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July 2014    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 29, No. 7   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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NAD-Lembeh Resort, Indonesia

great critters, great people, great prices

from the July, 2014 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver:

When going to the ends of the dive world -- and Indonesia is -- I make sure Itravel to the best dive facility with the best guides. Having visited Bali, Komodo and Raja Ampat on extended prior trips, I would start this trip in Lembeh (pronounced "Lem-bay"), about a 90-minute drive from the Manado airport, followed by a short boat ride. I was in search of muck diving and Lembeh, with a well-protected, narrow channel between it and the mainland, has world-renowned critter diving. It would take me 43 real hours to get there and almost two kilobucks in airfare, so I researched the 13 dive resorts in the Lembeh Straits and finally selected NAD-Lembeh Resort, priced at $150 a night, including diving.

One of NAD-Lembeh Resort's Dive BoatsI arrived late afternoon and hadn't even unpacked when I was asked by other guests to join a night dive -- some had just arrived from 30-plus hour trips, so why not? Stenley, the "top" guide (whom I requested in advance), helped me get my equipment ready. After a five-minute ride on the fast wooden skiff, we reached the AER Parang I dive site. I backrolled into 82-degree water and descended with Stenley. Within 60 seconds, I was staring at a coconut octopus. Then Stenley pointed out a bobtail squid. Then a bright red reef octopus. Then a six-inch umbrella shell nudibranch. And a juvenile scorpionfish, a cluster of squid eggs inside a coconut shell, a small frogfish waiving its bait. And so it continued. Whenever I looked up from my current critter, Stenley had another waiting: a small yellow frogfish, two flounders playing (mating?) in the sand, a foot-long, free-swimming banded pipefish, a seemingly unafraid golden jawfish, a crocodile flathead, and shrimp everywhere. For the entire 70-minute dive, I never waited more than a minute to discover or be directed to something unique. Then, an easy climb up the sturdy ladder, and I was met with a dry towel and hot tea and snacks.

NAD-Lembeh Resort, IndonesiaBefore I arrived, I thought I would be diving an underwater garbage dump that had unusual critters because nothing else could live there. True, there is some trash from the villages and commercial ships in Lembeh straits, but the trash serves as critter housing and was not a distraction. And there were healthy coral reefs at many sites -- 100 feet of lettuce coral, small walls filled with soft corals, sea fans with pigmy seahorses, barrel sponges big enough to crawl inside, schools of juvenile fish -- but a shortage of big fish.

The next morning, four Taiwanese divers with their guide joined Stenley, me, and my new dive buddy, Andreas, whom I had met the night before. This young German not only carried a great camera setup, but also knew how to find critters. I was traveling by myself, so I felt lucky to find such an experienced dive buddy. After another short ride, I backrolled into the water and descended 70 feet to a cockatoo flounder. After easing away, I saw the Taiwanese photographing other critters without stirring a speck of sediment. They were so sharp-eyed that many times they pointed out "finds" to their guide as well as to us fellow divers. I usually end a dive with plenty of air to spare, but these guys were so good, I switched to a 100 cu-ft. tank to log dives as long as 85 minutes without worrying I might miss something if I ran low on air.

NAD-Lembeh provided a guide for every four people (I was by myself or with one or two others for all of my 24 dives), and separated dive groups in order to minimize the wait to see the latest "find" and hold down the silt. Nearly every diver had a housed SLR camera with video and red modeling lights to frame the critters. NAD limited each diver to three minutes viewing or five photographs -- a great idea because too often I've seen photographers take dozens of shots of the same critter, oblivious to all around them, then stir up silt when they chase after the next critter. Having photographed for 35 years, I recently downsized (literally) to a housed Olympus Pen Mini and shot videos and a few stills. I missed my macro capabilities -- if you're a serious photographer, you will need a true macro lens.

While I had requested and been promised Stenley for my guide, a professional photographer arrived at the resort on my third day, so Stenley joined the professional and I was assigned to a good but less-experienced guide. I've noticed that at many places, the more money your photography gear is worth, the better the guide you're assigned. After a few days, I requested they make good on their promise, but oddly, they "solved" the problem by taking Stenley off all dives (rest time) and leaving me with my guide. Regardless, my guide spent every minute of every dive looking for critters, so what's to complain about?

NAD-Lembeh Resort, IndonesiaNAD-Lembeh resort is beautifully set in a small cove at the foot of a steep hill. There are 10 motel-style beachfront rooms and four hillside bungalows. Simon, a German who's lived in Indonesia for years, and his wife, Zee, a native Indonesian, bought the resort five years ago. They added a camera room with 10 individual booths plus counters, rebuilt the outdoor dining area (with a beautiful view of the bay and mainland volcanic mountains), refurbished the rooms and added the four bungalows. With improvements still ongoing, they're on their way to creating the best facility and dive operation in Lembeh. My private hillside bungalow was just a short walk, had a great view and was a steal at only a couple of hundred dollars a week more than the smaller beach rooms. A wooden front deck led into my spacious room with a king-sized bed with mosquito netting, an armoire, a desk and a large private bath. Room #10 and bungalow #1 have the best views. Sheets and towels were changed every two days, or daily if I asked.

