Sunday, August 11, 2013

Diving Nusa Penida off Bali (no mantas and no mola molas)

August 10-11, Bali Diving Academy, Nusa Lembongan
My logged dives #1235-1238

August 9

I just sent an email which began like this: "Here in Nusa Lembongan the power has been off for several hours but we appear to be at a warung with a generator and I might be able to send this."

We were having a really great vacation meeting my family in Bali and then traveling to Komodo for some dynamite diving.  Dusty had to return to Bali to sort a visa problem but Bobbi and I caught a slow boat to Lombok and met up with Dusty on Gili Air, which was so relaxed I will continue to wish I was back there for a long time to come.  The diving was not bad either, the sunsets were phenomenal, and the food was cheap and irresistable (pepes fish was always an excellent snack).  Things were great as we caught a boat from Gili Air to Padang Bai on Bali but civilization kicked back in on the mini-bus transfer to Sanur, Dusty's choice for our base on Bali, and launch to our next diving destination, Nusa Penida via the surfing / diving mecca of Nusa Lembongan, a short speed-boat ride half an hour due east from Sanur.

Dusty had dived here on his last trip to Bali, while Bobbi and I were pursuing options around Komodo.  He had caught a dive boat to Nusa Penida from Sanur but had figured out that it would be more economical to base himself in Nusa Lembongan and save the trip across the channel, which doubled the cost of diving Nusa Penida from Sanur.  Dusty had gone on a manta / mola mola dive where he was supposed to look for sunfish in Crystal Bay on his first dive.  They took him to Manta Point instead where he saw lots of mantas in shallow water with easy current, but by the time they had made it back to Crystal Bay, the morning dive boats (not coincidentally, including one from Bali Diving Academy) had seen mola mola but his group missed it.

The Lonely Planet Guide paints Nusa Lembongan, the island over from Nusa Penida, as a place where one can recapture the old bali, cheap beer, fabulous sunsets, where "time is measured by rooster crow and the fall of a coconut," which made us want to base ourselves there for a few days.  They omitted to mention the roar of the motorcycle.  And in most other respects, I'm afraid Nusa Lembongan was a disappointment, compared to other places we visited in Indonesia.

The fast boat left Sanur more or less on time and got us to Nusa Lembongan during the ideal time to find a room, when the last nighters would be checking out.  Our strategy was to set Bobbi somewhere with our bags and go looking for rooms, which would be very difficult in August.  After many cold calls, Dusty and I managed to luck into a place on the beach, just $20 a room with cold water and fan (when there was electricity). But many others not so lucky were desperate for accommodation into the afternoon, through there may have been luxury rooms for them on the hillside in the upmarket enclave around the bay there.

We chose Bali Diving Academy to help us fulfill Dusty's mola mola dream, since their divers had seen the mola mola when Dusty was denied his on his previous trip to Nusa Penida.  We had tried the place next to our hotel, Scooby Dooby, but they were fully booked for Aug 10, the first day we planned to dive. Having arranged that, we had time to kill in Nusa Lembongan   We tried one place for lunch but the one lady cooking and waiting tables was so slow to make even a watermellon juice, and then when she brought it she retreated rather than try to negotiate our order, so we moved to a warung on the waterfront for a mediocre meal.  We went home for a nap after that but when we woke up we found power was off and our devices only half charged. We took the computers out to the open air restaurant and tried to order a Bintang, but there was none, and due to no power, no internet of course.  We decided on a long walk to take in the multiple hues of the sunset on placid harbor, but eventually we found a place with nice food with an open air sea view (Bintang no problem anywhere but our hotel), and an owner who had good taste in quiet gamelon music and the good sense to anticipate the power cuts by maintaining a generator that would power his router and connect his customers to the Internet.  But there was still no power when we got back to our rooms late that evening, though it did come on at night, when we all leapt from bed and plugged in our devices and resumed sleeping with a breezy fan.

Apart from its lovely seaside restaurants, and the resorts on the hillside if you have only a little more money or don't feel upmarket, Nusa Lembongan was not a particularly stimulating place, with not much to do after glorious sunset if you're bored with Bintang and not particularly hungry, once it's too dark to surf.  

