FOLKLORE IN NORTH SULAWESI RELATES THAT GOD made more than a few mistakes when he was creating fish to populate the worlds oceans.
Some of his errors produced very strange or ugly-looking denizens that would not fit in with those he created to populate the beautiful coral reefs. He looked for somewhere to keep these blunders where no-one would find them, and apparently tossed them into the Lembeh Straits. Here they stayed hidden - until man discovered sport diving.
Your first glimpse of the Lembeh Straits are from a distinctly suburban approach road to the busy port of Bitung. If you were expecting the azure blue of tropical seas you might feel disappointed at the sight of dark waters with the green hills of Lembeh Island rising behind them.
But most divers who make this journey will feel only excitement at this unpromising view, as this is exactly what they have been led to expect of the muck-diving capital of the Far East.
The whole of the Indonesian archipelago is reputed to have one of the richest marine eco-systems in the world and it is only relatively recently that the Lembeh Straits were found to host such an abundance of weird and wonderful marine life, transforming it to something of a Holy Grail for both photographers and marine biologists. Nowhere else in the world can you guarantee to find this incredible range of Gods creations in shallow sheltered conditions.
So, folklore aside, what has propagated this unique selection of marine life The Lembeh Straits lie at the north-eastern tip of Indonesias island of Sulawesi, just north of the Equator, in an area where there is a considerable tidal range.
The daily movement of nutrient-rich waters through the straits attracts and feeds this extraordinary marine population. Most of the area is of volcanic origin and this is plain to see in the black sand beaches that line the edge of the straits and extend under water.
Some sections feature shallow walls dropping from the surface, overhung by vegetation which allows deeper-water species (gorgonians, sea whips etc) to thrive in only a few metres of water.
There are a few areas which feature coral outcrops and a substantial reef section close to the northern entrance to the straits, but most feature sand and rubble in relatively poor visibility.
There is also a lot of mans debris here, carried from thoughtless disposal in Bitung harbour. The locals dont have our enlightened attitude to pollution of the seas, so you will find everything here - bottles, jars, paint tins, old trainers, bits of rope, cigarette packets and paper debris, together with a range of natural products of the shoreline.
Your distaste will soon turn to delight, however, as you realise that these collections of rubbish provide innovative homes for a number of marine masters of camouflage.
Thats when you begin to appreciate the origins of the phrase muck diving.
On your first dive, your initial impression may be of acres of black featureless volcanic sand gently sloping away to deeper water through gloomy visibility reminiscent of dives in the UK.
Your dejection may be complete when your guide begins gesticulating at one of the many patches of hairy-looking debris which pepper the seabed. It is not until you get close enough to see to what your guide is pointing that you realise that in among these oases of debris are sponge growths and all manner of invertebrate life.
But that is still a little disappointing until you appreciate that the lump being indicated is moving slightly and has an almost alien appearance - it turns out to be a frogfish, or perhaps an Ambon scorpionfish.
To get the most out of this experience, a good guide is essential. You may spot some things for yourself, but the really well-camouflaged species need an experienced eye.
A good guide will ensure that you spend your dive moving from one subject to the next until you run out of film!
That first lump shown to me turned out to be a well-camouflaged green frogfish which stared back at me with complete disdain while I made repeated exposures of him.
Pleased with that, I was ready to move on when I realised that my guide was looking puzzled, and pointing back in the direction of the frogfish. Another hard look revealed a second tiny black frogfish holding onto the tail of the larger one - more exposures followed!
Barely had we turned away from this tableau than we found a pale crocodile snake-eel peering out from the dark sand and a few inches beyond that several exotically patterned nudibranchs.
Ten minutes into the dive I was already halfway through the film in my first camera system - diving with more than one camera is almost essential, or your first dives will be very short!
The dives are punctuated by your own discoveries of some of the more obvious species - nudibranchs, gobies, dragonets, octopus, cuttle fish - coupled with responding to the sound of your guides tank-banger whenever something more unusual is discovered.
Species such as the cockatoo waspfish, which I had assumed were relatively rare, are found among almost every collection of leaves you encounter, and in a variety of colours.
There are a baffling array of scorpionfish to be found as well, from an almost albino-white species which stands out like a beacon on the sand, to those so well covered by algae that it is difficult to pinpoint an eye or the mouth, or perhaps the more threatening glare of an inimicus as it strolls across the seabed.
Possibly the most striking species is the Ambon scorpionfish, which at first looks like a ball of coconut fibre rolling with the gentle water movements. These fish are not only amazingly well camouflaged but to me are surprisingly small as well. My example was only 7.5cm long.
There are 25-30 different dive sites in the straits, according to most dive centres. These all offer something a little different, and some are best only for a particular species. Your choice of dive site will be dictated by the state of the tide, which can produce some vicious currents, particularly during spring-tide periods.
One of the most striking sites for variety of odd fish in one spot is known as Hairball 1 and Hairball 2 which, as the name suggests, is two sites that have merged together.
Before the dive I had declared an interest in photographing the hairy frogfish for which this site has become famous among photographers.
Towards the end of the dive, my guide raced towards me, tugging at his hair and splaying his hands to indicate the discovery of this remarkable species. However, I was surprised to find that this was not the long-haired fluffy versionI had expected, but a close-cropped variation with designer stubble, stripes and spots and a delicate pink hue, which sat patiently waving his lure as I snapped away.
No one appeared to have seen this species before, but finding new species is apparently is not unusual in Lembeh.
We finished the dive in the shallows at the top of the bank watching yellow and orange seahorses march purposefully across the sand, flying gurnards cruising on outstretched wings, balls of catfish grazing furiously, brightly coloured chain morays resting and relatively mundane subjects such as hermit crabs and razorfish.
All this was on the first dive of the day, which left me clock-watching during a surface interval after a speedy film change.
Another popular site, Nudi Falls, is quite a contrast to Hairball. Here the rocky foreshore with its overhanging canopy of vegetation plunges straight into the water. Below the surface is a short wall brimful of sponges, gorgonians and invertebrates which bottoms out onto a rubble and coral slope at 12m or so.
Although our initial search for a resident scarlet Rhinopias scorpionfish was unsuccessful, the site did reveal a multitude of other macro treasures. The rubble slope is peppered with featherstars which are home to well-camouflaged pairs of harlequin and ornate pipefish, while sharp eyes will also pick out at least two species of robust pipefish.
The sandy areas are populated by mantis shrimps in burrows, pegasus sea moths with their partners marching to an urgent appointment, hermit crabs, slipper lobsters and the occasional coconut shell with resident octopus.
At the base of the wall and on the wall itself you find nudibranchs in every possible mixture of shapes, colours and patterns - we found more than 20 in a single dive, and naturally film was consumed all too quickly!
Mixed with all these unusual denizens are a selection of more ordinary reef fish. They are all but ignored by the photographers but dont seem offended.
If you need a fix of clear water, wide-angle vistas and coral walls for a change, the Bunaken Marine Park is close at hand on the west coast of the peninsula.
If you are a dedicated conservationist, the sight of rubbish in the water is likely to upset you. But if macro photography is your addiction, you enjoy exotic marine life or merely have a healthy interest in natures weirdos, and are not deterred by the current official advice against travel to Indonesia, then Lembeh should be high on your must-visit list.