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North Sulawesi, Indonesia
Manado, Lembeh Strait, and Bangka
Copyright Ken Knezick, Island Dreams Travel
Sunset over Manado Tua Volcano as viewed from Kima Bajo Resort - copyright Ken Knezick, Island Dreams

Also see Ken Knezick's Lembeh Strait Photo Gallery

And check out Ken's Bunaken Marine Park Photo Gallery

Map of Indonesia Sulawesi, Indonesia - Straddling the Equator, the large and convoluted island of Sulawesi has a coastline greater than that of the USA. In the south, the remote Tukang Besi Islands and Wakatobi Resort are renowned for their pristine coral reef diving. In central Sulawesi is Toraja Land, home to one of the most unusual primitive cultures still surviving on our planet. In North Sulawesi is Manado, capitol of the region, the area of Indonesia with the highest Christian population, and focus of this report.

Gateway Manado - Located in the far northeast portion of Sulawesi, the city of Manado provides a very efficient entry point to the entire region. With a modern new airport, getting to North Sulawesi's great diving has never been simpler. Manado is easily accessed via direct jet service from Singapore, Bali, Kota Kinabalu and other major hubs. It also serves as jumping off point for the diving of Irian Jaya and Raja Ampat. The bustling port city of Manado and the neighboring city of Bitung are striking for their bustling economy, many Christian churches, and diverse populace living together quite peacefully.

Resort Options - Once in the Manado area a selection of lodging options awaits you, ranging from simple inexpensive dive lodges to 4-star hotels and resorts with their own in-house dive operations. From Manado you have access to blue water coral reef diving in Bunaken Marine Park, or critter and muck diving in nearby Lembeh Strait. As they are only a couple of hours apart by an easy car/boat transfer, my recommendation is that you partake of both. On previous visits I have reported on Hotel Santika Manado, Thalassa Divers, and Kungkungan Bay Resort, which we at Island Dreams are still very pleased to represent. But on this trip I was able to revisit and evaluate Lembeh Dive Resort, as well as to experience Kima Bajo Resort & Spa. This report will provide you with detailed analysis of both lodgings and their diving operations. Always keeping an eye towards topside touring and spa highlights, I also highly recommend the rejuvenation to be found at the lush and contemplative Gardenia Country Inn, located in the highlands above Manado.

The excellent Lembeh Resort, with diving by Critters@Lembeh

Lembeh Resort - Located across Lembeh Channel from Kungkungan Bay Resort, this up-scale property just keeps getting better. Remarkable for its thoughtful design, and the way it has been so cleverly and naturally integrated into the cove and hillside of its setting, Lembeh Resort's lush gardens, careful landscaping, and waterfront vistas make for a truly spectacular dedicated dive resort. Built with stone and exotic local woods, the spacious guest rooms have Balinese-style bathrooms, and wide ocean view balconies. Public spaces include the pleasing two-story dining room, ocean-side swimming pool, dive shop, dockside gear storage with individual lockers, and a spacious, well-lighted camera preparation area with individual cubicles each equipped with charging facilities. A definite asset is the fact that Lembeh Resort's diving services are handled by Danny Charlton's Critters@Lembeh. Their capable boatmen and highly experienced divemasters, coupled with efficient western-minded management, guarantee you as good a diving experience as is to be had in North Sulawesi. If there is any downside to be noted for this property it is that the hillside setting requires a bit of walking up and down stone pathways between the rooms, public spaces and dive areas. But I soon become accustomed to the additional exercise and came away from Lembeh Resort thoroughly impressed.

Dining Room and Dive Shop at Kima Bajo Resort & Spa Kima Bajo Resort & Spa - This spacious resort property commands a lushly landscaped hillside overlooking Manado Tua volcano and Bunaken Marine Park. The rooms are comfortably appointed and well air-conditioned, with a good bathroom, and include cable TV. Heading down the hillside via stone stairways, a large semi-open air restaurant offers buffet-style dining with an ocean view. The dive shop and small camera room are on the ground level. The scuba diving services are managed by Eco-Divers. The dive boats are boarded at the end of a long pier, but all dive gear is handled for you by the capable dive staff. You need only carry your camera onboard. Morning dive trips head out for two-tanks on the coral reefs of Bunaken Marine Park, returning to the resort for lunch. Depending on dive site selection, those boat rides will take 20-30 minutes. In the afternoon guests are offered a muck dive on the reefs around the resort, just a five-minute boat ride away. There is some shore diving available in front of the resort as well as optional boat night dives. During my recent visit, a few of the guests struggled with the stairs and steep walkways around the resort. So if you have bad knees or are out of shape, this might not be the appropriate property for you. The majority of us rather enjoyed the short climbs as a fine alternative to the Stairmaster machine in the gym. Unfortunately, while the dive guides were good, there were some issues with the Eco-Divers dive boats. They were old wooden boats and some of the outboard engines were not running well at all, resulting in guest complaints. I've taken this matter up directly with Eco-Divers management and hope that these problems will be rectified. For my part, I did enjoy my stay at Kima Bajo and the Bunaken reef diving it enabled us to enjoy.

