Thoughts for the blog following a recent stay.
by Alex Mustard
I’m a Lembeh Addict. I am happy to admit it. Although I’ve been on a diet recently, foregoing regular visits to Lembeh and South East Asia in general, over the last three or four years to feed in less photographed, and often colder waters. But, boy, is it good to back.
Visiting Lembeh wasn’t actually in my original travel plans for this trip. I’m in Indonesia to run a Photography Workshop on the Indo Siren in Raja Ampat. But once Lembeh was whispered in the planning, I knew I had to squeeze it in. Even though I only had time for 3 diving days.
Is there any point in making such a short visit? Absolutely. First, if you’ve never tried muck diving, a short stay can be safer, because not everyone falls in love with it. This was the first time I have taken Eleonora to Lembeh and I am fortunate and very pleased that she totally adored the diving: her “best ever”.
I’d loved to have been here for longer, but shorts trips can still be hugely productive here. I never arrive in Lembeh with a wish list. Instead, I like to find out what is particularly or unusually abundant at the moment and concentrate on those subjects. Knowing I’ll see plenty more subjects on those dives anyway.
I feel this make my dives much more productive. Muck dive sites are incredibly dynamic and species come and go. I have wasted too many dives searching for a supposed rarity, to find it everywhere on my next visit or destination. I guess I am just playing the percentages – aiming my camera at these subjects is likely to produce the most quality images per dive. And when there are lots of them about, more behaviour too.
Joni was our guide and main man! He understood our philosophy from dive one and found us subject after subject. This time we focused our time and cameras on hairy frogfish, flambos, mimics, wonderpus, mandarins, longnosed shrimps, xeno crabs, Pontohis, harlequin shrimps, hairy shrimps and coconut octopus. We saw much more, of course, but these all fitted the description of “particularly or unusually” abundant.
I strongly believe in not harassing subjects for a picture, both for the sake of the creature and my photos. This is actually consistent with my playing the percentages approach. From a completely selfish perspective I don’t believe you get the best photos when you force a subject into position for a shot. I turned down many critters on this trip because they we’re nicely positioned. Much better to move on and find the subject that’s posing perfectly.
Sadly, there remain some photographers who put getting the shot above the welfare of the subject. And while most of these tend to be old school folks, I was sad to hear some names of newer photographers, whose photos I admire, come up in conversations about those known for leaving a trail of destruction in Lembeh. It is very sad, especially when the same people speak up for conservation in public and then dive like this when they think nobody is looking. My solution is to make everyone dive with their full name on their tank – so if you are naughty everyone knows who you are!!
People always ask me about my camera gear. I brought two systems to Lembeh. My main one was a Nikon D4 in a Subal housing, with Inon Z240 strobes. I mainly shot with the Nikon 105mm VR on this full frame camera, but also used the 60mm (particularly on octopus focused dives) and added a 2.0x Nikon AF-S teleconverter to the 105mm at times. I also carried Subsee +5 and +10 dioptres with me on over dive – but only add them when I hit minimum focus. I used double arms on most dives, which give me flexibility to rapidly switch between front lighting, side lighting, inward lighting and back lighting. Lembeh photography is all about subject separation (from the background) and our main tools to achieve this are camera angle, depth of field and lighting.
For my second camera I used an Olympus OM-D E-M5 is a Nauticam housing. I only used the 8mm fisheye lens, and put this behind a tiny 3.5” mini dome (does anyone have a smaller dome?). I didn’t use this housing on a tray, instead mount strobes to the top on T-Rex (tiny) arms to enable me light subjects right on the dome. I am very grateful to Joni for carrying this small rig on dives where we thought we might find suitable subjects.
Other toys of note were a prototype Retra LSD Prime snoot (which has now been released), and which I was also able to lend to a few of the other photographers at NAD. And a prototype of the forthcoming Subsee WAM lens, that I am helping Keri develop. I am afraid I can’t share the photos from that yet (I could show you, but I’d have to kill you). Everyone at the resort was impressed with the results they saw and wants one!
Any visit to Lembeh makes you reflect on the changes down the years. For me, I think the diving is as excellent as always and, actually, better in many ways. When I first came to Lembeh there was only one dive resort, and while there were loads of critters, there were also lots of beasties that the guides hadn’t yet learned how to find: hairy shrimps, green shrimp, Pontohi pygmies, hairy octopus, Lembeh sea dragon, tiger shrimp to name a few. These days it is fun to look through Constantinos Petrinos’ seminal book and note all the animals that the guides now find that aren’t in there. Mike Severns’ earlier book even has a section about his trials and tribulations in trying to see his first seahorse in North Sulawesi! So in short, we’ve never had it so good. And therefore there has never been a better time to visit.
A big thank you to Simon, Zee, all at NAD Lembeh for a wonderful stay. We enjoyed it enormously and loved the atmosphere created at the resort. It is so nice to eat and meet with the other guests, especially as Lembeh attracts such interesting and passionate people. So thank you also to other guests at NAD, who added considerably to the pleasure of our stay. I can’t wait to be back!