Head away from the tourist-filled beaches in southern Bali and discover a quieter, more secluded place. Better still, see a staggering variety of diving. In two weeks, it’s possible to drive in a rough triangle across the island and find adrenalin-fueled encounters with the elusive mola mola sunfish and manta rays at Nusa Lembongan, tranquil wreck and reef diving at Tulamben, and amazing corals gracing the plunging walls at Pemuteran’s Nusa Menjangan.
All the while, journey through Bali’s culture and experience the islanders’ legendary hospitality.
Lembongan: Here there be giants
Tim is waving his fist at me. Not in anger, but excitement — with his thumb and little finger extended. The manager of PADI Dive Center Bali Diving Academy Lembongan is signaling that he’s finally spotted what we’ve been searching for the past three days — the enigmatic giant ocean sunfish.
Dropping down to 110 feet, I peer into the blue and make out what Tim has spotted. The sunfish’s skin, a mottled gray, aptly camouflages it with its open-ocean environment, and it looks more like an alien visitor’s spacecraft — or maybe just the alien visitor itself — than a cousin of the reef fish we’ve seen over the past few days. Its body is a very solid-looking vertical disc, its fins sticking out at right angles, like the booms of a starship.
And it’s big, both longer than I am and taller — a fish so large it makes goliath groupers and Napoleon wrasses look puny. Yet, despite its great size, the mola mola appears positively docile as it looks me over with large, cowlike eyes. As a squadron of bannerfish crowds in to clean this gigantic vagrant, I find myself wondering what a mola mola eats to maintain its size.
We keep very still and close in on the reef, marveling as the mola mola comes up level with us, seemingly unfazed by our presence. It hangs just a few feet away from us while the bannerfish go to work. A glance down and suddenly we see two more sunfish swimming in closer, keen to get clean as well. For a few more minutes we stay with these rarely seen creatures and then, mindful of our dive computers and air, start slowly heading to shallower waters.
Finding a mola mola today — our final day on Nusa Lembongan — makes the victory all the sweeter. Lembongan, a half-hour speedboat ride off Bali’s southeast coast, is a small neighbor of Nusa Penida. Lembongan and the island sliver of Nusa Ceningan form two conduits through which the cold water and currents of the Indian Ocean channel directly. That’s the key to dependably sighting mola molas, which rise from the abyssal depths for cleaning during April through October. This is one of the few places in the world where divers can encounter them.
Surfers first discovered Lembongan, and they still ride the island’s many challenging breaks today. Although seaweed farming remains the mainstay of this steep-hilled island’s economy, tourism — like the upmarket accommodation clustered around the perfect sliver of sand that is Mushroom Bay — is close behind. Our cozy room at Hai Tide Huts is built in the traditional Lombok style, with a high-arching thatched roof over a wooden bedroom resting on stilts 6 feet off the ground. Going diving couldn’t be easier — it’s a few steps from the room to the beach, where the dive boat picks us up each morning.
On our arrival at the island three days before, Tim is quietly confident that we will see molas within our allotted days. But he’s also eager to show us that with or without molas, Lembongan provides dramatic undersea adventure. The ocean currents that bring the sunfish also shape Lembongan’s epic-size reefs, and the cold, clear 120-foot visibility makes it easy to take it all in. I’m a little intoxicated by the sheer sense of space around me on our first dive, the pure blue of the water as it holds the sunlight from above and the craggy, current-blasted coral that tenaciously thrives in this aquatic landscape. Almost every dive is a drift dive, an exhilarating whirl of color, coral and critters where we speed along the reef as if it were a sideshow panorama unrolling next to us.
Manta Point is Lembongan’s other star attraction, a half-hour speedboat ride along the stunning, sun-scorched cliffs of Nusa Penida. It’s not difficult to see why the Balinese call Nusa Penida “The Demon Island” — blasted by the sea over centuries, Nusa Penida’s vertical drops contain numerous caves and a giant stone archway looming just off the island’s shore.
