The sun is rising over the mountains behind the Taman Sari villas as a Balinese lady, resplendent in traditional dress, walks through the gardens to commence her morning offering to the Gods.
This blessing for the day is a must: each shrine, any garden, every door warrants the attention. There was even a tiny basket of rice, fruit and flowers outside our gate when we emerged for breakfast. We watch quietly from our table, and contemplate how it is that the Balinese have retained their traditions despite the incredible changes the island has seen in recent years.
The gentle silence and incredible calm of Bali's northwest corner is in stark contrast to the cacophony of noise that greets arrivals at Denpasar's sophisticated airport. It feels little different to any international terminal, and stepping outside into the bustling Kuta area leaves you with no illusions that the Island of the Gods is also a serious tourist destination. But what if you're looking for the Bali of picture postcard beauty... the one we remembered from our younger days, when rice fields were more prominent than shopping malls? Then head north.
Although we have dived Bali frequently over the years, we had seen little of this far corner. Crossing the island, we traversed steep mountains, passed landscapes of emerald green, lush rice fields and traditional temples. In less than a day we reached the furthest point from the airport but we would have been there much sooner if we hadn't kept asking our driver to stop for yet another breathtaking photo opportunity. There was so much to admire, but our focus soon turned to what the marine world would deliver. We were scheduled to dive one of Bali's most revered photographic sites as well as her marine parks, and our final day was booked for a little experimental diving!
A not so Secret Bay
A few years back, some enterprising divers took a look beneath the surface in Gilimanuk Bay. You have to wonder what made them think that it might just be a good dive. Immediately adjacent to where the enormous ferries ply between Bali and Java, this busy town has little to commend it other than it being a transport hub. The broad bay is very shallow, fewer than 12 metres deep, but protected by an offshore reef. The currents that sweep up the narrow Bali Straight are funnelled into the shallow cove bringing all sorts of animals into it. Some start as plankton that then grow and breed in the protected environment.
We had three dives scheduled and on the first discovered the sand was paler and a bit finer than expected. We had to be careful not to stir it up and make the visibility worse than it was. There were waves of silt at times... perhaps from the ferry boats at the nearby docks. However, we weren't bothered by the lack of visibility as we were too busy keeping our eyes on the ground watching for the small and strange animals that live there. There were so many but one highlight was two seahorses. We were charmed their two iridescent gold ones and one even swam up in the water column to pose on the branches of a dead tree. It seemed he knew exactly what he was doing and we're still expecting the modelling fee invoice!
Not to be outdone, an octopus peered at us from his shelter in an old can, slipping a tentacle in and out as if to beckon us over. However, the most rare creature we saw, and a first for us, was a yellow Ambon scorpionfish! He was very pretty, tiny and hairy with lacy wings.
A play in the Park
We could see why Secret Bay simply wasn't any longer. Too many photographers have been delighted with the instant photo opportunities it promises. For us it was time for a change of pace so we spent our second day at Menjangan. This tiny, unpopulated island is a marine national park, and even on the list to become a world heritage site. It's easy to see why as it is ringed by steep coral walls that are in fine condition.
We also visited the Anker Wreck, a peculiar title as Anker is a local beer, but the wreck has nothing to do with the brew: it's said to be an old slave boat. There are a couple of anchors down there though. The wooden hull sits on a gentle sandy slope at around 40 metres. There is little left to see as the timbers have almost decayed beyond recognition and are heavily encrusted with beautiful soft corals and small fans. We we were equally impressed on the gradual ascent back up and along the wall. Large fans and whips smothered the site and, as we got shallower, the landscape changed to pristine hard corals with masses of swarming fish.
We did two other dives at different points around the island, and both were beautiful. Being there in the winter meant that we didn't get perfect visibility, but that didn't seem to matter as the walls were so colourful they radiated their own form of light.
Spirit of adventure
We were being looked after by our friend, Annabel, from AquaMarine Diving. She'd suggested that we should try this new site at Siririt just along the coast. Having never heard of it we were a little unsure. Should we 'waste' a day on experimental diving? She was really, really adamant that we should, so that was where we headed. Arriving at Puri Jati we were amused to find that the only entry to the bay was beside a rice paddy. Right at its heart was a perfect, small temple. We were lucky enough to arrive just as the villagers started their rice harvest, and while our guides set up our equipment we wandered over to greet them.
In just a few minutes our guide, Ketut, called us to order. The kit was ready and he was eager to get us in. We waded into water that was so warm we couldn't believe it, and dropping down that first metre was like swimming through oil. The top layer had created a distinctive thermocline. At two metres the water cleared and we saw a flat floor that extended quite some way offshore. The maximum depth is all of 10 metres until you hit a sudden drop that dips away to about 30 metres. The bay is covered in... almost nothing. Just little patches of seagrass and some large leaved halameda algae. There wasn't even much rubbish.
However, the barren landscape was misleading. It turned out this bay was one of the most prolific marine environments we have ever seen - providing you're into babies. By the end of the day we had dubbed it the Critter Cradle, in honour of the unlimited number of babies we had encountered.
Strangely, there weren't that many adults as many fish eggs live life as plankton, then drift into calm waters. We saw juvenile seahorses (and a few adults), baby lionfish and just-born filefish. We spotted a cockatoo waspfish that was the size of a fingernail and a hand-sized teenager a few metres away. We even spotted a slipper lobster just an inch long, and you only ever see those guys at night. To reinforce the maternity theme a split branch of bamboo harboured newly laid squid eggs, and Ketut pointed out a tiny white faced stonefish just 10mm long. Perhaps the most fascinating babies he found - we would never have seen them - were two juvenile frogfish. The first was nestled on the sand and hardly seemed bigger than the grains sitting beneath him, while the second must have drifted into some algae and settled there. They were both so tiny they hadn't even developed a lure.
And there was one final discovery, a last ditch effort that justified Annabel's adamant stance for us to visit her latest discovery... a Mimic octopus. This absolutely delightful creature is one of nature's best. A small member of the family, its body just the size of an egg, the mimic has long legs that are striped in black and white. His form of defence is to change his body shape from one thing to another. We watched him perform this impressive dance for ages, turning from a flounder to a crinoid and even a lionfish. We followed him around on the sand, camera firing madly until he eventually found a hole to burrow into, where he performed one of his finest impressions: a seasnake. Applause all round.
Too good to miss
Taking the drive to Bali's furthest corner became the best decision we could have made. It was wonderful to see the island a little like it once had been, to see that her culture and traditions live on, despite the external changes that influence it so heavily. Like other places the diving up here will become more and more popular. Secret Bay's secret was out too soon, and Siririt's will be too.
Well, we certainly don't want to keep it under wraps. It was just too good to do that!
Travel details: our mini-package was arranged by Bali's only British dive centre, AquaMarine Diving