Gardenia Country Inn Gardenia Country Inn - Located in the small village of Tomohon (City of Flowers), the 45-minute drive from Manado to the Gardenia Inn takes you from the heat and humidity of sea level to an altitude of 900 meters, and a completely different environment. The air is pleasantly cooler and drier, and a different set of flora and fauna are evident. Set well back from the road beside an intriguing Buddhist temple, Gardenia Inn is artfully sited amidst manicured gardens, a rushing mountain stream and lively koi ponds. A selection of outdoor and semi-open nooks, platforms and small grottos are perfect for serious relaxing, reading, walking, bird watching and private meditation. Services include massage, day tours, and an excellent restaurant that specializes in a remarkable BBQ dinner that one cooks to taste on a gas burner built into your table. If all the contemplation is too much for you, the bungalow rooms also include a TV set, VCR, and a selection of contemporary movies are available. Gardenia Country Inn is a perfect spot for a romantic get away, a place to banish the symptoms of jetlag after the long international flights, or better yet both at once. I look forward to visiting Gardenia Inn again myself."

Find photos and pricing details here: Gardenia Inn, Manado

Diving Lembeh Strait - Of course, the main impetus for divers to visit North Sulawesi begins with the extreme biodiversity of the marine life in the waters of the Lembeh Strait. The term "muck diving" may have originally been coined in Papua New Guinea, but it is an accurate description of the typical dive site's appearance as one backrolls in at a favorite Lembeh Strait spot such as "Hair Ball." The diver is initially met by a daunting expanse of seemingly featureless black volcanic sand. This depressing marine landscape is only randomly broken by small pockets of sponge, perhaps an anemone, or as often an old shoe, burlap bag, or scrap of newspaper. At first blush, the uninitiated might seriously consider climbing right back into the boat and looking for another place to dive.

Expert Dive Guides - But this is where the sharp eyes of the region's superbly trained dive guides come into play. Initially schooled by dive guide extraordinaire Larry Smith (RIP), these fellows (and now some women) have become world-class fish finders. With the eager assistance of these talented dive guides, Lembeh Strait reveals itself to be one of the richest repositories of marine life on Earth. In fact, the guides' eyes are so good that you will want to bring a magnifying glass underwater, and/or your longest macro lens, to fully appreciate all the marine life they have to share with you.

Harlequin Shrimp on Starfish - copyright Ken Knezick, Island Dreams

The Critters of Lembeh - You will encountered all manner of frogfish including Lembeh's famous hairy frogfish, an amazing filamentous triggerfish, myriad nudibranchs, beautiful soft coral crabs, porcelain crabs, zeno crabs, orangutan crabs, hairy squat lobster, the "devil fish" inimicus, common and thorny seahorses, pygmy seahorses, ribbon eels, snake eels, pipefish, crocodile fish, mantis shrimp, many species of anemone shrimp, stonefish, stargazer, scorpion fish, leaf scorpion, and many other leaf fish. There are some "common" reef fishes here too, like lionfish and clownfish, but around Lembeh they are uncharacteristically ignored in the search for yet more fantastic creatures. Exotic critters such as the robust ghost pipefish and ornate ghost pipefish are so commonly mentioned in the dive briefings as to be reduced to acronyms, RGP and OGP. Still being scientifically researched in Lembeh is the mimic octopus, and it's even more exotic relative known as "wonderpus." During my most recent visit I was fortunate to have seen and photographed both of these rare species of octopus, as well as the long arm octopus, coconut octopus, and even the poisonous Mototi blue ring octopus. The guides not only routinely find these rare creatures, and many more, but also go out of their way to help underwater photographers "get the shot."

