Our Own Private Resort in Lembeh

Before we knew it, it was time to journey across the northern tip of Sulawesi to the east coast, and across the Lembeh strait to the island of the same name. The entire journey took less than two hours, and the perks of booking with the same resort in both locations included not having to painstakingly dry out our dive gear, and Tetris it back into our luggage. Yes, I just used Tetris as a verb. Instead, the resort simply loaded each of our crates, labeled with Candy Crush name tags, into the truck, and off we went. They also allowed me to keep the nice thick wetsuit. Apparently the water in Lembeh was consistently a degree or two colder than Manado. I tried not to think about that. We journeyed across the arm that is the upper stretch of Sulawesi, and vehicles driving on the roads paid about as much mind to the lines as the characters in Mario Kart. (Sorry, just had to throw that last game reference in there. I'm done now).

Lembeh Island (Screenshot of Google Maps)

Our car pulled up to a busy shipyard and a tall European with a sun-bleached ponytail approached the car to greet us. He had the stereotypical dive bum look nailed. He introduced himself as Kees (pronounced case). It was refreshing to have another expat turned underwater nomad for company. At the previous resort, the dive guides had all been locals, which was wonderful. Locals always know the reefs better than anyone, as they have spent most of their lives diving there. But the foreign dive crew are usually the most relatable, as they have chosen to abandon normal society’s lifestyle in favor of the pursuit of adventure, just like we have. I guess a dive resort needs a balance of both kinds of people.

At only 2 km (1.24 mi) wide, the Lembeh Strait was a much narrower strip of water than I had imagined. It was no wonder the island of Lembeh usually didn’t appear on the map; it might as well have been a part of the mainland. And yet this narrow strip of water, 2 km wide by 22 km long, was home to some of the most diverse and bizarre underwater macro critters in the world. I was really looking forward to the diving here. I had done lots of beautiful coral dives, in places with better fish than Manado to be honest, but I had not experienced much in the way of muck diving (aside from a couple days in the Philippines). There was a whole tiny world waiting to be discovered.

We loaded onto a wooden boat, freshly painted blue, with all of our luggage, and drove past massive navy boats, local ferries, and container ships. The area really was bustling for a port so small. The local boats were wooden and similar to the boats we had experienced in Thailand, only much flatter and shorter. We realized before too long that the flat, low roofs allowed commuters to drive their motorbikes straight from the pier, onto the boat, where they were transported right there on the roof. This was a funny sight that I had never seen before. Other ferry boats were crowded with so many commuters that I was surprised the boats were still afloat.

How to transport your motorbike between the mainland and the island.

The local ferry.

We drove north up the channel, and across to the green and mountainous island of Lembeh. Our boat turned into one of many bays along the island’s shoreline, and within this bay were two separate coves with minimal development. The first and closest had a few half run down huts covered in chipped paint that had been an assortment of bright colors at one point, but now just gave the little area the appearance of a junkyard playground. The other cove had a series of nondescript, square, white living spaces staggered up the hillside. We held our breath and hoped that we weren’t heading for the junkyard playground, then let out a collective exhale when we kept driving past.

The boat docked, and Kees’s other half, Anika, was there to greet us with a welcoming smile, bubbly personality, and her two rescue dogs. The dogs had Indonesian names that sounded like the English words “Donkeys” and “Chili Pie”, and so that is what we ended up calling them. Anika also had a rescued, ex-fighting cock which she introduced us to later on. The presence of a rooster on the grounds surprised us, as we never heard him. Donkeys and Chili Pie offered the morning alarms instead.

Anika shows off her rescued, ex-gamecock, who was really a big softie. 

On our way up to the bungalows, we received a crash course in muck diving. I'm pretty sure the four of us all knew what we had signed up for, but we listened for any new information. Muck diving involves swimming around in the very unpicturesque setting of a murky, sandy bottom. Sounds like a bore, I know, but in that muck, minuscule creatures live and have adapted some spectacular camouflage techniques to survive. We were not here for big, beautiful photographs. We were here to search for the impossibly tiny and diverse critters that called this muck home. I didn’t blame the enthusiastic couple for trying to give us the heads up though. I’m sure a few people had shown up in the past, expecting pretty colors and lots of turtles, only to be sorely disappointed by the landscape of sandy channel bottom.

