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.