Diving at Manado – Bunaken vs Lembeh

Without a doubt, Manado is a famous dive destination. When we first planned to go to there for diving, we only thought about diving at Bunaken island – clear blue waters with visibility that go on miles and miles, great marine life diversity.. we didn’t even know about the great wall dives! But after more research, we also found out about another dive area called Lembeh Straits, which is famous for muck diving. We didn’t even know much about it, except to guess that it would be quite some murky dives and couldn’t really imagine how that would be fun. However, since the dive community has raved about Lembeh as a muck dive / night dive destination, we decided to check it out ourselves. And I must say, I’m pretty impressed!

This is a post comparing the two dive areas. To read more about my trip to Manado, check out my other post here. Here’s the low-down on the differences between the two areas.

1. Locations & accessibility

Bunaken is an island, off the coast of Manado City. To get there, you catch a short cab ride from Manado airport to the jetty, and then a 40min boat ride to your resort. Quite simple.

Lembeh Strait, on the other hand, is located at Bitung, on the other side of the peninsula. You have to take a cab to Bitung port, about 1.5 hour’s ride, and then a short boat ride navigating past the many bigger vessels parked at the port.

2. Dive sites (Terrain, Visibility and Type of Dives) 

Bunaken – As mentioned, Bunaken is famous for its wall dives. The dive sites are often considered some of the best in Indonesia, with some of the highest levels of biodiversity in the world. Indeed, almost every single dive is a wall dive, with walls plunging down to 30-40m, and some even deeper and darker. Your DM will tell you to just swim along the wall, where you can check out different things at your own pace. The visibility is generally very good, about 25-30m, allowing you to spot the silhouette of anything big swimming by. The sites are good for both OW and advanced divers – you see a lot of marine life even at just 15m. We had a mix of divers in our group and the OW are usually just swimming a few metres above us. When somebody in the group runs low on air, the DM puts up a SMB and the diver can do his safety stop with an Asst DM before surfacing. No disruptions to the group.

You can also do drift dives at Bunaken, a good way to enjoy the walls, though sometimes the current can be a bit too fast for you to stop and scrutinize anything too small. We also did the night dive and dawn dive, and I must say we saw a lot of things on both dives. It’s the first time I did a dawn dive and it was very good – we saw a lot of the turtles waking up and starting to go out for food… so many that we lost count!

Diving along the walls of Bunaken

Lembeh Straits – As mentioned, Lembeh is famous for muck dives. According to http://www.underwaterasia.info, muck diving involves diving on sandy slopes or amongst rubble and sporadic coral reefs looking for rare, unusual and sometimes downright bizarre critters. Indeed, it is on the other end of the spectrum from what we experienced in Bunaken. In Lembeh Straits, the dive sites are shallower at about 15-20m, and visibility at about 5-10m. Most of the time, the bottom is a flat sea bed of muddy/gravelly sediment. You would have to be very careful about not kicking up sand, hence worsening the poor visibility. Most of us had a pointer which we’d bury into the sand to stabilise ourselves when observing the marine life we found on the sea bed. Lembeh is also famous for the night dives where you can expect more critters and more surprises! However, I also found Lembeh to be colder than Bunaken (not sure if it was because of the rain..?).

Pretty much what you can expect to see at first glance in the Lembeh dive sites.
What we are doing most of the time…

3. Biodiversity

I like to put it this way.. “In Bunaken, you see everything, but you remember nothing. In Lembeh, you see nothing, but you remember everything.” 

Bunaken – In Bunaken, everywhere is teeming with marine life, from the moment you enter the water, to your safety stop, you are gawking at everything you see. When you surface, there’s so much you saw that you can’t really remember what exactly you’d seen. As these are wall dives, you will be swimming along the walls. On one side it’d be the deep blue, where you can keep a look out for the bigger fish – sharks, rays, tunas, turtles, and sometimes even schools of squids, which we chanced upon a couple times! On the walls, there is everything – every single inch of the wall is occupied with some colourful marine life – the beautiful corals (fan, tube, feather coral), macros (all sorts of nudibranches, shrimps, the tiny orang utan crab), fish (gobies, butterflyfish, scorpionfish, lionfish, just to name a few) and even some really strange stuff like the electric fireclam. Our experienced DM even managed to find the pontoli seahorse and the blue-ring octopus! There’s so much to see you don’t know where to look!

Lembeh Straits – At first glance, you will only see the dull greyish-brown sea bed and you may be disappointed. There’s nothing! Not even a fish or coral. Most of the time, we would swim in a straight line, navigating the sea bed in a zig-zag fashion. However, keep your eyes peeled and you’ll see some of the strangest and most curious things! For example, a crab carrying an urchin and walking along, a huge flounder buried in the sand, a hairy frogfish hanging on to a small branch, a waspfish that looks like a piece of leaf, or a Blue Dragon nudi that looks like a centipede! Most of the things we saw at Lembeh, I’ve never seen elsewhere – a lot of unique critters and nudis!

My favourite dive site has to be Polis Pier because the dive site is essentially like the junkyard behind a coastal village. You see bottles, tyres, clothes, and also lots of marine life hiding out in this “garbage site”! This is also the site where I saw mandarin fish, much bigger than the ones I saw on our Bunaken mandarin fish dive! It was quite amazing.

At both sites you can also do the Mandarin Fish Dive, to look for the elusive and beautiful mandarin fish, considered to be one of the most colorful fish in the world. However, they are really small (max 6cm) and shy (always hiding in the reefs), hence, hard to spot. The Mandarin Fish dive will take you to the site where the fish are located and you’d ‘camp’ in position on the sea bed and observe them. We practically laid down on our belly on the sand bed, propped our chins on our hands and waited.. and waited.. until the fish start poking their heads out of their hiding spots, darting in and out of the reefs to look for food or to mate. It was actually quite fun to spot these colourful fish going about!

Spot the elusive mandarin fish amongst the coral!

*** ***

If you ask me, I won’t be able to say which dive area I liked more, because they are so vastly different. But I’d say Lembeh was a novel experience – I like the “treasure hunt” element of the dives, and the strange and curious marine-life we saw. It also definitely taught me never to judge a place by its looks, because it can be hiding so many beautiful secrets – you just have to open your eyes and see.

(Photos courtesy of E. Chong.)


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