INDONESIA - July 8-17, 2019

(Click here to see some pictures from this trip plus links to the SmugMug slideshow.)

How much do I love Indonesia? Let me count the ways . . .

We have just returned from spending eight diving days with our good friends at Murex Dive Resort in NE Sulawesi, Indonesia. And when I say “good friends,” I really mean it. Like many places with whom we’ve established long-term relationships over the years, it’s like coming home and being warmly greeted. And it was especially nice since our last trip there was in 2015.

We were nine strong on this trip: Craig Gelpi & Karen Norris, Di Krall, Marilyn Lawrence, Rik Aceves, Harry Kreigh, Wil & Linda Lemley (non-diver), and me (Ken Kurtis). Di, Marilyn, Wil, Linda, and I were repeaters, the others were all Murex newbies.

Before we get into the trip details, let me give you some inside info on the new Singapore Airlines Premium Economy class, which IS how most of us flew. It’ll set you back another $500-1,000 over a regular economy ticket but you might feel it’s worth it.

The biggest advantage is that Premium Economy offers the option of a non-stop from LAX to Singapore (there’s also a non-stop out of SFO) which saves you about three hours overall, plus it cuts out the long layover in Singapore when you take flights that route you through Tokyo. On the non-stop flight, the plane is an Airbus A350 where the front 2/3 of the plane is Business and the back 1/3 is Premium Economy. On the routing through Tokyo, it’s a Boeing 777 and Premium Economy consists of four rows of 2/4/2 in the middle of the plane behind Business and in front of Economy.

In both cases, the seats are slightly wider (maybe an inch) than a regular Economy seat but you get an extra 6-8” of legroom and a bigger (13.5”) TV screen in front of you. The seats also recline a few inches further back than regular Economy, which make sleeping easier. One downside, though, is that all the seats have the tray table in the armrest and the TV controls embedded in the opposite armrest. This means the armrest between seats doesn’t go up, so if you score an empty row (or just an empty seat next to you), there’s no way to take advantage of that extra space to lie down to sleep.

The other problem is if you get a window or middle seat. The configuration on both planes is 2/4/2. So anyone in a window seat on the 2 side or a middle seat in the 4 part will have to climb over the person on the aisle (or have them get up to let you out). But, since the armrest doesn’t go up, that means you can’t just slide out. If the person in the seat(s) in front of you has their seat reclined significantly, it can be REALLY hard to squeeze out, even for someone skinny. So my personal recommendation is to book one of the aisle seats regardless of which side of the plane you’re on.

But the A350 has another secret lurking. And it’s a good one.

Because the tail of the plane tapers in slightly, rows 40, 41, and 42 have a 1/4/1 configuration. So not only do you have six seats that are solo seats (C on one side, H on the other) but where the second seat would normally be in those rows is a rather large storage box in which you can throw your backpack, blanket, pillow, etc., and leave the hinged top then closed as a little shelf off to your side. It’s phenomenally useful for moving your laptop aside when they serve dinner, or just as extra living space for you. Except for the size of your seat – it’s the same as all the others – you’ve got about the same amount of space and room as you would had you booked the much more expensive Business class seat. On the A350, these are the seats to get if you can.

The other thing you can do in Premium Economy on Singapore, on any of their flights, is take advantage of “Book the Cook” which allows you to pre-select your meals a day or more before the flight leaves. You choose from a menu of roughly ten options which included beef, chicken, pork, pasta, and vegetarian. The other advantage of choosing this is that, like people who order special meals, you are served first before they start the general food service from the cart in the aisle. (You can also choose that if you like.)

So you might find that if you can book the non-stop both ways, which then gives you a 90-minute layover going to Manado and the 3-hour layover coming back (instead of 8 hours going and 15 hours coming back), the extra money is definitely worth it. And you even may find some deals depending on when you book your ticket. On this trip, I got my Premium Economy ticket for about $2,100 round-trip. For our Maldives trip in October, doing the same flights (but going SIN-MLE instead of SIN-MDC) my ticket price in Premium Economy is $1,300. Go figure.

Whenever you go somewhere, there are two factors that will determine how good of a time you have: the diving, and the operator you use to access the diving. A bad operator can spoil a good time had diving, and a good operator can make bad diving tolerable if they can provide a genuinely good time between dives. And when you get good-to-great diving and a great operator, then you’ve hit the Motherlode, and that’s what we get whenever we go back to Murex. We can’t say enough good things about the place, and that’s one reason we’ve come here eight times before.