August 10

We found the diving to be a little disappointing as well (though in fairness, we met a divemaster there who had worked on Gili Air and said she preferred Lembongan to the Gilis).  We left harbor in the morning in anticipation of fulfilling Dusty's dream of seeing a sunfish or two, but arrived in Crystal Bay with a dozen other dive boats all waiting for the current to subside.  When we finally went in, the water was full of bubbles from other divers, all vying for position, clinging to (killing) the reef in the process, as far out in the current as they dared.  In any event we are told sunfish like cold water and are seen when it's 23 degrees in the water.  Today it was 26 and they didn't appear.  After half an hour hooking into rocks and fighting current at 24 meters, then retreating to higher ground, we were back in the shallows where the dive was ostensibly over. The other divers in our group had buoyancy issues and ran low on air early and we managed to get 52 minutes in by hanging out in the sand under the boats.  Still we saw a couple of sea snakes, some young barracuda in the clear bay, garden eels in the sand, and a cuttlefish, a well rounded representation of wildlife there, but not what we'd come for.

"Well, maybe there are mola mola on the north side of Nusa Penida" we were told, so we went there for our second dive, where the reef starts at 5 meters and goes down to 200.  Our dive site was the reef between SD Point and PED (whatever, they also call it informally, "endless reef"). Here, the current swept us along in a rapid drift dive.  The reef was healthy and vast with a big variety of coral, but most of the sharks have been harvested here, and there was nothing present that divers pay a lot of money to come and see.  There were big puffer fish, blue triggers, and the usual reef critters, a nice dive, a pleasant 28 degrees this time, but nothing to point my GoPro at, the first dive that's happened so far this trip in Indonesia.

We decided the next day we would opt for mantas.  We were told they were almost guaranteed off Manta Point, and they probably were, but we had hit the time of month where for these few days only the sea swells would be too high for Bali Diving Academy to take us there, so no telling what the other dive companies would be doing (Scooby Doo was not going there either, we found later), but it was looking like we'd be spending two days diving Nusa Penida and seeing neither of the big draw fishes (though of course they told us the sites we would be taking us to tomorrow, sometimes they see mola molas there ... we'll believe it when we see it).

I started writing this in my room but at 4 p.m. the power went off and now I'm working on battery, which I want to conserve in case I want to use the computer later.  Sods law, I had JUST started recharging it when that happened.  Electricity seems to be a morning phenomenon in Nusa Lembongan  as is diving, and internet, so evenings are a bit redundant here, unless you fancy a Bintang binge.  Well, sunset now, so off to see what the night holds.

August 11

We heard that the Bali Diving Academy trip that went to Crystal Bay the morning of the 11th did manage to see mola mola, but by then we were resigned to whatever the sea and our dive program managers would offer, and under their guidance we enjoyed our last two dives off Nusa Penida and Nusa Lembongan with neither sunfish nor mantas.  Our first dive off a village called Buyu and was done in the company of another half dozen boats, so there were a few dozen divers in the water heading along the reef at different levels.  This turned out to be to our advantage as the leader of the group above us was pointing agitatedly at something that turned out to be a shark, which his group drove out of rest and across our path, and then it came back and I possibly got it on my GoPro.  But apart from the beauty of the reef, there wasn't a lot here remarkable, except the turtle I saw as we were doing our safety stop.

Our last dive, off the north of Nusa Lembongan, at a site called Mangroves, was a lovely reef plateau with a freight train current that made it a bit of an amusement park ride.  Again we didn't see much apart from the large puffers and lovely coral.  It was a challenging dive, and our guide said at the end of it that she enjoyed leading a group that could handle current (for a change).  She had also said earlier on the boat that if someone was low on air at 50 bar we would come up, and she revealed she hoped it wasn't her, because we were so good on air, she said (a compliment to our family's diving skills).

