Wednesday, March 29, 2017
KRI ECO Resort Raja Ampat

PAPUA PROVINCE (formerly IRIAN JAYA)   MAY 16-23, 2004
Never mind that it took the eleven of us 72 hours from the time we left Boulder to arrive at the resort.  (There was a 24-hour layover in Manado where we took an enjoyable highlands tour.)  Never mind that the last two hours were on fast boats during the dark of night without navigational lights and without any form of communication between our boats or with the resort. (This type of travel proves quite risky for late-night, open-water native squid fishers.)   And never mind that the “amenities” at the resort were not high enough to be rated with even one star by American standards.  In spite of these inconveniences, we all managed to swim among and experience the most diverse coral reef communities found anywhere.  The Marine Rapid Assessment was recently completed by Conservation International which documented a greater number of species of fishes, molluscs and corals than in any other area so far studied in the world.  As a matter of fact, Dr. Gerald Allen, an ichthyologist from western Australia who has identified many of the fish species in present-day fish ID books and is the author of more than 25 marine life books, was a part of this study.  He catalogued 283 different species of fish on a single one-hour dive immediately adjacent to our resort.  This is his highest single-dive fish-species count to date in the world.
Our living quarters were thatched cabins along the shore and along a long pier connecting
to the dive operation.  They were equipped with beds (or mattresses on the floor), mosquito netting over the beds, a wicker-type bench and table, drinking glasses and a pitcher of potable water and a small low-wattage fluorescent light.  With a proper adapter, strobes
could be charged in the cabins, and this was where photographic equipment was maintained.   There was no dedicated resort space for photographic equipment, upkeep, cleaning, freshwater soaking, etc.
One of the local airlines had, without warning, cancelled its flights into and out of Sorong,
so when we arrived the resort was extra full because guests had not been able to secure departing airspace.  The beach cabin assigned to my daughter and me had poor ventilation, and for the first two nights we had a hard time sleeping on the sweat-soaked floor mattresses.  When the held-over guests left, we managed to commandeer a duplex dock cabin with real beds and with a shared open breezeway/ lounge area.  The natural cross ventilation was an immense improvement, and the cabin even had a small portable fan.
A significant resort omission was the lack of a central lounge or social gathering place for guests to meet and tell “war stories” and discuss their dives and the critters they had seen.  No wide-screen monitor to project underwater images or videos was available.  Since there was no plumbing in the cabins, two dipper-operated toilets and two dipper-operated cleaning stations (showers?) for guests were just off the pier on the shore.  No laundry facilities were available.

Three adequate and tasty meals were served family style with water, tea and coffee. The main dishes were Asian, Indian and Indonesian served with rice or noodles.  Some selections were spicy and quite tasty, but over the week there was a lot of redundancy.  A small selection of cold beverages and a very few cold beers were available for an extra cost and, on a few occasions, ice cubes were available for mixed drinks with whiskey brought by the guests.
The dive “center” was a widened, thatched-roofed area at the end of the pier.  The tide was about 1½ -2 meters and when low, this was the only safe entrance and exit from the water
or dive boats.  During our stay we experienced low-low tides, and the hard corals of the fringing reef adjacent to the resort were mostly exposed and out of the water.  Dive briefings were given here and the boats were available for three day dives and one night dive. 
There was no Nitrox and no freshwater handy for washing our scuba gear, wetsuits or skins. 
A small thatched cabin that allowed for dive gear storage was adjacent to this dive center.
The resort had two long boats, one with twin 115 hp and one with twin 200 hp Johnson outboard engines.  Back rolls were used to enter the water, and over-the-side ladders were used for the exit after the crew pulled up our BCs and tanks.  With the two boats, which were not retrofitted for scuba, there was adequate, but not excessive, room for the two Singapore divers and the eleven of us.  Our gear and tanks occupied the floor during travel.  The difficult access for divers onto and off of the dive boats and the sand walkways between the cabins and dining hall/kitchen rendered the resort inaccessible for the handicapped diver.  There was no head on the boats, but our dive sites were nearby, so this was not a significant concern.
But why the dive sites were so close was a significant concern.  During our whole week’s stay, one 200 hp engine was completely disabled and the other was problematical.  While the staff worked on the engines each night, they didn’t get them fixed until our week’s diving was over.   There were no back-up engines to use during the week we were there.  The less-than-reliable dive boat kept us from diving reefs that were more than 30 minutes away except on a few occasions.  By the fourth day, I had repeated dives at five different dive sites.  While these sites contained world-class coral reefs, I was disappointed in not being able to see other world-class reefs.  The resort web site advertises that there are so many dive sites in the area that one should plan on being there for two full weeks in order to see them all!
All dives were drift dives and most of us carried sausages, but they were not needed.
The boat was never very far away when we surfaced.  But for the first time in my 1500 dives, I found the drift dives to be a nuisance.  The current was ever-present and often brisk.  The House Reef off the end of the pier was a drift/wall dive with a very high diversity of critters. 
It essentially housed a cross-section of the critters seen on the nearby reefs, but the current was generally so strong that a drop-off or pick-up boat was necessary.
If you are still with me, you are either a crazy buffalo diver or just plain crazy.  In spite of what I have just described, we all enjoyed the week, and one of our group is even seriously thinking about going back soon!  Yes, there were many inconveniences and a few letdowns, and I was not able to dive at Equator Island where one enters the water in a current (of course) and drifts “under” the equator.

But we did have excellent divemasters and were able to see some of the most beautiful
and diverse coral reefs in the world.  Over the course of a week’s diving, the mean water temperature was 83.8F (28.8C), and the mean visibility was 48 feet (14.7 m). The diversity
of sponges, corals, molluscs, arthropods, echinoderms, tunicates and fishes was extraordinary!  We saw multiple examples of species that are locally rare or absent on many reefs, and we saw many juvenile fishes which often tend to be more strikingly colored than the adults.  While Indonesia is known to have many reefs destroyed by dynamiting and cyaniding, we did not see evidence of this.  There was a significant amount of rubble between the intact corals, but it appeared to be caused naturally.  Disturbances tend to increase diversity in an ecosystem, and this was surely happening there.

