Scuba Diving on Bali
Nusa Penida's best feature is its pelagic marine life. The most famous visitor is the mola-mola and the reason most people make this journey!
Nusa Penida is the largest of three islands in southeast Bali. Most visitors are day-trippers from Sanur or Padang Bai, 45 minutes to two-hours by boat. White sand beaches line the north shore and give excellent views of Gunung Agung on Bali. The south shore is an inhospitable cliff. There are few tourist facilities on the islands. The diving is excellent but it isn't for everyone-depends on how warm you like your bath water.
Indian and Pacific Ocean waters mix here, bathing Nusa Penida in currents that can be strong and unpredictable. Sites on south and east Nusa Penida are rarely visited because of their unpredictability. Water temperatures are cool, 21º-24ºC (72-78ºF), and can drop as low as 15ºC (60ºF). Drift diving is the norm and visibility is 20m (66ft).
Home to Sunfish or Mola Molas
Nusa Penida's best feature is its pelagic marine life. Nutrient-rich upwellings attract eagle rays, sharks, tuna, and mantas. The most famous visitor is the mola-mola and the reason most people make this journey.
The ocean sunfish or mola-mola is an odd fish. It's related to the pufferfish but the body is flattened and looks like a giant head with a small mouth, two long fins and a scalloped back end. Weighing up to 1500kg (over 3000 lbs.) and 3m (10ft) long, the mola-mola often lies on its side at the surface of the water, thus the name sunfish. It feeds on jellyfish, plankton and small crustaceans.
The mola-mola is a pelagic fish but when the water is at its coldest, about 15ºC (60ºF), they appear off northwest Nusa Penida and Lembongan islands. Found at about 30m (100ft), they're often accompanied by an army of smaller fishes that clean parasites from them. Nusa Penida, from July through September, is one of the best places in the world to see mola-molas.
Most diving is in the northwest between Nusa Penida and Lembongan islands. The most popular sites are Ped, SD, Toyapakeh and Crystal Bay. All have steep slopes with good coral cover and lots of fishes. Toyapakeh is known for its colorful soft corals. Crystal Bay is more sheltered, has less current and a bat cave. Mola-molas can appear anywhere here.
In 1963, the volcano Gunung Agung erupted in a big way...
Tulamben, a small village, is three hours north of Denpasar on Bali's northeast coast. Gunung Agung, an active volcano, dominates the landscape. If you didn't know there was great diving here, there would be no reason to stop.
Tulamben Bay is 1300m (~1mi) long. The beach is covered with smooth black rocks that are difficult to walk on. There are three dive sites: the Liberty wreck, the Drop-off, and the Reef. Resorts are along the beach so you simply gear up and step into the water. Porters are available to assist divers.
From June through August waves on the beach reduce visibility and make for slightly rough entries and exits. The rainy season is December through March and wind from the north kicks up the surf. Best diving times here are April-May and September-November, but diving is good all year around. If you can't get in off the beach, other entries methods using local boats are possible. Water temperatures run 26º - 27ºC (82-84ºF) with occasional thermoclines to 24ºC (78ºF). Visibility is generally 15-30m (50-100ft) but can drop to 5m (15ft).
The Tulamben Wreck
The wreck, on the western end of the bay, is 30m (100ft) from shore. The USAT Liberty sits on a sand slope with the stern at 15m (50ft) and the bow at 40m (130ft). During WWII, in 1942, the ship was disabled and eventually ran aground. In 1963, Gunung Agung erupted in a big way, and the wreckage was pushed off the beach by the lava flow and ended up beneath the surface right offshore. It lies on its side in two large pieces, beautifully overgrown with marine life. Over 400 species of fishes have been recorded here.
It's a wonderful dive as all you have to do is have the local porters carry your gear down the beach (this is compulsive, keeping the villagers active in the tourism industry-see below), slip into the water, roll over on your stomach, and descend onto the wreck. It's a perfect 45-minute to one-hour dive, and large schools of fish, as well as small critters like ghost pipefish make the dive extremely interesting. It's the kind of dive you can do over and over again.
The Tulamben Drop-off
At the opposite end of the bay a sand slope leads to a rocky wall with nice corals and sponges. Reef crevices shelter elusive Cometfish, eels, shrimps, and cleaning stations. The drop-off is good for spotting Napoleon wrasses, barracuda, and schooling fishes.
The Tulamben House Reef
Between the wreck and the drop-off is a black sand slope dotted with coral outcrops festooned with feather stars, sea fans and giant sponges. Schools of snappers and cardinalfishes gather near branching corals. Groupers, cleaning stations and shrimp gobies are easy to find.
