Bali - Hiding in Retreats and Diving on Black Sand

Despite its charms to most other visitors, I had never really planned to go to Bali and much rather wanted to concentrate on other Indonesian islands during my summer holidays. Why? It just always sounded too busy and touristy to me, and I thought there wouldn’t be much pristine nature left, neither on land nor in the sea. After having spent two weeks there from the end of June to mid-July, it is now safe to say that I was completely wrong about my preconceptions of Bali. The island is indeed beautiful, diverse in landscapes, great for diving and full of traditions. I am therefore thankful to my Palauan Neco Marine team, who recommended a few good places for diving to me and opened my eyes.
Denpasar’s airport is probably the most conveniently located airport in Indonesia and the busiest next to Jakarta’s. It served as my port of entry into Indonesia (flying from Koror via Manila), and from there I was hoping to get to the Komodo area as soon as possible. Unfortunately, all flights to Labuan Bajo near Komodo were full until about two weeks later, so that I was obliged to spend some considerable time of my holidays on Bali. I was not too disappointed about this change of plans, though, as I had deliberately kept my schedule very flexible and desperately needed to have some quiet times to myself, read and write and watch and sleep. The last few weeks at Soneva Fushi had been terribly busy, and Palau with its packed dive schedule and sights and sounds hadn’t quite given me the rest I was longing for. I therefore chose to take it easy for a few days and to first travel to Bali’s northwestern corner, where I would stay in one of Jubawa Homestay’s pretty bungalows in a village called Pemuteran. This area was said to be remote, with little tourist facilities, but spectacular reefs and a few other interesting dive sites. I very much enjoyed spending some time on my porch in the sun, chatting to some other travellers and catching up with my friends at home… until the hiking and diving bug caught me again and I felt restless to go out and put my head in the forest and water.

A lovely Hawaiian couple, Jean and Lou, staying in the same hotel was planning to go on a day hike in West Bali National Park on the next day, which I had hoped to do with someone anyway. We therefore agreed to take a guide together and were looking forward to each other’s company. The seven-hour hike in the park was quite strenuous but exposed us to some very fine rain and monsoon forests with lots of jungle inhabitants: grey macaques, a giant squirrel, a defensive wild boar, rainbow-coloured beetles and spiders en masse. If we had had more time, I am sure we could have found even more bizarre animals in this park. The drinks after the hike – Bintang for Jean and Lou and a non-alcoholic energy water for me, thank you very much – tasted so good! It was also great getting to know Jean and Lou and their views of the world, and should you ever read this: thanks again for taking me along!

Natascha was a great inspiration, too. She stayed at the same resort as I and dived with the same dive centre, Jubawa Divers. We started talking and soon found out that we both work in the Maldives: she as a dive instructor at a Four Seasons resort and I as a marine biologist at Soneva Fushi. We both knew common people there; small world. Natascha was crazy about diving, despite her diving routine at the resort, loved all small and hidden animals, especially nudibranchs, and had worked in places before that I was still hoping to see. We were therefore a good buddy team and spent a few days together on Bali. We started diving in two places, called Puri Jati and Secret Bay (Gilimanuk’s harbour), both of which apparently resemble the sandy bottom topography of the Lembeh Strait in northern Sulawesi. This was all new territory for me, and I was hugely excited when we found such weird and wonderful camouflaged creatures as dragonets, frogfishes, sand divers and snake eels as well as a few octopi, nudibranchs and shrimps on or in the dark volcanic sand. Perfect places for keen divers, photographers and biologists! Not so funny was, however, that I got stung by one of those black Diadema sea urchins while trying to get out of the shallow water. I cursed those long needles, as they broke off in my thumb and inflicted a pain that would take one month to disappear… Remedies immediately offered were fresh pee, papaya or alcohol. I chose the latter but should have maybe gone for the warm pee… The island of Menjangan close to the volcanoes of Java offered diving highlights of another kind: It was surrounded by some of the most beautiful coral reefs I had ever seen in my life! Lots of colourful soft corals, pygmy seahorses hiding in sea fans, ribbon eels sticking their head out of holes, and drop-offs that are steeper than in the Maldives. There was a lot to see and take photos of, and you are welcome to have a look at my photos in the Bali Underwater slide show. On a pinnacle and on an artificial reef in Pemuteran itself, Natascha and I went on a night dive with her dive instructor friend Hugo, and together we found “everything” – from all sorts of nudibranchs, sepias, decorator crabs and shrimps to electric clams, nettling anemones and delicate pipefishes. I was completely blown away by the area’s diversity of marine life!

After my week in Pemuteran, I took the public bus to Sanur in the south and during the five-hour journey met a lovely girl named Mae with her little daughter, who I have stayed in touch with while I was in Indonesia. In Sanur I met up with Natascha again and planned two more diving days in Bali. We first went to Nusa Penida in Bali’s southeast, where the water temperature was much lower (and the visibility much better) than in other places due to the cool Indian Ocean water pushing its way through the channel between Bali and Lombok. Nusa Penida is famous for its pelagic fishes that include the sunfish Mola mola, manta rays and sharks. We were keen to see the sunfish but sadly were not lucky, despite three drift dives in the area. The reefs were good, but hell, it was cold! On the next day we went out to Tulamben, one of the very famous dive places in Bali. The most popular site is the beautifully over-grown “Liberty” wreck close to Tulamben’s shore that boasts pygmy seahorses, sharks, leaf-, anemone- and jackfishes but also big barrel sponges and nudibranchs. The Drop-Off was a great dive site, too. What will always stay in my memory about Tulamben, though, are the tiny local women carrying everyone’s dive gear on their heads across the dark beach pebbles to the entry point – sometimes two sets at a time! Unbelievable!

I have a feeling that this was not my last time in Bali. The reef and mud inhabitants were truly amazing, so that a diving holiday seems most likely. However, I haven’t really seen the interior of Bali yet and would like to get to know the Ubud area next time. With so many Balinese friends on Soneva Fushi, there must be a good way of visiting this gem of an island again!

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