By Matt Weiss
Located in the diving hotspot of Northern Sulawesi, Indonesia, the Lembeh Strait is an unassuming body of water that separates mainland Manado from Lembeh Island. Despite the Strait looking very ordinary, the diving is anything but. The areas volcanic dark sand hosts a diverse collection of life that can only be described as odd or unusual.
Lembeh is often referred to as the “Critter Capital of the World” because many of the Indo-Pacfic’s most bizarre and captivating small critters are found in high abundance there. It’s considered one of the best, if not the best, places in the world to find highly desired macro subjects such as the mimic octopus, pygmy seahorse, flamboyant cuttlefish, hairy frogfish and rhinopias. Muck-diving is what Lembeh is known for and be prepared to do a lot of it.
It’s worth pointing out that on most dives there is little else to photograph but the strange critters. Almost all the dives sites are muck dives, meaning most of the diving is done over seemingly barren dark sand, and there are times when garbage is more plentiful than coral. Do not expect brilliantly colored soft corals, large sea fans or big animals in beautiful blue water.
For a macro photographer, however, there are few places in the world that can match Lembeh in terms of its abundance of unique small subjects, which is why it has become one of the most highly rated and visited underwater photography destinations in the world.
Lembeh Strait Facts:Where: Northern Sulawesi, Indonesia
Language: Bahasa Indonesia
Currency: Rupiah (IRP)
Time Zone: (GMT + 8)
Water Temperature: 26 - 29°C (79 - 84°F)
Surface Temperature: 26 - 29°C (79 - 84°F)
Visibility: Very variable. Between 5-25m
Diving Experience Level: Suitable for beginners, but good buoyancy is extremely important.
Photography Experience Level: Great for beginners through advanced photographers
Underwater Photography In Lembeh Straits:
There are a few subject that are usually on the top of a macro photographers wish list when they visit Lembeh including:
- Mimic Octopus
- Hairy Octopus
- Hairy Frogfish
- Blue Ring Octopus
- Pygmy Seahorses
- Flamboyant Cuttlefish
- Ornate Ghost Pipefish
Lembeh not only has large numbers of rare critters, but also offers the perfect environment to photograph them. The black volcanic sand is an ideal substrate for macro photographers as it contrasts the colors of many of the subjects nicely. Additionally, many of the critters often remain still and allow for close approaches, which means you will not have to rush your shots and can experiment with different techniques.
There are also some wrecks in Lembeh, but they wont impress any experienced wreck divers and usually the macro life found on the ship is the main attraction.
Underwater Photography Equipment For Lembeh StraitSince Lembeh is primarily a macro destination, come fully prepared with your complete macro set-up. Refer to the guide to "Underwater Macro Photography Equipment" for more information on what equipment is right for Lembeh.
If you are shooting with a point and shoot, considering using an add-on wet macro lens for the smaller critters. The wet lenses will allow you to focus closer to the subject, and increase its magnification in the frame. For subjects like small emperor shrimp and pygmy seahorse, they are difference makers.
If you are shooting with an SLR camera and own macro lenses in the 60mm and 100/105mm range, consider bringing them both. Even photographers who swear by the 100/105mm macro lenses have shown interest in using the 60mm in Lembeh. Some of the desired subjects like giant frogfish, rhinopias, mimic octopus, wonderpus and others are large enough that to fit them in the frame with a 105mm you need to be farther away than desired.
Since the visibility is often times very low, the closer you are to your subject the better and the 60mm close minimum focus and relatively wide angle of view make it perfect for larger subjects.
Some underwater photographers choose to leave their wide-angle lenses at home when visiting Lembeh. While there is certainly no shortage of macro subjects to keep you satisfied with only a macro lens, there are opportunities for creative close-focus wide-angle photographs of critters. If you have the room for your wide angle set up as well, considering taking it along.
Camera Bag (SLR)
- Fisheye lens for close focus wide angle underwater photography
- Dome port (mini dome port preferable)
- Teleconverter and/or diopter for super macro underwater photography
Camera Bag (compact camera)
- Close Up Wet Lens
Diving EquipmentThere are no real special dive equipment requirements for diving Lembeh. Bring your photographer’s mask, fins, BCD and regulator. A full wetsuit, 3-5mm thick, is a good idea to wear at all times to protect you from potential stings.
