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April 2018    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 44, No. 4   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Two Fish Divers, Lembeh and Bunaken, Indonesia

a two-resort budget combo with tip-top diving

from the April, 2018 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver:

Two Fish Divers offers a great high-value "budget" opportunity to dive both the world-class muck of the Lembeh Strait, and, at their second resort, the splendid walls of Bunaken. I jumped on the deal, knowing it would be without the luxurious add-ons found throughout Indonesia for the high-end diving market. However, traveling alone, I didn't need much. And, what a price! About $150/day for accommodations, meals, and three dives a day, including nitrox. This would be my third trip to these Two Fish Divers resorts.

Cottages are similar at both resorts

First stop, Two Fish Divers, Lembeh, with perhaps the best muck diving in the world, and Two Fish guides did a great job leading me to the many critters there. (I spent three days there and 11 days at Two Fish Divers Bunaken). For my first Lembeh dive, I climbed aboard their sturdy, wooden Indonesian dive boat with five other divers for a ride (10-15 minutes normally) to the dive site. After being put into groups of three, each with a guide, I dropped to 50 feet(15m), where immediately I began seeing muck's famous critters: first a colorful painted white frogfish; then, while my buddies were busy with a ghost pipefish, I got good shots of a blue-ringed octopus, a highly toxic little fellow, should one stick a finger in its mouth. A few yards farther, a football-sized cuttlefish lay half-buried in the black volcanic sand, and then I came upon a beautiful purple anemone nesting two Clarkii clownfish. After that dive, it was biscuits and cookies, fruit, tea, and water before the next.

Lembeh MapDuring the slow and relaxing Lembeh diving, I encountered exciting varieties of frogfish (the hairy species was especially fun), ghost pipefish, common and pigmy seahorses, anemone and clownfish, cuttlefish (flamboyant and regular), dragonettes, waspfish, gurnards, nudibranchs galore, stonefish, scorpionfish, two-spotted gobies, spearing mantis shrimp, whacking mantis shrimp, tiny boxfish, squid, and the wonderpus and mimic octopus.

The dive guides at both resorts are PADI Rescue Divers. They asked that we limit dives to 75 minutes or 600psi (40bar), whichever comes first. With no more than four guests per guide, they matched me with other nitrox divers with similar air consumption and interests. At Lembeh, they were expert macro-critter spotters, but I was a little dismayed that they handled frogfish with their pointers for the photographers. (I mentioned this to the dive managers.)

Sturdy wooden Indonesian dive boatsOne afternoon, we were docked at a pier, and nearby schools of colorful, synchronized razor fish swayed in the surge right after I jumped in. I got shots of two rogue mandarin fish in staghorn coral, unusual since it usually takes a dusk dive to spot them.

After two dives on my third day (three days of muck diving is enough for me), I was transferred by boat, van, and boat again to Bunaken. It was the first two weeks of February, and though the weather had been great in Lembeh, it rained in Bunaken nearly day-and-night for another six days. We avoided certain dive sites until the water cleared. On my five previous trips to Indonesia during "the rainy season," it only rained a day or so each time.

The resorts are similar -- even the cottages are the same -- and run the same way. My cottages were comfortable and clean, with a big shower/bathroom area a step down. (The superior cottages are a little larger and provide hot decanted water for tea/coffee.) They have no a/c (one reason the price is low), but I was comfortable with the fan. Bring microfiber clothing, as it's so humid cotton doesn't dry well. The beds were good, and a hammock adorned my porch at both locations, delightful for an afternoon nap. Bunaken has a nice saltwater pool and many places to hang out in hammocks or lounge chairs.

Underwater, Bunaken's lush walls were populated with many species of coral, but soft corals were not as profuse as in Raja Ampat or Komodo. Still, the multi-colored coral landscape is intricate and stunning. Giant elephant ears, two-meter-wide fans, barrel sponges the size of garbage cans and tube sponges were everywhere. Little intricate corals and sea squirts formed a beautiful, rich and diverse palate to explore carefully up close. Fish life on the walls were four times that of anywhere in the Caribbean and as good as the west coast of Cebu in the Philippines or Wakatobi.

