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Dive Lembeh Strait and Bunaken in North Sulawesi

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Lembeh Island is a small isle located to the north of Sulawesi Island in Indonesia. Between Sulawesi Island and Lembeh Island, runs a narrow strait called the Strait of Lembeh. Scuba diving in this strait you can see some of the most unique and spectacular creatures alive. Lembeh strait is renowned for the best muck diving in the world. 

Bunaken Island, also located north of Sulawesi with crystal clear water and spectacular coral walls offers great blue water diving and some of the best snorkeling I have ever done. Read on if you want to know all about diving from Lembeh strait and Bunaken; dive sites, accommodation, season, liveaboard options and more. I stayed in Bunaken first and went from there to Lembeh.

Dive Lembeh strait

Working as a dive instructor while traveling you hear stories about some spectacular places, the tales of Lembeh placed it high on my dive bucket list. Renowned as one of the best places for Muck diving in the world, the stuff you can see at Lembeh Strait sound to good to be true, it is not, I dived there, the stories are true. Muck diving is a subset of Macro diving, don’t let the name turn you off, you do not dive in sewage, conditions can be great. 

During muck diving you hunt for small, weird and wonderful creatures, the  name originates from the bottom composition, dark sediment often silty, muddy or “mucky” environment. The visibility can be good, just practice good buoyancy not to stir up the bottom! At some of these spots the creatures you find in these environments can be unbelievable, made even more spectacular by the dark, dull backdrop. Muck diving is a fairly new discipline that only started in the 1980’s, the story goes a liveaboard boat was anchored somewhere of the reef for lunch when some divers testing gear discovered unreal creatures on the black volcanic ash. The Lembeh Strait has a reputation as the best muck diving in the world being home to some of the strangest and most rare marine animals in existence. This place is any photographer’s dream with creatures many can not even imagine exist and the black volcanic sand gives no glare when using a flash when taking photos. Arriving at Lembeh it feels more like a river than the ocean, being surrounded by jungle and massive trees, with black sand and volcanic rocks everywhere.I remember descending onto the black sand not being very impressed by rubbish like wine bottles and plastic bags on the dull bottom, but seconds later I was amazed by the life here. Our dive leader was excellent quickly pointing out a seahorse and our first amazing creature of the trip, a flamboyant cuttlefish which I was lucky enough to capture catching a Myid shrimp! From here the action never stopped with hairy frogfish, seahorses, blue ring octopus, mimic octopus, mandarin fish and more draining my camera battery.B

There is some rubbish on the bottom, sometimes hosting incredible things!

Season to Dive Lembeh Strait

North Sulawesi has an equatorial climate, so it has  sunny, warm weather all year. There are only 2 seasons – the rainy season from November to February and the dry season from March to October. It usually only rains for a short period of time about an hour or two per day in the rainy season.

Lembeh Strait can be dived all year round, conditions and visibility does vary, but some of the critters are always around and visibility is not such a big concern with macro diving. Liveaboard boats dive here in all seasons. 

Peak season is July and August with the greatest number of critters around, this is also the time when the water temperatures are the lowest at 25-26°C, but the most divers are here and it is a good idea to book ahead. 

Low Season is from January to June with fewer divers and not peak conditions, but still very diveable.

October to December period has the best visibility, while it is the lowest in January and February.D

Flamboyant Cuttle Fish catching a Myid Shrimp
I was lucky to catch this Flamboyant Cuttle Fish catching a Myid Shrimp!

Dive Sites at Lembeh Strait

There are more than 70 recognized dive sites around Lembeh, some are well known for specific critters, but they move between sites and the operators dive here everyday so they know where to go. My experience with guides here was great and I have only heard good things from others that dived here. These guys know the area very well and will take you to the best spots to see your bucket list creatures. Here are a couple of great sites around Lembeh. 

Nudi Falls

Depth 3m to 28m, a mini wall that drops to 20m from here sand slopes to about 28m with coral patches. I loved this site with a variety of super interesting nudibranches, frogfish, flamboyant cuttlefish, a blue ringed octopus and the hawk eyes of our guide found a pygmy seahorse!

Coby a Crab

Depth 3m to 27m, a wall that drops to the bottom, sandy covered in rocks with some coral formations. Saw gigantic frogfish and interesting nudis, this site is also well known for mandarin fish and the rare rhinopias, many divers come to Lembeh with the hope to see this scarce scorpionfish.

Giant Frog Fish
Giant Frog Fish

California Dreaming

Depth 3 – 30m Twenty minutes by boat from Lembeh, twin coral peaks with a sand flat in between. Couple of frogfish, hairy frogfish and giant frogfish tiny boxer crabs.  Series of steps formed by boulders, beautiful soft corals make a very colorful dive site. 

Jahir

Depth 5 – 28m Sandy slope, nice place to end the days diving in the shallows for decompression, some awesome creatures, scorpion fish, painted frogfish, saw many seahorses here.

Marine Life at Lembeh

As mentioned a couple of times Lembeh is the place to see the biggest variety of unique ocean creatures on the planet, a place that will make you fall in love with muck diving. Pack your camera, here are some of the unreal creatures you can see at the Lembeh strait;

Mimic Octopus, Rhinopias, Mandarin fish, Pygmy seahorse, Blue ring octopus, Electric Clam, Spotted Porcelain Crab, Lacey Scorpionfish, Hairy frogfish, Giant frogfish, Spiny devil, Ghost pipefish, Dragon seamoth.

