Environmental troubles in the Lembeh Strait: we have to do something

Environmental troubles in the Lembeh Strait: we have to do something

Are we going to lose Lembeh?

Probably these words will sound not very politically correct, as a quite huge business is actually going on in the area, with hundreds of divers everyday and an increasing number of dive resorts.

But anyway I thing we should be aware that something bad is happening to the Lembeh Strait.

Today I went to the Strait during one of the usual daily trips that brings divers from the other side of the North Sulawesi – the “Bunaken area” – to visit the heaven of muck diving, celebrated worldwide and destination of many photographers, even very famous.

Diving was nice, we saw pygmy seahorses, a number of different nudibranchs, Gunards,  Scorpionfish, and some other critters. So everything is still normal? I think not exactly.

I have started diving in Lembeh more or less 10 years ago, and I have visited the Strait frequently, in recent months almost once or twice a week. I remember the astonishment of first dives there, sometimes around 100 minutes underwater, with my film camera always running out of shots exactly when something incredibly nice went out from somewhere.

So where is the difference? Let’s start from the beginning of today’s diving trip.

We took a boat from the Bitung Harbor, full of fishing vessels, ferries, big cargos, Navy ships just to tell some. A dense and almost uniform layer of gasoline covered water in the harbor, almost until the Police Pier (an old dive site that I remember full of wonderful orange frogfish, today not longer available to dive).  Garbage was floating all around the coastline and even in the middle of the Strait, and our boat captain needed to remove plastic from the propeller at least a couple of time in just 20 minutes navigation.

In our first dive, in Nudi Retreat (one of the most popular dive spots), other 2 boats drop divers in the site. A Pygmy Seahorse (yellow Hippocampus denise) was the main encounter of the dive, and everybody felt authorized to touch the gorgonian if not the little fish itself to obtain a better angle for the photo. Not surprising that the other pygmy we saw last week in another gorgonian was already disappeared.

Second dive, in Jahir, same story. No signs of the two yellow seahorses (Hippocampus kuda) we spot last time, and the few scorpionfish and velvetfish surrounded by many divers looking for some shots. Garbage and litter present everywhere: I emerged with my pockets full of plastic of various kind.

I can continue with the same pattern for the third dive.

Yes, of course a bad day can happen, nothing is guaranteed underwater. Maybe it was just an unlucky day. Anyway, unlucky days are happening quite often recently.

I won’t blame just divers for that situation. It is not divers’ fault the leaking of gasoline, the wastewater coming from some big industries around Bitung (there is a Paint production industry, many naval shipbuildings, and so on) or all the garbage floating and also sinking around. But divers and Dive Resorts can do their part.

We are going to loose the Lembeh Strait, one of our Earth Wonders. Drastic measures are necessaries as soon as possible.

These are my suggestions for the divers/dive resort of the area:

–       It should be absolutely forbidden (to everybody, guides included) to touch/manipulate/harass the marine life, even if the guest is the World Champion of underwater photography that promised a good tip for a good shot.

–       Magazine editors/competition judges: do not publish or award any image that could be obtained harassing the animal, including flying octopus, pygmies with gorgonian polyps closed, nudibranchs in impossible locations, Gunards with pectoral fins open, frogfish swimming. Difficult to evaluate? Ask to a biologist or even simply to a dive guide. Any octopus flies normally if not harassed, just to say one.

–       No more than 1 dive boat for every dive site, with a maximum of 10 divers.

–       Dive sites should be submitted to a periodic block, in order to allow the marine life to rest and reproduce without being disturbed.

–       Dive Resorts should organize periodical cleanups of the area, maybe using nets to remove the garbage, using local people and educate young generations trough an eco-friendly attitude.

And, maybe not useful as can remain not listened, but these are my suggestions for the Lembeh Park Authorities:

–       Develop a system of water quality monitoring based on international standards. I bet that water and sediments are heavily polluted in hydrocarbons, heavy metals, pesticides and other chemical coming from ships and local industries. Many of these compounds can be very dangerous not only for the marine life but even for the human health.

–       Buy some of these sea-cleaning ships. Tourists really dislike all the garbage floating and less litter and plastic means tourists more happy and more tourists in the future.

