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Experiencing Muck Diving in North Sulawesi

In October 2008, the airplane landed on Manado airstrip and within 2 hours I had checked into a spacious hillside cottage at the Kungkungan Bay Dive Resort. After unpacking and assembling my cameras, I sat on the balcony looking out at the water reflecting a stunning bright blue sky. With a wave of exhilaration it finally dawned on me – I had finally made it to North Sulawesi!

Kungkungan is a small eco-dive resort positioned deep in the heart of what is considered the planet’s epicentre for marine bio diversity.  It is perfectly located in the Lembeh Straits and gives access to dives sites where you would struggle to find a higher concentration of marine life anywhere else on the planet.  The resort is romantically nestled on the site of an old coconut plantation and is made up of thirteen beachfront cottage/villa style accommodations all constructed from local materials.  The resort comes complete with a underwater photographer friendly dive centre, a swimming pool, which can be used for training, a spa and of course, a restaurant with a bar.

The next day I was feeling a little anxious with that ‘first day at school feeling’, not knowing what to expect.  No sooner had I met with the dive centre manager, I was made to feel right at home with a very friendly welcome to KBR dive centre. For 20 minutes we went through all of the aspects of diver safety, what to do with your equipment at the end of the day, where you can maintain your cameras and how to reserve a spot for the next dive. Prior to the briefing I had placed my dive kit in a mesh bag and my cameras into one of the camera rinse bays, with everything carefully name-tagged.  I was told to leave them and not worry.

Before I knew it, I was heading down the jetty towards the boats for my first dive.  When I reached the boat I found my equipment was already assembled and that my cameras were carefully secured amongst the others ready for departure, now that’s what I call service!  After a quick confirmation and check of everyone’s dive equipment, we set off for our first dive of the day.

Within 5 very short minutes we pulled up to our dive site. Very quickly I was in the water being handed my cameras.  My dive buddy and I had already been paired up with ‘Liberty’ (our own KBR dive guide).  As we descended we both followed him down a dark volcanic sandy slope.   The first thing that hit me was how civilised the diving was, although there were ten divers of all experience levels on the boat, everyone was split up into small groups, each with their own dive guide to take care of them.

The volcanic sandy slope was broken up by sporadic coral pinnacles teaming with life and as we descended the density of coral increased.  It didn’t take long for Liberty to find something of interest to point out.  The parade of marine life started with a pair of Pygmy Seahorses, an Ambon Scorpion Fish, a Mantis Shrimp, which are all macro icons I had longed to photograph for many years.  All the time we were diving, shoals of darting Shrimpfish and tumbling Striped Catfish moved from one pinnacle to another, all this on just my first dive!  Back on the boat, I was literally in shock, I had just spent 55 minutes looking at more species of marine life than I had ever dreamt of and probably seen in my last year of diving.  Within 10 minutes we were back on shore and I had signed up for the second dive of the day.  Whilst sitting in the swimming pool carrying out my surface interval and drinking a cold Sprite, I admired the amazing scenery and felt elated, excited and immensely pleased with myself!

15 metres down I come face to face with my first Mimic Octopus.  It’s only the second dive of my first day of diving and I have encountered what is considered to be the most elusive and magical of the cephalopod family.  By now my diving feels more comfortable and so my buddy, dive guide and I place a little more distance between each other and started to work the dive site like a team of crime scene detectives.  One of the highlights of this dive was when Liberty pointed out a tiny 2cm nudibranch (Risbecia tryoni) with an even smaller Imperator Commensal Shrimp hitching a ride on its back.  This is incredible I thought to myself, life is everywhere, an underwater photographers dream.

After lunch, I found the usual suspects from the morning dives all eagerly waiting for the dive guides to perform the site brief.  We were told with great detail what to expect from the next dive and that we were specifically looking for the Paddle Flap Scorpion Fish.  Descending 18 metres onto this site, it was immediately apparent this was a totally different environment to the previous two sites.  As I looked down hovering 5 metres over the bottom I could see a vast meadow of pulse corals that seemed to go on forever.  Liberty signalled, gesturing that we would all have to keep our eyes open and as I started to scan the bottom I began to have doubts that we would find anything at all.  After searching for what seemed like eternity, we managed to find the Paddle Flap Scorpionfish.  It was only with Liberty’s knowledge of the dive site environment were we able to witness this weird but wonderful fish.   For the next 10 minutes we continued to scan the pulse corals for marine life and as they started to break up into patches we found the density of life returned with frogfish, octopus, cuttlefish and seahorses.  Whilst completing my 3 minute safety stop at 5 metres I found myself dazing into a fernlike coral that was swaying in the current when something moved.  Looking closer I was amazed to see a male and female Ornate Ghost Pipefish picking out the microscopic plankton that floated past them.  A great end to another great dive.

Back at the dive centre I am asked if I want to do an evening dive. The promise of a guaranteed Mandarin fish mating ritual, plus many other critters that appear once the sun has gone down, was just too hard to resist.  4 hours later I found myself and two other divers settling down on a bed of dead coral rubble at 8 metres just around the corner of the resort.  The instruction for this dive was to not switch on our lights until the last minute and acclimatise our eyes as dusk slowly began.  Looking down onto the dead coral rubble I had no idea what to expect when suddenly my eyes suddenly spotted movement in several places within the rubble pile.  Looking closer I could see 20 plus Mandarin fish scurrying around the rubble.  Moments later they were pairing up getting ready to do their first of two vertical swims above the rubble pile.  Just before the area in front of me became filled with darkness, the male and females swam up 1 metre above the rubble where they mated for 4 seconds before returning to the security of their home.  It was amazing to witness these beautifully decorated fish performing their breeding ritual.  Before I knew it, it was all over and with our dive lights now on, we ventured further into the darkness for the rest of our dive.  As our dive lights swept across the slopes of the dive site, we spotted critters everywhere, Stargazers, Devilfish as well as a selection of different crustaceans.  Back on the boat I am handed a warm cup of cocoa and as I look into the cloudless sky, the moon and the stars look incredibly surreal.  Racing back to the resort, with the warm air on my face and the boat skimming through the darkness on pond-like water, I feel like a navy seal returning from a VIP mission.  As I leave the boat I am told to just wash my wetsuit and everything else will be taken care of ready for the next morning.

That evening, like every evening that followed, I fell into a regime of checking the day’s photographs, followed by a beer or two over dinner and then a most comfortable bed.  Six days later and with many dives under my belt, I am woken by the early morning sunrise shining through my window; it is time to get ready for my last dive at KBR.

The last dive produced more mimic octopus, a female Wunderpus guarding her clutch of eggs and a special sighting with a pair of shrimps (Periclimenes colemani) hitching a ride on a fire urchin, simply amazing.

After saying a sad farewell to my buddy and the dive team I am told that my transfer is waiting.  Stepping outside the main reception area, I was shocked to find all of the staff from KBR, waiting to send me off.  Some with musical instruments, they all sang a lovely parting song, wishing me farewell but to come back soon.  Sitting quietly in the car travelling to the other side of the island, I reflect on the whole experience.  KBR is such a very special place, not just due to the amazing and diverse marine life but because KBR is run by people who not only go out of their way to understand the needs of their guests, but do so with an overwhelming generosity.

In my opinion KBR is an ideal destination for all divers of all levels of experience, but is especially good for photographers (still & motion).  During my time at KBR I found that novices and advanced photographers were all made to feel welcome and the facilities and security for equipment was extremely good.

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