Northern Sulawesi and the Sangihe Islands – an incredible diving mix – a trip report about liveaboard diving on the Dewi Nusantara (formerly Paradise Dancer).

Trip details

Destination: Indonesia, northern Sulawesi, Lembeh Strait, Bunaken, Bangka Island, Sangihe Islands

Boat: M/V Dewi Nusantara (formerly M/V Paradise Dancer)

When: 30 July to 10 August 2010

Duration: 12 days

Number of dives: 35

Photos: All superb underwater photos in this post are shot by my dive buddy Peter Gray who has kindly allowed me to use them here. Thanks Pete!

Cleaner shrimp. Photo: Peter Gray

Cleaner shrimp. Photo: Peter Gray

Indonesia and Sulawesi

For me, South East Asia is the crown jewel of the world’s diving. And Indonesia is the jewel in that crown. The endless number of fantastic dive sites Indonesia offers is enough for a lifetime of diving. This trip was my first diving experience in Indonesia and it blew my mind away. From the murky, critter filled waters of muck diving heaven Lembeh Strait, via underwater volcanoes and lava flows among the Sangihe Islands, through the ripping currents of Bangka to the warm and clear wall diving in Bunaken National Park, this 12 day trip never ceased to amaze me. If the only thing you are after is big pelagics – this may not be the place for you, but otherwise this is an area that offers such varied diving you could spend months (or years) here without being bored.

The Indonesian island of Sulawesi sits in the middle of what is know as the Coral Triangle. The Coral Triangle has (by far) the highest underwater biodiversity in the world.

The Coral Triangle

The Coral Triangle

The boat – Dewi Nusantara

The Dewi Nusantara is an impressive ship – no doubt. Few liveaboard boats in the world rival her size and comfort. In 2010 it was part of the Peter Hughes/Dancer Fleet, but is now operating on its own. The cabins are more like small hotel rooms than boat cabins and the master suite is truly impressive. The dive equipment area is huge with two fresh water tanks for rinsing and a lot of space to get changed and briefed. There are several lounge areas and it is really very easy to find a solitary spot if you want some privacy.

The Dewi Nusantara

The Dewi Nusantara

The diving is made in two custom built smaller tender boats. You enter these fully equipped (except for the tanks and BCD which are preloaded for you). I liked the design with designated tank holes and place to sit for each diver. The design made these tenders feel a lot more comfortable than you might think given their small size. Once we ended up in a heavy rain storm and obviously, in rough conditions the tenders are smallish.

The diving tenders

The diving tenders

The crew is great. Course director Wendy and dive manager Yan operate the diving together with additional divemasters when necessary. On this particular trip divemaster Acho was onboard. All of them were amazing. You can really tell that they lean towards the muck diving found in Lembeh – that’s when they really shine finding all spectacular critters for the guests.

The rest of the crew members were also great and catered to all our needs. I got the feeling that they really enjoyed working on this boat, which is very important.

The changing/briefing area

The changing/briefing area

I just have to separately mention the massage… On board were two masseurs who after every dive gave each diver a back rub for five minutes. Yes, after EVERY dive. I have never been that pampered on a diving boat before! Naturally, you could book the massage guys separately for longer treatments. One of my fellow guests – Sergey from Moscow – managed to accumulate a total of 22 hours massage!

The diving

Ok, let’s get to the diving. Basically, the trip itinerary was the following. The first diving day we did Lembeh. The second we did Palisan, which is on the way north on the very northern tip of Sulawesi. The third day we dove the island of Siau in the northern part of the Sangihe archipelago. The fourth day we reached our northernmost point on the trip at the underwater volcano of Mahangetang. Two dives there and one back at Siau. Then we turned south and did Ruang (southern Sangihe archipelago) on the fifth day. Bangka (an island just off Sulawesi’s north coast between Lembeh and Bunaken) on day six. Bunaken on days seven and eight and finally back to Lembeh again for days nine and ten.

Lembeh Strait

This is a typical Lembeh dive brief:

Muck - that's what you get!

Muck – that’s what you get!

I’m going to be honest with you. Before this trip, I could not for my life get the thing with muck diving. I mean, who wants to flip around in murky waters over sand bottoms among rubble with poor visibility? Not me. I was looking forward to the walls at Bunaken, schools of fish in unspoiled clear waters in the Sangihe archipelago, but not really looking forward that much to Lembeh. This trip opened my eyes to muck diving. Sure, I still love great scenery, healthy coral, good visibility, massive fish schools and large stuff, but I have have to admit that I have seen the light and now understand the allure of small (and strange) critter hunting in places like Lembeh.

Pregnant sea horse. Photo: Peter Gray

Pregnant sea horse. Photo: Peter Gray

Muck diving is all about going slow. Not kicking. Lying still. Watching.

And really, who can argue with the following sightings during our first dive day at Lembeh?

  • Fingered dragonet
  • Scorpionfish
  • Blue ribbon eel
  • Cockatoo wasp fish
  • Flamboyant cuttlefish
  • Snake eels
  • Batfish
  • Boxer shrimp
  • Mantis shrimp
  • Robust ghost pipefish
  • Hairy frogfish
  • Wonderpus
  • Decorator crabs
  • Long-armed octopus
  • Porcelain crabs
  • Squid
  • Bobbit worms
  • … and all the nudibranchs of the world you can imagine!

This was only the first day!

Wonderpus. Photo: Peter Gray

Wonderpus. Photo: Peter Gray

The dive sites we visited were: Tk1, Jahir 1, Tk3, Rekat Larry, Are Bauna, Hair Ball II, Batu Sandar II, Nudi Retreat II, Tandu Rusa and the Mawali Wreck. It is difficult to rate them, but we had great dives especially at Jahir II, Tk3 (that we dubbed “the mother of all muck dives”) and Batu Sandar. In addition to all critters listed above, we also saw Moray Eels, pipefish, different snake eels a number of juvenile spadefish (Lembeh is a breeding ground for bigger oceanic species), frogfish, stargazers, cuttlefish, demon stingers and seahorses.

Photo: Peter Gray

Photo: Peter Gray

The Mawali wreck was a nice break from the regular muck.

Diver at Mawali wreck. Photo: Peter Gray

Diver at Mawali wreck. Photo: Peter Gray

Me at the Mawali wreck. Photo: Peter Gray

Me at the Mawali wreck. Photo: Peter Gray

Enough of Lembeh! For you guys who love muck diving this is a must. And for you who think you don’t (like me) you should give it a try.

Palisan

Palisan is an area on the north tip of the northeastern mini peninsula that marks the end of Sulawesi. We did five dives here. Four on our way north and one night dive on the way southwest to Bunaken. The sites I liked the most were the Treasure Chest and the Plateau, which are connected. Compared to the other areas on this trip, Palisan was probably the plainest and reading my logbook nothing really stands out. Lots of beautiful nudibranchs, an eerie night dive at the Paradise Jetty but otherwise the more well known areas delivered more spectacular experiences.

Mantis Shrimp. Photo: Peter Gray

Mantis Shrimp. Photo: Peter Gray

Siau (Sangihe Islands)

After a night cruising north, we woke up beside the beautiful tropical island of Siau with its very active volcano. You could actually hear the volcano rumbling underwater and one week after we left the area, it erupted killing two people. More current. More fish schools. Big difference to Lembeh’s muck. It was refreshing to get the contrast.

Siau with its majestic volcano

Siau with its majestic volcano

We did four dives on Siau. The site Gereja Tua had beautiful black coral at 30 meters, large sponges and lots of big schools of fusiliers. The visibility was not that good when we were there, but we could all imagine how beautiful the site would be on a day with better viz. Lehti offered nice hard corals, Twotone Dartfish, Titan Triggerfish (nesting, so we had to beware…). My top two sites at Siau were:

  • Eddy’s Point which is a very nice steep wall with lots of Blue and Yellow Fusiliers schooling and juvenile Barrimundi and juvenile Many-Spotted Sweetlips dancing protected by soft corals; and
  • Hot Cross Fun – A wall dive on the northern tip of Siau with schools of Jacks, a green turtle, lots of nudibranchs, porcelain crabs and the elusive (and tiny) Longnose Hawkfish hiding in the Sea Fans.
Photo: Peter Gray

Photo: Peter Gray

Mahangetang (Sangihe Islands)

You have to be lucky with the weather gods to get to Mahangetang. It is not reachable when the seas are rough. Almost completely underwater, this is an active underwater volcano. It is a strange but very cool site. Bubbles surround you coming from cracks between the stones and hot water drizzles out between the cracks. The currents are pretty strong and unpredictable. Here we had some more pelagic encounters with Eagle Rays, huge Bumphead Parrotfish, lots of Rainbow Runners and Jacks. We did two dives here before turning back south.