In short, they will do everything they can within their power to make sure you have an excellent trip and that any need you have will be satisfied. The day it was raining when we returned post-dive, they had staffers with umbrellas waiting on the beach for us. Anytime we pulled into a dive site, they checked the current and if it was too strong, we went somewhere else. Need help with your tank? No problem. Something’s not working in your room? They’ll get it fixed. The idea is to provide you with as hassle-free a vacation as is possible. That doesn’t mean everything will be perfect. But they’ll try to get it as close as they can.

We’ve known Murex owners Danny & Angelique Charlton for almost 20 years and they are constantly looking for ways to improve the diver experience at Murex Manado as well as the other properties they own, Murex Bangka, and Critters at Lembeh (at the Lembeh Resort). Part of what they’ve done is some management restructuring which makes things run smoothly. One specific thing relates to groups and that’s the employment of Joan Saputra, better known & loved as Jo-Jo.

Her job is to be liaison with the groups and the group leader, making for one point of contact to get things done. It makes it a lot easier on the group leader, plus her personality is perfectly suited for the job. She’s spunkly, energetic, and adorable. And she certainly was an invaluable asset to me personally in making this trip run smoothly.

The other major cog in all of this is my good friend and Murex’s lead Divemaster Basrah Tan. Basrah’s got a great eye for finding small critters and was always striving to choose dive sites that not only suited the group’s skill levels, but that were interesting and varied so each day or each dive within a day was a little different.

Our usual schedule is three dives a day. The general dive areas are Bunaken (a national park with spectacular vertical walls), Manado Bay (muck diving sites including the Murex House Reef which is a combination of coral and muck), Bangka Island (about a 2-hour boat ride from Murex and booked as a separate add-on), and the legendary Lembeh Straits (a 90-minute drive from Murex and also booked as a special add-on to the normal Murex Manado package).

Quick program note: Murex offers what they call a “Passport to Paradise” which is three days at Murex Manado, three days at Bangka, and three days at Lembeh. It’s very popular with some of their clientele but I choose not to do it that way because I don’t want to pack up and move every three days. As Danny says, “Ken, you’re a Murex Manado guy.” Yes I am.

Of course the quality of the food can also be a make-or-break on any trip and with Murex, we can describe it in two words: Very good. Always plenty of variety and always fresh or fresh-cooked.

For breakfast, coffee & tea and continental offerings were available generally around 6AM with full breakfast starting around 6:45AM. Lots of fruit, hot rice or noodles, bread for toast, cereal, juice, eggs and pancakes cooked to order, bacon cooked to order, and often a porridge or oatmeal. Simple but satisfying. (And the breakfast croissants were sinfully good.)

Lunch was usually soup, a fish and either chicken or pork, vegetables, rice &/or noodles, more fruit, and some breads or rolls. Even when we had lunch on the boat, it was usually fish and chicken or pork, two vegetable choices, and rice. Yummy either way.

Dinner was usually a bit more ambitious and on our first and last day, they REALLY knocked themselves out with a huge BBQ buffet with all kinds of grilled fish, chicken, pork, satay, and many, many goodies. Much more than you could eat so there’s no way you were going hungry. On “normal” days, there was usually salad, two or sometimes three entrée choices, two or three vegetable options, breads, rice &/or noodles, and some sort of dessert. You definitely won’t go hungry and if you can’t find something you like, we may need to have your taste buds replaced.

The other advantage of using Murex Manado as home base is that the staff REALLY gets to know you and what you like. You like your morning eggs over-easy? Done. Bacon crispy? Done? You want iced tea (which they don’t normally have)? You get a pitcher of it set in front of you each meal.

The other advantage of all of this is that we had the option each day of either doing two dives (usually Bunaken), coming back to the resort for lunch, and then going back out for a third dive later in the afternoon. Or we could opt to have the lunch prepared ahead of time (amazingly, they’re able to keep it warm) and have lunch on the boat, which then gave us the option of three dives at Bunaken and made for an earlier day, since we saved the run time (usually 45 minutes or so) back and forth. That created enough time in the afternoon for an extra optional Murex House Reef dive. No additional charge for that, by the way.

The house reef is actually a pretty good little dive and they’ve even marked out a trail for you to follow if you like. You’ll see lots of cool critters. When we dove it one afternoon, we had a small school of Stinging Catfish working the sand, Ghost Pipefish, a couple of species of Lionfish, a neat red Mantis Shrimp, various species of Clownfish nestled in their anemones, and lots of other stuff. So it’s absolutely a worthwhile dive and it’s really nice that it’s basically in your backyard.

