhaps they were sufficiently used to photographers not to try to imitate a snake or flatfish.
My favourite cephalopod was actually a cluster of undetermined eggs, because I could see the babies – which were possibly broadclub cuttlefish – swimming inside their round bubbles.

FISH
Lembeh isn’t just about critters. Flatfish snuggle down with their near-perfect camouflage, as do blue-spotted rays who bury themselves until only their eyes are showing. Plenty of ambush specialists such as scorpionfish, stonefish and crocodilefish lurk on the sand and reef.
Waspfish and leaf-fish just rock with the sea, pretending to be detritus fallen from overhanging trees.
Shoals of small damselfish and cardinalfish cluster above branching corals, ready to dart into cover. Various relatives of Nemo flit above and brush among their anemones, jealous that macro photographers are more interested in the crabs and shrimps that share their host. A range of pufferfish stare goggle-eyed. Giant and white-eyed morays peer from holes.
Reaching up from coarser sand and rubble are blue male and brown adolescent ribbon eels. I found none of the yellow females. Bigger but still good subjects for a macro lens are several species of snake eels, the prettiest being the napoleon, its face covered in black-ringed bronze spots.
Snake eels dig in with only their noses showing. By luck my first encounter with one was signalled by a puff of sand, as a black-pitted specimen shot up to snatch a filefish and gulp it down.
Cleaner shrimps would often be crawling over their faces. These must have to clear out fast when the eel snaps up its dinner.
I could never find frogfish, but the guides had no trouble telling the difference between freckled frogfish and sponges, and between hairy frogfish and muck and sand. It reached the point where I stopped taking pictures, I had seen so many. I even considered nominating the hairy frogfish for my Lembeh fish of the week – until I remembered the juveniles.
For some reason many juvenile fish like to inhabit these mucky and mixed-up locations, trying to survive long enough to grow up among small humps of coral or sponge.
Some, like the barramundi cod and harlequin sweetlips, have a children’s bedroom version of their adult patterns, big, bold and grossly simplified with colours that somehow came out wrong.
Others, like a minute blue-spotted trunkfish or yellow boxfish, are just scaled down from the adults.
The size of a dice with its black polka dots, I can imagine the Red Queen rolling one of these in a game of snakes and ladders.

LEMBEH HAS WRECKS TOO!
Lembeh Strait forms a natural harbour. The town of Bitung is a major port, and many boatyards are scattered along between coastal villages. During WW2 Sulawesi was under Japanese occupation, and with the strait an obvious anchorage and base for shipping, it also became a US Navy target.
The Sekino Maru, usually known as the Mawali Wreck, was a 994-ton steamship bombed by land-based US Navy aircraft on 1 September, 1944. The burning ship was scuttled. It rests to port in 30m.
The Myoken Maru or Bimoli Wreck (after a nearby cooking-oil factory) was a 4690-ton steamship torpedoed by submarine USS Swordfish on 24 January, 1942. It lies well broken on its starboard side in 30m. Because of its proximity to the main port and the large amount of munitions on the wreck, diving is currently prohibited.
The Kapal Indah was a 40m motor ship with machinery aft and two holds, but is alleged to be 40-50 years old rather than WW2-vintage. The name means “beautiful ship”, so could be a nickname. There is a big hole in the port side of the engine-room, and the cylinder heads are missing. The cut may have been to repair the engine before the vessel sank at anchor.
Looking at the many small ships and fishing vessels anchored near Bitung, quite a few are derelict at their moorings and in the process of following the Kapal Indah under water.

FINDING THE SWEET SPOT
After locating critters, the trickiest feat with macro photography is getting such small subjects in focus while everything is moving. You don’t want to grab anything that could be damaged, and macro lenses have such a short depth of field.
I tend to lock the focus at approximately the right distance, then move the camera in and out until I have the focus and composition I want. The most important point of focus is usually the eyes, then the mouth, so judging when both are in focus gives best results.
Leaving it to autofocus, the camera tends to focus behind this sweet spot.

THE RESORT
Kungkungan Bay Resort was the first resort in Lembeh, opened in 1994 on the site of an old coconut plantation. The waterfront bungalows are located along KBR’s own private bay, where the reef is protected from fishing and only resort guests may dive.
There are two boat dives in the morning, one in the afternoon, a mandarinfish dive at dusk and a night dive. Beach diving is available at any time between.
Wide-ranging cuisine at the restaurant, which is built on pillars over the bay, includes bacon smoked in the chef’s own smoker.
Photographers are catered for with dedicated rinse tanks, baskets for carrying cameras, a camera workroom and rental gear. Managers and hosts Kaj Maney and Barb Makohin are dedicated videographers and photographers and happily assist with repairs, advice and critter identification.

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: John Liddiard flew with Emirates to Jakarta via Dubai, then with Lion Air to Manado. Emirates provides a 30kg baggage allowance. Excess baggage with Lion Air cost 165,000 Indonesian rupees each way (about £11.50).
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Kungkungan Bay Resort, www.divekbr.com
WHEN TO GO: Year round. The balance of critters changes with the seasons
PRICES: Dive Worldwide offers one-week packages from £1995pp and two weeks from £3055, including flights, full-board accommodation, transfers and 6/12 days’ diving (three boat dives a day), www.diveworldwide.com, 0845 1306980.
FURTHER INFORMATION: www.indonesia.travel.com