Dive Atlas Of The World: An Illustrated Reference To The Best Sites - Jack Jackson (2016)
by Michael Aw
BALI IS RECOGNIZED AS ONE OF ASIA’S MOST magical islands – every year thousands of people flock to the beaches of its south coast, and a well-established tourist industry has sprung up to cater for this influx. The beaches, the lush tropical landscape of the island’s interior and the rich cultural traditions of the Balinese people are all great attractions. The over one million visitors per year has caused many experienced divers to snub Bali for off-the-beaten-track destinations. Nevertheless, the quality and excitement of the dive sites off Bali are some of the best in the world.
Amid the cornucopia of lush coral reef lives an equally diverse fish population. All the classic reef fish are here in force: parrotfish, Moorish Idols, angelfish, groupers, frogfish, wrasses, eels, lionfish, to name a few. Tulamben Bay on the northeastern coast offers an experience that is almost like diving into a living encyclopedia. Robert Myers, a leading ichthyologist from Guam, recorded 649 fish species in just six days in the Tulamben Bay area. National Geographic photographer, David Doubilet, was so impressed with Tulamben that he returned twice to photograph the habitats and diversity of benthic life for three weeks on each visit in 1996.
Bali’s fish population is not limited to reef-dwellers. Fed by the rich upwellings of the Indian Ocean, Bali’s waters are home to a wide variety of pelagics – tuna, mackerel, jacks and bonito, as well as barracuda and several species of shark. Rays are common at many sites, especially around Nusa Penida, whose environs are particularly rich in big deep-water fish. Many species of marine mammal are found off the island’s coasts, including dolphin, Bryde’s whale and manatees, although these are admittedly very rare.
Located in the Lesser Sundas, Bali is midway along Indonesia’s southernmost chain of islands between Java and Lombok. The island’s south coast touches the easternmost edge of the Indian Ocean, while the north coast looks onto the Java Sea. The islands of Penida, Lembongan and Cenida lie in a tightly-packed group just off the southeast coast of Bali. The Bandung Strait not only separates these islands from mainland Bali, but is also part of the Wallace line, an imaginary border that separates the flora and fauna of Southeast Asia and Australasia. As such, the natural environment here is distinctly different from Bali and Java. Impressive cliffs rising up to 200m (656ft) show distinct strata lines. The dry weather conditions have resulted in bizarre, arid landscapes.
While at the narrowest point of the channel Bali is a mere 11km (7 miles) away, it is in every sense as far as one can be from the real world. This region is constantly flushed by huge volumes of water between the Indian Ocean and Java Sea. Deep, icy, ocean upwellings, downwellings and fast currents replenish the reef systems with rich nutrients. Diving can be treacherous for the inexperienced, but a serious jolt of adrenaline for the well prepared. One of the best dive sites in Bali, Jurassic Point, is described by a dive operator as: ‘a place that can be the best, worst or last dive you will ever have.’ When in the right mix, diving Lembongan and Penida is almost surreal. On the far northwestern tip of the island lies Pulau Menjangan, which in 1978 became Bali’s first internationally known dive location. The island is part of the Bali Barat National Park and offers some of the best wall dives in Indonesia.
The five main areas for diving in Bali are Nusa Dua and Sanur; Padang Bai and Candidasa; Nusa Penida; Tulamben and Menjangan. Each area is unique and offers suitable conditions for both beginners and seasoned divers. One of the best ways to dive the best of Bali is to join a Bali ‘safari package’ with one of the leading dive operators.