It was fun because it was diving but if I had it to do over I'd choose a time when Manta Point was doable and leave time for more mola mola dives, if that were my goal (Bobbi and I have seen them before :-).  We all agreed that we enjoyed Komodo a lot more, and I thought the dives on Gili had more variety and less current, and more interesting things to see (and  were much more pleasurable to hang out in).  However, if you go to Nusa Penida chances are good that you will see mantas and / or mola molas, through I guess our experience shows there are no guarantees on anything that moves in the water.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Diving Gili Trawangan and Gili Meno, 3 days, from Gili Air

August 5-7, Blue Marlin Divers, Gili Air, Lombok
My logged dives #1230-1234

By boat to Lombok via Rinca

We got a cabin on a Perama company long distance boat from Labuan Bajo to Lombok, leaving August 2, or so we thought.  Actually we met at the Perama office at 5:30, waited for an hour, and were conducted to the boat which was in harbor. The plan was to have dinner on board and spend the night in our cabin, and the boat would leave at 5:30 in the morning for Rinca.  The price of the cabin was expensive, $200 each, but we thought it would save us $35 on the hotel price at least, but our cramped cabin, barely enough room for two bunks, was open air with slats for privacy (which we covered inside with towels) and was situated on a catwalk next to the common luggage storage. There were benches there which the deck passengers liked to sit on and talk (late at night) and of course everyone was constantly accessing storage. 

But the first night we had a different problem.  The boat crew had invited the passengers from the passage over back for a party.  The boat anchored in the middle of the harbor, the others arrived by launch, and a part ensued from dinner time to midnight.  We felt we had rented a tiny room just off a noisy bar, never our choice of accommodation.  We somehow managed to drown it out with Kindle white noise apps (modern travel :-).

The first stop on the boat's itinerary was to go see the dragon lizards on Rinca, and we went on a two hour trek where we did that. There were always some specimens sleeping near the kitchen (per Lonely Planet) and these were there splayed out like alligators in a zoo.  But we went on a guided trek of 2 hours and saw some baby dragons in streams en route, as well as monkeys.  

The most exciting part was where a large adult dragon came out in the trail and wandered down it, causing our group to yield to the side. The dragon slithered nonchalantly, forking out its tongue, and headed for the bushes on the far side of the path from where we were.  It was a dramatic encounter, memorable, as they are some meters long.

Here is the trail (Bobbi is wearing the red backpack)

And here is the dragon that came slithering down it, sticking out his forked tongue to sense the nature of the other biomass he detected nearby.  By the time this photo was taken, he was heading into the underbrush:

Hats off to John Hager who posted on Facebook some really interesting dragon closeups, from boat at the edge of the water (looks like you get what you pay for :-)

The boat continued to a snorkeling spot that afternoon, with the Komodo Divers boat coming into our anchorage and stopping behind us to do some diving on the reef we were snorkeling (seemed to be a good spot for dive courses).  The passengers fanned out on the reef.  No system was employed to keep track of the 30 people in the water, so I snorkeled and then Bobbi took a turn and I kept an eye on her while she cruised the reef some distance from the boat.  When she returned in the water I guided her to where the ladder was and when I went to that side of the boat, I saw that we had slipped anchor and the current had actually carried us onto the shallow reef.  No one seemed to have noticed, the same way that no one had noticed the dinghy had disappeared on the Wicked boat the week before.  I went to the captain and found him sleeping behind the helm. When I woke him up, comedy ensured.  He lept out of bed in one stride, in the next he was peering over the side of the boat, and the look on his face was classic.  Then he was yelling to no one in particular.  No one on the boat could do anything so they called their dinghy over from where it had been cruising the snorkelers and fortunately, that boat was able to pull us off the reef, and no damage was done (to the boat :-(( not sure about the reef )

We sailed that night.  The passage was a little rough early in the evening but smoothed out as we skirted the big island of Sambawa between Flores and Lombok.  In the morning we stopped at Moyo to take a short walk to a waterfall where locals showed us their stunts on a rope over the falls where they rode it out to its azimuth and let go, doing flips, or hanging on and propelling themselves right at the base of the falls.  It was a refreshingly friendly place with the locals holding the rope for as many tourists as wanted to have a go, as most of the 30 people on our boat did.