Tea, ice and coffee or espresso from a Krups grinder and coffee machine were available 24 hours. Breakfast was eggs any way I liked, served with fresh homemade bread, meat and cereal. Lunch and dinner usually had fish, a meat, veggies, bread, juice and a light desert. Indonesian and Asian preparations as well as "western" cuisine were options at all meals. I especially enjoyed the Indonesian dishes, but with six weeks' total travel in Indonesia, I didn't let a good hamburger go uneaten when it was offered. Vegetarians were easily accommodated. Good food in the open-air dining room with a beautiful view, mild temperatures and great staff and fellow guests made meals something to look forward to.

Sergio, the resort manager, always delivered, whether I asked him for a fish ID or noted a burned-out light bulb. Both Simon and Sergio are excellent professional photographers and eager to share photo tips and fix equipment. They and Zee always ate with us, often asking if everything was OK. I can't imagine that anyone could leave NAD with an unresolved complaint.

The four dive boats had 12 slots each. On my third day, exactly 12 guests were diving, but the resort still took two boats, four guides and six crew. We rarely saw another dive boat. The crew took care of all the equipment and tank changes, and helped divers climb aboard. Shore dives are reportedly "not bad," but with three dives and a night dive, I was already getting five hours underwater daily, so I didn't test those waters. Indonesia law mandates that all employees below top management must be Indonesians, so language limitations meant briefings were limited and almost always the same: Dive to rubble or sand at 60 to 90 feet, move to rubble or sand slope at 30 to 60 feet and coral above 30 feet (unless in a harbor). I never dove below 100 feet -- it just wasn't necessary -- but those who chose to dive their own profile or solo did so without scolding.

I often saw mimic, long-arm and wonderpus octopuses on the same dive, and evOne of NAD-Lembeh Resort's Dive Boatsen blue-ring octopuses. I eventually quit videoing them to enjoy just watching the mimic mimic the wonderpus, a cuttlefish or even a flounder. Color changes were remarkable. On one dive, I saw an eel slither tail-first into a hole and come out with a big worm -- maybe a ribbon eel -- in its mouth. Small cuttlefish were on every dive, and porcupinefish were everywhere. Various anemones were everywhere, too, home to several different kinds of anemonefish, many aggressively protecting their recently-laid eggs. Dive days at a special Mandarinfish site with uncharacteristically brave Mandarinfish are rotated among the 13 resorts. There was virtually no current, and I had 82-degree water temperatures and 30- to 70-foot visibility on every dive (it's better in the non-rainy season). The warm waters may predispose some divers to external ear canal infections. I wore a thin hood, more to protect my ears from the bubbles constantly "washing" out my protective ear wax than for warmth.

For divers staying longer, there are two excellent wreck dives in the channel, one at 80 feet and a WWII freighter at 100 feet. At both ends of Lembeh Strait are reportedly excellent reef dives with even richer coral, schools of larger fish, pelagics, etc. But muck diving is the draw, as characterized by one couple who have been coming for two months each year for five years and have only done muck dives.

I've made about 1,400 dives worldwide, and compared to the other divers there, I was roughly in the middle of the pack in terms of experience. One of the NAD "regulars" was a retired, 75-year-old doctor who, while physically limited, had a mind and memory so sharp that I found myself seeking him out for my unknown critter IDs. One recommendation is that you might be wise to save Lembeh until you've done a fair amount of Pacific diving. It's not about coral, reefs or fish, at least not big fish. It's about critters. It takes a special diver -- one with a good camera -- to appreciate just how special this place is.

-- P.R.

NAD-Lembeh Resort, IndonesiaDivers Compass: Two morning dives, an afternoon dive and all meals were included in my $1,260, eight-night package . . . My airfare was just under $2,000, and direct flights to Manado are available on international carriers; NAD arranged my pickup at the Manado airport in a private car for $18 each way . . . Flying outbound, I had a six-hour stay at the Singapore Ambassador Transit Hotel -- within the airport, so you don't have to spend hours going through customs -- which cost me under $50 ( www.harilelahospitality.com ), and I had a stopover in Japan on the return trip . . . There was a $25 pay-on-arrival Indonesian visa charge, and each flight in Indonesia had a $5 to 25 airport tax added at the departure gate, payable only in Indonesian rupiah, so change $100 in the Singapore, Hong Kong or Tokyo airports . . . Nitrox, at 30 to 32 percent, is a steep $20 a day, regardless of the number of dives . . . A five-liter oxygen bottle and mask are on every boat; the nearest hyperbaric chamber is in Manado . . . Best times to go are June through October, when the new batch from critter nurseries has grown a bit; the low season is January to March -- more rain and the critters tend to be deeper -- but I went in late February and had no problems or regrets . . . A 22-ounce Bintang beer was $4, soft drinks were $1- $2, and other drinks were available, although many brought their own hard liquor . . . Massages were available, and free Wi-Fi is in the common area/restaurant . . . Malaria is rare, though I still took generic Malarone, but European divers who lived in southeast Asia, and the European owners/ staff never took anti-malarial meds . . . This area of Indonesia is mostly Christian, at 70 percent of total population, with 30 percent relatively recent Muslim "immigrants" from other parts of Indonesia; while Indonesia has the largest Muslim population of any country, it has virtually no religious strife . . . Website: www.nad-lembeh.com

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