Saturday, 16 March 2019

Indonesian Adventures: Diving in Bali

Back in October 2018, my partner Pete and I spent a couple of weeks exploring Indonesia, travelling around different islands and discovering a few of the things this amazing location has to offer.  We had both qualified as Open Water divers the year before so we were keen to fit in some scuba time, and Bali provided perfect opportunity.  We booked a couple of days diving with superb Adventure Divers Bali, a little company operating out of Amed near the famous USAT Liberty wreck, and I would highly recommend them.

Today's post is pretty long as it covers a couple of days of our diving experiences.  It is also almost completely devoid of pictures as my charming GoPro packed up during the first dive and pretty much refused to work from then on, which was frustrating.  But such is life, and I was still able to grab one or two pictures from our guide. To read more about our other Indonesian Adventures, more posts in this series are linked here.


Our alarm ding-a-linged too early for my liking but we hauled ourselves out of bed with as much good will as we could muster as it was the first of our two diving days.

We tumbled out of our room - which was lovely by the way: air conditioned, with its own entrance - and wandered around looking for breakfast. We eventually located the hotel’s outdoor restaurant by the pool, overlooking the beach. It was really lovely, and before long we were slurping an orange juice apiece and waiting on our banana pancakes. Not too shabby.

Then at 7:45, we were picked up by our diving centre, taken to central Amed (a smallish village composed almost entirely of hostels and dive centres) and kitted out for our dive.

Our diving guide was named Tom and he sorted us out with wetsuits and weights, BCDs and masks, flippers and shoes and the paraphernalia that comes along with diving. We had opted to do three dives and we sat in the lovely, leafy courtyard of the the dive centre while Tom explained that our dives would be shore dives. 

Pete was buzzing and good to go; I was still a bit nervous, so actually shore diving was a good move. We were going to start on the beach and head down gradually: our first dive being Jemulek West, a reasonably shallow site where we could swim along the line of the coast and see coral which had grown up around artificial reefs sunk some 18 years previously. It sounded promising and I swallowed my nerves and we set out for the beach.

The dive turned out to be pretty successful all told, and a good introduction to getting back in the water! I needed some extra weight (too floaty) and I had a bit of trouble equalising my ears but with that problem eventually solved, and an extra weight attached to my tank, all went well. And there was lots to see, with coral blooming across the seabed and the artificial reefs proving pretty spectacular. They weren’t the concrete blocks I had imagined at all, but were full of life, and rather more elegant. The place was teeming with fish and there was a lot to see. Tom was very handy, pointing out anything and everything and doing a pretty good job of communicating despite being underwater.

We ended the dive at the point that I’d sucked up all my air down to 40 bars because breathing is my thing (Sorry, not sorry) but Pete had somehow stored all his and had about 3 and a half tanks left, or something. However, the dive had lasted 54 minutes which is pretty decent, so I didn’t feel too bad (see log book, dive 5)

We waddled back up to shore and then hopped a lift back to the dive centre where we were given a banana milkshake each and some cookies. Winning!

Tom’s verdict was that the dive went reasonably well but that he wanted to cuff our hands to stop us waving them about (our bad) and that we should swim beside each other (my bad as I kept trying to follow in a line).

Before long, it was time to learn about dive two, this one known as the Pyramids of Amed, which in my opinion sounds like a level in a computer game from the nineties.

Anyway, the plan was to walk to the beach, swim out, drift around with the current a bit over a slope covered in naturally broken coral, and then climb back out again a bit further down the beach.

Which is basically what happened. I was able to equalise properly this time, things went more smoothly and I felt more confident. The pyramids were also manmade structures composed of hollow concrete tubes, but looked ethereal in the watery half light and were also crowded with coral and sea life.

We managed to pop back up in the right place, we flailed about a bit less I reckon and even with my enormous air hoovering capacity, the dive was still almost an hour long. (See log book dive 6)

Popping back up to the dive centre, we had a lunch of “vegetarian food” which turned out to be some rice, some stir fried veg, a boiled egg with spicy dippy sauce, some tofu, a potato cake, a handful of peanuts and some prawn crackers. Combo!

Lunch consumed, it was time for prep for our third dive of the day: the Jemulek Dropoff (see logbook dive 7). We headed down to the beach again but this time set off to the east, following the beach down. My ears were equalising much better this time round and we made our way round to the drop off. 

It was quite a site to see as we made our way down: 18m underwater we could see the edge of a shelf and then it plunged down into deep blue below. There was ocean above and ocean below and it was a bit like hanging in mid-air over a drop, as though we were cartoon characters who had run out of an upper storey window but not realised they’re going to fall yet. I think that was my favourite dive.

After that, we hauled ourselves back out of the water, ditched the heavy tanks and peeled off our wetsuits one more time and showered back up at the dive centre. Tom went through our logbooks with us and we discussed all the fish we had seen, as he looked them up in marine guides for us.

