Lembeh Resort: A Photographer's Paradise
Why do the world’s best underwater photographers flock to a narrow stretch of water less than a mile wide in Indonesia?
A global mecca for underwater photographers and marine life enthusiasts, the Lembeh Strait lies between the Indonesian Island of Sulawesi and the small offshore island of Lembeh to the east.
At the heart of the global epicentre of marine biodiversity – the Coral Triangle is an area bounded by Borneo in the west, the Philippines in the north and Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands in the east. Here lives over 75 per cent of the world’s hard corals, and almost 40 per cent of all reef fish species.
The big draw in the Lembeh Strait are the weird and wonderful critters that make the apparently unpromising black sand environment their home. Creatures that are flamboyant, beautiful, deadly poisonous or masters of the art of disguise are found here, by some of the most accomplished dive guides in the Indo-Pacific region. Several resorts are set up to cater for the travelling photographer and macro and muck dive fans, but the best of all is the Lembeh Resort.
Back in the dim and distant past when I was a newly minted diver, I would pore over the excellent reference book, Coral Reef Animals of the Indo-Pacific of an evening on the decks of liveaboards around the region. Over a cold beer, I’d compile a wish list of the weird and wonderful creatures that I’d like to find and photograph.
The zebra crab that feeds on the detritus of fire urchins, protected from predators by its poisonous spines; seahorses of any kind, flamboyant cuttlefish, and colour-coordinated sponge-dwelling hairy squat lobsters; all made the list.
In thirty subsequent years of diving some stubbornly remained on that list. Until now.
The wonderpus octopus, many species of frogfish, uncounted nudibranchs and the famously weird eyeless nocturnal hunter that is the bobbit worm are all marine oddities and rarities that were struck off my list within days of arriving at Lembeh Resort.
In December of 2016, the pug-nosed pipefish became the latest addition to the list of rare critters found here, with five discovered living on the house reef. Sadly after I had left. If you have an interest in observing macro marine life behaviour, diving Lembeh Strait never gets boring, and shallow two-hour dives on the excellent house reef are possible night and day, whenever you have enough energy left over from the boat diving programme.
The variety of rare cephalopods in the area is extraordinary, from pygmy cuttlefish to wonderpus and the elusive but deadly blue-ringed octopus –nineteen species are recorded as living in the Lembeh Strait.
These blue-blooded, three-hearted, cryptic aliens of the underwater world have doughnut-shaped brains and communicate using rapid colour changes of their skins. If this amazing group of animals are your thing, Lembeh Resort will be hosting their first ever Tentacle Festival this July.
World cephalopod expert Bret Grasse of the prestigious Marine Biological Laboratories at Woods Hole in the US will be running a programme of lectures and dives, and said: ‘I can’t wait to see the creatures that I work within the research environment up close and personal underwater at Lembeh. It will be a real pleasure to share with guests my passion for the cephs.’
This is a superb opportunity to focus on some of the most charismatic creatures of the Lembeh Strait and learn a great deal about their natural history.
Sascha Janson is Lembeh Resort’s accomplished full-time photo and video pro. Visiting his workshop is for any diver with an interest in making images of any kind, a bit like entering Santa’s grotto. Crammed full of highly desirable kit, it is an excellent place to rent out gear and try it in the water before committing to a purchase. I took the chance to try out a pair of I-Torch symbiosis strobes that combine a video light with a strobe in a single unit which I am now looking to buy.
One essential if you don’t already arrive with one, (since most of the best subjects are macro) is a flip adapter and a Reef Net Subsee +10 close-up dioptre for your housing. This will give you an over 2X magnification on a 105mm macro lens and is fantastic for detail in larger subjects, producing a meaningful image of the smaller nudibranchs, or tiny rarities like the Pontoh’s seahorse, clocking in at all of 17mm. I am a huge convert. And if the former electrical engineer doesn’t have an adaptor to fit your kit, then he can make one onsite printed by the only 3D printer for miles around.
Sascha is on hand to give advice at all times and offers one-on-one photo or video masterclasses that can take your image making up a level when there are no workshops running. He is often to be found in the huge camera prep room that is available for all guests to use to prepare their gear and as a storage and charging station.
The value of having a photo pro onsite as a resource is demonstrated in the statistics. Sascha sees at least one major flood every week and the all-time record is three in 24 hours.
Most floods are a result of people hurrying too much or being tired when handling their kit, he says. ‘I do my best to save guest’s gear so that they can continue diving and photographing in what is for most, the trip of a lifetime,' he said. 'Worst case scenario we can rent out a replacement item or parts so that all is not lost.’
Janson headlines at his very own videography workshop each summer, this year held directly after the Tentacle festival and supports all of the workshops with lectures and tutorials. See here for dates of all workshops at Lembeh.