From Manado I went to Bunaken Island by public boat.  The island is truly beautiful, tropical jungle surrounded by mangroves running into the ocean.

Getting to Lembeh Strait

The closest big city is Manado, the capital of North Sulawesi, catch a direct flight here from Singapore or a local flight from Bali or Jakarta. From Manado take a taxi or public bus to Ruko Pateten Pier and take a boat to Lembeh, it is just 20 minutes. If your dive center is picking you up make sure at which harbor, it might be a different pier.

Lembeh Accommodation

There are a variety of accommodation at Lembeh for every budget and taste. It is always nice to stay with accommodation that belongs to or works with your dive operator.

Liveaboard Diving Lembeh Strait

Combine magic walls and extraordinary critters on a dream liveaboard trip! Eat, sleep and live diving for a week! Many of the North Sulawesi trips combine the fantastic blue water pelagic diving around Bunaken with the unique muck diving of Lembeh, even Dugongs and Mola mola are seen on these trips from time to time! Search here for a Lembeh Liveaboard Experience

Diving in Bunaken

Bunaken is not far from Lembeh and is well known for a very different kind of diving, blue water, steep walls with big fish and other pelagic species. From Manado I first went to Bunaken Island by public boat.  The island is truly beautiful, tropical jungle surrounded by mangroves running into the ocean. Bunaken Marine Park was one of the first marine protected areas in Indonesia established in the early nineties. Steep walls drop into the deep covered by an amazing diversity of soft and hard corals. The drop offers excellent wall dives, keep an eye on the reef for species such as mantis shrimp and a diversity of nudibranches, look around you in the blue for many turtles, huge Napoleon wrasse and large pelagics; sharks, tunas and schools of barracuda. Bunaken is surrounded by shallow reef with a steep drop to over 30m. Many corners and points make great dive spots to see passing pelagics from, the shallow part of the reef is great for snorkeling or doing your deco stop.

Marine Life around Bunaken Island

Just shy of 400 species of coral can be found in the crystal clear water of the Bunaken National Park, definitely one of the most colorful dives in the world. Over 2000 species of fish frequent the spectacular walls. A few of them you are likely to see are Big Napolean wrasse on moste dives, many turtles there are 5 kinds different kinds in the park, white-tip reef sharks, tuna is often seen, plenty of blue-fin trevally, large bumphead parrotfish, large schools of chevron barracuda, solitary greater barracuda schools of big-eye travelly, giant trevally, large schools of triggerfish, surgeonfish, fusiliers and schooling batfish, eagle rays and sometimes manta rays.

Bunaken Island Snorkeling

From the mangroves a 2m deep fringing reef extends about 50m into the ocean ending in a spectacular drop into the deep. Snorkeling around the island is excellent, the shallow fringing reef allows for shallow snorkeling for anybody starting on the shore. The shallow water, sunlight and plenty of coral species create a beautiful garden for snorkeling with plenty of species of smaller tropical fish, we saw some big bumphead parrot fish in shallow water and a couple of big turtles. The drop-off close to shore allows for great free diving on this amazing reef and diving into the deep on the drop-off I saw plenty of turtles, jacks and massive Napoleon wrasse.

Bunaken Accommodation

  • Novita Homestay – cheapest you are going to find here, many reviews, well rated
  • Sunset guesthouse and bar – very well rated budget place
  • Daniel’s Resort –  I enjoyed staying here. Each bungalow has its own hammock, it was nice to lie in a hammock and read when not underwater. Accommodation includes three meals. The food was OK, a lot of rice and chicken typical budget South East Asian cuisine.
  • Mid range
  • Two Fish Dive Resort – well known, excellent ratings, beautiful resort, great dive center, sister dive center on Lembeh
  • Happy Gecko Dive Resort – excellent rating, bungalows with deck, hammock and sea view
  • Luxury
  • Kuda Laut Boutique Dive Resort – 4 star resort and dive center

Transport to Bunaken

Bunaken Island can be reached by boat from Manado Harbour, which is a 30-minute drive from Sam Ratulangi Airport. From Manado Harbour, it takes a 45-minute boat ride to the island. Many resorts offer an airport pick-up and boat transfer services at an extra charge, which makes it very easy.

Diving Both Bunaken and Lembeh

Bunaken Island can be reached by boat from Manado Harbour, which is a 30-minute drive from Sam Ratulangi Airport. From Manado Harbour, it takes a 45-minute boat ride to the island. Many resorts offer an airport pick-up and boat transfer services at an extra charge, which makes it very easy.

More Sulawesi adventures!

  • Heading North. – Funeral ceremonies, hanging graves, coffee farms and a crazy bus chase in Tana Touraja.
  • South Sulawesi. – Not  well known as the north, but Pantai Bira has a lot of potential. We did some nice dives in the area
  • Central Sulawesi. – Awesome island adventures. Diving on a plane wreck, spearfishing and staying with the famous Bajua people (sea gypsies), swimming in a jelly fish lake around The Togian Islands.

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