I'm not going to sugar coat this experience. The reality is that I had to fight my way out of a frighteningly strong current while diving in Bali. I haven't told many people about it yet, but I think it's important to share both the happy and scary moments of travel.
I arrived in Bali and immediately traveled out to the islands for some diving. Nusa Lembongan was supposed to have some of the best diving in all of Bali. If lucky, I would get to see manta ray and maybe even the elusive, giant sunfish called "Mola Mola."
The most exciting part of my 7 dives turned out to be an unexpected encounter with an insanely strong current while on my last dive of the week. I even lost a fin battling my way out of it with my guide and buddy at my side!
At best, this experience was a great lesson in how to (a) not panic; and (b) get yourself out of a strong current while diving. At worst, it was a rude reminder that THIS IS THE OCEAN and it can be unforgiving.
Big Fish Diving
I booked ahead with Big Fish Diving. They had the best reviews I could find online.
The dive sites they go to are spread out around the 3 islands in the area.
There's Lembongan, where the dive shop was and where I was staying. Nusa Penida is the biggest island and then there's the smaller Nusa Ceningan in between.
My first morning on Lembongan, I went to the dive shop to get into my wet suit and board the boat with about 15 other divers. We were heading to Buyuk and SD Point that day.
All of the dive gear was in very good condition. This is something I always look into before I dive with any company. Old-looking gear is a sign of neglect and a big risk for malfunctioning while underwater.
You definitely don't want to be deep underwater when your gear malfunctions.
I always felt aptly fueled for my dives with Big Fish. Every day, the dives included lunch on board the boat—and it was delicious. I'm now a big fan of Nasi Campur—basically a mixture of rice, veggies, egg, noodles, and nuts. Yum! We ate it with our hands out of a brown paper wrapper.
Communicating Under Water
As we departed the beach over clear, turquoise-colored waters each day, I could see the outline of Mount Agung back on Bali mainland.
This volcano looked super impressive as a backdrop to the boats and crystal clear water. I fell in love with this view.
There was only one that our guide signaled that I had not encountered since my training. He punched his fist into his palm, "This means there's a current ahead so we'll be turning around."
Ah ha! I thought. I had heard about the strong currents in Indonesia's waters. Turns out, about 3/7 of my dives were redirected mid-dive because of currents.
Dive guides are trained to identify strong currents up ahead. Unless you are intentionally doing a drift dive (usually in calmer currents), your guide should always take you away from a current to calmer waters.
Marine Life Seen and Not Seen
My first day of diving was filled with tons of pristine coral and beautifully colored fish. The visibility was great at 30-40m for 5 out of 7 of the dives I did.
I became obsessed with the massive, round barrel sponges on my dives. I saw the biggest ones at the Buyuk site. Some were so big I could sit inside of them!
There were also tons of nudibranches at every dive site. These orange, white, and blue ones were the most common.
If you want to see clownfish and other anemonefish—Nusa Lembongan is the place.
I saw the most anemonefish at Manta Bay and Crystal Bay, including whole families with lots of little babies.
Manta Bay and Manta Point did not live up to their names. No manta ray were to be seen on the days I went and the water was much dirtier than the other sites (10m visibility at best!). I'm sure they are great sites to visit during better conditions, though.
I was not able to take my camera on some of the dives because they went over the 15m depth limit! One dive went to 31 meters (102 feet) so it was a good thing I didn't risk taking it along.
Luckily, the guides always brought cameras with them.
They were good about taking photos of things when I asked, which I really, really appreciated. I only had to clean the photos up a bit before posting here. Hover over the image and it'll say Photo by Big Fish if it was not taken by me.
On one particular dive, I had a fun encounter with a sea turtle. We swayed back and forth together in the surge. I'll never get tired of seeing turtles flying around underwater!
I also saw a lot of spotted rays on this same dive. I was happy to get to see some rays even if they were not the big manta kind!
Crystal Bay—Calm the First Time
After the somewhat disappointing morning not seeing any mantas at Manta Bay, we headed for Crystal Bay.
We saw a huge pod of dolphins on the way there and they even hung out in the bay for a while!
I was really excited to dive Crystal bay because I had read online it was one of the best. And it was.
This bay had the best visibility of all the sites and the most interesting and colorful coral and fish. I even saw a sea krait—which brought me right back to my experience diving in snake soup in Niue!
There's a big sand pit in the middle of the bay where I spotted lots of sand-dwelling creatures. It was fun looking around from the center of this pit because it felt like I was in an underwater desert!
Crystal Bay is well known particularly for its Mola Mola sightings. Our guide left us at the edge of the huge coral drop off (goes down down down!) and swam out into the deep blue to look for Mola Mola in the distance. Unfortunately, he didn't spot any.
This was the only Mola Mola I saw during my time on Nusa Lembongan:
I really loved Crystal bay. The water was beautiful and there was a great variety of marine life there.
