Indonesia ↣ Part 6: Nusa Lembongan
Updated: May 22, 2020
Southern Lombok ↣ Nusa Lembongan
While the diving in Southern Lombok was fabulous, our next destination was to be the highlight of our diving in Indonesia - a tiny island just off of Bali’s southeastern coast: Nusa Lembongan.
Back when I was researching scuba diving in Indonesia, it seemed impossible to narrow down the myriad of spectacular dive spots. With over 17,000 islands, what I really needed was endless time (and money!) to hop around and taste each region. But I only had a month - so I really needed to narrow it down!
Since this trip would keep us around Bali and Lombok, I narrowed my search to around these islands. Then I caught wind of something that sent a spark of excitement through me: the strait dividing these two islands, known as the Indonesian Throughflow, is essentially where the Indian and Pacific oceans merge. Tons of nutrients pour through this strait, resulting in healthy reefs teeming with life, where magnificent pelagics hang around to feast.
But experiencing this mecca came with serious challenges. Notoriously crazy currents could change direction and speed at any time, bringing along shockingly cold temperatures and seriously reducing visibility.
This wasn’t the first time I considered such a challenging dive location; the previous fall I dove the Verde Island drop off in the Philippines, a spot that held (and still does) the most diverse, pristine diving I’ve been lucky to visit. A year prior I faced challenging currents when diving around Cano Island just off Costa Rica’s western coast. What sealed the deal for me on Nusa Lembongan was the possibility to swim with a creature on my scuba bucket list: a mola mola. Also known as an ocean sunfish, these giant fish generally prefer colder water. However, in Indonesia they swim up to around 100 foot depths when the ocean cools in July and August. I couldn’t believe my luck - we were headed there for the month of July! While sightings are by no means guaranteed, I felt confident given my scuba luck the past few years; in Costa Rica it had been giant mantas attracting me, whale sharks in Ko Phangan, and countless unique creatures in the Philippines - on all those trips I’d hit the jackpot! This time it was mola molas, and I felt like scuba luck was on my side.
If only I’d known then the adventure wasn’t restricted to just scuba diving…
As I mentioned in my previous posts on Indonesia, the ongoing volcanic and seismic activity around Bali and Lombok had already affected our trip to the point we’d had to rearrange our time in Komodo. With Bali’s volcanic eruption less than just two weeks prior, we headed as planned to neighbouring Nusa Lembongan not really understanding how the area was still widely affected…
Just hours ago we’d been in paradise; how was I suddenly in hell?
Our “ferry” navigating the notoriously rough seas between Lombok to Nusa Lembongan was to be a journey just over two hours on a small speedboat. Long used to the lack of docks on the islands around Asia, we carried our bags barefoot through the water and boarded the boat.
As we sat inside the cabin, it became immediately clear this wouldn’t be a book friendly trip. Historically sensitive to motion sickness, I managed to find solace by keeping my eyes on the horizon through the water-splattered windows. Listening to a podcast to pass the time, I was able to get through almost an hour before the tides turned - literally. As we neared the active Mt. Agung on Bali’s coast, the already choppy seas began tossing us every which way, our boat rocking more violently by the second. Waves slammed into the tiny vessel with such force it seemed the boat would break to pieces. My previously controlled nausea was making a rude comeback, and I struggled to find my trusty horizon, but to my despair we couldn’t even see through the windows any longer. The menacing waves were crashing over our boat, and the driver’s windshield wipers futile efforts seemed almost comical. Forget feeling nauseous - I was beginning to feel downright scared. Passengers raced to the back of the boat, releasing their sickness into the open seas, and clung to the railings seemingly unaware they were being pelted by waves. And then - right there in the middle of the ferocious ocean - the engine broke down.
The two crew members struggled to repair it as the waves continued to toss the boat every which way. Still struggling to glimpse the horizon, I tried to steady myself and breathe deeply. A self proclaimed mermaid all my life, I was seeing a whole new side of the powerful sea I’d always been drawn to explore.
After what seemed like an eternity, we were on our way again. And after what seemed like an even longer eternity, we made it through the hot zone. Cruising towards Nusa Lembongan, I stayed in the back, my gaze never leaving the horizon.
