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Bali Below

Bali’s exotic aura can be found beyond the legendary beaches and powerful swell; the island’s mystique extends below into the ocean realm.

I was looking at the coral-encrusted remains of the engine room of a WWII-era American shipwreck off the shores of Bali. The ship was attacked in the Bali Straits by Japanese forces, and the captain beached the wounded vessel along the lonely shores of eastern Bali.

To add insult to injury, the nearby mighty Mt. Agung erupted with such force, it caused the ship to tumble deep into the sea. Now its bow sits slightly below the surface while much of the ship rests in depths down to 30 meters.

On this morning I watched in amazement at dawn’s first light while huge bumphead parrotfish emerged from an evening of sleep in the protection of the wreck. With front teeth larger than a beaver’s, they can crunch huge pieces of coral. On this morning they lazily came together and then headed for an undersea cleaning station. It was a spectacular sight to see.

Indonesia is a Mecca for scuba divers. It is part of an area called The Coral Triangle which is the richest part of the world’s ocean for coral reef diversity. Divers head to the region’s hotspots such as Raja Ampat, West Papua’s Cenderawasih Bay, Komodo and Lembeh (to name just a few) to see the rarest and most colorful creatures in the sea.

Bali ranks high as a major diving attraction but is sometimes overshadowed by its eastern counterparts. I started diving in Bali in the 1980s and let’s just say the dive sites weren’t as crowded as they are today. 

We could spend all day in Tulamben at this famous USS Liberty shipwreck and not see any other divers some days. In fact, Tulamben was nothing more than arid fields with a few cattle grazing near the river. No hotels, dive shops or stores. Just a flimsy thatched hut perched up in the hills to give some shade to the local farmers. Times have changed however. The popularity of this beautiful and historic wreck, which can be dived by a shoreline entry, along with the nearby deep dropoffs and critter-covered black sand slopes have catapulted Bali’s east coast into an area divers from around the world come to see and photograph.

Though it is popular and well visited now, I am happy to report the beauty and allure of Bali’s Tulamben and many other dive sites continues to endure. In fact, divers really don’t have to go east of Bali to see all the rare and wonderful creatures of the sea.

Bali continues to surprise with new sites, road improvements and better facilities at every venue. It is pretty much all here in one very exotic and wonderful package.

Want to see the rare mola-mola ocean sunfish? Take a trip across Bali’s channel to Nusa Penida or Nusa Lembongan.

Dream of seeing sea turtles on every dive and reef? Try diving in the Gili Islands between Bali and Lombok. Want to see Japanese and American WWII shipwrecks? Look no further than Bali’s east coast at Tulamben and Banyuning Bay.

How about undersea sunken temples and coral laden gods? Pemuteran is the place to go. Or perhaps muck that produces rare mimic octopus or beautiful ornate ghost pipefish? North Bali and the eastern slopes come to mind.

The list goes on. Wall dives at Menjangen Island, muck dives in Pemuteran Bay and Padang Bai, great drift dives along western Nusa Penia. It is all there.

Bali invokes images of picturesque rural towns and terraced rice fields set amid verdant tropical foliage and the azure sea. This tiny island in the middle of the huge Indonesian archipelago is all that.

The Bali and Flores seas, at the southern reaches of the Indian Ocean, surround Bali. They support an incredible amount of marine life, making this one of the most biologically diverse diving destinations in the world.

Bali has a well-developed tourist industry able to please all tastes. Though political unrest has swept through parts of Indonesia in the last few years, Bali has been untouched, save for one sad incident, and works hard to erase those images and protect the island paradise from outsiders causing trouble.

Many divers visit a number of dive sites by joining a “diving safari” tour. On the east coast, Padang Bai is a small, scenic and busy fishing village and port that has only recently begun catering to tourists. The quick access to some nice dive sites contributes to the town’s relaxing atmosphere. The reefs around Padang Bai have white sand bottoms and can be stunning when visibility is good.

Near Padang Bai, the shallow reefs of Blue Lagoon are used for introductory dives, night dives and long photo excursions. Staghorn coral patch reefs start in only three meters of water. The reef then opens onto an area with huge coral bommies, soft leather corals and flowing anemones. The delicate tips of the well-developed plate corals here are beautiful, tinged with purple and blue.

Tulamben is located on the northeast shore of the Badung Straight. A short walk past multi-colored outriggers brings the diver to a black, rocky beach. The Liberty Shipwreck is a remnant of WWII and is considered by most dive operators to be Bali’s most popular dive site.

The currents running by the wreck bring nutrients to feed the corals and stunning gorgonian sea fans; huge soft coral trees and big barrel sponges have all flourished at this location. A resident school of bigeye jacks live on and around the ship and are unafraid of divers, so it is safe to enter the school and have them whirl around. The ship is also a haven for emperators, batfish, sweetlips and parrotfish.

After some days in Tulamben, get up early and drive three hours or so northwest to the Pemuteran area. Named for a large Napoleon wrasse seen here, Napoleon Reef is a great little spot. It can be dived deep or shallow, day or night.

At Menjangan Island Marine Park, the dropoffs can be a real treat. Look to be greeted by batfish here. The diving offers spectacular corals and many deep crevices and fissures as well as small caves pocking the reef. Sleeping groupers and wary bigeyes are found in the dark recesses.

By now you are ready for the more laid-back islands of the three Gilis. As famous for the white sand beaches and all night raves (on “Gili T”) as they are for diving. A sea turtle incubation program has meant the reefs here have plenty of green sea turtles and some hawkbills around.

Gili Air is also known as a great place for those who like macro life such as frogfish and seahorses. Like all the Gilis, there is no car traffic and each have a real “islandy” feel.

The fruit bat-covered Batu Lumbung (AKA Manta Point) off Nusa Penida is known for a resident population of black and gray manta rays that come in to cleaning stations. They also congregate to feed off the currents nearby and to mate. Divers have seen as many as 50 rays here when that action takes place.

From June through October, giant ocean sunfish also come in to mate and go to bannerfish-filled cleaning stations. Their habitat can be a deep and tricky dive but, with the right guide, seeing a fish that can reach four tons in weight and four-and-a-half meters in height is impressive.

There are many more dive spots in and around Bali to explore for the curious diver. Enjoy the diverse marine life here in the Indo-Pacific Sea, then relax in the shadow of a volcano. Few places on earth compare.

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