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BLISSFUL BALI
ISLAND OF THE GODS

Text and photography by Andrea & Antonella Ferrari

 

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Detail of stone ornamentation above gate to Pura Tirta Empul temple in Manukaya, central Bali, Indonesia
Detail of stone ornamentation above gate to Pura Tirta Empul temple in Manukaya, central Bali, Indonesia Image #: 124198

Any occurrence in Bali’s daily life is an excuse for an exercise in beauty. Beauty here is a way of life. An historically significant Hindu enclave in what is the world’s biggest Muslim nation – the archipelago of Indonesia - this relatively small island boasts unique, complex and highly textured art and culture, as layered as its world famous visual trademark, its ubiquitous terraced paddy fields. Temples, statues, cerimonies, even rites of burial are occasions to savour Bali’s highly complex, ornate display of pure beauty – be it in sculpture, woodcarving, painting, landscaping or even simple cooking, gardening and clothing. But Bali is also incredibly beautiful in one other, much less-know aspect of its multifaceted reality – its underwater steep walls and coral reefs, straddling the divide and acting as a porous barrier between the Indian and Pacific oceans. How many other tropical travel destinations can boast such an unique combo – absolute artistic and natural beauty spectacularly mirrored both above and underwater? Our curiosity piqued by many a traveler’s and a diver’s tale, we decided to take the plunge – and check Bali’s exceptionally beautiful but still relatively underrated dive sites.

Experienced local specialist Aquamarine Diving (http://www.AquaMarineDiving.com) organized a complex and highly entertaining diving safari for us. Well equipped with scuba gear, U/W cameras and a very comfy air-conditioned minibus replete with dive books and cold drinks, a jolly driver and a seasoned dive guide, we had lots of fun and some incredible diving in the course of two sunny weeks. After landing in Denpasar – Bali’s modern and well-equipped international airport – we relaxed for a couple of days at the lovely and intimate Poppies Cottages 
(http://www.poppiesbali.com), a discreet corner of quiet privacy in the bustling heart of Kuta, Bali’s trendy tourist spot on the southern tip of the island. We were then driven by the Aquamarine staff to the beach of Padangbai for our first dip in Bali’s blue, cold waters. Getting past incredibly colorful wooden fishing vessels and noisy food stalls, we hopped on our very pretty and very clean boat together with our seasoned dive guide Ketut to get our first taste of Bali diving and Mola mola spotting in the cool (very cool!) waters off Crystal Bay at Nusa Penida. Diving for Mola molas or Oceanic sunfish – three meter tall, rounded peaceful oceanic giants which visit a few select spots off the island of Nusa Penida to get cleaned of parasites by obliging resident bannerfish – can be quite tricky! Ripping currents and a freezing 17°C down at 47 meters were quite embarassing, but this did not obviously deter us from our rendez-vous with three of the gentle giants – fleeting encounters which enabled us to snap a few good shots and which will forever be etched in our memories.

Mola molas are not easy subjects and diving for them is not always for the unexperienced (beware of the sudden powerful downcurrents and always bring a surface device), but they truly are a sight to behold! While in Crystal Bay do not forget to check the reef itself – Antonella found herself a beautiful Ornate wobbegong belonging to a new, undescribed species resting under a coral ledge during our safety stop there. After two more dives to round up our day-long Nusa Penida stint we happily hopped back in our lovely minibus (even equipped with a full library of dive books and magazines!) and were pleasantly driven among rolling coastal coconut palm plantations, scores of beautiful, ornate roadside Hindu temples and verdant rice paddies to the dried, sun-parched north of the island, braking here and there to avoid the occasional monkey. The drive was about three hours long and very enjoyable, taking us at last to the shores of the fabled Secret Bay, supposedly one of Bali’s best muck diving destinations. Our three dives there – intersped by a hugely enjoyable mee goreng lunch right on the beach – brought us lots of good stuff including fingered dragonets, thorny seahorses, hairy frogfish and even bobbit worms (in three inches of water, alas!), but we couldn’t avoid the feeling that Secret Bay – probably quite spectacular in the past – has been severely overdived recently, leading its most interesting denizens to move elsewhere (albeit probably temporarily). Little did we know what wonders were waiting for us at our next stop, the mysterious black sand slopes of Puri Jati...

Happily settled in the elegant settings of Bali’s Zen Resort (www.zenresortbali.com), one of the most serene and beautiful resorts we’ve ever seen in a whole life of worldwide travels, we speedily kitted up on the long, deserted black sand beach to enter the quiet waters of Puri Jati, certainly one of the world’s best muck diving sites.

