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August 2004 Vol. 19, No. 8   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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North Sulawesi, Indonesia

diving by land and sea

from the August, 2004 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver,

If you ask a well-traveled diver from Europe or Asia, youll hear that Manado, Indonesia, is high on their list of dive destinations. The area has exceptional marine species diversity, with big schools of fish, tiny critters, and a well-developed dive industry. If you can afford the Caribbean, put this on your radar screen. I flew there for $1,100 from San Francisco and lived well and dived extensively for four weeks for $150/day, and I paid a single-traveler premium. If you can afford the money, can you afford the time? Getting there took me 30 hours with a layover.

I had been to the Murex (Manado Underwater Exploration) resort three years ago and decided to return to dive Bunaken Marine Park, Bangka and Talise Islands, the Lembeh Strait, and the Sangihe Islands. Manado is the largest city in Northern Sulawesi and 95% of its residents are Christians, who live peacefully with the remaining 5% Muslims, and there is no fear of terrorism. Although I arrived by noon, after a cumbersome immigration process and a drive through dreadful traffic to the resort, all I could do was crash to recover from my arduous coach flight and 10-hour time differential.

Murex was founded in 1987 by Dr. Han Batuna, who studied at Tulane and later headed the Manado Public Health Department, where he set up a recompression chamber. He was present daily; his son-in-law, Danny, an American, now manages the resort. Murexs grounds are filled with jungle growth, lots of orchids, big koi ponds, flowing streams, and noisy waterfalls. My splendid air-conditioned duplex bungalow, about 50 yards from a gravel beach, had lots of skylights, walls with huge panes of tinted glass, white plaster and hardwoods and white tile floors. I had a king-sized bed, a small refrigerator mini-bar, and an American bathroom. Wandering geckos eliminated any insect problem.

North Sulawesi, IndonesiaAfter a solid sleep, I enjoyed a hearty breakfast -- pancakes, eggs, hot noodles, and fresh pineapple and papaya -- served overlooking the beach and distant islands. About 7:30 a.m., I headed for the dive shop. A board tells you your boat, dive leader, destination, and departure time. Murex offers two and three tank trips and shore dives on the house reef (they ask newcomers to do a guided house reef dive for starters). Depending upon your itinerary, you may leave between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. and return between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. The outboard powered boats are about 30 feet long and fully roofed with tank holes inside the gunwales and storage up front. Some boats did not have heads, so when no women were aboard, some men just peed over the stern and other passengers went swimming. Guides use cell phones to communicate with the resort.

Diving in the Bunaken Marine Park mainly means drift dives on walls (40-80 foot visibility), with slight currents that change direction. Bottom times were usually 60 minutes or 600 psi, and the guides -- all are fluent in English -- recommended a maximum depth of 100 feet, down to 70 feet on the third dive. I often exceeded those depths, and only once was motioned to come up a bit. Divemaster Tono, stocky and strong, was a free spirit who easily could be encouraged to push the envelope.

Pangulingan is probably the most advanced dive site in the park, with irregular up, down, and eddy currents. A concave wall leading to a current-swept slope can create problems if one isnt careful. But here I encountered great schools of chevron barracuda and big-eye trevallies that came within a few feet of me. While buddies werent assigned, during current dives they expected us to stay within sight of the group. We cut one dive short here because three divers got carried away, and the divemaster wanted to ensure that the boat got to them. It did. Barracuda Point had strong currents and big fish, such as schooling big-eyes too numerous to count. On one dive, 15 bump-nose (buffalo) parrotfish circled me, and huge schools of black snappers, chevron barracuda, and a large school of oriental sweetlips made the dives fascinating. A very big blue-fin tuna made two passes. Thrilling diving, indeed.

Of course, there are excellent critter sites (they could use more), such as Molas wreck (visibility 10 feet) and Bethlehem (an acronym for Better than Lembeh, a neighboring area and resort), a shallow bay with a sand and silt bottom. At 90 feet I saw the remarkable lacy scorpionfish (Rhinopias aphanes) and then moved shallower to see a weedy scorpionfish (R. frondosa) and a zebra-striped juvenile Batavian batfish. Then I worked my way up to sea-grass at 25 feet where I was delighted with four kinds of seahorses, helmut gurnards, Napoleon snake eels, ornate ghost pipefish, robust ghost pipefish, baby cuttlefish, juvenile white-eyed and snowflake morays, tons of lionfish, Pegasus seamoths in pairs, decorator crabs with fire urchins or anemones glued to their backs, and all sorts of other critters. Great macro stuff.

