Bali: A Diving Safari To "The Other Side"

Victor Tang visits an assortment of dive sites in Bali, Indonesia, by land.
By Victor Tang

Bali: A Diving Safari To "The Other Side"

An assortment of dive sites in western & eastern Bali, Indonesia, visited by land.

Text and Photos By Victor Tang

 

 
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The island of Bali, just east of the Java in the Indonesian Archipelago, has been adorned with several nicknames, of which the most apt would seem to be “Island of the Gods”, for this is truly a blessed land. Hemmed in by both the Bali and Lombok Straits on both sides, the Balinese has been left in relative isolation throughout its history, resulting in a Hindu enclave in a vast territory whose population has primarily pledged allegiance to the Islamic faith.

Left to its own devices, the people of Bali developed their own unique system of irrigation called Subak, which led to the iconic terraced paddy fields of which Bali is so acclaimed. Subak, along with rich fishing grounds in the surrounding seas endowed access to secure food supplies that has also allowed the Balinese people to develop a rich cultural heritage, which in addition to its intricate handicrafts, boast some of the most celebrated performing arts cultures that tourists flock from all over to admire.

 

The growth of Bali

The advent of air travel in the last few decades has allowed Bali unprecedented exposure to the outside world, with travellers converging on Bali to bask in its cultural and natural riches. Paddy fields have become photo opportunities, deep waters around the island has sprouted a sport fishing industry and most importantly for us scuba divers, the coral reefs that fringe the island have become a mecca for observing tropical marine life. Although Bali has since become a hub for travelling to other exotic diving destinations within Indonesia like Komodo or Wakatobi, its marine treasaures can more than hold its own against them.

Rich waters

How rich are the reefs around Bali? Just in 2011 a survey by scientists under the aegis of Conservation International Indonesia has found that the level of healthy coral cover is higher than higher profile places like Raja Ampat and Halmahera! This probably explains the maturity of the scuba diving industry in Bali, with services catered for the uninitiated to technical divers seeking the ultimate adrenaline experience.

At present the bulk of diving activities are centered on the eastern seaboard of Bali, with its world-class dive macro sites at Tulamben and of course the chance to catch Manta Rays and the enigmatic Sunfish at Nusa Penida. For most scuba divers the sites at Tulamben is the furthest from the airport they explore before turning back and heading elsewhere.  A group of divers and I decided to explore the much less visited dive sites of Northwestern Bali on a land safari, eagerly anticipating what awaits us the “other” side of Bali has to offer.

 

Diving Menjangan Island

It is truly ironic that this small island just off West Bali National Park has been relegated to a second tier dive location, for Menjangan Island was the genesis of scuba diving in Bali. In 1978 the Indonesian Navy invited the country’s main diving clubs to explore Menjangan Island and the divers were so impressed some of its members become pioneers of the Bali diving industry, sparking off an age of exploration along the Balinese coast. This ultimately led to the first underwater explorations a year later at the USS Liberty wreck at Tulamben and its surrounds, and with its relative proximity to the main tourist areas in the south, and with the emergence of Amed, Seraya and Padang Bai soon to follow, Menjangan Island lost its allure. Menjangan Island now receives but a tiny fraction of the number of scuba divers coming to Bali each year, but that was great for us, as we saw but 3 other dive boats for the whole day we were there.

Gateway to Mengjangan Island

 

Birthplace of Bali Scuba Diving

 

As one enters the waters of Menjangan Island, one can’t help but be astounded by the sheer size of the walls replete with healthy corals straining your peripheral vision from left to right. Moments later another realization dawns: the water visibility is excellent. In fact for all the time diving around Menjangan Island visibility never deteriorates below 20 meters. There is a reason for this: there are no freshwater sources on Menjangan Island that can create the runoff that kills visibility, so the waters around the island see great clarity most of the time.

 

Clear waters of Mengjangan. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea ys-110a at ISO80.
Manual mode at f8 and 1/100s. Dyron 8mm fisheye.

