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Underwater photography in north Sulawesi

by Malcolm Hey

Reproduced from in focus 63 (Oct. 1988)

Malcolm Hey, a British Gas Wildlife Photographer of the Year prize-winner two years ago, and winner of BSoUP's Beginner's Portfolio, Open Portfolio and Splash-in Overseas Prints over the last year or so, gave a talk and slide show to the August meeting on underwater photography in North Sulawesi, Indonesia. Competing against a construction team who were beating the hell out of the concrete canopy over the Holland Club with pneumatic drills for the whole evening, his subject never-the-less held the attention of an audience of between thirty and forty.

Indonesia lies between the main land masses of Asia to the north-west and Australia to the south. No-one really knows how many islands comprise Indonesia but a recent count claims that there are over 18000 islands, 1000 being inhabited. The main islands in the archipelago are Java, which is the most densely populated, Sumatra, Irian Jaya, Kalimantan, and Sulawesi. It is a country of islands and seas, the seas taking up most of the country's surface area. Marine biologists generally agree that the sea between Sulawesi and Maluku has the richest diversity of marine life of any of the world's seas.

Sulawesi, which lies in the northern seas of Indonesia is an island dotted with volcanoes and mostly covered with dense mountainous forests. There are two major cities at the extreme north of Sulawesi - Manado, which lies on the west of the peninsula, and Bitung on the east side.

Access from the UK to this part of Sulawesi is via Singapore with a three and a half hour onward fI ight direct to Manado. Motor transport transfers visiting divers to the dive centres, the journeys taking between half an hour and one and a quarter hours. There are two separate dive locations accessed from Manado - the Bunaken/Manado Tua island group in Manado Bay, and the Lembeh Strait.

Dive Centres are opening up around Manado Bay apace, mostly by foreign investors. Malcolm has visited six or seven of the dive centres but favours blusantara Dive Centre (locally referred to as NW), that being the first established in the area - 26 years ago, and owned and run by Indonesian management and staff. Very much part of the village community in which it is sited, visitors experience a real taste of Indonesian culture and friendliness. Accommodation and facilities are modest but very adequate. Rooms are spacious, all en-suite, well provided with elec. points (it 230V, tables and storage space.

NDC has a larger fleet of boots than the other dive centres and the boats are more spacious. Shore diving is a no-no because of the muddy mangrove shoreline. The general diving arrangement, as it is for other dive centres in the area, is for the dive sites to be reached by boat - a passage that takes between three quarters of an hour and one and a half hours. Not as bad as it sounds, the trip across the Bay is a relaxing cruise with space to laze around. Boats leave the Centre about 9 o' clock-ish, do a morning dive, lunch on the boat or beach, an afternoon dive and return to base late afternoon. NDC is very flexible and three day dives and one night dive con be fitted in without any problem. Boats are crewed by two boatmen plus one dive guide per four divers. Dive guides are not there to regulate divers but to lead them to whatever they want to see - if in fact they want to be with a guide. Dive times are not restricted - stay down an hour and a half if you wish. Malcolm rates NDC as the most photo-diver friendly dive centre from which he has dived.

Film stock, batteries and domestic consumer products can be bought in Manado five miles away, and E6 film processing is also available in the city. Surprisingly there are no dive shops so take with you any spares that you might need.

Malcolm's photographs illustrated the sheer walls and steep sloping reefs packed with corals and sponges. The most outstanding features of the reef scenery for him were the feather stars and tunicates. It is not a location for wide-angle opportunities. Close-focus wide-angle reef scenes, and diver shots of course, but not a hot spot for pelagics. A few turtles, barracudas and the occasional reef shark, but for hammerhead sharks and schooling barracuda one would need to make the longer passage to the more distant islands in the group and dive down to 50-60m. Better to settle on macro photography. There is a good wreck in the Bay just five minutes from NDC and Malcolm has found the mainland shoreline slope very productive for macro photography. His photographs showed macro life such as shrimp, squat lobsters, crabs and clingfish that live on feather stars, anemones, and soft corals, and unusual fish such as the blue ribbon eel.

The only dive centre on the Lembeh Strait is Kungkungan Bay Resort, a very high quality establishment with spacious well-equipped bungalows and excellent service. E6 film processing is available on-site, a camera workshop is available fitted out with work tables, 230V and 120V charging points and secure storage. An abundance of 230V sockets is also provided in the bungalows. The gourmet cuisine is a feature of KBR. Boats are well maintained and crewed by two boatmen and at least one dive guide per four divers. All dive sites are within ten minutes or so of the Centre. Good shore diving is available right off the Centre's jetty.

Diving in the Lembeh Strait is different from Bunaken-ManadoTua. Dark grainy volcanic sand forms the bed of the Strait, sloping down gently from the shores to the deep channel. Isolated outcrops of sponge and coral grow out of the sandy bottom and occasional bommies, craggy reefs and a few wrecks add to the variety of habitats. Along the shore, rocky cliffs form shallow shoreline walls. Here is the dive location to find unusual and rare species of fish and invertebrates. Malcolm's photographs showed some of the life to be seen - ornate ghost pipefish, seahorses including the cute little pygmy seahorse, frogfish, manderinfish, crabs, shrimp and nuclibranchs. Forget the wide-angle lens here - macro photography is what it is all about.

The climate and diving seasons in Sulawesi are governed by the monsoons. The north-west monsoon, bringing rain and wind, starts in November and goes through to April. May through to August is the south-east monsoon season with less wind and rain and more settled seas. September and early October are probably the best months to dive and November to April best avoided. Lembeh Strait is an exception. The mountains of mainland Sulawesi and the rugged Lembeh Island give shelter to the Strait which can be dived all year round.

Last year Indonesia suffered from a smoke haze enveloping the country. Sulawesi was not as badly affected as the Southern islands or Kalimantan. Malcolm confirmed that visibility was back to normal during his most recent trip in June this year and that there was no bleaching of the coral reefs has had been rumoured. Reported riots in the streets during the early part of the year were confined to Java, and in particular Jakarta, some 1500 miles from Manado, and the chaotic Indonesian economy, although a disaster for the native population, meant rock bottom prices for the visiting traveller - beer at 60p a large bottle and massages at £3!

Most dive tour operators who arrange south-east Asia destinations include Manado in their brochures. bive Quest also include Kungkungan Bay Resort on the Lembeh Strait. Dive Quest's 1999 programme will include an escorted photo tour combining Manado and the Lembeh Strait, the tour being led by Malcolm Hey. The tour will be limited to a group of twelve. Malcolm has spent an aggregate of three months in North Sulawesi in the last two years getting to know the dive sites offering the best photo opportunities. On the more recent visits he has found good opportunities missed on early visits because of unfamiliarity and not being'in the know'. He is well placed to shortcut opportunities for group travellers that took him several visits to discover.

For further information ring Dive Quest on 01254 826322.

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