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Dive Photo Guide


Lembeh Lucky: Hitting the Jackpot at Lembeh Resort
By Joseph Tepper, May 11, 2018 @ 06:00 AM (EST)

A wonderpus octopus wanders its way along the Lembeh Strait

Macro underwater photography is often a gamble. What lens should you choose? Will there be too much current to focus? Can you even find the subject you’re looking for? And perhaps the most important factor: Where on this blue earth should you go to dive? 

Even at some of the world’s best macro underwater photography destinations, it can take weeks or months to take home a top-notch shot. But in the Lembeh Strait, critter karma seems imbued on every dive—be it an ultra-rare species or an uncommon behavior. You can risk it all on a trip somewhere else, or head over to Indonesia and get lucky in Lembeh. 

Getting Lucky in Lembeh

Peruse award-winning underwater photos or dive magazines, and one location is inevitably iterated in the captions: Lembeh Strait, North Sulawesi. These mucky waters have an abundance of animals scantily seen in other environments. Muck diving photography subjects like blue-ringed octopuses, pygmy seahorses, or hairy frogfish that would be the highlight of an entire trip elsewhere are relatively common in the strait. 

Seldom-seen critters like this flamboyant cuttlefish are common in Lembeh

The density of such unique species provides photographers the chance to take home more than just a “proof” shot. It’s the perfect environment to come away with multiple magazine-caliber images of natural history behaviors: Egg brooding, births, juvenile morphologies, camouflage, mutual symbiosis and predation are all photographed daily.

The frequency of A+ level subjects also gives photographers the freedom to try new techniques. You don’t have to worry about just capturing a “standard” image of an otherwise rare subject. Skip the plain and boring and head straight for the snoot, diopter, slow shutter, bokeh, or any other creative method. You can’t lose.

No other place seems to deliver these moments of good fortune as consistently as the Lembeh Strait. And no other operation has as much experience dealing with demanding photographers as Lembeh Resort and its dive center Critters@Lembeh.

A juvenile barramundi cod chows down on the arm of a shrimp

This hairy shrimp measures less than a quarter of an inch in length


High Odds with Critters@Lembeh 

Even in a biodiverse environment like the Lembeh Strait, having an “inside guy” is critical to getting competition-worthy images. And there are no better guys (or gals) to know than the dive guides at Critters@Lembeh.

With more than 70,000 collective dives inside the strait, these guides aren’t just experts: They are facsimile marine biologists always chronicling the amazing ecosystem. There are even full-time marine biologists that can help you identify any unrecognized species on your memory card. 

Don’t know what a subject is? The in-house marine biologist can help identify your mystery critter

What really makes the guides so impressive is their knowledge of photography. Not only are many of them seasoned divers, but accomplished underwater photographers as well. Divemasters often use their time off to practice camera skills on the house reef. Critters@Lembeh even has a full-time photo pro—Fred Juneau—who covers all of the bases, from basic post-processing courses to 3D-printing photo accessories.

Underwater, the guides are like your personal critter concierge. They don’t just show you all of the subjects they see—after all, in Lembeh this would be nearly impossible. Rather, they have a knack for picking out the ones that photographers appreciate: a nudibranch on a bright blue tunicate, a pygmy seahorse in a sea fan with open polyps, or a blue ring octopus slightly off the bottom making it possible to create a black background. With these guides, you hardly have to do a thing—except press the shutter.

The helpful guides of Critters@Lembeh can help you position your snoot

Why photograph any mantis shrimp when an eagle-eyed guide can find one laden with eggs?


Strait Flush

Twice a day, millions of gallons of seawater flush through the strait separating Lembeh Island and North Sulawesi. Cold upwelling from the depths of the Molucca Sea provides a rich nutrient consommé to be consumed by the various residents of the Lembeh Strait. Bankrolled by the bounty of such nutrients, the strait is able to host a vast array of animals—more than 2,000 species in a stretch of just five miles.

Constant current also limits the amount of coral growth, which confines the majority of species to the sea floor. In Lembeh, even subjects typically scattered all over different vertical levels of a reef—octopuses, seahorses, frogfishes, and shrimps—are crammed onto the mucky bottom. Such a density of animals in a single environment offers a huge payout for underwater photographers.