They gave us the tour of the small resort, which consisted of a very inviting looking swimming pool, the dining area to one side, the dive shop down the hill, and nine bungalows lined up along the hillside. Everything was protected within a secluded cove, so that it felt as though we were the only ones on the island. The couple also informed us that we would have the entire resort to ourselves for the entire duration of our stay. In fact, we had been the first guests there in six weeks.

Always suntan by the pool, just incase you burst into flames. (Photo credit: Tanja)

The resort was less than two years old, and still felt very new. Where the Manado resort had been weathered and homey, the Lembeh resort was clean and sterile. The rooms still had the aroma of newly constructed wood. Where the Manado resort had adorned their walls with macro photography of the critters waiting to be found, the Lembeh resort displayed a series of vintage dive posters that I would love to find. Everything from old dive book covers, to classic action films, to old photographs, retouched with color.

Our room at Thalassa Dive Resort, Lembeh. 

The meals at Lembeh were a much simpler affair. We were served three-course style, always a basic salad at lunch, and always a flavorful soup at dinner. The main was always rice with a few veggies, a small amount of meat (or tofu or tempeh in my case) and a sauce. At lunch we would get a little dessert, which was often a highlight as we would get to experience some traditional Indonesian sweets. One of these was a little rice cake, like mochi, gooey on the inside, the outside fried to a satisfying crisp, in some sort of buttery, brown sugar sauce. At dinner the dessert would be a plate of melon. The food was all fresh and delicious, but after the feasts we had become accustomed to in Manado, felt slightly lacking and repetitive. I probably sound like a gigantic spoiled snob saying that a three course meal felt lacking, I feel like one saying it; I have half a mind to delete that statement right now. But diving burns a surprising number of calories and the fancy small dishes were more suited to a vacation of laying out in the sun all day. We more than made up for it on pizza nights though, when the kitchen cooked us as many pizzas as we liked.

The wait staff had been trained to a higher degree of etiquette than most of the restaurants back in the U.S. bother with anymore, which was adorable and only slightly out of place at a deserted island resort. The majority of the girls’ English only extended as far as the words “excuse me,” and before each individual dish would be set down in front of us, the recipient would get a soft, high-pitched “excuse me” as a presentation. They would always serve Tanja and myself first, and walk around the table as many times as it took so as to never reach across any of us. They were the epitome of adorable.

Aside from the change of scenery, we fell right back into our same routine we had followed in Manado. All the dive times and meal times were identical, and so traveling from one resort to the next happened seamlessly. Our time underwater though was as different as night and day, but that will have to wait until the next post.

The Epic Dolphin Dive

In no time at all, our vacation was half gone and it was our last day of diving in the Bunaken area. For our last day of diving, we requested two of our favorite spots we had been to during the week: Sachiko’s Point and Mandolin. Sachiko’s Point proved that no two dives are ever the same. You simply cannot repeat an experience. There is always something new waiting for you in the ocean. In this case, the plethora of dogtooth tuna that had been cruising the reef previously, were now nowhere to be found.

On to Mandolin for our final dive in Bunaken National Park. The four of us lined up along the edge of the large, wooden boat, gear donned, ready to back-roll into the water as soon as our guide, Alan, gave the count to three. Unfortunately, an unsynchronized chorus of ones and twos and threes chimed in from the boat boys who were all having some fun. I hadn’t figured out how to tell their voices apart yet, and so missed which “three” amongst the many belonged to Alan. Everyone else made it into the water. I was left sitting on the boat’s edge, and of course once you’ve realized you’ve missed, it is important to wait again until everyone else is out of the way. I used the be terrified in Fiji that a hesitant student would roll after the fact and land on top of myself or another diver. Always roll on signal, or wait until it is clear again.

We descended into the blue, on top of the reef, kicked effortlessly to the edge, and then descended down the wall, a steep drop that stretched much, much farther than the eye could see. Immediately, the reef burst into colors, both from fish and from the corals. The reef in Bunaken that whole week had been breathtaking, and full of life. The corals were abundant and healthy. My few attempts at macro shots had mostly been failed due to not having a single space of dead coral or rock on which to steady myself and the camera with a fingertip. No matter. I’d take a healthy reef over a photograph any day.

Whitemouth Moray (Gymnothorax meleagris) in the midst of a wall of colorful corals.

