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Famous Places, New Faces: The Wrecks and Caves of Lembeh
By Andrew Marriott, January 3, 2020 @ 06:00 AM (EST)

The wrecks in Lembeh are home to some nice schools of big fish

Lembeh is legendary as a destination for the hard-core macro photographer. Located at the very tip of North Sulawesi in Indonesia near the city of Manado, it is blessed by geography. Tidal currents that sweep through the channels and deep, rich waters just offshore churn with nutrients that make this an environment ideal for all varieties of marine life. Known for the bizarre critters that can be found lurking in the black volcanic sands, Lembeh has so much more to offer. So put away your preconceptions and look up from your magnifying glass and see a new face of Lembeh.

I enjoy the occasional muck dive and macro shoot, but in the big scheme of things, I’d much rather be getting rusty in a moody wreck or poking around in the total blackness of a cave. These types of dives are not very common, and divers who enjoy them tend to end up in a few specific destinations. However, I’ve found something in the course of my travels: If you get to know your hosts and divemasters, you’ll find some sites are seldom dived and aren’t on the maps in the resorts.

Dive destinations cater to certain types of divers, and the sites that are offered reflect this. With the plethora of options available to divers, destinations have tended to become specialized towards specific styles of photography or diving. This is great, but it can also create site fatigue if you aren’t passionate about the types of dives on offer. Lembeh is a perfect example of this. Legendary for macro critters, it is the mecca of muck diving. My problem is that I can’t shoot with a microscope for days on end and have a good time. I was sharing this exact sentiment over dinner when the conversation drifted to the dives that guests never ask for. It turns out that Lembeh has a couple of nice wrecks and an easy little cave—Lembeh was showing me a new face and I couldn’t have been more excited.

The stack of the Malawi Wreck has broken off, but the hole it left is a good landmark

Wrecks are far more than piles of rust: They usually have tremendous color if you look around


Wreck Diving in Macro Paradise

There are very few things in life better than pulling away from the dock and knowing that you are heading somewhere new and different. Feeling the sea gently rock you is total bliss as you head out with the morning sun over your shoulder and rugged volcanos and jungle to either side. That morning our destination was down around the commercial port of Bitung. Normally divers don’t want to see a whole bunch of cargo ships and the grit of a busy port, so in all my dives in Lembeh I’d never been in this area.

The port itself is surprisingly busy with a variety of barges, tugs, and smaller cargo ships coming and going. This activity has been going on for a long time and a little research the night before revealed that the ships here had been the target for repeated U.S. airstrikes during World War II. I didn’t have the time to properly identify the ships that had been sunk here, but there were about half a dozen of them between 1943 and 1945.

Our target that morning was called the Malawi Wreck, named for the little village ashore. The actual name is unknown, but from what I learned, it was a Japanese vessel sunk in 1943 by U.S. bombers. She is around 330 feet long and has a single propeller, which is still intact, and for years the wreck was off-limits as it was carrying a cargo of anti-ship mines. The Indonesian Navy has since removed the mines and the wreck is safe to dive.

Nice color and marine life at the bottom of the anchor line

Wreck penetration is something I never thought I’d be doing in the mecca of muck diving

The Malawi Wreck is lying on its port side in about 100 feet of water and is mostly intact. Descending the line, we had plenty of company with big schools of mackerel and jacks swarming about, with an occasional tuna darting through the water. The line ends on the superstructure, which is encrusted with a huge variety of marine life including some incredibly colorful and massive nudibranchs! Heading down past the funnel, you quickly come to a black opening about the size of a van. This is the skylight for the engine room, and it is where the penetration begins.

Inside the engine room, things are dark and machinery is still everywhere, creating an awesome sense of drama and history. You can still almost see the crew at work as they were 73 years ago when this area was still in the air and full of noise. The only sound now is your bubbles as you slowly kick deeper into the engineering spaces and finally swim through an opening ripped in the steel by an explosion long ago. This takes you into the large, dark aft cargo hold. The hold used to be full of mines, but now it is empty and not terribly interesting.

