Tripping in Asia 2010
Part Two - Lembeh Resort & Critters@Lembeh Diving
I start this installment with the sad news that after flying out of Beijing, we were still a day and a half away from getting where we were going diving. If you are bored and/or uninterested by my details of transportation and Lembeh Resort, feel free to scroll ahead. I was intending to just give some Cliff's Notes on the trip, but out of habit of trying to share info and experience, I have found myself delving into details about the travel and resort aspects. Funny, but somehow posting in installments does not feel like as much work as a bigass trip report ;^)
I do promise that there be dive pictures at the end of this epistle. To skip ahead and view the slideshow for this trip (which plays on both PCs and Macs), click here.
We left Beijing on an early morning flight to Singapore. Our timing from Beijing would not allow us to make a connecting flight to Manado on the same day, but we arrived early enough in the day that we wanted a hotel with some amenities, so we overnighted at the Singapore Changi Crowne Plaza Hotel, which is attached to the airport. This was our second stay at this hotel, and though it is spendy (for an airport hotel), it is very conveniently located right in the airport (outside Customs & Immigration), which, for an early next day departure, takes away the stress and hassle of transport to the airport from an outside hotel. And it does not feel like an airport hotel. And Singapore is not cheap – any decent hotel is going to cost you.
The Crowne Plaza is a very nice, modern, quiet hotel with a lovely outdoor swimming pool area and several restaurants and bars in-house – it's the kind of hotel that makes you go ahhhhhh (or zzzzzzz) as you recline in a chaise by the pool or in your air conditioned room, totally whacked by long haul flights from North America. I booked it directly through the hotel's website as the price was competitive with hotels.com etc.
Singapore Airport has three terminals – so it is pretty big – with a short, mad mouse train running between them. The airport is well signed and laid out, and there is lots of airport mall-style shopping, food & beverage etc available to help kill layovers. There is also another transit hotel, more of the by-the-hour variety, behind security in the airport, for a place to crash and sleep for a few hours. Saudio stayed there, so perhaps he can jump in to share some details.
As we had an early start to Manado, we did not hit the Star Alliance lounge on this trip, but I can share from previous transits through Singapore that it is very nice. I also have to mention the gorgeous orchid gardens in the airport. I feel lucky when I have one blooming in my house – this airport has hundreds of these beautiful plants everywhere.
Singapore Airport is one of the few airports we've been in where I don't sweat a fairly tight connection (we had one on the way back). It is well-signed and easy to travel between terminals. Security is thorough (generally done at each departure gate) and efficient. I also have to mention Customs & Immigration. We had the fastest gate to hotel time ever – off the plane at 3.15, baggage was spat out within 10 minutes of our arrival, then we breezed through Customs & Immigration in no time flat, and were checking into the hotel by 3.30 (which is a two minute walk from Immigration). Previous travel through Singapore have been pretty much the same – and if in transit, passengers can stay behind security and completely avoid Customs & Immigration altogether. Contrast that to Beijing (and Shanghai on the way back) in China, where all North America bound passengers must clear super-scrutinizing Customs & Immigration, even when in transit to a connecting flight. Then you have to schlep your stuff to your airline's check in counter to recheck your bags (even when they are checked through), then through Immigration exit scrutiny, then through more security. That took us over 2 hours, and so I would not recommend a tight connection in China, unless you are traveling on Swissair, Lufthansa and British Airways (I hope memory serves correctly), who apparently have in-transit facilities. We've also found Tokyo (Narita) and Hong Kong to be fairly efficient, but Singapore gets a Gold Star for ease of transit and comfort from this traveler.
Silk Air flies from Singapore to Manado, Indonesia four flights per week. Silk Air is a subsidiary of Singapore Airlines, and although the comfort and service were not up to Singapore's legendary standards, it was pretty good and all went smoothly. The only bummer was that there was no Mike. As in Saudio. He was supposed to be on the same flight as us, and we took off without him. I knew that was bad news, as there was not another Silk Air flight to Manado until 2 days later. I'll let him tell the story of his commute and reroute from hell, but suffice to say it was epically ugly, and he was truly and completely whacked when he finally caught up with us in Lembeh, late the following day.
Lembeh Resort sends down a van and driver to transport its guests from Manado airport to the resort. Being met at the airport by a smiling face bearing a sign with your name and/ or your resort destination is always a happy thing. We had some chatty companions for the drive, and the hour and a half commute went by quickly.
Lembeh is an island off the northeast coast of the island of Sulawesi, which is one of the larger islands of Indonesia. Manado is in the northern part of Sulawesi, and Makassar is in the south. Makassar is a main hub of many of the Indonesian scarelines. To fly from Manado to Makassar was over an hour. In a 737. And Sulawesi is just one big island of several big islands in Indonesia. There are legions of smaller islands too - the archipelago is made up with something to the tune of 16,000 islands. So Indo is, in a word, huge. Here's a map of Sulawesi – you'll have to zoom in on the top right corner of Sulawesi to see Lembeh Island - http://www.travelblog.org/Asia/Indonesia/Sulawesi/Lembeh/map-lembeh.html
Able bodies schlepped our bags down to a little wooden boat and loaded her up, and then wheeee! we were on our way on our short ten minute crossing over to the island. On the Sulawesi side, it's mainly business – a port of sorts (lots of amped up police boats!) and some light industry. Farther north from our launch point are some of the mainland Lembeh Strait dive resorts. Across from where we were on Lembeh is a view to a couple of towering peaks.
The Greeting Party
As for Lembeh itself, well, it's all about beautiful, and is now home to several resorts, in addition to Lembeh Resort.
The island is a luscious green mound of jungle that rises right out of the sea in most places. I asked and there is a road on the island (somewhere back there in the jungle), but there were no cars where we were.
I love this kind of place.
A View With A Room
We were told that in the local Indonesian dialect, Lembeh means something like "left over” – when the area was partitioned up into provinces, Lembeh was, well, apparently left over. Or out. Oops.
Lembeh Resort is tucked into the jungle, on a hilly shoreline featuring a nice little sandy bay where they park the dive boats.
Lembeh Resort's Marina & Critters@Lembeh Dive Boats
Accommodations are in bungalows – some single, and some duplex. Almost all of them have lovely views. Jamie (Peaches) had kindly advised where would be best for us to stay, and she was right on. Ours (3B) appeared to be one of the older units, but no harm – it was huge – a massive bedroom with king bed and mosquito canopy, large bathroom (sink, toilet, shower) opening to a private courtyard out back with a second, outdoor shower. The whole thing was paneled in dark tropical wood, including the floors. There was also a sitting room and then a big veranda (shared with 3A) overlooking the water. The room had a small fridge and coffee and tea-making facilities. The best views in the house are in the newer bungalows up on the hill on the other side of the restaurant, but man, Jamie was right on, that is a bit of a cardiac climb, and something I would prefer not to have to do when schlepping stuff.
The manager of the resort is an engaging fellow named Glenn Knapp, who we got to know quite well, as he was often present at mealtime, circulating around the tables to personally check in with the guests to see that everyone was happy and taken care of. That kind of attention to detail shows at Lembeh Resort. From first greeting to final good-bye, we found it to be a professionally run, finely-tuned, beautifully kept resort with a great staff that is attentive to its customers' needs and is responsive to any issues. A gold star for Glenn :^)
The restaurant, bar, reception and (free to use!) guest computers are in one main building. There is a Mac and a PC. But just so you know, it's dialup, so don't be trying to e.mail 8 MB bragfest images to your buds ;^) Adjacent to this building is the spa and then the Critters@Lembeh dive office. Then there is a dedicated camera room with individual stations for storing, charging and fiddling with your photo gear. There was a large, photocentric group at the resort when arrived, and there were no free stations, so we chose to do all our fiddling and charging in our room.
Power is 220-240v, with a two round pronged (• •) adapter required. There may have been North American style outlets in the camera room – regrettably I didn't check it out.
Next to the camera room is the dive center, where each diver is assigned a locker for gear storage. There is a main sign up board where you can see which group, site and boat you're on next, and where you can add your name for night dives etc. Briefings take place at a couple of locations around the dive center, and there are handy critter posters to both ID what you've seen, and to lust after what you would like to see. Then there is the bay with a fleet of Indonesian-style wooden runabouts – each capable of something like 8 divers, plus crew. Right in the center of the bay is a nice little pool with chaises and umbrellas – a great spot to bag a siesta between dives.
