Manado Muck Diving – It’s Not All About Lembeh

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Many divers out there may be familiar with Manado, north Sulawesi’s capital, as the gateway to the world famous Lembeh strait. While Lembeh is world renowned and often referred to as the ‘macro capital’ or the ‘mecca of muck diving’, nobody tends to talk about what’s happening on the opposite side of north Sulawesi.

A mere hour driving in the opposite direction to the strait, you will arrive at the west coast of Manado. It is actually shorter directly to the coast but I was staying at Murex Dive Resorts which is an hour south east from the airport.

Just sand?

Within half an hour of the resort you can reach an array of sites, not all muck diving, plenty of coral sites as well including the esteemed Bunaken marine park. Most of the sites were a mixture of sandy bottom and coral garden which makes them more appealing to some, personally I can glide over sand for a whole dive as long as I know there are macro critters to be found! I enjoy the searching and the feeling of finding rare or very well camouflaged creatures. However this is not for everyone, sandy bottom dives can be risky if expectations are not met, understandable of course, which makes them all the more rewarding.

Snake Eel at City Extra

What can I expect to see?

After diving these spots for some time, it became clear that some were definitely better for particular critters than others. The 3 sites that stood out as the best muck dives were City Extra, Bethlehem (or Bethelem as the guides would joke, meaning ‘better-than-lembeh’), and Circus.

Bethlehem would be great for tiny juvenile frogfish, cuttlefish, seahorses and Costasiella nudibranchs (Shaun the Sheep). This was very much like a Lembeh dive, typical sandy slope topography. I recall one dive here we must have found 6 or 7 juvenile frogfish, from the size of a half a fingernail to maybe an inch high. There was also a patch here around 20m with some seagrass where it was common to find seahorses, I remember this because usually I never made it here due to focusing too long on everything else I had found previously, a great sign for any dive.

City Extra was usually the ideal spot to nightdive, usually with many octopus moving around under the cover of darkness. Creatively named after the restaurant is sat in front of, this spot was very similar topography to Bethlehem, starting with flat seagrass at a few metres before slowly sloping off. This was one of the guides favourite spots because he would always find something new.

Circus, I believe named after all the strange findings there was a bit more of a coral garden/sand dive, which gave it a nice variation and made it acceptable to those who refused to dive in just sand. The entry point would guarantee at least a handful of blue and black sea slugs, no idea why, they were just always there traversing the sand without fail. With Circus you could go left or right (known as Circus 1 and 2) both having their unique findings. This site was excellent for various pipefish, mantis shrimps, snake eels and usually a resident giant frogfish could be seen with a little detour over some coral. It was also not uncommon to find flamboyant cuttlefish shuffling around, these were always welcomed by divers and are a much sought after find.

Shaun the Sheep with eggs at Bethlehem

So Manado is better than Lembeh?

In a word, no, it’s different, while it may not have the same concentration of critters as Lembeh, it still has a lot to offer. It is also very quiet by comparison with far fewer divers. Another benefit is the ability to combine this with Bunaken or other close by islands like Bangka to really see everything north Sulawesi has to offer.

Cocos Island, Scuba Diving In Jurassic Park – Pelagic Paradise

Remember the movie ‘Jurassic Park’? Well, Cocos Island was actually the inspiration behind the fictional Jurassic counterpart ‘Isla Nublar’ If you’ve seen the movie you’ll know that this means cloud forests, a spectacular green mountainous landscape, numerous waterfalls and wonderfully blue water. While it may not have real dinosaurs (sorry to disappoint), it does have […]

One On One Encounter With A Giant — Morgan’s Ocean Images

One of the things I love most about scuba diving is the opportunity to interact with animals that show signs of intelligence and curiosity. Some special encounters leave me wondering what they are thinking, why are they reacting the way they are, what are they gaining from this social behaviour. In 2018 I had my […] […]

How to snorkel with a crocodile and live to tell the tale

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Okay, maybe no need for such a dramatic title but it was certainly not for the faint-hearted and something I will remember for the rest of my life. During a liveaboard in Cuba, I was able to float nose to nose with El Nino the American crocodile, something I never thought I’d do.

This was with the dome of my camera just inches away, those teeth!