With a little creative off-camera lighting, even fuel drums can be fun subjects

Doesn’t look like the Lembeh you are used to, does it?

The area around the stern is littered with debris, massive gorgonians, and wavy whip corals, and is swarming with sweetlips and other big fish. Swimming around this amazing scene, you come across the rudder and propeller, which are both still in place. It can take a moment to figure out what you are looking at, as the marine life growing on them is as dense as it is colorful. From here, it’s an easy swim back up the hull, which is a great place to look for critters with your remaining air and bottom time.

We did several dives on this wreck and another one located nearby over the next few days. Other guests thought we were crazy at first, but by the final day, our boat was full of curious divers. The second wreck is unnamed, and it is just a field of debris. Local legend is that it was destroyed in an attack, and it may have been. However, there was also substantial evidence of controlled demolition to clear the shipping channel. On the last dive, our guide wanted to show us something different. He knew our affinity for dark spaces, but also our love of big colors. So, we headed north towards the opposite end of the strait.

With a little light you can even find nice color within the cargo hold

It’s hard to tell, but this is the propeller and rudder


Exploring Magical Caves and Tunnels

The narrow channel opened a little as we approached the northern end of the Lembeh Strait, and the gentle waves gave way to big ocean swells. We dropped anchor not far from the palm tree-lined beaches, the water here quickly transitioning from the calm turquoise of the magical coral reef shallows to a deep sapphire blue. This knife-edge transition from calm sun-drenched shallows to mysterious deep blues can only mean one thing: an amazing wall.

Rolling into the warm waters revealed not just a sheer vertical cliff, but a corner where two walls and two currents meet. The walls are smothered in vibrant soft corals with majestic sea fans waving in the current. Descending amidst the schools of angelfish, damselfish and anthias, the current does all the work moving you along the reef. The marine world passed by like an amazing 3D movie. The free fall from the surface ended at 90 feet with a large dark hole in the wall, like a giant maw daring the diver to enter.

Everyone loves a little cave diving, right?!

Penetrating into the little cave: It was a little tight in spots, but nothing serious

Entering the cave, there was plenty of room for two divers to swim side by side amidst the massive sea fans and whip corals. We pushed in deeper towards the dark blue light glowing further in the cave. After a short swim in the dark, we were rewarded with a huge chamber full of almost every kind of reef fish. The whole scene is bathed in sunlight shining down from the surface clearly visible almost 100 feet above. Turning around it became apparent that this was not a single tunnel; it is several passages that all lead from the wall into this magical sun-filled chamber.

We headed out through a smaller and shallower cave. This gently winding passage is filled with corals, crinoids, and sponges on all sides. Slowly moving through feels like being inside the living heart of a vibrant coral reef. Finally, we popped back out on the current swept wall. I loved this dive and the photographic opportunities are tremendous. Called Angel’s Window, this is a pretty well-known dive. A lot of divers never go here though, and that’s a shame as it is a world-class wide-angle dive.

A photographer’s paradise!

Angel’s Window and the Malawi Wreck are just two examples of the dives that are available in Lembeh when you go beyond macro. There are other wrecks and other hidden caves. There are many more walls, and currents are always around to provide an incredible high-adrenaline drift dive. Even the macro and muck diving sites often have amazing reefs full of corals and endless varieties of reef fish if you leave the sandy areas and head towards the shallows near the shore.

Even on the wreck, wall, and cave dives, there is always plenty of macro if you want a change of pace! The caves, wrecks and walls are crawling with the weird and bizarre. There are few places in the world you can do a cave dive with pygmy seahorses, wreck dives with giant solar-powered nudibranchs, and all the while being swarmed by an amazing variety of fish. This is a normal day in Lembeh—but only if you venture beyond the muck.

The entrance to the cave is nice and wide with an abundance of growth

The exit was a little tighter and you had to be extremely careful not to bump anything

The magical cathedral-like chamber where all the tunnels lead


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