Approaching Nusa Lembongan was unlike any other ferry landing I’d experienced in Asia, or anywhere else in the world for that matter. No docks, piers, or rafts were in sight - because that would imply there was ocean leading onto the island’s shore. We had arrived during what appeared to be low tide on crack - in fact, the water stopped half a mile off shore, exposing things you’d typically appreciate whilst snorkeling.
Colorful patches of starfish decorated the landscape in front of us, their cheery colors a contrast to how they probably felt being so exposed. Small fish gasped for breath, flopping their bodies to the nearest tide pool. I glanced at the other passengers, my gaze landing upon a woman in stilettos. This woman had a tough choice ahead of her: Wear the heels and sink into the muddy bottom, or lose the heels and suffer ten minutes of stepping over corals and whatever else was lurking underfoot. I was only at a slight advantage in my flimsy flip flops. Relieved to make landfall, Adam and I disembarked the boat and carefully carried our suitcases over the rough terrain. One tuk tuk ride later, we’d arrived at our dive resort - with enough adventure for one day!
Our dive resort was simple - a dozen basic bungalows surrounding lush gardens and a pool. Greeted by the resort’s friendly divemaster, we rehashed our harrowing account of the ride from Lombok only to learn how the recent eruption had triggered various repercussions on the island’s conditions. We learned there had been numerous earthquakes the previous few days. We also learned how the volcano’s emissions were affecting the weather conditions, resulting in monstrous surges and strong, unusual currents below the surface. What surprised us the most, however, was that every dive center seemed to be running business as usual. Dives continued to go out each morning, divers determined to experience the exhilarating currents. While I knew divers journey from afar to ride Indonesia’s famous currents, I was more interested in the creatures that the currents brought with them - giant mantas, and mola molas!
Our first day of diving was only 50% successful: the first dive was a chilly yet exhilarating drift drive, where we let the current carry us faster than I’d have been comfortable with. With over 100 dives under my belt, I’d enough experience yet could appreciate the risks of the dive conditions. On the plus side, the reefs were stunning and we saw a variety of life. The second dive was near a notorious ‘washing machine’ (where the currents between Nusa Lembongan and Nusa Penida clash and sometimes cause whirlpools), but today things appeared calm - on the surface at least!
We dove in and descended, immediately noticing the chill. In 5mm wetsuits, our dive computers’ temperature gages told us we’d really have been more appropriately attired in drysuits. After just three minutes in the water, Adam was shivering out of control - and I was nearly there myself. Not interested in utilising my rescue diving skills, I made a quick decision as it was clear Adam was in big trouble. Barely able to communicate to our guide at this point due to our bodies being in near shock, I managed to signal to abort the dive - but a massive current suddenly hit our group! The 6 of us were pulled apart, but our guide acted quickly and motioned for us to cling to some coral until it died down. The current was so strong, I had one hand on my regulator (mouthpiece) whilst clinging to coral with the other.
We called it a day after that.
Let's Try This Again
The next day’s plans were incredible: One dive at Manta Point followed by a hopeful Mola sighting at their favorite spot: Crystal Bay! But after the previous day’s events, we readied ourselves with slight trepidation. As we bounced over huge swells around the island towards our first dive site, I prayed to the dive gods we’d survive this dive - and hopefully see some mantas too!
Descending quickly to clear the rough surge slapping the cliffsides, we were instantly swarmed by manta rays! As they fed on whatever the current was bringing to the area, we hung below to watch.
We didn’t need to venture far from the action to spot multiple octopi slithering into nooks of coral, or to spot a blue spotted ray gliding along the bottom, trailed by a wobbegong shark!
Back on the boat, we sipped hot water to warm ourselves from the cold Indonesian waters, the divers debating the next dive due to currents and water temperature. While most of the group felt too cold to re-enter the water, as we made our way to Crystal Bay I decided I came all this way to see a mola mola - and now was my chance!
But it turns out nothing is worth seeing when you’re subjecting your body to unnatural conditions. Entering the water again before your body is able to regain normal temperature, then subjecting it to the coldest temperatures yet really puts things in perspective. The temperature our suits were designed for was around 82F - yet the temperature on our dives the last two days fluctuated from 72 down to 62! When I surfaced from that last dive, I was hardly disappointed: after the fantastic morning dive, I felt lucky to have seen what I did - and after diving in Nusa Lembongan I just felt lucky to be safe on the shore once again.