 

Sea fans here will strain your wide angle capabilities to the limit. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea ys-110a at ISO80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/640s. Dyron 8mm fisheye

 

New coral sprouting on existing ones. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea ys-110a at ISO80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/320s. Dyron 8mm fisheye

 

The “grass” is longer this side of Bali. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea ys-110a at ISO80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/100s. Dyron 8mm fisheye

 

Many places for subjects to hide. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea ys-110a at ISO80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/160s. Dyron 8mm fisheye

 

Traversing the walls around Menjangan Island requires an exercise in self restraint, for whilst the teeming walls beckons the diver to peer closer to look for macro subjects, but that risks missing out on the majestic underwater panoramas that are so hard to find in this time and age, which is the whole point of visiting the island. Reef fish abound, but remember to turn your head ever so often to look out for the pelagics that dart in and out of the blue. Reef sharks are a definite maybe on every dive here, but do not despair if they are not spotted, the humongous sea fans that pepper the walls will not fail to leave you in awe of their grandeur , compelling a moment to ponder if these are the sights that greeted the first divers back in 1978.

 

Well stocked coral head. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea ys-110a at ISO160. Manual mode at f8 and 1/200s. Dyron 8mm fisheye

 

Colorful reef scenes abound. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea ys-110a at ISO80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/320s. Dyron 8mm fisheye

 

Plentiful and varied fish life. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea ys-110a at ISO80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/160s. Dyron 8mm fisheye

 

Going close, macro life is easily spotted. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea ys-110a at ISO160. Manual mode at f8 and 1/100s. Dyron 8mm fisheye

 

One of but many sea fan forms at Mengjangan. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea ys-110a at ISO80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/250s. Dyron 8mm fisheye

 

Permutaran & artificial reefs

A sleepy fishing village 90minutes away (east) from Menjangan Island, Permutaran would have been a unremarkable northern waypoint to Tulamben save for one distinction: it hosts what is arguably the largest coral conversation project in the world. According to local lore, Permutaran boasted some of the lushest coral reefs in Bali, but the effects of El Nino in 1998 severely damaged the reefs and corresponding fish stocks, prompting the villagers to embrace marine conservation methods to revive the marine habitats they are so dependent on. Salvation came in the form of Biorock, a method of encouraging coral growth by sending a low volatage current to metal structures that have been seeded with live coral taken from the damaged reefs.

 

Recovering with a little help. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea ys-110a at ISO80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/500s. Dyron 8mm fisheye

 

Biorock has been controversial from the outset, with critics arguing that using electricity to boost coral growth is counterproductive as the electricity used is generated from fossil fuels that contribute to changing climate patterns in the first place. There are now more than 40 metal frames installed in the shallow waters of  Permutaran Bay, making it a significant enough spectacle for divers to visit the place. Thus for the villagers whether the project really helps to restore their reefs in the future is a moot point, for these underwater structures have been a boon to the development of the tourist trade in Permutaran.

 

Damaged coral getting a new lease of life. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea ys-110a at ISO80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/800s. Dyron 8mm fisheye

 

Environmental and ethical considerations aside, the Biorock structures that throng the coastline at Permutaran Bay truly counts as one of the most surreal dives any diving enthusiast will experience anywhere, for Biorock actually works. Getting to the dive site was as idiot proof as following the thick black cables that straddle the beach Even as the divers were hit with terrible visibility as we entered the water, it can be clearly seen that coral cover is certainly impressive on the earliest structures, the colonization of coral so complete they form dramatic coral mounds dotting the shallows. Other structures have been sponsored by well-wishers from afar, with attempts to differentiate their patronage by welding unique shapes like a fish or a giant crab, with their names included as part of the fabrication of course.  The success of the corals begets reef fish, which is plainly abundant through the murky waters, with damselfish and anthias the dominant species in these waters.

 

Proof of their success. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea ys-110a at ISO80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/125s. Dyron 8mm fisheye

 

Moving beyond the beachhead and towards the other reefs, the damage that has been wrought on the underwater environment has become plain to see, although it becomes apparent that other than El Nino the scars of inflicted by trinitrotoluene and most definitely cyanide are plain to see. There are still pockets of healthy coral present with decent macro life to be found, but these morsels hint at a more illustrious past that serves as painful reminder for the continuous vigilance against the potent combination of undesirable fishing practices and ignorance.