Each one can handle two tanks with BCDs and regulators attached, which they balance on their heads.
Tulamben divers must use porters when they dive anywhere but directly in front of their hotel. Even if you choose not to use them, you'll be charged as if you did. The Tulamben porters have banded together and worked out a deal with dive operators for their services. They're well organized and have set rates. Divers pay the equivalent of about US$1- to have their gear toted to either end of the bay. And here's where the fun begins.
Tulamben Bay is about 1300m (almost a mile) long and the beach is covered with smooth black rocks. Walking doesn't seem difficult until you try it with scuba gear on. There's something about these rocks that makes people's feet and legs wobble like jelly. Add scuba gear and they have a propensity to tip over. Thus, the porters....
The porters are tiny Balinese women of all ages. They are tiny but these women are a marvel to watch. Each one can handle two tanks with BCDs and regulators attached, which they balance on their heads. Then they sling a weight belt over each shoulder, a pair of fins in each hand, and trot off down the beach leaving divers behind to navigate the stony beach with nothing to carry but their masks. They wait patiently at the other end and when the dive is finished, they carry your gear back. It's fun to experience first-hand, and it's a great example of local people getting involved in tourism, working hand-in-hand with operators to help the villagers gain something from the tourist's presence. And, it cuts down on the number of irritating vendors in the area.
Tulamben Bay offers some of the best shore diving in the world. With these three wonderful and easily accessible dive sites, you can spend a week or more here enjoying the peace and quiet, and the great diving. There is not much to do here, as you are hours away from any kind of nightlife or tourist attractions. But the resort has a friendly atmosphere, wonderful food, and breathtaking scenery. Liveaboard dive boats also leave from this area for trips up and down the Bali coast, and to the Komodo National Park, east of here.
The park is home to the rare and endemic Bali starling, wild buffalo, monkeys, deer, civet cats, and leopards.
Menjangan Island, on northwest Bali, is part of the West Bali National Park. Most visitors to Bali never venture this far and the area is delightfully unspoiled. Several spa and safari hotels on the mainland run diving excursions to Menjangan. Non-divers can visit the national park to view the wildlife or bask in a hot spring. The park is home to the rare and endemic Bali starling, wild buffalo, monkeys, deer, civet cats, and leopards. There's dolphin watching along the north coast.
Menjangan Island is protected from strong weather and currents and most diving takes place around the island but the mainland has interesting bays for diving. The diving is easy and good with visibility 20m (66ft) or better. Water temperatures are 26º-28ºC (82-86ºF); nice and toasty compared with other areas to the south.
Overhangs and crevices mark the rocky walls of Menjangan. Coral growth is good and soft corals add color to the walls. Gorgonians, schooling fishes and reef fishes are plentiful.
The Anker wreck is a 19th century wooden ship that sank just off the beach. The anchor is in shallow water and heavily encrusted with growth. Follow the chain down to the wreck at 30m (100ft). The stern is at 45m (150ft). In addition to abundant marine life on the wreck, a visit to the cargo hold will turn up some old glass bottles.
Just across the peninsula from Menjangan is Gilimanuk, the terminal for ferries to and from Java. Nearby, Secret Bay is fast becoming known as a muck diving destination. The bay is shallow, silty, and lined with mangroves. Beach diving here will turn up waspfish, seahorses, frogfishes, pancake fish, and painted mandarinfish. The best time to dive here is slack tide during times of large tidal changes (new and full moons). This site is for diehard macro divers only.
Overview of the Resort Island of Bali
Bali, Island of the Gods, is a land of fiery volcanoes and fertile valleys shrouded in mist. Terraced rice paddies line deep gorges while resorts dot the shoreline.
Bali, Island of the Gods, is a land of fiery volcanoes and fertile valleys shrouded in mist. Terraced rice paddies line deep gorges while resorts dot the shoreline. Fruits and vegetables are plentiful and sounds of the gamelan are never far away. The emphasis in Bali is on harmony and culture. This divine island has much to offer yet most visitors go no further than the southern beaches. There is much to see here and accommodation is available to fit every budget.
Bali is a small island across the strait at the eastern end of Java, the main island-it's a three-hour flight from Singapore. Bali has the Indian Ocean on the south and the Bali Sea on the north separated by mountains that rise over 2000m (6600ft). Gunung Agung, the active "mother" volcano rises to over 3100m (10300ft). Temples, flanked by walled courtyards, outnumber houses. Beautifully landscaped water gardens peer out invitingly from homes and businesses. It's hard to imagine a more picturesque island than Bali.
