There's a second half to my Raja Ampat story (see the July 2007 issue of Scuba Diving magazine for the first part of my Raja Ampat account). I'll have to experience the rest of Raja Ampat another time, for on this trip we had the very bad luck of our boat running into an island. We were still in the Misool Islands, thinking we'd wake up the next morning for a good shot at clear water and hopefully some stellar wide-angle photography. The captain had meant to thread between two small islands to leave our protected night's anchorage, but instead managed to drive the boat directly into one of them. The walls offshore are sheer enough that the hull never touched the reef, but, instead, the momentum of 250 tons of ship crashing into the island rammed the bowsprit beam backwards into the main mast, dislodging it and thereby incapacitating our boat. We were never in danger of sinking, but the boat needed a shipyard to repair the mast. An Indonesian Search and Rescue vessel evacuated us back to Sorong, and incredibly, just 40 hours after the accident, we were checked into a luxury resort in Bali.
We found ourselves back in Bali at the Puri Santiran, a beautiful beachfront resort hotel in the heart of the Sanur region. Most of us had flown into Bali on frequent-flier tickets and couldn't change our departure, despite the early termination of the live-aboard phase of our trip. Plus, we are in Bali after all, one of the world's great vacation destinations, so we might as well enjoy it!
To that end, I contacted Dwi Sawitri of Diving 4 Images. Dwi and partner Graham Abbott are very well connected in the Indonesian diving community, providing services for traveling underwater photographers. Dwi and her staff organized two days of land tours and two days of Bali diving, thereby assuring our time would be efficient and productive. They arranged the vans for the land-tours and booked the services of Aqua Marine Diving.
Shameful as it is to admit, all I'd seen of Bali before was the Denpasar Airport and the tourist spots around Kuta. I'd done overnights while connecting to Wakatobi or Komodo, but had never actually done a land tour here, which was my great loss, for the island is truly fascinating and beautiful. With an area of 5,700 sq km and a population of 3.5 million, the island is culturally diverse and visually arresting. Predominantly Hindu, the pura (temple) is the center of religious and family life for many residents here, but the infrastructure for tourism is diverse and sophisticated. As a result, much of the topside touring may involve temples, but there are also beaches, surfing, shopping, fine (and not so fine) dining, and of course scuba diving. Bali is a unique destination in its own right, as well as serving as the gateway for so many other parts of Indonesia.
Our adventure began with what sounded the most "touristy" thing we could do here, go to the Bali Bird Park. It was conveniently nearby and really quite interesting. As one would expect, this is a great place to get close-up photos of exotic tropical birds from around the world, but it was kind of comical as well. I remember getting pretty close to photograph one cockatoo, when all of a sudden he grabbed my sunshade with his beak and climbed aboard my long zoom lens. While that made it kind of hard for me to take pictures, the rest of our group was amused to see my $8,000 digital camera system turned into a bird perch. Fortunately, Canon lenses are well sealed against bird poop.
In the two days of Bali topside we saw several other temples, stopped to photograph farmers planting rice, watched a traditional Balinese dance troupe, and did the obligatory shopping in Kuta Beach. However, my favorite photo-op was the Monkey Forest, actually a Hindu temple founded in the 11th century and rich with the art of the stone carvers. The highlight though is the many, many monkeys (Balinese macaques, to be more specific) roaming the grounds, protected by the holiness of the site. In years past they were constantly fed by tourists, and became quite aggressive about demanding food (and also stealing hats, glasses, and anything else not tethered to the body). Now they are fed by temple staff in a controlled fashion and are far less intrusive. Even though tourists can buy fruit to feed the monkeys from local vendors, do so at your own peril. As underwater with acclimated fish, here food changes all. Without food the monkeys are exceedingly approachable and their humanesque poses and postures are really quite remarkable. The filtered light from the jungle canopy was magical, and their perches were quite often carved stone from centuries past.
While there is plenty to occupy Bali dive enthusiasts for a full week (and more), we only had a couple of days. I asked Dwi to choose the Cliff's Notes highlights and she came up with Nusa Penida and Tulamben.
