International Travel Guide

Muck Diving in Lembeh Strait, By Szilvia Gogh

Muck diving is not a derogatory term describing a type of adventure one would experience in filthy, cold, dark waters, but it is rather an exciting emerging warm water dive trend that many get excited about, especially photographers. I have been diving for 18 years, logged close to 5000 dives, traveled around the world a few times, but only recently heard about muck diving. It is hard to define what muck diving really is about, but those who tried it, became addicted to the rather unusual type of scuba experience.

After spending a week diving the wealthy and diverse coral reefs of Wakatobi Island early November 2008, I had an opportunity to continue my travels through Asia and visit a friend who runs a dive center on Lembeh Island. Even though Lembeh Island’s location is not far from Wakatobi, we (my husband accompanied me) had to return to Bali first in order to catch a flight through Ujung Pandang to Manado.

Flying with Garuda Indonesia is quite an experience on its own. At the check in desk all travelers can see the warning: “Don’t put valuable items into your check-in luggage!” The small transfer airport in Balipapa really gave me a reality check. There were no bars, no food courts, and the smoking room’s door was wide open, so the smoking man (woman don’t smoke) can get fresh air. To our remedy, we discovered a foot massage place where we could relax and get a half-an-hour massage for five dollars.

Finally, we arrived in Manado, where we were greeted by a guy from the resort. Heading to the Western part of North Sulawesi, we drove trough well kept, blossoming villages. To my surprise, we saw a great number of catholic churches. For some reason, I always pictured Indonesia to be a Muslim country.

After a short boat ride from the mainland, Les Williams, the resort manager, welcomed us. He stood on the last step of the stairs, and appeared from the shadow on that misty night. He personally greets every guest, regardless of what time they arrive. Just like in Fantasy Island.

Lembeh Resort has 14 cottages, all of which were built on cliffs overlooking the pool, the dive center, and the Strait. Viewing the sunrises and sunsets from comfortable armchairs on the spacious verandas never seems to get boring. At dinner we reunited with my friend, Johan. We worked together many years ago in Thailand as dive instructors. Johan and his girlfriend Kat are the managers of the dive center. While sharing our meal they briefed me about the dives for the next day.

I was super excited to try something new. I looked forward to muck diving like a kid looks forward to opening Christmas presents. At last, the sun rose waking us up. I was anxious to board the boat and finally get wet.

After descending into Lembeh Strait, my first impression was, “this is like a garbage dump. What am I going to do here for 60 minutes?” The next thing I knew, the 60 minutes were up. I saw the most bizarre, unusual critters I had ever seen and was dying to get back into the water to find more.

The muck is the perfect habitat for unusual, exotic and juvenile organisms that make their homes in the sediment and trash at the bottom of the ocean. Creatures hiding in the muck are so interesting and different from the usual tropical marine life. I pictured a nutty professor pouring some potion into the water creating these bizarre looking animals that even the most imaginative fiction writers could not have made up.

Odd and beautiful critters were pointed-out for me by the enthusiastic divemasters. The local dive guides knew where everybody lived underwater and were proud to show me one thing after another. We encountered seven different types of frog fish. My favorites were the hairy frogfish, and the one that looks like it was the offspring of a frog and a clownfish.

The colors of the nudibranchs we saw are indescribable. It was just too great of a variety to know where to begin. I probably have seen every possible color combination of purple, orange, blue, black, yellow, and pink… There were big ones and small ones, then bigger ones and smaller. There were fast ones and slow ones, brave and shy ones.

I found myself admiring rare species of octopi for long periods of time -- the most impressive of our dives. The octopi I came across before were very shy, hiding behind rocks or in holes. Our divemasters, in Lembeh, found and lured-out the mimic octopus, the coconut octopus, and the wanderpus providing countless opportunities to photograph them from up-close.

The calm and shallow waters offered amazing opportunities to take pictures of little creatures like shrimps and the hairy orangutan crab. Muck diving in Lembeh Strait is perhaps the best place on the planet for macro photography.

Peculiar critters included the scary looking devilfish, the magical looking dragon mistress, the fairy tale pegasus seamoth, the bright scorpion leaf fish, the vibrating electric shell, the ornate ghost pipefish, the glorious flamboyant cuttlefish and the frightful wasp fish.

The list of the extraordinary inhabitants that mesmerize divers dive after dive seems endless. Even today, every dive presents an opportunity to discover a species new to science in that part of the world.

The dive crew was extremely proficient at finding critters divers wished to see. I asked them to point out manta shrimps for me as I am enchanted by them. Manta shrimp are able to turn their eyes 360 degrees, look vivid and have a characteristic temper. They are also known to dart out of their hiding and brake aquarium glass or even camera ports when they feel frightened.

Most often however, divers on our vessel requested to see the pygmy seahorse. They are difficult to spot due to their incredibly well camouflaged body. The color of the seahorse matches the pink or purple gorgonian it inhabits, while their body tubercles look very similar to the polyps of the gorgonian. Their quarter inch size doesn’t help spottng them either. An unusual aspect of the seahorse is that it's the male who becomes pregnant and carries the eggs in a pouch in his belly, after the eggs have been deposited there by the female.

I found two great tools to ease my task of macro photography. The first being metal pointer which was given to me to dig into the muck in order to stabilize myself with one hand while taking pictures with the other. The 2nd was magnifying glass that I used to help me locate the tiny critters around Lembeh Strait.

Every dive proved to be perfect for divers like me -- short attention spans! I could barely finish taking a picture of one unusual critter when my dive guide was directing me to the next one.

The boat crew was one of the most attentive I’ve come across during my diving career. They were extremely friendly, took care of our camera gear with great caution, and found us all sorts of critters that divers asked to see (my list being particularly long). Every member of the dive team has logged hundreds of dives in the Strait and was extremely knowledgeable about the fish and shrimp that lived in their waters.

After the thrilling dives, we shared stories and well prepared meals in the restaurant with fellow divers. One of things I enjoy about traveling is meeting new people, and divers tend to be a whole different breed. There is nothing normal and ordinary about us. It is intriguing to hear about places I never knew were on the map, taking mental notes about their locations. Word of mouth is the only true way to find out the real story about places you should visit. Take it from me, leave the books on the shelf. Well-traveled divers, many who have visited numerous famous dive destinations all over the world, agree that there is no place like Lembeh. It is still relatively unknown, therefore peaceful and filled with a great number of breath taking marine wonders.  

Upon our departure, Les waved us off and wished farewell, again, just like on Fantasy Island.

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For pictures visit my web site at, and for info about the resort visit

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