Bali – diving with Underwater Tribe May 2013

Some people say there are two types of Australians – those that take holidays in Bali and those that don’t.  Personally, I reckon, if you could be bothered, there are better ways to categorise Australians (league-v–rugby–v–AFL–v–soccer; for starters) but it is true about Bali.

And … well, I am in the “those that don’t” camp. On my one and only holiday trip there more than a decade ago, I fell into the “exhausted, needs to loll by a pool and be looked after until a sufficient level of coma is achieved” group. These days I would rather spend my holidays underwater and if I need to be comatose, I’m happy lazing around here on a beautiful far south coast beach where the sun is strong, the sand is crunchy and soft and the ocean is refreshing.










For me Bali is a frustrating mix – affordable beachside luxury for when you need to be comatose, but with about a million other tourists gaggling around. Glimpses of a colourful rich culture, but only superficially available at best. Hot, crowded, noisy and far too many Aussies in unflattering Bintang singlets behaving badly. I’d seen beautiful footage of diving the Liberty Wreck (for example, google Bubblevision) but understood it was usually super crowded and the Mola Mola dives at Nusa Penida looked pretty good but potentially treacherous with the wrong dive operator.

I had come to think of Bali (well Denpasar to be more accurate) as one of those necessary evils, along with excess luggage fees and the push and shove of boarding small planes, that you learn to just flow with on your way to a wonderful Indonesian dive trip.

Look how dreadful it turned out to be, damn that tree

Then a couple of diver/photographers I respect started talking about Bali as a credible dive destination – perfect to add on to the start or end of a trip. I was joining a group of local dive friends on a trip through Komodo on Phi Siren, so organised a couple of them to join me – adding a few extra days to the start of the trip to sample some Bali diving.  I arranged a couple of quotes and signed us up with Mike Veitch and Luca Vaime’s new dive/travel/photography company, Underwater Tribe, for a six day Bali diving safari. I had no idea what to expect but figured, based on an earlier trip with Mike to Cenderawasih Bay, these were people I could trust. And I am so glad I did.

I wish I could say I handed planning confidently over to Luca and Miho (Mike was out on a boat somewhere) but to be honest, I was a little nervous about dragging three friends out into the unknown, so there was a bit of to-ing and fro-ing over the emails. I needn’t have bothered. Luca and Miho put together a fantastic itinerary that took us from Sanur, our pick up point in the south, up to the north west coast to dive Menjangan Island, then along the north coast (in an easterly direction) to Lovina, Tulamben and Amed, finishing up with a night and day in Ubud for those of us travelling on. A chance to dry our gear before meeting up with our Canberra friends (in Kuta – sigh) ahead of the flight to Bima.

Not too shabby

Underwater Tribe took care of everything – we had a fantastic dive master from Manado assigned to us, Niko, and a very capable driver (essential in that crazy traffic), Julian, who also knew a lot about the areas we were travelling through and the various ceremonies we were to encounter and a great sense of humour. Accommodation was taken care of, and really, all we had to do was roll out of bed and follow them around. As a particular treat, Mike and Made Dwi Suarsana (I know, how lucky was that!) travelled with us as well. The first long day of travel was easier than I expected – broken up with stops for breakfast, a walk (through torrential rain) to a pretty speccy waterfall, stops at beautiful mountain lookouts,

Waterfall at Civet Cat Poo Coffee Farm

and a stop for those who find monkeys endearing (I’m not in that group either).

Luckily I had completed the Rabies shots

Diving started with a full day, three boat dives at Menjangan Island – part of West Bali National Park and the first of what would turn out to be many wonderful surprises – healthy hard and soft coral, massive gorgonian fans, schooling fish, caves and an array of macro subjects. The island is a popular day trip destination for snorkelling tourists, wrapped around pool noodles, but we seemed to be the only divers.