As an experienced diver I am familiar with being in the presence of sharks, from reef sharks to larger more intimidating sharks. Diving with large sharks in numbers with the odd close encounter, you begin to see how they behave and their reaction to you as a diver, being this foreign species that was not born to be an ocean inhabitant. After a few sharky dives you develop a trust and understanding, learning how to conduct yourself around sharks becomes second nature, they become a familiar and welcome sight.

The unfamilair

Crocodiles, on the other hand, are far from a familiar sighting and not even thought about when it comes to diving. When I saw this was a possibility at a location I was looking at booking, it really did seal the deal, then the countdown began.

Where??

Where in the world is this possible you may ask, while I’m sure similar encounters can be found elsewhere, mine took place in Cuba, in ‘La Jardines De La Reina’. The Gardens of the Queen, as it’s otherwise known, is a huge reef system on the south side of Cuba, with pristine reefs, plenty of sharks and beautiful surroundings. It really has to be the best of the Caribbean, being well preserved by limiting visiting diver numbers to the hundreds per year.

El Nino posing

The Anticipation

The days leading up to the liveaboard I was very excited, not only to see such a beautiful location underwater but about my future encounter and how it was going to play out. On board our boat the prospect of being in the water with a croc didn’t seem to be much of a talking point, however, for me it was going to be the highlight of the week.

After a few days diving we were moored in mangrove territory and I knew the introduction with Nino was drawing closer. We were told we would alternate so the other group would head out in the morning first thing and we would go after our morning dive. During the dive I was mostly wondering what was happening in the mangroves and whether the other group seeing him first would mean he would disappear after having his fill of human interaction for the day. Other thoughts would be wondering if crocodiles were like sharks in the sense you have a better chance of meeting them early morning.

As we returned to the main boat the others had just got back and were still standing around the dive deck, I was looking for excited, smiling faces of joy and achievement but saw none. It turns out El Nino had evaded them and was not to be seen after searching for the best part of an hour. Now I was nervous our chance to have this once in a lifetime experience was slipping away. I think the decision was made to wait a while before heading straight back out, and I’m glad we did…….

El Nino – The Encounter

After hoping and praying Nino would now be less busy, or more sociable and willing to be found by us, we set off on our hunt through the mangroves. After a few minutes of nothing but silence and the beauty of the mangroves, I was starting to feel hopeless again. We went round in a few circles and the crew started their chanting, “Nee nee ooo, nee nee ooo”, a tune I’m sure they had rehearsed together. Another 10 or 15 minutes went by with us singing Nino’s symphony, no sign of movement, no ripples, nothing…

We finally conceded unwillingly and started to head back to base, when just then, like some miracle, out of the middle of the mangroves comes the star of the show, it was El Nino! There he was, propelling his fine Jurassic self towards our boat, in that swaying motion these amphibians do so well. He was an American crocodile and a good size, between the 2.5 to 3 metre mark, not nearly as big as some crocs but for everyone on the boat, easily big enough! The time was now….

Trying to get a shot from underneath while having a hand on the boat

Everyone on the boat cheers and there’s a look of relief in captain’s eyes, we were about to do the unthinkable. It was a similar feeling to what I’d had before any potential life threatening activity like a bungee or parachute jump. It suddenly sinks in that we CHOSE to do this and were in the here and now, there was a crocodile within a metre from the boat and we were about to get into it’s domain for fun, thrills, photo ops, overcome some fear, all manner of possible reasons.

We get our snorkel gear on and camera gear ready, we are advised to slip into the water quietly on the other side of the boat. We get to witness Nino being lowered in some chicken and get first row seats watching as his huge powerful jaw snaps up the chicken and swallows it in an instant. While I don’t agree with feeding wild animals in this way, I was naive to think this kind of activity can happen any other way. As the first guest slips in, camera in hand, it becomes apparent none of the crew would be accompanying us to supervise what was about to happen. This was a little unsettling at first but in some ways reassuring, assuming it meant there was really zero chance if anything going wrong. Fortunately we were a small group, I was second in and soon had my solo interaction with Nino. It was a strange mix of feeling safe, with the crew being so nonchalant, while remembering that this is still a wild animal that by no means has to mimic it’s previous encounters by being relaxed, trading it’s being there for portions of chicken. As I dare to get closer, which in the end was very close, I think at one time I had my camera dome no more than 4 inches from his jaws. When you see the teeth from a snorkelling pov you really appreciate how big and intimidating they are, beginning to wonder what would happen if Nino decided he wanted to try something other than chicken. As I held onto the side of the boat, I could see others had now entered the water, no doubt this made me feel safer, after all this was unknown territory, I didn’t know what to do or not to do around these creatures. It was surreal being so close to him, especially with portions of chicken being lowered between us, thankfully his jaw-eye co-ordination was spot on.