One piece of equipment you will see many photographers using in Lembeh is a small metal rod. Affectionately called a “muck stick,” these metal rods are used to steady yourself for a shot without sticking your hand in the muck. Sticking your hand in the sandy bottom can stir up unwanted silt that can find its way into your shot and you also run the risk of stinging yourself. Using the “muck stick” is a good way to avoid these issues. You can usually purchase these at your dive center, or you can make your own from a metal rod or even a knitting needle.
Lembeh Strait Dive Bag
- Photographer’s mask
- Full wetsuit (3-5mm)
- Muck Stick
Lembeh Strait Underwater Photography Tips and Techniques
- Practice good buoyancy, the sediment is very fine and muddy and can easily be stirred up which will create tons of backscatter in your photographs.
- Use a “muck stick” to steady yourself while shooting. Hold the muck stick with your left hand and stick it into the sediment. Use your right hand to hold the camera. This should keep you a few inches off the sediment, and, if you keep your fins up, will help prevent you from stirring up the muck
- Stay down current, as this will take any stirred up sediment out of your frame.
- Before you set up your camera, ask your dive guides what you might see at the site you are visiting. If you will be going to a site where one of the larger species, such as a rhinopias, has been spotted recently, considering taking the 60mm macro rather than 100/105mm.
- Follow your guides. A good guide is a professional critter spotter and will be well aware of what photographers are looking for.
- Get creative. The critters of Lembeh are usually quite stationary and will provide you with plenty of time to experiment. Try creative underwater photography techniques like close-focus wide angle, bokeh or snooting to help your images stand out.
- Don’t skip the night dives. There are many nocturnal species that can only be found during the night. Many photographers feel that night dives in Lembeh are the most productive dives.
Tangkoko National Park
Tangkoko National Park is a 9,000 hectare nature reserve located about 2 hours from Lembeh. The main draw of Tangkoko is its wildlife, most notably the Spectral Tarsier, the of the world's smallest primate. Tangkoko is one of the only places in the world to see the tarsier and the chances of spotting one are very high. In addition to the tarsier you can spot black crested macaques, birds, amphibians and insects.
If you plan on taking the trip to Tangkoko make sure you bring:
- Light, quick drying clothing – prefarbly light colored
- Long pants and good footwear for hiking (sneakers are fine)
- Insect repellent
- A flashlight
Additional Photo Equipment
- It can be quite dark so an external flash may be necessary.
- A zoom lens of some sort, as the tarsiers are quite small and pretty far away.
- The 100mm/105mm can work but a lens in the 200mm range would be better.
Minahasa Highlands Tour
A tour of the Minahasa Highlands will take you up the hills from Manado to a number of villages that specialize in different crafts. You can see traditional Minahasan style houses being built in Woloan, pottery in Pulutan, and the highlight of the tour, the jungle market in Tomohon. The jungle market is a local market with a colorful assortment of foods. However, the jungle market is not for the squemash, as it is famous for its smoked meats, which includes bats, rats, and dog.
Planning Your Underwater Photography Trip To LembehWhen To Go: All year. The official rainy season is from November to March but there are no monsoons and any rain does not interfere with diving.
How To Get There: Fly into Manado. You can get to Manado through Singapore, Jakarta and Bali. The most popular route is to fly into Singapore, which is accessible from all other major destinations. Silk Air flies to Manado four days a week. From Manado, it’s about an hour and half drive to the port and a quick boat ride to Lembeh Island.
Entry Requirements: A tourist visa, which can be obtained upon arrival, is required for citizens of most countries before entering into Indonesia. The cost of a 30 day visa is $25.00. Be sure to bring crisp, new American dollars as old, ripped bills will not be accepted.
Connectivity: Slow internet is available at some resorts on Lembeh. Mobile phone service is reliable.
Health Concerns and Vaccinations: There are no vaccinations required for North Sulawesi, but it’s recommended to visit a doctor before your trip.
Where To Stay and Dive: DivePhotoGuide stayed at Lembeh Resort and dove with Critters@Lembeh for this article.
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