A high level of service makes for almost effortless diving. Because we were a group, we had a boat to ourselves. That in and of itself is nice but even better is that the staff handles all the gear. When you arrive, there’s a laundry basket in front of your room and you load your dive gear into that. Then the staff moves it to the dive locker area where it lives during your trip. Each day when they load up the boat, the staff loads your basket on to your boat. You confirm everything is there and off you go. And then end of the dive day, throw everything back in your basket, the staff takes it off the boat and washes out all the gear (including BC and regs), and puts it in a dive locker ready for the next day. Literally rinse and repeat. Nice touch.

There are some other improvements on the boats. For one thing, the engines have all been upgraded and are much faster, running almost twice the old speed. They’ve improved the portable ladders so when they’re hung on the side of the boat, they angle out, making it much easier to come up. And they extend further down into the water (there are five rungs) so getting on the ladder in the first place is easier too.

Because we always had two dives guides with us (Basrah plus the also incomparable Hanny Katingide), we divided our group in half. After some discussion of who should be with whom, it was decided that we’d put the four camera divers with Basrah and the four non-photogs with Hanny. The goal was to avoid the old “The photographers hogged all the good creatures” cry that frequently emits – many times justifiably so – from non-photogs. We also implemented, with some success since it relies on voluntary co-operation, my “3 or 30” rule: Photog or not, you can either take 3 shots or have 30 seconds with a special critter, and then you have to see if anyone is waiting for a peek. If there are, move to the back of the line for another turn. If not, have another cycle of 3-or-30. It works when people cooperate and allow it to work.

The dive guides also all carry those erasable Quest underwater slates. So when they spot something, they write it down on the slate and then point it out. Especially when you’re dealing with small critters like Pygmy Seahorses (of which we saw five), it avoids the puzzled look of “What-are-you-pointing-at” that sometimes happens.

The Murex boats are nothing fancy but very comfortable and practical. They added heads a few years ago (very much appreciated by everyone) and the center area holds all the tanks for the day. The forward third of the boat is the diver/sitting area with plenty of storage space for cameras (underneath two long padded bench seats) and other gear (above the bench on shelves – by the towel with your name on it). There’s plenty of cover should it rain and you can catch some rays either in the very front bow area or even on top of the roof of the covered area.

One small issue with the boats is that there is no dock at Murex. The boats back in very close – literally within a few feet of the water’s edge – and you walk out through the water (ankle-to-shin deep) and step up onto the boat. For those who’ve been diving with me, you know I not only don’t like wearing my wet dive gear at the start of the day, but I’m also a big shoes and socks guy and prefer to be dressed in “normal” clothes for the ride over.

When I first started coming to Murex in 2000, they solved this problem for me by building a ramp that was long enough to go from the back of the boat to the shore so I could walk up without getting my shoes and socks soaked. But it’s also handy for others too. Especially in the group this year (and not uncommon as the diving population ages), we had divers who had just had knee surgery, had a bad hip, and who just don’t have the flexibility they used to. Having the ramp made it much easier on them too since they didn’t have to make a large step from soft underwater sand up to the back step of the boat. I’ve strongly suggested to Danny that ramps for all their boats would be a helpful addition. They’re cheap, easy to make, and quite practical.

But we came to dive and dive we did. Over the course of our nine days, we made 25 dives. 3 dives were at Lembeh, 2 at Bangka, 11 were at Bunaken, 7 were Manado Bay muck dives, and 2 were night dives near Murex. So on this trip, you definitely can get a LOT of variety with walls and corals at Bunaken, absolutely gorgeous soft coral reefs at Bangka, decent muck critters for the Manado Bay dives, and absolutely wonderful weird muck critters at Lembeh (where the eco-preservation motto is “Keep Lembeh Weird”).

We saw more turtles – Greens and Hawksbill – at Bunaken on this trip than I recall from past trips and that’s a sign of a healthy ecosystem. The turtles were quite plentiful around the three Lekuan sites. In fact, there were so many that we had a contest on one dive to see which group could spot the most turtles. Our group (Basrah kept a tally on his slate) counted 33 turtles. And on our final dive at Muka Kamping, Basrah and I decided to keep another tally and got to 27.

Some of these turtles – all Greens as I recall - were HUUUUUGE, with carapaces as much as five feet long. Very impressive and obviously very old turtles, which is again another good sign of a healthy ecosystem.

