Bali Road Trip

Schooling Jacks. Bali, Indonesia.
A swirling school of bigeye trevally above the Liberty wreck

Bali is one little word — just four letters — that for many of us conjures a thousand pictures: ornate temples surrounded by colorful ceremony, volcanic peaks thrusting though the clouds, tailored terraces of rice paddies stepped into the hills, lush rain forests, luxurious spas, cheeky monkeys, sumptuous Asian cuisine, beautiful sunsets, smiling Indonesian faces and many more. Curiously, even for many divers, few of these familiar scenes are underwater.

Bali has long been a favorite destination for serious underwater macro photographers, nudibranch nuts and younger backpacking divers, but I still hear divers ask if people dive there at all. Every year I have friends who make nondiving stops in Bali on their way to a supposedly better dive destination in Indonesia. When they tell me the highlights of their trip — mantas, mimic octopuses, pygmy seahorses and thriving reefs — I can’t help thinking they could have seen all these and more without leaving Bali.

Here I’ll be focusing on Bali’s underwater delights; remember, however, one of the best reasons to dive here: When you’re not underwater, you’ll find yourself in Bali, the island of the gods.

Classic Menjangan

My tour kicks off at Menjangan Island in the northwest. The morning sun is already hot, and I am glad to backroll off the wooden dive boat into the refreshing water. We’re at a site called Eel Garden, and I am blown away. I surface, babbling that it is the most beautiful dive I can remember doing in years. The water is blue, and in the strong sunlight the reef wall and shallow bommies that sprout from the sandy slope are as colorful an underwater scene as I’ve seen anywhere. I ramble on and on, boring anyone who will listen.

A pair of orange, rare Rhinopias scorpionfish
A pair of rare Rhinopias scorpionfish

The reefs buzzed with small fish, and schools of larger yellow and blue fusiliers swept past in the blue. We were treated to encounters with reef sharks, Napoleon wrasses, leaf scorpionfish and pygmy seahorses. There is always something magical about the first dive of a trip.

The second dive is less spectacular because the visibility has dropped, but the site, called Pos 2, has great scenery with craggy, vertical walls that are plastered with reef fish and other life. The dive guide finds a pretty group of ghost pipefish that leaves me wishing I had a macro lens. We eat our pack lunch on the island’s beach and then head for home, making our third dive on the reefs just offshore from the hotel. My guide explains that this is the normal itinerary, as the wind and sea usually pick up in the afternoon. The coastal reef is decent and full of life, but it’s a step down in quality from Menjangan.

I am staying in a resort in Pemuteran for the first few nights as I make a clockwise road trip around the island. Getting the most out of diving in Bali requires a little effort as the best dive sites are spread around the coast. Everything is here, but it can take a bit of initiative to find it. I liken it to shopping on the High Street as opposed to a large superstore — an homage to my British roots. While this diamond-shaped island is smaller than Delaware, the twisty, motorbike-packed roads and mountainous terrain make it just a little too time-consuming to explore thoroughly in day trips.

Spotted moray eel surrounded by red shrimp
A honeycomb moray with cleaner shrimps

The best solution is to split your stay between two or three different hotels. Bali has many elegant boutique hotels, and sampling more than one will enrich your visit. This approach will also put you within easy striking distance of different dive sites. If this sounds like too much of an organizational chore, many of Bali’s leading operators will organize a road trip for you. You may pay a bit more, but they will take care of the details.

On this trip I have picked two hotels, one in Pemuteran in the northwest and one in Tulamben in the northeast. Tulamben is Bali’s most popular dive spot and offers very easy access to a host of sites along the north coast, including the celebrated Liberty WreckSeraya and Amed. Pemuteran is best known for its interesting shore dive, where coral growth is promoted on metal frames that are charged with a mild electric current. It is a good base camp for boat trips to Menjangan Island or 40-minute car journeys to two critter-rich bays: Gilimanuk and Puri Jati, both firm favorites with underwater photographers.

Spotted nudibranches in the sand
A natural aggregation of nudibranchs on the sand

Keep a Secret

Predatory stargazer in sand
Ever watchful, a predatory stargazer waits in ambush buried in the sand at Puri Jati on Bali’s North coast.

By now you may have noticed that the Balinese language is often challenging for English-speakers, so Gilimanuk Bay is better known as Secret Bay. It’s a shallow inlet off the narrow strait between Bali and Java. Its sheltered waters look inviting but can be shockingly cold some days — 10 to 15 degrees colder than the waters around Menjangan Island less than 10 miles away. But the cold water, upwelled as the ocean is funneled through the two-mile-wide strait, is part of the reason for the strange creatures that abound here. Secret Bay has a reputation for revealing species that have eluded even the most dedicated underwater photographers for years. I recommend taking an extra layer of neoprene, though, as excitement can counter only so much thermal deprivation.