The life beyond the wall was equally stunning. Extending several meters out into the blue, were endless schools of fish, in numbers that could make you forget that the oceans are being overfished for a moment. I’ve always loved redtooth triggerfish. They are about the size of teacup saucers, deep blue, with billowing fins that look like little capes caught in the wind, and two red teeth protruding that look like little fangs dripping blood. For this reason, I have always called them vampire fish in my head. All of our dive sites had shown us hundreds of thousands of these little guys, fluttering about like a kaleidoscope of butterflies.

A kaleidoscope of redtooth triggerfish (Odonus niger) swarms the reef. 

Despite their numbers, it is surprisingly tricky to get a closeup of one.

Almost as numerous as the vampire fish were the pyramid butterflyfish, triangles of white in the center giving them their name, with the surrounding corners providing a vibrant yellow to the scenery. Closer to the reef, the occasional blue-girdled angelfish would hide under some coral. I had never seen this species of angelfish before Indonesia. They were about the size of dinner plates, with a bright yellow saddle, chin, and tail fin. The remaining splotches were dark blue, and a barrier of that electric blue that glows underwater separated the yellow from the dark blue, like a ribbon of electricity meandering its way around the fish, making it impossible for it to hide despite its efforts.

The pyramid butterflyfish (Hemitaurichthys polylepis) were almost as numerous as the redtooth triggerfish. 

The blue-girdled angelfish may not have been able to hide from view, but they most certainly could hide from the camera. (Pomacanthus navarchus)

Farther out into the blue, slender unicornfish swam by in schools, another species I had never seen before this trip. They didn’t have the telltale horn that some unicornfish are named for, and were elongated and elegant, with a shape sort of like the Jesus fish outline. A distinguishing white splotch could be seen around the pectoral fins, giving them another color to show off besides the soft grey. Occasionally, a bignose unicornfish would join the crowd, with its detailed, painted face, and crescent tail fin that elongated into ribbons.

Bignose Unicornfish (Naso vlamingii). You'll have to forgive some of my fish closeups. They don't exactly like to stay still long enough to have their photos taken. 

Bunaken was also full of turtles, more turtles than I had seen anywhere else in the world. The seventh turtle we saw that dive proved to be a bit of a special one. We watched him swim towards the reef as if looking for a spot to rest (they were all extremely lazy turtles, and could usually be found sleeping in the coral), only to turn away again and swim once more into the blue. Fletch joked that the turtle had been drinking with a tilt of his hand up to his mouth. Then he opened his arms out wide as if to welcome the turtle over. To provide a little extra encouragement, I started moving my arms in a motion that mimicked the turtle’s flippers. In Fiji, this motion used to get the turtles to slow down, curious as to what was moving the same way they do. Most of the turtles here had just continued to swim past, aloof. This guy swam straight for us though. He came so close to me that he no longer fit within the frame of my camera, in fact he nearly bumped into me, before turning at the last minute to slowly glide past me. Without moving another muscle, I held very still and gingerly stretched out my arm, allowing his shell to graze my hand. It was rougher then I expected. A turtle has never allowed me that closeness before. Please understand that touching and harassing the wildlife is never ok. When you are very calm and it approaches you though, something magical might just happen.

Hawksbill Sea Turtle swimming over to say hello

The eighth turtle also proved to be a special baby. We found him snuggled up behind a bundle of sponge barrels. Our approach startled him enough to get up and leave, as is often the case, only he couldn’t easily fit through the opening in the garden of sponges. Watching him flailing about, trying to wiggle around the right way to fit through was like watching one of those videos of the fat cats trying to fit through the doggy doors. If you haven’t seen those, you should search them on Youtube. It’s a laugh.

There was so much going on in the blue that I hardly looked at the wall all dive, but when I did look back for a moment, it was to find a nudibranch, translucent peach colored with pinpoints of bright orange, about the size of a golf ball, cannon balling down the wall. The four of us discussed this later and decided that sea slugs must do this for fun, because if you’re a sea slug, what else do you do for fun all day besides climb up to a high perch and then jump back down again?

This was the same type of nudi we saw cannonballing (although not this exact one). (Halgerda batangas.)

