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August 2014    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 29, No. 8   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Geko Dive, Bali, Indonesia

five-star muck and reef diving for all budgets

from the August, 2014 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver:

After an intensive dive trip on the Bilikiki for 10 days (for a full review of the Solomon Island vessel, see Undercurrent's May 2012 issue), my dive buddy and I planned a couple's retreat to Bali to wallow in tasteful luxury, dive a bit and relax before heading home. In fact, if you dive anywhere in Indonesia, Bali is a must stop.

Our hotel of choice was Amankila. Its location on the east coast, near the town of Manggis, places it near choice diving, and the hilly terrain, gorgeous three-tier infinity pool, scrumptious food, warm service and personal spa services provide the ultimate antidote to the rigors of liveaboard living, no matter how terrific. (Indeed, I love the Bilikiki. This was my third trip, and Daniela and Csaba, the new cruise leaders, are probably the vessel's best ever.) At the Denpasar airport, a delegate from Amankila whisked us through immigration and customs (an expedited visa is US$25 a person). Ninety minutes later, we arrived at our digs (some celebrities, I understand, take a helicopter to avoid the drive), and two beautiful young girls in elegant local garb offered floral blessings as the English-speaking staff welcomed us.

Geko Dive's Sea StarDiving in east Bali, particularly at nearby sites like Nusa Penida, Amed, Seraya, Tulamben, Manta Point and Padang Bai, is part of the draw of Amankila. Unlike the hotels in touristy Nusa Dua or Kuta, this location puts you within 15 minutes of many dive sites -- and it's an hour to the revered diving at Tulamben. In the past, I always used the excellent Aquamarine Diving, but this time I let Amankila arrange our diving with Geko Dive, the oldest shop on the east coast. It's owned by European expats Cedric Saveuse, Olivia Harding and James Rees, and they offer diving from the Nusa Penida area to Tulamben. It's a serious operation that even offers tech diving courses. I asked James for pure muck diving because we had done so much pelagic diving in the Solomons, so he selected a partially built and abandoned jetty in Padang Bai, less than 10 minutes by boat from the dive shop. A treasure trove for muck divers. I could easily spend three dives a day for two weeks at this site alone.

After an easy backroll near the pier, I descended to 40 feet. Visibility is typically low, maybe 20 feet at best, currents low to moderate, and the water warm. The guides worked hard to find interesting critters. I wore a light wetsuit and gloves because garbage and hydroids abound, and fishermen have baited lines in the water. My log reflects muck diving joy: "inimicus (demon stingers) galore; mantis shrimp of every hue and size; two types of rhinopias (frilled and paddle)." I sighted a rare crocodile snake eel poking out of the sand, its massive toothy jaw belying its shyness. Sandy-grained cuttlefish hovered in pairs, while heavy-bodied, 12- to 18-inch pipefish courted and snuffled for food. The pilings revealed a mammoth frogfish larger than a football. In the junk at the base of the pilings, I found a pair of frogfish the size of large softballs, one a snowy white perched next to a jet black hairy frogfish. Though few would label stonefish as "cute," the hot pink juvenile I found came close. Scorpionfish abounded in every hue. Large fearless octopuses hung out on low coral heads, while the one large coral head nearby housed a huge school of adult eel catfish, presumably there for mating. My log notes describe them as "frenetic, disgusting, yet fascinating." Perhaps my greatest delight was realizing that the drifting chunks of palm leaf were actually robust ghost pipefish pairs.

Geko Dive, Bali, IndonesiaAs part of the muck dive program, Geko took us to Seraya, just north of Amed, for a pair of shore dives. The rough entry was fine, though I earned no style points as I crawled out on hands and knees after the dives. Compared with the abundance at the jetty, Seraya was less satisfying, with strong currents and patchier life. However, I enjoyed the variety of lionfish, crinoid crabs, shrimpfishes and giant trevallys darting through the murky waters. Seraya's sand bottom, like Tulamben's, is volcanic dark sand, so when currents whip it up, visibility drops dramatically.

Why don't more people dive this part of Bali? Though some sites have powerful currents and downcurrents where the Indian and Pacific oceans mix between Bali and Lombok (see Undercurrent's March 2014 issue regarding some Japanese divers who died here), the coral and life one sees is worth it for the experienced diver. According to an article in the Jakarta Post, scientists conducted a survey in May 2011 at 33 sea sites around Bali. They discovered 952 species of reef fish, eight of which were new discoveries. Another pleasant surprise was reading that the east coast of Bali surpassed the rest of the island for coral coverage.

