Diving in Bali

Well; my internship is over, my ten days of ‘playtime’ after my internship have come and gone, and I’m now coming to you live from the chilly west coast of Canada again. As happy as I am to be home, I’m really going to miss Bali, but not quite as much as I’m going to miss all the new dive buddies I met whilst I was there! My trip was absolutely incredible and I’d love to go back some day to do some more diving…you might even be able to talk me in to doing some snorkeling (which, oddly enough, I don’t usually like doing)!

It's not hard to have fun when you're surrounded by dive buddies as awesome as these guys!

It’s not hard to have fun when you’re surrounded by dive buddies as awesome as these guys!

I wanted to take some time to talk about the different dive sites I was privileged enough to be able to dive whilst I was in Bali.  I’m going to start by talking about some really general info about Bali itself as well as some things to keep in mind for diving there. Then I’m going to give a quick review of the sites I was lucky enough to dive whilst I was there. A lot of my dives were at either Tulamben or Nusa Penida, but I was also fortunate enough to dive at Amed, Menjangan Island, and Sanur Channel. I was also lucky enough to go snorkeling when I was in Komodo National Park (a one hour flight and then 3 hour boat ride from Bali) so I’ve included a bit of info from there as well.

Bali is a relatively small island in Indonesia. It has a really incredible culture; the architecture is beautiful and incorporates a lot of artwork, most notably statues and small shrines for almost every building. The predominant religion is Hinduism, and the Balinese make small offerings daily for luck. It’s really easy to visit a lot of beautiful cultural sites, just be aware that sometimes a certain type of dress is required (typically a sarong…and there are vendors selling them everywhere so it’s really not an issue). The vast majority of the Balinese people I met were really wonderful people, and a large number of them seemed to have mastered the perfect ‘Cheshire Cat’ grin, which you can’t help but try and reciprocate!

Meeting some of the locals in Ubud.

Meeting some of the locals in Ubud.

One thing that I really liked about Bali was how safe I felt. The worst issue I ever had was a cab driver that ripped me off, and even then it really only amounted to about $1 USD. Maybe things would be different if I had been staying in a city like Kuta (which has the reputation of being a pretty crazy party town) but in Sanur I really never had a problem; I felt safe walking alone at night, I was never harassed by anyone, and (to the best of my knowledge anyway) no one tried to rob me. I even realized as my internship was wrapping up that I’d been living in something of a ‘red light’ district, but never had any issues related to that fact.

Even though I would recommend Bali purely based on the quality of the diving, don’t get so distracted that you miss out on the things on land!

Diving in Bali is incredibly popular, and there are dive shops dotting all the cities near the coast, which makes it very easy to get out for a LOT of diving in a very short time. One thing I really liked about Bali was that it was very easy to get ‘package deals’ for activities. Say, for example, you’re staying in south Bali and diving out of a shop there, but you want to go to Tulamben, which is on the northeast coast: no problem! The dive shop will arrange a driver, a divemaster, and probably lunch too! If you’re staying a fair distance from the shop you can also usually arrange for a driver to come and get you from your hotel without too much trouble.

But enough about the above-water stuff…let’s talk about the diving!

One quick disclaimer; this is definitely not an exhaustive list! A quick glance at a map will tell you there are dozens of dive sites in Bali, but these are the ones most often visited by Bali Scuba (with the exception of Komodo National Park), the dive shop that I did my 30 day divemaster internship at.

Amed

Site Description: Amed is located on the northeast coast of Bali, not far from the more popular site of Tulamben.  From Sanur the drive takes approximately 2 hours depending on traffic.  The sites are very near to the shore but you do use boats to get to them, so the entry/exit procedures require a few extra logistics.

The boats in Amed are small and cramped, but an excellent way to access dive sites that would be a very long surface swim otherwise!

The boats in Amed are small and cramped, but an excellent way to access dive sites that would be a very long surface swim otherwise!

Level of difficulty: moderate. The only reason I say this is that entry and exit could potentially pose a challenge for some divers. You load your gear onto a very small traditional Balinese boat, motor to the dive site (maybe 100 meters off the beach), then hop over the side and put your gear on in the water. Once your dive is over, you remove your gear in the water and pass it up to the captain before hauling yourself back into the boat without the benefit of a ladder. But frankly, if I can do it (which I did, albeit not especially gracefully) then I’d say the average diver can do it too. But if you’re a bit older or really uncomfortable with small boats then I might recommend you go elsewhere.

Exposure protection: a rashguard or shorty wetsuit is all you need here…the water is about 30°C.

