Bali’s Wild Wild West

By Annabel Thomas

For The Bali Times

SEMINYAK ~ “Wall diving” is a very evocative phrase, conjuring up visions of tiny divers poised above a blue abyss from which, even as we watch, ferocious creatures of previously never-recorded size are rising silently towards these unsuspecting victims….

Thankfully, in Bali, we don’t have to contend with such monsters, but we do have some excellent wall diving to offer.

It was in the late 1970s that Menjangan (Deer Island – although, sadly, there are no deer there these days), located just off the north side of Bali’s northwestern point, became Bali’s first internationally renowned diving location. To this day, divers of all levels -particularly wall diving enthusiasts, those taking dive courses and underwater photographers – enjoy the easy conditions and great visibility which, combined with the diverse and colorful marine life, make up one of Bali’s most interesting diving locations.

Menjangan is a low-lying, 1.5 kilometer-long, uninhabited island, made of dry limestone and as it is part of Bali Barat (West Bali) National Park, the diving here is regulated. The diving company through which you choose to dive will organize all necessary permits as well as the boat trip over to the island, using boats licensed by the park. These basic wooden outrigger boats are 8-10 meters long and generally have two outboard motors. They are covered but it is a good idea to wear plenty of sunscreen due to the reflection from the water.

Although Bali’s best diving season is said to be April to November (the southeast monsoon), Menjangan can be dived year-round as it offers some of the island’s most protected dive sites. The clarity of the water can, at times, be amazing – the best in Bali – and October and November often have horizontal visibility of 50 meters or more. However the crossing can be a bit rough in January and February.

Many people simply go over to Menjangan to enjoy the boat ride, do some snorkeling and have a picnic lunch on the white-sand beach there. But as the park covers just under 20,000 hectares of rainforest, savannah, mangroves and mountains (Bakungan (700m), Sangiang (1,000m), Merbuk (1,380m) and Mesehe (1,345m) are the closest to Menjangan), the journey to and from Menjangan provides some magnificent views. Depending on the time of year, the view may be lush and green, or you may be taken aback by how dry and barren this corner of our tropical island can be.

Diving is done from the boats at all bar one site, and is usually drift diving, although the currents are generally mild, giving you time to view the intricate coral-covered drop-offs and their inhabitants.

The profusion of hard and soft corals, together with the plankton-rich waters, attracts a vast array of marine life that can include turtles. Due to its protected location, the waters around Menjangan are usually quite warm, which means that sightings of larger fish – such as whalesharks and manta rays – while possible, are unusual.

Menjangan is also a suitable location for diving courses. You can do the theory and pool work (Confined Water Dives) for the PADI Open Water Diver course down in the south of Bali or back home before you come to Bali, and then enjoy the benefits of Menjangan’s calm, clear and warm waters as well as the world-renowned diversity of marine life, while you complete your course with the required four Open Water Dives.

You could also do your PADI Advanced OWD course here as the diving and sites are ideal for, say, the Boat, Drift and Multi-level elective dives as well as the compulsory Deep and Navigation dives.

In years gone by, and in older diving guidebooks, Menjangan was described as having beautiful reef flats. Unfortunately that is no longer true. Over the years, a combination of dynamite and cyanide fishing (for aquariums and live seafood restaurants) and (dive!) boats anchoring into the coral have taken their toll. In 1997 there was a population explosion of the coral-eating Crown of Thorns starfish which laid bare huge areas of coral and, in 1998, there was extensive coral bleaching after El Nino.

However, these reef flats (5-15M) are showing strong signs of recovery and are already starting to come back with much greater diversity than they had before.

It should be remembered that Menjangan is actually famous for wall diving and these walls were unaffected by the above problems.

Menjangan’s walls are full of small nooks and crannies, overhangs, and bigger cavelettes and crevasses that are filled with medium and small fish and covered with soft corals, sponges and Bali’s greatest diversity of gorgonian sea fans. The number and diversity of gorgonians is due to the year-round flow of nutrient-rich water and the fact that Menjangan does not have strong currents. The walls generally start at 10M and descend to varying depths, the shallowest being 26M, the deepest 60M+, but, as a rule, the most interesting areas are in the 15-25M range.  With the excellent water clarity, sunlight penetrates comparatively deeply into the waters around Menjangan.

