Lembeh Strait (and Bunaken), Indonesia

AWESOMENESS!Our relative measure of how cool this place is. COST$ = cheap $$$$$ = resort TRAVEL TIMEEstimate of how long a round trip here from California would take TRAVEL DIFFICULTYHow much effort to get here? "Low" is hop on a plane and the resort picks you up. "High" is hitchiking in a foreign language DIVINGIf there is diving here, how good is it?
great $$ 3 day easy GREAT!

The northeast corner of the mis-shapen island of Sulawesi in Indonesia hosts two dive spots that are a short drive from each other, but worlds apart. The magic of the area is the amazing assortment of animal life that has developed here and easily found diving in the Lembeh Straits. The nearby island of Bunaken offers more traditional diving to balance out a truly memorable dive vacation.

An hour taxi across the narrow penninsula from the airport at Manado is the Lembeh Strait. It's very tropical here with coconut palms lining the coast and covering the hills. It's also a bustling port area that services freight connections between Indonesesia and Southeast Asia. But we're here for the amazing 'muck' diving. Diving in the narrow strait is all about searching the low visibilty, silty bottomed dives sites for some of the most amazing creatures you're ever going to see. There's no sharks here, no turtles. But there are mimic octopi, pygmy seahorses, hundreds of colorful nudibranch species, plenty of fish that walk more than swim and an unending variety of creatures you've probably never imagined.

The island of Bunaken is a short boat ride from Manado, the main city in the area. Bunaken has a nice tree-lined village, but is largely jungly with mangroves covering the waterline. There's no beach that I saw. The many guest house / bungalow dive outfits hide in little bays amongst mangroves. Cute, quaint and rough. The diving is warm, clear and full of life with an interesting mix of canyons, walls, sand and coral. Bunaken is a solid dive location with plenty of variety. It's a good match to a few days of the critter diving in Lembeh.



We didn't stick around too long to really say, but I don't think there's much to keep you in Manado other than the airport and perhaps some conveniences you may want to pick up before heading to the dive areas. If you do get stuck for a time, there's a nice mall down by the harbour with an arcade, really good internet and an A&W.

Lembeh Strait

As a diver, you won't want to leave Lembeh. The critters that are found in these murky waters truly boggle the mind. I came back from every dive with some exciting find that made me want to jump right back in. Some dives were packed full of finds, while some dives were like a dull treasure hunt for 20 minutes at a time until the next discovery appeared. So what's 'muck'? Well, it's a marketing term that somebody came up with to popularize this and a few other areas. Really, the visibility here is quite varied, though never stellar. It's certainly better than the sub 10' we sometimes get in Monterey. Many of the creatures live in the sandy / silty bottoms right off the beaches, so the water can be murky at times, particularly if you let your fins stir things up. This is also a busy shipping strait and much of the diving is right off villages, so it is not uncommon to find grime on the surface and trash in the water. I didn't find it too objectionable, but I was also very very careful to not accidentally take in a gulp of seawater. The dive guide setup here is excellent. Ever diver or couple gets their own dive guide, and these guys are incredible at finding the tiny creatures. Tell them what you want to see and they'll likely find it.
Short story, this isn't the world of big fish, sharks or manta rays, and yet it is some of the most exciting and memorable diving I've ever done.


This charming little island just off the Manado port is littered with bungalows and mini-resorts, but you'd never know it. The mangrove-covered coastline and densely wooded interior really isolate you even as you are entering the main village. Other than diving, the draw of Bunaken is the campy atmosphere. It's a really quaint place to hang out with other divers and hippies in between dives. One interesting aspect of diving here is that the dive boats can't get to shore at low tide, so you sometimes have to wade a couple hundred yards back in after diving! Bring aquasocks. The diving is a very solid "ok". The terrain is surprisingly varied with walls, canyons, reefs and sandy areas with a fair amount of fish life. It's not the greatest diving, but it's nice to get into more open water after diving Lembeh.

Practical Matters

Getting There

It all starts with a flight to Bali. From there, take an Indonesia airline for a couple hour commuter flight to Manado, Sulawesi. Unless you are super adventurous, you'll arrange a dive hotel ahead of time and they will meet you at the airport. Bunaken is a short taxi ride and a half hour boat away. At low tide, the reef around Bunaken makes it hard in many places for boats to get all the way in to land and the hotels don't seem to have docks even if your dinghy makes it. Expect a bit of wading onto shore.
Lembeh is about an hour taxi (or couple hours by local buses) plus a short boat ride. No wading required.

Staying There: Lembeh

You definitely could go to Bunaken or Lembeh without reservations, but the resorts and bungalows are very spread out and there is no easy way to look at a few places and then choose. The resorts at Lembeh don't have an easy trail connecting them, but it would be reasonable here to hire a boat to show you the various dive resorts if you really wanted.
We stayed at Bastiano's. It's a beautiful location on a hillside overlooking the strait. If the price were higher, I would call it a really nice resort. At the current prices, it is an outrageous deal and you'd want to stay just for the comfort. The rooms are spacious and clean, the food is great and I was very happy with the dive program. There's even an unexpectedly nice swimming pool. We had one hiccup in that there was something of a rubbing alchohol smell in the dive tanks. The Austrian divemaster was very professional and really good about checking the compressor and filters; but neither he nor the other guests could smell anything. So that remains an unresolved mystery for us that unfortunately resulted in some headaches and missed dives. We saw the Two Fish Divers lodge here, and it looks like a run down summer camp next to Bastianos.

Staying There: Bunaken

The Bunaken coastline is covered in mangroves that hide the hotels and you'll end up walking a dirt path around the island searching for lodging. It is definitely possible ot hire a boat out and walk around looking for the perfect place to stay, just not comfortable or necessary.
Our lodging selection here was just the opposite of Lembeh. We stayed with Two Fish Divers, but they actually put us up in a bungalow a couple minutes away. Really nice and private, but the whole area is very rustic compared to Bastiano's in Lembeh. The dive operation wasn't anything special, but they got the job done. There is also a Bastiano's on the island, but we heard from a couple different people that it is not very good.

Nearby Attractions

    Tangkoko Nature Reserve

    A couple hour drive from Lembeh is this small park where you can go trekking for the local macaque (monkey) or giant toucan-ish hornbill (bird). Getting to Tangkoko Nature Reserve from Lembeh was a fun couple hours on the back of packed pickup truck/bus, but you can also hire a driver to get you there faster and in more comfort.

    Tana Torajah

    The surrealistic Tana Torajah region of central Sulawesi is nearby but takes a flight and an 8hour bus to get to from here. But it's worth it for a few days of surveying the local religion with an intriguing mix of animism and Christian beliefs. The summer 'funeral season' and its huge celebrations with animal sacrifice and cave burial is not to be missed if you're in the area.

    Pulau Derawan or Komodo National Park

    After spending time with the little guys, diving with some bigger fish might be fun. Pulau Derawan is nearby for mantas and as convenient as it will ever be. Komodo National Park for diving and dragons is also just two short flights away.


    Of course, all the rest of Indonesia is also at your fingertips once you are this deep in. A few days to soak up Bali on your way through is almost mandatory.