1. Banggai cardinalfish in a magnificent urchin

WIDE-ANGLE PHOTOGRAPHY IS MY THING. I usually try to get pictures that give a good impression of the underwater environment. I rarely shoot macro pictures under water. It just seems too easy. You go in with your camera and lights pre-set and simply click away at anything you fancy. Success is assured.
     I felt there was no challenge in it - and that was even before the digital revolution! Then I unexpectedly found myself at Lembeh Strait and watched bemused as macro-equipped photographers swam around me and became excited at the sight of bits of driftwood with chickens feet; balls of second-hand chewing gum; things that looked like dead sparrow fledglings; slugs like the ones that often infest my garden, only much more colourful; and other animals that were simply too weird for me to recognise, or too small for me to record or sometimes even to see. And all this was happening on an inauspicious mucky bottom.
     With my wide-angle lens, I photographed those divers finning around with powerful magnifying glasses. I suggested later that they get a life. That was before Lembeh Strait became famous and muck-diving had realised its potential.
     So when Eco Divers invited me back to visit the Kungkungen Bay Resort, I took the precaution of arming myself with a 105mm macro lens and plus-two dioptre for my underwater camera, pre-set my lights, and concentrated on the minutiae of life in this unique stretch of water between North Sulawesi and Lembeh Island, in Indonesia.
     The strait between Lembeh and the mainland of North Sulawesi is not some idyllic stretch of water, twinkling limpidly and inviting. It is a busy waterway frequented by thousands of small local boats, as well as assorted freighters and tugboats hauling barges, serving the nearby port.
     The tidal flow is quite strong out in the main channel, and it isnt very wide. You could be forgiven for thinking that it was a major river like the Mississippi running past your bungalow.
     The luxurious thatched bungalows of the Kungkungan Bay Resort might nestle among the palms, but there is no beach to speak of. This is not a holiday resort in the conventional sense. People come here for one reason and one reason alone - the diving.
     But even the diving is unusual. The main clue is that the resort seems unusually camera-friendly. Baskets are provided for cameras, and the dive-guides carefully carry them from the well-lit camera preparation room to the quick little dive-boats. Even the cameras are unusual, in that they are universally set up for photographing subjects as small as your fingernail, or smaller.
     Drop into a typical site such as the Hairball, and you are confronted by a featureless seabed of black volcanic ash. It is littered with the detritus dropped carelessly from boats for the past 1000 years. Its a rubbish dump - so why are you there
     Well may you ask, if you have not had the foresight to arm yourself with a suitable camera.
     As you focus in on the grit and muck that makes up the bottom, you realise that it is actually heaving with life. A million animals await you, and most are like nothing you have seen before.
     If it looks like a bit of rubbish, its probably an animal camouflaged to look like its surroundings, or is a bit of rubbish but with an animal living in it. Only an unprovoked movement can give away the truth.
     The dive guides are invaluable. In recent years many of the wildlife film-makers and top underwater photographers of the world have beaten a path to Lembehs door, and the local guides know what is expected of them. It makes them probably the most respected and sensitive-to-the-environment dive-guides in the world.
     They spot the more extreme examples of animal life and indicate them with long pointers, often car aerials that have been adapted for this task. My tired old eyes would have missed many of the more unusual subjects, had it not been for such assistance from Bobby, an educated young man who took it on himself to make sure I missed nothing.
     He would point out something, make sure I recognised it for what it was, and then move on to look out for the next subject while I got on with my part of the deal. I had only to look up, once I had satisfactorily recorded an image, to see him waving me over to view the next unlikely animal.
     Several times I found myself running out of air (these days we no longer run out of film), as yet another strange subject beckoned just as I had finished with the last. After the first three days and only nine dives, I had committed 160 different shots of almost as many different subjects to the hard drive of my laptop, dumping four times that many pictures that many underwater photographers would give their right arm for, simply through ruthless editing.
     Animals such as the pygmy seahorse would normally have been invisible to me, and indeed I could often see my subject only with the aid of the magnifying effect of my macro cameras viewfinder. It didnt help that all the animals were masters of disguise.
     One rare pygmy seahorse sat near its mate on a bit of Halmeda weed. My guide pointed to it with his metal pointer. I took a shot and showed him the LCD display of my camera. He looked exasperated at my stupidity and pointed again. So at the next attempt I recorded the seahorse, not the bit of algae next to it. This happened a lot.
     One ghost pipefish imitated its host crinoid so well that I had no hope of giving it any definition. I was lucky to catch a green Halmeda ghost pipefish passing in front of a bit of brown sponge.
     The rule is to dive with your eyes, not your hands. Many of these small animals are very venomous! But they queue up to be photographed. It just means that you have to be circumspect about your buoyancy control. Almost everything seems to live on or in the bottom.
     Working through the menu of subjects, ticking them off once they were recorded, was almost as tiresome as working through the extensive menu at the resorts restaurant, but I tried to do both during my weeks stay.
     Lembeh Strait is not unique, in that the strange marine animals that inhabit its seabed cannot be found elsewhere. What is unusual is the sheer profusion of varieties of bizarre creature found in such close proximity. You seem to be knee-deep in frogfish of all types - giant, hairy, warty, the lot. There are zebra lionfish, scorpionfish, gurnards and puffers, and many different nudibranchs, scattered like a spilt bag of Liquorice All-Sorts.