Ruang (Sangihe Islands)

The last stop in the Sangihe archipelago was Ruang – another volcanic island. We did four dives here. The first two dives were on the same site (but heading different directions) – Basilica (or New Lava Flow). The site is around a lava flow from an eruption in 1956 and is actually very nice. The currents were pretty strong and changed direction several times making the first of the two dives here a bit difficult. The last dive we had here was for me one of these rare life defining encounters with two huge cuttlefish laying eggs in a stag horn coral. We spent most of the dive watching them. One of them laying the eggs and the other circling curiously around checking us out. Cuttlefish are so strange but yet there is something in their eyes that just evokes feelings inside me. Hard to describe. This was one of the most memorable dives on this trip for me thanks to the cuttlefish couple.

We also had a great dive at Pantai Hitam, were the top attraction were the Ribbon Eels and a mountain full of Tomato Anemonefish. The same spot also gave us one of the best night dives during the trip with juvenile Lionfish, Mantis Shrimp, Orangutang Crabs, Harlequin Shrimp, Spanish Dancers, the rare Two-Spotted Lionfish and Crocodile Fish.

Harlequin Shrimp. Photo: Peter Gray

Harlequin Shrimp. Photo: Peter Gray

Bangka Island

Bangka was the most action filled stop on the trip! Just north off the Sulawesi coast, currents meet at Bangka Island and just outside, the ocean is very deep. We only did three dives here, but this is a place I really would like to explore more in the future. The first dive was at a site called Batu Gosoh. It started out pretty calm (we were in the water early morning), but when the currents picked up – my god! We spent a good part of the dive hanging off Yan’s reef hook watching the schools of Jacks and Fusiliers and feeling like you were in the middle of a tumbler. The second and third dives were at a famous site called Sahaung. Sahaung is famous for its soft coral gardens. We had two top-of-the-line dives here! Lots of fish. Huge schools of Blue Striped Fusiliers, a couple of enormous Bumphead Parrotfish, Dogtooth Tuna swishing by, a Zebra Moray Eel, Cuttlesfish, Bluefin Trevallies/Jacks and Unicornfish.

Bunaken National Park

Picture this: beautiful white sand tropical islands, warm turquoise waters, a gentle current, steep walls and great visibility (most of the time). This is what you get at Bunaken National Park. To be honest, this is why I came on this trip. And Bunaken delivered.

Photo: Peter Gray

Photo: Peter Gray

The best Bunaken dive we had was the first. And maybe we got spoiled… Sachiko Point is, to me, the mother of all tropical wall dives. You jump in to the water and is surrounded by thousands of dark blue Oceanic (or Red Tooth) Triggerfish and black and yellow Pyramid Butterflyfish. These two species really define Bunaken diving – you find them everywhere in thousands. The water temperature is around 30 degrees centigrade (compared to 27 C at for example Lembeh). Green turtles, five Black Tip Reef Sharks passing below, a Yellowfin Tuna (!), White Mouth Moray Eel, Octopus, Banded Sea Snakes, Napoleon Wrasse and Titan Triggerfish.

We spent two days diving around Bunaken and the dives followed the description of Sachiko Point above, but maybe not with the same density of encounters. The last day we woke up early to try to spot Hammerhead Sharks at Nine Island (the site was called Batu Kapal). It was raining hard, the current was strong and we floated along a wall for almost an hour. No luck with the Hammerheads though, but sometimes it is worth to try.

Bunaken. Photo: Peter Gray

Bunaken. Photo: Peter Gray

All-in-all we did seven dives around Bunaken and Manado. I need to make a confession here. As much as I love the warm, clear wall diving at Bunaken, it did actually become a bit boring after two days. It is really beautiful, but it is sometimes hard to tell the difference between dives. We were all quite happy when we set sail towards Lembeh again (but also a bit sad, since the trip was soon to be over).

Summary

I can’t imagine a more varied dive trip. I have great difficulties to imagine a better liveaboard boat and the dive crew was one of the best I have ever encountered. If you really want the best of the best, you should try out the Dewi Nusantara. This particular itinerary is not available anymore, apparently it wasn’t popular enough which is really a shame.

Nudibranchs. Photo: Peter Gray

Nudibranchs. Photo: Peter Gray

As to the diving in this area, a combination of Lembeh, Bunaken and Bangka (don’t miss Bangka) would give you a very varied dive holiday with the best of muck and the best of walls and some action.

Equipment wise, I would recommend a thicker wet suit at Lembeh. I had a 3mm and was cold all the time. Recommend a good 5mm with hood to be comfortable lying still in slightly colder waters. A good torch is also handy at Lembeh.

Anemone fish. Photo: Peter Gray

Anemone fish. Photo: Peter Gray

I really hope this post is helpful for anyone planning to go diving in northern Sulawesi. Let me know what you think! Cheers!