We continued to a reef at the west end of Sambawa for a final snorkeling stop, and then made the two hour crossing of the channel to Lombok, catching great sunsets over Rinjani volcano, which dominated horizon.  We arrived in Lombok after 2 days of boat travel and found vans waiting to take passengers to Mararam port or Singgigi. We opted for Singgigi, which turned out to have nice accommmodation for just $25 a night.  We arrived there at 11 pm and got online to arrange with Dusty where to meet him next day.

By boat (how else?) from Lombok to Gili Air

This is a quick shot of one of the horse carts that will linger in your memory after you have left Gili Air.  There is no obnoxious sound of motorcycle engines here, just bicycles and horse carts.  The street between the port and the harbor can get busy with the clomping and tinkling of horses and bells in the evening as boxes are ferried from port to retail outlet, but apart from bicycles, transport around Gili Air is on foot, 45 min. to walk completely around the island.

We were unsure where to meet exactly.  Dusty had a boat ticket to Gili Trawangan where we had all gone 30 years ago, when the reef there was intact, and it was a simple, laid back place.  Now it's become a party island so we had decided to choose between Gili Air and Gili Meno.  We were thinking to choose the less is more Gili Meno, but reading LPG at breakfast, we noted that it said booking during high season was essential so we thought Gili Air might be the best compromise. Meanwhile we were arranging at breakfast a shuttle to the port leaving at 8:45, and we were on that riding along the stunning beautiful coastline of Lombak while texting Dusty who was embarking from Bali and needed to know where he should get his ticket to exactly.  Our driver was friendly and had good English so I asked him and he said there were numerous places on Gili Air and Trawangan, so I txted Dusty to change his ticket to Air, and to make a long story short, we all arrived at the boat harbor from Lombok and Bali at almost the exact same moment, and through the wonders of modern telecommunications, were texting each other to a meeting point at the harbor.  

Everything after that was idyllic.  Gili Air is an amazingly laid back place. There are no motorcycles or dogs (with the exception of one pet we spotted, but he was well-behaved and didn't bark). Horse carts meet passengers at the harbor and for $7 fixed price will take you around until you find a place to stay. The island is surrounded by azure water and fine beaches, and rural lanes criss cross through fields with cows and horses, and rooster crowing is ambient there.

We were accosted by a man who said he had a house with two rooms for $30 and we followed him on his bike to the most ideal accommodation for a still active couple and their single son.  It was an apt with two bedrooms, each with double bed, kitchen, and bath in master bedroom.  There was a lanai out front with bamboo furniture, a leafy garden, and palms across the lane bright green under sunny skies.  It was not beachfront, but those places were $80, and we were 5 min from the beach, where we found neaby Blue Marlin Dive Center, where we were offered the best professional courtesy price of 25% discount so each of our dives would be just $25.

This led to a routine where we set an alarm for 7, had Lombok coffee in our kitchen, took our computers and gear to the dive center, stored the computers in lockers, waded onto the boats, went 20 min to Trawangan for the first dive of the day, returned to the dive center where I recharged my GoPro on my computer, and then returned to the boats for the shorter trip to a Meno dive site.  The third dive of the day was always right off Gili Air and we never went on that one, though I wondered if Trawangan divers did their first adventure dive on Air, and their last of the day close to home on Trawangan.

Once we'd finished diving we washed our gear and showered at the dive center and then wandered up the beach for lunch.  All up and down the beach, there were pavilions with cushions facing the water quite popular with beach goers, where good meals could be had for $4 for mains, and $3.50 for a large Bintang (or $1.50 for iced tea, or $2 for fruit juice). Most of these places had wifi, which was often the most disappointing part of the meal, but we tended to relax here in the shade and balmy breezes with the clomp of horse carts in the lane behind and just feel we were lucky to be in this magic spot.