Around the time we were starting to shallow up, we heard the high pitched squeal. I guessed it was dolphins, and turned to see if everyone else had heard them too, or if I was just turning random sounds into wishful thinking. A glance in everyone else’s direction showed all of my dive buddies and our guide similarly hovering around in circles, eyes eagerly scanning the open blue. Someone waved their hand like a dolphin jumping. We abandoned the wall and started swimming into the blue. The squealing grew louder. The farther we swam, the louder it grew, until it was almost ear-piercing. It’s amazing how much sound some animals can make underwater. I ditched all sense of reason and just starting kicking straight out into the blue and towards the sound as hard as I could. It is extremely rare to see dolphins underwater. We see them all the time from the boats, surfing the bow for fun, but they don’t show themselves to divers unless they really want to, and usually they don’t. I’ve never seen dolphins beneath the surface. If I was ever going to, now was the time.

It’s amazing how quickly you lose sense of direction when there is nothing but blue in every direction. No wall for reference. No bottom along which to follow the contour. Just endless expanses of blue. And usually one leg is stronger than the other, so I couldn’t even be sure that I had been kicking in a straight line the whole time. Peeps, don’t ever try that on your dive holiday. I was fully prepared to go up and wait for everyone at the surface when I completed my 360 degree rotation and realized that the rest of the group was still well within my field of view. Then Alan pointed eagerly straight ahead; he saw them. I kicked back in that direction and there they were, just close enough to see the outlines of four or five distinct cetaceans, just far enough away to let us know that we wouldn’t bet getting any closer. And then there was another pod of half a dozen of them to the left, and another pod to the right, all just far enough away to make the camera useless. All just close enough to make my heart skip a beat. We kicked as hard as we could, following one pod, which would eventually fade into the blueness, only to be replaced by another pod, which we would try to follow in another direction. They never let us get any closer, but they had us surrounded and awed. At one point I was so entranced that I nearly spat my regulator out of my mouth. It suddenly felt unnatural and in the way. In all my years of diving I have never felt the need to do something so senseless, not even as an open water student, way back when. Luckily I caught myself before I had to find it again, reminding myself that I was not a dolphin. I needed that air if I wanted to keep swimming. How inconvenient.

Dolphins, just close enough to tease us. 

The dolphins eventually had their fun and retreated beyond our view. We made our way back to the wall, somehow visible again; we must’ve swam a giant circle out in the blue. All the while the squealing noise was growing louder again, teasing us, like a siren’s song.

Back on the boat the dolphins graced us with a final, bow-surfing show. Only now from the surface could we see just how numerous they were. Pods of half a dozen each, were peppered across the water in every direction, making up a group of hundreds of dolphins playing in the water, racing alongside the boat, trying to get ahead just long enough to leap out of the water in a dazzling show, and then fall back in line to allow a second to take its place. The four of us, and all the Indonesian boys, and all the Swiss-French guests, whooped and hollered and cheered them on. There’s nothing like a beautiful show of nature to break down language barriers. By the time we finally waved goodbye to the dolphins and made our way back to the resort in Manado for the final time, my cheeks were hurting from smiling so much. Thank you for the epic send-off, Bunaken.

Chasing Currents in Bunaken National Park

On our penultimate day of Manado diving, we dove a site with some crazy current. It was the most fun I’d had being swept along at high speeds since Palau. It kept switching directions too; we’d be flying down the reef in one direction, arms outstretched as if we were flying up in the sky, only to suddenly be kicking into the current and have our guide, clad in snorkel fins, signal for us to go back the other way. We swapped directions three or four times, and I loved every moment of it.

The first time I dove in any real current was in Palau, and I remember breathing through my air much quicker than usual because I was trying too hard to control my every movement. I'd since learned better. The fun in current is in surrendering. Surrendering to the power of the ocean, and letting her carry you along. Embracing the momentum, rather than fighting it. Using minimal fin movements to harness her power in the right direction, like a sail catching the wind. Surrender, and the fun begins. I’m going to stop now before I start sounding any more like an inspirational yoga quote on Instagram.

On one of these instances when we found ourselves kicking into the current, Fletch became lost in his own little world and missed the signal from our guide that it was time to turn around. Stefan and I both stopped to wait for Fletch to look back, ready to give him the turn signal as soon as we caught his eye. But on he kicked, effortlessly into the current, as if he wasn't even aware that there was any opposing force in the water. He became smaller and smaller until only his loud orange fins were visible. I realized that he wouldn't be looking back until we were no longer within eye sight, and so went to chase after him. Chasing is not something you ever want to do on scuba. The goal is to always breathe slowly and deeply. Exerting yourself tends to do the opposite to your breathing. That's where some experience with yoga and breath control comes in handy. Have you ever tried to run while seeing how many strides you could make it on each inhale and exhale? That's basically what I was doing except with finning. Between streamlining and an epically powerful pair of fins, I caught up quickly, but not without tiring just as easily. Arms outstretched, I was going for his calf; skin on skin would let him know it was me rather than an impersonal tug on the fin. Right as my fingertips were about to make contact though, I saw his calf muscle flex and one smooth kick later he was several meters ahead of me again. My leg strength was no match for his. An impersonal tug on the fin it would have to be. We all had a good laugh later on.

