Beneath the Bali Blues
With its beautiful waters, extensive coral reefs and abundant marine life, Bali offers some of the finest diving opportunities in the world.
At the crack of dawn, the world below is a different place. As we descend deeper, my eyes get accustomed to the dark blue. Feeble rays filter in through the white light metres above, illuminating the silhouette of a gigantic structure stretched forth before me. A nondescript mass of wood lies forlornly, at the bottom of the seabed. As I get closer, I realise it is the hull of the USAT Liberty shipwreck, which was sunken by a Japanese torpedo during WWII. Long forgotten, the remains of what was once a US Navy cargo ship are left in apparent disuse. All is quiet in the deep blue, but the shipwreck is a buzz of oceanic activity. Discarded by the humans, the ship ruins serve as a wonderland for the denizens of the deep. Colourful soft corals, sponges, and giant gorgonian fans decorate various parts of the vessel. Vibrant fish abound, including butterfly fish, angelfish, damselfish and anemones. Schools of trevally, fusiliers, and even barracuda, circle this manmade structure, calling it their home.
A Bountiful Start
I am here to focus on my underwater photography. Having recently expanded my camera kit with an additional strobe, I stop to snap some shots, but the dive guide seems to be in a hurry. He points towards the aft of the wreck, and I follow him, only to be rewarded with something bigger and better. A school of Bumphead Parrotfish! As the name suggests, they are characterised by the prominent bulbous forehead, which develops in adults. In a recent study, the male bump heads use their bony heads to ram into each other during territorial disputes. The bump heads slowly move around the windows of the wreck, and we swim with them. Their aquamarine bodies blend with the oceanic blue, but as I light them with my strobes, their true colours stand out. Through their faeces, they produce a substantial amount of sediment and influence coral reef structure, thus playing an important role in the ecosystem. We watch these beautiful creatures until they swim away, and all that is left is the scenic view of the wreck behind, and the blue beyond the windows.
With the advent of new camera technology, every novice has now become an expert, but underwater photography is much more difficult than the simple click of the shutter. Light travels differently underwater, and the red end of the spectrum is absorbed as we descend deeper, casting a blue veil over all marine life. A photographer has to compensate for the layers of water in between, and understand how to manipulate light to capture the perfect image. After a bunch of quick photos, I review them underwater itself, so that I can tweak the exposures for the perfect shot. I notice a large creature silhouetted against the wreck, in the last picture. By the time I look up at the actual scene, the animal has swum much nearer, enticed by the treat of sponges growing beside me. It is so close now, that I can almost touch the Hawksbill turtle. It glances at me with mild interest and then returns to his meal with renewed tenacity. Hawksbill turtles are critically endangered and exploited as the sole source of commercial tortoiseshell. Apart from illegal trade, and a substantial market for eggs, meat and even stuffed juveniles, a further threat is global climate change. An increase in the temperature of sand used for nesting can have adverse consequences. Currently, approximately less than 1 out of 1,000 eggs survive and reach adulthood.
By this time, I’ve been on the deep end too long, and so we begin our ascent. We pass a lone barracuda, and I long for a quick shot but there is not enough time. It has been enough excitement for one dive, and we surface towards the morning sun. I return to Mimpi Resort, a quaint, tastefully styled hotel situated in Tulamben. Just before the afternoon dive, I feast on a sumptuous breakfast at the resort restaurant overlooking the pool, which stretches on infinitely into the ocean. The friendly staff chats on merrily, inquiring about the day’s sightings and wishing me luck for the dives to come.
Spoilt for choice
Ninety per cent of the diving in Bali is shore diving, and the sites are easily accessible and suitable for almost all levels of experience. During the course of the next week, we dive into the sites of Amed, Seraya, and Padang Bay. While the Liberty shipwreck is a minute’s walk away from the resort, Amed and Seraya are also close by, making it a convenient base. Seraya, which specialises in muck diving, comprises patches of black sand, smaller rocks and little coral growth. It is hardly a feast for the eyes, and you have to search patiently, scanning the gently sloping ground as far as the visibility goes.
During my dive, I spot the masters of mimicry; Ghost pipefish that have some of the best disguises of the sea. They mimic the leaves, crinoids, sponges or seagrass that they are found around. Most species have a wide geographic range, as they spend a long period floating around the ocean as plankton, reaching adult length before they settle into the reef. My next encounter, the Wonderpus sounds like it should be a cool indie-rock band, or perhaps the prime ride of an amusement park. It is instead a magnificent octopus, which lives up to its name. Unlike the mimic octopus, it is active during the twilight hours of dusk and dawn. The patterns on its body and arms are unique to each individual, and the colours become more pronounced when it is disturbed, as a warning display. My dive guide also points out two cryptically camouflaged Rhinopias scorpionfish, right next to a barrel sponge that I was photographing. These fish don’t swim much at all, preferring to crawl along with their fins and settle onto a sandy bottom. They rarely move, and sway in the direction of the natural current, uniquely blending in with their surroundings.
While Seraya is a quiet and secluded dive site, Padang Bay serves as a ferry port and is much more crowded. Populated by charming eateries playing 90s rock, it is a lively town, and famous for its breathtaking marine life. It is not hard to spot the divers dressed in black, amongst the colourful throngs of tourists and locals alike. Padang Bay rewards us with some of the best dives of the entire trip, due to the sheer abundance and diversity of macro life. The Mantis shrimp is a delightfully rare sight. When it first peeks out of the hole in the sand, I don’t realise it is carrying eggs. As I near closer with my camera, it rises up and out, preparing to flee, revealing the bounty of crimson eggs! The Blue-ringed octopus can fit into the back pocket of your jeans, it is so small. Before you begin to croon over it, you should also know that this tiny creature is one of the deadliest marine animals around. Beware of its charming curling arms and fascinating blue rings, which pulsate when agitated as a warning. A bite from this octopus can completely paralyse and kill a human within minutes, and there is no known antidote.
A bit of history
As I dive at the Pyramid site at Amed, it feels like I’m swimming amongst ancient monuments, reminiscent of the early beginnings of Egyptian step pyramids. In 2005, around 50 man-made pyramids were sunk here for ecological purposes to create an artificial reef. Needless to say, the project was a success, and we saw Blue-spotted stingrays, sweetlips, snappers and even a turtle. The highlight was definitely the Pygmy seahorses, three of which were camouflaged in soft coral. This species has been on my bucket list since a while, so I am obviously thrilled with the bonanza!
We are so pleased with this dive, we decide to come back to the site, but this time we are not so lucky. Caught in one of the worst currents the dive guide himself has ever experienced, we spend most of the dive, merely holding on to a piece of rock, or simply drifting along powerlessly. Out of breath, we tiredly wade onto the shore, plopping onto the fresh sand below. That is enough diving for the day, and also, the end of my weeklong trip! I skip my fourth and last dive, choosing to hang out with the local children by the beach instead.
Breathing uncompressed air for a change, I recall the stunning memories that Bali has given me over the past week, determined not to forget anything. The sun is dipping to reveal a beautiful sunset, a fitting end to my trip. The great Mount Agung stretches out before us, and it strikes me then, that I am sitting at the base of an active volcano, which last erupted in 1964, and still occasionally spews smoke and ash. What a marvellous country, this land of black volcanoes and stunning white sand! The plethora of natural resources that Indonesia has to offer amazes me, but more so, its wild, and unpredictable spirit. I shall be back again soon, for there is magic in the air here, and the sand and the sea are full of surprises.
How to go – Catch a flight to Denpasar airport, Bali, followed by a two-hour car journey to Tulamben. Since 90 per cent of East Bali diving is shore-based, the dive sites are easily accessible by foot, or by road (maximum five- ten-minute drives)
When to go – Best time to dive in Tulamben is early April to July, October and November. December to March is the rainy season, and visibility is reduced.
Things to remember – It’s best to plan your dive schedule according to the moon cycles and tides, to avoid strong currents. The best time to see Mantas is from April to June. The Mola Mola season is early July and November, with the risk of unpredictable weather.
Cover Photo: TA mimic octopus (Thaumoctopus mimicus) spreads its vibrant tentacles as it moves along the seabed.
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