I only wish I had more photos to share!
Crystal Bay—Battling the Current the Second Time
The next day, I was diving with my same buddy from the day before, Martina from Switzerland. We had a new guide, Richard, who took us to Manta Point and then we went back to Crystal bay for a second round.
I was okay with seeing Crystal Bay again because it's such a huge dive site and there's so much to see there. It was also my last dive of the week so I wanted another shot at spotting a Mola Mola. Alas, the Mola Mola were still not around.
After we finished looking for them, Richard led Martina and I along the coral drop off and into a small cavern with high walls on each side. He had said he was in this area a few days earlier and could sit in the bottom of the cavern and watch the fish glide by over the top of it.
The spot was beautiful and the cavern pathways were really fun to swim around. Once again, Crystal bay was reminding me of my experience diving in Niue.
We went over one of the cavern walls and down into the next cavern. I was following Richard and Marina at this point, watching the fish overhead. Next, I looked up and saw them go out the back of the cavern and around a corner. I kicked my fins to catch up.
I emerged out the back of the cavern and was facing the coral drop-off looking for them. This is when I felt it.
Like a gust of wind, the water began to push me to the right parallel to the drop-off. Now I could see Richard and Martina. They were holding onto chunks of rocky coral near the slope of the drop-off.
I took a queue from them and decided to grab onto whatever was nearest to me. A huge piece of table coral? Okay!
Diving 101 is DO NOT TOUCH ANYTHING. But this was not the time to be an environmentalist.
As I grabbed hold, I had to adjust my grip because the coral was quite sharp against my bare hands—and the current was getting stronger.
I looked back to see how my guide and buddy were doing. My mouth piece nearly whipped out of my mouth and flew behind me when I turned my cheek. Never mind! I'll face forward!
Keep Calm and—Just Keep Calm!
At this point I realized how much effort I was putting into trying to stay on my chunk of table coral.
I was kicking furiously but I needed to stop because I was breathing hard and fast. Although we were only about 15 minutes into our dive at this point, I needed to relax and breathe normally in order to conserve air. We might be here for a while.
I shut my eyes and told myself "You're going to be fine. Just relax."
In my brief glance behind me, I had seen that my guide and buddy were making themselves very flat against the coral. So I did the same.
Now I had to wait.
The "gusts of wind" (as I'm going to call the current) died down every now and then but it still was not safe to let go of the coral completely. I managed to relax my breath and hold on tight.
Richard eventually pulled himself and Martina along the sloping coral and up next to me between gusts of wind. I was still concerned about how we would ultimately get out of the path of the current but I felt much better now that they were close.
Coral by coral, we all pulled our way back toward the cavern. The current continued to be relentless on the way in. I was kicking and kicking and kicking and then I thought, "Uh oh."
I could feel the buckle on my right fin coming loose.
Looser and looser it came with every kick until the current easily whipped it away, lost forever to the deep blue. Now I was one motor short and had to kick twice as hard.
Eventually, the three of us all made it back into the cavern where we were able to shelter ourselves from the majority of the current. Amazingly, our guide had the presence of mind (or perhaps absence of mind??) to whip out his camera and snap a photo of our struggle back into the cavern.
That's me in front and Martina behind me as we crawled our way out of the strongest part of the current. You can see my one fin is already gone.
At this point, all I wanted to do was be above the surface. We managed to crawl over the wall and into the next cavern and the next one to where the waters were calmer.
Everyone was fairly low on air—around 50 bar which is the amount you usually end with after a 60-minute dive. Our dive had only been about 30 minutes. We did our safety stop, holding 3 minutes at 5 meters, and then emerged above the water.
I think we were all in a bit of shock when we came above the surface. Martina was like, "Well, that was a work out!"
But later on we sat down to drinks and discussed what had happened.
"Yea, that could have been really bad."
Could have, yes. But, luckily, we had a dive master guiding us who was well-trained and got us through it. Richard had kept us calm and himself calm. I give him loads of credit for guiding us out of the current.
But wow! What a reality check. Diving can certainly be fun and it really is a safe sport most of the time. Now I can see how easily someone can lose their cool down there under the surface!
One mistake and any one of us could have been swept away in that current.
On Land Again
When I was back on land, my body was physically exhausted but my mind was on a total high. I was high on life!
So I hopped on my bicycle and rode to a gorgeous beach resort on the other side of the island. There, I got to relax with a cool alcoholic beverage to celebrate surviving the treacherous Indian Ocean.
Next time, I'll be sharing all of the other resorts I found around Nusa Lembongan.
You could say I was on a "luxury kick" after my battle with the ocean. Whatever it was, my sampling of the nearby resorts was well-deserved as part of a similarly physically-draining, self-guided bicycle tour I took the next day!
Check back next week for highlights from my bike tour!