We had come to Manado for exactly this, the currents, and the big fish that those currents brought in. In doing our research, we had been under the impression that this was the way to do Northern Sulawesi, to visit Bunaken for the pelagics, and Lembeh for the macro life. Our first dives in Manado though, had been spent meandering around in the muck off the mainland and avoiding the slightest hint of a current. It had taken a couple requests to the dive guides and to the manager, and a puzzled look or two from the Indonesian boys, wondering if we were joking or not, before we finally convinced the team that yes, we really did want to dive in current. Currents bring in fish.

A few puzzle pieces slowly started to fit together as to the kind of diving that the resort was trying to cater to. None of the other groups we talked to were also including Lembeh in their trips, so that explained why the guides were more interested in searching for macro critters; this was many of the guests only chance to see them. The manager had also told me one day that we weren’t their typical dive guests. I had let out and awkward chuckle, and thinking he was referring to our professional rankings, asked if it was because most dive instructors couldn’t afford to take their own dive holidays. He said that might be part of it, but was mostly referring to the fact that we were all much younger than their average guests. So that explained why we had been avoiding currents in the beginning. The guides were likely taught to keep the dives as low-effort as possible, to cater to older clientele. This theory was confirmed when the owner showed up towards the end of our stay, having just returned from a trip to Raja Ampat. She was positively gushing over how much more she loved the diving here, because it was just so easy. You didn’t have to do anything. So if you are ever looking for some laid back diving in Northern Sulawesi, Thalassa Dive Resort is your spot.

I’ve mentioned before that the staff were all extremely accommodating, and so after a couple days of determining that we were serious about wanting to dive in currents, our guides were more than happy to break up their usual routine and bring us to some fantastic wall dives.

Those walls were home to many turtles. So many turtles, that it would have been an incredibly rare dive to not spot at least a couple.

Hawksbill Sea Turtle

Green sea turtle with the most beautiful shell.

Green Sea Turtle

This was my favorite turtle of the trip. We found him completely crashed out, slumped over a large branch of coral jutting out of the reef, making him look like those pictures of the big cats you see on safari, napping up in a tree, legs dangling limp over the sides. He was way too invested in his prime napping spot to care that we had him surrounded like paparazzi, taking photos. Most turtles would have been annoyed and escaped out into the blue. Not this guy. He knew his spot was too good to give up, and that we would be gone before too long.

Green Sea Turtle lounging on a a branch of coral. 

The walls must not have been home to very many moray eels, because our guides would get incredibly excited whenever we spotted one. It’s always telling how common a critter is by how often they are pointed out. The more common, the less you bother pointing it out unless there’s really not much else to see.

Moray Eel 

Fletch showed me my first electric clam: bright orange, fleshy lips protruding from the wall with neon hairs jutting out in every direction like a mohawk. And in the midst of all that color, it looks like a miniature lightning storm is occurring. Scientists used to believe that the lightning show was an example of bioluminescence, but research in the 1990s determined that the real cause was ambient light being scattered. The edge on one side of the mantle is made up of tissue that reflects light, while the edge of the mantle on the other side is made up of tissue that absorbs light. The result is a lightning-like effect when the lips open and close.

Electric Clam (Ctenoides ales) (Check out the video on Instagram!)

Another electric clam on another dive. (Ctenoides ales)

There are nearly 30 species of anemonefish, or Nemo's as most people know them as now, thanks to one of the greatest animated films ever. I had only seen a handful of these previously, but Bunaken was home to many new species that I had never seen before. These colorful little guys aren't quite the true Nemo, who is a clown anemonefish. These are the false clown anemonefish. 

False Clown Anemonefish (Amphiprion ocellaris)

Bunaken National Park was home to 390 species of coral, making the walls a colorful and picturesque sight.

Birdseye view of a colorful reef wall in Bunaken National Park. 

