Thursday, May 27, 2010

Bali Trip Report

After spending 8 days on a diving safari all over Bali, I feel like I know a little something about diving in Bali. Bali is a big island with small roads. I spent a lot of time in the van driving from place to place. Notable was the 5am start from Sanur to Menjangan (a 4 hour drive). There wasn't a lot of downtime at all considering all the traveling and the logistics of the dive sites (more on that in a moment).

Diving in Bali is highly varied with pelagic cleaning stations, wall dives, reefs, black sand, wrecks, and everything in between. Each area is dove differently - by the end of my trip I had dove by speedboat (Nusa Penida), large fishing boat (Menjangan), shore (Puri Jati, Tulamben, Seraya), outrigger boat (Amed), and medium sized fishing boat (Padang Bai). The marine life is also highly varied, featuring pelagics (mola molas, mantas, sharks), schooling fish (jacks, rainbow runners), reef fish, and all manner of macro critters. I can't think of many places with this much variety all within a few hours' drive.

Here are my opinions on the major diving areas:

Nusa Penida: Famous for Manta Point, a prolific manta cleaning station, and Crystal Bay, a mola mola cleaning station. We saw 7 mantas for 70 min on our dive at Manta Point. Mola mola season is July-October so we did not see much at Crystal Bay. Nusa Penida, contrary to current practice, is not a place to take beginners. The currents can be highly unpredictable and very strong. It can also be very cold (low 20s C). Go to Nusa Penida to see the mantas and mola molas, which are very special, but there is not much else there.

Menjangan Island: The biggest let down. I had heard all kinds of hype about the beautiful reefs and walls of Menjangan. I would rate Menjangan as very mediocre reef/wall diving. The underwater seascapes can be quite beautiful with large fans and barrel sponges, but there are not many fish there at all. Combined with the remoteness of the location, I would not recommend visiting Menjangan.

Puri Jati: Completely barren black sand area. There is NOTHING there except a few anemones, anemone critters (porcelain crab, shrimp, clownfish), lionfish, and garden eels. It is, however, a relatively common place to see the mimic octopus, which made my day.

Tulamben, Seraya, Amed: These three areas are within 10 min drive of one another in northeast Bali. The wreck of the Liberty is the main attraction in Tulamben. It can be dove from shore and starts at 5m. It is home to large schools of bumphead parrotfish, jacks, and many other fish. All three areas are black sand muck diving heaven. This is where I saw the majority of critters on my list - harlequin shrimp, coleman shrimp, wire coral shrimp and gobies, snake eels, boxer crab, pygmy seahorses, etc.

Padang Bai: Padang Bai is mostly white sand and artificial reef diving. The dive sites are close to shore and are full of trash. The marine life can be good but hit or miss. I saw several rare nudis and clown frogfish here.

I dove with Bali Scuba. They are a bit of a paradox. My dive guide Komang was excellent and responsible. He was always on time and the transfers were flawless. Bali Scuba HQ is rather disorganized, though, and nobody at the office seems to know what is going on. For an outfit that sees as much volume as they do, they don't get a lot of photographers and I was rather annoyed that nobody could advise me on lens choices for the various dive sites.

Our dives generally followed the same profile - descend to 25m and make our way back up to the shallows. Dive times regularly exceeded 60 min and I never felt rushed. Komang knew the dives sites well and has a good eye.

The infrastructure in Bali is quite poor in the north, so bring everything you need and don't count on being able to buy anything.

Would I go back? Most definitely, but I would focus on Nusa Penida (for mantas and mola molas) and Tulamben, Seraya, and Amed for macro stuff.

Custom Wetsuits Revisited

Two thumbs up for Acronman. I wanted to post a quick note to mention how much I like the 5mm custom wetsuit I had made by Acronman. I used it on 27 dives in Bali. While the fit was slightly tight in places, the quality and warmth are indisputable. The workmanship is great and the suit is very comfortable. I sent it back for slight alterations today. I liked the suit so much that I placed an order for a custom 3mm suit as well. I expect these suits to far outlast off the rack commercial suits.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Bali Pictures

I am finally done processing my photos from Bali. Full set of pictures here.

Huge manta at Manta Point. 12-24mm at 12mm, 1/100s, f/5.6, ISO 200

Schooling jacks at the wreck of the Liberty. 12-24mm at 12mm, 1/80s, f/6.3, ISO 400

Mimic octopus at Puri Jati. 105 mm, 1/100s, f/14, ISO 200

Coleman shrimp on a fire urchin at Seraya. 105mm, 1/250s, f/22, ISO 200

Goby on cowrie on whip coral at Seraya. 105mm, 1/250s, f/20, ISO 200

Honeycomb moray getting cleaned at Seraya. 105mm, 1/200s, f/14, ISO 200

Bobtail squid digging itself in at Seraya. 60mm, 1/250s, f/16, ISO 200

Pregnant porcelain crab at Amed. 105mm, 1/200s, f/18, ISO 200

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Diving Padang Bai

We dove Padang Bai today on my last day in Bali. Padang Bai is a popular beach area in East Bali with the dive sites very close to shore. We used a fast jukung and dove Jepun, Turtle Neck, and Blue Lagoon. All had white sandy bottoms with patches of coral. Jepun also had various wire structures sunk as artificial reefs. We must have had back luck as the water was freezing and the vis was terrible, between 5-15m. We saw a few rare nudis, nudis mating, a cave full of peppermint shrimp, and lots of reef fish. One thing I noticed was the water was full of trash like plastic bags and snack wrappers. I hope they do something about the trash or the marine life is going to keep deteriorating.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Diving Amed

We dove Amed today by outrigger boat (jukung). The sites have sandy bottoms with patches of hard coral and concrete blocks and formations as artificial reefs. The first dive was great with 9 pygmy seahorses on one seafan - the highlight of the dive was when two of them interlocked tails. We also saw 2 emperor shrimp on one sea cucumber. The artificial reef served its purpose well with lots of anthias and reef fish making their homes there. The next two dives were less good. We saw frogfish, white eyed morays, millions of lionfish, and a huge hermit crab trying to take over a shell that was occupied by a conch.

Diving Seraya

Yesterday, we did 4 dives at Seraya. Seraya is a small area of sloping black sand in front of Scuba Seraya resort. The locals have set up a small station with shade and running water as a base for day trippers. The seascape is quite sparse except for some patches of coral and some artificial reefs. The macro life is amazing - it is as though that there is something hiding under every rock. On our dives, we generally headed down to 25m and made our way up the reef. I saw lots of critters on my list - harlequin shrimp (2 pairs), coleman shrimp (2), wire coral shrimp and gobies, a snake eel, and a boxer crab. We also saw bobtail squid, an army of peppermint shrimp, various nudis, cleaner shrimp, tons of lionfish, and a huge honeycomb moray getting cleaned. It was one of my most prolific shooting days with over 400 shots.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Diving Tulamben

We started today with a dawn dive at the USS Liberty, a well known cargo ship sunk during WWII. Tulamben has one main road parallel to the beach and dive shops line this road. The wreck is dived from shore as the top is in 5m of water and the bottom around 30m. From where I am staying at Paradise Hotel, we walked along the beach to the wreck, geared up on shore, and waded into the water. Porters carry your tanks for you. The Liberty is best dove in the early morning or at night to avoid the day trippers, who arrive around 10am and leave around 3pm.

The seascape is sloping black sand with patches of anemones and coral. The wreck is huge and lies on its side. It is covered in marine growth and is very fishy. The first thing we saw was a school of 20+ bumphead parrotfish at 8m. They must have been sleepy as they didn't mind us getting very close. We did a tour of the wreck (which took a while due to its size) and caught a huge school of jacks right in front of us. With this much life, it is no wonder that the Liberty is as famous as it is.

We did the next 2 dives in the sandy area surrounding the Liberty to avoid the crowds. The area has some seriously good muck diving. We saw wire coral gobies and shrimp, xeno crabs, nudis, anemone shrimp, pipefish, clownfish, and a leaf scorpionfish.

There were lots of divers during our night dive on the Liberty. It's a big wreck so that's mostly ok but there were times when there were a lot of lights going on at the same time. This time, we didn't see much apart from a few nudis, sleeping reef fish (including several large groupers), and sleeping bumphead parrotfish. They were still enough to get some shots but I thought it best to let them sleep in peace.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Critter List

Underwater Photography Guide recommends making a critter list for macro photography so here's mine (in no particular order):

Spanish dancer
Ceratosoma nudibranch
Janolus nudibranch
Sawblade shrimp
Saron shrimp
Halimeda ghost pipefish
Robust ghost pipefish
Ornate ghost pipefish
Harlequin shrimp
Coleman shrimp
Coconut octopus
Mimic octopus
Blue ringed octopus
Bobbit worm
Emperor shrimp
Tiger shrimp
Boxer crab
Flamboyant cuttlefish
Snake eel
Wire coral goby
Wire coral shrimp
Xeno crab

Diving Puri Jati

Today's objective was to find the mimic octopus. We did our first dive at Khayanganyar, a small stretch of black sand beach in front of an abandoned house. It didn't seem like a well known site as we were the only ones there and were sharing it with pigs and chickens. We did a shore dive, where we geared up on the beach and walked into the water. The seascape was a gently sloping black sand bottom with minimal vegetation, only the odd anemone and debris pile. We didn't find any mimics but there saw a pair of white eyed morays, millions of garden eels, a cuttlefish, and a big angry crab. The next 2 dives were at Puri Jati, also shore dives near a fishing village. Puri Jati is classic muck diving at its best - it always appears that there is nothing to see but in reality there is a ton of macro life. There were lots of lionfish, clownfish, anemone shrimp, puffer fish, dragonets, banded coral shrimp, and a porcelain crab or two on every anemone. I saw a beautifully decorated snake eel and caught it on camera. Apparently, there used to be a lot of more life but since they cleaned up the garbage, the life decreased. There was a tree stump that was home to 6 lionfish, 3 puffers, and a wrasse cleaning station. On the 3rd dive, I heard my guide furiously tapping his tank to get my attention. He'd found a mimic octopus! It stayed with us for about 10 minutes and I got about 90 shots before it disappeared into a hole in the sand. After our 3 dives, we made the beautiful 2 hour drive along the north coast to Tulamben.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Diving Menjangan Day 2

