THE BUSTLING PORT OF Bitung is alive with activity. Stevedores and other dockworkers jostle, frantically loading coconut oil, furniture, fresh tuna, spices and charcoal into the holds of cargo vessels bound for far-flung corners of the world.
Crew on other vessels pass the time on the glass-calm strait beyond Bitung with whimsical upbeat music pumping from wheelhouses. This body of water, 30km long and barely a kilometre wide at some sections, is located between the northern tip of the Indonesian island of Sulawesi (where Bitung Port is situated) and a much smaller island named Lembeh.
Mountains surround the scene on both sides and bear testament to the volcanic activity that sculpted this dramatic landscape over geological time-scales. Clouds float suspended over the highest peaks, shrouding the mysteries of the lush tropical rainforest.
Strange inhabitants seek shelter here in the dense undergrowth, including the world’s smallest primate, the diminutive tarsier, a wide-eyed creature no bigger than a human fist, and the black macaque, the face of which bears a striking resemblance to a human’s.
The copra and fishing industries provide most of the income for the 200,000 people who live here. Small coastal villages pepper the coast, and are surrounded by coconut palm groves that tower into the sky and shade the rows of fishing-boats that line the shore.
The strait becomes illuminated at nightfall, as local fishers attract schools of small fish with kerosene lamps. They net and use these as bait for tuna and other large predatory fish on the coral reefs beyond the strait.
These coral reefs lie within an area regarded as the global epicentre of tropical marine biodiversity and are home to the greatest diversity of coral and reef fish in the world.
During a series of ice ages, the low sea level forced surviving coral reef species to persist and evolve here in isolation.
As the seas rose and warmed, many species were dispersed throughout the Indo-Pacific on the ebb and flow of far-reaching currents.
The coral reefs here are ablaze with colour and diversity, akin to the sights of the great Brazilian carnival.
In stark contrast, the marine environment of Lembeh Strait is like a quiet backwater just outside of town that is home to the strange and reclusive – those who never really wanted to be a part of all the glitz and glamour.
Hidden within the barren algae-covered sand plains is a treasure trove of unique aquatic life. Many of the bizarre creatures that thrive in the soft sediment and discarded trash are found only here. For others, this is the only place in which they are found in such abundance.
The seabed at first appears desolate, except for discarded fishing net, tyres and anything else sent down from the world above. Like an oasis in the desert, each piece of trash turns into treasure by creating habitats for settling larvae.
In time, an eclectic mix of predators follows suit, each with bizarre adaptations akin to peculiar creatures dreamt up by a science-fiction writer.
These waters are a hotspot for underwater photographers and, each year, millions of images are exposed of the strange creatures that call this place home. This form of scuba experience, “muck-diving”, is characterised by fine sediments, abundant macro life and often low visibility.
To achieve a fresh perspective on the strait’s unusual inhabitants, I set out to create intimate portraits of the critters, away from the grit and grime of their everyday home.
For many, the solution was simple. Where the critter occupied the water column, for example a delicate reef squid (Sepioteuthis lessoniana) or a rough-snout ghost pipefish (Solenostomus paegnius), I stopped my aperture down and used an f-stop of f22 or greater.
This allowed me to underexpose the background water, making it black, and rely on a bright burst of artificial light from my strategically positioned flashguns to shed light into their otherwise secretive lives.
Other instances required different solutions, such as for Ambon scorpionfish (Pteroidichthys amboinensis) covered in fleshy filaments that made them barely visible against the algae-covered seafloor, or the brightly coloured T-bar nudibranch (Ceratosoma tenue) with a hitchhiking emperor shrimp (Periclimenes imperator).
To create the simple and intimate portraits I had envisaged, I developed a small portable studio. It was collapsible and completely open, comprising a black perspex base and back wall.
At no point were these small models forced to participate in a shoot. If they weren’t comfortable, they were left to get back to their usual business in the strait. It was essential that these images be created on their terms.
The brightly coloured shrimps are standouts in Lembeh Strait’s underwater menagerie. Occupying every nook, cranny and available space, crustaceans occur within anemones, corals, and sponges, in the rubble and on the sediment.
The boxer crab (Lybia tessellata) lives in a mutual relationship with two anemones, which it carries on its claws like a boxer’s gloves. The anemones’ stinging cells protect it against predators, and in return the boxer provides food for its protectors.
The charismatic harlequin shrimp (Hymenocera elegans) gently flutters back and forth like a wind-up toy, and is often found feeding on seastars.
A vast group of cephalopods inhabits this waterway. Perhaps the least cryptic is the flamboyant cuttlefish (Metasepia pfefferi), a species that uses its lower tentacles and back mantle flaps to crawl along the seafloor.
The coconut octopus (Amphioctopus marginatus) is active at night. By day it uses whatever it can find, including coconuts, bivalve shells, glass jars or tins to take shelter from other predators.
Lembeh Strait is filled with scorpionfish, many of which have the ability to hide in plain sight. The devil scorpionfish (Inimicus didactylus) is usually found mostly buried in the sand, with only its goggle-like eyes protruding from the sediment. This species is often observed scurrying over soft sediment with its finger-like pectoral fins.
The undisputed master of camouflage is the frogfish. It walks along the bottom on its hand-like adapted fins until it finds the perfect place to stop and fish.
Once settled, it wiggles a lure in front of its mouth in the hope of engulfing inquisitive prey.
Barely the size of a fingernail, the pygmy seahorse (Hippocampus bargibanti) is one of the star attractions.
Its bright pink and white nodular body allows it to blend in perfectly with the coral polyps on its Muricella seafan home.
These images would not have been possible without the assistance of the staff of Lembeh Hills Resort and Minahasa Lagoon. Thank you in particular to dive guides Robby Manialup and Edman Lasut for their expertise.