When the currents would subside, our guides would return to combing the reef for critters so tiny, only a practiced eye could spot them. This little guy is known as a candy crab. He blends in perfectly with the soft coral on which he lives, and is less than 1 cm in size (although can grow to a whomping 1.5 cm).

Candy crab; do you see him? (Hoplophrys oatesii)

Finally I present to you the marbled shrimp. Yes, that is a shrimp with the pinocchio nose, fuzzy pom poms, candy cane striped legs, and kindergarten art class orange squiggles. They come in dozens of other varieties of mismatched loud colors and patterns too. And despite the ostentatious costumes, they're actually quite shy creatures, prone to hiding in the coral and rubble. Maybe it's like the kid who died his hair blue and is trying to hide it under a hat.

Marbled Shrimp (Saron marmoratus)

Bunaken National Park was a fantastic spot to spend a week diving. The corals were healthy and plentiful. The marine life offered a little bit of everything, from pelagic dogtooth tuna, to itty bitty candy crabs. There were dive profiles to suit all levels. I also enjoyed the lack of other dive boats around. That may have been because it was low season, but the health of the reef suggested that there usually weren't a lot of groups of novice divers kicking up coral. Overall, it was a marvelous week of diving, and a delightful first experience with Indonesia's incredibly diverse underwater world. 

Beware the Indonesian “Moonshine”

And so we fell into a comfortable routine of waking up and going to breakfast each morning for a beautiful selection of fresh, tropical fruits. There would also be an omelette station set up. After breakfast, we would head out on the boat for the two morning dives, venturing into the underwater world, to one colorful wall bursting with healthy corals after another. The state of the thriving reef was a happy sight. There were times when I would look for a bit of rock or dead coral to steady myself with a fingertip while taking a photo, and would be unsuccessful in finding anything safe to touch. The lack of spots not covered in healthy corals was wonderful. Between dives, the boat boys would give us towels and hot tea and coffee. They would also pass around cookies and fruit of some sort, sometimes bananas, sometimes papaya, sometimes mango, all of which they would jokingly try to tell us white people was mango. Every day they passed out “mango.” Every day we laughed and waited to see what the “mango” actually was, then joked that it was our favorite kind of mango.

Beautiful, colorful reefs of Bunaken National Park, Indonesia. 

Fletch swims amongst a cloud of pyramid butterflyfish. 

Colorful anthias light up the reef in Bunaken National Park, Indonesia. 

When the boat returned from diving, there would be just enough time for a hot shower (the resort had blissfully scalding hot showers) before lunch was served. Sometimes lunch was a buffet of fresh vegetables and curries and tofu and tempeh. Sometimes we were served family style. Either way, it was always a feast of delicious, fresh foods.

The afternoons were for relaxing, sometimes by the pool, sometimes in the room when our glowing white skin had reached its maximum sun exposure before bursting into flames. After five years in the tropics, and a killer tan, I had been very disappointed at just how quickly my skin had returned to a vampirish shade of pale upon spending a few months in America.

Dinner was served at 7, a feast similar to the food served at lunch. There were always about five different dishes available, and I don’t think we ever saw the same dish twice in the week we were there. The food was superb. We befriended one of the chefs, Jimmy, and he would always cook me up extra vegetarian food. If he saw us hanging around between meals, he would often roast fresh peanuts for us.

There were a couple days when we had the whole resort to ourselves, after the Japanese group left and before the Swiss-French group arrived.

One evening we tried a local spirit. Remember when we had made the trip into town for beer, and there had only been five beers available? It turns out there had only been three beers available, because two of the bottles turned out to not be beer at all, but were just in the same size and shape bottles. Stefan had discovered this first, and was now trying to offer Fletch $100 to drink it, after describing in great detail how foul the smell and taste had been. I went back to the room to find the bottle that wasn’t marked with the local beer’s name, Bintang. The odd bottle out boasted to be local from Manado.

I had read about a local “moonshine” to avoid, simply because the concoction often proved fatal with the adulteration of various chemicals. That spirit was called arak, and luckily, I didn't see the word arak written anywhere on the bottle. There really wan’t any other indication on the label as to what the contents of the bottle might be. That meant it was safe to try, right?

We popped the bottle open and took a whiff. It smelled like sour molasses. Fletch gagged and poured some into a glass. It poured like molasses as well. We passed the dark, syrupy liquid around a few times, no one wanting to touch the goop. Stefan said ours smelled better than his had. Tanja suggested to drink it slowly, sort of the opposite of the bandaid theory. Fletch finally took a swig and said it tasted way better than it smelled.

