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.
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.
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,
and a stop for those who find monkeys endearing (I’m not in that group either).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 –
- Add this on to the next time you are travelling to Asia
- 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.
- Take open heel fins – the entries were pretty easy but I was glad to have dive boots.
- Take plenty of insect repellant – the higher the proportion of DEET the better
- 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.
- Don’t leave your exotic disease immunisation shots to the last minute – this didn’t work so well for me
- Bali is a pretty lovely place after all, but I still strongly recommend you avoid Kuta at all costs
- Get washing done whenever the opportunity presents, particularly if you are travelling on
- Depending on the time of year – adding Nusa Penida with Mike and Luca would probably work very well.
- 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.