Meals were satisfying but unimaginative. Lunch on the boats was typically steamed rice; a steamed vegetable dish; and chicken, meat, and fish dishes, followed by fresh fruit. Dinner was served at 7 p.m. Similar to lunch, but it included soup, a larger assortment of dishes, and some sort of cake with a fresh fruit cocktail. This was a time when the international guests -- British, Dutch, German, Chinese (Hong Kong), Singaporese, Japanese, and even a dozen American rebreather divers there for technical diving -- swapped stories with whomever shared a common language and reviewed digital images and videos on the lobby TV.

After several days, they ferried me to their Bangka annex, a beautiful threehour ride via their covered diveboat (plus additional time for a couple of dives). This is an isolated resort, with five bungalows for couples and one for four or more divers. Perched on a pretty crescent-shaped white shell beach, it offers excellent swimming and snorkeling. The generator is within earshot; there is no air-conditioning (a portable fan was available) or hot water at night; and the overhead light is weak, so no reading unless you bring your own Itty Bitty Book Light (available in most bookstores). I got head bumps on the low doorways in the middle of the night when going out to use the Balinese-style bathroom.

The food is about the same as at the main resort; the dive boats and guides are often the same; and the air fills are still 3,000 psi. Most sites are pinnacles, rocks, and seamounts, usually less than a 10-minute ride. I had spectacular soft coral dives, especially in the late afternoon among glorious tubastrea polyps. I saw pygmy seahorses (mostly red but some yellow) at nearly every site. Batu Gosoh was a collection of pinnacles, rocks, and crazy currents -- up, down, and all around. Tanjung Arus, a 50-minute boat ride, is a seamount starting at 30 feet with a beautiful cavern at 65 feet running through it. The entrances provide quite a bit of ambient light. Sadly, here was the first tragedy in my diving career. I was with a group of Jakarta divers, although divemaster Tono and I were off alone. Near the end of the dive, a crew member free dove down, frantically signaling Tono to surface. He returned, giving me the same signal. Aboard the boat, a diver lay unconscious. He had descended to 70 feet, where he lost consciousness and his dive buddy lifted him to the surface. One of his buddies, a physician, administered oxygen and tried to resuscitate him. He didnt succeed. It was difficult to witness, and no one knew what went wrong. We returned to Bangka, and the three survivors went back to Manado with their fallen comrade.

I returned to Murex the next day, making three good dives along the way. Id been here for 12 days, and my next step was to board one of Murexs liveaboards, the Serenade, for a six-night journey. A German couple and three Swiss divers would be my companions. They preferred to converse in German, though they occasionally switched to English to include me. At 9 p.m., we were ferried by a small inflatable to the Serenade. I was assigned cabin two, one of two side-byside staterooms (which share air-conditioning controls and with only a scanty blanket and neighbors who kept the cabins freezing, I often woke up chilled) with a double bed lower bunk and a single bed upper bunk. Both bunks were close to seven feet long and had reading lights. My large en-suite bathroom had a conventional flush toilet. One stateroom below decks lacks a head; the choice Stateroom 1 is in front and runs the width of the boat. The dining room also runs the width of the boat, with two tables each seating six. We ate at one, and the other held coffee, tea, and snacks and doubled as a camera table.

The wooden Serenade, designed by the Murex owners for people under six feet, rolls easily in any kind of seas and produced unwelcome rattles from doors and windowpanes. I jury-rigged solutions. In my stateroom, engine and generator noises were muted, and I lost no sleep.