My favourite part: I’m a huge fan of wall dives, and the wall at Amed is the equal of any I’ve never seen! There are also a ton of fish and some really beautiful corals. When I was there we saw a really massive school of medium sized fish slowly rotating in a sort of ‘tornado’ pattern, which may have been in response to the white-tip shark that we spotted shortly after.

This school of fish was HUGE! It rotated slowly and looked for all the world like a tornado made of fish.

This school of fish was HUGE! It rotated slowly and looked for all the world like a tornado made of fish.

Also, there are some really neat artificial reefs just off of the harbour that house some really neat animals! My personal favourite was a large triggerfish absolutely covered with little cleaner shrimp.

There were quite a few of these artificial reefs scattered in the Amed harbour; they housed some really incredible species!

There were quite a few of these artificial reefs scattered in the Amed harbour; they housed some really incredible species!

Watch out for: the entry/exit from the boats is a bit of a drag, but it shouldn’t be what stops you from checking out this site unless you really have trouble getting in and out of boats. There was also a fairly decent current here, but as the boats are ‘live’ it doesn’t really matter where you pop up from your dive, so we just moved along with the current when we were there.

Why you should dive here: Amed is just as nice as Tulamben (albeit lacking a shipwreck) but has none of the crowding that is common at that site.

Komodo National Park (snorkeling only)

Site Description: Komodo National Park is a world heritage site located a mere 3 hour boat ride from the city of Lebogan Bajo (which fortunately has an airport) on Flores Island. Though this park is better known for the Komodo Dragons (incidentally, that’s why I was there…the snorkeling turned out to just be an amazing bonus!) diving off of liveaboards is becoming increasingly common…and frankly if I’m ever lucky enough to go back to Indonesia a Komodo liveaboard dive safari is probably going to be my first stop!

Level of difficulty: moderate (estimated). It’s hard for me to give an accurate assessment of how difficult this area would be to dive because I was only snorkeling, but we saw some pretty strong-looking currents ripping through some of the islands, and the multi-dive per day nature of liveaboard diving means that fatigue can be a major issue if you’re not careful.

Exposure Protection: I snorkeled in my rashguard and I was quite cold, so I’d suggest at least a 3 mm full wetsuit but a 5 mm probably wouldn’t hurt if you’re prone to getting cold during a dive.

My favourite part: On our way back to Flores from Komodo island we stopped off near a small island at a dive site known as ‘manta alley’. We were only snorkelling, but the visibility was so good that we had no trouble at all spotting the mantas jetting around on the bottom, which was at least 15 m deep. My absolute favourite moment was spotting one 3m tip-to-tip behemoth that glided over the bottom with such ease that we soon left us behind as we struggled to keep up against a moderate current.

At manta alley there were at least 5-10 manta zooming around beneath us....I had to remind myself to keep breathing!

At manta alley there were at least 5-10 manta zooming around beneath us….I had to remind myself to keep breathing!

Watch out for: the currents here can be very strong, and a few years back a dive group was actually lost at one of the sites due to current and they drifted for over 14 hours before finally making it to shore…only to get chased off of the beach by hungry Komodo Dragons. Luckily everyone survived, but clearly this story could’ve had a pretty sad ending.

Why you should dive here: even though I was only snorkelling here, the variety of coral, the visibility, and the sheer diversity of species absolutely blew me away. If I make it back to Indonesia for a dive trip in the future my first stop will be a Komodo liveaboard.

Menjangan Island

Site Description: To dive at Menjangan is a multi-day undertaking; it’s on the far northwest tip of Bali and from Sanur the drive is a little over 4 hours. Once there, you stay in a small town and frankly there really isn’t anything to do out there but go diving or lounge by the hotel pool…but you don’t want to do anything else anyway, that’s how good the diving is!

Level of difficulty: easy…but be cautious of the occasional strong current. This is a common theme to Bali diving; but we only had a strong current for one of the six dives we did. You should also be comfortable with boat entry/exit procedures because all dives are off of small-ish wooden boats but the procedures are very straightforward, and there are ladders available.

Exposure protection: a rashguard is all you need here…the water was 32°C when I was diving.

My favourite part: I saw my first sea turtle here, so that’s obviously going to be a huge highlight for me.

This turtle glided right past me so effortlessly that I actually felt jealous!

This turtle glided right past me so effortlessly that I actually felt jealous!

I also really liked the huge amounts of unbroken coral we saw here…sadly, many of the more popular sites in Bali show a lot of evidence of divers crashing into corals, but evidence of that was mostly absent at Menjangan.

