Ken Kurtis and the Reefseekers trip report
How can you not love a place that on one dive can offer you a half-inch frogfish and a 20-foot Whale Shark?
We made our eighth trip to Indonesia July 11-23 of this year, specifically going to Manado in Northern Sulawesi to dive with our longtime friends at Murex Dive resort. Our group was rather compact this year, numbering only four divers: Wil & Linda Lemley, Sue Krauth, and myself (Ken Kurtis). But our size was also an advantage as it have us a bit more flexibility in terms of scheduling things and also (obviously) meant our boat was less crowded due to our small number.
No trip is perfect and there are always little things that could have been better or turned out differently or whatever, but I thought this was one of our better trips to Indonesia. (And we’ve had really good ones in the past.) Although we had a little wind the first two days, it made for a choppy ride over to Bunaken but didn’t really affect our diving. The weather overall was warm-to-hot but the humidity seemed fairly low so while in years past you could be dripping sweat while dining outside, things were quite pleasant this year.
There have been changes at Murex as well since we were there last year. The resort, founded by Dr. Han Batuna, is now owned by his daughter Angelique and her husband Danny Charlton (an American ex-pat). Danny and Angelique also own Murex Bangka as well as [email protected], which is based at the Lembeh Resort. Because of that triple association, they offer a “Passport to Paradise” package which gives you three days at each place. I prefer to base us at Murex and schedule single-day visits to Bangka (by boat) and to Lembeh (by car and then we pick up a boat there).
That worked to our advantage this year as the aforementioned wind would have made the ride to Bangka quite unpleasant as well as it made the key Bangka dive sites (like Sahong – the prettiest soft coral reef I’ve ever dived) undiveable. So we cancelled our Bangka day and swapped in another day of Manado Bay muck diving.
That’s the other nice thing about diving these areas of the world. You’ve got a real diversity in terms of choosing the type of dive you’re doing and the site where you’re going to do it.. The reefs at Bunaken Marine Park are gorgeous, although I must admit not quite as pristine as they were when I first came in 2000. Back then we might have been the only boat diving an area. Now, the popularity has boomed and the ranks of divers has swelled. One day I counted 25 boats working the front side of Bunaken. And over time, that takes it toll on the reefs.
But they’re still really healthy. Very few broken corals visible and I didn’t notice any bleaching. The dive sites are mostly fairly vertical wall dives but there are a couple of spots that are sloping reefs rather than walls. Visibility varied a bit but was generally 60-100+ feet, water temp around 84º. Particulate in the water was noticeable at some sites or depths (especially on video), not so much at others. The currents were variable, sometimes QUITE variable, but you’re generally drifting with the current, not fighting it, so that’s not an issue.
And then there’s the muck.
“Muck dive” means it’s a dive that’s generally close to shore and in a sandy area. There may be reef around or there may not. The visibility’s usually less (20-40 feet) and you need to be careful not to stir up the muck lest you destroy the viz all together. But the muck yields some fabulous treasures.
This is where you’ll most likely find Frogfish, Ornate Ghost Pipefish, Robust Ghost Pipefish, Razorfish, Waspfish, Scorpionfish, Pygmy Seahorses, Mimic & Wonderpus octopi, Blue Ribbon Eels, and a whole lot more. (Ironically, we also saw our lone Whale Shark at the end of one of the muck dives.)
The Holy Grail of muck diving is the Lembeh Straits, a narrow body of water about seven miles long that’s in NE Northern Sulawesi. The water’s about 4-5 degrees colder than out on the reefs (and you tend to feel it after three hour-long dives each day) but it has the highest concentration and most marvelous assortment of wonderful creatures you could ever hope for. Some people, especially photogs, will spend an entire week or more at Lembeh and will shoot many creatures on their bucket list. No one knows why these waters are so rich in unusual creatures but everyone appreciates that they are.
In the past few years, the DMs and guides at Murex have also started exploring and documenting muck sites that are within Manado Bay, sometimes a few minutes from the resort, sometimes further away. And while perhaps not as concentrated as Lembeh, and certainly ranging over a wider area, these “new” muck sites offer yet another diving option for those based at Murex. And this is why I’m a big fan of using Murex as our base of our operations.
Each day is a three-dive day, usually with an 8:30AM departure and a 4PM-ish return. We’d have breakfast at the resort (more on food and dining later), then load up the boats. Our general plan was two dives at Bunaken (45-60 minutes away depending on what site we’d chosen) and then the third dive was a muck dive coming back across to the Manado Bay side of things. On the crossing back after the second dive, we’d have lunch on the boat which was always some combination of white rice (with various sauces), chicken or pork and a fish dish, and a couple of different veggie options as well. Serve yourself and take as much as you wanted and there was always plenty for everyone. (And it was tasty too.)