I have never before seen so many wobbegone sharks -- for example, four on a single dive.  Via arm spans, a giant clam was measured that was larger than has been described in the literature – 2 meters in length, and I saw the largest grouper (Malabar) that I have ever seen.  It was about two meters away, somewhat confined inside a reef-like enclosure, and the whole body could not be seen at once.  It was an estimated 28” (0.7m) deep (i.e. a dorsal-ventral measurement) and greater than 4 feet (1.2m) long.  It had to be 100-200 kilograms in weight.  I have seen lots of mantas over the years, and one of the best manta dives was there. 
At about 45 feet (13.7m) in an extremely strong current, we saw about eight different mantas (we were able to see four at one time) with wingspans ranging between 13-17 feet (3.9-5.2m).  They would swim by almost effortlessly against the current, sometimes passing within touching distance, and on other occasions staying in one fixed position filtering the oncoming water.  While this was happening, we were either tied in with reef hooks or hanging on tightly to keep from being swept away.
We saw a few typical reef sharks, large humphead parrotfishes, Napoleon wrasses, large schools of barracuda, jacks and trevally, some medium sized tuna, and a number of turtles, but, except for the mantas, this area should not be promoted for the large pelagic fauna.
Two of the three resort owners, Max Ammer and Sven DeVries, were in residence during our stay, and they were quite helpful in making our visit as pleasant as possible, in spite of their frustration with the outboard motor problem.  Their staff was also very pleasant and helpful; they even cleaned, rinsed and set out to dry all of our dive gear at the end of the week. 
On our last day, they arranged a very enjoyable and educational land-based tour for our group to visit a village and see the Red Birds of Paradise, endemic to the area and discovered by Alfred Russel Wallace in the 1860s.

About a half mile from the present Kri Eco Resort, the same owners are building a second, modern Sorido Bay Resort.  This one is to be partially operational by October 2004, with large, air-conditioned, fully equipped cabins with all the amenities of a fist class dive operation.  Even when it is finished, they plan to keep the present resort in operation as it is today. 

Yes, I would go there again; the biodiversity on the reefs was worth it!  While we were in the vicinity, we did a second week of diving at the Lembeh Resort on Sulawesi. 

Mel Cundiff, Boulder, Colorado    

Mel Cundiff Dive Trip Reports

The Best Coral Reef Diving So Far 
Komodo in May 2007 on the MV Tarata

The MV Tarata is a 79-foot Indonesian Bugis-style wooden live aboard ship with a 17-foot beam and six cabins for 12 divers below deck.  The cabins are of moderate size and have AC and ensuite bathrooms/showers with ample hot water.  The two dive masters, Sebastian and Johnny, among the 11-person Indonesian crew could speak good English and were very helpful in locating fish and critters for us.

 The main deck housed: the mess hall; galley; a public bathroom/shower; a dive deck with a camera table, gear storage baskets and two compressors; and a large bow area with FW rinse tanks for cameras, etc.  Four steps down from the dive deck was the dive platform for giant stride entries or, more often, loading into and out of the large zodiac used as a dive tender.  An additional hot water shower was located here.  One full wall cabinet in the mess hall was used as a charging area for cameras and lights with both 220V and 110V availability, and the cabinet contained a library of fish/critter ID books.  The dining area had a small TV monitor for showing images and videos shot during our dives.  No Nitrox was available.  The sun deck which was half covered by an awning had padded benches and deck chairs, the bridge and captain’s and crew quarters and the crew mess/lounging area.   

Dives were regularly scheduled at 7 & 11 am and 3 & 7 pm, with meals being served after the dives.  Moving between dive sites never interfered with our dive schedules, and the only dives we missed during the ten days were to take the Komodo National Park tour and because a high-pressure compressor hose blew and had to be replaced.  On the standard ranger-led Komodo NP excursion we saw four large dragons, a poisonous yellow-bellied tree viper and several tropical birds.  The Komodo dragon is the largest known reptile inhabiting the world today and can grow up to 10 feet long. 

Each night and many times during the day we were anchored or moored in calm, quiet, protected harbors.  On many occasions divers snorkeled to the shallow fringing reefs near shore, beach combed or climbed the hill tops for the view.  The zodiac was also commonly used for shore excursions.  On one occasion on Rinca Island, a Komodo dragon was prowling the beach and divers approached cautiously.  Close by were about a dozen monkeys playing on the beach.  The shallow fringing reefs showed significant anchor damage from both large and small boats.  Most sites where we stayed had permanent moorings in place.  We had calm seas except for one rain storm while we slept and one afternoon storm confining us to the mess hall.  The ship’s configuration did not allow easy access from one area to another without going outside – a minor inconvenience in a storm.  We encountered a half dozen other dive boats during our trip but found no interference with their divers.
The buffet-style meals were very tasty and plentiful.  They were mostly rice-based Asian dishes accompanied with fresh fish, shrimp, chicken, pork, beef or tofu. There were always mixed vegetables and a fresh salad of lettuce, tomatoes and green, yellow and red sliced sweet peppers.  There were either prepared desserts or assorted fruits.  Snacks and banana smoothies were served between our 3 & 7 pm dives and hot coffee, tea bags and powdered Tang were always available with both hot and cold water.  Cold soft drinks and beer were available for an added cost.  It would have been helpful to have bulk quantities of a light, mixed drink such as lemonade or an orange drink to help keep us hydrated.  Before our 7 am dive, cereal, toast and drinks were available, and after the dive a mostly American hot breakfast with scrambled eggs, bacon, etc., was served.