It became a struggle holding onto the boat, a surprising amount of current ripped through the mangroves, trying it’s best to loosen my grip and wash me straight into Nino’s awaiting jaws. As he stayed in the same spot for the most part (where the chicken was being delivered), I felt the need to rotate for someone else so come into my position, but I could have stayed there for hours taking it all in. As I moved round to his side I could now see a new angle, his long muscly body and tail, a real life dinosaur. A few more minutes passed before it was time to get back on board, by the end we got to see him swim around a little, getting a little jittery whenever he came in close. We climbed back up onto the boat fully intact and waved Nino goodbye as we headed back to our larger vessel.

The experience with Nino was exceptional, I would have loved to go back another time and see him, he was a gentle giant. Although the rest of the diving was outstanding, this half an hour was a huge highlight of the trip and something truly unforgettable. Amongst all the excitement and moments of fear I was able to come away with some great shots too. Happy days!

One On One Encounter With A Giant

One of the things I love most about scuba diving is the opportunity to interact with animals that show signs of intelligence and curiosity. Some special encounters leave me wondering what they are thinking, why are they reacting the way they are, what are they gaining from this social behaviour. In 2018 I had my […]

Galapagos and Why it’s a Divers Must

It wasn’t until recent years that the Galapagos Islands were really put on the map as a world class diving destination. Nowadays, thanks to the world renowned and the very popular BBC series of ‘Blue Planet’ and later ‘Galapagos‘, awareness and appreciation of this archipelago was delivered to the masses. Ever since listening to Sir […]

Manado Muck Diving – It’s Not All About Lembeh

Many divers out there may be familiar with Manado, north Sulawesi’s capital, as the gateway to the world famous Lembeh strait. While Lembeh is world renowned and often referred to as the ‘macro capital’ or the ‘mecca of muck diving’, nobody tends to talk about what’s happening on the opposite side of north Sulawesi. A […]

Bunaken Marine Park – Turtle Haven

In 2019, I was fortunate enough to spend a good length of time in Manado, the capital of North Sulawesi. During my stay I was privileged enough to visit the amazing Bunaken Marine Park dozens of times.

I remember before deciding to visit North Sulawesi, the only time I had heard or seen the word ‘Bunaken’ was seeing it on a last minute specials holiday website a few years earlier, the name stood out but I never looked into it (even the heavily reduced price was a lot for me at the time!). When I was in talks about coming to Sulawesi it became apparent this would be where I would be doing a lot of my diving and photography, only then I began to ask Google what this place was all about, I began to get VERY excited.

A short video compilation

The Island

Situated near the centre of the coral triangle, the small island of Bunaken is 1 of 5 that make up the Bunaken Marine Park, along with Manado Tua, Nain, Matehage and Siladen. In 1991 it was declared one of the first national parks by the Indonesian government, primarily because of it’s high bio diversity of marine life. Since that decision the ecosystem has flourished, with many agreeing the number of fish has greatly increased and that species are being seen that were previously known to be there. A true marine conservation success story for Indonesia and Asia, it is no wonder divers and snorkellers flock to this magical spot from all over the world.

Map of Bunaken dive sites

The park charges foreign visitors the option of a daily entrance fee of IDR 50,000 ($4), or an extended yearly pass for IDR 150,000 ($12). The money made from these passes goes back into the conservation of the area and the villages that make up the park. Be sure to bring this along as the rangers are quite often seen and will board your vessel like pirates, to check your pass and sometimes have a photo with you which is fun.

Getting there

If you wanted a true taste of island life it is possible to stay on Bunaken or Siladen with a good selection of resorts to choose from. I did not have the chance to stay nor do I know if the other islands have options for accommodation.

