Banner fish swirled around the huge body of this denizen of the deep, angelfish, wrasses and a few other fish also pecked at its skin. It hovered in the open blue, not far above the coral reef from where we calmly watched. One of the largest, oddest and rarest of sights in the sea, the mola mola (also called the ocean sunfish) cruises serenely by. It’s hard to believe we are a boat ride away from the frenetic nightlife of Kuta and Legian.
Bali beckons many travelers to its mystical, tropical shores, and among those who answer the call are divers. Bali has some great dive spots, but relatively few venture off the southeast coast to the three islands where some remarkable diving awaits. Here the currents run strong and the corals are healthy and varied. It is a great place for all kinds of diving, from wild drifts to sedate searches and seasonal infestations of the oceanic sunfish. Strange and shy, this huge pelagic beast is a rarity to see for reef-dwelling scuba divers. These islands are a secret no more to the diving community and offer regular encounters with manta rays as well. Huge, graceful and as odd-looking as the mola, mantas glide along the coast of Nusa Penida, the largest of the three islands.
Rugged and inviting, Nusa Penida has little interior water, so most residents stay near the coast, leaving the big island and its towering cliffs to the gods. There isn’t as much tourism as at nearby Nusa Lembongan, yet the treelined beaches and quiet villages flanking the island’s sandy shores sit next to some of the richest reefs in the world. On the west end, the eerie white limestone coastline of Penida rises straight up from the sea in sharp foliage-covered cliffs. From the northwest shore you can see Gunung Agung, the majestic volcano ascending high into the clouds on Bali.
Penida’s wild terrain has been the inspiration for fables and myths. Balinese widely believe the island is the source of black magic and are careful what they say to the residents here. Natural disasters are said to have been caused by the giant demon king, Jero Gede Macaling, who hails from Nusa Penida.
Nusa Lembongan is a small but popular day trip destination southwest of Nusa Penida. Once solely a surfer’s haven, a boom of sorts is currently underway with fast ferries carrying large groups of people across the straits daily from Bali in less than an hour. Hotels, restaurants and modest homestays are sprouting up everywhere.
A few dive services have set up shop on the island. These include World Diving, Bali Diving Academy and Bali Hai Diving Adventures. Diving from Lembongan beats the daily commute across the channel done by many dive shops on Bali.
Sandwiched in between Penida and Lembongan is tiny Nusa Ceningan. A short foot bridge spans the narrow channel between the two islands. The nearby village is full of fishermen and seaweed farmers who work the nearby waters and inner reef flats. A few hotels and homestays overlook the sea on this once quiet isle.
While demons are not beloved by Balinese, demon rays are a delight to divers. John Chapman of World Diving Lembongan absolutely loves mantas. He’s been on Lembongan for years but gets as giddy as a schoolboy about manta dives.
The south Penida coastline is home to a huge group of manta rays that can sometimes be seen from the air swimming in current lines near the cliffs, feeding and gliding through the sea.
Some are reef mantas, joined by their larger pelagic cousins. There’s even a mystical white manta I have seen leaping from the water on the way to Manta Point.
Given the proper sea conditions, Manta Point, east of Penida’s famed Arch Rock, can be enjoyed by all levels of divers. Snorkelers can even watch giant devilfish coast gracefully below them. Groups of manta rays gather at the reef area surrounding this large rock to visit the cleaning stations, mate and feed in the current with their immense mouths gaping open.
There is a “flyway” of sorts they follow, like deer on a forest trail. They will come in along this invisible path and hover over a series of very large boulders holding cleaning stations. Look for the small cleaner wrasses that like to preen these animals. It was here John, Elaine and I watched as they took turns romping and getting cleaned.
They come big and small and run the spectrum from nearly pure white to light gray with underbellies a brilliant white to jet-black with just a speck of white on the mandibles. Mantas can be curious, and we enjoyed some close encounters as they checked us out as we hovered.
Jurassic Point or Crystal Bay are where ocean sunfish like to hang out. They are normally alone getting cleaned by bannerfish and angelfish but can sometimes be found in small groups. It is quite a sight to see as they hang vertically in the water while these fish rummage all over their bodies.
Mola come near the reef only briefly, presumably to mate and preen. My guide Selamat seemed even more eager than me to spot one. As we floated down along the wall at Jurassic Point passing whitetip sharks, giant bull rays and blue-spot stingrays, Selamat kept an eye out into the blue. Sunfish are big but also narrow and, if you don’t see them from the side, you may miss them.
Sure enough, an excited yell through his regulator alerted me to a cleaning mola up ahead. We slowed our approach and watched as busy bannerfish and Emperor angelfish pecked and preened this giant disk of a fish. As we got close, it shied away, then headed out to the open sea after I fired a few shots from my camera. But to our delight, the call to clean overrode the call to flee, and it circled and returned. During the course of a week, we saw molas at Pura Ped, Crystal Bay, Toyapakeh and the Jurrassic Point. The highlight for me took place on the boat, however. I had heard stories about the molas leaping from the sea and even seen a video. Suddenly, while taking some shots of Crystal Bay’s arch, it happened. A mola broke the surface near our boat and completely cleared the ocean, loudly splashing back in a full-bodied flop. Amazing.
Sunfish come into the reefs of Lembongan Island during late August and early September, but are also seen from June through November. They typically stay in an area punctuated by cold ocean upwellings and it is safest to look for them at slack tide.
Lembongan and its neighboring isles are a real treasure for divers above and below. At night, the island is quiet, and there are some nice restaurants to enjoy dinner and drinks. This was certainly not my first trip and won’t be my last, although it may have been the most rewarding to date. Like me, you may need to exercise your demons here again and again.
World Diving Lembongan (at Pondok Baruna Guest House)
Tel. +62 812 390 0686
Bali Hai Diving Adventures
Tel. +62 361 724 062
Getting There: Nusa Lembongan is approximately an hour’s boat trip from Sanur. Depending on your flight schedule. it is sometimes necessary to overnight in Bali before catching a boat. Transfers usually include free pick-up and drop-off from the airport, Jimbaran, Kuta, Seminyak, Legian and Sanur.
Weather / Climate: The climate of Nusa Lembongan is similar to the neighboring “mainland” of Bali, but it is noticeably drier, particularly from May to September. The year-round average maximum temperature is 28-30 celsius degrees with minimums ranging from 23- 25 degrees.
Language: Balinese is the most common language of communication between local residents. Bahasa Indonesian and English are also widely understood and spoken.
Staying Connected: The island receives good 3G but be mindful of the cost of making calls from mobile phones. Most restaurants and accommodations offer free WiFi access to guests. There are also public Internet cafes in Jungut Batu.