 Unlike when I was in the Komodo area in 1996, we had only a couple of dives with a strong to moderate—but manageable—current.  The zodiac tender was always close by when we surfaced, and the Dive Alerts and safely sausages we all carried were never used.  In the northern part of the greater Komodo area the water temperature averaged 83˚ F (28.3˚ C), but in the south of Rinca Island bordering on the Indian Ocean the temperature was a much brisker 77.8˚ F (25.4˚ C).  The average over-all visibility was 52 feet (16 m.)

 For biologicals, how does a whale shark, a Rhinopius, an Inimicus  and 15 Spanish dancers sound?  I have done both land-based and live-aboard diving in Raja Ampat and must yield to Dr. Gerald Allen and colleagues that RA has the greatest diversity of marine organisms found anywhere in the world.  But the diversity in so many other areas of Indonesia is so great that we generic divers have a hard time telling the difference.  Among the 12 divers on this trip, 6 have an accumulated total of over 40 weeks of diving experience in the western tropical Pacific, and our whole group is unanimous in stating that this trip provided the most enjoyable mix of small and large fish, critters and big pelagics of any other area we have ever dived.  The reefs were dominated by hard and soft corals interspersed with huge numbers of feather stars and tunicates.  Most dives had bulldozer shrimps and gobies, nudibranchs, anemones and clowns, vermetid snails and cushion stars with symbiotic shrimps.  The night dives brought out hundreds of huge basket stars and about 15 Spanish dancers.

 The 24-foot whale shark appearing on our last dive and swimming among us was, of course, a high point.  We saw a 10-foot eagle ray; about 20 sharks, one each black-tip and nurse and the rest white tips; Napoleon wrasses; bumphead parrots; huge brown sweetlips; a world-class 8-foot barracuda; lots of tunas, mackerel and trevallys; about 15 hawksbills, greens and Ridley’s turtles; and 9-12 cuttlefish, over half of which had an 8-inch or greater diameter.  Among other notable sightings were a lavender weedy scorpionfish; a devil scorpionfish; 5 juvenile pinnate batfish; 7 frogfish with 5 being 14 inches long; two 9-10 inch diameter ornately colored stonefish; a leaf scorpionfish; pygmy seahorses; about 7 blue ribbon eels, clownfish on coralliomorphs; about 6 orangutan crabs and a sea spider.  Among the many nudibranchs and flatworms, there were 8 species of nudibranchs and 2 of flatworms I hadn’t seen before. Of course, it goes without saying that there were hundreds of other species of common reef fishes and critters seen. 

I would highly recommend diving in this area and also recommend Grand Komodo Tours (
Mel Cundiff, Boulder, CO (Cundiff@Colorado.EDU), June 11, 2007

50 feet under the equator

Fifty Feet Under the Equator  (Diving Raja Ampat – June, 2005)
I was introduced to this area via land-based diving at Kri Resort last year, witnessed the phenomenal diversity of coral reef critters and got hooked on the area.  Nine of us returned in June of 2005 for eleven days on the MV PutriPapua, a live-aboard in the fleet of Grand Komodo Tours and Dives, operating out of Bali.  Our trip was booked by Nancy Gimblan of Scuba Travel Ventures in San Diego. The 84-foot-long, 19-foot beam PutriPapua is a modified wooden Indonesian pnise boat with five cabins accommodating eleven divers and a crew of eight.  Each cabin has its own bathroom and shower and is air conditioned.  Cabins are a bit cramped but have adequate storage space for travel cases, clothes and personal items.

The chef did an excellent job, and food was both plentiful and very tasty. While breakfasts were American style with dry cereal, eggs, bacon, sausage, toast, pancakes, banana crepes, and lots of fruit and juices, lunches and dinners were southeast Asian, built around rice or noodles with lots of fish and shrimp.  Toward the end of the trip the crew caught a tuna and we had sashimi.  Potable drinking water was plentiful as were such drinks as hot/cold tea, coffee, lemonade, etc.  Soft drinks and local beer were available at a nominal cost.

Common areas on the boat included: 1) a forward sundeck with a retractable shade cover; 2) a forward inside dining area that we never used; 3) an open aft dining area with quick-drop sides and a TV monitor with a DVD/CD player; 4) a dive deck with eleven diver and two divemaster stations with ample gear-storage space, a camera table (There was no E-6 film processing available.), a large FW camera rinse tank, two FW showers and a toilet.  Wet suits and skins were hung on racks along the sides of the boat. Halfway through the trip the PutriPapua replenished the freshwater used for washing, cleaning and showers from a stream on an uninhabited island.

For all but a half day we had clear blue sky and smooth water.  The rain showers revealed a liability of the boat layout.  All cabins and common areas are only connected to one another via outside passages, so when it rains one gets wet moving from one area to another.

While on a few occasions we entered the water via the aft dive platform, most entries and exits were from a large fiberglass-reinforced zodiak.  It had an attached, throw-down ladder for exits.  If a diver wished, the tank and BC could be brought in before exiting the water. There was ample crew to help us when necessary and to handle our gear and fill our tanks. There was no Nitrox availability.  On this charter there were only nine of us and one was a non diver, so the dive deck had plenty of space, and on a few occasions all eight of us plus two divemasters and a boat person could be transported in the zodiak at once.  While some live-aboards offer five dives a day, I found four to be entirely adequate. We had three dives during the daytime and managed to get in nine night dives on our trip.  On one of them we encountered small, four-inch long sea wasps.  They were a nuisance and aggressively swam toward our lights, but we all wore skins or light wetsuits. Several of us got minor zaps on the face, but nothing serious or long-lasting. The water temperature varied between 81-84˚ F.

