Lembeh Island is located just across the narrow Lembeh Strait from the busy port town of Bitung. In the last couple of decades this pretty tropical island has earned itself a reputation as one of the best muck diving locations in the world; attracting divers, marine biologists and underwater photographers from all over the world.
Right now I can hear all the amateur and non-divers asking what exactly is muck diving? Basically the term refers to diving in muddy or sandy bottomed environs, usually where there is little or no current so natural sediments and man-made junk settles into a “mucky” layer on the ocean floor. Volcanic areas are particularly good for muck diving because eons of nutrient rich volcanic sediment fosters sea grass beds and marine vegetation. What makes the world of muck diving so appealing is the weird and wonderful creatures that make their homes in the muck. Hence the reason muck diving is also referred to as “critter” diving.
The Lembeh Strait has over 40 dive sites teaming with colourful and some downright bizarre critters such as nudibranches, devilfish, pygmy seahorses, mandarinfish, hairy frogfish, bobbit worms, Pegasus seamoths, ghost pipefish and the endemic Banggai cardinal fish. Just to name a few! Patience and keen eyes are a must though as many of Lembeh’s critters are small and difficult to spot which is where a good dive guide becomes invaluable. Outside the Strait, Lembeh also has some really worthwhile soft and hard coral gardens on pinnacles and steep walls and several WWII dive wrecks.
Although the majority of the Lembeh Strait dives are quite shallow (on average around 10m) and often finish in less than 2m of water, visibility is only around 3-4m so conditions aren’t great for snorkelling.
Out of the water, there’s a nice cross island hike (3-4 hours) which passes through tropical forests and small scale plantations producing exotic herbs and spices, such as nutmeg and cloves, fruits and native Kenari nuts. The trek also passes through tiny hamlets where you may see locals producing kopra (smoked coconut) and separating and drying mace and nutmeg. There are some great views across the Celebres Sea along the way and a good chance of spotting some of the island’s land dwelling critters such as monitor lizards and the bird of paradise. Another hiking trail weaves along the islands south-eastern coastline passing by numerous white or black volcanic sand beaches, mangroves and small coastal hamlets. At night, take a good torch ask your accommodation provider if they have someone who can walk you a short distance into the forest and see if you can spot the highly cute tarsier or civet cat.
There’s plenty of accommodation on Lembeh Island but during peak season between July and August it can book out fast. Unfortunately, the accommodation scene is almost exclusively mid to high end dive resort style, so staying on the island is prohibitively expensive for anyone travelling on a budget. Having said that, some resorts include transfers to/from Manado, all meals, equipment and unlimited diving from the shore or boat so they may be more affordable than they first appear. A couple of the cheaper resorts include meals only; you pay for transfers, equipment hire and boat dives but diving from the shore is free. So you can reduce costs by making your own way to Lembeh Island using public transport and limiting your boat dives.
To make your own way to Lembeh Island, consider grabbing a taxi or private car if you’re travelling in a small group and can split the costs. Otherwise, the cheapest option is using public transport which is quite doable but requires a few transfers. Start by catching a mikrolet from downtown Manado to Terminal PAAL 2 on the eastern outskirts of the city. From PAAL 2, catch the public bus to Bitung, a journey of around 1.5 hours. The bus terminates at Bitung’s Tangkoko Terminal and from there you’ll need to catch another mikrolet or an ojek to Ruko (Bitung harbour) about 30min away, where the local boats leave for Lembeh Island. There are always small boats waiting at the harbour and for around 200.000Rp, you should be easily able to charter one for the 20-30min crossing to Lembeh Island (another opportunity to split costs if travelling in a group). Don’t forget to ask for your captain’s phone number so you can call him to come and get you for the return crossing whenever you’re ready.
Be aware, a fee of 50.000Rp per person is levied for everyone visiting the Lembeh Straits Marine Park. It’s usually added to your accommodation or dive charter bill.
You may also like: