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March 2007 Vol. 22, No. 3   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Kungkungan Bay Resort, North Sulawesi, Indonesia

a letdown on Lembeh Strait

from the March, 2007 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Reader,

The secret is out about Lembeh Strait. Divers from all over are traveling to this corner of Indonesia in the Molucca Sea for fabulous muck diving. Despite its remote location, Lembeh Strait is a much less expensive destination than expected. An abundance of new resorts competing for guests equals inexpensive packages with all meals and dives included, some as low as $75 a day. Find a good airfare, and you’ve got yourself one of the world’s best dive bargains.

Lembeh delivered on the diving. Hairy frogfish were among my favorites and I found them on the black sand beds at a site called Hairball One.

Kungkungan Bay Resort, North Sulawesi, Indonesia

It looks nice from a distance

A large, olive brown female prowled the ocean floor like a Chinese lion. She stared up at us while walking on four leg-like pectoral and pelvic fins, her mouth opening and closing nonstop.

Unfortunately, my accommodations were not as wonderful as the marine life. I stayed at Kungkungan Bay Resort (KBR), the area’s first dive operation on the mainland off Lembeh Strait. It was built in 1991 by Kathryn Ecenbarger, the American “Supercuts” heiress. The resort’s reservations center had initially screwed up my arrival date, but a KBR driver picked me up at the airport in the harbor town of Manado, North Sulawesi’s capital. The scenic drive through lush, green jungle and rice fields took an hour. The 17-room resort is strung out along a thin black beach overlooking the mile-wide Strait. The main lodge and restaurant flanked wooden bungalows and a pool (next to a construction barrier) with a swim-up bar that wasn’t operating. That wasn’t the only malfunctioning item during my November stay.

My cottage had a generous living room and two queen-size beds, and I appreciated windows that framed the sunrise every morning. The huge veranda held oversized, comfy wicker chairs with views of Lembeh Island and the strait. The bathroom had adequate storage space. The living room contained rattan furniture with worn cushions and a small fridge with beverages and chips. The living room was cooled by a large ceiling fan and the bedroom had AC. But the bathroom was dirty, with black mold in the corners, peeling paint on the walls, and a toilet that ran continuously. I would have preferred that the housekeeping staff spent more time cleaning the bathroom instead of mysteriously exchanging my comforter for a blanket, and vice versa, every day. Not what you expect for almost $200 a night in Southeast Asia.

To make up for the shortfall on land, I focused on the underwater critters. Johan, KBR’s sweet-faced, alert dive guide, pointed out plenty of unusual marine wonders: Pygmy seahorses hiding in lavender sea fans, ornate ghost pipefish and flying gurnards that glided over the black sand. At Pantai Parigi, a site near Lembeh Island noted for its huge, white limestone formations, the views of marine life were bottomless. I saw “bearded ghouls” stonefish and a hairy spider crab waving well-developed, fuzzy orange forelegs from the gray sand, showing off the reasons why it’s commonly called an orangutan crab. Depths on my dives ranged from 15 to 95 feet. Water temperatures averaging 80 degrees kept most people in 5 mm wetsuits.

Muck diving aside, the boats also went to coral reefs, wall dives and three wrecks from World War II days. Angel’s Window, a submerged pinnacle near Lembeh Island’s north coast, rises to just under the surface and has several swimthroughs at 80 feet where jacks, snappers, devilfish and leaffish hang out among soft corals and seafans. The Mawali, a Japanese WWII wreck, lay scuttled on its port side at 100 feet. The 250-foot-long boat was mostly intact and heavily overgrown with soft and hard coral. Lionfish suspended themselves around the masts. Huge scorpionfish, multiple nudibranchs and a banded sea snake also made appearances.

My favorite dive was the dusk dive to view the elaborate mating ritual of the mandarin fish. At Batu Angus, I floated motionless over a mound of living and broken coral as daylight slowly crept from the sea. Mandarins darted out looking for love. Seeing none, they quickly disappeared back into the coral. Kungkungan Bay Resort, North Sulawesi, IndonesiaMinutes went by. I waited in descending darkness because artificial light would scare the fish away, and feared I wouldn’t get lucky either. But when the water grew black, a bold female emerged. Two male dragonets were close behind, their scales rusty orange broken up by aqua spots, stripes and squiggly lines. They put on a lengthy display to win a night with the tiny female, who was watching them as closely as I was. The males circled and knocked into each other. One started to lock onto his heart’s desire, only to be pushed off by the other. Finally, one of them won, but his decisive moves were lost on me. The couple swam, heads up, in unison for mere seconds, yet still parted in a small stream of aquatic ecstasy.

