Think of a coral reef as Las Vegas: a glowing city of sexy fish flitting down boulevards of neon corals. Then imagine an undersea neighborhood that's more like the gritty desert beyond Vegas, where you run into quirky characters like the guy running the one-pump gas station, or the bar where people wait for aliens. That's Indonesia's Lembeh Strait.
Lying off the northeast tip of the island of Sulawesi,sheltered from the open ocean, the strait is at first glance an unwelcoming moonscape—plains of silt and black and gray volcanic sands stretching into murky gloom. Some divers call it the muck. There are no grand vistas, no teeming corals. But any place you put your hand, there is life, veiled in the sand or hiding in plain sight. You have to look closely, for many things are not what they seem. I stared for minutes at a sea fan before finding pygmy seahorses the size of my thumbnail clinging to the branches, their skin matching the color and texture of the sea fan's polyps. Another night a rare visitor drifted into the cove of Kungkungan Bay, camouflaged in a floating mass of sargassum weed. As the seaweed slowly broke apart, a golden sargassum frogfish emerged in mirror image under the lights of a pier.