Water taxies lined up ready to make the trip to Menganjan Island


This Gorgonian fan was enormous – beautiful wall dive

Rust-spotted guard crab

Trapezia rufopunctata

This island is also home to the very impressive Puri Gili Kencana temple. Terrible photo, complete with water droplet distortion, but gives some notion of the size and elaborate design of this temple. I googled the name of the temple and found that along with the other three temples on the island, this site is favoured by couples hoping to start a family and that someone has apparently left a Geocaching token in the main temple. I know I’m an old lady but that struck me as a pretty disgraceful thing to do.

Part of the Puri Gili Kencana temple

Throughout the day a stream of the water taxis arrived with pilgrims, creating quite a traffic jam at the island’s jetty. Fun to watch while we enjoyed a boxed lunch. Along with snorkelers with noodles we also spotted some wild Java deer on a beach. But really it was the diving that had brought us to this beautiful remote part of Bali. What a treat to be back in warm tropical water and with friends. Three boat dives gave us a chance to dust off our diving skills, get to know Niko little and begin to relax, even if the boat seemed to have quite a lot of holes in it.

From Menganjan we travelled down to Lovina and from here on in the diving was shore entry style, either across black sand beaches or rocky shorelines. All the entries were pretty straightforward, although we each did occasionally embarrass ourselves and I was glad to have bought open heel fins and boots. In Lovina we dived twice at Puri Jati, these were classic black sand muck dives and I loved it.

Long arm and coconut octopus and a first me, sea horse, ghost pipefish, pipefish, pegasus sea moth, juvenile lionfish, really most things you’d expect to see on this type of dive. Watching a Balinese cleansing ceremony on the beach was an unexpected addition to the day. Our presence didn’t seem to intrude on proceedings at all.

That is a pretty sad photo but it was the first mimic octopus I have seen. Now I’m hanging out for a Wunderpus and a Starry night, oh and a Hairy. From Lovina we travelled down to Tulamben and spent a very happy day and half diving the Liberty Wreck and great little shore dive, Coral Gardens, which also turned out to be a pretty interesting muck dive. The Liberty Wreck was fantastic – so beautiful it is easy to see why so many people want to dive it. It was busy while we were there, but not so that it was a bother. My photos of the wreck are especially bad so I suggest you google it. There is a great video by Bubblevision on YouTube. Sweetlips, clouds of Glassfish, Trumpetfish, extremely friendly Surgeon fish, a variety of beautiful soft corals and the light filtering through gaps in the wheelhouse is especially beautiful. As you would expect, this wreck is deteriorating with time so I recommend, if you are thinking that one day you will dive the Liberty Wreck, that you don’t leave it for too long.

Leander plumosus

Donald Duck Shrimp

While two of our group returned to the Liberty Wreck for a late afternoon dive (and apparently had it almost to themselves), two of us waddled our way into the ocean in front of our hotel to the dive site Coral Gardens. I really wasn’t expecting much – hotels line the narrow strip of pebbly beach, there are dive operators in shacks all along the road, so I anticipated high traffic damage. Wrong again. Not that there was much magnificent coral, there was though a really good little muck dive. Once we got passed the coral, Niko led us to an area where some underwater sculptures are attracting interesting marine life. This was such a good dive – Crinoid shrimp, mantis shrimp, Corallimorph shrimp, Ornate ghost pipefish, Ribbon eels, Glassfish, Peacock mantis shrimp, pygmy seahorse and best of all a Donald duck shrimp. Honestly this was the most unexpected, sweet little muck dive, I would have happily spent another day split between the wreck and Coral Gardens.

From Tulamben we travelled further south along the coast (or east, I’m not sure) to Amed, another area of Bali I hadn’t heard of and it too was a fantastic surprise.  The coastline reminded me of the Amalfi coast, lots of bays and high cliffs. The area seems to be favoured by either the very wealthy with beautiful cliff top compounds or raggedy hippies hanging out in cheap home stays. Here we dived the Japanese wreck, very shallow and after getting past the rocky beach and traditional fishing boats the first white sand of the trip. It created that lovely milky aqua water. Along with the wreck covered in soft corals, this site offers a variety of macro subjects for keen eyed including fire dart gobies, loads of nudibranchs, leaf fish etc.. Schools of fish hang out under the wreck and while fun to try to shoot, I have to conclude that a single strobe (in my hands) and the inside or under of wrecks isn’t that great but this gives an idea –

Our final two dives were at Cafe Garam further down the coast.  What a great way to end the diving part of this trip.