That’s not to say every dive overflowed with such magical creatures. Lacking prolific sea life, muck diving quickly gets boring if you’re looking mostly at sand, as I did when stuck with a less-experienced KBR guide. At Nudi Falls, he shoved me to within inches of a nudibranch, which I would have stepped on if I hadn’t backpaddled so quickly. At Hair Ball 2, he located a cool crocodile fish and a free-swimming nine-inch yellow seahorse. But he didn’t find anything else, so most of my last dive was spent wandering over the sand without a critter in sight.

This wasn’t the only disappointment. Trying to travel light, I left my gear at home but KBR’s dive equipment was not up to date and didn’t work properly. A dive guide loaned me his weight belt after I discovered at 60 feet that the one I was given wouldn’t stay closed (luckily my BC kept it in place). The depth gauge never worked right. I was given a computer but no instruction or manual. After a confusing first dive with it, Kim Hessel, the friendly PADI Master Instructor managing weekend operations, gave me a manual and a thorough explanation.

Construction on the dock was under way but for now, one still boarded boats from the beach. The staff used aluminum 80s tanks, carried to the beach. Our gear was then exchanged either on the dock or on the boat. The dive center includes two freshwater camera rinse tanks, two outdoor showers (only one had hot water), a large camera room, a toilet, a wetsuit tub and two shaded briefing areas where we suited up.

Dive staff handled tanks for us. One dive guide was assigned for every four divers, but sometimes guides took only two divers. The small speedboats were crowded when staff tried to fit eight people aboard. We boarded via the beach, sped to dive sites about three to 20 minutes away and backrolled into the water. The crew handed down cameras and took equipment from divers reboarding by ladder. They also passed out fruit, but I was lucky if I got a clean glass of water.

My biggest problem involved dive operations manager Steve Coverdale’s refusal to teach the underwater photography course -- which I stipulated as a condition for my reservation at KBR. After all, how can you dive in critter heaven without taking photos? The reservations staff had assured me over the phone he’d teach the course. When I checked in and paid in full, neither Coverdale’s hotel manager wife, Miranda, nor an assistant manager would answer questions about the course. I discussed it with Coverdale the day I arrived, saying I was willing to learn with the resort’s 35mm film camera even though he had said 30 to 40 percent of the class was obsolete. Coverdale wouldn’t take “yes” for an answer and aggressively discouraged me until I gave up. I didn’t find the Coverdales too friendly either, except to the European guests.

Fortunately, the Indonesian staff was welcoming and friendly, and made a big difference in my overall KBR experience. The food was good. Breakfast and lunch were buffets containing fresh fruit and a small selection of Mexican, Italian, American and Indonesian food. Breakfast included cereal and made-to-order omelettes. At dinner, I ordered appetizers, salads, entrees and dessert from menus featuring a large selection of the same type of food. I went for seconds of tasty chicken in cream sauces and an Indonesian chicken noodle soup.

Days started with breakfast, then 8 a.m. dives, followed by a late-morning dive, lunch, and an afternoon dive. That can be exchanged for the dusk mandarin fish dive at an additional $35. There’s no bar, so evenings revolved around dinner and talking with friends in the dining room. Internet access was pricey compared to Internet cafes in Manado.

If you don’t want to get up early for the first dive, you can always dive the “house” reef but if you don’t have a buddy, you must pay $25 for a dive guide. A fellow guest discovered a female cuttlefish laying eggs in coral there one morning. The next day, she took her boyfriend there and found the male apparently inseminating the eggs. On the third day, I got to see the deep crimson female stand guard while the male again appeared to spread his seed.

I wish KBR could take a lesson from those cuttlefish and provide better care to the resort and guests. As word of Lembeh Strait keeps spreading, more resorts are opening to welcome the growing number of divers. KBR needs to clean up the muck and offer the services advertised on its website, as well as amenities actually worth the amount of money it charges.

- W.J.

Kungkungan Bay Resort, North Sulawesi, IndonesiaDivers Compass: Gateways to Manado include Singapore, Jakarta and Bali. High season is June through August ... From Los Angeles or San Francisco, Singapore Airlines flies via Tokyo, Taiwan or Hong Kong for $1,275 during low season and $1,525 in high season. From New York City, Singapore Airlines connects via Frankfort and charges $1,335 in low season and $1,375 in high season ... I paid $1,160 for a package of six nights, five days and three dives a day, meals included ... Nitrox, always 32+ percent, costs $75 for three unlimited days, then $15/day. KBR charges 21 percent for tax and staff tip ... Voltage is a low 220 in rooms, but KBR will lend you an adapter for your room ... Terrorist bombings have occurred here (an explosion at a Central Sulawesi market killed 22 people in 2005) but up to 80 percent of people in North Sulawesi are Christian. I spent time in the capital Manado, and found both friendly and not-so-friendly folks ... A hyperbaric chamber is in Manado, 90 minutes from KBR. Human bird flu cases, malaria and dengue fever have been reported on Sulawesi, but no human bird flu cases have been reported in North Sulawesi ... Reservations: (530) 347-2300; Website: www.kungkungan.com

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