I’M SKIMMING ACROSS the glass-like water, light sparkling off the surface, sitting atop a traditional Indonesian phinisi boat.
The sun is on my face and a gentle breeze in my hair as we head through the strait towards the eastern end of Lembeh Island. Unbelievably, I’m about to do three “wide-angle” dives.
Lembeh is a small island, directly opposite and 10 minutes by boat from the busy shing town of Bitung, and around 90-minute car ride from Manado in North Sulawesi, where the gateway airport is located.
Lembeh is separated from the main island by a channel 10 miles long and around three-quarters of a mile wide but thought to be no more than 50m deep at its deepest. Impossibly beautiful, this channel is dotted with tiny rock islands brimming with foliage. Around their bases are found a lot of dive-sites.
Lembeh Strait is renowned worldwide for its “muck-diving” – so what I hadn’t expected was to be diving reefs and walls.
Muck-diving gets its name from the muddy environment of the dive-sites. The normally gently sloping black-sand bottom consists of very fine sediment made up of volcanic sand, dead coral skeletons and trash. This habitat seems to suit rare and exotic marine life.
For three days all our dives had been geared around photographing critters. The site Bianca, named after the large white fishing boat permanently moored off the Sulawesi side of the strait, had been our first dive of the trip. Giant-striding into a murky 5m of water, we followed our guide, Opo K, down a slope seemingly devoid of life and spotted with rubbish, to 23m.
We looked more closely. The rubbish had become home to weird-looking animals – an evil-looking devil scorpionfish, many stick pipefish, nudibranchs of all sizes and colours, and one warty and two painted frogfish.
Bold mantis shrimp scuttled about the black sandy bottom, rearing up on their hind legs as we approached, ready to deal a mighty punch if we got too close.

I WAS STAYING AT the beautiful and perfectly located Lembeh Resort on Lembeh Island, so taking advantage of the home-made snacks available between every dive.
After an hour’s safety stop back at the resort we jumped back on the phinisi for the short journey to the very similar site Hair Ball, in search of hairy frogsh.
Our dive-time extended to 90 minutes as we searched in 10m vis to a depth of around 12m. Fingered dragonets with bright orange lips delicately tiptoed around the bottom. A coconut octopus had made its home in a green bottle with added pieces of shell, and another a bright green plastic cup, which had led it to become perfectly circular.
Eventually, Opo K banged on his tank – he had found a hairy frogfish. Dangling its lure in front of its mouth, it bounced in ungainly fashion around the bottom looking for prey, its hair waving in the current to evoke some Hell’s Angel biker speeding down the highway.
During the following critter dives, aptly named Nudi Rain, Nudi Falls, Nudi Retreat 1 & 2 and Critter Hunt, it had never crossed my mind to put on my wide-angle lens, yet the underwater topography did surprise me.
Mini-walls bursting with colourful life, rocky outcrops, a maze of hard and soft corals, schooling fish and interesting formations, coupled with the bright sunlight streaming down through the water, eventually made me feel like shooting wide-angle.
So I asked Lauren, manager of Critters@Lembeh, whether I could revisit the sites for that purpose.
Nothing seemed too much of a problem for the dive centre. Lauren told me to write my request on the huge whiteboard that showed which divers were allocated to each of Lembeh Resort’s five boats. She also suggested several other beautiful sites for wide-angle photography, towards the eastern end of the straits and just outside.
Other guests asked me why I had requested the sites I had, and readily agreed to join me for a couple of days of wide-angle diving.
We opted for two of the most famous dives, California Dreaming and Angel’s Window, on the first day, to be followed later by a three-dive day at sites just around the corner of the strait – Batu Punteng, Batu Maudi and Pante Kecil.
So after our 25-minute boat-ride in the sun, we arrived at what was almost the most north-eastern tip of Lembeh Island, with a steep tree-covered cliff rising out of the water. We were warned of current, but once beneath the surface found barely a murmur of it.
A riot of colour greeted us as the reef exploded with soft corals, sponges, gorgonians and hard corals. Descending to the start of the dive on a slightly sloping coral-covered wide ledge at around 5-10m, we popped over the side and explored the beautiful wall down to the white-sand bottom at 30m.
The sun burned brightly through the blue, making an incredible background for the colourful reef. Several of the divers had compact or micro four-third cameras with interchangeable wet lenses, which I envied when Opo K found a tiny and rare algae octopus in a crevice.
Unable to change lenses under water with my DSLR, I could only watch as the photographers took turns to grab shot after shot. My only option was a photo of a diver photographing the octopus.
Hovering out in the blue, I did however spot a whitetip reef shark swimming lazily below us.

WE HAD ELECTED TO STAY on the boat that morning rather than return to the resort between dives in the usual way. Critters@Lembeh normally insists on 70 minutes maximum – generous enough, but with so much photogenic life about we wanted to be able to eke out another 15-20 minutes per dive by staying out at the site.
The dive-guides and boat-crew changed our tanks – you aren’t allowed to lift a finger unless you really want to – as the boat manoeuvred the short distance to Angel’s Window.
Mooring up off the side of a deserted overwater fishing platform, we chatted until it was time to kit up again.
Descending in the 28° water, we came to the top of a submerged pinnacle, covered in so many soft corals and sponges that it was hard to find a clear patch of rock. On one huge orange sea-fan dive-guide Jhoe from the other group found a Denise pygmy seahorse, and again I was kicking myself for not having a macro wet lens to hand.
Finning down the pinnacle, we reached a small window penetrating to the other side. Squeezing into the swim-through, we emerged onto a sandy slope and came across a tiny yellow painted frogfish that hopped up onto a small coral outcrop and sat staring at us.