Within moments of descent, a young manta comes swooping directly toward me, winging in swiftly and smoothly over the gnarled coral, which bottoms out around 30 feet. It passes within a few feet of me, jet-black wings effortlessly powering it on beyond our group of divers and back out into the blue. Still slightly awed that it had been so easy, I wonder if that was to be our first and last manta sighting. For a while it seems so, as we moved along the ocean-battered reef, constantly searching the blue. Then the group behind us gives us the heads-up — with the clang of metal on metal. I have time to look behind me and see not one but three mantas gliding past together in single-line formation, passing between our two dive groups in an impossibly graceful train, almost wholly synchronized in their movements.
Images of mantas and mola molas play through my mind on the journey back to the mainland. What can top encounters with giants? The next stop on our Bali dive safari beckons, and as Lembongan disappears behind us, we’re already thinking about what lies ahead.
Tulamben: Under the volcano
We hop off the ferry and are met by our Balinese driver, Wayan, who negotiates traffic around Sanur with an ease that seemingly defies the vehicular chaos all around him. We pass by scores of artisan shops that are haphazardly stacked with intricate wooden carvings, artwork and enormous statues of the elephant god Ganesh. Heading northeast, we wend our way through small villages set among the giant green leaves of tropical vegetation. The road steadily rises as it negotiates Bali’s mountainous interior and gives us tremendous views down into the vast terraced plains of rice paddies that are the heart of Balinese life. I’m glad I’m not driving so I can take it all in.
Equally spectacular is Pura Besakih, the Mother Temple, Bali’s holiest site on the slopes of Mount Agung. This temple has 35 shrines with towering, multilayered pagodas set on several levels of this volcanic mountain. A place of perpetual pilgrimage, Pura Besakih welcomes Balinese families who continually arrive in their finest formal dress to make offerings and celebrate. Not far away is the Tirtagangga Water Palace, a beautifully serene garden of meditation set around an intricate ensemble of water fountains. We finally arrive in Tulamben in the late afternoon, perfect timing to meet with Eli, the manager of Bali Diving Academy Tulamben, before enjoying the view of the spectacular sunset from the vantage point of Mimpi Resort Tulamben’s restaurant.
The following day, I’m sitting in a rigid-hull inflatable boat, riding over glass-smooth water, watching the early-morning sun illuminate the brooding presence of Mount Agung. Bali’s highest point and still-active volcano is visible throughout Tulamben. Mount Agung’s last catastrophic eruption in 1963 created the black-rock beach and the sand on which sits the USS Liberty. Previously on land, the Liberty was pushed underwater by the eruption’s force, which also created huge trenches of volcanic rock on the seabed. Today, the wreck and the dive sites surrounding it have become a haven for marine life. It’s easily Bali’s most famous dive area. Scores of people visit every day, from Tulamben and beyond, heading up on charter boats from the south. But if, like my buddy and I, you’re staying in Tulamben, you can have the wreck to yourself by simply getting up early and entering the water at 6 a.m.
As we drop into the water, a huge school of jacks sits in a cyclone swirl directly above the stern, the rising sun catching on their silver bodies. As we move farther down and round the stern, the entire wreck stretches out in front of us, swarming with rainbow runners, fusiliers and more. Perhaps the Liberty is so popular not just because it’s a beautifully easy dive — beginning at 15 feet and running down to 100 feet at its deepest point — but because it looks exactly as a shipwreck should. The arc of the stern remains fully intact, the ribs of the ship frame the sunlight streaming in from above, and marine life encrusts every surface — the smooth metal having long disappeared.
My favorites are the large vase corals perched upright on some of the bow section’s struts and the fronds spilling from the Liberty’s now inert gun. Among the wreck’s ribs hover its resident bumphead parrotfish, their faces set in a perpetual grin beneath their bulbous foreheads. For such large fish, easily the length of my arm, they move nimbly around the wreck’s fallen debris, a flash of almost fluorescent blue-green.