We had seen a little orangutan crab (seemed appropriate) which was tiny but had long, orange, hairy arms that had clearly given it its name. I think one of my favourite things we saw was a clown fish, rooting in and out of an anemone, peering at us and then bustling back into the fronds. (With fronds like these...)

Actually, afterwards, we learned that it wasn’t a clown fish, but a False Clown Anemone fish. Could’ve fooled me, but I guess the clue is in the name. And this is Tom’s picture not mine as he helpfully allowed us to swipe the pics he took on his GoPro.

We saw an amazing, very sizeable cuttlefish hanging out and disguising himself among the dead coral; his camouflage allowed him to blend in pretty perfectly. We saw star fish of all colours and sizes: giant orange, puffy ones with rounded legs which looked more like children’s drawings and long blue ones - blue sea stars - draped elegant yet alien over rocks. 

The coral we saw was also magnificent, creating otherworldly landscapes, erupting into giant spongy boulders or spreading like giant fungi interwoven with vein-like threads, or trumpeting into tubes or fanning out in delicate, fern-like webs. 

We saw rays hiding in the sand with their eyes watching up, and those who were swimming would glide by unheeding, flying through the water. We saw angel fish and little tropical fish of all different hues, busying about in their underwater home, and we discovered lion fish, with long, stripy fins, trailing like the coral and sea plants around them; they were beautiful.

We clocked a moray eel hiding in a hole beneath a rocky outcrop; he looked the worse for wear and had clearly been in a few fights. After facing us down failed to make us go away, he emerged from his den only burrow fully back into it face first. I don’t think he was ready to face the world.

When we were over the drop-off, there were fish below us, in and amongst the reef, but we could also see schools of fish passing overhead, swimming in formation to who-knows-where. And at one point we swam after a barracuda, eyeing us suspiciously with a sly expression but refusing to be baited by our guide’s shiny pointing stick. Possibly not a bad thing: Tom said afterwards that they are like magpies, attracted by shiny things. But if the barracuda had gone for the shiny stick, he might have got a great picture but lost a hand.

As we were ready to leave, we checked in with Liza, the centre owner about our next day’s diving. She said it would be an early start. I smiled ruefully, expecting her to say that we would need to be ready for six. Not a problem; dive sites are often quieter first thing and there are more fish drifting around so it would be worth it.

I was wrong: she grinned and told me that we would be picked up at 4:50am. Yikes!

We got a lift back to the hotel, battling with 5 different ATMs on the way and losing. Typical. Two of Pete’s cards got frozen in this misadventure, but eventually Monzo came through, allowed us to unfreeze the card and enable magnastripe withdrawals. Which is what the dodgier out-of-date cash machines use. So eventually, we were able to get hold of some extra cash.

We spent the rest of the afternoon and evening hanging out at the hotel, sitting by the pool with views over the beach, reading and catching up with the travel journal and having a beer (him) and a freshly squeezed orange juice (me!). As the sun set and the night drew in, the moon rose red over the sea and we saw the rosy effects of an eclipse. It was beautiful and a perfect night for it: a big full moon and no clouds. 

We had an early dinner of fried rice and noodles - and split a portion of fries for good measure. And then it was time to pack up our bags, check out and turn in for our very early start.


4:30am. Our alarms rang in unison and neither of us were particularly jazzed at the thought. But hey ho, time to go sunrise diving. We gathered our last few bits and pieces together, hauled our backpacks from the room and went to meet the car, Pete requesting that I wouldn’t make him get up in the morning.

I agreed wholeheartedly.

It was dark as we climbed into the van to go diving. We dumped our bags at the centre, picked up our equipment and then jumped back into the van to drive to Tulamben. Today, we would be diving to the wreck of the good ship USAT Liberty. Not so good any more I suppose.

The ship is an old US artillery ship, but was running cargo in the area when it got torpedoed by the Japanese. Fortunately no one was killed and at a loss for what else to do, the US towed the ship to Bali and parked it up on the beach where it sat for a couple of years. Cue the volcano, which erupted all over the place, swivelling the Liberty round and pushing it out into the sea where it has since become one of the best wreck dives in the world.

Today was another day of beach diving and so as the sun finally peeked over the horizon, we were yanking on our wetsuits and hauling up our tanks of air ready to start diving. In fact, it was still not yet 6:00am when we climbed into the water!

The reason for our early start was to try and spot the bumphead parrotfish who sleep in the wreck. If fish even sleep. Not sure. Anyway, they hang out there at night doing whatever it is they do, and scarper at dawn before the divers come clanking about the ship. 

We had a new guide today - he was Indonesian but I didn’t catch his name. He was good-humoured though and a great guide. There were a few other divers with the same idea but it was good to get into the water and get going and we didn’t actually see many other divers down there.

