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.

About Rising Bubbles

Bonnie Waycott is a dive master and writer focusing on Japan's scuba diving and aquaculture. She is currently taking an MSc in Sustainable Aquaculture at the University of St Andrews via distance learning and is due to graduate in December 2017. Her written work has been featured in Asian Diver, Scuba Diver AustralAsia, DIVE, Marine Biologist, The Fish Site, Fish Farmer, Hatchery International and Outdoor Japan Traveler, while for Japanese divers she writes about marine-related issues abroad for Japanese diving website Ocean+α. You can follow Bonnie on Twitter (@risingbubbles), Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/RisingBubblesNotesOfANewDiver/) and Instagram (@bonniewaycott).
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