For many, the Liberty is the sole site they see in Tulamben before being whisked back south. For my buddy and me, three days didn’t seem enough to explore the coastline’s endlessly surprising and nearly deserted dive sites. Kubu provides one of our most memorable dives, not least because upon descent, I see the flash of something large and silver-white above me. As I glance up, I can’t help but smile as I recognize the unmistakable profile of a bottlenose dolphin powering by, disappearing from my view almost as soon as it arrived. Kubu itself is a smooth slope of black volcanic sand that levels out around 60 feet. Scattered across it are man-size vase corals, the only feature on this otherwise unbroken level. Most are upright, but some lie on their side, as if tipped over. It makes for a fascinating and surreal landscape.
The irony that this incredible underwater world was created by Mount Agung’s destructive eruption is not lost on us as we enjoy our final sunset in Tulamben after a soothing Mandi Lulur Javanese massage. The tranquility of this tiny village, no more than a few houses and shops beside the dusty road, belies its recent, dramatic history.
Pemuteran: Town that time forgot
Having experienced the two extremes of Bali diving — the adrenalin rush of Lembongan’s huge reefs and the gentle-critter spotting of Tulamben — our curiosity is piqued by Pemuteran, our final Bali dive destination and the most remote. With Wayan at the wheel again, we follow the road west along the northern coast through Bali Barat National Park for a couple hours, occasionally glimpsing at the sea as we pass through sun-parched forests, their brown beauty awaiting the rainy season. While no volcano broods over Pemuteran, sharp-edged mountains rise like the spine of a sleeping dinosaur around the large, black-sand bay, seemingly protecting it from the outside world. Like Tulamben, Pemuteran itself is a sleepy straggle of houses and resorts along one small road, with several picturesque temples. Renaud and Mireille, the Swiss husband-and-wife team running Bali Diving Academy Pemuteran, welcome us on arrival, with Renaud showing us how to scoop up lunch with our hands, local-style, while we discuss our dive itinerary.
Nusa Menjangan, a protected island nature reserve and Pemuteran’s most famous dive area, is on the menu. And I’m surprised to hear Renaud say that excellent muck diving awaits nearby. Komang, our local guide, tells us that we might even spot the shape-shifting mimic octopus on these sites.
The mimic is the last thing on my mind the next morning — despite the lure of experiencing Menjangan, it’s hard to tear ourselves away from the luxury of Taman Sari Amertha Villas, a newly built complex boasting soaring Balinese architecture, huge rooms, sumptuous beds, and individual plunge pools specially designed to maximize privacy and peace and quiet for each guest.
When we drop in by Menjangan, nothing prepares me for just how vibrant the coral is down the length of the sheer walls here. Dozens of species of hard and soft corals overrun each other in a glorious abundance of shades and textures that continually bewitch the eye. It’s enough to simply hang in the gentle current and take in the big picture as we drift. The wall abruptly breaks off into a large, smooth, blindingly white sandy slope. Approaching it, I see thousands of eels halfway out of their hidey-holes and undulating in the current en masse.
The reef plateaus into broad table corals that jut defiantly from the bommie’s summit. Slowly finning between two bommies, which form an underwater boulevard, it’s hard to dispel the fanciful notion of flying past aquatic skyscrapers, the neon-vivid colors like the lighted windows of a nighttime cityscape.
I’m wondering if we should have returned to Menjangan as we plunge into the cold, murky waters of Secret Bay on our final day — our first muck dive, which yields some demon stingers, stripey fish and flounders. Not bad, but there’s not much else to look at and certainly little hope of seeing a mimic octopus. As if reading my mind, Komang drives us to Puri Jati, past bright-green, tiered rice paddies that surround the eponymous gray and red stone temple. From there the water is steps away.
As we wade in, the sand continues straight under the water, with its contours this gentle slope’s only features. Komang tells us that such an empty landscape is ideal for finding the mimic octopus. I’m skeptical that we will see one with just a dive here, but I am cheered by his enthusiasm. The dive is great anyway — we encounter reptilian eels, big flatworms, demon stingers and a common octopus with only its eyes showing above the sand. I’m thrilled momentarily and then disappointed: I realize it’s not what I had hoped for.