An example of the stunning coral reefs in Menjangan

An example of the stunning coral reefs in Menjangan

Watch out for: We had an ‘accidental’ drift dive in this area…the current was much stronger than expected and pulled us quite far away from our planned ascent point. That said, our boat captain figured out what was going on pretty quick, and he was still quite close by once we eventually surfaced. As we were using an SMB, it didn’t take him long to locate us.

Why you should dive here: Menjangan has an incredible variety of sites. When I was there I got 6 dives in, and each one was notably different from the rest. We had some deep wall diving, a drift dive along the edge of a large coral reef, and a few dives on an underwater mound that didn’t *quite* reach the surface but still gave us an amazing platform on which to start our dives.

Nusa Penida

Site Description: Nusa Penida is about a 45 minute boat ride from Sanur, which is on the southeast corner of Bali. The island itself is stunningly beautiful; keep your eyes trained outside the boat to get a good look at an island paradise! This site is well-known as a hangout for both manta rays and mola mola (ocean sunfish) but make sure you go in the right season…I didn’t see either animal whilst I was there.

Level of difficulty: moderate-difficult. This is the one site that I would very strongly suggest you avoid if you’re not a confident/competent diver. Currents here can be exceptionally strong and down-currents are not uncommon. In particular, the site known as ‘Crystal Bay’ can be a little spooky…currents and thermoclines are unpredictable at best and there is a lot of boat traffic, so you really need to keep your wits about you. The west side of the island is also where I dove in the strongest current I’d ever experienced…although I’m a relatively strong swimmer, there was absolutely no way I could make any headway against the current at all…it felt like riding a roller coaster! Lots of fun, but if you’ve not had any experience with drift diving it can be a bit daunting.

Exposure protection: 5 mm full wetsuit is strongly suggested here, though if you’re tough you could also get away with a 3 mm full suit instead. The water temperature here can get as low as 20°C, which can be quite a shock to the system after the 35°C air temperature.

My favourite part: Nusa Penida features a near-continuous blanket of different corals, and there’s little beasties hiding in every nook and cranny!

The walls of Nusa Penida are carpeted with incredible invertebrates

The walls of Nusa Penida are carpeted with incredible invertebrates

I was also fortunate enough to get a look at a 2 m long tuna as it swam past during one of our drift dives…I haven’t looked at sashimi the same way since!

Watch out for: strong down-currents pop up here sometimes, so make sure you have a plan for dealing with them. From a conservation standpoint also keep your eyes one the corals; I saw a lot of damage here indicative of divers crashing into the coral or kicking it with fins. In the case of an emergency (i.e. strong down-current) I will always advocate grabbing on to whatever you can find if it means keeping yourself at a safe depth, but the amount of damage I saw suggested poor buoyancy control was the major culprit here. Unless divers start paying more attention at this site they risk destroying what makes it such a pleasant spot to dive.

Why you should dive here: currents are what make this a tricky spot to dive, but a good drift dive is always a nice change of pace! I’m more of a ‘methodical’ diver usually, but the super fast drift dive I did here was absolutely exhilarating.

Sanur Channel

Site Description: Sanur Channel is (as you may have guessed already) very close to the town of Sanur; it only takes about 5-10 minutes to get there from the Sanur harbour. It’s quite shallow and depending on where you descend there’s a lot of sandy bottom to kneel on, but in other spots the substrate is blanketed with corals.

Looking out towards Sanur Channel

Looking out towards Sanur Channel

Level of Difficulty: easy, though the current can kick up fairly regularly in this area, and when a strong one comes through it can be a bit more challenging.

Exposure Protection: I wouldn’t dive here without a 3mm full wetsuit…it can be quite chilly depending on what the tidal cycle is doing. If you’re prone to getting cold on a dive I’d even say that a 5mm full wetsuit wouldn’t be out of the question.

My favourite part: a lot of divers I spoke to really didn’t have any interest in diving in Sanur Channel….when compared to some of the other dive sites in Bali it tends to fall a bit short. But let me take a moment to say that it’s only comparatively not that great…a nice dive site should never suffer neglect because it just so happens to be surrounded by gems! I really liked this site for its ease of accessibility and interesting reef features. Most notably; there’s a (super dorky-looking) “Water Walk” outfit in Sanur that gets tourists to walk around in the reef with a big diving helmet on. Other visitors to the reef benefit from this though, because they’ve strung up a sort of walking path through the reef that is practically a self-guided tour for divers right through the heart of a very lovely reef! Not to mention you get to laugh at the tourists struggling along the pathway as you zip around their ears.

