Monthly Archives: June 2012

May 2012: Manta Point and Sekolah Dasar (SD), Nusa Penida, Bali, Indonesia

Wednesday May 2nd 2012

As its name suggests, Manta Point off the island of Nusa Penida is home to the beautiful manta ray.  It sits along a huge cliff line where the mantas come to be cleaned, and conditions there are sometimes challenging due to the strong flow of water heading south.  The journey is also long, around 50-60mins, but that and the difficult conditions are worth it.   In 5-20m visibility, reef sharks, giant clams, starfish, anemones, shells, sponges…a whole list of creatures waits to greet you.

The water temperature at Nusa Penida is said to vary more than any other dive site in Bali.  From June to October it ranges from 19-22C, while the next few months from November onwards can be as warm as 27-28C or even higher. From September to November the seas are much calmer.  Nusa Penida can be found at the Badung Strait from Bali’s southern tip, and has a huge range of different dive sites.  Due to the many currents along the island, almost all dives there end up being some kind of drift dive.  Manta Point begins behind a rocky headland where there are large boulders in the shallow water.  There is also a sandy slope starting from around 5m and heading down to 12m.  Here it’s possible to settle on the sand and take some good close up shots of anything you may find.  The boulders are said to be cleaning stations, where the mantas glide past and arrive on a regular basis.

Our trip over to Manta Point was nice and relaxing, and full of excitement as everyone was pinning their hopes on seeing the mantas.  Once we arrived we quickly began to gear up with the help of our guides, not just because we were keen to see the mantas but also because the surface was slightly choppy.  Upon descent, the dive site didn’t appear all that exciting but visibility was excellent.  Far into the distance I could see plenty of rocks and boulders resting on some beautiful white sand which seemed to shine under the direct sunlight.  The start of the dive was very calm.  We slowly ascended to around 10m and headed over to the boulders to wait for the mantas.  Unfortunately there were not as many as we had hoped, but we spotted a couple in the far distance slowly drifting by, well reflected against the crystal clear water and sunlight.  Seeing them is definitely awe-inspiring – they magically and gracefully move across the water, strong swimmers that can grow up to 6m wide.  Sometimes they even approach divers, fascinated by the bubbles coming from the tanks but unfortunately we weren’t so lucky and had to be content with the two or so swimming around in the distance.

Manta Point certainly lived up to its reputation of a varied marine life.  Soon after spotting the mantas, we came across a reef shark resting on the sand below.  Even though we got up close to take some photos, he didn’t move and was happy to remain there just relaxing.  There are plenty of colourful fish around too.  We came across angel fish, butterfly fish, wrasses and parrotfish but what struck me most was just how open the site was.  Rocks and boulders stretched into the distance for miles, and it was slightly nerve-wracking gazing far beyond and wondering whether any big creature other than a manta would emerge.  There was a sense of stillness and mystery surrounding the site, but close to the sandy bottom we were able to study the rocks which contained a life of their own – nudibranchs, star fish, seaweed-type plants, tiny shellfish and some anemones.

Among Nusa Penida’s many dive sites, one that is worth visiting for drift diving is Sekolah Dasar, otherwise known simply as SD.  This area spreads out along the north coast of Nusa Penida, and is said to have one of the most beautiful coral gardens in the world.  It is also where the famous Mola Mola, or sunfish, can be seen, usually between June and October.  Compared to other dive sites I have been to, the reefs here seemed healthy and unspoilt.  Doing two more drift dives over an untouched healthy coral reef was an excellent end to my stay in Bali.

Nudibranchs, huge queen angel fish and pufferfish have all been sighted in the area but there is much more on offer at this special place.  The reef begins at 4m and there I made my first discovery –  a huge porcupine fish resting and staring at me through an object which appeared to be a small discarded cage or type of box.  As I drifted on, the current felt slack but strong enough to cause an impact, so along with my guide I tried to relax and let the water carry me.  The fish too swam effortlessly as we passed by.