Danny & Angelique had all the boats, which are traditional Indonesian-style (which means low to the water), rebuilt last year. There are tank racks down the center accommodating 16 standing tanks (at least that was the count on our boat) with BCs and regs attached, and there are two padded benches along the sides where you can sit. There’s storage under the benches (good place for cameras and dry bags) as well as shelves for storage above the seats for smaller things. The boats all really very efficiently use all the space. They’ve even got it designed so that the area under the tanks is hollowed out (sort of like a bilge) and can be used for extra tanks to be stored. That also puts more weight lower and in the center of the boat which also helps the boats ride even better and more smoothly through the water.
There’s a head on each boat (rudimentary but it gets the job done) which is always appreciated and beats the-ocean-is-my-toilet and prop-checks (inside joke for getting off the boat to check the props but you’re really going to do your business) that we have in other parts of the world.
And this year they were very aggressive – and I mean that in a very good way – about having you drink water and stay hydrated. Every time you turned around they were offering you a cup of water. (Everyone has a cup of their own with their name on it.) get on the boat, have some water. Just before the dive, have some water. Come back on board, have some water. They’re also heavily pushing water consumption at the resort as well. It’s a really great idea as a lot of times you don’t realize that you’re getting dehydrated. And, as someone who’s had to evacuate a severely dehydrated diver from a boat one time, trust when I tell you that you’d rather be well-hydrated than dehydrated. I know a lot of times you hear lip service about this, but Murex is putting their
Getting off the boat is pretty easy. The gunnels in front of the tank area are low and unobstructed, so you just put your tank on (the crew’s always there to help you), put your fins on, pivot 180 to sit on the gunnel, and do a backroll. (Or you can do a frontroll like I choose to.)
At the end of the dive, the boat comes to pick you up, they attach a portable/removable ladder to the side, you take off your fins, and come up the ladder. One minor complaint is that the ladder could extend further down into the water. Adding one more rung would make it easier to get on the ladder. As it was, I couldn’t get my foot up on the lowest rung so I’d have to kneel on the lower rung, and then stand up and come up. With one more rung added (the ladders at Lembeh are actually this length), it would be easier to stand on the lower rung and come up. Not a big deal certainly but a small change that would make a noticeable difference.
But I really do like the boats. Certainly nothing fancy but very practical and efficient. And once again this year, they had my ramp ready for me (which is the second image in the SmugMug slideshow).
At Murex (as well as Bangka & Lembeh Resort), they don’t have a dock so they back the boats in as close as they can to the beach which usually puts the stern in about a foot or so of water. You walk out in the water and get on at the stern. But it’s become well-known there by now that I usually wear my shoes and socks and don’t like taking them off so they also have a ramp for me that extends from the water’s edge to the boat. I realize they’re accommodating my peculiarity (and I appreciate it) but I don’t know why they don’t just make that SOP for all of their boat loadings.
The guides and boat crews are also wonderful and very attentive to your needs. We once again had “my” guide, Basrah Tan. (Plus I just like diving with him.) Basrah’s got a great knack for spotting all the little creatures and I like to joke that my camera’s simply a point-and-shoot with him around: Basrah points, and I shoot.
We also got into a routine this year where I’d . . . assist . . . him on the briefings (to the uninitiated, it might seem like . . . heckling). And of course, I love telling stories as you all know. So Basrah’s new thing this year was, after we were done with the briefing and I was holding court with one of my tales, he’d interject (with that wonderful Indonesian accent), “So Ken, do you want to talk . . . or do you want to dive?”
During the eight dive days we were there, we did 25 dives overall, which included a fabulous night dive at a nearby muck site, City Extra. It was also nice because that evening, it was just Basrah, Danny, Sue, and me. The cool find on that dive was a juvy Pinnate Spadefish, black with a bright orange margin, and it was the first time I’d ever seen one of those.
Overall, we did 12 dives at Bunaken, 9 muck dives around Manado Bay, 3 muck dives at Lembeh, and the one Manado Bay night muck dive.
That’s the other great thing about diving in Indonesia and the Manado/Lembeh area. There’s a whole slew of species – Pygmy Seahorse, Blue-Ringed Octopus, Mimic Octopus, to name three – that I’ve only ever seen in this area of the world. So, as I said earlier, if you’ve got a bucket list of weird and wonderful animals you want to see, chances are you can find them here.
At Bunaken, you start the dive along the wall after the guide has determined which way the current’s flowing. Prior to each dive, they use a whiteboard to show you what the site looks like and what you can expect to see. All the guides carry little rattlers so anytime you hear tinkle-tinkle-tinkle, you look in their direction. New for this year – and a great idea IMHO – is that they’re carrying Quest underwater erasable slates. So not only will they point at what it is they’ve found, they’ll show you the name as well. Fabulous addition.
I am always impressed by the number of Red-Toothed Triggerfish we see at Bunaken. I’m not talking thousands but more likely millions and at every site. Part of the reason I like them is I love watching them move en mass through the water and part of the reason is that, photographically, they’re REALLY hard to shoot because they’re very wary about letting you make a close approach. So even a crappy picture feels like a success.