Critters@Lembeh, the on-site dive op at Lembeh Dive Resort, is ably and professionally managed by Kerri Bingham. She runs a great operation, and has a top drawer staff of guides, boat drivers, tank fillers, gear schleppers, etc, all of whom bust their humps to make sure you are well taken care of for the duration. On arrival she asked to meet with us to get us to fill out our waivers and show our credentials, and then to give us a tour of the dive facilities and to spell out their routine. Since I am handing out gold stars today, Kerri gets one too :^)
Lembeh Resort is the first place where I've seen a dive waiver with a section at the bottom asking us what we were hoping to see. I had a pretty ambitious wish list for this trip, so I wrote down Mimic Octopus, Rhinopias, Tiger Shrimp, Emperor Shrimp, Stargazer and Crocodile Fish – some of every diver's many Indo meccas. Well damn if we didn't get shown almost all of them – clearly each guest's dream on list is communicated to the dive guides and they put out their very best effort to show you what you want to see.
The boats go out for one dive, then return to the resort for retanking and surface interval. Most of the dives we did were less than a fifteen minute scoot from the resort. The entry is via shore to boat, which can be a bit tricky. The dive staff assist with cameras, and in any other way they can.
If I recall correctly, dive times were usually 8 a.m., 11 a.m., 2.30 p.m. and then there was an option to do a night shore dive (unguided, except for the Mandarin dive for which a guide is required) or a night boat dive. Guided night shore dives and boat dives are at (a reasonable) extra cost – the unguided shore dive was part of our package. Meal times are worked into this schedule ie breakfast at 7am, lunch at 1 pm and dinner at 7 pm.
Nitrox is available and can be bought a la carte or as part of a dive package. The Nitrox is tested by the dive guys, with you present to eye the procedure and sign off on the number. If I recall corrrectly, they were pretty much in the 30 - 32% range. Fills on the tanks were consistently good.
There are his and hers toilet facilities near the dive center, and two fresh water showers near the water's edge to rinse off after a dive. There are several large concrete rinse tanks, with dedicated camera bins clearly marked.
Meals at the resort were good to very good. Tables are set up on the covered veranda and look over the jungle to the back, and the beach/pool area to the front. When we were there, the fans (you see in the picture below), which had recently been installed, were not yet operable, and it was h.o.t. while we were at the resort (mid-March). I am sure that they will fully functioning soon.
Bar prices are fair. Saudio sampled the red wine and grimaced, so we stuck to the ever-tasty, budget-friendly Bintang beer ;^)
Dining Area - A big group table being set
Breakfast is a hot buffet, including eggs cooked as you want 'em, juices, fruit, yogurt, toast and some breakfast meats. Lunch was also a buffet, with a variety of offerings during our stay, including pasta, pizza and hamburgers (on different days), soup & salad. Dinner is served at the table (except for one night when they put on a fantastic buffet), and there are several choices for each course from a daily sheet. If I was a veggie, I would have wanted to let them know to make sure that there was a veggie option available at all meals.
What Lembeh diving is really all about is muck. There are a few pretty coral reefs (Nudi Falls comes to mind as the nicest bit we saw, and the only dive I missed having the wide angle on for), but for the most part, the diving is brown, fairly murky, pretty flat, and with some pretty deep silt. But oh the things that live in that muck – that is the siren call.
Lembeh is one of several areas of Indonesia that has a collision of critters – stuff from the Northern Pacific and stuff from the Southern Pacific, brought in by opposing currents, plus the unique hybrids that were spawned when those populations met up. So the critters of Lembeh are pretty weird and wonderful. There is a staggering biodiversity at Indonesia – no doubt amplified by the currents that wash nutrients down the channel between the main island of Sulawesi and Lembeh Island. That current is pretty much evident at some point on every dive, but was never unmanageable, just occasionally challenging while doing Macro photography.
The following images were taken over three days (10 dives total) of diving at Lembeh – and are really just a sampling of the amazing critter life in the area. We only did one night dive (shore) and Kerri threw in a guide for free as she had one fellow in training. He found us the pygmy pipehorse and the mantis shrimp with eggs :^)
These guys are tiny (maybe 1/3 of an inch long) and often reside on big colourful sea cukes, like the one pictured here.