Russian dolls
Inimicus devilfish are those strange bits of driftwood that move with an ungainly gait on chickens feet and spread colourful wing-like pectoral fins when alarmed. Dont confuse them with the equally pedally equipped and evilly grinning fingered lizardfish.
     You find yourself not bothering to look at anything remotely fish-shaped. Giant aeolids trundle across the moonscape that makes up the seabed. Colourful ribbon eels gape from the safety of their holes in alarm. Watch for gangs of neon urchins scuttling about with juvenile fish hiding in their spines. Like so many Russian dolls, every animal seems to have at least one other living within it.
     The elusive mandarinfish is no exception to the knee-deep rule. Go out with your guide at dusk and wait patiently where he suggests. Hell point out these shy little creatures with a red beam of light as they appear from the rubble for the briefest of mating dances.
     I was amazed at the number of mandarinfish that appeared, and the number of images I recorded, even though I was shooting almost blind.

Breaking the rules
That evening was spoiled only by a diver from a visiting liveaboard who broke all the rules by not keeping still, and by continuously trying to hijack subjects from in front of other peoples cameras, shining his lamp on them in the process and so ensuring that no-one got a result. Usually, its easy. The animals are going nowhere and everyone waits their turn.
     Discover the tiny flamboyant cuttlefish. Find an octopus, and your entertainment for the dive is complete. Find a Ã’wonderpusÓ and you will be amazed. Find a mimic octopus, the animal that brought Lembeh to the attention of the world, and you will run out of air before it runs out of disguises.
     Mantis shrimps are common. Night dives are especially productive. While photographing a filefish clinging to some soft coral, I grabbed a shot of a little red hinge-beak shrimp with bulging eyes sitting nearby. Im not sure which is the most effective picture. Decorator crabs and carrier crabs rumble around with bizarre improvised disguises, and little eels get caught out in the open.
     On these pages are a few snapshots I took of animals I encountered in just a few days diving. As I said, macro photography is just too easy, provided you have the subjects for it - and Lembeh does you proud.

  • John Bantin stayed at Kungkungen Bay Resort, Lembeh Strait, North Sulawesi, Indonesia courtesy of Eco Divers. He travelled with Singapore Airlines and Silk Air with flights provided by Dive Quest (01254 826322, www.divequest.co.uk). Flight prices vary but start from around£750, while a seven-night stay at the resort will cost from£650. This includes full board in a traditional house with ocean view, airport transfers and six days diving, which means up to three boat dives a day and unlimited shore-diving.

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    2 Lionfish
    3 Giant frogfish
    4 Fingered dragonet
    5 Pygmy seahorses
    6 Barred moray eel
    7 Hermit crab
    8 Hairy frogfish
    9 Nudibranchs (courting)
    10 Carrier crab
    11 Striped eel catfish
    12 Inimicus devilfish
    13 Strapweed filefish
    14 Mosaic moray eel
    15 Nudibranch