 

Remannts of a former glory. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea ys-110a at ISO80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/60s. Dyron 8mm fisheye

 

Spared from the wrongdoings of yesteryear. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea ys-110a at ISO80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/250s. Dyron 8mm fisheye

 

Rejuvenation goes innovative. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea ys-110a at ISO80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/160s. Dyron 8mm fisheye

 

A lonely outcrop. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea ys-110a at ISO80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/320s. Dyron 8mm fisheye

 

A Secret Dive Site

The excitement grew as the convoy made a turn off the main road in the middle of nowhere, for it was not everyday one could claim to visit a dive site in Bali that is truly secluded and unheard of. The locals call it Ocean Park, most probably in homage to the intrepid Hong Kong and Chinese divers whom are claimed to frequent this spot. As tarmac turned to dirt and houses morphed into foliage a sense of foreboding permeated the air and as the convoy burst out into the clearing the scene before us it become clear what we have arrived at: a fisherman’s base. The area was chock full of traditional fishing boats called Jukungs, local fishermen going about their chores maintaining boats and mending nets. It turns out that the waters in this area are still rich fishing grounds, and that augured well for the dive ahead.

 

Getting ready among the Jukungs

 

Right on the edge. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea ys-110a at ISO80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/160s. Dyron 8mm fisheye

 

The site is accessed via the shore, and after descending down a gentle slope you come to the first in a series of drop offs, the bottom reaching a maximum depth of 30 meters where there are coral outcrops of various sizes.  A singular feature in this underwater landscape is that at the tips of each drop off feature a huge barrel sponge of at least 1.5 meters high that juts out at barely possible positions and angles, much like watchtowers protecting a castle. 

The coral growth is good here, with macro life in abundance, but what is truly special here is the amount of fish biomass that can be observed here. Schools of Snapper, Jacks and the odd Trevally can be spotted at the various drop offs, and there are enough juvenile Groupers darting among the coral outcrops to consider this place a healthy nursery for this tasty sought after species. The water visibility is decent here at 15meters and above, allowing the diver to take in the fish life on show here, making this site a fine representation of a healthy reef ecosystem in Bali.

 

5 fish species on 1 seafan. Not bad. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea ys-110a at ISO80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/320s. Dyron 8mm fisheye

 

Sentinels of Ocean Park. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea ys-110a at ISO80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/500s. Dyron 8mm fisheye

 

It’s been here a while. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea ys-110a at ISO80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/640s. Dyron 8mm fisheye

 

Lionfish at Ocean Park. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea ys-110a at ISO80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/800s. Dyron 8mm fisheye

 

Trevally patrolling the reef. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea ys-110a at ISO80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/250s. Dyron 8mm fisheye

 

Tulamben and Seraya

A dive trip to Bali would not be truly complete without a visit to these dive locations, so we popped in to explore the USS Liberty wreck and did a night dive at Seraya. After being the more or less the only divers around for the past three days, the explosion in diver density in the Tulamben counts as a bit of a letdown, for we have truly crossed over from the other side into the “Dive Central”, but we knew the USS Liberty would not disappoint.

 

A species I have never seen before. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea ys-110a at ISO80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/250s.

 

Chromodoris Magnifica nnudibranch. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea ys-110a at ISO80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/250s. Subsee +10 diopter

 

Going macro - good choice?

I decided to change into my macro setup for the first time in this safari, since the USS Liberty wreck was renowned for harboring superb macro life. That turned out to be a tactical mistake, for less than 5 minutes into the dive we were greeted by a two meter Giant Grouper that would continue to dog as for the rest of the dive, Giant Trevallies swimming tantalizingly close to divers around the wreck, you get the picture. If the resident school of Jacks had decided to join the party it would really have been a cruel icing on the cake (Incidentally the school of Jacks have been reported to have moved to Seraya).

To pour salt into the wound, this was one of those days at the wreck where the big stuff took center stage, macro creatures proving elusive. Nevertheless we were still able to spot some macro subjects, and I exited the water consoled that the next time here will only get better.

 

Lysioquillina Lisa Mantis Shrimp. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea ys-110a at ISO80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/250s. Dyron +7 diopter

 

Banded Cleaner Shrimp. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea ys-110a at ISO80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/250s. Subsee +10 diopter

 

A pair of juvenile scorpion fish. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea ys-110a at ISO80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/100s.

 

White-spotteef shrimp. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea ys-110a at ISO80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/250s. Dyron +7 diopter

 

Seraya at night

Seraya has always been a haven for macro lovers, and for the night dive it did not disappoint. Lots of strange and wonderful critters could be spotted among the black sands, with sleeping fish making perfect models for us as we could methodically compose our shots. A dive in Seraya always serves up a personal first, this time coming across nudibranchs I have never seen before.  Towards the end of the dive there were some huge lionfish just starting their mating ritual, but getting close to them at this point is discouraged for the males become especially aggressive during this time, which we learnt to our peril.