Pterois mombasae

Mombasa Lionfish

These last dives were terrific. Classic start – acres of grey sand, suddenly turns out there are dozens of blue spotted sting rays in that sand and then when you reach some tyres used for mooring boats and the place comes alive. Amongst other things three beautiful juvenile emperor angel fish a perfect foil for three fat ugly stone fish.


A great way to end a trip that was characterised by dives ending with huge smiles and lots of chatter about what we had seen and the passing around of cameras to view the evidence.

One of the best things about this trip was travelling and diving with good friends. My last trip with friends was back in October 2011, Sipidan/Mabul with my lovely Indepth Scuba. Straight after that trip I headed off on my first solo dive trip (with Wetpixel Ultimate Indonesia 2011). Between then and this trip eighteen months later, I had been travelling solo. Not to be misunderstood, I love the freedom of solo travel and have met some really fantastic people I wished I lived closer to and look forward to diving with again. But there is something easy and comfortable about diving with friends and it is really nice to have people back home with shared memories you can relive over a glass or two. And it’s true, sometimes you just have to be Australian to get the joke.

For me, an added bonus was having Mike and Made schlep around with us. These are such good people, great divers and Mike is such a good photographer there is plenty, always plenty to learn from both these top blokes.

Top Tips –

  1. Add this on to the next time you are travelling to Asia
  2. Dive Bali with Underwater Tribe.  It is clear from the itinerary, staff etc. that these people are photographers and will know what you are looking for. Not so the Phi Siren but that’s a different story for another time.
  3. Take open heel fins – the entries were pretty easy but I was glad to have dive boots.
  4. Take plenty of insect repellant – the higher the proportion of DEET the better
  5. Make the most of the driving. Julian and Niko were more than happy to stop at photogenic locations even if it did mean falling behind that dratted truck again.
  6. Don’t leave your exotic disease immunisation shots to the last minute – this didn’t work so well for me
  7. Bali is a pretty lovely place after all, but I still strongly recommend you avoid Kuta at all costs
  8. Get washing done whenever the opportunity presents, particularly if you are travelling on
  9. Depending on the time of year – adding Nusa Penida with Mike and Luca would probably work very well.
  10. There is absolutely nothing that an expert, Balinese massage can’t cure.

Big shout out to Luca, Miho, Mike, Made, Niko and Julian. Thank you so much for introducing us to the wonderful diving opportunities right at our door step.

Fun on the road


Chadwiki – The Veitch Device

The Fab Veechee

The original Veitch Device

Self-acclaimed underwater photographer and travel guide, Mike Veitch, is credited with the development of the Veitch Device. Born Michael William Veitch, mid last century, somewhere in British Columbia, Canada, Mr Veitch first announced the launch of the Veitch Device in early 2012 on his web log, Mike Veitch Photography and Travel.

Designed to assist the transition from one state of being to another, the original Vietch Device took the form of a packed dive suitcase placed randomly, but prominently, in the corner of the front room of a recently acquired terrestrial home.

An otherwise reasonably competent man, Veitch initially designed the Device to help calm the terror of wearing shoes and navigating traffic and to sooth the horror of supermarkets and laundries. An important, though unexpected benefit of the original Veitch Device was its ability to create the impression of a reasonable explanation for Mr Veitch’s disappointing performance on the golf course.

Despite best efforts to retain control over the concept of a Veitch Device, by late 2012 hippypreneurs from as far afield as Ubud, Indonesia; Portland, Oregon; and the northern coast of New South Wales, Australia, had begun marketing weekend retreats based on the idea, notably “Finding Your V Qi Device Within”. While regional differences have emerged most retreats incorporate the requirement that participants select an item, usually a pebble or small plastic knick-knack, which they commit to carrying on their person henceforth.

In more mainstream communities, the concept of a Veitch Device is now commonly used by middle aged men and women to justify inappropriate purchases or actions generally associated with mid-life crises. For example, “This is not just a bright red sports car mate, it’s a bloody Veechee Device” [sub. nipple ring, tattoo, pony tail, drum kit, surf board, decree nisi].

Meanwhile, the original Veitch Device remains packed and ready to go, although some observers report a slight improvement to Mr Veitch’s golf game.

Happy Whale Shark Day,  J

Photo courtesy of Mike Veitch, self-acclaimed underwater photographer and travel guide, occasional Director of Photography here at oldladyholidaysnaps.







Photoworkshop with whale sharks and Mike Veitch, July 2012

I was a late addition to this trip – someone had to cancel and I was able to wangle some last minute leave. Now that the trip is done and I’m cooling my heels in Jakarta waiting for my flight home tomorrow, I can still hardly believe my luck. What a fantastic trip – terrific bunch of divers, good boat and great crew, some pretty nice Raja Ampat reefs, wobbegong sharks, a nesting leatherback turtle, manta rays, pilot whales, beautiful, beautiful whale sharks, and of course, the fab Mike Veitch. Really, what’s not to love about Mike.

This was my second liveaboard dive trip and second outing with my Canon G12, Fisheye Fix Housing and single Inon Z240. The first trip, last year’s Wetpixel Ultimate Indonesia, also on Damai II, was fabulous, but left me with a pretty long “what I wish I had had with me” list. This time I was better prepared – laptop plus Lightroom, external hard drive, USBs, extra memory cards, whizz bang battery charger and most importantly a new Sola focus light and new 0.41x ultra wide angle lens for my G12 Fish Eye Fix housing (thank you nice bloke at Note to self – 28 rechargeable AA batteries may have been a little excessive.

So well organised and through the awful stress of packing I headed off for the long 21 hour travel day to Sorong, Papua. On this trip the transfer to the domestic terminal in Jakarta was a bit of a nightmare and it’s not much fun killing 5 hours in the domestic terminal waiting for the midnight flight out. Definitely need a better plan next time.

The itinerary – embark Sorong, 5-6 dive days in the northern part of Raja Ampat then a couple of days diving and motoring around to Manokwari, stopping on the way to check out a rare leatherback turtle nesting site. Down through Cenderawasih Bay to spend the final two diving days and last day snorkeling with the whale sharks, disembark – Nabire, fly to Jayapura, Makassar, Jakarta and home.

This dive trip included a photo workshop with Mike and my aim was simple, try to improve wide angle shots, without backscatter and preferably not green.

This is why, plenty of room for improvement

Sounds like a plan? Well, it’s a boat and it’s a boat in a remote location. I arrived, suitably frazzled, 7am Monday to find the Damai II Captain had been taken ill and a replacement needed to be flown in. The harbour master would not allow the boat out of the harbour until the new captain arrived and presented his credentials. Fair enough – but, the ban also included taking the skiffs and divers to nearby reefs. While we managed to get one dive in on Tuesday morning, we were pretty much boat bound for the first two days. Just one of those things, but losing 2 out of 10 diving days was not a great start. The delay put a bit of a dent in the itinerary and we seemed to be playing catch up for a couple of days. On the positive, the ill Captain will recover and the replacement Captain got us through long crossings and to each new dive area without a hitch. And despite the messy start, Mike and crew put together a good mix of dives as we travelled from Sorong towards Cenderawasih Bay. Soft coral bommies, reefs, a World War II wreck, pier and mangroves.

Damai II
Weather and viz were patchy throughout the trip and with low ambient light some rubbly sites didn’t quite live up to the Raja Ampat reputation (sheesh listen to me now, low ambient light). Regardless, plenty of beautiful soft corals open to the passing currents, healthy hard coral gardens, cuttlefish, manta ray, wobbegongs, blue spotted sting ray, needle and archer fish in the mangroves, robust and juvenile ornate ghost pipe fish for a treat and a nice array of shrimp, crabs and nudibranchs and one blue ringed octopus to keep us happy. While clouds of small fish surrounded every bommie; medium and large fish were a rare find. We did spot a school of big bump head parrot fish and others on the trip less obsessed with bracketing, saw the odd reef, bamboo and epaulette sharks.