The first written accounts of Balinese culture date to around 900 AD when Javanese-Hindu writings first appeared, although Bali is believed to have been inhabited over a thousand years earlier. Bali was part of the Javanese kingdom of Majapahit and remained so until the 15th century when Islam came to Java. As Islam spread, many Javanese fled to Bali where the Balinese, Hindu and Buddhist pantheons merged into what is now modern day Balinese culture.
Europeans arrived in Bali in 1597. The Dutch occupied Indonesia in the 17th century, but ignored Bali until the mid-19th century when they wrested control of North Bali. Once established, the Dutch did little to upset daily Balinese life. In 1942 the Japanese replaced them as rulers. The Balinese opposed them both and regained their freedom in 1945 with Indonesian independence.
The Balinese way of life is unique. Society is organized along the lines of the Hindu caste system but with a Balinese twist. Everyone is aware of where they fit and what place they occupy in society as a whole. This organization is reinforced by the language which is divided into low, medium and high Balinese.
Balinese life is complex and communal. Each person belongs to a family, clan, caste and village, and must act accordingly in all facets of life.
Balinese life is complex and communal. Each person belongs to a family, clan, caste and village, and must act accordingly in all facets of life. Villages are subject to the same organization model. Central to life is harmony with all things. If one aspect is out of kilter, the entire village and all other aspects will follow. Thus Balinese strive to do their part as responsible members of society.
Religion permeates every aspect of life in Bali. Temples are everywhere and rituals or celebrations are a part of life. Petite women dressed in white and gold carry babies in over their shoulders and balance tall temple offerings on their heads while the men hang around the temple entrances, smoking kretek, clove cigarettes. Foreigners are welcome at Balinese temples.
Arts and Crafts
Balinese artistic expression centers on religion. The gamelan orchestra plays at temples while skilled dancers act out stories of good and evil. Elsewhere wayang kulit, shadow puppets, portray the same battles. Elaborate paintings depict mythological themes and daily village life. Wood and stone carvings often portray Garuda and other symbolic protectors or demons. Songket, intricately woven fabric of silk and gold, is another specialty. Mass-produced and gaudily colored trinkets for the tourist trade are inexpensive and plentiful.
Denpasar is the busy capital of Bali. Most visitors head south to the beach resorts. Kuta caters to a younger crowd. Sanur, and especially Nusa Dua, cater to those in search of quiet and relaxation. All have a variety of hotels, restaurants, warungs (eating stalls), and shops that cater to every taste and budget. Day trips are available to Nusa Penida, Tanah Lot, one of Bali's most picturesque temples, rice terraces, Ubud, and coastal towns.
Ubud, in the mountains north of Denpasar, is home to the famous Monkey Forest and Elephant Cave. The town is steeped in culture and temple mystique. On the way to Ubud you'll pass through towns specializing in silver work, woodcraft, stonework, etc. Fine art galleries, museums, temples, restaurants and shops line the streets of this hill town.
The east coast features beautiful scenery and beaches. At Padang Bai you can catch a ferry to Lombok Island or a dive boat to Nusa Penida. From the ancient city of Klungkung you can visit rice terraces and Pura Besakih, the holiest temple in Bali. The crater of Gunung Agung dominates the landscape as you head north through the beach town of Candidasa and up to Amlapura. Further north you'll reach Tulamben, a small village with great diving.
Heading west along the north coast you'll pass through Singaraja, formerly Bali's main harbor, on the way to the Lovina beaches, Menjangan Island/Gilimanuk, and West Bali National Park. Central Bali is rugged and scenic. Small villages dot the roads along mountain ridges. You can climb a volcano, visit crater lakes, temples, ancient tombs and the magical spring at Tampaksiring. There is much to see and do in Bali but the overall atmosphere is one of relaxation and well-being. No matter what your destination in Indonesia, be sure to set aside some time in Bali. You'll be glad you did.
About the Authors
Larry and Denise Tackett are the authors of all of our Indonesian dive site and regional descriptions. They are professional photographers specializing in underwater and terrestrial natural history and travel subjects. They are represented by stock photo agencies in the US and United Kingdom and their photographs have been widely published in books and magazines worldwide. Their work has appeared in magazines such as National Wildlife, Islands, BBC Wildlife, Ocean Realm, Asian Diver, Unterwasser, Tauchen, Canadian Wildlife, Popular Science, Sport Diver, National Geographic Kids, Geo, and many others.