(Nusa Penida, Nusa Ceningan, Nusa Lembongan, Nusa Dua, Sanur, Benoa). For the maps (print version) click here / Back to main page about the south of Bali
The south of Bali is known for its current swept dive sites around the islands of Nusa Penida, Nusa Ceningan and Nusa Lembongan where you find some really remarkable animals - the Mola Mola sunfish as well as large pelagic fish such as tunas, rays, manta rays, mackerels and sharks.
Most of these dives are not for beginners! There are often very strong and unpredictable currents and undertows, and cold water often wells up to the shallow areas, resulting in water temperatures of 23 degrees or less. Good visibility. The daily conditions such as tides and currents have to be taken in consideration when planing a dive and sometimes a change of plan might be required. On those occasions don't dispute the opinion of your dive guide or your skipper, they know this place better than you do! If everything works out, this is diving of all the superlatives, but the dive can be a wild ride!
Nusa Penida is a large island located in the southeast of Bali, across the Badung Strait. To the northwest lie two smaller flatter islands, Nusa Ceningan and Nusa Lembongan. There are some dive operators on Lembongan and the islands can be reached by dive boat in approx. an hour from Sanur or Padang Bai. Most dives sites are to the north around Lembongan and Nusa Penida and in the channel between Ceningan and Nusa Penida. All dive sites are steep slopes or walls which go down very deep.
Map of current patterns Nusa Penida
The currents around Nusa Penida and Lembongan
Currents can be really strong around these islands because they lie smack in the path of the Indonesian Throughflow.
The Lombok Strait separates the Indonesian islands Bali and Lombok and is the second most important strait through which water is exchanged between the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean. It is also one of the few passages where measurements have been made and shows an annual mean transport of around 1.7 Sv (of a total estimated at 20-30 Sv through the entire Indonesian archipelago). 1 Sverdrup (Sv) is one million cubic meter per second.
The best time to dive is during slack tide (= when there is little water movement) just before, during and after high tide, when for a short time the currents are not so strong. Dive operators on the islands like world diving are planning their dives according to the tide tables, so there might be a time when they only dive in the afternoon or another time, when they dive only early in the morning. Dive operators from Sanur or Padang Bai don't do this to this extend, since they have fixed departure times.
Each time I went into the water it was a big shock - f.... cold! Learn a new word in bahasa indonesia - ding ding. Temperatures are around 26°C but depending on the currents it can be a chilling 18 or 20°C. One of the dive guides told me about the 15°C he had read unbelievably from his gauge (in September). This cold water comes from an area north of Nusa Penida where it is very deep (1300m). Nusa Penida is large barrier to the currents coming from the north and produces strong upwellings - that's the cold water pressed upwards. The cold water makes for relatively good visibility though. The use of a 5mm wetsuit with a hood and gloves is recommended.
What is of interest while scuba diving in Nusa Penida are the large pelagics such as giant trevallys, sharks, mantas, eagle rays and turtles. On all dive sites described here (except Manta point) the special animal to find here is the rare giant ocean sunfish Mola Mola (German = Mondfisch). Sunfishes normally live up to 300 meter deep. But around Nusa Penida they come close to the surface between August and October each year. The sunfish actually belongs to the same family as the puffer fish (Tetraodontidae), it is the largest bony fish and can reach up to 3m length and weights probably about a ton. Marine biologists think that the sunfish can get over 100 years old. They eat jellyfish, squids and plankton. Jellyfishes are sometimes caught by currents and swept in one of the bays. So if you are very lucky you might even see the Molas while eating jellyfish. They hover nearly motionless in the water and suck one jellyfish after the other into their small mouth.
Lembongan, Nusa Penida and Padang Bai (on the east coast of Bali) are the only places I know in South East Asia, that have regular sightings of the sunfish (Mola Mola). The sunfish season on Lembongan starts in July, but the most reliable time is August through September. Some years there were sightings up until November and there seems to be a short time around March when they are sighted again. What about the time in-between? Nobody I asked knows in what area sunfish disappear to, but there is a project to tag them and find out.
I asked Mark Micklefield from world diving on Lembongan who dives there since many years and he thinks the best time is just between new moon and full moon because then the slack tide is longest. The best places according to him are Ceningan channel (Crystal Bay, Gamat Bay, Toyapakeh, Ceningan wall) and Blue Corner in Lembongan. Our dive guide Aan believes, that sunfish are rarely seen at the day of full moon or new moon itself - according to him they probably take a day off for a ceremony....
The ideal conditions are cold water (I believe below 25°C!!) and nearly no current, because the Mola Mola come up from their usual habitat of 200m below to get cleaned. For this they prefer no current at all. Our dive guide also pointed out, that it was mostly a bit overcast, when he encountered the sunfishes (I point out, that is a large disadvantage, because then you are cold and you can't warm up in the sun!). It is also important to approach Molas slowly and with little movement of the fins or arms and not to swim underneath them, they don't like bubbles from the divers.