Underwater Photographer's Paradise - As a result of the extraordinary marine life and "photo-sensitive" guides, many Lembeh dive travelers are avid underwater photographers, with the focus on macro. The good resorts further cater to photographers' specific needs with well thought out camera prep areas, boat crews trained to handle cameras, and by providing various photo pro months during the year. Experts such as Denise Nielsen Tackett, Larry Tackett, Burt Jones, Maurine Shimlock, Steve Fish, Berkeley White and others are occasionally available to accompany divers on the daily boat trips, sharing tips and spotting critters, and to provide advice on how to improve your u/w photo results. On my own guided groups, I strive to make the travel as hassle-free as possible, and then enable my guests to maximize their diving and photographic opportunities, offering advice and assistance as needed.

Don't Miss the Night Diving - - Over my decades as a diver I have made hundreds of night dives. Sadly, I'd come to the point where I really did not like night diving much anymore. They seemed mostly about too many divers flashing and thrashing about with little in the way of unique creatures to enjoy. I'd end up just swimming around in the dark with my lights off to enjoy the bioluminescence. I'm glad to report that night diving in Lembeh Strait and Bunaken is definitely not boring. Whether a boat night dive, or off the beach in front of your resort, a night dive here is packed with excitement, crazy creatures, and wonderful photo opportunities. So try to limit to a group of no more than four divers, add in an experienced guide/critter-spotter, and you may well have one of the best dives of your life.

Bangka Island Manado, Bunaken, and the Northern Islands - Perfect compliment to a Lembeh Strait visit, is an add-on stay in Manado, there to experience the blue-water and coral reef diving of the justly renowned Bunaken National Marine Park. Generally, the transfer between the two areas is accomplished via a simple two-hour car ride. By special arrangement it may be done via boat transfer, possibly to include two dives in the remote Northern Islands along the way, home to some of the healthiest and most beautiful coral reef I have ever seen. There is also the excellent option of spending a few nights at Gangga Island Resort and diving Bangka amd the surrounding islands, which are more or less equidistant between Lembeh and Bunaken. Learn more here: Gangga Island Resort and Spa

Bunaken Marine Park - In existence for some years now, Bunaken Reserve is probably the best-known scuba diving site in Indonesia. The good news is that it still lives up to its nickname of Bunaken Sea Garden. After the muck diving of Lembeh, most striking and satisfying for me is Bunaken's beautiful blue water, visibility often in excess of 100 feet, and schools of fishes. Here you may swim amidst colorful tropical reef fishes - pyramid butterflyfish, redtooth triggerfish, bannerfish, Moorish idols, and the like. Equally pleasing is the opportunity to encounter pelagic animals such as shark, eagle ray, and Napoleon wrasse, all while swimming along coral reefs adorned in soft corals, sea fans, and big sponges. The Bunaken dive guides are now equally as adept as those of Lembeh, and able to show many of the same exotic creatures to be found in nearby Lembeh Strait. Bunaken too has immense biodiversity, including pygmy seahorses, ornate ghost pipefish, orangutan crabs, devilfish, ribbon eels and the like, all with the background of a healthy coral reef.

Tarsier in Tangkoko National Park Topside Touring - Before departing the Manado region, it should be noted that there is some interesting topside touring to be done. A recent highlight for me was a repeat visit to Tangkoko National Park. We walked through virgin rain forest, listened to the rich sounds of the jungle, glimpsed a hornbill returning to its nest, a cuscus in the treetop, and spied upon dozens of black-crested macaque monkeys as they made their evening camp in the treetops. At dusk we were led to a huge strangling fig tree with a hollow interior where we met, at point-blank range, the Tarsier monkey. Small enough to sit in a teacup, this tiny nocturnal primate has very large eyes to enable hunting its insect prey in the dark. The Tarsier is terminally cute, strongly reminiscent of the friendly version of the little monsters in the movie "Gremlin." For me it was very much worth the hour-plus drive and steamy jungle trek to see them face-to-face. If you can tear yourself away from the diving, give Tangkoko or one of the other topside day tours a try.

The Bottom Line - My love of Asia and Indonesia is well known and this most recent trip to North Sulawesi only added to my appreciation of this wonderfully diverse and fulfilling dive travel destination. I was pleased to see that Bunaken Park still serves up good diving. The pristine areas of Bangka Island and beyond leave me hankering for a Sanghie Islands live-aboard expedition. Lembeh Strait remains an underwater photographer's ultimate playground. Above all, I came away highly impressed with Lembeh Resort and Critters@Lembeh, which strikes me as one of the most attractive and effective dive resorts I've ever seen. The bottom-line, for me at least, is that I can't wait to go back. Group Dive Tours to Indonesia

Mandarinfish at Lembeh

Yours in diving, Ken Knezick - Copyright Island Dreams Travel


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