Staying on the mainland meant enduring a gruelling 25 minute boat ride, often across some of the bluest, glassiest water I’ve seen and nothing but your island destination and the horizon in sight.. It’s a hard life…. During this journey, if you’re lucky, you may be blessed with the presence of some marine fauna. On a few occasions we came across pods of dolphins who would love to come and play with the moving boat, effortlessly matching the speed of the hull and completely visible through the clear blue water, a real treat before you even start gearing up! We also had sightings of Pilot and Sperm whales very close the the boat too!

Another clip including the friendly dolphins!

The Turtles!!!

During my stay the word ‘turtle’ became synonymous with the diving at Bunaken. I would tell guests doing their first dives they should expect to see a lot of the curious aquatic reptiles, yet time after time, they would surface in complete disbelief.

Bunaken hosts a large number of resident Green Sea Turtles and this becomes evident almost instantly without even getting wet. Float around in the right spot and you will see one after the other coming up for a breath of air before heading back down to munch on some coral or find a quiet ledge to get a few ZZZs. Seriously though they are everywhere, some dives I think we counted nearly 50 individuals, ascending for air, descending, swimming along the reef top, sleeping on a ledge, lazily dangling on soft coral or hilariously head first in a sponge, EVERYWHERE… It’s safe to say I got ample photo opportunities, I remember how the crazy number really occurred to me one time when I was able to fit 8 of the clumsy swimmers into a single frame. Although the vast majority of the turtles seen are green turtles, you can also find hawksbill turtles here, you know, in case you get bored….

Diving and Snorkelling

Bunaken is a phenomenal location for divers and snorkellers alike. The wall diving is suitable for all levels from beginner to tech, the coral is extremely healthy from the top of the reef coral gardens all the way down to 50m plus. The coral gardens start from 3 or 4m which is perfect for snorkellers and freedivers, while being a fantastic place to spend a safety stop in the sunshine taking in all the colours and mind blowing diversity of fish.

For the more advanced divers, most walls drop down to 30m or more, some refer to certain parts as the ‘giant walls’ of Bunaken, because they extend down to nearly 2000m!

Currents do vary between sites but it was never too strong for me personally. The great thing is because the walls are so long, if you decide you’d rather not fight the current you can simply drift along trying to dodge the turtles. Some sites also have sheltered areas along the way which are handy if you are fighting the current to take a little rest and a mosey around.

In general I never felt like the area was crowded, some days you would see many boats out but during a dive I don’t recall crossing over more than one or 2 groups. The number of sites, length of the walls and the cooperative efforts from dive operations ensure that everyone gets to enjoy their dive in peace.

Bio Diversity (What will I see)

As I’ve said the diversity here is astonishing, both coral and fish. For example, here you can find 7 out of the 8 known species of giant clams worldwide. There is over 50 genera and sub genera of coral species embedded into the walls, a whopping 7 times that of which can be found in Hawaii. Incredibly, the park is known to be home to around 2000 species of fish and is claimed to have more than 70% of all known fish species in the Indo-Western Pacific. Safe to say there is always something new and exciting to find here.

Common sighting include multiple species of butterfly fish, angel fish, trigger fish, snappers, trevally, barracuda, jacks, puffer, wrasse and plenty more.

For those looking out to the blue or a delving a little deeper, you may be rewarded with some bigger game fish like tuna, reef sharks, giant barracuda or in extremely lucky conditions a Mola Mola (we had some guests see a small one).

Check back soon to my Dive Locations part of my site where I will be putting together info on locations like Bunaken, providing best times to go, best sites, conditions, likely sightings and more.

Intro to Blackwater diving and photography

So, you may or may not know what blackwater diving is, to many, it sounds just like a regular nightdive, it’s dark (black), and you’re in the water, right? Wrong, it is an entirely different way to dive, personally I feel it is more exciting and thrilling than any other dive. Although I had known what it was for a while, I had never actually experienced it first hand until a few months ago. Since that first time, I was desperate to try again, while the dive itself was amazing, I wasn’t happy with my images at the end. I will get into some photography tips I wish I had implemented on my introduction dive.

What exactly is Blackwater diving?

As I was staying in a resort for a number of months, I saw a lot of guests come and go. Every so often the topic would come up as people were intrigued as to what this mysteriously titled event actually entailed. After my first time I did it, I was able to shed some light on this for them. To be honest sometimes my explanation made it sound quite scary, no more giant squid jokes….