The thermocline is another fascinating feature of drift diving, an invisible layer of water that separates the warmer surface waters and the cold deeper sea.  The temperature difference can be extreme.  One minute you are warm, the next cold.  I tried as much as I could to focus on the fish, and watch out for the next interesting discovery.  The water carried me over some coral where I could see triggerfish eating away.  One seemed so hungry that he was quite literally on his side, making the most of every tiny corner he could squeeze into.  The coral heads spread out for miles, and in some places you can even take shelter for a while as long as the current is not too strong.  Often some fish are simply too beautiful to pass by, and holding onto some hard coral lets you watch them for as long as you like.   At one point during a rest, we were extremely lucky to come across a sea snake that slowly rose up from a huge carpet of plate coral, swam effortlessly up to the surface to get some air, and then returned back into the coral out of sight.  The sun shining into the water lit up the area, and the diverse collection of corals, sponges combined with top visibility and a moderate current made this a beautiful dive.

Bali is a slightly underrated dive destination.  Other than the manta rays it lacked a lot of the big stuff, but the incredibly diverse marine life and  coral were superb.  The coral is very healthy, with very little signs of coral bleaching.   The dive spots we visited offered some of the best hard and soft corals I have seen.  For the underwater photographer, Bali has plenty to offer, and with the right equipment it really is possible to capture the stunning colours.  Every scuba diver of all levels can enjoy diving here.   I was satisfied with the diversity of the sites – ship wrecks, sandy slopes, black volcanic patches, rocky areas, boulders, coral gardens, strong and moderate currents, night diving, muck diving, boat dives, shore dives, I felt like I’d seen and done it all.  Bali is by no means developed in terms of high-rise buildings and shopping malls.  It brings together some top diving and wonderful nature, scenery, culture, food, friendliness, and a sense of the past.  Nearly two months since our trip, and I miss it a lot.

Practical Information

  • We spent time in Bali between April 28th and May 7th, arriving on different dates with different airlines.
  • I flew via Hong Kong with Hong Kong airlines.  A return flight cost around 90,000yen.  Storms disrupted our schedule but we took an evening flight and had a short overnight stay in Hong Kong before leaving for Bali the next morning (in our case we left in the evening due to the bad weather).
  • We had free pickup from Bali’s Denparsar airport, by our dive school Aqua Marine (www.aquamarinediving.com).
  • We were transferred to the Aston Tuban hotel (www.aston-international.com) very close to the airport and spent one night there.  Price included in dive package and came with breakfast.
  • Aqua Marine picked us up again on the 29th April and drove us to Candidasa (1hr 30mins).  The mini bus included air conditioning, dive magazines and free bottles of water.  Space for 6 people and one in front, with ample storage space at back.
  • We were driven to Bayside Candidasa (www.baysidecandidasa.com).  Anyone booking with Aqua Marine automatically stays here.  Huge spacious land full of beach bungalows, a pool, bar/restaurant and cozy reception area with sofas and tables.  Beach is just beyond the pool.  Owner is Australian.  Rooms were beautiful – big comfortable beds, TV, fridge (drinks separate), and outside shower, sink and toilet with wall and greenery.  Shower a bit temperamental.  Temperature changes from hot to cold, and water flow can be quite weak.
  • Food and drink: breakfast included pineapple pancakces, cooked breakfast, nasi goreng, tea, coffee, fruit juice, fruit platters..
  • We never went to the dive school.  Each morning we were picked up.  All necessary gear for diving already in the van.
  • Candidasa to Tulamben takes around 2hrs and 30mins, departing after 7AM.  Equipment is put together by yourself on arrival, but the guides carried them to shore and helped us put them on.
  • Excellent cafe and pool at the Tulamben dive resort where we could relax, have coffee etc and write up our log books.  Showers, changing rooms, towels available.  Restaurant had sandwiches, salads, nasi goreng, cans of coke, tea, coffee and bottled water.
  • Further along Tulamben Bay is another small beach area with two or so huts, tables that divers can use to put on equipment.  We came to this area when diving at the Seraya Slope and Drop Off.  No showers etc so we drove for 10mins or so back to the Tulamben resort.
  • Lunch at the resort is included in the dive package.
  • Candidasa to Gili Selang 8:30 meet at lobby, 15 min drive to Padangbai to prepare for the boat dive.  We got ready in a big cafe and were free to order our own food/drink.  Showers available, with towels provided by Aqua Marine.  Along the street in Padangbai are rows of food stalls, fruit shops and dive schools.
  • 40min boat ride from Padangbai to Gili Selang.
  • All equipment was on the boat.  All we did was enjoy the boat ride and allow the guides to help us put on our equipment.
  • Boat was very clean and spacious.  Lots of space and possible to sunbathe on roof.  Bottled water available.
  • Lunch provided (but need to order with the dive school the night before).  Options include ham, cheese or tuna baguettes, salad or nasi goreng.
  • The rest of my dives were either shore dives from Tulamben or boat dives Padangbai.  It also takes 30mins – 60mins from Padangbai to Nusa Penida (Manta Point).
  • After the shore dives, you are responsible for rinsing and hanging your own gear.
  • The area around Candidasa and our accommodation was full of shops, nail salons, massage parlours and restaurants.  We ate out each night and enjoyed a range of wine, seafood, salads…food is mildly spicy.
  • Leaving 24hrs between my last dive and flying – I went for a foot massage and spent time at the poolside and bar of Bayside Candidasa after checking out early in the morning.  That evening I flew back to Tokyo.  Anything you order at the bar/restaurant is on tab.  This builds up each day so keep an eye on it and pay everything on checkout.
  • Free transport from Candidasa to the airport, provided by Aqua Marine.  I took a return flight on May 4th and landed in Tokyo around 16:00 that same day, leaving Bali at 1AM with a several hour morning stay at Hong Kong airport.