Watch out for: The current can be very strong here depending on what point you’re at in the tidal cycle, and the visibility can be (comparatively) bad as well. No risk of losing your buddies though…you’ll still have at least 5 meter visibility on average.

Why you should dive here: in my opinion this is a great place to go if you’re not an especially confident diver, and it’s an especially good place to go if you’re time limited and need to be finished all your diving by the early afternoon. Furthermore, although the reef was small I thoroughly enjoyed just hovering over the ‘walking paths’ through the reefs and watching all the fish swim past.

Tulamben

Site Description: Tulamben is one of the most well-known and popular dive sites in Bali, and with good reason! It’s only a few minutes down the road from Amed, at about 2 hours away from Sanur. It has three main dive sites; the wreck of the USS Liberty, the coral garden, and the wall. All three sites are acceptable for divers of any confidence level, just watch out for those errant fin kicks! There are a LOT of amazing fragile corals, sponges, and sea fans at all three of these sites, and it would be a real shame to lose any of them due to carelessness.

Level of Difficulty: This is a very easy dive site. There is very little current, and every time I experienced it it was quite easy to swim against. Open water students are regularly brought here for their third and fourth ocean dives and as long as your buoyancy and kicking techniques are up to the challenge of staying off of the bottom this is one of the best sites in Bali for beginners.

Exposure Protection: a rashguard is all you need here unless you’re very prone to getting cold. At the absolute most you could wear a 3 mm full suit, but a one hour dive in a rashguard was easy as pie at this site.

My favourite part: although most people come here for the shipwreck (which is incredible), I actually preferred the coral gardens.

There's wonderful little eye-treats everywhere you look at Tulamben!

There’s wonderful little eye-treats everywhere you look at Tulamben!

There’s a ton of awesome little critters in and around the many different kinds of corals, and for the careful observer there are dozens of invertebrates to be found in this area.

Colourful inverts abound in the coral garden at Tulamben.

Colourful inverts abound in the coral garden at Tulamben.

On one especially memorable dive my buddy and I came across an incredible cuttlefish that seemed absolutely determined to put on a light show for us! Other gems stumbled upon in the garden include a multitude of different nudibranch species, cleaner shrimp that were more than happy to jump up and pick at your fingernails, massive schools of fish, and a white-tip reef shark.

It's important to keep your eyes open and don't ignore the substrate during your dive...you never know what you might find! This ribbon eel was pretty shy, but eventually poked his nose out far enough to me to get a picture.

It’s important to keep your eyes open and don’t ignore the substrate during your dive…you never know what you might find! This ribbon eel was pretty shy, but eventually poked his nose out far enough to me to get a picture.

Watch out for: other divers. This site is incredibly popular, so you are probably going to end up tripping over other groups, especially around the Liberty. On more than one occasion I was kicked or crashed down on by divers from other groups, which can put a real kink in the dive.

Why you should dive here: the over-abundance of divers is irritating, but it’s very easy to see why so many people want to come to Tulamben; it’s a super easy shore entry, porters carry all of your gear down to your entry point, and the diving is absolutely incredible. Unless you’re agoraphobic, no dive trip to Bali would be complete without a visit to Tulamben.

Well…there you have it! I can honestly say that the diving in Bali is some of the best I’ve ever experienced! It’s not enough to make me hang up my drysuit for good and flee to warmer climes…Pacific Northwest diving will always be where my heart is, but after this trip I’m thinking that there will be many more visits to Indonesia in my future!

I want to take a quick moment to thank everyone (staff AND students) at Bali Scuba…what a time!

I've never felt as comfortable in the water as I did in Bali! 32 deg C water is hard to beat, as is virtually unlimited visibility!

I’ve never felt as comfortable in the water as I did in Bali! 32 deg C water is hard to beat, as is virtually unlimited visibility!

So long…and thanks for all the fish.

Back in the Water!

Now that I’m back (at least temporarily) in the Vancouver area, I absolutely had to get back in the water, and what better place to do it than at Whytecliff Park!

Whytecliff park on a summer day

Whytecliff park is a very well-known dive site in the greater Vancouver area. In fact, if you’ve learned how to dive in this area, chances are you did at least one of your first open water dives here. It’s very accessible, and it has a wide range of different dive options; you can keep it nice and shallow in the bay, or you can challenge yourself with a tech dive by going to the right and following the wall down to a depth of your choosing. If you’re a critter diver (like me!) there are some excellent opportunities to see some really neat species down at the plumose anemone (Metridium spp.) garden at about 50 feet on the right hand side of the bay, just down from the day marker.