I was finally convinced to take a swig. The bitter taste of black licorice caught me by surprise and I flinched in disgust. Everyone laughed. My mind flashed back to a childhood memory of black licorice.

When my sister and I were little, our mom used to take us to this French Cheese Importers. In the front was a little French cafe and shop, with beautiful kitchen and household items imported from all over Europe. In the back was a giant walk-in freezer with every kind of cheese you could imagine from all over the world. The owner was an elegant, older lady who adored my sister and me, because we reminded her of her own daughter. Often she would tell us to pick out candies for ourselves, anything we wanted, her treat. One day we picked out these beautiful little tins with painted flowers on the lids. We had no idea what was inside, but the colors of the flowers were mesmerizing to two young girls. The owner may have even warned us that it was licorice, but our only reference for licorice was Twizzlers. When we got home, we opened the pretty little tins and found little black squares inside, about the size of Tic Tacs. That little black square was the most foul thing I ever remember tasting as a kid. There was no sweet to it at all, and the bitter taste lingered for hours, no matter how many times I brushed my teeth afterwards. Most people have bad, childhood, food memories of liver or brussel sprouts. Mine was black licorice.

The black syrupy drink tasted like the liquid form of that candy that most definitely wasn’t candy, all those years ago. It tasted like J├Ągermeister gone bad. Maybe it had gone bad, apparently the government was trying to shut down that liquor company. Fletch chugged the rest of the mug after confirming that Stefan would be buying beers the following night. His face contorted in disgust and looked about how I felt, but he chugged the moonshine syrup like a champ. Then he exhaled like a dragon breathing fire, or more like a cat coughing up a fur ball. We gave the rest of the bottle to Jimmy who explained that it was made from a type of palm leaf, fermented inside bamboo. I couldn’t even imagine how foul the poisonous arak must taste if the supposedly safer, local liquor tasted like that.

A couple days later, on barbecue night, a last minute booking of “12” locals arrived. All the staff were running around before their arrival, apologizing profusely for the noise that was about to ensue. The manager even brought us cookies as a peace offering. The “12” guests ended up being more like 50 and all of their kids. Something about large groups, and power in numbers makes people feel like they own the place. The previously quiet and serene resort suddenly turned into a zoo. People were everywhere. We fled the pool when the kids started screaming too loudly, retreating to our rooms. Unfortunately, we still had to go back down for dinner, and being a smaller resort, they liked to serve everyone at once.

Dinner was chaos. The little kids were screaming. The slightly older kids were wreaking havoc with the pool cues and table. We now understood why none of the cues had any tips. For some reason the restaurant was home to a fleet of xylophones, and one little girl was trying to recreate F├╝r Elise one plunk at a time, causing Beethoven to roll over in his grave, while her friends hit the rest of the bars at random. Yes, xylophones, plural, at a dive resort. I’m not making that up.

After the kids finally abandoned the xylophones, Stefan decided to try his hand at one. 

The buffet line of freshly cooked dishes we had become accustomed to sampling, turned into a smorgasbord of kids eating directly out of the serving dishes. Parents were chasing the toddlers around with spoonfuls of rice, trying to get them to take a bite. The rest of the parents were too busy taking selfies to notice their kids. The area around the water dispenser was flooded with more water than was left inside the pitcher. The pool cues sounded like they were being used in a fencing match, but I was afraid to look. We shoveled food down as quickly as we could and ran for for the safety of our rooms.

All things considered, it could have been a lot worse. We could have been kept up by noise all night. The kids could have started a marching band with the xylophones and pan flutes. Oh yeah, there was a rack of bamboo thingamajigs on the bar counter that looked suspiciously like pan flutes, but why would a dive resort have pan flutes? Luckily, the rooms were pretty well insulated, and once I hit bed, I was out like a light.

Scorpionfish and Some Diving Stereotypes I Probably Shouldn't Be Writing About

On our third morning in Manado, I finally felt refreshed and like my body was caught up and rested and ready for the task of diving. No more wimping out in the cold for me! We had the boat to ourselves, allowing us to make the longer trip over to Bunaken National Park. The previous days a German diver had joined us for only the second dive, meaning we had to stay close to the mainland so that we could make the trip back to the resort to pick her up between dives. We had figured out that the mainland was where the cold water was. But now she was finished diving and we had an entire boat to take us wherever we wanted to go. Diving in the off-season definitely had its perks.

The first dive of the morning was a steep wall, with some good current that brought in a crazy assortment of fish. We saw numerous dogtooth tuna, usually only one at a time, but spaced at regular intervals out in the blue. Bluefin trevallies with their electric blue fins hunted closer to the wall. Big schools of giant trevallies hovered just close enough to wow us, but stayed too far away to get a clear photo. And the entire dive, we were surrounded by millions of redtooth triggerfish. I estimate millions, because we were in a cloud of thousands throughout the entire hour drift down the wall. So either they were drifting along with us, or that was the largest school of redtooth triggerfish I had ever experienced.

Dogtooth Tuna, Bunaken National Park, Indonesia

Shoal of Redtooth Triggerfish, Bunaken National Park, Indonesia 

There were also plenty of titan triggerfish, a fish I learned to be wary of in Koh Tao. There is nothing scarier in the ocean than a Koh Tao titan triggerfish. If you look at one of those the wrong way, they will charge you like a bull chasing a matador. Here they were completely docile though. Not only were their triggers lowered, meaning they meant no aggression, but you could just sense that there was no need to be cautious. I never once felt the need to look and see if a trigger was raised in warning.

On the second dive I found a beautiful scorpionfish, the most colorful camouflaged fish I had ever seen. Usually I’m not a huge fan of scorpionfish. They’re fun to find, because doing so requires a practiced eye, but once you’ve seen one, they all more or less look the same: dark red or brown and like a continuation of their surroundings. This one most certainly did not look the same though. This one had bright yellow and purple blotches all over hismself and was really the most fabulous rainbow of a scorpionfish that I had ever seen. And yet, even with the obnoxiously bright colors, he was still perfectly blended in with his surroundings. I was quite proud of that find.

Tasseled Scorpionfish, Bunaken National Park, Indonesia 

Even though we had come to the Bunaken side of Manado for the pelagics, the dive guides were still fond of searching for all the macro life along the wall. I didn't spend too much time trying to capture the right shot, as I was so mesmerized by what was happening out in the blue, and the current made macro photography a tricky task, but I did manage a couple photos.

Whip coral shrimp, about the size of a grain of rice. Bunaken National Park, Indonesia. 

Hairy squat lobster, about the size of a small coin. Bunaken National Park, Indonesia. 

The 5.5mm wetsuit made a world of difference. It was impossible to get into, and made me waddle around like a penguin on the surface, but underwater it did its job of keeping me warm and cozy. I was back in my element, completely at peace in the water. What a mental relief it was too. My inability to tough out water a couple degrees colder than I had expected, had made me question a few things about myself.

There were two other groups at the resort. The first was the German couple; she was a diver and he was a snorkeler. They both struggled to adjust to the concept of "island time." She had done a refresher in the pool on day one and Tanja had said she had thought she was watching a Chinese DSD at first. Unfortunately, "Chinese DSD" has become a running joke in the dive industry because Chinese intro dives nearly always look the same, like you’re either trying to drown someone or save someone from drowning. Actually, that’s about what you’re doing when you teach one. There’s a lot of flailing around at the surface involved. I’m not trying to be mean, I’ve just taught enough courses to back up that claim, and have never met another dive professional who had a story to contradict the fact that the majority of Chinese people are about as comfortable in the water as your typical house cat. We all have horror stories. In fact I heard a few more while in Indonesia.

The other group at the resort was a large group of Japanese guests. Now it’s your turn to be mean, because you probably think that I'm about to say that their diving ability is on par with the Chinese guests. Not so; the majority of Japanese Divers I have met have been extremely proficient. Go figure. We knew this group could dive because one of them had a towel hanging outside her room, signed by all of her friends, in celebration of her 700th dive. (Or perhaps it belonged to a he, I just assumed she because the majority of them were women). They were all very jovial, older people, who didn’t speak a lick of English. One morning, one of them managed a good morning, to us in English, and Fletch managed an ohayou gozaimasu in Japanese, just like I taught him. I was so proud. The old woman was proud too. She beamed and her face lit up like a Christmas tree. I really wished that my Japanese was proficient enough to converse with them because they seemed like a lovely group of people.

Still to come: our experience with the sketchy local alcohol and a fleet of xylophones.