The PutriPapua had only operated in Raja Ampat on several previous occasions, and our main
divemaster, Weke, had only been there twice before.  He thus did not have the familiarity with the area that one might expect.  He was able to point out pygmy sea horses and hard-to-see critters, but we found many of the critters on our own.  Given the unprecedented diversity in this area, that wasn’t hard for us to do.  For instance, we found two giant clams on this trip that had 5½-foot shells, but
Weke wasn’t aware that on one reef we dived there was one with a 6 2/3-foot shell.  This is the largest giant clam I have ever seen.  We saw it last year on the same reef, but missed it this time. 

This turned out to be a delightful adventure in spite of the grueling travel time to Sorong on the very northwestern edge of the island of New Guinea in the Papua Province of Indonesia.  On the way there we had a day layover in Manado, Sulawesi, and four of us did several dives in Bunaken, one of Indonesia’s Underwater National Parks.  Others participated in various local tours.  This non-stressful beginning to our trip helped with reducing our jet lag.  Layovers and side trips to various locations in Southeast Asia are relatively easy and inexpensive when flying Singapore Airlines.  On previous dive trips, I’ve spent multiple days touring Bali, Singapore, Bangkok, Nepal, Tibet, Hong Kong, Taipei and Tokyo.

I teach Marine Biology and Coral Reef Ecology at the university level and have been fortunate enough to dive on the world’s very best coral reefs including over 20 weeks in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea (PNG).  Raja Ampat is unsurpassed for coral reef diversity and will spoil a diver who hasn’t experienced the reefs in these two countries.  This area is just being discovered by the dive community.  One live-aboard catering to European divers, the Pindito, has operated in the area for at least a decade, and a couple of other live-aboards are moving into the area presently.  We en-countered the live-aboard Pelagian and less than a dozen other boats of any kind or size during our eleven-day trip. Our captain, Rahmat, must have steered clear of villages because we saw none and rarely encountered any sign of civilization among the hundreds of islands that make up Raja Ampat.

The reefs consisted of intact hard and soft corals along with storm-caused rubble and a minimal number of dynamited sites.  I saw no evidence of cyaniding.  I have encountered reefs in this part of the world before with a higher percent coverage of intact corals, but diverse seascapes breed greater critter diversity and mixed coral and rubble provide this.  Among the organisms that truly stood out on this trip were: 1) hard and soft corals (alcyonaceans); 2) world-class flatworms; 3) crustaceans including mostly shrimps and crabs; 4) mollusks including lots of world-class nudibranchs plus giant clams and cephalopods; 5) echinoderms including starfishes, sea cucumbers and feather stars;
6) tunicates (ascidians or sea squirts) of all kinds and; 7) fishes of all varieties with lots of wobbegong sharks, pipefishes and scorpion fishes including lionfishes. There was an abundance of
anemone/clownfish associations and cleaning stations, lots of sea snakes and beautiful, bountiful broccoli corals (alcyonaceans) that, in some locations, would surpass those anywhere in the world, including the best of Fiji.  My vote for the most striking fish in the ocean has changed several times in the last 20+ years of diving and went from the juvi pinnate batfish to the mandarinefish a number of years ago.  After this trip, the juvi batfish again gets my nod.  We saw five of them, and two were absolutely spectacular!  We saw a few mantas, sharks, tunas and large barracuda, etc.; but as we discovered last year, this isn’t an area with lots of large pelagics.

The liabilities of this area, as well as a lot of Indonesia, are the very strong currents and relatively low visibility. The almost constant tidal currents are a pain for the photographer and a nuisance for the ordinary diver, being too strong to relax in and “go with the flow.”  On this trip, visibility ranged from about 30-60 feet.

As an anecdotal finish, toward the end of our trip Skipper Rahmat and Divemaster Weke allowed us to deviate from our planned itinerary and go to Equator Island, where with our GPS units we determined exactly where the equator intersected a sheer rock wall on the east side.  We geared up and were dropped off in the northern hemisphere and drifted along the bottom of the wall at 50 feet below the equator into the southern hemisphere.  While everyone gave me a lot of flack about this request, they all enjoyed it, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this new dive site were added to the regular itinerary on subsequent trips!

Mel Cundiff, Boulder, Colorado
Cundiff@Colorado.EDU         6/28/05


Lembeh Resort, Bitung, Indonesia

May 23-29, 2004

For the eleven of us from Boulder, this was our first stay at the Lembeh Resort.  We traveled by way of Singapore and had a pleasant and educational land-based tour of the highlands area around Manado.

The resort has been operational for only about a year, and all parts of the facility are brand new.  The grounds, walkways, gardens and pool area were exquisitely groomed.  The cabins, all with a view of the Lembeh Straits, were spacious and fully equipped with all the amenities associated with any 5-star resort complex including AC, a stocked refrigerator, bottled water with a hot and cold dispenser and available tea and coffee, and full bathroom facilities including both an inside and outside shower.

A large two-story, vaulted-ceiling building housed offices, a gift shop, kitchen and lavatories on the ground floor and a spacious inside/outside dining area and bar on the upper floor.  Indonesian, Indian, Asian and American foods could be ordered off the menu with a wide selection of drinks (water, coffee and tea were included in the package).  Meals were plentiful and quite tasty, and on several occasions there were additional cafeteria-style foods that could be selected.  If one were so inclined, he or she could keep in contact with the outside world via phone and/or email.

A separate building housed the library with fish and critter ID books and a separate room
with an entertainment center with videos, DVDs and a large-screen monitor.

Jeremy Barnes, who managed Kungkungan Bay Resort when three of us were there in 1998 and who owns Safari Tours and Travel in Manado, is the manager/representative of Lembeh Resort.  He managed to import both expertise and personnel from across the Strait.