May’s dives

Dive 1: Manta Point: depth: 13.1m, dive time: 50mins, water temp: 28C, entry time: 11:06AM, exit time: 11:56AM, average depth: 7.25m, used an 11.1L aluminium tank, 6kg weight belt and 5mm wetsuit.  Saw manta rays, 1 reef shark, star fish, nudibranchs, and plenty of typical coral reef fish.

Dive 2: Sekolah Dasar (SD): depth: 17.7m, dive time: 38mins, water temp: 29C, entry time: 13:20, exit time: 13:58, average depth: 10.07m, used an 11.1L aluminium tank, 6kg weight belt and 5mm wetsuit.  Saw triggerfish, parrotfish, lots of pelagic fish, unicorn fish and angel fish.

Dive 3: Sekolah Dasar (SD): depth: 15.7m, dive time: 44mins, water temp: 29C, entry time: 15:26, exit time: 16:04, average depth: 10.09m, used an 11.1L aluminium tank, 6kg weight belt and 5mm wetsuit.  Saw porcupine fish at 4m, Highlight was a huge sea snake rising up from the coral, coming up for air at the surface, and then disappearing straight back down into the coral garden.

May 2012: The USAT Liberty Wreck Night Dive, Tulamben Bay, Bali, Indonesia

Tuesday May 1st 2012

Our stay in Bali wouldn’t have been complete without at least one night dive, so after enjoying the muck dive and visiting the Dropoff once again, we returned to the USAT Liberty wreck in Tulamben.  After a 2-hour rest and a light meal, we walked to the beach to prepare as darkness approached.  As I had already experienced, the first 8m or so was a slow descent over the sandy bottom.  One of the number one skills a diver must focus on while night diving is buoyancy, because your perception of depth is slightly off, you are using a torch which can make for some awkward hand movements, perhaps you are over-breathing if anxious, and despite the torches it’s difficult to see what’s below.

