"So what would you like to see?" asked Rudy, one of the local dive guides.
"What is on your list? I promise 100 percent guaranteed," offered the other guide, Arief, rather smugly.
The dive guides at Lembeh Strait operate under a different set of customer expectations compared with guides elsewhere. In addition to ensuring the safety of guests and leading the dive, there is pressure on Lembeh guides to find the exotic creatures that Lembeh is renowned for. The Lembeh guides are known to spot these camouflaged critters that are invisible to the untrained eye. The methods of doing so are trade secrets that these dive guides keep closely guarded. Often, creative but controversial methods are employed to ensure that the guests do not go home with disappointment. The guides do not talk about these methods so as not to upset the customers. After all, the livelihood of the dive guides is dependent on delighting customers. In my very first dive trip to Lembeh Strait, I wanted to understand the attraction of muck diving and perhaps, with a bit of luck, discover what really happens behind the scenes.
After seven hours travelling from Singapore to Manado, I found myself in macro-photographer's wonderland. As the dive boat made its way along the Lembeh Strait, the laziness that blanketed the place settled over us. There was a sleepy village between the canal with broken boats forsaken by its bank and plastics collected at its creaking jetty. At the end of the strait was a commercial sea port that seemed like it was on a perpetual lunch break. Our first dive site was just 5 meters away from a cargo ship, which was rather disconcerting to me.
Underwater, the seascape was a picture of volcanic black sand with nothing else really, save discarded drink cartons, rusty biscuit tins and some used tires. The first dive felt dreary and devoid of colours. In the first ten minutes, I focused on hovering one meter above the bottom so as not to stir up the silt. Apart from that exercise, I was rather bored. Given Lembeh's reputation for exotic marine life, I expected a flamboyant cuttlefish to stand out of the volcanic sand like a sore thumb, but that was not to be. I scrutinised every crevice and looked behind every rock. I found nothing.
Just when I thought the checkout dive was going to be eventless, Arief started to flick his steel pointer about as if he was casting a spell on an inanimate rock. Once drawn to its attention, it was easy to spot a mini painted frogfish that sat smartly by the foot of the rock. No bigger than a fingernail, it was bright orange and I wondered why I did not see it before. It was not long before Arief's wand waved again and directed my attention to what I initially thought was a bit of seaweed. It turned out to be a tiny pipefish. Suspended less than an arm's length away was a pair of robust ghost pipefish disguised as twigs. The discoveries did not stop there. Rudy then pointed out a snake eel that nonchalantly stuck its head out of the sand and a commensal shrimp that was resting on an anemone like a shred of shattered glass. The dive suddenly became a lot more interesting and I learned very quickly, that my experience in Lembeh would entirely depend on the prowess of the dive guides.
"Today we will find the hairy frogfish, harlequin shrimp and tiger shrimp," Arief announced at the start of the second day. I could not help but wonder how he could be so sure. The question in my mind was brushed aside as soon as Arief pointed to us a pink and blue specimen with patterns resembling Chinese porcelain. It was the first harlequin shrimp I have ever seen and it was breathtakingly beautiful. Only three yards away, Rudy introduced the hairy frogfish. With a face that only its mother could love, the alien-looking fish had dermal spinules that looked like hairs arranged all over its body. Finding the tiger shrimps only took ten minutes in the third dive. As we gathered around the guide, Arief used his pointer to usher two tiger shrimps to parade themselves on a pink sea sponge. Decorated on their weird spiny bodies were aboriginal art of dotted orange and royal blue. Each time the tiger shrimps tried to scamper beneath the sponge, Arief's steel pointer would shepherd them back onto the pink plateau, under the camera lights of the queuing divers.
With each dive, the guides found more critters; from nudibranchs in an assortment of colours to pygmy seahorses in a variety of cuteness. The guides ensured that the subjects were aesthetically set up for the cameras. On one occasion, Arief gently prodded a shy Denise's pygmy seahorse with his steel pointer to guide the pony towards a more pleasing angle. On another, Rudy found a coconut octopus hiding inside an empty clam shell like a pearl in an oyster. He pried open the shell so that all the divers could have a good look at the rather cornered creature. The most memorable encounter was when Rudy spotted what could be the most sought-after resident of Lembeh; the blue-ring octopus. With enough venom to fatally paralyze 25 adult humans, it is regarded as one of the deadliest creatures of the ocean. Seeing a group of divers, the tiny molluscs' first instinct was to propel away. Rudy and Arief both took opposite positions to trap it. The octopus settled onto a bit of debris and it remained still, under the illusion that it was well-camouflaged with its surroundings. In a state of calm, the blue-ring octopus looks like an aged wine cork, with colours bland and unimpressive. The guides signalled us to ready the cameras as they provoked the cephalopod to display its pretty blue rings. By flicking their fingers in a sudden and forceful action, the octopus was sporadically startled. Each time, the octopus jerked away from its perceived danger. Finally, the octopus flared up and was well and truly aggravated. By changing the colours of its dermal chromatophore cells to become bright yellow with vivid blue rings, the diminutive creature threatened to bite. The divers naturally gathered even closer, and the camera flashes started firing.
"The customers must go back happy," maintained Arief, when I found an opportunity to speak to the guides on my last evening in Lembeh. It took some persuasion and promise of anonymity before they shared with me what their job was like. "I work freelance," said Arief. "Dive centres call me when they have work. When the customers are happy, I get calls again."
The guides get paid about USD 17.50 for every 3 dives, as such, they worked largely for tips. Arief would not disclose exactly how much gratuity he collected weekly, but simply said that tips went a long way. Consequently, their livelihood depended on going that extra mile for the customers. I also asked the guides how they felt about handling the marine creatures.
"I have been a dive guide for 12 years. My uncle was the first guide in Lembeh. He taught me my skills. It is okay. I know how (to handle the critters)," Rudy explained.
Whereas I was more keen about the controversy of provoking a blue-ring octopus, Rudy assumed that I was talking about safety. Nevertheless, he made an interesting point, "Somebody will always try to make the blue rings come out. It is better I do it, so nobody gets bitten and the animal is not hurt." I was certainly presented with an alternative perspective to the issue. "Just like the pygmy seahorse. The divers will want to touch, but if you touch the polyps with fingers, the polyps will die. I use my pointer (so it) is okay," Rudy added.
After a few bottles of beer and a shot of some strange local liqueur, I asked Arief and Rudy if they would share with me the secrets to spotting the critters of Lembeh. Arief divulged enough information just to tease me.
"You must know how they move and what they eat. You find the food you find them," Arief explained, but without further details.
Before the night was over, I made one last inquiry, "I heard that the dive guides feed the animals, so that they will always remain in the same place. For example, you feed the harlequin shrimp bits of starfish so that they don't go away. And you hide them so that other divers can not find them. Is this true?"
The guides looked at each other and exchanged a smirk. One of them placed an arm around my shoulder and gave me a gentle squeeze. Arief and Rudy clinked my beer bottle with theirs and said, "What you want to see? We promise 100 percent guaranteed."
* Names have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals in this article
(Article was awarded runner-up in Ocean Geographic Photojounalist Competition 2016 and published in OG issue 37/16)