 

Unidentified creepy crawly. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea ys-110a at ISO80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/250s. Subsee +10 diopter

 

Sleeping Goby. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea ys-110a at ISO80. Manual mode at f4.5 and 1/250s. Subsee +10 diopter

 

Underwater Spiderman. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea ys-110a at ISO80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/250s. Subsee +10 diopter

 

A sleeping fish is a good fish. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea ys-110a at ISO80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/60s.

 

Carminodoris Estrelyado nudibranch. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea ys-110a at ISO80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/250s. Subsee +10 diopter

 

Mantas at Nusa Penida

Manta Point at Nusa Penida, just off the southeast coast of Bali, has been a marquee dive site over the years for spotting Manta Rays on a reliable basis. In very recent times however a new site has been discovered where Mantas congregate to feed on the plankton that gets trapped in a small bay at Nusa Penida. One prime advantage of this new site is that it is shallow, reaching a maximum depth of 12 meters, so divers can ostensibly stay longer to enjoy observing the Mantas as they enter the bay to feed, if they appear at all.

The downside is that when the Mantas do come it means the waters tend to be laden with plankton, which means visibility drops considerably. Keeping in mind the strong currents from the Lombok Strait that Nusa Penida is notorious for, sometimes with fatal consequences, the waters in the bay are prone to surges, so divers need to keep up awareness when diving at Manta Feeding Point.

 

The entrance to Manta Feeding Point

 

As we dropped in at Manta Feeding Point the water was indeed murky with plankton, so it was not long before the first Mantas were spotted, gracefully gliding through the water to filter feed on the plankton buffet on offer. Possibly coming from every direction, one needs to have eye peeled all the time and cooperation among the divers in the group is essential, for the Mantas dart in and out of the murkiness in a flash.  The underwater landscape is barren save for a few reef fish, so all your attention can be put to spotting Mantas. In the 90 minutes that we were in the water we managed to spot about 10 Mantas arriving at the bay to feed. Suffice to say this new discovery will entertain divers for a long time yet.

 

Swooping in through the murk. Ambient Light at ISO400. Manual mode at f8 and 1/320s. Dyron 8mm fisheye

Manta Ray. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea ys-110a at ISO80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/100s. Dyron 8mm fisheye

 

Not getting enough of Mantas, it was decided to dive the same spot again in the afternoon, hoping to get better photo opportunities. This time however the visibility in the bay was amazing, easily reaching 35 meters, so in our hearts we knew that spotting any Mantas was always going to be difficult. Pushing out of the bay in the hope of catching any more Mantas, the great water visibility brought to attention the dramatic landscapes around the bay. With a mixture of huge rocks and soft white sand, it was a refreshing experience to see the geographical effects of years of erosion on the seabed.

 

Manta Runway? Ambient Light at ISO200. Manual mode at f8 and 1/30s. Dyron 8mm fisheye

 

A Zen-like arragenment. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea ys-110a at ISO80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/25s. Dyron 8mm fisheye

 

Treasure hunt! Taken with 2 Sea & Sea ys-110a at ISO80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/250s. Dyron 8mm fisheye

 

From Tip to Tip

Going on a land safari to visit the different dive locations in Bali lets you appreciate the sprawl of the island, with a whole assortment of dive sites to experience and enjoy. The main drawback is that the distances between places are far, so travelling time is a big consideration in planning should one wants to take in all that Bali has to offer. From spectacular wall diving at Menjangan Island at the northwest tip, excellent macro life at Tulamben and Seraya to the southeast island of Nusa Penida and its pelagics, Bali can well be considered a one-stop shop for any scuba enthusiasts. Not forgetting that there is still the west of Bali and sites like Ocean Park that are off the dive map and requiring local knowledge, the age of dive exploration in Bali is still not over. Not by a mile.

 

 

About the Author

Victor Tang is the founder of Wodepigu Water Pixel, an adventure dive company and photography consultancy with a nose for off the beaten track dive destinations. While not being stranded ashore with other pursuits as a musician and TV producer, Victor is on the prowl around Southeast Asia searching for new pristine waters to explore. His sister will always tease him for taking an oath never to take a camera underwater again after his first try in Malapascua, for at present he seems perpetually never without a camera anywhere he goes.

 

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