The flat – or at most gently sloping – black sand bottom, decidedly mucky in stretches and dotted with small thumbnail-sized white coral colonies, is alive with hundreds of brightly colored and surprisingly obliging sandivers, while scores of minuscule veined (or margined) octopus peer from all over the place, hiding in empty shells or under the sand itself. We took our time here, and our many dives at Puri Jati regaled us with a very rare slender sea moth, several uncommon moray eels and crocodile sand eels, two Ambon scorpionfish, at least one long-armed octopus, a few blackfin lionfish, quite a few spectacular mimic octopus (two of them – are you ready for this? – first courting and then mating in front of us for the full duration of our dive in less than ten feet of water!), several frogfish belonging to a few different species, a few robust ghostpipefish and cockatoo waspfish and even a gorgeous blue-ring octopus which ever-lucky Antonella found checking – of all things – inside a discarded Japanese plastic wallet lying in the sand. Night diving in Puri Jati is fruitful too – expect several species of whitefaced waspfish, endemic or uncommon flying gurnards, cockatoo soles and numerous very weird shrimp species, some of which we had never seen or photographed before. So to sum it up – as a destination Puri Jati is not to be missed if you’re diving and travelling in Bali, both for its bonanza of uncommon or downright rare underwater subjects and the loveliness of Zen Resort, a place which is simply perfect to fully recharge batteries – both your strobes’ and your spiritual ones!

By the way, the concept of a “dive safari” shouldn’t worry anybody: all our dive gear was lovingly and daily taken care of by our driver and by our dive guide Ketut during the whole trip, and Aquamarine’s perfect organization really shined here –dive gear and websuits were washed regularly, dried up in the sun and neatly packed away every evening, and nothing, not even a dive sock, was ever lost. In fact, a well-organized dive safari is the best way to discover Bali and find out about the top spots – for your next trip!

It was hard leaving the exquisite Zen Resort and the underwater wonders of Puri Jati, but our next stop was by no way less interesting. Staying for a couple of days at Mimpi Dive Resort (www.mimpi.com) we had the opportunity of diving the famed Liberty wreck in Tulamben and the nearby black sand slopes of Seraya Secrets. Both are simply amazing! The wreck – dating back to WWII - is really huge, going from the surface down to almost 40 meters but always easily accessible, spectacularly festooned in pink gorgonians and colorful soft corals, boasting an enormous amount of resident fish life and offering exceptional photographic opportunities for wide-angle: just remember to dive there as early as possible (say 7 am) to avoid the crowds of day trippers from Kuta and to book more than one dive here (believe us – you’ll beg to come back!). Entry is in the surf from the pebbly beach but don’t worry, all your stuff will be carried for you – in fact you’ll be amazed at the strength shown by some of the local lady porters piling up your tanks and BCDs over their head! Sharing the same entrance style – from a rough pebbly beach - Seraya Secrets is however just the opposite – black sand, fine silt and a few anaemic coral heads, but oh boy what a site! In the first ten minutes we had already bagged four Harlequin shrimp busy feeding on sea stars, an endemic butterflyfish we’d never seen before, several beautiful shrimp gobies, lots of Boxer crabs hiding among the pebbles, a couple of rare wrasses, lots of colorful lionfish, the endemic to Bali and quite spectacular Volcano triplefin (one male with attending female harem) and a lot of other goodies, including tons of nudibranchs, seahorses and juvenile fish. The topping on the cake was finally offered by a pair of glorious and rare tiger shrimp posing for us on a white sponge. Spectacular indeed! After a few dives at Seraya we then moved on to Candidasa and the beautifully landscaped Water Garden Resort (www.watergardenhotel.com) for the last dives of our trip – first at Blue Lagoon (very cold and pretty disappointing, but it’s supposedly good for Ornate wobbegongs when it’s not too crowded – we even saw imprints in the sand under the coral ledges where they had been lying just a few minutes before) and then at Nusa Penida again for some more freezing Mola mola meetings.

Our final days were spent sightseeing around the little hill town of Ubud from the equally beautiful Champlung Sari Hotel (www.champlungsariubud.com) among the incredibly friendly Balinese and admiring the complex, ornate Hindu temples which dot the lush countryside. And that was it – a wonderful trip to a wonderful country, with incredibly nice people, great food, spectacular culture and works of art everywhere. Truly, in Bali beauty is a way of life!