Lembeh – the weird critters diving capital of the world!
And God said, “Let the water teem with living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the vault of the sky.”— Genesis 1:20
Text and photographs by Asher Ang (c) 2020
What are in your bucket list for diving? The big 5, Galapagos, sardine run, the big blue? What about Lembeh, the Weird Critter Capital of the World? I recall many years ago, in 2006, I started reading about Lembeh and the critters found there, that Lembeh instantly became part of my bucket list!
My first trip to Lembeh took place at the end of 2006. Since then I have been going to Lembeh about once every 2 years, not because I wanted to space out my dives there, but because my dive buddies, my children, did not want to go to Lembeh every time we went diving.
Critters of Lembeh
Did I say weird? Oh I did. When one enters the water in Lembeh, the first thing that comes to mind may be “why am I diving here?”. The dive sites are sandy slope, black sand, visibility seldom more than 10m, looking desolate. But soon the feeling of desolation gives rise to excitement, with the dive masters (DM) banging the tank and indicating with a pointer, and, you have arrived!
My (definitely partial) list of weird and wonderful, in no particular order follows.
The flamboyant cuttlefish (Metasepia pfefferi)
The flamboyant cuttlefish walks, not swims! So if you see a photo of it in mid water, chances are the cuttlefish was tossed off the sea floor by the photographer or his guide. And if that shows up in FB, please do not “like” the shot, it is not a natural behaviour.
The flamboyant cuttlefish walks on the seafloor. It would almost always be changing colour constantly when observed, presumably due to it needing to display a warning sign to us divers. This is a small cuttlefish, about 8cm in length when fully grown. You can get an idea of the size of the cuttlefish by considering the size of grains of sand and seashell in the photo above. For more information please visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium webpage.
The Hairy Frogfish (Antennarius striatus)
The frogfish is often described as having a face that only its mother could love, the hairy frogfish is perhaps the extreme example of the frogfish family. This was one of those must-see creatures that so attracted me to Lembeh, and is a favourite among all divers and photographers.
The hairy frogfish is, actually not hairy. The “hairs” are really skin appendages. Like all frogfish, it is a stealth hunter.
The Pygmy Seahorse
I have seen 3 different types of pygmy seahorse in Lembeh – and I am sure there are more.
The bargibanti seahorse (Hippocampus bargibanti) is probably the most well-known Pygmy Seahorse, usually no more than 2cm (three quarters of an inch) in size. Once you take into account that tail that has curled to grip the gorgonian seafan, the visible part is no more than 1cm. And it is so well camouflaged, that when a dive master (DM) points it out to me, I would still take a while to locate it, and will take even longer to find it in my viewfinder, and struggle a bit (understatement) to focus and take that elusive photo. There are actually two seahorses in this photograph; see if you can find the second one.
The denise’s pygmy seahorse (Hippocampus denise) was first encountered in Lembeh in 1999. This pygmy seahorse is also about 2 to 2.5cm in length (including the curled up tail).
And if you have the good fortune to find a pair of seahorses, and they are not that rare in occurrence, do look out for the pregnant bump on the male seahorse. The male seahorse has a pouch that is used to carry the eggs deposited by the female, and carries the eggs until they hatch, fully developed.
The Coconut Octopus (Amphioctopus marginatus)
This is one inventive creature – I have seen it in bottles, tin cans, bivalve shells, coconut shells, you name it, there is probably some coconut octopus living in it!
The coconut octopus is a very inventive creature – in a landscape where there is no place to hide, this fellow took up residence within a bivalve shell! This is an example of CFWA, or close-focus wide angle shot, where the dome of my fisheye port was almost touching the shell on the floor! The toughest part of this technique is lighting it without getting (too much) back scatter. The attraction of CFWA – a small subject can be made large by being close to the camera, and yet the environment in which the creature lives can be shown clearly.
The Mimic Octopus (Thaumoctopus mimicus)
The mimic octopus is a wonderful creature that is able to mimic a number of other creatures, changing its skin colour and texture to blend into the environment. It was discovered in 1998 off the coast of Sulawesi, perhaps here in Lembeh. Read more about it in the National Geographic page).
The Wunderpus (Wunderpus photogenicus)
In German, wünder means wonder, wonderful or marvellous. This is another master of camouflage, and is often confused with its cousin the mimic octopus. You can read more about it in the Monterey Bay aquarium page.
Not being included in the above write-up does not mean the critter is any less wonderful or weird. It could mean I haven’t had the fortune to see one (like the Ghost Nudi Melibe Colemani), don’t have a photograph that is worthy of a post (like the Pontohi pygmy seahorse Hippocampus pontohi), or simply there are too many to list in a short post, like the flying gurnard Dactylopterus volitans, the dragonets, the wonderfully colourful Mandarin Fish Synchiropus splendidus, the list goes on.
Diving in Lembeh
There are many excellent dive centres around Lembeh, either on the mainland side, or on Lembeh Island side. I am part of a team that directs the operations of K2 Dive Resort on Lembeh Island. If you have enjoyed reading this, and are considering going to Lembeh for your dive experience, perhaps you would visit the K2 Dive Resort website?
K2 Dive Lembeh, named after the village in which the dive resort is situated in – Kelapadua (2 coconuts) – is a fully equipped boutique dive resort situated South of Lembeh Island along the Lembeh Strait, Bitung, North Sulawesi, with its closest international airport situated in Manado.
I hope you have enjoyed this write-up, I know I have enjoyed writing it. Perhaps you will come to Lembeh to see for yourself firsthand what the weirdest critters would look like, and then find the next weirder creature, and the next, and the next. I can guarantee that you are likely to get hooked and want to come back for more!
Until then, live long and dive safe!