Manado in Indonesia offers a writhing, colourful mass of marine life-forms, while Lembeh Strait is a living treat for students of underwater curiosities. John Bantin saw many wonders while staying in the area, but only after his eyes had adjusted to the scale of this underwater Lilliput

I NEATLY FLIPPED OVER the front of the boat, executing a perfect somersault as I went. The water was refreshing, though not too cold. I reflected that had I been diving I would have been seen as a show-off. Alas, we were white-water rafting, and I looked rather foolish. It was not my fault. I had pointed out that to sit with Jim, a man of not inconsequential build, at the very forward point of the rubber raft, counter-balanced by three slightly built Indonesians and Jims missus Cary behind us, was asking for trouble.
     The first time we had to duck under vines as the raft dropped over some falls, I found myself hanging over the front, unable to maintain the foot-grip on the raft that would enable me to stay in it. I was no wetter than the others, however. The tropical deluge in the rainforest had seen to that.
     Point proven, and with a new seating arrangement, the remainder of the journey amounted to nothing more taxing than you would encounter on a day at Alton Towers. It was a relaxing break from diving. There was a chance to see yaki monkeys and hornbills in the Minahasa forest. Exotic butterflies fluttered. Kingfishers posed on branches above us as we passed along the Nimanga river. It was great to get away from the thronging masses that noisily inhabit Indonesia, one of the most populated nations on Earth.
     We had combined this trip with a visit to a raucous inland market, where some of the meat on display would have proved stomach-churning to unsuspecting viewers back in Britain had I photographed it. Finally, we visited a fishing village on stilts, where all the kids were fascinated to see foreigners, even if they shyly declined to touch my yellow hair.
     We made a trip out in a local fishing skiff as the light was fading, in the hope of glimpsing a few dugongs, saltwater relatives of manatees and the creature that gave rise to the myth of the mermaid.
     Those 16th century sailors had spent far too long at sea by the time they reached these Spice Islands of the East Indies.
     Jim and Cary Yanny have set up Eco Divers at the Tasik Ria Resort, about 10 miles outside Manado in North Sulawesi. They are keen to promote the eco-tourism of the region in all its aspects, but their main business is diving.
     Jim was a founder of Emperor Divers in Egypt and Cary worked with the Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Association (HEPCA).
     So its no surprise that their dive boat is reminiscent of an Egyptian dayboat, even if it is made of glass-reinforced plastics and probably better engineered. Shipboard procedures are similar to those used in Egypt, too.
     A short swim from the jetty, and an even shorter boat ride for those with enough front to insist on getting a lift, lies the home reef. This inauspicious-looking area might not enjoy the clearest water but it can offer a lot of pleasant surprises.
     It is usually held back in reserve as a night-dive for those still determined and enthusiastic enough to do one after a long day out. Pygmy sea-horses, mantis shrimp, frogfish and the wasp scorpion leaf-fish that lie about looking like, well, leaves, await the macro photographers attention.
     Those with less myopic vision can be content to see the reef light up in vibrant colour as underwater lights are played upon its varied occupants.
     You might be lucky and see a giant brown-and-white-striped sea-snake. Its an animal that is unperturbed by the presence of divers or their lights. And why should it be perturbed Its one of the most venomous creatures on this planet.
     The regular diving is done around Bunaken National Marine Park, where Bunaken is the major island among a tiny cluster of others.
     Everyone needs to purchase an entrance tag (around£5.50, and valid for a year) to be fastened to your BC before entering this area. The money is intended to help abolish destructive fishing techniques, control the disposal of non-biodegradable rubbish and educate the locals about marine conservation and its benefits to fishing areas elsewhere. Divers are not allowed to wear gloves, nor touch the reef or wildlife, and rangers enforce the rules.
     The diving is initially disappointing. The reef below 5m seems colourless and not very pretty. There are few fish cruising out in the blue. But take a powerful light and even a strong magnifying glass and it becomes very different. My photographs turned out rich in the colours that can be easily overlooked by a casual glance.
     This is the land of critters - its macro country, where the walls teem with life. Its life, Jim, but not as we know it. Visibility is not as good, for example, as in the Red Sea, but that is because the water is so full of nutrients.
     This is the food that feeds the animals that populate the walls. For the first time I began to think I might need one of those ProEar 2000 masks, the ones that keep the ears protected. I dont suffer from ear infections, but the water is spectacularly alive here.
     This part of the world is said to have been the epicentre of the development of marine life. There are more described species found here than anywhere else, and new ones are being discovered every day.
     There is more to see here than can be imagined but its a matter of getting it into focus. Once you get your eye in, theres no stopping you.
     It was a relief on straining eye muscles, however, when during one dive we came across a neat row of five giant clams, each at least a metre in length.
     Bangka, and the other islands near to it, is located at the northernmost point of North Sulawesi. You have to get up a little early if you dont want to miss the boat, but it takes you to where the water is gin-clear and the reefs are vibrant with the colours of soft corals and colourful sponges.
     The currents up here are more serious, but thats what the fish like. I saw shoals of skipjack tuna and barracuda out in the blue, and numerous juvenile whitetip reef sharks hiding under massive table corals. It reminded me of the deep walls and clear waters of southern Sudan.
     The currents can be a little inconvenient, especially for those seeing the world myopically through close-focusing cameras, but you soon get used to it. You need to pick and choose your spots, out of the flow.
     Jim Yanny talks of launching a liveaboard to give more extensive access to the Bangka area, because the two dives you make on a day trip here are never enough.