The Mola Mola come very close to the reef to certain cleaning stations (experienced dive guide can point out where). They don't get cleaned by the usual cleaner wrasses or cleaner shrimps, but by schooling bannerfishes (Heniochus diphreutes). Actually groups of the bannerfish literally "attack" them, eating the parasites (mostly Caligus rapax, but around 50 species of parasites were found on Molas) that infest their skin. I have also seen angelfishes cleaning a sunfish that was very close to the reef and sometimes other butterflyfishes go after the parasites. If you can get close enough to the sunfish you can actually see the small parasites moving on the skin of these huge animals. The bannerfishes must be very quick to catch them. I have read that in southern California the sunfishes surface and seagulls pick these parasites off them. In Cristal Bay (Nusa Penida) we actually saw a Mola jumping out of the water, but never one basking on the surface, but there are also no gulls around here.
The cleaning must be one of the reasons why sunfishes come close to the reef - but why in large groups and mostly in August and September? Mark Micklefield from world diving on Lembongan thinks that they come here for mating. Very rarely something that looks like mating behavior has been observerd (I haven't been so lucky yet), where two Molas circle each other and then rise towards the surface together.
Lembongan island lies north west of Ceningan island but is larger, with shallow areas where there are seaweed farms and mangrove forests. The dive sites, are all located at the northern corner of the island.
Blue Corner(Ental Point): You dive
on a steep slope with overhangs and outcroppings and a wide canyon. This dive
site is one of the places, that are either absolutely great or just outright
boring or quite dangerous, depending on the current you encounter. This is at
best times a site for divers with some experience, since you stay deep (30 to
40m) long and must cover quite a distance and sometimes you use up a lot of
air just so you can reach the first plateau at 20m. If there is no current at
all, there are rarely any large animals. If the swell from the south is very
strong the visibility can be bad. But if conditions are right, this is one of
the best place I know!
This dive site was rapidly becoming my favorite site after we saw eight huge marble rays, several sharks and a group of eagle rays on our first dive there and then Mola Mola ocean sunfish (a total of 22) during several other dives. Depending on tide there is either a very strong current or nearly none. On the wild rides you try to hide behind some of the outcroppings or overhangs. Some marble rays do the same and on one dive we encountered five of them in a current free area and were able to get really close - actually I had to duck because the tail on one swept past so close! To see the sunfish there has to be little current and the water has to be cold (we hit a thermocline and had 18°C). These fish are just amazing, so huge but moving gently with their oversized fins, holding their heads upwards, so the bannerfish can have a go at ridding them of their parasites. At one point four of the Molas were just lined up, all blissfully getting cleaned and more were swimming towards the reef and got engulfed by a cloud of bannerfishes.
Jangka or Mangrove Point is so called after the large mangrove forest lying between Lembongan and Ceningan. This is a nice drift dive on a slope covered with huge sponges. We saw several sharks, a turtle and tunas but also just a lot of fish like anthias, trigger fishes, large angelfishes, sweetlips and some granddaddy groupers.
Toyapakeh lies on Nusa Penida's northwest point, in Ceningan Channel, close to the pontoons where the tourist ships moor - look at the water slides and watch out for the banana boats! This dive site is partially protected from the current flowing through the channel. Nice coral formations like pillars, table corals and a lot of fish. Sometimes possible to see a Mola Mola fish and on one dive we were lucky and found a wobbegong shark. Good visibility: up to 30m. Sometimes big pelagics. In the south where the Ceningan channel starts there is a very nice wall. If the currents are o.k. you can do a nice drift dive here. Watch out to surface away from the wall - the waves sometimes are quite high and you might hit your head on the rocky overhang.
Gamat Bay is a small bay located between Toyapakeh and Crystal Bay. It is one of the few places on Nusa Penida, where you can do more than drift dive, the bay has some shallow areas and is protected from the currents. Though once you head towards the estuary where there is a slope, you might get into some current again, but here we saw eagle rays and sharks and on one dive three Mola Mola sunfish. The shallow area is well worth some time searching for Mantis shrimps, leaffishes, nudibranchs and dragonets.
Crystal Bay (Penida Bay)consists
of a large sandy area at the top with a huge mushroom coral block with a large
school of glasfish underneath. Then a large field of staghorn corals and a steep
slope with sponges and whip corals. Crystal Bay is part of Ceningan Channel,
so there is a strong current and it is quite cold, but you might see white tip
reef sharks and eagle rays. In August and September you can also find the Mola
Mola ocean sunfish here. On one lucky dive we actually saw eleven Molas, one
in shallow waters on the slope just at the beginning and the rest in the deep
area where they got cleaned.