Under the light of our torches the wreck slowly came into view, and we swam alongside following the exact same route as the previous day.  I felt slightly more stable holding onto different parts of the wreck, and got up close to some interesting macro life.  Tiny crabs, shrimps and nudibranchs that had been hiding in holes seemed to transform, crawling over the wreck and hard coral.  Maybe they were in search of food, or simply attracted by our torches.  Around the corner were shoals of fish hiding in the depth of the wreck, watching us as we passed by and shined our torches at them.  The parrotfish, often seen in Bali, apparently spins a mucous cocoon over its entire body and can look very interesting at night, like a shiny display case.  Other fish, perhaps large groupers or red snappers, were more curious and swam by quite close to us, while lionfish hovered near the wreck and overhead, slowly stretching out their large fins like huge flowers.  Waving our hands in the water we also got a good look at some shiny phosphorescent plankton.  However, the big highlight of the night dive was the Spanish dancer, the biggest nudibranch in the world that quite literally danced for us on the sandy bottom as our dive came to an end.  Fascinated by this, I went online and found some interesting facts on this creature:

  •  At night it appears pinkish red and blotchy.
  • On its head are two rhinophores – sensory organs that help it find food and a mate.
  • Juveniles are translucent and creamy.  Their colour varies as they grow.
  • It has a symbiotic relationship with a tiny shrimp that lives in its gills and provides a cleaning service.
  • Its nasty taste makes it immune to fish attacks.

Night diving is undoubtedly exciting.   For one thing, the marine life is different.  It could be fast asleep, or coming out to hunt under the light of a torch.  The feeling of uncertainty and anticipation as you wait to see what might emerge before you can be extremely thrilling.  But several precautions must be taken when planning a night dive.

It is important to go to a familiar site.   Diving at the same spot during the day will allow you to become acquainted with layout, depth, trails and hazards.  Knowing your gear is another point to remember.  Make sure that you know where everything is, what it does, that it’s comfortable and in good condition.  Temperature must also be taken into account.  Bearing in mind that it will fall at night, wearing some gloves or an extra vest underneath a wetsuit will make a big difference and make the dive more comfortable.  Gloves are also good for avoiding skin irritation or cuts in case you bump into something.  Torches must always be fully charged and checked beforehand, while back up lights are vital in case of any emergency, for example if a torch suddenly doesn’t work. The light must always be pointing directly in front of you.  Don’t shine it into your buddy’s face!

During a night dive, a world that you thought you knew can appear completely different.  Although many new divers (myself included) say that it’s scary not knowing what might be lurking in the distance, night diving is extremely popular.  Plucking up the courage to try it can offer divers a chance to confront any personal fears and gain a new sense of confidence.

May’s dives

Dive 3: USAT Liberty Wreck: depth:14.5m, dive time: 61mins, water temp: 30C, entry time: 19:02, exit time: 20:03, average depth: 7.53m, used a 11.1L aluminium tank, 6kg weight belt and 5mm wetsuit. Saw massive wrasses, Napoleon fish, sea urchins, lion fish and an amazing Spanish dancer that quite literally danced for us as we ascended.

May 2012: The Seraya Slope, Tulamben, Bali, Indonesia

Tuesday May 1st 2012

When I first heard the term Muck Diving, I certainly wasn’t imagining vast coral reefs and deep blue seas.  This kind of diving does literally involve diving in muck, or rather sand, silt and detritus, with slightly poor visibility and perhaps a rotting tree, other vegetation or garbage like fishing nets close by.  In these conditions it is almost impossible to come across rich vegetation or colourful fish.  Such dive sites begin in the shallowest waters as you enter the sea, and there is too much sand and silt for reefs to grow and flourish.  The best muck diving is said to be in river mouths where a combination of seawater, freshwater and currents can be an ideal habitat for many small critters and where a steady flow of water can bring in rich nutrients.  Muck diving is done at a very shallow depth, usually 3 – 8m, and involves scouring the floor with your face inches from the seabed.  It is a great way to practice buoyancy and fin kicking, and the perfect dive for someone who enjoys exploring and finding weird and wonderful creatures in some less obvious places.

