Going strait

Words & photography by Erik Lukas

I could hear knocking on my aluminium cylinder, but it was the tap on my shoulder that finally caused me to look up.

I had been focusing intently through the viewfinder of my camera housing waiting for a yawn or some other action from a small frogfish. Looking up I saw one of the dive guides, Joni, motion with a hand signal – a tug on his hair, followed by the unmistakable sign for an octopus. Hairy Octopus!

He signalled a depth of 28m and a general direction. I took off for deeper waters to find one of the groups from my workshop finishing up with the octopus. Their guide pointed out the tiny cephalopod and off they went. I was alone with the amazing subject. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen one in Lembeh. This time though I had a chance to spend more than a few moments with the subject. I checked my computer, and just a few minutes of bottom time remained. I allowed myself a moment to simply watch the tiny octopus, no larger than my fingertip, glide effortlessly across the small rocks, between clumps of algae, where it would blend in and disappear. Taking my eye off the subject for even a moment risked losing it for good.

I’ve been drawn to the ocean and photography for as long as I can remember. It wasn’t until a bit later in my life when I discovered that I could merge these two passions into one. As much as I enjoy seeing and photographing all underwater creatures, I am particularly drawn to the world of small subjects. Macro photography in particular, for me, offers endless new discoveries and challenges, as well as the potential of seeing something new on nearly every dive. When I don’t find a new subject, the hunt is equally as rewarding.

Since 2016, I have had the great pleasure of leading underwater photography workshops, primarily through a fantastic partnership with Bluewater Photo and Dive Travel of Los Angeles, CA. As much as I enjoy shooting underwater images, I love sharing the knowledge I have gained over the past 35 years in photography. I have had the opportunity to work in the fields of photojournalism, fashion and portrait photography and most recently, nature and underwater photography. The ability to lead workshops has been as rewarding as the photography itself. Seeing a novice underwater photographer progress their skills over a seven or ten day workshop is a great feeling.

Erik Lucas Lembeh Strait Indonesia
Erik Lucas Lembeh Strait Indonesia

While there are many world class locations for amazing diving and underwater photography, for the bizarre and the unusual, the Lembeh Strait is among the best known. Lembeh is one of those must-see places. A relatively small island, Lembeh sits just about a kilometre from the main island of North Sulawesi. The stretch of water that is the Lembeh Strait runs between the two masses of land for about 16km. This is not your stereotypical dive destination; while it is beautiful beyond words, the city of Bitung on North Sulawesi is a working port, home to all manner of ships large and small, and it is a busy waterway. It is at once a dirty and raw industrial zone, while also a slow paced, peaceful and lush tropical getaway.

The area is home to many resorts and dive operators, and there are at least 50 established and named dive sites. The variety of macro subjects ranges from countless species of fish, nudibranchs, cephalopods and a list of other invertebrates that goes on and on. It is one of those places that can yield new discoveries on any given day or any given dive.

In general, the area is not going to deliver the rich coral gardens, or masses of schooling fish of locations such as Raja Ampat, Komodo or Wakatobi, but what it does offer is a look into a fascinating and otherworldly environment, which highlights the small and typically well-hidden animals of the ocean floor. This is not to say there are no sites with brightly coloured corals or schooling fish, as a visit to the Nudi Falls dive site will prove.

For me personally, I am endlessly entertained by three varieties of marine creature in particular. I could watch cephalopods, nudibranchs and frogfish on every dive and never get bored. For nudibranchs it is simply admiring the endless range of colours and shapes or sizes. For frogfish, it is their ugly yet comically cute expression and personalities. And for cephalopods, it is the intelligence and interactive nature of these otherworldly creatures. To discuss Lembeh without acknowledging all of the other varieties of animals would be a disservice to all that Lembeh has to offer. It is your playground for all types of crustaceans, small fish, seahorses and much more. Provide any of the talented dive guides or spotters of Lembeh with a list of subjects you most want to see, and the likelihood is that they will know exactly where to look.

Erik Lucas crab
Erik Lucas aerial
Erik Lucas Lembeh Strait Indonesia squid
Erik Lucas Lembeh Strait Indonesia fish
Erik Lucas Lembeh Strait Indonesia

Among the many dives I have done in Lembeh, some of my highlights will always be the hairy octopus, the blue ring octopus, the wonderpus and the mimic octopus, which dazzle with their beautiful looks and curious nature. There is no doubt in my mind that the cephalopods I have encountered have been not only aware of my presence, but on most occasions have interacted in some form or fashion with me. In an almost cat-like way, they cannot help but want to know who we are and what we are doing , but on their own terms and schedules. Watching the behaviour of the octopus and cuttlefish of Lembeh as they hunt is incredible. The flashing of vibrant blue rings, the mesmerizing display of the flamboyant cuttlefish followed by the lightning-fast strike on its prey, to the acrobatic march of a coconut octopus carrying its home from one spot to another – the behaviour and beauty of these creatures begs to be admired.

With regard to nudibranchs, there is no doubt that Lembeh has provided many incredible finds for me. From the immense solar-powered nudibranch (Phyllodesmium longicirrum), to the incredibly small Costasiella sp., colloquially known as the Shaun the Sheep nudibranch, and everything in between, there are countless in these waters.

The more time I spend in places such as Indonesia and the Philippines, the more interested I have become in learning from the guides how best to find them. Knowing a habitat or food source of a particular subject is the key to finding them. Leading the photo workshops often allows me to spend time with quite a few different guides over the course of a trip, and from each one I learn something new.

Erik Lucas nudibranch Indonesia
Erik Lucas frogfish
Erik Lucas reef

Finally, there are the frogfish. Lembeh has consistently provided me with many great finds. These incredible fish are among my favourites both to watch and to photograph. Their facial expressions portray an almost human set of features. More than any other subject I have photographed, it is the frogfish images that garner the best reactions from viewers. Most who are unfamiliar with the frogfish fall into one of two camps; the fish is either hysterically ugly or brutally adorable. They present themselves in a wide range of colours and sizes, not to mention the ‘hairy’ varieties which fall under the striated frogfish umbrella of species. These are always high on the list of workshop participants for subjects to photograph, and for very good reason. They are most often very willing subjects that do what they do best – sit very still and pose perfectly for photos.

There are many changing faces of Lembeh, and the one I’m most interested in further exploring is that of after nightfall. The list of creatures that become available to us as photographers after the sun has set is extensive. Night diving has always been a great way to continue to explore an area, but the more recent popularity of blackwater diving has opened new doors. Many workshop guests have only ever heard of blackwater diving, and it has proven to be very popular at the workshops in Lembeh. Getting out into the open water in inky darkness is as exciting as diving gets. It takes only a moment to forget the unsettling feeling of being in total darkness once a dive light illuminates a tiny fluttering creature, which is unlike anything one may have seen before. Each of the guests who have done their first blackwater dives in Lembeh can’t wait to get back out again – night after night. Every dive presents the possibility to reveal something new, even for the most seasoned divers.

I do not think Lembeh is a place that one can ever get tired of visiting. The list of marine critters I’ve seen in Lembeh is far shorter than the list of subjects I haven’t. It is perhaps one of the reasons I look forward to heading back each year. The challenges and the impact that the global pandemic has had on international travel in 2020 meant that I was unable to return last season. I am hopeful that by autumn of 2021, it will be more feasible to travel and I can run my next workshop in Lembeh. The economic toll that the past year has taken on this region is immeasurable, and I know that as they do in both good times and bad, the generous communities of the people of Lembeh will welcome us back with open arms and smiles on their faces.