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April 2018    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Vol. 33, No. 4   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Diving in Lembeh Can Be Infectious!

from the April, 2018 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Don't expect the water at Lembeh Strait to be gin-clear. On my first of many trips, the Danish dive guide's briefing was memorable. He said that if we saw some trash on the seabed, it was probably an animal, but if it were really trash, it would certainly have an animal living in it.

That did not prepare me for what I encountered as I dropped down through the water. It was nothing more than a trash heap. After spending so much dive time on beautiful coral reefs, I wondered what I was doing there. After all, I had turned up with an underwater camera set up for wide-angle shots and ended up taking pictures of divers looking at things through magnifying glasses.

The Lembeh trash heap has been piling up with human rubbish since the beginning of history. The Strait is a narrow waterway between the island of Lembeh and North Sulawesi near the city and busy port of Bitung, which are at the southern end of the Strait. The prevailing current pushes through from the Molucca Sea towards the Celebes Sea.

Humans have regularly tossed their unwanted trash into the river and the ocean, and it has accumulated on the black volcanic sand. The rivers, as they do in third world countries, carries human and animal waste (including E. coli), and agricultural runoff such as pesticides. The port and heavy boat traffic provide their own brand of pollution, one source being marine anti-fouling paints.

The sea there is also rich in nutrients, and the marine life has evolved to survive in the trash-laden, nutrient-rich environment. It has become the undeniable the muck diving capital of the world and the place by which other muck diving destinations are judged. Larry Smith, the famous Texan dive guide (now deceased), was fond of saying, "Things are smaller round here!"

However, there is an unsavory element of diving Lembeh, which I learned the hard way when I removed my mask underwater to scrub the inner side of the glass. Within a day, I was suffering from an almighty eye infection that closed one eye completely and threatened the cancelation of the next part of my trip, to the then-unheard-of diving destination -- Raja Ampat.

What to do? Luckily, there was a doctor with me who diagnosed a lacrimal duct infection and prescribed the antibiotic ciprofloxacin. I went to a pharmacy in Manado and bought a course for US$4.

We and our readers have noted problems before. In 2007, Undercurrent writer Doc Vikingo wrote, "Infections are not uncommon for divers doing the Lembeh Strait, other areas of Sulawesi and Indonesia in general. There are reports that E. coli levels are increasing in the Bunaken marine recreational areas. Because Lembeh's famed muck diving is done close to shore, it's also near lots of dumped trash and runoff from nearby land, including human waste. Often it's just plain nasty. You may see and smell strong substances like petroleum, but there's lots more infectious material that you can't see or smell. The high temperatures and humidity typical of Sulawesi and other areas of Indonesia are strongly predisposed to promoting infections, both bacterial (such as E. coli) and fungal."

In October 2013, subscriber Mona Cousens (Santa Barbara, CA) reported, "Lembeh has some serious bacterial problems with the water. Every time I go there, I get skin rashes or staph infection."

In July 2014, an Undercurrent travel writer reported, "The warm waters may predispose some divers to external ear canal infections."

So, when traveling to Lembeh or other areas such as The Philippines, it would be wise to consult with your doctor beforehand and determine whether you should carry a broad-spectrum antibiotic or other drugs. Should you develop an infection or an illness, your dive resort manager should be able to get appropriate medicine. After all, you won't be the first case.

Meanwhile, at Lembeh, keep your regulator in your mouth, your mask on your face, and treat any skin abrasions with antiseptic.

That said, the muck diving in Lembeh Strait is itself infectious for serious divers. Many return again and again, and few have problems.

-- John Bantin

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