North Sulawesi, IndonesiaAfter a cold breakfast and a 7:15 a.m. briefing, I geared up for my first dive. Two benches on the dive deck had six tank holes each and a storage area above for fins, lights, and booties. The crew didnt organize it well, but tried to be helpful. I climbed up to the sun deck and donned my skin, then climbed down to suit up. Dives were either off the swim-step or from an inflatable. At Bangka Island there was a huge school of blue-lined snappers, a school of rainbow runners, a really big mangrove jack, and a visit from a yellow- fin tuna. At the end of the dive I encountered a school of big-nose unicorns and Kennedy -- a slight and wiry guide who seemed genuinely upset if you werent having the best time of your life -- showed us one of the ubiquitous pygmy seahorse seafans. When we returned I showered next to the camera rinse tank on the swim step and then sat down to scrambled eggs, bacon, toast, hot noodles, pancakes or French toast, orange juice, coffee, and tea. By the way, one guest, a depressed pain in the ass, created doom and gloom with his constant grouching; we had to constantly reassure poor Kennedy that it was not his fault.

After a mediocre dive in water colder than usual (81F -- am I getting wimpy?), the engineer was working on the engines so seven of us and a boatman jammed into the inflatable for a slow ride around the island to the next site. We had water up to mid-shin, and the boatman was busily bailing. At the site, three divers threw their inflated BCs over the side and jumped in to don them. Then I and the others slipped into our BCs and back-rolled into the water, which had dropped to 79F. Another mediocre dive, so we started the safety stop after 50 minutes. Getting back in the inflatable was challenging, but more challenging was motoring back to the Serenade against increasing winds. I wore my mask to protect against the heavy rain, and Kennedy the boatman constantly bailed while we divers sat and shivered.

North Sulawesi, IndonesiaWith a storm raging to the north, we altered our itinerary and moved south to Lembeh Strait to dive the Police Pier, where I saw juvenile Banggai cardinalfish hidden in big black sea urchins and huge strangely shaped sand anemones, orange painted frogfish, a fingered dragonet, a juvenile demon stinger walking on the sand, a large barramundi, cod and lots of nudibranchs, making it a fine dive. Our second dive was at Hairball, named for the hairy painted frogfish found there. I saw clown frogfish and many anemones full of aggressive saddleback clownfish and Clarks clownfish. Other clownfish, like the pink, orange, and spine cheeks, were less likely to defend their anemone. At Nudy Retreat the star critters were yellow pygmy seahorses, side-by-side cockatoo waspfish, two Pegasus seamoths, a pygmy pipehorse, pipefish, and just about every variety of nudibranch.

That night we journeyed north to Biaro and Ruang Islands. The dives were excellent; the visibility better; and gilded triggerfish, two tone dartfish, striped surgeonfish, turtles, Napoleon wrasses, and elegant dartfish abounded. Next day it was a dive at Mahengetang Island, site of an active underwater volcano. Several dogtooth tuna cruised the site along with a huge school of big-eye trevallies. There were lots of midnight snappers and several varieties of unicorns (big-nosed, sleek, and ring-tailed). At the end of the dive, rocks were covered with red algae and bubbles of hot gas were percolating. The water temperature climbed to 86F.

On our final day, we returned to Barracuda Point for my best dive here. Then, on the slow Serenade, we headed home, arriving at 5:30 at Murex. It was already getting dark. Danny, the resort manager, told me that my van was waiting for me and to just load my stuff aboard and the driver would take me to my next stop, Lembeh resort, three hours away. I got my suitcase out of the dive center, pointed out my other stuff from the Serenade, and stopped at the office to pay my bill. Lembeh Resort, which uses these folks to manage its dive operation, was the next stop. That review comes next time.

-- J.J.

North Sulawesi, IndonesiaDivers Compass: Twelve nights at the Murex resort and Bangka, with food, cost me $600; I got credit for dives that I missed in 2001, so diving that would have cost me $1,000 normally was $600; six days of diving and six nights on the Serenade was $900. ... N. Sulawesi is mountainous, with lots of big volcanic peaks, and several resorts in the highlands offering a break from the rather monotonous year-round, 85-degree air at sea level. Get guides or go off on your own to climb volcanoes, visit rainforests, tour the city and the colorful market, and go white water rafting or horseback riding. ... Transfers between resorts and the airport were included except for a $20 transfer fee to go to Bangka Island resort. ... There is an $18 Bunaken Marine Park fee and a $10 departure tax. ... I set up my trip through Reef and Rainforest Dive and Adventure Travel in Sausalito, CA: 800-794-9767, 415-289-1760, www.reefrainforest.com.

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