There is an underwater cave, the Bat cave: You enter from underwater through a sandy channel and surface inside the cave which has a small opening to the sky. Bats sleep on the roof of this cave (see my report on a cave in Burma where sea swallow nest). The lagoon has a nice white sandy beach. Cristal Bay is quite crowded during July-August, more boats than Molas, so perhaps better try the other dive sites...
Ceningan Point (also called Ceningan wall) lies at the northern tip of Ceningan island. Currents are strong and often changing. A steep wall beautifully covered with orange soft corals , sponges and a special tube coral with bluish tentacles - a nice color combination! We drifted along the wall slowly and just watched the fish - there were clouds of them, hundreds of redtooth triggerfishes, schooling bannerfishes, doctorfishes, anthias, angelfishes everywhere. Towards the end of our dive they would all swim in the same direction but against the current, a never-ending stream of fish. Not all dive operators dive there because of the down currents. Only for experienced divers!
Sental,Ped, Sampalanand S.D. or Sekolah Desar (Primary School): Dive sites are steep slopes covered with low growing corals and sponges and some stretches of steep slope (particularly between Ped and Sental). The best dive site is probably SD, though there are some patches where there is some damage by past dynamite fishing. Nearly always fast currents that sometimes change directions in all these dive sites - here the currents coming from the north hit the coast head on and divide, some water flowing west, some to the east side of the island. Trying to stay together can be difficult and the distances covered during the drift dive can be amazing - bubbles rise behind, in front, below and in whirls - a wild ride! The chances are, that you will see large pelagics like manta rays, white tip and black tip shark, tuna, barracuda, giant trevallys and if you are lucky, the sun fish (and if you are very, very lucky like some divers in 2005 even a whale shark!!). We also saw the endemic east Bali yellowtail sawtail (Prionurus sp.) here. Stay together if possible and also surface together in the shallow area - you cover quite some distances here and several times we saw divers waiting for a long time until they were picked up by their boats.
Malibu Point is on the east coast of Nusa Penida, outside Suana village. The area is small and the conditions are tricky (not always possible to dive) but you can see large pelagics in schools: jacks, dog tooth tuna, rainbow runners, sharks and mantas. It is said to be the best place to see sharks, but be cautious, that you are not swept off the point and into the strait. Visibility is generally good (20m plus). Few dive operators dive here, because it will take much more fuel to reach this dive site than others around Ceningan Channel. Conditions can be compared to some dive sites in the Komodo and Alor islands.
Manta Point (Batu Lumbung): Conditions
on the southwest coast of Nusa Penida can be quite rough with high waves tossing
you about, so this dive site can not always be reached. Compared to the gentle
slopes of Bali nearby this is a entirely different place - white limestone cliffs
are rising vertically up about a hundred meters, large waves crash on the rocks
and send spray and mist up to the trees and bushes precariously clinging to
the little soil they can find. Whole junks of rocks and pieces of the cliff
seem to have fallen into the sea.
You dive in one of the two bays that are just a little more protected. No need to go deep, the mantas are gathering around the shallow cleaning stations, 12 to 4 meters deep. They sweep in seemingly out of nowhere (visibility is not always so good) and hover at the tip of a rock. Clouds of wrasses rise and clean them. Now is a good time to slowly swim closer and look at these huge animals. Just amazing! Other than the mantas there isn't that much to see, the coral cover is rather thin. Diving here is not so easy although it is a shallow dive, because there is alsways a swell and you can get tossed about a bit.
Batu Meling and Batu Abah: Batu means "rock". Diving on these exposed rocks is quite difficult and not really worth it. There is no reef to speak of because of the strong swells, you might do the long journey and the dive guide might advise you, not to dive. Believe me, it is very wise to follow this kind of advise and very dumb not to! There seem to be some more sheltered areas in a bay in the south east that still have to be checked out.
If you stay on Lembongan there are some very nice beaches for swimming and sunbathing in the southwest (mushroom bay and dream beach) and some good surfing just in front of the main town. You can rent a motorcycle and drive around Lembongan and over the bridge to Ceningan. From the top of Ceningan you have an amazing view of both Ceningan channel, Lembongan and Bali. Some of the dive sites are also good for snorkeling, specially Gamat Bay, Toyapakeh and Christal Bay.
There are some fringing reefs along Serandan island and the coast of Nusa Dua, but visibility is usually not very good due to the closeness of Benoa harbor (Teluk Benoa). The dive sites are mostly used for teaching beginners because they are close to the resorts and Nusa Penida is too dangerous for beginners to dive. The bay is also used for other water sports - so be careful when surfacing!