Low ambient light makes for beautiful clouds at sunrise

Once underway we settled into a smooth tempo. First dive 7.30, breakfast, photography workshop, second dive 11, lunch, workshop or rest or photo review, dive again at 3, and then either night dive at 6.30 or beer, dinner,  presentation and sleep. I mostly chose beer – still not quite recovered from the ruck and scrum of night diving on last years’ Ultimate Indonesia trip.

Mike spent time underwater with each of us in turn, demonstrating adjustments to aperture, shutter speeds, strobes (who knew TTL was so clever!) etc. Slowly as the days drifted by, we each began to achieve the results we were looking for. Well, others did, I’m still at that stage where my photos rarely resemble the image I have in my head. The occasional good shot is a total pleasure and enough to keep me smiling through the inevitable backslide to less than ordinary results.

Travelling from Sorong around to Manokwari provided plenty of time for bracketing, bracketing, and more bracketing, adjusting the camera settings and strobe positions, trying to get shots without backscatter, trying to get just that right (well any) shade of blue, it’s a bit like laying down a muscle memory. The new 160wide angle lens took a bit of getting used to. I managed to take quite a lot of photos of my strobe and various parts of the lens shade thingo appear in just about every photo. Much to my surprise I did start to produce the odd scatter free (or few spots) wide angle shot. I also learnt a great deal more about the various shades of blue and the magic of minus 1.

Here’s some of the more successful attempts –

Mike, waiting at the station

Under the pier



This Damai II itinerary also includes a stop at a rare leatherback turtle nesting site. Guides are collected from one village, dropped off at another along with some of the boat crew and once the sun sets they go off in search of a turtle. Guests stay safely tucked up on the Damai II until the message comes through that a turtle has been found. On this trip, four of us decided that was just a bit soft, and opted to go schlepping along with the guides. We were warned – the beach landing could be a bit hairy, there would be sand flies, we might have to walk 5 kilometres, without lights, quietly and still not find a turtle.

Meh. Undeterred we set off and so, so glad we did. Not only did we get to watch a massive leatherback turtle haul herself up the beach (imagine standing on a dark beach, Milky Way blazing above, watching a boulder move out of the water and slowly up to the dry sand), dig a nest, lay eggs and haul herself back to the sea, we also found two little hatchlings which we shamelessly photographed before letting them scamper off. What is it about watching baby turtles make their way to the sea – everyone suddenly becomes a mother turtle and gives a spontaneous hoorah followed by a gasp of despair as they get buffetted by the wavelets.

One of two baby leatherback turtles we watched scramble to the sea

This was such a highlight. Mind you we worked for it – we walked for miles and miles along 3 beaches, across two rocky headlands, over a slippery jungle track reminiscent of the Kokoda Trail, in a tropical downpour, in the dark. The call went out to the boat as soon as the turtle was settled and the others arrived in time to watch the turtle cover up the nest and haul back to the sea. Cool, but just not as.

On a more sombre note – we left quite worried that this precious site seemed poorly protected. Mandy counted at least 20 sets of tracks and as many marked nests. But she also found evidence that nests were being raided – broken, still soft shells, pig and dog prints in the sand. I’ve written to WWF and hope that helps rouse a response.

At last we arrive at Cenderawasih Bay and the reason for taking the long 21 hour travel days, the whale sharks. Most people now know about the phenomenon, juvenile whale sharks attracted to the night lights on the bamboo fishing platform. How, over time, the fishermen have taken to feeding the sharks. Most of us have seen the pictures.  I had, but I simply can’t describe what a sensation it was to be in the water with these wonderful fish. They are big, and beautiful, graceful, powerful, individual and unique, and, well, slightly dopey.

On the first morning we were so excited to hear there was a whale shark already at the platform. It seemed huge until a bigger one turned up later in the day.  Day 2, there were three whale sharks and on the last day, five. It was fascinating to watch the bigger ones bully the smaller ones out the way, and the smaller ones come rocketing in whenever there was a clear space. The fishermen on the platform keep the whale sharks interested by pouring water from the platform, dipping a smaller net of fish rapidly in and out of the water and throwing scoops of small, cut up bait fish. The whale sharks circle around the platform, going up to the feeding point, at times holding themselves in an upright, tail stand position. Occasionally there is a bit of push and shove but often they give the appearance of politely taking turns.