These guys look to be cousins of the Wonderpus (similar coloration) but are quite a big larger. This was a challenging shot with a 105mm lens in murky water, especially as he was scooting about on the sand, rarely pausing, and I was in manual focus... Oops.
Pygmy Pipe Seahorse
I think this may be Kyonemichtys rumengani. These things are really tiny - this guy looked like a piece of thread waving in the current, and I was only able to really see what it was by looking through my viewfinder to my macro lens. It is not a great shot, but the best I did with my point n pray technique ;^)
Peacock Mantis Shrimp With Eggs
On the same dive as the Pygmy Pipehorse (which was on Lembeh Resort's house reef, during a night dive) our guide also found this little beast near the end of the dive. This shrimp bobs up and down in its hole - scooting down when we approached, and then warily rising out to see what was up with the bubble blowers. Everytime it bobs up and down, it schleps the ball of eggs with it. I was very fortunate to see a second Peacock Mantis with eggs in Ambon, and got a better shot than this one, which was tough as the mantis' hole was under a coral ledge. Mantis Shrimp are about 4 to 5 inches, head to tail. You occasionally see them out, scurrying over the reef, but most often they are ensconced in a hole somewhere, so you have to wait them out to see their heads bob up with those freaky eyes checking you out.
These fish are only found in a very small area of Indonesia, which includes Lembeh. It is a really beautiful fish, and tends to school in small groups. I most often saw them hovering over an anemone, freaking out the resident anemonefish ;^) The fish is about 3 inches long.
This variety of seahorse is quite large - this guy was about 4 inches high.
There were several of these beautiful, pink-hued jellies on one dive. The image was taken in daytime, with a fast shutter speed to darken out the background.
This beautiful little fish, and its cousin the long-nosed hawkfish, are common in Indonesia.
This is a bizarre fish that walks along the bottom on its legs.
The mouth appears to be some sort of filtering mechanism.
A cousin of the Crocodile Fish. And like the Croc fish, it is a bottom dweller,
lying in wait for dinner to cruise by.
A pair of colorful lizardfish. I have seen them before in this stacked formation.
These are tiny little crabs, about a half inch inch across. I've only ever seen them hanging out on anemones. They have two nifty frondy thingies (like barnacle sweepers) near their head which they deploy to sift through the water, presumably to pick up plankton and other little critters for dinner.
Halimeda Ghost Pipefish
There are cool fishes that I had not seen before. I have seen other ghost pipefish (Harlequin etc) but not these groovy green ones. These were about 2 - 3 inches long.
Ambon Scorpionfish (Yellow)
Ambon Scorpionfish (Red)
These are weird and wonderful little fish that apparently can colour change to suit their environment. When we spotted the yellow one, there was a partner near by (the guide suggested they may be a mated pair) that was bright red. These fish are about 5 inches long.
Glossodoris cinta Nudibranch
Just one of many nudis we saw at Lembeh.
This variety of colourful little slug was a couple of inches long.
Xeno Crab on Coral Whip
Another teensy critter (maybe half an inch long), and they can be really tough to photograph if their host coral whips are swaying in the breeze...
A Lembeh Froggie
There were several varieties of Frogfish we saw in Lembeh, including this tangerine one which was about 4 inches long.
I love cuttlefish - they just seem so expressive, and they are not overly spooked by camera wielding bubble blowers. They can change colour with amazing speed - this guy looks to be trying to match the crinoid behind it. Cuttlefish come in many sizes and varieties - this little one was maybe 4 inches long.
Tiger Shrimp on a Blue Sea Star Leg
Not to be confused with tiger prawns ;^) This little dude was teensy - maybe 1/2 of an inch long. It was cool to look thru the viewfinder and macro lens, and see the detail.
I have wanted to see this fish forever. It is a weirdass critter - it is actually quite a big fish (our guide flushed it so we could see it) - with a barrel body. Very quickly (too quickly for me to zoom out and try to get the whole fish with a macro lens), within a couple of shimmying shudders, it reburied itself in the sand, with just that creepy face exposed.
Next Stop: Tarsier Monkey Safari on Sulawesi and more muck diving on Ambon...
Part One - Beijing, China
Part Two - Lembeh, Indonesia
Part Three - Ambon, Indonesia
Part Four - Raja Ampat, Indonesia