Set Up

Essentially, it involves a weighted downline from a buoy, somewhere around 20-25m, with some powerful lights attached to the bottom and top, this is what will attract the marine life. Now the part that scares people, you will be doing this over deep water, ideally 200m as a minimum and sometimes up to 1000m depending where. This is important as it’s the creatures from the depths that make up the planets biggest migration on earth, which is what we are all there to see. The buoy is attached to the boat so that the line and boat drift together. Each 5m, another light is added, this brightens up surrounding water and allows you to see everyone else, it also serves as a reference point to where you can attach yourself. Although not essential (but highly recommended). Each diver will have a leash, a small rope about 3m or 4m with a snaplock each end, one for the bcd, and one for the line. It can get annoying being tied to the line, but it is very easy to lose focus on your surroundings while chasing round tiny alien like animals. Add this to any drifting current and you may find yourself alone with just your torch light in no time at all. Due to the nature of the dive, it is best to keep to small groups, maybe 4-6 maximum.

Planning Ahead

For the best results, after everything is set up in the water, wait a while. Giving the lights a head start to attract life before getting in can save the initial waiting in some cases. I never minded the wait, for me it added to the suspense. During this time on the boat you can console fellow divers questioning what they have signed up for, make any final changes to your dive rig or camera gear, or if it’s your first time, sit in silence and pretend you aren’t a little worried about what your’e about to do… It’s going to be FUN!! One thing I learned was to use this time to plan peoples positions. Once you are under there is no way of communicating this so it’s best to have it near enough sussed before you jump in.

I would recommend splitting up the 5m depths so everyone doesn’t end up on the same level, bumping together or kicking each other gets annoying very quickly. Some may have preferred depths, others may be less conservative on air so might want to stay nearer the surface at 5m or 10m. I have heard mixed comments on the ‘best’ depth, I think it’s all a gamble, I always chose to go where you have the most room and I never regretted it. So it is much easier to think this through beforehand, everyone can pick a depth to start at, or maybe rotate to make it fair, it just saves all the confusion.

During the dive

After hearing how it works but not really knowing, you will quickly work it out after jumping in. After hooking yourself on the line at your chosen depth, you are now free to roam around and search for critters you may never have come across before.

Technique

  • Take it slow and easy, be mindful of others around you, do not chase
  • Use your torch to look beyond the illuminated areas to search for subjects , if you have a camera light, this extra torch is helpful also
  • If there is current, it is usually a good idea to be ahead of it, when you find an interesting critter you want to have as much time with it as possible, so give yourself that extra few seconds by anticipating this instead of being pulled along
  • Approach subjects very slowly, many species you come across are sensitive to water movement and will vanish or back away if they sense you rushing toward them
  • Look for small things, many first timers have their eyes set to search for larger animals, some of the blackwater critters can be very small and should not be missed

What will I see?

Imagine being in space and having alien like creatures floating all around you, this will be your environment from the moment you dive in to the moment you’re back on the boat. Unlike other dives, rather than everyone observing the same creature, queuing up to take a picture, divers should return with their own unique images and tales of their encounters.

Expect to see all manner of plankton species, jellyfish, juvenile stage species, squid, larval gastropods. It’s a bit of a lottery which for me is the draw, like all dives, some will be better than others. Appreciating all the small things will keep you hooked. Of course there is the sought after sightings like the Paper Nautilus and larval Octopus species which everyone hopes to come across. Some juvenile fish look completely different to their maturer counterparts and can be just as fascinating. The hard part can be identifying what you have seen, which is why a good picture is all the more rewarding.

Camera Settings and technique

From my own experience and what I have read I believe an optimal lens to be around 60mm. This allows for a good balance of working distance, focal length and focusing speed. You want to get as close as possible to avoid backscatter, sometimes a little is inevitable but you can limit this. I only had a 90mm lens at the time which was quite challenging, slow to focus, it didn’t yield great results my first time but it is possible, just requires more practice.

Multiple shots are usually needed to get that perfect picture, so I would recommend setting the strobe strength to no more than 2/3 depending on your recycle time. You can lift the ISO to compensate for this, some good starting setting would be something like

  • ISO 360
  • f/14 to f/16
  • Shutter Speed 1/160- 1/200
  • Strobes set to 1/2 to 2/3

Focusing

You will find that the majority of what you will find is fairly transparent and will soak up a lot of light. A modelling light with a narrow beam will help the cameras auto-focus and hopefully prevent it from locking onto particles in the water. In my case, using auto-focus with my mirrorless 90mm became so frustrating I opted for manual focus. If you have similar problems, try manually focusing to your shortest working distance using your hand or the downline. With this set you can just rock the camera back and forth using the viewfinder or LCD to press the shutter when the area you want comes into focus. This is a difficult way of doing things but can be less infuriating then letting the camera hunt for focus.

Strobe Position

Everyone has their own opinion on the optimum positions, I’m sure there is benefit to each. I found for eliminating back scatter, having strobes pointed a little inwards to avoid lighting up the background worked best. Setting them at at angle so the edge of the beam just lights the subject should yield the good results. If you only use 1 strobe then having it above and to the side of the port would work well, again ensuring the beam doesn’t light up everything in front of the port.

Only Macro?

I guess this would all depend on where you are diving and what you hope to spot. Generally Black water is all about macro and getting close, however not always. Don’t forget, you are in deep water and anything can come up and pay you a visit. The highlight of the last blackwater I did was a small group of Mobula Rays that circled the bottom of the line for a few minutes, of course I had my 90mm on but would have been a great wide angle opportunity. You could come across sharks, rays, dolphins, anything. It’s up to you if you want to take that risk for something bigger to drop by.

Diving in North Sulawesi

Welcome all to my first blog, I hope to provide some useful information and insight on any topics, experiences, or dive destinations I deem worthy. I hope it may be of use to anyone reading or at the very least an interesting read, we shall see!

For the second half of 2019 I was fortunate enough to be diving in the rich waters around the northern end of Sulawesi, one of Indonesia’s bigger islands. You can fly to the Island’s capital Manado from nearby better known locations like Jakarta and Bali, taking 2 to 3 hours.

Murex Staff and Boat

I spent 5 months doing photography work for Murex Dive Resorts, one of the oldest and most established dive resorts in the area. They have three locations they offer in a package known as the ‘Passport to Paradise’, an accurate description by all means. These locations include Manado (about an hour from the airport), Bangka Island, a 20 minute boat from the very tip of Sulawesi, then there is Lembeh, the proclaimed Mecca of muck diving. Each location offering something a little different above and below sea level.

Northern part of Sulawesi and Bangka Island

Manado and Bunaken National Park

The diving in Manado was a superb mix of muck and coral diving along the coast, as well as some excellent wall diving in the Bunaken Marine Park. A sun filled half hour boat ride which can boast sighting of dolphins, whales and other large fauna. During my stay we saw pods of dolphins playing with the boat, Pilot Whales, Sperm Whales and on one occasion Orcas were spotted from the shore. The marine park charges a small fee for a pass allowing you to dive there, which aids the conservation and protection of these wonderful sites, as well as the villages in the area. I plan to go in to more detail on each location but the thing that truly stands out in Bunaken is the crazy number of turtles, some sites it is common to see 30 or more! I believe one time the dive guide counted throughout the dive and the number was somewhere in the 50s, so more a less everywhere you look.

For a full blog on Bunaken please read my dedicated blog here
Dodging Turtles

Bunaken sits near the centre of the Coral Triangle and comprises of mostly wall dives, offering something for everyone, snorkelers included. It has been a true success story for marine conservation in Indonesia, with many saying the fish numbers have largely increased and other species of fish are appearing that were not present before. The coral on the walls is amazing, with colourful sponges and seafans, while the reefs, sitting at around 5m, play home to a huge diversity of marine life and reef critters. I spent a lot of time on top of the reef, encountering Blue Fin and big eye trevally, schools of Needlefish, Anthias, Sergeant Majors, Black Snappers and many many more. As you reach the drop off it was common to see huge gatherings of Redtooth Triggerfish filling the water column. For those who like to look out into the blue for the bigger things, you may be rewarded with some big Tuna, Reef Sharks, Rays other game fish.

Manado Muck Diving

Along the coast of Manado you can find many exciting coral and muck diving sites, all within 5 to 25 minutes from the resort. For those who like to hunt there is a few true sandy bottom muck sites that can be great for tiny critters. Over the months I was able to capture many Frogfish, Cuttlefish, Octopus, Nudibranches, Shrimps, Sea Kraits and much more.

Nudibranch found at Murex House Reef