Bruce Moore is the manager of Murex Divers, the in-house dive operation which commands several of the permanent buildings and offers both new dive equipment and rental equipment to clients.  A spacious building provided ample individual bench space with electrical outlets for camera/strobe maintenance and individual dive gear storage.  No E-6 film processing was available.  A covered outside staging area near the boat ramp provided separate FW rinse tanks for camera equipment and scuba gear, individual storage areas to hang wetsuits and store dive gear, two outside showers and an area for dive briefings.  There were two nearby heads.

Three twin-outboard-equipped boats were modified with tank slots along the sides and used for the dive boats.  There were no heads on the boats, but few dive sites were more than 40 minutes away, and many were within 20 minutes.  There were no navigation lights on the boats for the night-dives.  Back roll entries were used, and over-the-side ladders were used
for exits after BCs and tanks were lifted up by the dive crew.  Over the course of a week’s diving, the average water temperature was 82.2F (27.9C) with average visibility at 34.4 feet (10.5 meters).

At the highest of tides, one could step from the boat to the dock, but this would not be an option for someone with a handicap.  And since all of the cabins were on the side of a steep hill, only accessed by many steps, this resort could not handle handicapped clientele.  Nitrox was available, but it was expensive – an extra $8 or $10 per tank, depending on how many one used.

The Lembeh Straits offers a special type of diving that can be appreciated only by an experienced coral reef diver.  It is “muck diving” at its finest with Milne Bay in Papua New Guinea coming in second.  Two young newlyweds who were doing their first ocean dives were there with us in 1998 and quickly got bored and departed before their week was up. They could not distinguish the “usual” from the “unusual” and did not realize that the fish and critters they were seeing had not been seen by very many divers anywhere. 

There were a very few intact and beautiful hard-coral reefs in the northern part of the Strait, but if that were preferred, the diver should be on the other side of the peninsula at Bunaken.  This is also not a location to see the large pelagics, but we saw a few sharks, turtles, Napoleon wrasses and humphead parrotfishes.

While general dive locations can easily be recognizable by cosmopolitan divers, specific dive sites/reefs are more obscure.  A few, such as Bloody Bay Wall, the Blue Corner, Pixie Pinnacle, Ras Muhammed, the Cod Hole and Palancar are familiar to many, and “Hair Ball” has recently joined the ranks.  Hair Ball and Police Pier in the Lembeh Straits house many subjects which have starred in picture books, dive magazine articles and videos.  I do not know whether it is fact or rumor, but I heard that Paul Humann was never interested in night diving until he was introduced to Hair Ball, and I have surely seen a lot of superb night-time critter shots he has described and written about from there.

These muck diving sites tend to be shallow with a black-sand substrate.  They are often littered with discarded human artifacts and fish parts, they generally have poor visibility, and they tend to have a disproportionately large number of really weird fishes and critters.   In fact, naïve divers may not be able to tell whether they are seeing an ornate bottom-dwelling fish or a decorator crustacean.  Some of these organisms have relatively wide tropical distribution, but many are endemic to a rather small number of dive sites.  The “ooh-,“ “aah-“ and “wow-” factor entices divers to return and mix these muck dives with those of typical coral reefs and/or wrecks.

Following are some of the fishes and critters we saw on one of our two dive trips there:  lots of species of frogfishes including the hairy frogfish; lots of species of pipefishes and several species of ornate pipefishes and seahorses including the pygmy seahorses; several species of flounders including the cockatoo flounder; several species of scorpion fishes and lionfishes; several species of leaf scorpionfishes and waspfishes including cockatoo waspfishes; spiny devilfishes (Inimicus); Japanese flatheads; reticulate stargazers; longhorn cowfishes; Pegasus sea moths; lots of porcupine puffers and gurnards; both adult and juvenile examples of barramundi, spotted sweetlips and pinnate batfishes (spadefishes); Banggai cardinalfishes; several species of morays and snake eels; several species of octopuses including the mimic octopus, wunderpus and another, yet unidentified
bottom-dwelling cryptic octopus, with similar behavior; several species of squids and cuttlefishes including lots of flamboyant cuttlefishes; bobbit worms; and lots of species of urchins and sea cucumbers including the very active burrowing sea cucumber (Neothyonidium).

We saw a 22 inch (56 cm) long cuttlefish on one dive and hatching ping-pong-sized cuttlefish eggs on another.  I have only seen a cuttlefish this large on one other occasion in southern Sulawesi.  There was the white phase of a giant frogfish 18 inches (46 cm) long which equaled one I saw in Truck Lagoon a dozen or so years ago, and there was a large anemone which was overpopulated with several species of anemonefish plastered into and against its tentacles.  Prior to this, I have only seen at most two symbiotic fish species associated with an anemone.  In an area the size of a couple of large American living rooms, we found all three color phases (genders) of the blue ribbon eels.  I had only witnessed this before south of Manado.

We found a Sargasso frogfish in the floating algae between the boats at the dock and that was the beginning of the house reef.  It was staked out with bamboo as a self-guided “trail”
in front of the resort with interesting critters appropriately marked on the map in the briefing area.  Being above 40 feet (12 meters), it was affected by wave action, and agitated silt kept the visibility relatively low.  It contained muck and rubble in the shallower parts and coral and rubble in the deeper parts and an abundance of interesting species to observe, not the least of which was the largest Mandarinfish population I have ever observed.  On my first dusk dive in the staghorn rubble five minutes from the boat dock, I surely saw 30-50 of them, and a bit later they performed their mating ritual of swimming upward, belly-to-belly, shooting eggs and sperm.  Since all my Mandarinfish dives prior to this had been at dusk, I assumed this was the only time they “came out.”  But we saw fewer numbers of them deeper in the staghorns on subsequent afternoon dives.  Since they have my vote for being the world’s most beautiful/colorful fish, I had no complaints.

All aspects of our stay at the Lembeh Resort were enjoyable, and I would not hesitate to return.  The Lembeh Straits is the “weirdo” capital of the diving world!  While we were in the vicinity, we did a second week of diving at the Kri Eco Resort in the Raja Ampat of Papua Province.