1 LIBERTY WRECK, TULAMBEN
Lying just 30m (100ft) offshore at Tulamben, northeast Bali, is the wreck of USAT Liberty. This impressive 100m (328ft) remnant of World War II was built in 1915 and torpedoed on 11 January 1942 about 15km (9 miles) southwest of Lombok by a Japanese submarine. She was taken in tow by the two destroyers HNLMS Van Ghent and USS Paul Jones. She was perilously taking on water and, in an effort to salvage the cargo, she was successfully beached on the shores of Tulamben. Since ships are made for a life at sea, the violent eruption of 1963 toppled and pushed the vessel back into the water to lie almost parallel to shore. Today, she is Indonesia’s diving mascot. The hull is badly broken up, with the stern lying towards the beach and the bow pointing towards the depths. The wreck is not intact enough to speak of actually penetrating it, but parts of the hold are whole, and there are numerous overhanging sections and swim-throughs which give the sensation of being inside the old ship. The metal of the hull is now completely encrusted by coral, but many details can still be made out, including the bow gun.
However, it is neither the structure nor history that attracts divers from all over the world, but the density and quality of marine life found on her. The vessel celebrates the richness of Indonesia’s marine biodiversity, although the ease of diving, and lying at a depth of between 5 and 30m (16 and 98ft), has a lot to do with the wreck’s popularity. The most obvious attraction on the wreck is the sheer number and variety of fish. Sergeant-major Damselfish, Crescent Wrasse and unicornfish often swim right up to divers to inquire about a free feed. The bigger fish, such as Bumphead Parrotfish, Napoleon Wrasse, Oriental Sweetlips, rabbitfish, Coral Trout and other groupers, sometimes hover in mid-water, making great subjects for fish portraits. Although only a few table-sized stony corals are found on the outer edge, the superstructure is heavily colonized by soft corals, Gorgonian Sea Fans, tall black and green coral trees, stinging hydrozoans and colourful sponges. The gun is still intact on the stern at 28m (92ft), completely encrusted with sessile animals and sea fans. At 30m (100ft), the reef is covered with red sea whips, huge barrel sponges and numerous species of gobies. Even snorkellers can enjoy themselves on the wreck – the bow is a mere 30m (100ft) swim from shore, heavily encrusted with sponges, sea squirts and a haven of friendly fish.
Just off the beach of Tulamben are two resident schools of Bigeye Jacks, one adult and one juvenile, that often swirl around divers.
Snorkellers have much to see in this part of the world, considered the heartland of biodiversity where the species of the vast Pacific Ocean meet those of the Indian Ocean.
2 FANTASY WALL – TULAMBEN BAY
On the eastern end of Tulamben Bay, beneath the temple, a wall plummets from near-surface to beyond 60m (200ft). This is the benchmark of wall diving. The wall is completely covered with huge barrel sponges, coral trees, oversized Gorgonian Sea Fans, one of which is prominently positioned on a ledge at 30m (100ft), over 3m (10ft) in height and adorned with Longnose Hawkfish and bright yellow damselfish. Within numerous caverns and crevices are thorny oysters, Tubastrea corals, crabs, and shrimps sharing home with squirrelfish, Coral Trout, blennies and scorpion fish. Among fish experts, this wall is famous for harbouring hard-to-find and hard-to-photograph species, including the Comet (Calloplesiops altivelis), a fish with elaborate finnage and a false eyespot. Mola Mola, hammerhead sharks and Whale Sharks have been sighted near this location.
A night dive is essential for the surrealistic experience that it offers. You need to descend to 30m (100ft), face the wall, switch off your torch and watch. Millions of tiny green bulbs will suddenly appear, as if by magic, to perform a show of twinkling zigzagging lights. These are the flashlightfish, the nocturnal fish with a bio-luminescent organ beneath each eye.