Around 4 or so we'd take our dive gear back to the room and then sortie again in search of sunset happy hours.  The north end of the island had west views and again big bamboo couches where you could lay back and push any worries out of your mind while you watched the colors of the clouds and placid water go through electric orange and purple color changes. Dusk would usually find us walking on the beach, easier to walk there on the packed sand than on the loose sand trails ringing the island. We'd eventually find a place to have dinner, usually a table on the beach (getting tired of lounging in couches by then) for dinner with waves lapping, horses clomping with bells on, and stars bright overhead.

Our last night there, Aug 7 2013, was the last day of Ramadhan, with views of fireworks over Lombok and the boom of closer explosions as people set off colorful lightshows overhead of where we were dining. The celebrations and fireworks went on for hours after dusk, with sparkling burst lighting either side of our table on the beach for hours.

Diving Gili Trawangan and Gili Meno from Gili Air

Aug 5 - Sunset Reef, SW Gili Trawangan

This site took us in over sparse coral and great vis but not much to see in the moraine at depth, though the idea was to find something big down here.  Our dive guide Ari pointed out a slug and I filmed batfish flattened at a cleaning station.

Aug 5 - Soraya Reef, off Gili Meno

Soraya Reef, Gili Meno, was our favorite reef of all we dived - A black tip shark and a crocodile fish, nice reef, nice corals.  
Where is the crocodile fish?  You should be able to see him by the end of the video :-)

We saw the shark early in the dive, and the video didn't function, but I got this snap (snaps are not the GoPro's forte, and I had to zoom and crop to get this):

Aug 6 - Shark Point, NW Gili Trawangan

We found a turtle and a white tip at the start of the dive, and I swam around a bommie and found a big turtle there minding his own business.  We also found a cool nudibranch, and a scorpion fish - very nice dive

Turtle at bommie

Local dive guides worldwide usually know where to look for animals underwater, and can often spot a nudibranch or hidden scorpion fish when those not familiar with the site might miss it. Ari was pretty good at finding worms and snails in the sand and on the reef the size of a piece of thread. So it was kind of funny when we began our dive on Shark Point (of all places :-) when Ari was swimming along at the start of the dive, just starting to adjust to the slight chill, and almost swam right past a resting shark. Amusingly out of character for him, and here it is on video:

Aug 6 - second dive on Meno Wreck, Gili Meno

I tend to not like wreck dives all that much because unless the wreck is massive or historic (or the absolutely only thing to see in the area), they tend to take place in a small area which you can rapidly exhaust.  We started our Meno dive upcurrent from it and drifted onto it, along with a dozen other dive boats with the same plan, so it was crowded.  Once on the wreck, the fish were pretty.  Here's Bobbi exploring:

Aug 7 - Deep Halik, NW Gili Trawangan

Wed Aug 7 we dived Deep Halik, northwest Gili Trawangan, near Shark Point. Ari checked surface current and declared that all was well, but at 20 meters we were being swept through the channel all of us uncomfortable with it. There was nothing much to see here, or more accurately, we were moving too fast to stop and look around, though it seemed like a good place for sharks in the rubble valley and along the reef.  

We were diving with Andrea and his wife again, Andrea the rich Italian smoker who always surfaced at 40 min, and on this day, we waited till exactly 8 min for Ari to return after carrying out Andrea's safety stop and putting him back on the right dive boat. 

Before Andrea left he had held his camera in the face of a turtle, a little in the way of other photographers who were trying to get their own shots.

Andrea redeemed himself somewhat when he found a huge scorpion fish just before he had to surface, and while we were waiting for him to return an attractive moray emerged from one of the few bommies where we were.  

Ari found interesting tiny snails in the dynamited coral rubble but apart from all that, and getting some relief from the current in the last 15 min of our dive, our last dive on Gili Air was not as nice as the others.  Max depth 29.9 meters and time 62 minutes.

Time to leave

We were sad to leave our tranquil place on Gili Air, a 'homestay' cottage called Mangga, down an endearingly rural lane near Family Cafe just inland from Blue Marlin Divers. It was just $30 a night for two separate rooms, one for Dusty and one for the two of us, with kitchen with stove, a fresh water dispenser, and fridge, and a pleasant veranda out front, where on the first day of Eid celebrations we awoke to find a huge breakfast left for us there. Here we are checking out: