A quest to photograph the rarest macro critters never ends. I had already been blown away by the access to prized subjects at Atlantis Resort in Dumaguete, Philippines. But after a week, it was time to saddle up once again and head onwards to another macro destination of mythic proportions: Lembeh Strait, Indonesia.
The birthplace of muck diving just 20 years ago, Lembeh is now synonymous with macro photography and is arguably the top destination for capturing the most obscure critters.
Diving in Lembeh
“The Strait,” as seasoned underwater shooters often call it, is a stretch of water that separates the island of Lembeh from mainland North Sulawesi. There is probably no other 10-mile area of water that offers the opportunity to photograph more prized macro subjects. Scientists believe the narrow profile of the strait funnels through pelagic eggs of these critters, before settling down and maturing right off of Lembeh.
Rare in most destinations, pygmy seahorses will soon bore you after just a few dives in Lembeh Strait
The majority of dives fall into the “muck” category, environments dominated by black sand and silt rather than colorful coral. Having said that, some of these so-called “muck” dives do have coral pinnacles and mini-walls teaming with critters. Visibility often isn’t fantastic (less than 40 feet, 12 metres), but it’s somewhat irrelevant because the stars of the show here are often teeny tiny, meaning you’ll be shooting inches—or less—away from your subjects. If you want to try capturing larger critters such as frogfish and octopuses with the close-focus wide-angle technique, make sure to pay attention to strobe positioning in the muck.
Some dive sites have current (which varies from day to day as well as throughout the day), but boat captains and dive guides know photography can be more difficult with current and usually opt for different dive sites if the current is strong. Depths vary with some sites going down to around 100 feet (30 metres) and all have plenty of critters in the shallows too.
The muck environment might be dull, but the subjects hiding in it—such as this frogfish—are often oddly colorful and wonderful
One of the first resorts to open and take divers to the muck, Lembeh Resort and their dive operation critters@Lembeh Resort let divers do it in style. Elegant and spacious cottages are air-conditioned and comfortable. Several of them are cliff-side with spectacular views of “The Strait” from cozy verandas; others are not quite so high up, but still have great views. The entire resort is surrounded by beautiful and meticulous landscaping, which reminds you that you are actually right in the middle of the tropics.
The food is fantastic and at meal times the resort and dive shop managers join guests to talk about the day’s activities, current critter sightings, and check in that everything is going well. Perhaps most importantly, there is also Internet access throughout the resort. This is vital because you will want to post your epic photos of hairy frogfish on Facebook to brag to all your friends ASAP.
A classic view from a room at Lembeh Resort
Lembeh Resort and critters@Lembeh Resort offer between three and five boat dives a day to the top sites. Boat dives venture sometimes just a few minutes away from the resort or go up to 20 minutes to different dive sites in the strait. There’s also a house reef just a short surface swim out that offers up pipefish, frogfish, and the occasional blue ring octopus. Moreover, it’s shallow profile and 24/7 access make it ideal for sneaking in those extra dives to improve techniques.
Access to rare critters, easygoing dives, and helpful guides make Lembeh Strait a mecca for macro photography (even if you’re a wide-angle lover)
Underwater Photography Subjects in Lembeh
One of my favorite parts of diving with critters@Lembeh Resort is their “Critter Wish List.” Upon arrival, the staff gives you the opportunity to write down what critters you have been dreaming about and then they make an effort (sometimes an extreme effort) to try and find them for you. Of course, nothing is guaranteed, but they will try their absolute best to visit dive sites where those critters have been seen before. My personal wish list? The short version: bumble bee shrimp, hairy frogfish, anemonefish with isopods in their mouth, and blue ring octopus.
Dive guides carry slates with them and write down what they see. I was constantly amazed at how they knew the Latin name for every nudibranch. During one dive, my guide called me over and showed me his slate. It said, “This is your lucky day.” I looked down to where he was pointing and there was a juvenile painted frogfish in full orange spots and blue trim. Nice!
The guides at critters@Lembeh Resort are truly fantastic when it comes to critter spotting. I would have never found this juvenile painted frogfish on my own
I spent my birthday at Lembeh and the ocean gave me quite the present: my first blue ring octopus. Over the years, I’d been in plenty of places where blue rings occur and had even been on the same dive as when other people saw them, but they had always eluded me until this day. I was ecstatic to get a few shots of this beautiful (and deadly) critter.
By the end of my trip to Lembeh, the bumble bee shrimp remained the only critter left unchecked on my wish list. To be honest, by that point I had sort of given up on it. After all, you always need something to go back for. At the end of my second dive of the last day, I was back at the boat passing my camera up and taking off a fin when I felt something pull on my other fin. I looked back down in the water and my dive guide was furiously motioning me to follow him. I retrieved my camera and other fin and followed him. Lo and behold in about five feet of water on a small coral patch were two bumble bee shrimp. What a way to finish off my dream critter list!
The guides know every photographer has his/her wish list and they do an amazing job checking the critters off it, such as this bumble bee shrimp
It is impossible to name all of the subjects you will likely see in just a few days in Lembeh. It seems as if Lembeh just has this plethora of the really crazy stuff. It’s like there’s some sort of weird, ocean animal convention that takes place 24/7 at The Strait. For a more complete list, check out our Underwater Photographer’s Guide to Lembeh.
Underwater Photography Tips for Lembeh
The only downside of being the world’s “Muck Diving Capital” is that Lembeh attracts a lot of divers—and for good reason. That being said, there are efforts in place to keep the number of divers in one place as low as possible. For one, there is a rule here that no more than 15 divers can be on any one site. Most boats (from all the resorts in the area) carry six to eight passengers, so that mostly means that no more than two boats will be at one site at one time. critters@Lembeh Resort also puts no more than four people with a dive guide.
If it still feels like you’re waiting in line to photograph that (insert amazing critter here), there are a few things you can do during that time which will result in better-quality images. First of all, if you’ve seen the slate or gotten a glimpse of what critter it is, make plans in your mind about how you’d like to photograph it. You can change your settings and light positioning before it’s your turn, and then you’ll be all ready to make the most out of your time with the critter.
Don’t twiddle your thumbs while you wait for other photographers to finish shooting a critter: Use the time to get your settings right and plan for any compositional elements
I’d highly recommend at least one private dive on your trip. For a small extra fee you, or you and your buddy, can have your own dive guide, which makes for the most ideal shooting conditions. You will be able to stay for as long as you want with each critter and not be waiting in line till others are finished. The best-case scenario is to hire your own guide for your whole trip, but that’s probably not realistic for most underwater photographers of decent means. I’d suggest requesting a private guide for a dive or two near the end of your trip and request to go back to one of your favorite dive sites and happily shoot away.
Hiring a private dive guide for a day or two can make the difference between nabbing a standard “portrait” image and a stunning behavior shot
After a day of shooting and with the thought of dinner in mind, it can be easy to skip the night dive. This would be a mistake. Even if you don’t want the hassle of going for a boat dive, the house reef offers stargazers, cuttlefish, and bobbit worms, to name a few. You’ll probably have that site for just you and a buddy, and can call it quits anytime for an ice-cold Bintang beer.
For a more comprehensive list of tips and techniques for these conditions, make sure to check out our Muck Diving Photography Guide.
Muck diving photography’s biggest challenge is to bring the viewer’s attention from the muck background to the subject. Using open apertures blurs out the distracting background
Mandarinfish are always one of my favorites to watch. During the day they are hard to see because they live deep inside branching corals, but just before sunset they become a bit more photo-friendly as they take part in their nightly mating rituals. The males show off their pretty colors and chase the females around until just as the sun sets. Then they pair off and ascend cheek-to-cheek above the reef, releasing eggs and sperm back down on the coral, and in a second they part ways and continue about their night.
Twice a week, critters@Lembeh Resort has scheduled mandarinfish dives. At the site Batu Angus, the mandarinfish were not only plentiful, but also huge! I’ve never seen them so large anywhere else. Just as expected, we watched the males chase the females and right as it started to get dark they coupled up and emerged out of the reef cheek-to-cheek.
To nail the perfect mandarinfish mating image, you’ll need a focus light—ideally with a red output option—and a quick shutter finger when the magic kiss happens
This is a beautiful behavior to witness, but a challenging one for photographers to capture. For starters, the mandarinfish are very shy and bright lights can scare them off. Since the mating begins at sundown, you’ll need a focus light to help your camera’s autofocus. Ideally, you should use a red LED torch as the mandarinfish seem not to be bothered by this type of light. Also, use the time waiting for the mating to begin to nail your settings, as the “kiss” lasts for less than five seconds—not the time to be fiddling with strobe output, shutter speed, and aperture.
Critters@Lembeh Resort: The Best Service a Photographer Could Ask For
critters@Lembeh Resort has customer service down pat. And they should: Few dive centers work with as many professional image-makers each year. The crew carries dive and camera gear to and from the boats; on the dives, guides are conscious of diver safety but can also find the craziest critters almost instinctively; and after dives, there are towels, fresh fruit, and drinks on the boats.
Besides having a full service photo center at the resort with a full-time photo/video pro on staff, many of the dive guides are shooters in their own right as well as being trained in how to help photographers. On their days off, it’s not uncommon to see dive guides armed with their own cameras underwater with you. No one understands what a photographer wants better than another photographer. The guides at critters@Lembeh Resort can find you a baby frogfish the size of a pea and correctly identify hundreds of nudibranchs by their Latin names, but they also take some really great photographs and can help you take them as well.
The dive guides at critters@Lembeh Resort know what photographers want. They won’t just show you any snake eel: They will bring you right to a snake eel being cleaned by a shrimp
Planning Your Trip to Lembeh Strait
When to Go: Diving occurs year round. Water temperatures are warmer from October to March (82–84°F, 27–28°C) with the coolest months of July and August being 76–79°F (25–26°C). Air temperatures stay around 30°C (86°F) year round. The rainy season is November to March.
How to Get There: SilkAir, Garuda, and Lion Air fly into Manado, Indonesia from Singapore, Jakarta, Bali, and several other Indonesian cities. Lembeh Resort arranges land and water transfers to the resort.
Where to Stay and Who to Dive With: Lembeh Resort provides top service and quality accommodation and food. critters@Lembeh Resort has knowledgeable and experienced dive guides and an on-site photo/video pro at the photo center. They have a large photo/video gear room with individual spaces for setting up, storing, and charging. There is a excellent house reef directly in front of the resort and numerous dive sites just a few minutes away by comfortable boats.
Entry Requirements: Indonesia tourist visas can be purchased when arriving by citizens of most nationalities. They cost US$35 for 30 days. Check with the Indonesian embassy or consulate in your country before leaving for the most up-to-date requirements.
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