Mel Cundiff, Boulder, Colorado 



Dive Trip to the Phillipines


Last month, nine of us spent ten days diving in the central Philippines.  We luckily avoided any terrorist incidents and escaped without contracting SARS.  We wore our medical masks on the Asian flights and in the Asian airports, though.  We were disappointed in having, at the last minute, to cancel an 11-day add-on side trip to Beijing and Shanghai but, considering the circumstances, that surely was a wise move.
 The Philippines, along with Indonesia and Papua New Guinea (PNG), define the corners of what is referred to as the “Coral Triangle.”  Within this area the reefs are around 50 million years old and among the oldest and most diverse in the world.  Compare this with the 11 thousand-year old reefs in the Caribbean.  Within this tropical western Pacific triangle, the reefs of the Philippines are generally in the worst shape because of the extensive fishing pressures and the illegal dynamiting and cyaniding which takes place.
 While there was extensive fishing taking place around our resort and the island of Malapascua, there was limited use of dynamite and cyanide.  That is one of the primary reasons we chose this location.  As far as species diversity is concerned, three of the dive sites we visited were truly world class, comparing favorably with the best we have seen anywhere in the world.  But on average, the reefs in Indonesia and PNG are in better shape.  There were not enough diveable sites near the resort, and some of the sites we dived three or more times each.  My guess is that the resort was avoiding reefs whose health was heavily compromised by destructive fishing practices.  As a result of the heavy fishing, we encountered significantly fewer fish, turtles, crabs and lobsters than we are used to seeing.  We saw a single hawksbill turtle during the whole time we were there. 
 Seven of us got to see the elusive thresher shark, which on one of the reefs frequented the top of a wall at about 70 feet.  The visibility here was only about 40 feet, the current generally strong and the probability of seeing the 12-15 foot tail-enhanced threshers only about one in four dives.  A boat left the resort at 6 a.m. each morning for this site.
 The resort’s house reef was about a quarter mile off shore on a sand flat at 40 feet.  It was almost totally artificial, with a small bus, a Land Rover, lots of tires and miscellaneous debris planted around in various locations.  Each point of interest was marked with a buoy on the surface to dissuade local fishers from invading an area, which probably amounted to several acres in size.  While it had outward appearances of an encrusted junkyard, it did have a significantly larger concentration of fish and critters, and we used it on a couple of night dives.  One could predictably see a large stonefish, several frogfish, lots of lionfish, razor/shrimp fish, several species of pipefish, octopuses, cuttlefishes (including the flamboyant cuttlefish), squid, a foot-long helmet shell (the largest I have ever seen), and world-class serpent/brittle stars with 3 ½ inch diameter discs and 18-inch arms, etc.
 Besides more species of pipefishes (including the ornate ghost pipefish, the robust ghost pipefish and one that looks like it is decorated, the ornate pipefish, a larger variety and number of frogfishes than I have seen anywhere, and three species of, and large schools of, striped marine catfish.  The Philippines has to be the nudibranch capital of the world.  While on a few occasions in Indonesia and PNG I have seen as many as 20 nudibranchs on a single dive, here I saw 20 on many dives, and on one, along a 200-foot section of a wall, Paul (one of the divemasters) and I found an estimated 50 nudibranchs.  While a number of these were duplicates of the more common species, most were different and truly world-class in terms of their beautiful colors and unique shapes.  We saw a half-dozen Spanish dancers on the trip as well as numerous pleurobranchs and sea hares.  Among all the nudies was a large variety of colorful flatworms.
 One dive site had lots of the largest, though least colorful, mandarin fish that I have seen. 
They ranged in size from two to four inches and, unlike their typical behavior, they came completely out of the coral at dusk.  The males and females rose in the water belly-to-belly shooting their gametes during their mating ritual.  There were lots of scorpionfishes, a few species of seahorses and a few pygmy seahorses.  We saw nurse, blacktips, whitetips and bamboo sharks, besides the threshers, and a squadron of pygmy mantas was seen on one of the dives.  Except for an occasional school of tunas and jacks, there were few of the larger pelagic species around.  We saw a half-dozen banded sea snakes, a ten-inch long fast-moving tun-shell snail with a bright red mantle and foot that dominated a night dive (it was possibly a Melo snail) and a rare world-class jellyfish that was 3 ½ feet in diameter.  There were burrowing sea cucumbers, flower and fire urchins, large basket stars (3 ½ feet in diameter), black and lumpy lamellarid snails (velutinids with their internal shells), mucus filter-netting worm snails and a few giant clams (Tridacna).
One of the most recognizable distinctions of all the dives in this area was the abundance of long-spined needle urchins everywhere – hundreds of them on a dive.  Needless to say, buoyancy control was of primary concern.  The water temperatures were between 80-84º F.
 Our dive boats were modified outrigger fishing boats that were spacious and relatively comfortable except for our exiting the water when the seas were rough.  They contained a head and resting areas both in the sun and in the shade.  We had a large lunch menu to choose from for times when we would be on the boat.
 After our last dive of the day our gear was brought to the dive shop for cleaning and hanging in a secure location until the next morning.  Our packages included 3 dives a day and we paid $20 per extra dive.  Nitrox was available at $5 US per tank.  There was no E-6 film processing.
 Accommodations were excellent with air conditioning in two classes of rooms and a ceiling fan in the third.  All rooms were clean and comfortable and had their own private facilities.  The ceiling fan turned out to be quite adequate for temperature control.  The deluxe rooms contained a stocked bar, food shelf, refrigerator and cable TV.  The snacks and drinks, for once, were the same price as in the restaurant – very reasonable.  The TV was not of use, because we were diving all the time.
At lunchtime, the open-air restaurant was infiltrated with flies!!  Luckily, we mostly ate on the dive boat.  Restaurant help would walk around with large feathery wands to shoo them away, but this was ineffective, and some people chose to eat in their rooms.  Somehow the flies disappeared at breakfasts and dinners.  The humidity on the island was relatively low and except for the noontime flies, there was no insect problem as one often encounters in the tropics.  We were just ahead of the monsoon season, and encountered almost no rain during our whole stay there.  CDC does not recommend malaria prophylaxis for the area, and I saw no mosquitoes.
The food was excellent and we had a quite large menu to select from.  Most were Asian dishes with lots of chicken, pork, fish and shrimp.  The beef that was available hadn’t been fed corn in Kansas and wasn’t a highly selected item on the menu.  A number of delicious deserts were available such as banana splits.  Except for our drinks and specialty snack items, we had all our meals included with our room in our package cost which was as low as $1670 per person for the ten days at the resort.  Remember, this package also included 3 dives a day, one night in Manila and our total round-trip transportation from Denver!  Wasn’t our ten days in the tropical Pacific a better deal than a week in the Caribbean?  We could even get an hour-long massage at the end of the day for only $4 US!
While there were a few modern vacation homes, the island had no roads and no visible motorized land vehicles.  It was an hour by fast boat to the nearest major island.  Out the back gate of our resort, one stepped into the past by entering the native village of Tawigan, the second largest of eight villages on the 1x3 mile island.  There were an estimated 2000+ people there, mostly below 20 years old.  They drank brackish water, which they pulled up from various wells.  All our water at the resort for drinking was bottled; we used this same brackish well water for showers and to clean our gear.  The native huts of thatched roofs and thatched walls stood about a foot off the ground and were no more than 12 x15 feet in size.  They had no electricity or running water and probably slept many children each.  There were lots of young children around, anxious to be photographed.  Most of their food came from the sea and a few crop plants such as copra.  There were a few tethered pigs in the village and lots of free-ranging chickens.  Many of the roosters were tethered and a major form of entertainment was cockfighting.  None of us witnessed it.  By their crowing, the roosters made sure we didn’t oversleep in the mornings.  In the middle of this village was a basketball court with a concrete floor, and an ongoing scrimmage was always taking place.
Considering that it took me a couple of decades to get to the Philippines because of the known destruction Filipino people have inflicted on their reefs, I am glad I made the trip.  This area deserves to be a part of the “Coral Triangle.”  Our resort can be reached at
Mel   6/20/03 