We were lucky almost immediately, spotting a bumphead (pointed out in ridiculous, head-banging underwater sign language) before we had even really left the beach in only a few metres of water. Visibility was only at around 10m so he disappeared into the blue gloom. Happy days!

On a slightly more annoying note, my ears started giving me trouble pretty quickly, refusing to equalise. Every time I went up and got them to pop, they felt pressured and painful again when I dropped down another metre.

It was a depressingly slow process getting them to work and I couldn’t relieve the pressure entirely. Which was a bit of a shame as we came across the wreck within metres of the shore and it was a while before I could really start to take it in.

It was huge. The plan for our dive was to swim around it and at almost 100m in length, this was no mean feat! We could see holes in the outside where fish were getting in and out and while the rough shape of the ship was sort of clear, the ocean had had its way with the wreck, bending and breaking the craft and plastering it with life and coral and plants of every variety. We found a huge grouper resting in part of the wreck and crabs and shrimps wandered around looking for food. 

Rounding the end of the wreck, we swam into current, and it’s strange to find yourself kicking your fins but not really going anywhere. It also made it hard to stay down close to the sea bed. Tricky!

One of my favourite moments was coming across a row of sweetlips (hilarious name) which are yellow and blue striped fish, and quite large. They were all sheltering behind a long bit of piping poking out from the ship, swimming forwards in a line in unison, facing into the current and remaining stationary. Our guide commented later that they look like a line of parked motorbikes, and he wasn’t wrong. (See dive log number 8)

We swam back up the beach and emerged back into the air. The sun was really up now, and we were just in time to see Voldemort walk into the sea in full wizarding wear carrying his broomstick.

This was a slightly bizarre sight and amused our guide no end - it was he that dubbed the wizard Voldemort.

We schlepped up the beach and our morning exertions were rewarded with banana pancakes. Yay! And very tasty they were too. We washed them down with a cuppa from the nearby beach shack.

We finished our breakfast, watched Voldemort climb back out of the sea again(???) and Pete and the guide prepared to go back in. I decided to sit this one out and see if I could get my ears to clear a little. It made diving a bit uncomfortable, distracting my attention from the dive and holding up Pete as well.

Disappointing, but the right decision.

Very disappointing in fact, as during the second dive to the wreck, Pete was able to swim into and through the ship a couple of times, exploring the hold and the engine room, seeing the steering wheel and encountering a whole family of orangutan crabs.

By the time they emerged from the water, I had been watching group after group of divers arrive at the site. There were loads of them; the wreck must have been getting pretty crowded. I was at a loss to discover why they were all arriving so late - until I remembered that it was still only about 8:30am. It felt like the entire morning had passed.

We had lunch after they’d completed the second dive - at 9:20, naturally, munching on rice and chicken, an egg and some prawn crackers. A fried egg seems to be a standard serving with each meal. I quite like it!

Our final dive of the day was the Tulamben drop-off. I think this turned out to be my favourite of all (dive log number 9).

We set off down the beach again, almost immediately spotting a stone fish nestled in among the stones. Again, he was brilliantly camouflaged, with only his eyes giving him away. But as most stones don’t have eyes, they did give him away. But he never broke his act, not moving a muscle as we peered at him. Well played.

My ears were frustrating again, but we managed to carry on and we reached the drop-off. It was spectacular; I’ve never seen anything like it. It was basically a massive rocky wall of coral plunging down some 50m. We couldn’t see the bottom , just the odd protruding shelf which gave even more marine life the chance to find a foothold. Or finhold.

And the landscape looked like something out of sci-fi. We swam along at a depth of 18m and drifted in the current. Crevasses opened up in odd places, sheltering fish, and the most weird and wonderful coral grew up in all shapes and sizes. I think the strangest were the ones that grew into giant vase shapes; they looked like a cross between triffids and fungi, and were a vivid orange, with wide open holes in the top which I assume are to beckon in prey.

And there were fish everywhere: schools passing above and below all the time; it even felt like we were swimming within them at some points, as bright yellow and blue fish swam right in front of my face and past my fingers. It was a pretty incredible sensation.

Swimming back was again a bit of a challenge against the current. And I found myself floating upwards even when I didn’t want to. We saw lots of other divers also exploring the drop off and I could see why it was such a popular site.

Finally as we swam back up the beach, our guide found a proper a school of mackerel for us: hundreds of them, all swimming together in an incredibly tight formation, swirling and whirling in unison, while a larger fish swam hungrily just outside. It was amazing to see something like this for real, right in front of me. 

A full day of diving completed (by 11:00am) it was time to get rid of the wetsuits and kit for the last time and drive back to the dive centre. The staff were incredibly helpful, sorting out a cab to our next stop, giving us drinks and water, and our guide helped us update our logbooks. And then we had to head out for the next phase of our holiday adventure.

Kisses xxx

P.S. You can find links to some of our other stories from Indonesia linked here: Indonesian Adventures

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