I did 3 more dives at Menjangan - POS 2, Bat Cave, and POS 1. The dives were similar to yesterday's with sloping reefs and large sea fans. The seascapes were quite beautiful but I noticed that there are not that many fish. I discussed it with my dive guide but he had no explanation. Given that fishing is not allowed in the area, I thought the fish life should be healthier like in the Similan Islands. I had a sync cord malfunction on the first dive and some complications with my camera settings on the second, so I did not manage many good pictures. We did a dusk dive at Pemuteran to look for mating mandarinfish but luck was not with us and we did not see any. The dive was not wasted, however, and I spent 70 min shooting clownfish, hermit crabs, strange looking shrimp, and a scorpionfish. Better luck tomorrow at Puri Jati.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Diving Menjangan Island

Today's dives were at Menjangan Island. Menjangan is a small, uninhabited island off the northwest of Bali. "Menjangan" means "deer" in Bahasa. The island is a marine park and is protected from fishing. The van picked me up at 5am for the 3 1/2 hour drive. From the jetty, we boarded a small fishing boat for the 25 min slow ride. My dives were at Garden Eel and POS 2 (2 dives). The sites were wall dives with coral gardens on the top, with some sandy patches here and there. The reef life was pretty healthy, with hard and soft coral, reef fish, and some macro life such as nudibranches, flatworms, and shrimp. There were some massive sea fans that looked healthy. Highlights of today's dives were a devil scorpionfish and several nudis and flatworms (but only one that I had not seen before).

We decided to postpone the night dive at Pemuteraan after hearing some reports of bad conditions.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Diving Nusa Penida

Today, we dove Nusa Penida. I had high expectations as I had heard so much about it. We departed from Sanur beach and took a 45 min fast speedboat ride to Nusa Penida. The ride was bumpy due to seriously large swells in the channel. Our first dive site was Manta Point. It is an area with large boulders and a small underwater mound that is a manta cleaning station. The bottom is around 12-15m and the top of the mound is around 6m. Vis was quite poor for the area (so I'm told) at about 10m and rather cloudy. The water was also quite surgy, with side to side movements of up to 2m (!). At first, a shy manta or two showed up, just doing fly-bys with minimal photo ops. After a few minutes of hide and seek, the mantas seemed to lose their inhibitions and started popping up everywhere and posing for photos. I probably got within 2m of them a couple of times. We counted 7 large mantas and they stayed with us until we surfaced 70 min later. Not the best conditions but one hell of a close encounter.

Our next two dives were at Crystal Bay and Bed. Crystal Bay is famous for mola molas but it is not mola season at the moment. We actually saw one in the distance but it quickly sped off before I could get any photos. Apart from that, both dives were quite forgettable.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Bali Trip

Next week, I will be going to Bali. We are spending 5 days in Ubud and then I am spending a further 8 days diving. It is rare that I have this much free time to dive! Leon hooked me up with Bali Scuba, which Living Seas has used for the last 4 years for Bali trips. We organized a dive safari with dives in Nusa Penida, Menjangan, Puri Jati, Tulamben, Seraya, Amed, and Padang Bai. I will be staying at 3 different places in the course of the 8 days: Sanur, Pemuteran, and Tulamben. Pictures and a dive report to come.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Custom Wetsuits

Today, I went to see Acronman to get measured for a custom wetsuit. I have been looking for a 5 mm wetsuit for some time but none of the stock sizes fit me. After freezing my nuts off in Puerto Galera and Anilao in April, I decided that it is time that I get a custom wetsuit. They measured me in about 10 minutes and although the typical turnaround time is 1-2 weeks, they agreed to do a rush job (at no extra cost) in time for my Bali trip next week. It cost me S$360 for a 5 mm suit with fleece lining and ankle zippers. I will pick up my suit on Friday. Fingers crossed that it fits.

Underwater Photography Resources

Since I picked up underwater photography, I have been reading about and researching the topic extensively. Here are a few resources that I have been using that I find extremely helpful:

Underwater Photography Guide by Scott Gietler. Scott maintains a free online guide to underwater photography that covers many topics that from beginner to advanced. I especially like his dive destination guides. His photos are excellent and very inspirational.

The Underwater Photographer by Martin Edge. Now in its fourth edition, this book covers all aspects of underwater photography and is an easy read. I just got my copy and am in the process of devouring it.

Wetpixel forums. Many, many useful discussions on all kinds of topics. Several prominent and world class underwater photographers are frequent contributors. There are so many skilled photographers on wetpixel that I get a lot of inspiration from perusing their photos.