AFTER LUNCH AT THE RESORT we decided to forego the afternoon boat-dive and explore the house reef. There was a Biorock project just offshore, built in 2007 as a coral regeneration site and fish nursery.
Visibility had deteriorated a lot since the morning, when we had been able to see the reef bottom from the boat. Silt and sand had been kicked up by boats, tides and wind.
Surface-swimming for a short distance and descending a buoy-line to 3m we found a healthy reef full of life. We had been instructed to bypass this and head down to 15m to find the concrete and galvanised steel structures.
We passed lots of rope on the sandy bottom, purposely laid out as protection for juvenile sh and on which squid could lay their eggs, then spotted, through the 10m gloom, the outlines of concrete blocks.
Carrying on down, we found the three Biorock structures, made of metal with a low electric current running through it to promote the growth of calcium carbonate on which corals can grow.
Concrete blocks had been stacked on top of each other where live coral branches were attached to steel rods.
Elevated structures work best as the coral is more exposed to the ocean, and provides fish retreats and protection
for juveniles. It was less impressive than I had seen on other structures elsewhere, but there was definite healthy coral growth and accumulations of fish where normally there would have been none.

TO MY SURPRISE
, I also found that there were several wrecks in Lembeh Strait, and we decided to try to dive the most famous the next morning.
Almost dead in the centre of the strait, the Mawali is a 90m Japanese freighter from WW2, sunk in 1943. It lies on its port side in a depth of 14-30m.
Often the visibility can be challenging, and that day it was only around 8m. The mooring line attached to the wreck and used for descents had broken, too.
The Mawali has a massive propeller and is still complete with beams, bridge and engines. The ship was thought to have been bombed, as there is melted glass in the kitchen area. Huge hard corals grow all over the wreck, and schooling barracuda patrol the deck.
Opo K guided our captain to the top of the wreck and got in to locate it and check the current. Unfortunately, by the time we had all descended to around 10m, it became apparent that we had drifted away from the wreck in the increasing current. We spent 10 minutes trying to spot it before aborting the dive.
As consolation, Opo K took us back to Critter Hunt, where we spent the dive photographing the topography instead of the critters.
It was back to critter-hunting for the next few days. One creature I had wanted to see since I started diving was a blue-ringed octopus.
A “Wishlist” box on the whiteboard allows you to ask to be shown particular creatures. No guarantees, but the dive-guides are so experienced and helpful, and plugged into such a great network, that they can make dreams come true.
Opo K knew of a blue-ringed octopus at Critter Hunt, but it had barricaded itself inside a bottle with eggs ripe for hatching. All I could see through the coral-encrusted glass was one tentacle.
Opo K explained that once blue-ringed octopuses lay their eggs, they starve to death while protecting them. They live just long enough to see them hatch, and this octopus had only hours left. Respectfully we withdrew and made do with tiger, sexy and hairy shrimp and a candy crab.
At Sarena Patah, a reef covered in beautiful corals, Opo K turned over a large clamshell to reveal flamboyant cuttlefish eggs stuck to the inside.
Down on a mini-wall he found a Denise pygmy seahorse on one seafan, then a pink Bargibanti pygmy on another. Then Jhoe found a Lembeh sea dragon, recently discovered and thought to exist only in the strait and Ambon Island, also in Indonesia. The tiny creature looked like a pygmy seahorse stretched on a rack.
Our air was fairly depleted after being at 23m for most of our dive (thankfully nitrox is readily available and almost essential) when Opo K started banging his tank excitedly. A beautifully posing blue-ringed octopus was waiting for me!

IT WAS TIME for our second wide-angle day out on the boat, and with a wind blowing we decided to try some more sheltered sites on the outside edge of Lembeh Island.
Batu Punteng, a coral reef dropping to 22m, teemed with life and colour – a big school of bannersh darted about in the blue, and a large Napoleon wrasse swam past in the distance.
Of course, Opo K couldn’t pass up the chance of finding something tiny – on this occasion a pygmy frogsh.
The boat pulled into an impossibly beautiful white sandy bay and moored just off the beach. Diving around a tiny submerged island just off it, we came across two giant frogsh sitting on the reef, and a scorpionfish lying inside a wide orange sponge.
One massive gorgonian contained five or six Coleman pygmy seahorses – again, wrong lens!
Our final dive was at Pante Kecil, along the wall edging the bay. With vis at around 15-20m, and the sun shining through the water, this mini-wall was incredibly picturesque.
By now I was fairly sure that it was common everywhere around Lembeh to find masses of scenic soft corals, sponges and seafans. It was an easy dive and I could see how chilled all the divers were.
The sandy bottom at 12m held lots of coral boulders and outcrops. A broadclub cuttlesh hovered above a reef while we took turns at capturing its image. A big school of tiny baitsh swooped and darted near the surface, making a whooshing sound as they changed direction simultaneously.
As I lay on deck, almost nodding off, on our way back to the resort, I marvelled at how these wonderful reefs are overlooked and overshadowed by their more famous neighbour, Bunaken.
Don’t believe the popular image – you can enjoy the best of both worlds in Lembeh.

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE International flights via Singapore direct into Manado with Singapore Airlines/Silkair. It’s a 90-minute drive and a 10-minute boat journey to Lembeh Resort.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION Critters@Lembeh at Lembeh Resort, www.lembehresort.com
WHEN TO GO Lembeh can be dived year round. December to February are the rainy months. Water temperatures range from 29° in January/February to 25° in July/August. A full wetsuit is recommended year round, more for protection than warmth.
CURRENCY Rupiah
PRICES Scuba Travel can arrange a stay of nine nights including flights, transfers, full board and diving at Lembeh Resort for around £2800pp, www.scubatravel.com
TOURIST INFORMATION www.indonesia.travel