Two Fish Divers pier, LembehThe dive boats, identical at both locations, are roomy and sturdy wooden Indonesian craft powered by outboards, and each handles about 10 divers. The crew loaded everyone's gear and set it up in the midsection. To enter the water, I backrolled off the gunnels. I climbed back in via a sturdy wooden ladder after the crew hauled up my gear. Lembeh's water was always flat, but the Bunaken boats dragged a line to help in rough water. In fact, that rough water once caught me off guard as I was standing in the head eliminating the extra fluid that accumulated during my dive. Unexpectedly, the boat rocked violently, and my arm swung to catch myself. I scraped it hard on a rusty nail. I was glad I had updated my tetanus shot at home, but applied triple antibiotic ointment for three days. As for that nail, I pointed it out, but it was still there on my last day.

There was plenty of food, basic and tasty, though with little variety, served buffet-style in a large dining hall at two long tables. By looking at the meals as "food for fueling dives," I got by just fine. Breakfast would be eggs to order, pancakes, French toast (no meats), noodle soup, corn flakes, cocoa puffs, toast, tea, and fruit. Coffee is Indonesian-style (like a French press without the press). You put a spoonful of coffee in hot water, stir and wait for the grounds to settle. You can get filtered coffee from the bar for $1.25. I'm bringing my own cone filter and coffee on my next trip.

Two Fish Divers, Lembeh, and Bunaken, North Sulawesi, Indonesia - RatingLunches at 1.00 p.m. always offered locally caught fish, sometimes nice and moist, sometimes dry. Rice, noodles, salad and a vegetable like Indonesian spinach, sweet potato, greens in coconut sauce, green beans or tender bamboo shoots were a part of every meal. Suppers began with a delicious soup, then a chicken, pork, fish, sliced beef or vegetarian option -- like tempeh or eggs -- salad, rice, noodles, and two types of veggies. Desserts were fruit (try the snakefruit -- it tastes like an apple/pear combo), mousse, banana fritters or bread pudding squares.

Soft drinks and Bitang beer and even Guinness in cans were reasonably priced (there is no wine or hard liquor). The dive guides and other resort locals made palm wine and mixed it with cola, often sharing it for free around the nice little exterior bar at night, where I'd head after dinner. I'd discuss the day's dives as well as dive experiences with the international crowd, mainly Europeans (Finland, England, Scotland, Germany, Belgium, China, and Korea). Five twenty-something Danes were there for certification. Yvonne, the tech diving instructor, also joined us in the bar each night to tell stories and discuss dive experiences around the world.

One Aussie I dived with had just finished his tech diving training with Yvonne, using heavy dual side-mounted tanks, so he buddied up with me and another diver on a Bunaken wall dive. With only one tank this time, he had seriously underweighted himself. Our guide gave him an extra two kilos, but he still couldn't get down, so he basically stayed above us on the reef for 60 minutes at 15-30 feet (5 - 9m). We had a good laugh together afterwards. He had made more than 2,000 dives, but we all make mistakes.

Saltwater pool at Two Fish Divers, BunakenAt both resorts, the local Indonesian dive guides, supervised by ex-pat instructors, were great at spotting small stuff. (The guides rotate between the resorts, so you can't count on the same guides each visit.) At Bunaken, I often had my own guide because there were many divers in training and I was the only one on nitrox. Once, while the boat was going about three knots, one young man dipped his mask in the water, and it was ripped from his hand. My guide and I were ready to go, so the boat stopped, and we backrolled in to look for it. No such luck. It was a rental mask, and the trainee was required to buy one for the resort. I had to rent a pressure gauge from the resort and borrow a Shearwater hoseless computer from my Aussie Tech buddy, since my Scubapro Galileo malfunctioned. I found a hairline crack that flooded it, but I liked the Shearwater so much, that's what I bought when I arrived home.