The M.V. Pelagian and Wakatobi Resort

The M.V. Pelagian and Wakatobi Resort
A Marriage Made in Heaven

For the last 22 years I have been diving on coral reefs all over the world and teaching Coral Reef Ecology at the University of Colorado.  In my opinion the very best coral reefs are in Indonesia with Papua New Guinea coming in second.  This is coming from spending about 23 weeks diving in these two countries.  My judgment is being made on the diversity of the critters that frequent these reefs.  By the way, the Caribbean reefs are about 11,000 years old while the Indonesian reefs are more than 20 million years old.  There is a lot of difference in the complexity of the reefs in these two geographical regions.  In my reef sojourns, I have been on over 20 different live-aboard boats -- the M.V. Pelagian being my favorite so far, having been on it in June of 2006 in the greater Wakatobi area and earlier in the Red Sea in 1992 while it was operating under the name of The Fantasea II.  Being a 115-ft. deep-hull boat that houses 12 divers and 11 crew members, it is most luxurious with large state rooms, spacious common areas and a staff catering to first-class comforts.  Some divers might roll their eyes at a cabin with a king-size bed and walk-in closet!  There was ample food and exquisitely presented meals. Entrees and major side-dish choices were individually selected each morning and served at sit-down meals that could be eaten either inside or outside.  Ice tea, orange drink, water, canned soft drinks, hot teas, coffee and espresso were always available at no charge.  Beers and hard liquor drinks were taken on the honor system at an extra charge.
 A generous collection of appropriate reef identification books was in the library.  The boat had an up-to-date entertainment center with a wide plasma screen in the lounge and a large camera room with both 110 and 220 volt sockets. 
 But none of these qualities speak to the diving which operated out of twin zodiacs off the port and starboard sides, accommodating six divers each.  Except for mask, fins, and cameras, all equipment remained on the zodiacs, and the tanks were even refilled there between dives. In changing dive sites, the zodiacs were simply hoisted out of the water with all the dive equipment aboard.  Following a fresh-water shower after a dive (there were seven such showers on deck), we each got a large personal bath towel hot and fresh from the dryer, and creative, hot snacks were often available on the aft deck.
  The two European dive masters, Marco and Sissi, were competent, experienced, knowledgeable of the dive sites, and fluent in English.  Marco’s artistry was evident in his eloquent reef drawings at the dive briefings.  A couple of the first and last dives were close to the Wakatobi Resort, but all the rest were farther out and mostly toward the large island of Sulawesi.  Given the diversity of organisms found in this area, it would not be fruitful to name them; but, alas, I did not find the blue-ringed octopus, my number one “Wish List” critter for the last 10 years.  This area is not known for the big pelagics, but it maxes out with the diversity of molluscs, fishes, arthropods, echinoderms and many other critters -- this, in part, due to an agreement between the local villagers and the resort owners brokered over a half dozen years ago, eliminating fishing in and around the Wakatobi dive sites.  Because of the protected reefs around the Resort, Wakatobi is arguably one of the very best land-based dive resorts for viewing some of the world’s most diverse and healthy coral reefs; for sure, it has the world’s best house reef.  As our dive sites moved farther away from the resort, the diversity of fishes and other critters dropped a little, but what can one say?  We had strong, rough seas only once for a few hours, the currents were mild and very manageable, and our average visibility was about 40-60 feet.  Our overall diving experience was fantastic!
  My only significant criticism was that we got to do only two night dives.  Never would a night dive have interfered with our SOP since the Pelagian did not begin a major move to another dive site until after midnight.  All 12 divers preferred night dives over dusk dives, but the crew outvoted us.  Somehow, we thought that was wrong.  Maybe the management ought to tune in to this?
 The Pelagian, purchased by Wakatobi this past year, operates a half year in the Greater Wakatobi area and a half year in the area around Komodo, an area in Indonesia considered by some to have the best coral reefs.  I was there on another live-aboard in 1996, and some of the dive sites around there are still at the top of my “Best Dives” list. Taking the best live-aboard dive boat – the M.V. Pelagian -- and operating it on the best of the coral reefs – Indonesia -- has to be a marriage made in heaven!  Try it; you will like it!  It easily offsets the extended travel time it takes to get to that part of the world.  On the way over, we spent three days touring and enjoying Bali.