I was visiting the resort during part of the fifth annual Capturing Critters photography and videography workshop in December 2016 and was lucky enough to sit in on some of the informative lectures and critiques. Critiques were positive and encouraging, and pitched perfectly, whether the participant was taking their first steps in underwater photography with a housed point-and-shoot, or an experienced photographer such as Reidar Opem from Oslo in Norway. Reidar has been diving for 16 years, ten of those with an SLR as a constant companion. The former IT consultant has lost count of the number of times that he has visited Lembeh Resort, at least ten times he says laughing. He is a repeat workshop attendee.
‘There is so much to learn, the appeal is to master the diverse range of skills to make a good picture, to have perfect buoyancy, the knowledge of marine biology and of course mastery of your camera gear. There is so much to take in and learn that really I feel there is a benefit to me in coming back for a second time. The whole package is very appealing.’ Reidar also believes that the input of the dive guides to his images is so important that they should be included in the credit. It not just about finding the creature, he says, it is about them working alongside a photographer to ethically achieve a shared objective.
At the other end of the spectrum is Virginia Singer, again a repeat workshop visitor, shooting with a simple camera system but clearly enjoying the experience as much Reidar.
‘The critique sessions are very relaxed, everyone settles down with a beer in the evening before dinner, it helps that the subjects here are so wonderful,’ she says. Proud partner John Erickson added: ‘We had to come back after we saw such a huge improvement in Ginny’s pictures after last time.’
Accomplished photographers Martin Edge and Alex Tattersall are running the 2017 Capturing Critters workshop in December alongside American Ethan Daniels, supported of course by resident marine biologist Dimpy Jacobs, and Sascha. Martin says: ‘The pool at Lembeh Resort is a real bonus for me, I can demonstrate techniques to students just minutes before shooting a critter subject in the sea for real. I’m really looking forward to returning to the area, in my opinion, it’s the best destination for photographing critters there is.’
More than 80 per cent of divers at Lembeh Resort are serious photographers, and over 30 per cent of visiting divers are repeat customers. The numbers speak for themselves – it is not just about the diving but the ethos of the place. Here everyone from the housekeepers to the gardeners is encouraged to learn to dive, meaning that the staff really do care and understand when they ask you how your dive went.
But for me, the stars of Lembeh Resort are the dive guides. Trained in marine biology by biologist Dimpy, each guide undergoes meticulous training shadowing an experienced mentor, and learns how to find those most prized and sometimes elusive creatures that we all want to see. They are tested once a quarter on images of species that they need to be able to ID.
I was bowled over and impressed when my young guide, Vadly Batwana handed me his slate after our first dive together. Here it is normal practice to produce a list for the guests of the species seen on each dive including their Latin names.
Without Vadly’s expert critter finding skills I could not have taken many of the images seen here. There was a real pleasure in his ability to anticipate what I was looking for in an image, married to his knowledge of the capabilities of my own camera setup. This is no accident. Sascha does basic training on point and shoot cameras with all of the guides, and the keenest pursue it further. Vadly uses a loaned DSLR when diving in his free time and his favourite animal is the diminutive Bargibanti pygmy seahorse.
Vadly, thank you for helping me to decimate my personal critter wish list, one day I‘ll be back for that blue-ringed octopus.
Topside, the lowland rainforests are as rich in endemic life as the underwater world. It is really worthwhile to allow some time in your trip to Asia see the rainforest. Tangkoko National park is where most visitors head, and it is there that a large and habituated troupe of black macaques can be easily seen foraging on the beach or in the forest itself – they have been stars of many a BBC programme about the area.
But the spectral tarsier is for most people the must-see animal. A short trek into the park accompanied by the ringing tones of the cicadas at dusk will be rewarded by the cautious emergence of these impossibly cute, huge-eyed, nocturnal predators from their hollow tree where they have spent the day sleeping.
Irawan Halir was my excellent and extremely knowledgeable guide who has worked with many film crews, as a research assistant on the macaques and is a top birdlife guide into the bargain.
For other highly recommended land experiences from birding, rainforest camping and volcano trekking, to highland markets and cooking, speak to long-time Sulawesi expert, the multilingual and extremely genial Michael Leitzinger. Adventure guaranteed. His excellent book Sulawesi - on the road and inside Indonesia is available here https://indojunkie.com/sulawesi-buch-und-ebook/ currently available in German, an English edition is expected in 2017. Contact Michael via www.mountainviewtomohon.com
Fly into Singapore directly from many European cities, or for a slightly longer and cheaper alternative consider Emirates via Dubai. Book on Silkair, Singapore Airline’s regional carrier for the onward 4- hour trip to Manado, the main gateway to North Sulawesi.
Diving and accommodation reservations at Lembeh Resort, consistently ranked number one resort in the Lembeh Strait. See
www.lembehresort.com where further details of all workshops and upcoming events can be found. They can also arrange airport transfers and land excursions.