I think we saw more turtles this year, both Hawksbill and Greens, than I’ve ever seen before. It wasn’t unusual to have over a dozen turtles spotted throughout a single dive. Sadly, the enormous turtle that we’ve been seeing for years at Lekuan 2, Rambo, disappeared three months ago. Basrah thinks he may have simply died from old age because, based on his size (roughly six feet nose to tail) he was well over 100 years old. But with all the turtles we saw this time, and some quite large though not Rambo-sized, I suggested that they rename one of the sites NAFT: Not Another F***ing Turtle.
The downside of diving the walls at Bunaken is that you can get so mesmerized by the vertical sights that you sometimes forget there’s a lot of great stuff going on in the shallow top of the reef as well. That’s where you’ll find tons of Anthias, Anemones and Clownfish, Parrotfish and other wrasses, and thousands of small fish, flitting back and forth. It’s truly a fabulous visual spectacle.
The Manado Bay muck sites are also quite prolific. Probably the highlight – and both Basrah and I screamed underwater when we saw him – was the discovery of a Blue-Ringed Octopus at Malalayang. Bear in mind these guys are not only the deadliest sea creature in the world – it’s estimated that if they bite you, you probably won’t make it back to the boat before you’re dead – but they’re TINY, only an inch or two long. But it was fabulous watching the little guy flit around an artificial reef made out of large sewer pipes. He definitely looked to me like he was hunting and, as you’ll see when you watch the SmugMug slideshow, was changing color from white to yellow, along with flashing his trademark blue rings, as he moved about.
Lembeh proved to be its usual wonderful self. We dove Nudi Retreat where we found a Pygmy Seahorse (about ¼” tall) along with a Disco Clam, a juvy Barramundi Cod (white with black spots, and dozens of nudibranches.
Probably the weirdest thing we saw was at TK1, our second site. At the other muck sites, we’d been seeing schools of Striped (aka Stinging) Catfish which I love to watch as they move in unison, leapfrog over one another to graze the sand, and just keep moving as one mass. Not this time.
The best way to describe them was as a blob. First of all, they were quite big for this animal, maybe 6-8” long. But they weren’t moving. At all. There were a few hundred of them and they were all just laying on the sand fairly still. You could see their gills pumping and their whiskers twitching but they basically weren’t moving much if at all. I’ve never seen anything like it, certainly not in this species. The best guess I’ve had so far from the Aquarium of the Pacific staff is some sort of spawning behavior but I really didn’t see any interaction going on. I’ll keep investigating.
Our third Lembeh dive was at a place called Mandarinfish Point where the main attraction is – duh – the nightly mating of Mandarinfish. It was quite prolific with dozens of the little guys and gals flitting about. The biggest problem for us was that we were in six feet of water, we weren’t moving at all, there was a mild current, the water was around 78 degrees and we were getting REALLY cold after a while. (I was only wearing my customary 1.5mm Pinnacle Shadow.) But it was still fun to watch.
You’ll get a better feel for all of this when you watch the 100-image slide show of this trip. You’ll see many of the animals I’m talking about as well as get a glimpse of the resort. And speaking of Murex . . .
It’s one of the favorite places to stay. I really like the communal feel of the entire place. A lot of the staff people live on the grounds so you see them throughout the day. Plus their kids are wandering around (or working) as well so you definitely get a “family” feel.
Meals (breakfast and dinner) used to be served in an open-air (covered) building that also housed the kitchen and office. But last year, they started serving breakfast a few dozen yards away on an open-air (uncovered) patio that is literally only steps from the water’s edge. It was a really nice change. And this year, they started serving dinners out there too. We liked that a lot.
We were also quite happy with the food. There’s nothing fancy but there were always plenty of choices at every meal and plenty of food so you wouldn’t go hungry. Always combinations os white rice, vegetables, chicken/fish/pork, and always a really tasty soup. Everything’s served buffet-style so take what you want and go back for more if you like. (And they’ll ply you with water throughout the meal to wash everything down.) And they have the sweetest and most tasty pineapples we’ve ever had and they apparently grow them on the property.
Another addition – but this a good news/bad news story – is the new bathroom/shower/sink/changing area right by the pool. (Plus there’s a really nice picture of Dr. Batuna there.) But the bad news side of it is that they’re ripped out the old camera room to do this. Admittedly, it wasn’t much to write home about but they’ve yet to replace it. For our trip, Basrah had set me up in their repair room but that was more a favor to me as opposed to a permanent solution. Danny and I discussed this at length and he agrees that they’ve got to get something in there, even if it’s just temporary. Hopefully, that happens soon.
But overall, we had a fabulous time, saw wondrous things, and will look forward to going back again, probably next year. When exactly that will next be is sort of up to you: Who’s ready to go experience all the wonders that Murex and Manado, Indonesia have to offer?