Reef coverage ranges from patchy to dense around Padang Bai and between Bali and Lombok. There are some sheltered sites with virtually no current and relaxed reef diving (often accompanied by a beach BBQ lunch). The diving around the small islands offers great variety. Nusa Penida is best known for mantas and pelagics, particularly mola mola, known as ocean sunfish. The currents can be unpredictable, and thermoclines are common. Your reward for braving the waters is dense reefs populated with fish, and a great mix of reef and pelagics. If the currents are kicking, appreciating the minutiae of reef life as it whizzes past is challenging, but the quieter sites allow you to putter around varieties of anemonefishes, clouds of anthias and butterflyfish galore. Great "normal" and very safe diving can be found at Tulamben.

If you're a culture vulture, this part of Bali is heaven. Dance and musical groups play less for tourists than for themselves. Most hotels offer evening performances by the local players. I love the weaving village of Tenganan for fabrics, particularly the exquisite double ikats (gerinsing) made by Ibu Sudiata Gelgel.

Amankila's Three-Tiered Infinity PoolAmankila is a pricey retreat, best reserved for special -- very special -- occasions. It is built in terraces down the steep hill to its black sand beach. Each villa is set within the landscape for the most privacy, and views are of the ocean and the tropical garden. The rooms (actually suites) provide a deluxe bath, sitting area with a Bose stereo and iPod loaded with music to suit all tastes, bedroom and terrace, where we ate breakfast each morning. The in-room WiFi was fast. Oddly, the floors are so full of nonconductive materials, when I walked barefoot and touched a laptop or tablet, I was treated to a full 220-volt shock. Wear the in-room flip flops before finding out! The resort's iconic, three-tier infinity pool seems to teeter on the edge of the cliff. At beach level, an Olympic-size pool and bar offers guests more swimming and service, and one can get massages on the beach in little bures. The restaurant offers both Indonesian and Western dishes. I enjoyed poached eggs and bacon for breakfast one day, followed by nasi goring the next, and while I tended to eat the Indonesian dishes, my craving for an American hamburger was completely satisfied.

Besides splurging on Amankila, beautiful hotels dot the coast, from the Malaysian-owned chain of Alila in Manggis to small divers' hotels in Padang Bai. The popular Puri Bagus in Candidasa is a great value and romantically situated on the water; large rooms go for around $200. Its sister hotel, Puri Bagus Manggis, offers cultural immersion in the village of Manngis at similar prices; both offer dive packages. The Alila Manggis, about the same price, is near Amankila, and its smallish rooms offer the amenities of a large resort. Bloo Lagoon (in two locations in Padang Bai), are styled as eco-resorts, and in addition to diving and eating, they offer traditional medicine and spa treatments. Prices can be as low as $100 a night if booking a package. The Watergarden in Candidasa sits near the village, with views of the mountains and foliage. Like all local hotels, it offers diving, and its bures run around $200 with a package. The small divers' hotels in Padang Bai, such as Kerti Beach Inn and Bamboo Paradise, offer simple accommodations near the beach as low as $40 a night. Geko Dive can help you find one to suit your needs.

For my next trip to Bali, I will certainly allot at least a week to dive around Padang Bai and loll in the muck under its jetty. Geko's James Rees says he has even more great sites for muck fanciers. And the pelagic dives I eschewed on this trip offer mantas, mola-molas in season and ripping currents filled with life. For ease of diving, species delight, luxury, beauty and romance, Bali's east coast can't be beat.

--M.M.

Geko Dive, Bali, IndonesiaDivers Compass: Amankila rates start at $950 per night, including transfers and full breakfast; add 10 percent for service and 11 percent for tax . . . Diving Geko through Amankila (there seems to be a little markup) costs between $95-125 for two tanks and $160 for three, and that includes lunch, equipment rental, drinks and transport; at the end of the trip, they washed and dried my gear until even my booties smelled sweet . . . Flying to Bali (Denpasar) is easy, with flights from Europe, Asia, Australia, and Indonesia; I took Cathay Pacific from Hong Kong.) . . . Websites: Geko Dive - www.gekodivebali.com; Amankila - www.amanresorts.com/amankila/home.aspx

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