Bali: One Small Island One Big Dive Adventure!

Author: Alex Mustard

Alex Mustard embarks on a quest for diversity, exploring little known sites around the land of temples. It is said that “a picture is worth a thousand words”, well “Bali” is just one little word that conjures up a thousand pictures: ornate temples surrounded by colourful ceremony, volcanic peaks thrusting up though the clouds, perfect terraces of rice paddies stepped into the hills, lush rain forests, beautiful sunsets and smiling Indonesian faces. But even to experienced divers few of the traditional images we associate with Bali are underwater ones. The cause of this misconception is twofold. First, I think that many people cannot believe that a holiday destination, blessed in as many ways as Bali can have good diving too. And second, there are some pretty average reefs in Bali (actually where most of the tourists get sent) and unless you pick your dive sites very carefully you can miss out on world class by diving on the wrong side of the island or even by just a kilometre or two! In this article I want to tell you what makes Bali such a great underwater destination, illustrating my case with tales from a week of awesome diving I recently had on the island.

Bali’s main attraction is diversity. First there is the biodiversity. Which, quite frankly, can be staggering. Bali sits within the famous ‘golden triangle’ of coral reef species richness, where coral species number twice those of the central Pacific or four times those of the Caribbean. The story is the same with the fish; more than 3,000 species are found in the shallow waters of Indonesia, while the Caribbean is home to less than 1,000. But biodiversity is only part of the story: equally important is that Bali has a remarkable diversity of diving adventures. Don’t just take my word for it - to quote from the Periplus guidebook ‘Diving Bali’, “Bali’s greatest charm, perhaps, is its wide range and variety of sites”. It is this variety that sets Bali apart from other Indonesian locations. Pulau Menjangan is the place for dramatic craggy reef wall scenery. Tulamben is home of the USAT Liberty wreck. Nusa Penida provides predictable encounters with pelagic giants. Amuk Bay is filled with cooler water and subtropical rarities. Secret Bay is a shallow site with a reputation for turning up creatures that have eluded photographers for years. Add to this recently discovered critter sites that will remain nameless here (sorry folks, I’m under orders!), and which have broken records with the reliability and richness of their macro life, and we have the perfect blend for a great trip. The main aim of my recent recognisance trip was to reacquaint myself with diving in Bali and to try out some of the new sites that have been discovered since my last visit. Furthermore I wanted to get accurate information on conditions at this time of year and to know exactly which lenses are best for various sites and creatures. To give you a flavour of the goodies on offer, let me tell you about my dives at three locations – Tulamben, Nusa Penida and Seraya. If reef fish have a capital city it must surely be the USAT Liberty wreck in Tulamben. Fish diversity and abundance is simply amazing, astounding, and to be honest impossible to get your head round in one dive. I know my fish. I’ve been learning their names since I was in single figures. I have a PhD in marine biology. And it still took me a handful of dives on the wreck to remember where everyone lived so I could plan my shooting. The Liberty is draped in soft corals and clouded in shoals of fish. It seems futile to list the species. Everything is here from a resident swirling school of Bigeye Jacks, massive groupers, and Bumphead Parrotfish down to Ghost Pipefish and Pygmy Seahorses. Indeed on one fan I found 13 Pygmies. And they were about twice the size of the ones I photographed in Lembeh earlier in the year, making them much more user friendly! The Liberty is one of those sites you must dive repeatedly and with every lens you own – I shot over 100 pictures on every dive I did here. Perhaps the most extraordinary quality of Tulamben’s fish is that they are so approachable. Put simply, it’s probably the best place to photograph reef fish in the world. If you don’t believe me, check out the location of most of the images in fish photography maestro, Roger Steene’s ‘Coral Seas’ coffee table book!

Next stop is Nusa Penida, a large island in the Lombok Strait, that couldn’t provide a bigger contrast with the wreck. Nusa Penida is an intimidating place to approach from the sea, with massive limestone cliffs plunging straight into the ocean. It looks distinctly un-Indonesian, quite the opposite of the volcanic landscape of Tulamben. It reminds me of the sort of uncharted island that suddenly appears in Saturday Matinee adventure movies – I kept expecting to see King-Kong or giant Dinosaurs at any moment. And that is not so far from the truth!

The Ocean Sunfish, or Mola mola, is without a doubt one of the ocean’s most mysterious and enigmatic creatures. For a start it is a fish that doesn’t have a tail. It lives in the open ocean where it feeds mainly on jellyfish. It holds the record for producing the most eggs of any fish - 300 million at a time. Oh, and sunfish are big. They are the heaviest bony fish in the ocean – one caught in 1996 weighed 2.3 tonnes – that is half the weight of a female elephant! In the late summer, sunfish migrate through the Lombok Strait and stop off on the reefs of Nusa Penida to get a clean from Bannerfish and Emperor Angelfish. During September 2004 people were seeing more than 10 queuing up for a clean. I only had one dive to look for Mola mola, damn the time constraints of a recce trip, but still managed a great encounter. It is pretty reliable. Sunfish are truly strange fish. I have never seen anything else in the ocean that can compare them with. They just seem to be from an alien world. Their size is awe-inspiring. Their body (without the fins) is about the same size as the mattress from a double bed. They look out of scale with the reef around them. My second dive at Nusa Penida was at Manta Point a cleaning station that produced two mantas (a low turnout, apparently) circling continuously into touching distance for 45 minutes, as I hovered with the attendant wrasses. It was a great dive, but one that was continually interrupted by thoughts of how insubstantial a manta is in comparison with the sunfish! Mantas are great to see, but Sunfish are something special. Seraya (no, I’m not going to give the site name!) is one of those special critter sites that can turn up wonders dive after dive. It even has its own type of frogfish - pretty impressive for a site that has only been discovered during the last 12 months!

The Australian photographer Michael Aw was one of the first to dive here and liked it so much that he cancelled a liveaboard trip to extend his stay on this one site! Seraya is to nudibranchs what Tulamben is to fish. 120 different species were recorded here in its first 8 weeks as a dive site, and Mr Aw found 41 species in one dive here. On one dive here I photographed (my pictures are a more reliable inventory than my memory) 5 frogfish (including two of the Seraya Frogfish), 2 species of undescribed nudibranchs (plus lots of ones with names), a juvenile Cockatoo Waspfish, 3 Boxer Crabs, two colour varieties of Skeleton Shrimps, a Bumblebee Shrimp, a Tozeuma Shrimp and several other species of crustaceans. Of course, I saw much more! What I really like about critter diving in Bali is that it offers a different mix of creatures to other areas. Lembeh, for example, is fantastic but lots of people have been there. If you have not been to Lembeh then you should go. But if you have already been there, then you must go to Bali! In Bali you will find that creatures that are rare in Lembeh are common. Bali will fill the gaps in your critter portfolio.

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