The exception to this is the Anker Wreck off northwest Menjangan.  Here, remains of a small 19th century wooden boat lie scattered across 50 meters of sand, starting at a depth of 32M and extending to 45M.  While this puts it beyond the generally accepted maximum depth of 40M for recreational diving, with the good visibility and calm conditions, and a steep slope to guide ascents and descents, this is an enjoyable site for experienced divers. No one actually knows the name of the boat, nor why it was in the area – the name Anker simply refers to the boat’s anchor (and chain) which lies there.

The sand slope on which the remains of the boat lie starts at 32M and it’s here that you will see the first parts of the wreck, dark against the white sand. Across the site you will see copper sheeting and bottles, the boat’s cargo (artifacts, not souvenirs). There are still some parts of the boat which remain out of the sand, covered in gorgonians – a sure sign of little or no current at the site.

The 5-10M area of the wall to the west is rich with many overhangs, cracks and caves, making an ideal location for a prolonged safety stop after this deep dive.

In addition to the Anker Wreck, the more popular dive sites at Menjangan are: The Eel Garden (northwest Menjangan) and Pos II (southeast Menjangan).

A typical dive for the Eel Garden follows the wall from 5-25M.  This wall has some of the healthiest and most diverse corals on Menjangan; the cracks and breaks are filled with a great variety of reef fish. At 25M the white-sand slope is known for sightings of white tip reef sharks, small schools of barracudas, turtles and Napoleon Wrasses. From here you begin your ascent, which will take you over many soft corals, until reaching a huge colony of garden eels, which covers the slope from 20M to beyond where it flattens out at 14M. The nearby coral garden (5-12M) has Big-Eyed Trevallys, Titan Triggerfishes, many clownfishes in their anemones and a surprisingly high number of scorpionfishes.

Pos II (east Menjangan) can be dived directly from the beach or from a boat and starts with a direct descent to the top of the wall at 12M. If the usual northeasterly current is present, you will be able to do a gentle drift-dive. Descending along the wall the diversity of reef fishes is remarkable: angelfish, anthias, chromis, gobies, scorpionfishes. Drifting with the current, there is a profusion of soft corals, sponges, small gorgonians, moray eels and lionfish. The surface of the wall is full of crevasses, cracks and overhangs which hide many treasures. There is the occasional cave, too. Leveling out at 25M, the current takes us along the wall to the east point of the island, a dramatic area covered in large gorgonians. Here, where we meet the waters traveling down from the northeast of Menjangan, there is an upwelling of cold waters from the deep ocean that brings with it turtles, manta rays, sharks, occasional mola-molas and other pelagics (open-ocean fishes).

It is worth noting that Menjangan has the highest rate of decompression sickness (DCS) in Bali. So, as always – and particularly with wall diving – it’s important to remember to ascend slowly, at a maximum rate of 18M/60ft per minute. A recompression chamber is located at Sanglah Hospital in Denpasar, three hours away.

As there is a wide variety of things to do and see in this less-visited part of Bali – a visit to the turtle hatchery, horse riding – and as Labuan Lalang, from where you take the boats over to Menjangan, is at least three and a half hours from south Bali, it is advisable to stay overnight up there.

My personal favorite resort is Waka Shorea, a true environmental sanctuary with white-sand and coral beach and a lot of local fauna.  The only resort permitted inside West Bali National Park, Waka Shorea can only be reached by boat, which ensures peace and quiet.

The village of Pemuteran, about 20 minutes eastwards, has a variety of places to stay, most of which are located right on the sweeping sand beach. As mentioned in a recent article, in the crystal-clear shallows of Pemuteran Bay there is an interesting artificial reef-building Biorock project which uses low-voltage electricity.

So if you fancy a break from the hustle-n-bustle of the south, pack your bags and head on up there – you won’t be disappointed.

The writer is director of AquaMarine Diving – Bali.

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