Bali Imlek 2006

Day 1
For a week before the trip, I was worrying about the weather. The previous forecasts were grim - rain, thunderstorm, tropical storm, and strong wind littered the daily predictions. My worries were for nothing, though - we were blessed with good weather throughout out four-day trip.

The morning started out a little gloomy because of the thunderstorm early in the morning. However, the weather cleared and we had a mostly sunny day to start the Chinese New Year 2006 trip. The previous night, all of us arrived in Bali and met up at Bali Sukun Cottages, except for Paulus who met us at Bali Scuba before we depart for Tulamben. There are some new friends we have not met before, some members who have not been to Bali, so this trip is something of a "virgin" trip.

We reached Tulamben at around 10am, after a leisurely drive. Hengky, Thea and their new baby Gavin were to meet up with us to join our first dive, and they had departed later than us so we took our time settling into our rooms in Matahari Resort Tulamben, and to set up our gear. The first dive was to be at Batu Kelebit. We were also joined by Erwin, Mulyadi, and Monica who were already in Tulamben when we arrived.
At 11am, all 19 of us boarded the jukung (outrigger canoe) to go to Batu Kelebit. It was quite an experience for some, who have never dived off a tiny jukung before. The traditional wooden canoe can only take a maximum of three divers with gear, and one boatman. I still remember the first time I was in a jukung - my bum could barely fit the width of the canoe, and getting back up on it was a b*tch. Sure enough, I got bumps and bruises from my ungraceful attempts to get back on it.

The first dive plan was, Hengky, Mulyadi and Tom were going to bury Gavin's umbilical cord (read more about the ritual here: somewhere in the deep end. Hengky was going to do the deed with Mulyadi documenting it, and Tom was to wait in the shallows with an extra tank. The rest of us planned to do a checkout dive. We split into buddy teams, and planned to descend together and dive as a group. However, the plan was abandoned when we got to the dive site. Due to the large swells, our jukungs were unable to get too close to one another. We had to descend in smaller groups, and since the visibility was quite poor, Paulus, Jonathan and I were separated from the rest. We met Tom in the shallows, all alone with the extra tank.

My two buddies and I decided to head South, but the reef deteriorated into rubble the further we went. I decided to change direction, and we headed back North. After a while, we met the rest of the group. The photographers were busily snapping away at a Tambja sp., while the rest wandered about. We ended the dive after about 45 minutes, and as soon as we got back onto the jukungs, the swells got bigger. We made it back to the beach safely, despite a rough ride.

The rough seas has claimed a few casualties - Clare lost her weight belt and had to sit out the dive, and Rini was so seasick she decided to miss the second dive. Oh well, that's what checkout dives are for: to make sure everything's OK, so the second dive is more enjoyable.

At lunchtime, two more old friends joined us: Bayu and Sonia. They have joined us to dive Seraya, but unfortunately the waves were too big that afternoon, so the Seraya plan was postponed until the next day.

After a leisurely lunch, we went to dive the Liberty wreck. The (amazing) women and children porters carried our gear to the wreck, some carrying two tanks, even. I felt so horribly unfit as we limped our way through the pebbled beach of Tulamben. I felt even smaller when a woman porter overtook me with two tanks balanced on her head. Life got a little easier for me when I got in the water. Pebbles and me, we just don't see eye to eye.

As soon as we descended, a cluster of anemone beckons, where I spotted some cute anemone shrimps out to play. Not far from there, Matahari's dive guide Aco spotted a Glossodoris atromarginata on a sandy patch. Why do the most interesting things appear when I don't have my camera? Grrrr.....

We reached the wreck and swam alongside it. The visibility was nothing to shout about, but the wreck, as usual, was a breathtaking sight. I have seen the Lady Liberty countless times, but each time I can't help but be stunned by its sheer beauty. There's always something new to see.

At 15m (approximately right in the middle of the wreck), Aco signaled "leaf scorpionfish". True enough, a fuchsia specimen was parked on a small table coral, just posing for the photographers. The photo frenzy soon started, and after a while I got a bit pissed off (no camera!! grrrr...) so I headed towards the shallows. At about 9m before we reached the boom, I spotted a furry thing moving amongst a cluster of bubble coral. An orangutan crab! I've never seen one in Bali - only in Komodo and Sipadan. But now, I'm convinced I can see anything at the Liberty! Not far along, at about 6m, a Jorunna funebris was crawling along the sand. (Again, no camera!! Arrrrgghhh!!). At the end of the dive after 60 minutes, happy faces were abound.
The exit proved to be a little challenging with the waves getting bigger by the minute. I remember struggling to reach the shore without looking like a beached whale, while Vincent provided the background vocals, "Irene, think ballerina! Think grace!". Thanks, my dear friend. (Twit.)

After that second dive, we decided to call it a day - nobody was interested in a night dive because of the pounding surf. Not even "Dive Junkie" Mulyadi! We all took time to relax, enjoy the pool, a massage (with essential oils courtesy of Lala), or a beer while watching the sunset.
A lovely buffet dinner was had, as well as a few friendly drinks. We had a game of "Dirty Minds", in which Zaki emerged as overall champion (I'm not sure if I should mention this, though ;P) As the night progressed and more drinks were had, the game got more risqué - Truth or Dare. I shall not reveal the beans spilled during the game, but a few dares led some to kiss an armpit, and a boy to kiss another boy - all in the name of good fun :)

Day 2
On the second day of the trip, we woke up before the crack of dawn to have an early wreck dive. We were enthusiastic, but hadn't anticipated how difficult it was to gear up in the dark #!!@$$!0&&8^! There were a lot of cursign and swearing (mostly by me) because a whole bunch of equipment just seem to magically disappear overnight (again, mostly mine).