Volcanic lava and ash are rich in minerals that can help marine life grow and regenerate.  They are also said to provide some extreme conditions in which animals must either adapt or die, and this can lead to sightings of some unusual creatures.  In this sense Bali, with its nutrient-rich black sand, is an ideal place for muck diving, and I was able to experience one just north of Tulamben at Seraya Slope.

Our dive began with an easy shore entry.  After gearing up near the beach we walked the few steps towards the water.  Conditions were very calm, and we swam down the gentle slope of black sand.  The bottom of the slope went down gradually to around 9m, and the black sand soon mixed with a range of rock formations, tiny pieces of coral and small sponges.  After diving over the Liberty Wreck, my first impressions of the area were not particularly overwhelming, and at first glance there was no clue to the rich marine life further below.  But eventually we reached a bare, brown and sandy bottom where we came across an artificial reef.  A metal structure had been unintentionally left or deliberately placed in the sand and was teeming with soft coral and tropical fish.  Known as the dome-shaped Seraya artificial reef, we swam around it and spotted Moorish Idols, small frogfish, blennies, brain coral and tiny crabs and shrimps such as the mantis shrimp and Colemans shrimp.  With visibility between 5 – 20m, it really was a photographer’s paradise with plenty of areas for some good shots.  Generally it is a very easy to site to navigate and dive in.

Beyond the artificial reef, Seraya is a sandy slope that continues to go down and down into the dark depths of the ocean with no end in sight.  The deeper areas between 9 and 35m are called Deep Secrets and are home to octopus and seahorses, cuttlefish, mimic octopus, striped catfish and large frogfish.  We spent just over 50mins hovering over the sand instead.  I was very relaxed and calm so my guide and I made it down to a little over 20m, and found even more nudibranchs, crabs and shellfish to observe.  Some creatures obligingly posed for photos, while the nudibranchs were so small that I had to strain my eyes to take a proper look at what my guide was pointing at.  One main attraction in Seraya is the Harlequin shrimp of which a fellow diver took an excellent photo.  The shrimp is shy and tends to hang out in dark areas, but its distinctive shape, bright colours and big eyes make it a very special creature to spot, almost like finding a bright flower underwater.  Its main diet is starfish, and it’s often been seen preying on them, attempting to flip them over before dragging them away.

I had never thought much about muck diving.  Indeed when I first came across the term it didn’t appeal at all, but having experienced it I can understand the satisfaction of finding something special in more obscure areas or indeed something you would not encounter on a regular dive.  It is an underwater treasure hunt, and the key is to slow down and take your time adjusting to the dive and getting used to the area.  After all, the marine life is most definitely out there.

May’s dives

Dive 1: Seraya Slope: depth: 21.5m, dive time:52mins, water temp: 30C, entry time: 11:05, exit time: 11:57, average depth: 12.95m, used an 11.1L aluminium tank, 6kg weight belt and 5mm wetsuit.  Saw mantis shrimp, Colemans shrimp, Harlequin shrimp, nudibranchs, frogfish, blennies and soft coral

Dive 2: Tulamben Dropoff: depth: 14.0m, dive time: 56mins, water temp: 30C, entry time: 15:13, exit time: 16:10, average depth: 10.14m, used an 11.1L aluminium tank, 6kg weight belt and 5mm wetsuit.  Saw a Napoleon wrasse, parrotfish, sea slugs, nudibranchs, shrimps, cuttlefish and starfish

April 2012: Gili Selang, Bali, Indonesia

Monday April 30th 2012

Day 2 in Bali and a 45 minute boat ride takes us to the island of Gili Selang.  Although isolated and relatively undiscovered, much awaits the enthusiastic diver, and not just an impressive marine life.  The currents of Gili Selang can be treacherous.  Located at the most eastern part of Bali, the island lies at the edge of the Lombok Strait.  From here, water flows at lightening speed into the Indian Ocean creating unpredictable water conditions so it is vital that divers are well prepared.  The currents flow south towards the calmer seas, where tuna and barracuda are said to appear abundantly.