3 JURASSIC POINT – LEMBONGAN ISLAND
Jurassic Point is where Mola Mola, or Sunfish, are predictably found between August and November. The reef terrace begins at 10m (33ft), precipitously drops to 25–30m (80–100ft), followed by a gentle slope to 600m (1970ft). Pinnacles and rocky outcrops are found at 30m (100ft). Once off the reef terrace, the structure is similar to the odd terrain on the surface, but covered with a never-ending meadow of multicoloured, soft, stumpy corals. The abundance of reef life supports many big groupers, sharks, tunas, Eagle Rays and hundreds of Blotched Fantail Rays, which sometimes congregate to mate among the ledges and crevices. Because of the narrow channel, pelagics cruise close to the wall, well within range of the divers also passing with the swift current. The biggest attraction of this site is the Mola Mola that makes frequent appearances at depths of 20–40m (65–130ft) when in season. These 3–4m (10–13ft) oddballs of the sea are shaped like a flying saucer with two wings in the wrong places. Two huge fins, one on the top and one on the bottom, a disc-shaped gelatinous body, big bulbous eyes and a tiny mouth give them an appearance of being uncoordinated; a creature evolved from a bad joke. Mola Mola, or Ocean Sunfish, belong to the family of Molidae and they are totally oceanic with a diet of jellyfish and plankton. Mola Mola are surreal, big and appear deceivingly slow, which tempts closer investigation, but any awkward grasp by the observer will cause them to vanish in a flash. Swimming with Mola Mola is a surrealistic experience, which can be repeated without fear of boredom.
4 MENJANGAN POS II – NORTHWEST BALI
At the Southeast corner of Pulau Menjangan, eastward around the coast, is the signature dive site of the nature reserve. It offers spectacular coral growth and fish life in astounding numbers along a sharply angled wall. Starting with a steep slope, the wall approaches the near-vertical in many places, where there is more variety to the reef profile, with plenty of nooks and crannies, cavelets and fissures. Coral growth is extraordinary, as good as anything you’ll find in the Indo-Pacific waters. Stony corals are extensive, but the soft corals outshine the stony varieties; barrel and other sponges are common all over the slope. Large numbers of red and yellow gorgonias are scattered around the reef-face.
As in all Menjangan dive sites, this dive is the best representation for the vast numbers and diverse make-up of the fish population. From tiny basslets and dottybacks to huge cruising tuna, this site has them all. Surgeonfish and unicornfish of many types are prevalent, particularly the Bluespine Unicorn-fish. There are several varieties of triggerfish, and both Pinnate and Teira Batfish. Big Star and Spotted Trunkfish (Black Boxfish) and several other types of boxfish make their cumbersome way along the reef, among clouds of butterflyfish and stately, regal-looking lion-fish. Rabbitfish are plentiful, angelfish more so, and the entire reef-face is dotted with nudibranchs that seem to glow with colour.
5 SECRET BAY – MENJANGAN
Across the road from Gilimanuk, the ferry crossing point to Java, is the road to the entry point to the twilight zone of diving in Indonesia. Secret Bay is an easy shore dive, but water temperature is usually cold due to the nearby deep-water cold currents directed into the bay by regular upwelling and tidal change. Nutrient-rich colder water blends with the sea grass mangrove environment, making this a special nursery for both Pacific and Indian Ocean animals. Many species found here are endemic to the site, rare or non-existent in other parts of Bali or even the rest of Indonesia. The site is different to any other in Bali, mostly shallow to no more than 6m (20ft), and a black, sandy bottom covered with loose seaweed and sargassum. Once beneath the surface the trained observer will find critter heaven: sea horses, Common Lionfish (Turkeyfish), Ghost Pipefish, Spiny Leaf fish (Spiny Waspfish), snake eels, stonefish, nudibranchs, gobies, dragonets, sea urchins, exotic species of cardinal fish and anglerfish (frog-fish). The latter is particularly abundant and diverse in the bay – four different species are found here, including the Spot-fin, Sargas-sum, the Painted and a species currently awaiting scientific description. Especially during low tide, visibility and density of rare critters will redefine the meaning of muck diving for the macrophotographer. It is also seventh heaven for the marine naturalist.
Sea turtles are on the brink of extinction worldwide, mostly due to human activities such as poaching and habitat destruction.
Tube anemones such as this one are scattered across the vast black sand slope. These and other critters are more visible against the black sand in clear water.
Although Komodo is in the centre of the Indonesian archipelago, the islands between Sumbawa and Flores are very different to the other tropical islands of Indonesia. The low annual rainfall of about 800mm (30in) has resulted in a dramatically desolate setting of harsh terrain, dotted with Lontar palms.