At first I was a little nervous – these are big, solid fish and I didn’t fancy being swiped by a tail, but as the first day progressed, it started to feel quite normal to swim up to these huge creatures, get the camera up close to try capture the water rushing down through open mouths and bubbling out of gills.

Or to swim underneath one trying to capture a silhouette shot.  Blinded by the sun, mask flooding and sea water pouring up my nose, trying to get one of these cliché shots – I have never had so much fun. I have a large collection of “just off” whale shark silhouette shots if anyone can think of something useful to do with them. Thankfully, on the last afternoon, Mike signaled the settings to use; practically placed me in the right position and I managed one, not so bad shot, complete with beautiful sun rays. Well come on, I was a paying customer! Hope you don’t mind me including your photo Mike.

In an attempt to avoid divers and bubbles appearing in every shot, we tried to be organised. This meant staggering the dive groups. Our group of three also tried to stay on the same side or further out, taking turns to go in for closer shots and generally to be aware of each other and where our bubbles were. Excitement and getting carried away in the sheer spectacle of it all meant that this didn’t always work. We all have plenty of photos with collections of divers at strange angles, odd fins and bubbles. Overall staggered groups in the water over the two full days of unlimited diving worked well, despite the fact that you just can’t have too many photos of whale sharks. A word of warning, it would be a real stretch of patience and goodwill to dive and photograph in these conditions with more selfish or insensitive types.

I found I just couldn’t change the settings on the G12 quickly enough to move from shooting up into the light, to shooting straight on or down as the whale sharks moved around the platform. A better strategy for me was to choose a setting (light metering, who knew!) and then just wait, as patiently as possible, for a whale shark to be in the right position. While this meant I got some good shots, it was pretty frustrating as I found it all too irresistible and ended up with loads of either overexposed or underexposed images. Mind you I also missed plenty of shots as my nerves failed me and I ducked or swam out of the way. Even managed to squeal like a girl as I came close to being entangled with three whale sharks.

Two circling the platform

Whale shark, Lester and bubbles

Tail stand

Topside view

That Shot

So, top ten tips for this trip –

  1. Go.
  2. Go now before it gets out of control.  We were so lucky to be the only boat about, but there is a resort within striking distance and other boats are beginning to take an interest in this itinerary. And there was a German TV travelogue film crew there!  Nooooo.
  3. Prepare for long internal flight days, expect delays, take some energy bars and find a pal to have a drink with in Jakarta.
  4. Don’t sweat the high excess baggage costs, just be prepared with plenty of rupiah. It’s worth it to have the right gear with you and really it represents a small proportion of the overall trip costs.
  5. Go the Sorong to Nabire route – it was terrific to end the trip with the whale shark highlight and the first week is a good time to get the camera dialed in and dive skills dusted off.  The reverse itinerary could be a bit disappointing.
  6. Three switched on people in this group added a short stay in Lembeh Straits on the way through to Sorong – genius – wished I’d thought of that.
  7. If on offer, don’t skip the Leatherback turtle side trip and do the walk with the guides.
  8. Once you get to the whale sharks, try not to be a bore. Sure it’s exciting and you may never go there again and you can’t have too many photos of whale shark, but, same goes for everyone else you are travelling with. Trust me, you can afford to be relaxed and polite.
  9. Chances are you won’t need 28 rechargeable AA batteries.
  10. And go with Mike Veitch!
I’m home now, unpacked and back at work. It was minus 4oC last night. Nothing left to do but embrace the suitcase within, bracket a glass of wine and hang out for November, except maybe buy a new camera, oh and start a list.
Shout out to Mike, Mandy, Shallum, Cheryl, Jeffrey, Grant, Dimitry, Lester, Eliana and the Damai II Captain and crew.  It was a pleasure travelling with you.