We kit up on benches on the beach and wade out into the shallows. The water is cool, but I still rack up three 90-minute dives — there is just too much to aim my camera at, and it is easy to get warm luxuriating in the sun on the beach. The underwater scenery is bland, but the sea life is interesting; highlights include seahorses, dragonets, striped catfish, tozeuma shrimp, Banggai cardinalfish, cuttlefish and a handful of large, shaggy frogfish. We find a pair of the magnificent frogfish sitting on a large patch of seaweed, a rather surprising sight so close to the equator.

Having been bitten by the muck-diving bug, the next day I head in the opposite direction to the wide bay of Puri Jati, or PJ, on the north coast. The water is much warmer here; the fairly featureless black volcanic sand seabed is unpromising at first but soon reveals a molluscan menagerie. There are lots of nudibranchs, the gruesome (yet photographically rewarding) sight of a venomous cone shell eating a goby tail first, cuttlefish, bobtail squid and octopuses galore.

Cephalopods brought me to this site, and we see five mimic octopuses, a longarm octopus, and I lose count of the number of coconut octopuses. The mimics, in particular, are fascinating to watch, although I remain completely unconvinced by the dynamic mimicry story. The octopus may think he looks like a flounder, but I know better. We stay for the night dive, and I see the largest blue-ringed octopus I have ever seen, although it’s still relatively diminutive compared to other octopuses. I am not sure of the species. It is a great day and a totally different diving experience compared with the clear water and coral ramparts of Menjangan Island.

Striped octopus on the sea floor
A mimic octopus winds its way across the sand on one of Bali’s muck dives.

The next day I am scheduled to change hotels, but I squeeze in a morning shore dive in Pemuteran to see the coral-growing project. The amount of corals sprouting from the frames is truly remarkable, and the scientists responsible for the project report that they typically grow three to five times faster than normal with the help of electricity, which increases their skeleton-building rates. There are now 40 artificial reef structures in Pemuteran Bay, making it the largest such project in the world. Electric frames aren’t going to save coral reefs — they are just too small in scale — but they do make for an original and fascinating house reef for visiting divers. Then it is time for goodbyes and loading the car (wet dive gear stuffed in a crate and camera still assembled) for the three-hour drive through the Balinese countryside to the Tulamben area.


If I’d booked a package with a single dive operator, I would have kept the same guide for my entire trip, but by booking directly with the hotels, I have guides that may not know me as well but know their local sites inside out. To avoid unnecessary repetition, I tell my new guide in Tulamben what I have been seeing. Curiously, both my guides in Bali are called Putu, but it is not really much of a coincidence as there are only a handful of traditional Balinese names. Our boat captain in Menjangan had the same name, too.

Diver swims near famous Bali wreck
Tulamben’s Liberty wreck is Bali’s most famous and popular dive site. Arrive early to avoid the crowds and for the best visibility. You may be lucky to see schooling bumphead parrotfish

The star attraction in Tulamben is the wreck of the USAT Liberty, a U.S. Army transport ship that was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine in 1942 during World War II. Curiously, despite being a war wreck, it has been underwater only since the 1960s. It initially ran aground in the shallows of Tulamben Bay and was submerged much later in an eruption of the towering Gunung Agung volcano, which dominates the skyline.

The Liberty wreck is best dived early in the morning, as the visibility usually declines during the day. But having arrived just after lunch I can’t wait that long to get reacquainted and head straight in. Despite being officially a wreck dive, nobody dives here for the rust. The wreck is almost indistinguishable as a ship because it is so draped in soft corals, sea fans and sponges.

The main reason the Liberty is Bali’s most popular dive site is the incredible fish life, which comes in all shapes and sizes. From the resident swirling school of bigeye jacks to massive groupers, bumphead parrotfish and groups of sweetlips, the wreck has everything. Even macro critters such as ghost pipefish and pygmy seahorses reside here. I spy a tiny goby on a soft coral with another goby in its mouth; predation or competition, I can’t be sure. If you are an underwater photographer, the Liberty is one of those sites you will want to dive repeatedly — with every lens you own. Everyone notes how approachable the fish are; it is possibly the best dive site for fish photography in the world. This is high praise, I know, and it’s not given lightly.

Part of “the Liberty experience” is how you get in the water. Tulamben’s beach is made up of rounded, fist-sized rocks, and although the wreck is only a short distance up the bay, the walk might provoke complaints from some divers. However, local villagers offer a porter service, and it’s hard for any American or European tourist to complain about the walk as a petite Balinese girl does it while carrying your scuba gear and that of your guide on her head.

Awakened by the cockcrow early the following morning, I am ready to dive the Liberty again. It is much quieter before the day-trippers arrive. My reward is a truly unforgettable dive.

Much More Than the Wreck

The north coast of Bali from the Liberty east to Gili Selang is peppered with a diverse set of dive sites that includes coral gardens, dropoffs, sheltered bays and black-sand slopes. There are several dives in Tulamben Bay; The Coral Garden is great for anemonefish and ribbon eels, while at The River I shoot nudibranch after nudibranch. The Dropoff, at the eastern end of the bay, is a pretty spot for wide angle; a short way along the wall I find a sea fan where I count 13 pygmy seahorses.