A typical Bunaken dive was 65-70 minutes along a wall at 75 feet (23m), with visibility ranging 50-75 feet (15-23m) in 84F (29C) water. I would see up to 10 turtles per dive, paddling alongside the beautiful, eye-popping corals and seastars thriving in the complex wall, laced with large barrel sponges, big fans, and multi-colored sea stars, a great place for wide-angle shots. With my dive light, I took my time searching the nooks and crannies in these great walls, finding eels, crocodile fish, and plenty of nudibranchs.

Schools of black and redtoothed triggerfish, butterflyfish, fusiliers, chromis, and surgeonfish roamed the reefs, and occasionally I spotted unicorn fish, bumphead wrasse and anemones with tiny shrimp, crabs, and clownfish (pink, salmon, Clarkii, true). In 11 days, I saw only about half a dozen white-tips, all cruising off the wall at 120 feet (36m). On one night dive, I got shots of crabs, pygmy cuttlefish, happy bug-eyed shrimps, and even a couple of mandarin gobies. There is no camera room at either resort (remember, this is a budget operation), but they gave me an extension cord with multiple plugs to use in my cottage.

The Two Fish Divers' dive boat, BunakenBram, Bunaken's concierge, was very kind and considerate, and the entire staff, especially the women at the front desk, was friendly and responsive. The British owners live in Bali, leaving management in the capable hands of the resort manager, Nona, who has been there eight years. Markus, the dive manager, had a great sense of humor and the patience of a saint handling the various skill levels of the divers, from Chinese beginners who spoke little English, to British veterans on their 10th visit to Bunaken. A Danish mom and her 13-year-old were both certified while I was there, an experience of a lifetime for them.

The hard-working guides did all the heavy lifting and equipment setup/wash down. They were careful handling my big camera rig, which they stowed in a big plastic tub on board. I tipped my guide $4/day, which I was told by the instructors was generous, and put $100 in the group tip jar to be shared by the staff at Christmas. All the guides were heavy smokers, and puffed on the stern of the dive boat or even on its roof. At night in the bar, where some guides sang, played guitar or stand-up box bass and joined in the fun, smoke filled the air. Clearly, the tobacco companies' efforts to target the Third World has, unfortunately, worked well among Indonesian men.

Two Fish Divers fills a nice and necessary niche, not only for newcomers, but also for us older divers not wanting to spend $400-$500/night for great Indonesian diving. It's every bit as good as the very expensive Wakatobi (which is about four times more expensive than Two Fish or even Philippines resorts, which may be twice as much. In fact, Two Fish is a better financial deal, with far better diving than any Caribbean destination, as long as you can cope with the 30-plus hours it takes to get there.

So, I'll return to Two Fish for their comfortable cottages, good basic meals, and easy, rich diving. However, I might try the dry season next time to get more sunlight on those pretty reefs.

-- D.S.

Our undercover diver's bio: "I got the diving bug watching Sea Hunt as a kid, got certified in 1983, but didn't start diving the world until 1991. I've logged more than 1,200 dives in the Caribbean, Indonesia, Australia, Tahiti, Palau, PNG, Maldives and the Philippines. While I love the convenience of liveaboards, I also enjoy resorts for their relaxing pace and beauty. My life goal is to dive on my 90th birthday. (Only 24 years to go!)"

Divers CompassDivers Compass: Getting to Manado, North Sulawesi, requires a stopover in Singapore, Jakarta or Bali, where an overnight is necessary, then a direct flight to Manado ... Two Fish staff met me at the airport and whisked me to their Lembeh resort, which included a short boat ride from the town of Bitung. (It's a 30-minute boat ride from the main Manado dock to their Bunaken resort.) ... Batik Air has a non-stop from Jakarta to Manado that arrives about 2:30 p.m., just in time for the 4 p.m. transfer to Lembeh or Bunaken ... Traveling alone, I spent about $150/night for 15 nights and 14 dive days, including all diving, food, and transfers. I typically dove three times per day, with nitrox costing a little extra ... The local massage woman, a villager, gives a good in-room massage (you wear your swimsuit) and will set you back only $12! www.twofishdivers.com/diving-manado/lembeh-straits.

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