Mel Cundiff, Boulder, CO   Cundiff@colorado.EDU     7/19/06

Wakatobi Resort - the best coral reefs anywhere


Others before me have described it so much more eloquently:  “This is the epicenter of biodiversity in the world – it doesn’t get any better than this” (John Q. Trigger, Editor, Undercurrent Magazine. 10/97); “It’s not the end of the world, but it is close enough that you can see it from there”  (Some clever person whose name I can’t find).  I heard excellent reports about Wakatobi from its very beginnings a half dozen years ago but wasn’t willing to pay the price of an additional 36 hours out of Bali to get there.  With the new airfield, a charter flight from Bali is only 3 hours away, making this a must destination for those discriminating divers wanting to see the most unsurpassed and healthiest coral reefs anywhere in the world.
 Teaching courses on and having done  research on coral reefs, I’ve been fortunate in being able to dive on the world’s major reefs and have generally found the best to be in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.  I have spent six weeks diving in each of these  countries.  Lorenz Mader’s foresight and vision in discovering the isolated reefs of Wakatobi and the support of his wife Renee and now others to protect them from exploitation by fishers is to be commended.  This is the only dive operation within hundreds of miles, and its relative small size will hopefully help sustain these beautiful reefs well into the future. Wakatobi is a hundred miles off the southeast coast of Sulawese on a small island among others that have few native inhabitants.  Lorenz, the local natives and their chief are environmentally sensitive and are doing a great job in maintaining the reefs as a protected underwater preserve. 
 The resort will accommodate 22 guests in four bungalows and a longhouse.  The former have in-house showers and toilet facilities, but these are shared in the longhouse.  While accommodations are not five-star, they are quite adequate, comfortable and clean.  The longhouse tends to be the center of activities in that it houses in addition to guest rooms the kitchen, dining room, lounge/bar/salon, camera room, repair shop and dive-equipment/storage area.  To date, they have no in-house E-6 film processing.  Our group took malaria prophylaxes, but I only encountered a single mosquito during my 11-day stay and chose not to use the provided mosquito netting for sleeping.  Ceiling fans were totally adequate for ventilation.
 Three dive boats took small groups on 5-40 minute excursions each morning to two different dive sites  --  most sites were only 10-20 minutes away.  Boats were also available for a 3 p.m. dive and for night dives;  however, many of these dives were done on the several-hundred meter house reef immediately in front of the resort.  This is a world-class reef, easily as diverse and pristine as any others in the area and can reveal new species for the diver on almost any dive.  It is unquestionably one of the best house reefs found anywhere in the world.
 It is unusual for an area like this, relatively isolated from large landmasses, to have 3-meter tides, but these strong tidal flows are precisely what are sustaining the high density and large varieties of corals and critters.  These strong currents are not recommended for novice divers, but I had four students with me having logged only 15 dives each, and they did a superb job of handling all the dive conditions.  Safety sausages  were standard equipment, but our boat captains were always close at hand when we surfaced, and the sausages were not needed.
 The food was prepared family style by a Swedish chef, and divers with special dietary needs were accommodated.  A popular item at every dinner was an ample supply of sushi and/or sashimi appetizers.  Lorenz, being Swiss, has employed a mostly-European, multi-lingual staff, and they are all friendly, competent and knowledgeable of the reefs and aware of the locations of the special critters.  Understandably, there have been few American clients there since September, 2001. 
 This is not a destination to see the big pelagics.  We saw four eagle rays, lots of hawksbill and green turtles, schools of hump head parrotfish, some quite large barracuda and not much more, but one will be rewarded by experiencing some of the most diverse, undisturbed coral reefs found anywhere.  There are areas with a wide mixture of hard corals, leather corals, gorgonians and broccoli corals on the same reef which is almost devoid of rubble areas.  Disturbances and rubble fields are found around 10-15 meters and lower.  Ecologically, disturbance breeds diversity, and the diversity is certainly evident.  There is not the high density of weirdo critters one can find on a muck dive in the Lembeh Straits 500 miles to the north, but there were easily several dozen endemic species that I got to see for the first time.
 It was pleasant not to witness the presence of dynamiting and cyaniding that I have seen on so many Indonesian reefs.  Only two of the reefs at Wakatobi showed any evidence of this and one had only a few dynamite blasts and the other a few more.  I saw no evidence of coral bleaching.  The reefs in the shallower, sun-lit waters above 10 meters exhibit an extraordinary high percentage of cover by living material.  Non-living bare spots on the tops of the reefs
 may have accounted for less than 10% of the total area. 
Wakatobi is not the easiest destination to reach, but its coral reefs are nothing less than fabulous, and it is a safe destination – this means a lot to cautious travelers today.   In these times of terrorist concerns, Bali is still a safe tourist destination -- and so is Wakatobi because of its remoteness.  Check it out at and coerce your dive-travel agent to book a trip there for you!  By the way, I’m not on a commission – this is an unsolicited endorsement of a first-class dive destination !

Mel Cundiff,  Boulder, Colorado  6/13/02

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