     North Sulawesi is mountainous and the roads are potholed, thronging with poorly driven vehicles, and many bridges over muddy rivers are in a poor state of repair. The drive east from Manado to Bitung is an uncomfortable two hours filled with moments of high excitement. By the time I arrived and saw the cramped local fishing boat and lack of facilities, I was hardly in the mood for diving.
     Between Bitung and Lembeh Island is an inauspicious, narrow strait plied by numerous local boats, all of which look in danger of sinking. The seabed is a combination of volcanic ash, black sand and mud, strewn with the detritus of a million passing boats. It reminded me of my local refuse-transfer station, the tip. So why go there
     The Lembeh Strait is unique. Its as if, when God was making the animals that inhabit the Earth, he dumped here anything he got a bit wrong. Its the place to find Gods out-takes - or perhaps they are visitors from another planet. There is nowhere like it.
     None of the creatures is very large, but instead of wondering what on earth you are doing diving there, get down and examine what lies in the rubble. If it isnt an animal it might be a Coke bottle, and if the latter, there will surely be an animal within. Even the odd discarded plastic bag provides a home for something or other.
     The first thing I saw was an inimicus devilfish. This strange animal looks like a piece of wood covered with a sprinkling of black sand. It has stubby little wings and hobbles about the seabed on chicken-like feet.
     I was drawn away by the iridescent cape of a flying gurnard. This too seemed to be afflicted with feet more suited to poultry. A dwarf lionfish took my eye next to a sea anemone, guarded by the most aggressive clownfish in the world.
     Pufferfish seemed to be everywhere. One was not a pufferfish but a frogfish that had swallowed some prey so large it was having difficulty using its silly, paddle-like pectoral fins. It fell over, in a ridiculous manner, as we watched it. Wasp-scorpion leaf-fish littered the black sand like, well, dead leaves! And I saw all this in about the time you have taken to read about it.
     Large seahorses lolled about everywhere, too. In fact, our quietly spoken Danish dive-guide confidently promised to refund the cost of the holiday to anyone who failed to see a seahorse during the dive.
     If you like nudibranchs, you will like this place. Their vibrant and various colours betray their presence everywhere. What I failed to spot were pegasus sea-moths or any mimic octopuses, but they were there. The question was, what was the mimic octopus pretending to be
     Its an ideal world for the macro photographer. Subjects line up to be photographed against the uncluttered and sombre background. I took on the more challenging role of the wide-angle photographer and was grateful to find a small cuttlefish running through its full repertoire of poses in an area of grubby weed.
     Just as I ran out of film, I was mugged by a posse of a dozen large sea urchins, scuttling along in a tight gang like reject pets from the Addams Family. They were pulsing with vibrant purple and pink light, surely proving that they ran on Duracells.
     Our other dive was at Nudiwall, where the unappetising monotone of the seabed meets the vibrant colours of a coral and sponge-clad cliff. It teems with nudibranchs, many several inches long. Large mantis shrimps scuttled about without the usual protection of a deep hole, among a thousand species of other obscure and exotic invertebrates. I exaggerate not.
     Two dives at the Lembeh Strait merely gave me a taste for what was possible. There is no way you can imagine what its like without going there. I now have to plot my return, suitably armed with a 1:1 macro camera.

Sponges , crinoids and double-bar goatfish take advantage of the plate coral
scrawled filefish and elephant ear sponge
striped eel catfish on the home reef
Children of a fishing village
highland spring
a gentle current feeds nutrients to the sea fans
crinoids in every colour imaginable stalk the sponges
Inimicus devilfish wanders the muck
Scorpion leaf-fish hides among soft coral
Frogfish too swollen with prey to move
Five giant clams give the eye a break from the myopia of macro


GETTING THERE Manado is in North Sulawesi, Indonesia. Connect from Singapore (three hours) or Jakarta.
DIVING & ACCOMODATION:Eco Divers at the Tasik Ria Resort. John Bantin travelled with Regal Dive Worldwide
WHEN TO GO:Water temperature is in the 26-30C range. Dry season is May to October.
CURRENCY: Indonesian rupia (approx 14,000 to£1) and credit cards.
LANGUAGE: Bahasa. Basic English often understood.
HEALTH: There is not much evidence of malaria in the immediate area, but take suitable precautions anyway.
COST: A 10-day trip including flights from the UK, B&B and five days diving with lunch with Eco Divers costs£919. Allow around£70 for additional meals. The Lembeh Strait trip costs around£28 extra and the Bangka trip£28. White-water rafting costs around£35 and the dugong trip (two days)£65.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Regal Dive Worldwide, 0870 2201 777.