We saw so many turtles that one day I posted as part of my SmugMug Daily Top 10 Pix a bonus gallery called “A Ton of Turtles.” If you figure the average turtles we saw weighed around 200 pounds, 10 of them is 2,000 pounds, and that’s a ton. You can see them through this link (and keep in mind each shot is of a different turtle we saw):

Lekuan has all kinds of shelves and nooks and crannies and what the turtles do is glide in and take a nap. It was very interesting to see a turtle cruising down the wall, apparently looking for a favorite spot, and then simply gliding right into it. It also seemed to me that a lot of times when the turtle first glided in, they did a lot of scratching and rubbing against coral/rocks almost like they were scratching an itch.

All of the Bunaken sites had bountiful numbers of Red-Toothed Triggers and Pyramid Angelfish. Those were probably the most obvious of the prolific fish and there were thousands and thousands of them everywhere. There was also plenty of cleaning going on so we saw a lot of the Blue-Streak Cleaner Wrasses with various clients.

It’s quite easy to get overwhelmed by the grandeur of everything and you can miss the small stuff. That’s where a great guide with good eyes – like Basrah & Hanny – is invaluable. Especially with someone like me who suffers from CSSS (Can’t See Small Stuff), you’ve got to have someone with better eyes, as well as local knowledge, who can point these out. For instance, on our very last dive of the trip at Muka Kampung, Basrah was able to point out not one but TWO orange Pygmy Seahorses nestled near each other into some corals along the wall. Not only are these guys tough to spot because they blend in so well with the corals on which they reside, but they’re as small as one-quarter inch. Not a typo: ¼”. Yikes!!!

The Bunaken dives - the entire marine park consists of five islands - are the stuff you dreamed of when you got certified: pristine diversified vertical coral walls, lots of fish, bunches of turtles (as well as some sharks and even a couple of Eagle Rays), warm water, and good-to-great visibility.

Bangka is best known for its soft corals. But it’s also a little bit tricky because if the wind picks up, some of the best dive sites become unavailable. Because it’s a 2-hour boat ride from Murex Manado, we checked the weather and decided to go on our second full dive day to try to get in ahead of a storm that was supposed to pass through the area. (Our timing was perfect because for about three days after we were there, the diving was very limited due to persistent winds.)

We did our first dive at Sahaung 1 which can simply be one of the most breathtaking dives you can do, due to the proliferation of soft corals at the site. They come in a variety of colors: orange, red, yellows, purple, and pink. But the thing to remember is that soft corals need current to thrive so if you’ve got soft corals, you have the potential of strong currents. We were fortunate in that respect and had a fairly mild-current dive.

But the sights at Sahuang aren’t limited to just the colors. We saw a large school of Bengal Snappers, numerous Tasseled Scorpionfish, lots of Barrel Sponges (which also rely on current), clownfish, shoals of Anthias pulsing in the surge, Orangutan Crabs, cowries, and even a Crocodilefish. All on one dive.

We did a second dive across from Bangka and somewhat out of the current (Batu Mandi) and then came back across (10-minute run) and pulled in to Murex Bangka for a lovely lunch on the beach, complete with tables, chairs, and a great buffet that included a wonderful pasta soup. As we boarded our boat to head back (the plan was to do third dive about halfway back to Manado), it started to rain. Then it started to pour. Then the skies added some lightning and thunder. Needless to say, we abandoned the thought of a third dive due to safety concerns – some of the lightning strikes seemed fairly close and hit the water – and managed to make it back to Murex Manado unscathed. And that was the only time we lost a dive due to weather.

The rest of the week we had a number of options for our three daily dives. We could do two dives at Bunaken and then a muck dive at one of the Manado Bay sites, choosing either to come back to Murex for lunch or have lunch on the boat (not as nicely prepared as the Murex buffet but also plentiful, varied, and good). Or we could stay at Bunaken for all three dives with lunch on the boat. And one day we opted for an all-Manado Bay Day heading an hour to the west to a site called Bethlehem (which they says stands for “Better Than Lembeh”). That wasn’t diveable due to current so we just moved around the corner, and then hit two more Manado Bay muck sites (Circus & Tanjung Papaya) on the way back.

On our Bunaken dives, we routinely saw all kinds of sponges, whip corals (many with little gobies or crabs on them), bubble coral, barrel sponges, and lots of anemones with clownfish. We generally saw Pinks, Orange (commonly confused with Skunks – if the white stripe is on the lip, it’s an Orange, not on the lip, it’s a Skunk), Spinecheek (usually in mated pairs – female is larger and darker, male is brighter orange and smaller), Orangefin, False, and Clark’s. Needless to say, if you like clownfish, you’ll love diving Manado.