–       Everybody is paying 50.000 IDR (4 US$) a day to dive in the Lembeh Strait. For approximately 100 divers (rough estimate!) a day, 365 days/year, there are almost 150.000 US$/year. I must admit is not a great amount, even for the local economy, but anyway what are you doing with this money? Maybe something very important but we don’t know. Please show us what’s going on: if it is worthwhile we can also think about increasing this amount.

Yes, difficult and not politically correct. But I think we should act, now: the point of no return is already too close.


Dr. Francesco Ricciardi, MSc, PhD in Environmental Sciences
Underwater Photographer, Dive Instructor and Guide




  1. avatar

    Hi Francesco
    Whilst I totally agree with your sentiments, I am not sure what I can do as a diver based in the UK. I can read them with interest. I can abide by eco-diving standards (which I do 100% anyway). I can swim away from dive guides in Lembeh who are trying to poke marine creatures and persuade divers to come ever closer to get a photograph – which I have done! I can share your blog with other like-minded dive friends but what worries me is that if I do, I risk accidentally persuading other divers that the diving is no longer any good… which is simply not true.
    Surely this needs a multi level approach whereby you, your fellow dive guides, professionals and resorts must start an eco-diving movement from within the industry, so that people like me can continue to come and dive responsibly in Sulawesi and add to the pressure from afar and finally, marine conservation and dive organisations can also seek to support change through political pressure.
    I want to see the repution of diving and dive resorts enhanced and not diminished…how do we do that?

  2. avatar

    Hello Francesco,
    Thank you for your post. As an owner of a dive center in Lembeh Strait, I agree the situation in the Strait is serious – but I also believe the animals are heartier than we think. You have some excellent suggestions and operators can only do so much to ensure longevity of animal life. The primary problem stems from complete ignorance of the political players involved. They have absolutely no concept of marine tourism, sustainable tourism development or co-management of tourism along with other commercial interests (shipping, fishing, land development etc).

    Those who have interest in protecting Lembeh Strait would better serve their time pressuring the political process – embarrass them into right action. Discouraging additional tourists, in my opinion, is not a viable solution. Lembeh Strait is still a fascinating dive destination; responsible operators can and do continue to amaze guests. Letters to the tourism departments in Jakarta, N. Sulawesi, Bitung; letters to the mayor, head of DPRD would be helpful. Yes, there are a couple of operators who are incredibly irresponsible, but for the most part we are all trying our best. Many of the points you suggest have already been discussed. A blog such as this will help us pressure the government to enforce laws already in place.

    In the end, it’s “The Tragedy of the Commons” – fortunately many of us have an economic interest in protecting the long term viability of our under water life. I welcome any and all suggestions and a forum whereby dedicated and self sacrificing people are willing and able to put up time and effort to make a change. Any and all of us who’ve ever dived Lembeh know this to be incredibly special & important.

    Thank you again.

  3. avatar

    Dear Penny and Danny,

    thank you very much for your comments and suggestions.
    After some years working in the environmental sector, I realized that we cannot always try to find a compromis between different interests. Because in any case, if you ask for 100 you’ll get (if you’re lucky) 20, especially in countries like Indonesia where corruption will absorb a huge part of your budget.

    So it’s not longer time of little interventions. Measures against pollution and divers-destroyers should be firm and immediate, especially nowadays where divers coming from recently-developed countries but without any environmental education start to travel – Russia, China, Indonesia just to citate some.

    Probably it will take less divers in the immediate period, because they will be looking for another place where they will be more “free to act”. But in the medium period I’m sure it will pay.

    From my point of view, I have decided to start being more “integralist”. I wrote this letter to many magazine but any of them wanted to publish it, because of course all the travel agencies and dive centers that pay for marketing are more politically important than just “an alarmed diver”.

    But I’ll keep denouncing and publicizing any misconduct I’ll see (starting from the Frogfish in the aquarium story – you’ll see it later) and keep making pressures.

    For any meeting/discussion table etc. I’m available.

    I don’t want to see Bunaken and Lembeh become the same as Sharm el Sheikh is today, just a faded memory of ancient splendor.

  4. avatar

    Lembeh is a reaping what it has sown. It’s going to die from its own popularity which may be very good for the critters. What I suggest is tourist go to other dive destinations. You can find the same critters all over the place… Lembeh is the first, but definitely not the last place for muck diving.. Anyway I had fun in Lembeh but I wouldn’t go back a second time since there are so many wonderful places I have yet to visit… And Lembeh is far too commercial and expensive for its worth!

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