One thing I really noticed during my dives on Tuesday was just how many rockfish (Sebastes spp.) there were; most of them were hanging out at the garden, but we spotted a couple on our descent through the bay as well! I love seeing this kind of fish (especially in such numbers, and some of them were quite large!) not just because they have some beautiful markings, but also because they’ve been hit hard by over fishing, and it’s good to see that the different species are still hanging in there!

Rockfish were over fished for a variety of reasons, but the two of the three main reasons were that they are absolutely delicious, and they can be a fairly predictable fish, which makes them easier to catch. As the name suggests, they like to hang out near piles of rock. So, if you want to catch one, just zoom out to a rocky reef and drop your line.

The third main reason these guys were over fished has to do with their life history. They’re typically a very long-lived fish (scientists have demonstrated that some of the larger species will live to be nearly 200 years old!), and unlike humans, female rockfish become much more reproductive as they get older. The individuals that make the biggest reproductive contributions to the overall populations are typically old, fat females with a well-established territory over a rocky reef…exactly the type of fish that your average fisherperson is keen to catch.

So why are there so many rockfish at Whytecliff? Aside from the fact that it has excellent underwater geography (a rocky reef with some good currents to bring in all kinds of tasty rockfish food), Whytecliff park is also a marine reserve: there is no fishing allowed within park boundaries. Although marine reserves are not always the best conservation tools, they are potentially a very good method of looking after a species like rockfish (long-lived, fairly stationary) because they provide a shelter where fish can grow into those big fat females I mentioned earlier, and therefore have tons of babies that (hopefully!) spread out and populate other areas with less protection.

It will still take some years before we can known for sure if places like Whytecliff park are having a positive effect on overall rockfish populations, but when you’re trying to preserve such long-lived species, it’s very important that we take the long view, and give the populations the time they need to recover. In the meantime, I plan on visiting Whytecliff a LOT more in the future…but it’s going to have to wait until December, because I’m about to head to Bali for 40 days!

That’s right! This Saturday I take off for sun, sand, and SCUBA! I’ll be doing a divemaster internship with Bali SCUBA, and I’ll be blogging about it as I work my way through the course. So stay-tuned for jealousy-inducing stories (and hopefully pictures! I bought my first ever underwater camera for the trip) in the coming weeks!

End of Fieldwork

Don’t cry because it’s over…smile because it happened – Dr. Seuss

Sunset behind the Deer Island Group from Trevor Channel

It’s been a busy few weeks, and it’s hard to believe that it’s already time to leave Bamfield yet again! You’d think it would be easier with the repetition, but leaving this place has never been easy for me. When you find a place so beautiful, and so seamlessly linked with the ocean it’s tough to uproot and head somewhere that I know I’ll be so much less immersed (pardon the pun) in marine biology.

This most recent trip has been incredible; lots of critter spotting (including whales, which I’m usually not fortunate enough to see out here because I spend so much time with my nose buried in the intertidal zone!), kayaking, and of course…science! It’s always a real pleasure to be around such a great group of people so interested in marine science…there have been some great ideas tossed around and I’ve got lots of great new things to think about. Collaboration is a very critical component to any scientific endeavor, so when a large group of scientists get drawn into an area like this there are virtually limitless possibilities that can be generated. Places like the Bamfield Marine Sciences Center are really important; not just because they provide scientists with a ‘home base’ from which to do the  field work critical to their research, but because they give us a place to meet and share ideas. I, for one, always en d up benefiting from fresh perspectives.

Sadly no SCUBA diving this time, but there really wasn’t time for it with all the other thesis work on my plate, and so my gear is (regrettably) still dry. I’ll have to make up for it next time.

Gentle Giants

If you’re ever on the outer west coast of Vancouver Island, I strongly suggest hiking out to the Cape Beale lighthouse.

I went out that way to look for some new locations for my current research project…specifically I was looking for teeny tiny littorinid snails.

That plan got a bit sidetracked when the (absolutely lovely) lighthouse keeper appeared…and told us that she’d spotted some grey whales just off of the point.

Grey whale spotted from the lighthouse at Cape Beale.

She lead us down to the rocks and we sat with her for the next hour enjoying the company of three grey whales as they rolled around in the kelp beds a mere 15 meters away from where we sat eating our lunch.

It was certainly a lovely reward after our hike.

One of three grey whales I was lucky enough to see from the beach at the Cape Beale lighthouse.

I might be more of a fish and invertebrates kind of person…but there’s always something very special about getting to see whales, and that feeling is always magnified when the sighting is as serendipitous as this one was.