September 12, 2015
Manta Point, Nusa Penida
For my first trip to Bali, I spurned the ever-popular Ubud and South Bali for the relatively seclusive east coast. I only wanted to accomplish two things on this trip – to relax for a few days with my wife and take in several dives. The area around Padang Bai seemed the most convenient for both, and after some searches on Scubaboard.com I contacted Geko Dive, which offered me a 3-day package with a private dive master named Kanox. He was in his early 30s and was born and bred in Padang Bai.
After a layoff of almost a year, my first dip back into the ocean was at the rather challenging Manta Point off the south coast of Nusa Penida, a stomach-turning one-hour ride on fast boat from Padang Bai. Since Geko only had Nusa Penida scheduled for this day during my stay in Bali, I had no choice but to go along and wish for the best.
Notorious for its strong current, the condition was particularly strenuous on this day, and I responded by puking uncontrollably soon after I descended to 20 ft. What remained of my diminished cognitive power I channeled all of it on focusing on Kanox’s pink fins because my life literally depended on it. As the spot of pink gradually submerged by the encompassing turquoise, all I could hear was the incessant huffing sound of my own breathing. Even pushing as hard as I could I hardly made any advance against the cold current.
That’s where professional help stepped in – Kanox saw I was lagging behind, turned back and dragged me forward like a bag of grocery. For the rest of the dive I clung to him like a koala to an eucalyptus. We saw a few mantas at a cleaning station from afar and nothing else notable.
Dive time: 33 min
Max depth: 23 m
Water temp: 22°C
Visibility: 15 m
Buyuk, Nusa Penida
Arguably Nusa Penida’s most famous dive spot and a prime location for mola-mola sighting, Crystal Point is no joke – witness the several high profile accidents over the past few years. Facing today’s unforgiving current, we bailed out to the calmer Buyuk on the island’s northeast coast.
Kanox glued to me, the disoriented laggard, from the start this time. The condition was again quite challenging. Sadly there wasn’t much marine life to divert my attention from the cold – over the duration of the half-hour dive I kept an eye out for mola-mola but we once again came up empty. Starting to feel better, I started to play around my new toy – Sony RX100 III with underwater housing. With no clue at all, I regressed back to the way I was a decade ago when I first got my hands on a DSLR and indiscriminately shot at everything in sight.
Dive time: 34 min
Max depth: 27 m
Water temp: 20°C
Visibility: 15 m
Seen: Hard and soft coral, Razorfish, Pennant coralfish
Our quest for mola-mola continued amid another day of uncompromising condition at Gili Tepekong, a 15-minute boat ride from Padang Bai. Several divers reported mola sighting the past few days near a cave close to the island’s northwest coast, but the current was too strong today. After drifting on our boat for almost an hour close to the shore, we cut bait and sailed to the 30 m wall to the north where the condition was more favorable.
We sank to 32 m and immediately was attracted by a large pink hard coral. As I tried to swim closer for a macro shot, Kanox frenetically knocked on his gas tank and waved ahead to catch my attention. I looked up toward where he was pointing, and after squinting my eyes hard enough I could see a dark object approaching. Could it be mola-mola?
Swimming forward as fast as I could, the dark object became increasingly discernible; round, almost bullet-like in shape with fins stretched out vertically like the wings of a jumbo jet, I knew we had hit the jackpot. Ten seconds of unadulterated joy later, the mid-sized sunfish turned around and swam off, leaving the few snapshots on my memory card the only proof of our fleeting encounter.
Lady Luck only smiled upon us that one time – we didn’t bump into another mola the rest of this dive or the next. A few patches of coral and a reef shark aside, Buyuk was not teeming with marine life, but with the trophy that’s the photos of mola in my pocket I would call this one of the more satisfying dives on my logbook.
Dive time: 25 min
Max depth: 32 m
Water temp: 20°C
Visibility: 20 m
Seen: Mola-mola, Reef shark, Hard and soft coral
USAT Liberty, Tulamben
“Everyone comes to Bali for mola-mola, but Tulamben is what people always remember back home.”
Kanox dispersed this nugget of wisdom on our way to Tulamben. With so many diving options near Padang Bai, why should anyone take the 90 min drive north to this tiny fishing village? It all traces back to the year 1942 during World War II, when the U.S. Navy cargo ship USAT Liberty was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine near the Lombok Strait. The damaged ship was then towed to the beach of Tulamben, and 21 years later it slipped to a sand slope from the shore when Mount Agung erupted. Soft coral soon covered the wreck, and now this almost century-old relic has evolved into a unique micro ecosystem bursting with marine life.
Being Bali’s most popular dive spot, Tulamben attracts up to 300 divers during the high season. On this supposedly quiet day there were still a few dozen divers in the water at all times. It is easy to understand Tulamben’s popularity; compares to Nusa Penida the shore dive here is easy, warm and full of various species of fish and soft coral. Almost every inch of the wreck was covered by coral, and some part of the ship like the wheel and a gun were still recognizable. I saw more fish here than all of my previous dives at Nusa Penida and Tepekong combined. And it was not only fish – I also saw a turtle, a colony of Spotted garden eel, a red sea slug called Spanish dancer and a sea fan.
After two dives in Tulamben, I have to agree with Kanox. Mola-mola was the elusive photo-op that justified my trip to Bali, but turned out it was the novice-friendly Tulamben that I really enjoyed.
Here is also a special thanks to Kanox, without him I surely wouldn’t have enjoyed my dives as much as I did. The cost was around USD 320 for 6 dives – not exactly a bargain – but I recommend Geko wholeheartedly.
Dive time: 39 min
Max depth: 29 m
Water temp: 26°C
Visibility: 15 m
Seen: Wreck, Hard and soft coral, Yellowbanded sweetlips, Napoleon wrasse, Midnight snapper, Clownfish, Pink anemonefish, Spanish dancer, Surgeonfish, Sand perch, Bluestrip snapper, Giant clam, Spotted garden eel, Barracuda, Turtle, Sea fan