Ghost Goby Mouthful. Indonesia.
Creatures range from the tiny, such as this goby with a smaller one in its mouth, to the enormous.

A 10-minute boat ride from Tulamben is one of my favorite sites, Seraya’s Secrets, the house reef of Seraya Resort. This is an exceptional critter dive, regularly home to multiple frogfish, seahorses, ghost pipefish (usually in massive numbers) and boxer crabs. It’s also one of the most reliable places to see two of my favorite shrimps: harlequins and tigers. There was a mimic octopus there during my stay, and a short swim away I photographed mating wonderpus octopuses. If all that weren’t enough, the site is also a nudibranch hotspot — 120 species were counted here in just the first eight weeks it was known as a dive site.

A little farther down the coast, near Amed, we’re taken to a site that’s home to a beautiful pair of rhinopias. The resorts like to keep the locations of these rare, beautiful scorpionfish a secret until they have moved on because they command such high prices in the aquarium trade that if word gets out they may quickly be “collected.”

There is a wide variety of sites farther east between Amed and Gili Selang. These include everything from black-sand bays to rich coral reefs. Few divers venture this far, so you will usually have sites to yourself. Among my favorites here are the picturesque and vibrant reefs near the Japanese Wreck that are home to beautiful sea fans and hordes of small reef fish that dwell in the extensive fields of hard corals. I also enjoyed muck diving in Amed, where I photographed mating ghost pipefish and on the same site saw seahorses, longarm octopus and wonderpuses in the shallows.

Here Be Monsters

A giant mola mola dwarfs a diver
The Mola mola is the heaviest bony fish in the sea.

My final destination is Nusa Penida. I am visiting on a day trip from Tulamben, but if you plan to dive here for a few days it is probably worth relocating to a hotel in Candidasa, Padang Bai or Sanur. It is an early start and a long day from Tulamben. We drive down to Padang Bai, where we board the dive boat for the long journey into the Lombok Strait. We’re headed to the southern end of Nusa Penida island to a dive site called Manta Point. Nusa Penida is an intimidating place to approach from the sea; its massive limestone cliffs plunge straight into the ocean. Geologically it’s a drastic change from the volcanic landscape of Bali. It reminds me one of those mysterious, uncharted islands from Saturday Matinee adventure movies. I’m not sure if we are more likely to see mantas or King Kong.

Much to my surprise the mantas do turn up (usually when a dive site is named for a species, typically that’s the one thing you won’t see there), and we have a great dive. It is not the clearest water, and it’s cold, too, but the mantas come in and spiral above our heads for most of the dive while gangs of wrasse swim up from the reef to pick them clean of parasites.

We head north and cross our fingers for the main event. Nusa Penida’s imposing coastline looks like a land of movie monsters, and that’s not far from the truth. Between July and October it is a great location to see Mola molas, which are definitely among the ocean’s most mysterious, enigmatic and downright huge creatures. For starters, these fish have no tails. They live in the open ocean where they feed primarily on jellyfish. They hold the record for producing the most eggs of any fish: 300 million at a time. And they are the heaviest bony fish in the seas; one caught in 1996 weighed half as much as a female elephant.

Although everyone wants to see these charismatic creatures, these can be challenging dives even for experienced divers. The reefs are exposed to strong currents, which upwell very cold water; exciting animals regularly tempt divers to stay too long and go too deep. The cold water, depth, currents and excitement may cause divers to use their air much faster that they expect, and accidents happen here as a result. One of the hardest skills to learn as a diver is when to say no. This dive is not for every skill level.

Illustrated map of Bali that pinpoints dive spots

The sunfish come to the reefs to get cleaned by wrasse, bannerfish and emperor angelfish, and on a lucky day you may even see the massive monsters queuing patiently for a clean. We see just one, but it takes our breath away as it cruises right through the middle of the group, and we’re able to get close enough to stare right into those saucerlike eyes. Everyone comes up very happy. Despite spending an entire dive with mantas, all the talk on the journey back to Tulamben is about sunfish.

Bali is an excellent diving destination, and when you consider all the island offers above the surface it becomes irresistible. I know too many divers who have been there and never dived. Staying a night or two in the resort towns of Kuta or Sanur in the south is like going to Vegas and thinking you’ve seen the States.Bali’s diving allure is diversity. There is the biodiversity, which, quite frankly, can be staggering. Bali sits within the famous Coral Triangle, the epicenter of marine biodiversity, which includes 76 percent of the world’s coral species and 3,000 species of fish. But biodiversity is only part of the story — it’s the diving diversity that really sets Bali apart. Walls, reefs, black sand, shallow bays, critters and great ocean creatures are all there, waiting for you.

© Alert Diver — Q1 Winter 2014