Whale-watching in the Lembeh Straits, Sulawesi

Sunrise in the Lembeh Straits

The limpid waters of the Lembeh Straits lapped the black sands of Tangkoko as our outrigger canoe pushed out in search of pilot whales. The fuzzy edges of the nearby volcano slowly sharpened into view as dawn broke over this little-visited corner of Indonesia’s 17,000 or so islands. The hot roti hurriedly  collected from a nearby home warmed our hands as the foil caught the early morning light.

Volcano Lembeh straits

I have a bit of a chequered past with whale-watching. My one previous sighting was off the coast of Ecuador, on the way back from a trip to Isla de la Plata to see frigate birds and blue-footed boobies. The water was rough, churned up more by the speed at which our lancha was hitting it, so most of us were feeling decidedly green. I was too busy trying to keep my eyes on the horizon at 45 degrees to pay much attention to the humpback whale that breached a few hundred metres away – all I saw was its tail disappearing into the surf.

pilot whales

There was no guarantee we’d see anything this time round either. “You’ll definitely see dolphins though” said our guide. Half an hour passed, slowly watching the sky turn light blue, with no sight of a single whale. The beautiful location softened the blow. And then a shout went up from the skipper, pointing to a dark mass looming above the waves. A pod of ten pilot whales joined us, gradually circling closer and closer to our canoe, surfacing over and over for at least 20 minutes.

Pilot whales

A couple more canoes had joined the search for whales now, but for those few minutes it was just us and the pilot whales, in the shadow of a volcano in the Lembeh Straits.



Whale-watching trips can be arranged through any of the lodges or homestays in the village of Batuh Putih.

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