There were lots of Butterflyfish of multiple species, many Dartfish (mainly Fire Dartfish – my proudest/toughest shot was getting one dead-on-head-on and he just looks like a sliver), all kinds of damsels, wrasses both big and small and cleaner wrasses everywhere (with frequent clients), a number of boxfish, and triggerfish (specifically Clown Triggers – hard to approach and hard to shoot), and all sorts of angelfish from including Multi-Barred, Bicolor (you’ll like these if you went to UCLA), Two-Spined, Regals (everywhere), Yellow-Mask (aka Masked), and lots of Blue-Girdled. We also had a number of Spadefish, including an older juvy Pinnate who still had the elongated shape and just a hint of the orange margin around the body.

You’ll see many of these animals on the SmugMug picture page for this trip &/or in the videos on YouTube.

For any of the Manado Bay dives, you generally needed to think small. Like in the Lembeh Straits, many things live in the sand. Over the course of our dives we found schools of Shrimpfish with their heads pointing down (on one night dive, the school was a couple of hundred strong and they scattered when you hit them with your light and then regrouped when the light was off of them), lots of nudibranches, a number of Cuttlefish plus a couple of Flamboyant Cuttlefish (one of which Marilyn found all by herself), Lionfish galore including a Two-Spot, Scorpionfish lying in wait, a true Stonefish, Stinging Catfish leapfrogging over each other as they scoured the sand en masse, pairs of Orange-Dashed Gobies here and there, Frogfish (including a Giant – size of your hand – Warty, and Hairy), Ghost Pipefish, Robust Pipefish, Ringed Pipefish . . . There’s simply a LOT of stuff to find if you take the time to look.

The Lembeh Straits is simply a world unto itself. In fact, many animals you might see there are ONLY found there. No one really knows why this body of water, only 10 miles long and less than a mile wide, houses so many of these special creatures, but it does. Who are we to look a gift horse in the mouth?

One aspect of diving Lembeh is that it’s a little cooler than out on the reefs and the viz is less. Divers also need to REALLY control their hands and fins lest they create a sandstorm in their excitement to see some creature. For me, one day in Lembeh is fine, especially now that we have all of the Manado Bay muck sites around which we didn't dive when I first came here in 2000. But many people like to camp in Lembeh for a week (or more) and just concentrate on macro and super-macro stuff.

It’s truly amazing what you can see on one Lembeh dive. If you followed us on FaceBook each day, you’ll recall that on our Lembeh Day, I didn’t just post a Top 10 for the DAY, I posted a Top 10 for each DIVE we did (3 in all). We saw (and photo’d/posted): (Dive 1) Teeny-tiny juvy Clown or Yellowmargin Trigger, Flamboyant Cuttlefish, teeny juvy Spotfin Lionfish, Hairy Frogfish, juvy Silver Sweetlips, Robust Ghost Pipefish, Thorny Seahorse, Thornback Cowfish, Mantis Shrimp, Spiny Devilfish, (Dive 2) Longspine Waspfish, Whitelipped Eel Catfish, Banggai Cardinalfish, Coconut Octopus with a shell, Striated Frogfish, Cockatoo Waspfish, Three-Lined Pectenodoris (nudi), Fire Urchin, Razorfish, Mimic Octopus, (Dive 3) Rigid Shrimpfish, juvy Black Ribbon Eel, Blue-Ringed Octopus (two on this dive), Twin Chromodoris (nudi), Leaf Scorpionfish (which I found on my own – made my head swell bigger than normal), and a hairy Squat Lobster.

Not too shabby for three dives and slightly less than three hours of bottom time. I was shooting about 100 images/dive and I was being conservative about it. Needless to say, there’s a LOT to see.

And that’s a great way to describe why we like Indonesia so much: There’s a LOT to see. That means (1) You probably can’t see it all in one trip, and (2) It’s worth seeing again. It’s certainly worth doing again when you add Murex to the mix. So that’s what we’ll plan on.

We’ll look ahead to 2020 without a specific date in mind, but generally early July has worked out really well for us. Take a look at the SmugMug shots and take a look at the videos. And then ask yourself, “Would I like to experience this stuff in person?” If the answer is “Yes” and the timing works for you, give us a shout at 310/652-4990 and we can sign you up now (which also means you can stretch the payments out over a longer time).

Manado and surroundings really are terrific places to dive, Murex is a fabulous operation, and when you combine those, how can you NOT have a fabulous and memorable experience?

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