A colorful boxfish swims in stark contrast with the sea floor of the strait

Nudibranchs of all shapes and sizes are easy pickings

The current-coddled strait is just part of the equation that makes this third-of-a-mile-wide stretch of water so unique for underwater photography. Many of the sites may look almost identical at first glance, but if you look closely, slight variations emerge. What you might call “muck” might actually be white sand, black sand, silt, stone rubble, coral rubble, or coral reefs. 

These fragile microhabitats make it possible for otherwise co-competitive species to survive and thrive in such a relatively small environment. As such, Critters@Lembeh encourages responsible diving practices for both the guides and the guests alike. Before the first dive, visitors watch an entertaining educational five-minute video on proper muck diving etiquette. Guides too are amongst the strictest in the strait in terms of limiting subject manipulation to avoid stressing out the subject. All of these efforts are key in preserving the wonderful weirdness of the Lembeh Strait for years to come.

Bucket list subjects like blue ring octopuses are ready to show you their best sides

Get your fill of pygmy seahorses in Lembeh—just be sure to bring your best close-up wet lens


The House (Reef) Always Wins

While most dive sites are less than a five-minute ride from the resort, some of the best critters can be found just steps away. Lembeh Resort’s house reef is like a luxurious plunge pool for underwater macro photographers. On a single dive, this fortuitous shooter tallied up the following list: hairy squat lobster, cardinalfish, various nudibranchs, juvenile longfin spadefish, decorator crab, common pipefish, pugnose pipefish, several whip coral shrimps, pygmy cuttlefish, and a flamboyant cuttlefish.

A Napoleon snake eel pokes its head out of the sand

A hairy squat lobster strikes a pose 

The high odds of filling up a memory card with all that action isn’t a surprise. For more than a decade, the Critters@Lembeh team has worked hard to maintain the house reef, installing concrete blocks, metal wire structures, and rope to attract marine life of all sorts. A recent fish survey conducted by researchers and the in-house marine biologist, Dimpy Jacobs, tallied more than 300 species of fish. To make the most of the house reef, hire a guide for the tour—the proceeds go towards future reef projects.

The ease of access, bounty of subjects, and shallow conditions make the house reef a perfect spot for practicing creative macro techniques. Snap on a snoot for directional lighting of a snake eel. Slow your shutter speed to capture the graceful movement of a juvenile sweetlips. Or rent out some fluorescent underwater imaging gear for a trippy night dive. It’s all in the cards at the Lembeh Resort house reef.

Test out creative photographic techniques like black backgrounds…

…and motion blur effects


Suite Accommodations

Flanked by an infinity pool, serviced by a dedicated butler, and providing dizzying views, the new Lembeh Resort Cliffside Suite will make you feel like a high roller in the world of muck diving. The suite offers amenities such as an espresso machine, minibar, and flatscreen TV. For those photo fanatics, there’s a large desk to edit your pics and Wi-Fi to swiftly make all of your fellow photogs jealous via social media posts.

Take in the sublime vista from the spectacular Cliffside Suite

While the Cliffside Suite sets the benchmark for luxury in the Lembeh Strait, the other accommodations at the resort aren’t far behind. In the last year, Lembeh Resort has renovated their traditional cottages based on years of guest feedback, and doing so has created modern, tropical homes-away-from-home. “The newly opened Luxury Cottages offer that for underwater photographers by combining modern building techniques and practicality with elegant furnishings and touches of understated Indonesian décor,” says Guest Relations Manager Morten Lund Hansen.

The lavishness extends throughout the resort’s amenities. The spa center offers an assortment of services, including a sensational body aromatherapy massage—perfect after a tiring day of muck diving. The treetop restaurant is more than a place to just refuel: An expansive Vegas-esque buffet with freshly baked pastries and eggs to order kicks off the day, while at night, the resort’s chefs prepare an a-la-carte menu that dazzles—from staples of Western fine dining to local, North Sulawesi favorites.

Live it up in the lovely new Luxury Cottages 

Treat yourself to tasty breakfasts and divine dinner spreads 


Cashing In

With pockets full of memory cards crammed with jaw-dropping macro moments, you might feel like you’ve had a fortunate trip. Maybe you credit it to your lucky swimsuit, diving around the new moon, or good karma from all those other subpar macro trips. But you’d be wrong. 

You see, in Lembeh, it’s not luck when you already hold the winning hand.

A juvenile batfish cruises across a starry backdrop



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