I did not read the "Bali Diving" guidebook before diving Nusa Penida, but if I had I would have read one underlying theme in the dive descriptions … current. A large island offshore of Bali, Nusa Penida is swept by currents that wrap around the island making some areas undiveable, and others merely challenging. Our day was blessed by two fairly placid dives, the second of which was better than many we had in Raja Ampat. The visibility was 80 feet and the large bommies were decorated with crinoid and small soft corals. Thousands of anthias danced about, and the reef fish were discernibly more approachable than those we'd photographed in Raja Ampat. More used to divers I would assume, for clearly there would be a greater likelihood of more fishing pressure here. The staghorn corals in the shallows were amazingly pristine, making our offgas time inspired and productive. The third dive was far more difficult as the current transformed the same reef we'd dived an hour before into Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. I managed to tuck in behind some of the bigger coral heads to find enough of a lee to take pictures, but looking at some of the files later I saw significant camera motion, beyond my ability to hold the camera steady. More than a mile separated our group when we surfaced, a good case for a vigilant boat operator and a safety sausage.
While Nusa Penida was about an hour bus ride from our Sanur resort hotel, Tulamben was a little more than two hours away. It was a scenic ride, but for those who really want to sample to joys of Tulamben, an overnight or two in one of the local dive resorts is absolutely recommended, particularly given the diversity of imaging opportunities on both the Liberty Wreck and the macro critters in the offshore black sand habitat.
Once there it is an interesting scene where young women serve as porters, incredibly carrying two scuba tanks on their heads while another girl would carry our housed cameras and weight belts down the rocky shoreline to where we would do our shore dive entry. A couple hundred yards to the left from our staging area was the famed Liberty Wreck, and to the right was the entry for a black sand muck dive leading out to a reef and drop-off.
Actually, their system made for very easy shore diving, and the underwater attractions might have been the highlight of our Indonesian dive adventure. The Liberty Wreck was a 395-foot freighter carrying war materials in a convoy off Lombok Strait on Jan. 11, 1942, when she took a torpedo from Japanese submarine I-166. She did not sink immediately, but was under tow by two destroyers when she took on too much water and had to be intentionally beached at Tulamben. There she sat, grounded in the shallows for more than two decades when a volcanic eruption from Bali's Mt. Agung triggered earthquakes (along with the death of some 2,000 people), which rocked the wreck into deeper water and broke her at the bow and stern.
Now she is a twisted steel habitat for soft corals and reef dwellers, including sweetlips, batfish, butterflyfish, massive schools of trevally, and friendly coral groupers. We did two dives here, in about 50 feet of water clarity and in depths ranging from 20 to 70 feet. Seasonally. this dive can be very crowded due to its ease, proximity and quality, but this day it was lightly visited.
We dived our Bali day dives with Aqua Marine, and they had an arrangement with a small resort that allowed us to shower, rinse cameras, and have lunch between dives. After a comfortable surface interval, we mounted our macro lenses and headed out to the black sand beach reminiscent of Lembeh in terms of the kinds of critters to be found. The sand was a bit lighter, and more easily stirred in suspension than one might find in the Lembeh Straits, but the guides knew where to find the boxer crabs and cryptic shrimp that so intrigue macro shooters. While I spent some time in this environment, it was interesting to swim farther along and find a very nice coral reef rimming a fairly vertical wall. Here was my best opportunity of the whole week to encounter friendly clown triggerfish, grouper, Emperor angelfish, regal angelfish, and other colorful Indo-Pacific reef dwellers.
Actually, a couple of days off Tulamben might be a better chance to have close encounters with fish than a week at Raja Ampat. I have no doubt Gerry Allen could count far more species of fish at Raja Ampat, but if getting them close enough to efficiently photograph is your personal imperative, factor in a couple of days at Tulamben to round out your portfolio. Actually, if you listen to the advice of the rest of our group, leave enough time for massages and facials at the local Bali spas. Services are cheap (apparently one of the few places on the globe where the U.S. dollar still has some clout), and the people very friendly. Bali is of course a stand-alone holiday destination, but traveling divers passing through should take a few days and enjoy the highlights of this unique island.