Along Gili Selang are various dive spots, one being the Japanese wreck.  The boat can be found in quite shallow waters off Lipah Bay, but is relatively close to the strong currents.  For the marine life this is a good thing as the current brings abundant nutrients, allowing all kinds of creatures to thrive.  The depth of the wreck varies between 6m and 12m on a sandy bottom that can make visibility poor but overall the area offers plenty to see.  Along the north of the wreck is a vast coral reef, and from here you can swim further out into the stronger currents.

Although slightly on edge, I felt comfortable as I prepared to enter the water, but was not fully aware of just how powerful the current could be.  However, I soon was.  Doing a backflip off the boat, things got off to a smooth start over gardens of leather corals, brain corals and gorgonian fans and sponges all in perfect health thanks to the nutrient-rich water.  The island itself has a pretty steep slope with small volcanic rocks and boulders, an ideal environment for shellfish, nudibranchs, crabs and other small creatures to hide away in.  Green turtles and parrotfish can also be seen, and there are plenty of aquarium-like views.   The current soon picked up, starting at a slow walking pace and then becoming stronger and stronger.  At the time, a tiny pygmy seahorse had been found nestling close to a huge coral fan, and everyone had come by to have a look.  Holding onto a nearby rock, I could feel that something was not quite right and soon we were struggling to swim against the strong flow of water.  The water seemed angry and fierce.  The fish found it hard too, with some even diving towards the reef. Without gloves, gripping the rocks was tricky and taking one hand off almost dragged me away.  During some brief interludes the current seemed to slacken every few minutes, which offered a good opportunity to swim forwards for a while, ascend safely using a surface marker buoy (an inflatable tube on a reel that you can send up during the ascent), and abort the dive.

Drift diving is like flying for the more confident and experienced diver.  The current carries him or her over a lush and beautiful array of coral formations and sea life while the boat follows, watching the divers’ bubbles and waiting for him or her to surface.    The key to this kind of diving is not to fight the current.  Doing so can wear you out, so it’s important to maintain neutral buoyancy and go with the flow.  Drift diving is said to require little effort, and offers access to other sites and much wider areas that might be impossible to see on a normal dive.  Because there is not much swimming involved, less air is used and it’s possible to stay submerged for longer with a single tank.

But diving in strong currents means entry and exit procedures must be properly planned among the group, and maintaining buddy contact is vital.  One point to bear in mind is that currents tend to be faster at the surface and slower near the bottom where they encounter resistance from rocks or coral formations.  The bottom area is said to be the easiest place to swim against the current if this becomes necessary.  Drift diving must always be done from a boat drop-off and it’s vital that the captain knows the direction in which the current is flowing and can follow you from above.  Having a surface marker buoy also helps the boat find you easily.

For experienced divers, Gili Selang is challenging and thrilling.  Also known as “The Express,” some parts of the island have such strong currents that nothing can really grow there, but further out are tales of hammerhead sightings, turtles and other rare creatures.   Although quite nerve-wracking to begin with, the island is a good place to drift dive, even for the first time.

April’s dives

Dive 1: Gili Selang: depth: 8.4m, dive time: 43mins, water temp: 29C, entry time: 10:42, exit time: 11:23, average depth: 6.85m, used an 11.1L aluminium tank, 6kg weight belt and 5mm wetsuit.  Saw longfin spadefish, Moorish Idols, longfin bannerfish, wrasses and scalefin anthias.

Dive 2: Gili Selang Japanese wreck: depth: 14.6m, dive time: 36mins, water temp: 30C, entry time: 12:26, exit time: 13:02, average depth: 9.13m, used an 11.1L aluminium tank, 6kg weight belt and 5mm wetsuit.  Having spotted a tiny pygmy seahorse, this dive had to be abandoned soon afterwards due to the strong currents.

Dive 3: Gili Selang Tepekong: depth: 17.5m, dive time: 43mins, water temp: 29C, entry time: 14:46, exit time: 15:30ish, average depth: 11.34m, used an 11.1L aluminium tank, 6kg weight belt and 5mm wetsuit.  Saw clownfish, lemon damselfish, goldback damselfish, and butterfly fish.