Your own little piece of paradise
The huge mola mola hung there in front of me looking to all intents and purposes like a giant plastic model. A strong upwelling of cold water was sweeping up the wall beneath me, creating a shimmering thermocline, and this all added to the mystical appearance of the monster fish. It was the end of July, right at the beginning of Bali’s mola mola, or sunfish, season, and to be honest, I hadn’t harboured many hopes of seeing one, but here was a three-metre example no more than a few fin-strokes away, eyeballing me with otherworldly intelligence.
I slowly approached, careful not to spook the massive animal, which was being cleaned by a shoal of bannerfish. I took one shot just as it began to cruise around me, and managed to fire off another as it swam past the other mesmerised divers before disappearing impossibly fast into the deep blue depths. How the hell these things swim so quickly without seemingly moving any body parts is beyond me! This was my first underwater sighting of a mola mola – I’ve previously seen some smaller examples sunbathing on the surface – and despite it lasting less than three minutes, it was a truly magical encounter, but then, when you first step foot on Bali, you know you are in for a life-changing experience.
Paradise island The island of Bali in Indonesia has achieved worldwide fame as being an exotic destination for all kinds of people, from budget backpackers and beach partygoers to honeymooning couples and those looking for a luxurious getaway. While a relatively small island, Bali is split into distinctive areas, with the southern section being more commercialised and the north-western and north-eastern sectors more back-to-basics offering a taste of the ‘real’ Bali.
The latter was where I ended up. Werner Lau, who already manages two resorts and owns a third on Bali, had invited me out to visit his new signature resort, the Siddhartha Dive Resort and Spa. The huge development had only been open a matter of weeks when I stayed, but the management and staff were all working hard to ensure that the first visitors had a memorable holiday, and were ironing out any minor issues which had cropped up as the resort began coping with a full complement of guests. The Siddhartha lies a good two-and-a-half hours by minibus from the airport at Denpasar, but the transfer takes you through some stunning mountainous scenery – if you can see it. We arrived late in the evening and it was pitch-black for the entire trip! However, this only meant that the impressive three-tiered reception of the resort provided even more of a ‘wow’ factor when it came into view.
I was staying in a deluxe bungalow at one end of the property and it was spacious and well-equipped, with air-conditioning, mini-bar, open-air bathroom and wireless internet access. The high ceiling made the living area seem particularly open and inviting, and there is a terrace on the front for relaxing on an evening. Wandering through the beautifully kept gardens, your senses were assaulted by a riot of colour, myriad smells and the sounds of frogs, lizards, birds, crickets and other insects. The centerpiece of the resort is a magnificent open-plan restaurant, fronted by a square bar and a free-form infinity pool.
Food is a mix of traditional Indonesian and more Western dishes, but is all reasonably priced and plentiful in the portions. Obviously, as the name states, this is a dive resort, but for non-divers, there is plenty to do. The spa boasts several rooms for different treatments, including an innovative ‘cave’ equipped with a bamboo shower, and there are plenty of loungers running the full length of the beachfront for just kicking back in the sun and enjoying the view. If you want to be a bit more energetic, there is a small but well-set-up gym near the reception, and various island and adventure tours head off everyday.
The vast majority of guests in the resort were divers, and the large, two-storey dive centre is set up to deal with a mass influx of keen divers. The upper level is the reception and storage area for the rental gear, and there are a number of tables and chairs for après-dive relaxing and filling in logbooks. The lower level houses the guest storage area, rinse tanks, showers, air and nitrox filling station. On arrival, guests are issued with a numbered box. After the first dive, numbered hangers take your BCD and wetsuits, numbered hooks hold your boots, and all the rest of your gear goes into the box. When you are going on a day trip, you just tell the centre staff your box number and all of your equipment is collected and put in ready for your dive. If you are diving on the house reef or going out on the boat, the dive centre staff will assemble your gear and even carry it down to the water’s edge for you.
The same applies for your return. On exiting the water, you just leave the BCD, regs and tank on the benches near the rocky shoreline and then the staff collect it, disassemble it, rinse it and hang it up to dry. This is truly valet-style diving! The Siddhartha house reef can be accessed from several different entry/exit points, meaning you can complete a number of dives here and never explore the same area twice. Entry and exit over the round volcanic rocks can be quite challenging, but you don’t have to go far before you are deep enough to be able to don your fins and then start your dive. The reef is very healthy and comprises coral bommies on a gentle slope into the depths. However, while the house reef is undoubtedly worth spending a number of dives on, you shouldn’t miss out on the local boat dives.
The Siddhartha boat can access several excellent sites in just ten to 15 minutes, including the Kubu Drop-off, where we encountered an inquisitive whitetip reef shark, and Palung Palung, which boasts some exquisite coral formations, but the highlight has to be the famed Liberty shipwreck. The 120-metre USAT Liberty was the first ship to be constructed at the Federal Shipbuilding Company in Kearny, New Jersey, and was launched on 19 June 1918. She was acquired by the US Navy and completed several voyages for them before being decommissioned in May 1919. In 1939, she was again taken into service by the US Navy, and by 1941 was being used in the Pacific.
In January 1942, she was enroute from Australia to the Philippines with a cargo of railway parts and other goods when she was torpedoed by the Japanese submarine I-166 about ten nautical miles southwest of the Lombok Strait. US destroyer Paul Jones and Dutch destroyer Van Ghent took the stricken vessel in tow and headed for Singaraja on the north coast of Bali. Unfortunately, she began taking on too much water and they had to beach her at Tulamben. She remained in-situ until 1963, when Mount Agung erupted and the tremors caused the vessel to slide into the sea. She now lies on her side in 30m, with the shallowest sections of wreckage reaching to within 5m of the surface.
The nutrient-rich waters mean that the entire ship is smothered in prolific soft coral and sponge growth. The Siddhartha dive centre, like all the other dive centres on Bali, offers day trips to all areas of the island. You can venture west to the small island of Menjangan and critter-rich Secret Bay, east to the current-swept Gili Selang, or south to the larger islands of Nusa Lembongan and Nusa Penida. The latter is the location of Manta Point, the site of a cleaning station which attracts large manta rays, and Crystal Bay, the top spot for encounters with mola mola. This was where we enjoyed our face-to-face meeting with the heaviest fish in the sea. Conclusion Bali is an intriguing place to visit. The locals are friendly and welcoming to tourists, and in the less-visited north-eastern sector in particular enjoy interacting with westerners. The countryside itself is spectacular and a daytrip out to see the sights is well worth adding to your itinerary. Add to this spellbinding shows of Balinese dancing, colourful ceremonies at the Hindu temples and extreme thrills such as white-water rafting, not to mention the superlative diving, and it is easy to see why Bali is held in such high regard by visitors to this part of Indonesia.
Sport Diver verdict
Bali’s waters are home to all manner of marine species, from tiny nudibranchs to monster mola mola, and there are dives for every level of diver, from newly qualified to hardcore veteran