Then, just seconds later, the usually laid-back Komang bangs his tank insistently. Joining him, we watch the mimic octopus’s impossibly fluid black-and-white shape transform first into a starfish shape, then a stingray with all its tentacles trailing behind into a V, and finally a mantis-shrimp shape with stalklike eyes. When it finishes its performance by shrinking into a tiny sand hole, we feel as if we should applaud.
When we finally leave Pemuteran to drive back down Bali’s west coast, we experience more of the island’s breathtaking interior. We lunch at a mountain viewpoint overlooking a rice terrace that spreads for miles. With a couple of days left, we’re undecided if we should go to the cultural village of Ubud and take in Balinese dance and music, or head for the beaches, spas and designer shopping of Seminyak and Kuta. Either way, we’ll rejoin the crowds after nearly two weeks of blissful semi-isolation. Perhaps one day Bali’s interior and its amazing scuba diving will become as well-traveled as the tourist haunts of Kuta and Sanur — but for now, they still await exploration by anyone willing to head off on a safari.
If you’re looking to immerse yourself in Balinese culture during your dive safari, head to Ubud. It’s located almost in the island’s center and well-away from any diving, but easy to reach from Bali’s dive areas — it’s the perfect place to wind down among the lush serenity of sweeping rice paddies. Within Ubud, you can witness mesmerizing performances of Balinese dance, from the legendary drama of Barong to the famous Kecak, where a choir of bare-chested men assembles in a fire-lit circle chanting hypnotically whilst swaying in rhythm.
Everywhere you go in Bali you’ll hear the haunting, beautiful sound of gamelan, a percussive orchestral music unique to Bali. If it sounds a little familiar, that’s because American minimalist composers like Steve Reich and Philip Glass have been heavily influenced by it.
Ubud’s accommodations suit all tastes and budgets, but if you’re looking for real opulence and second-to-none service, get pampered at the justly renown Oberoi hotel and resort in Bali’s trendy Seminyak District, just up from Kuta Beach. Thanks to tourism, antiques are built on demand in Bali, so if you want the real thing, head to Toko Antique in Ubud, which verifies the authenticity of each item it sells.
The guide to Bali
Average water temperature: 29 degrees at Tulamben and Menjangan, 25 degrees at Lembongan and Secret Bay
What to wear: 3 mm to 5 mm fullsuit
Average visibility: 90-120 feet
When to go: April through October for mola molas.
Balinese Massage: After two weeks of nonstop diving or an arduous long-haul flight, try a Javanese body scrub and deep-tissue massage.
Crystal Bay, Nusa Lembongan: The highlight of this dive — popular with mola molas — is the underwater bat cave.
Emerald Point, Tulamben: Between the cabbage corals and pale-white sand, look for cuttlefish and exotic nudibranchs.
USS Liberty, Tulamben: Best done as a shore dive, this World War II wreck receives many visitors by midday.
Eel Garden, Nusa Menjangan, Pemuteran: A strong current along this wall dive lures sharks; along the reef’s edge, look for pygmy seahorses.
Puri Jati, Pemuteran: At this muck diving hotspot, look for coconut octopuses, seahorses, eels and stargazers.
Bali has one airport, Ngurah Rai, which is located on the south side of the island. It’s served by a wide variety of international airlines with connections to the U.S. from Guam, Hong Kong, Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Tokyo, among others. Although you can spot mola molas during the dry season between April and October, August to October is considered prime time.
Price of paradise
Ever dreamed of living in Bali? Check out our online guide to owning a piece of this diver’s paradise.
An original artwork from the Puri Lukisan Art Market, an extension of the Ubud art museum of the same name.
Rigged & ready
Joby Gorillapod: Secure your camera to almost any surface with this tripod’s flexible, gripping legs.
Aqua Lung Aqua Flex Hooded Vest: Add extra warmth with this 6/4 mm vest that has four-way stretch neoprene side panels, 4 mm Thermoskin Titanium front and back panels, and a 4 mm face seal.