At 6am sharp, we left the resort in our full gear and trudged along the pebbled beach towards the wreck, all the while mumbling, "This better be worth it!" The waves had slightly eased that morning, making our shore entry much easier than the previous day. Visibility has improved by leaps and bounds too, so much so that we were able to see the wreck first before swimming smack bang into a steel hull or something. At about 12m southwest of the wreck around the stern area, Mulyadi was hovering, frantically taking photographs. I looked up and saw the first "prize" of the day: a school of huge bumphead parrotfish noisily feeding on the corals growing on the wreck. We saw at least a dozen of them. Again, I didn't have my camera with me :(

We ventured deeper into the wreck, enjoying the tranquil morning dive (no crowd! A real treat at Liberty wreck). I found the same fuchsia leaf scorpionfish from the day before, in the exact same location. I tried to find the orangutan crab again to show those who have not seen it, but I think I took a wrong turn somewhere because I couldn't find the cluster of bubble coral. Oh well.

From the wreck, we swam back towards the resort, passing by the school of bumphead parrotfish again. The school seemed to be following us, stopping whenever we were, and swimming alongside us for at least 15 minutes. They were indeed magnificent creatures, feeding and frolicking in a pack, the bigger fish leading the herd while the smaller ones playfully tussle with one another. What a wonderful sight to start a diving day!

For the second dive of the group was to dive Seraya, a site just north of Tulamben. It became famous amongst macro enthusiasts just two years ago - for a site that's mostly shallow sandy bottoms, it is blessed with a rich variety of weird critters that will make macro freaks wet their suits. I deliberately missed this dive, pleading tiredness. So I packed my divers in jukungs, drove one of them who was prone to seasickness directly to the site, and set off on my personal quest for babi guling (Balinese spit-roasted pork) :p OK, so I lied about being tired - sue me!
The divers came back with a tale of many critters (seahorses, pegasus seamoth, baby nudis) and happy faces. I almost wish I hadn't missed it, but then the babi guling was a great consolation prize so I wasn't too bummed.

Our next dive was at the Drop-Off. I was rather hesitant to take divers there after the recent mud flood caused by heavy rains, but then a Tulamben experience is not complete without diving the Drop-Off. So I thought, what the heck, after Singapore waters, this can't be any worse. After lunch, we walked off the beach and was floating on the surface preparing for descent, when Lala suddenly yelled, "Schooling jacks, right underneath!!" The Liberty wreck's famous schooling jacks have evidently migrated to the river area, perhaps lost in the silty waters on their way to the Drop-Off.

After a few minutes of gawking at the jacks, we descended into the murky depths and slowly made our way towards the site. The low visibility was a bit of a bummer, but I was hoping it would improve the further south we went. The reef appeared as if a curtain of mud was lifted, but it was badly covered in silt, I didn't even attempt to try to find the resident two-spot gobies that used to live there. I swam a little faster, anxious to see if the rest of the reef was also badly silted. We were in luck - when the huge red seafan appeared, I knew we were in the clear. The water got much clearer, and the reef was still as healthy as I remembered. We spent some time in the peaceful silence of the deep before heading back to shore to end the dive.

Our third dive of the day was at a site Erwin called "Aeroplane reef", just ten steps North of Paradise hotel. It was actually a small artificial reef shaped like an aeroplane. Silly me, I actually thought there was an aeroplane wreck down there! However, the "aeroplane" was not the real attraction of the site. Deeper in, there were plenty of magical critters that sent the photographers into a flash frenzy. Pak Oka, the Matahari resort owner and dive guide, really knows his turf well. He constantly showed us teeny weeny creatures, like the gorgeous Micromelo undata, a cleaning station full of cleaner shrimps to give his teeth a good clean, as well a black-and-red specimen of ornate ghost pipefish. I also spotted a flabellina, no bigger than a grain of rice. I don't know why I waited so long to dive this site!

During the dive, however, I got stung in so many places by unseen things in the water. When I got out of the water, I ran to the showers as fast as I can to rinse off the itchy things, but it was too late. My body was covered in angry red welts and hives - this despite diving in a fullsuit! Not only me, Erwin and Pak Oka got some too. We suspected that the corals were spawning, or were broken by the crashing waves and sent itchy stuff scattering all over the site. I still have the scars and welts today, nearly two weeks after the dive :( Thank God it had stopped itching, though!

That night, we had another buffet dinner and a round of drinks. The potent peach-flavored Absolut had loosen a few tongues and inhibitions as usual. By the end of the night, one girl had a marriage proposal, one guy received a compliment that his nipples were pretty (by another guy!!), and three Chinese boys were given honorary Indonesian names: Eko Bambang, Sugeng Slamet, and Asmuni. Take a guess who is who!

Day 3
The morning we were supposed to leave Tulamben for Padangbai, the visibility in Tulamben improved. When we left, the surface was so clear the volcanic pebbles were visible from the surface. The waves have subsided too, leaving tiny ripples on the surface.

We were on the road by 7.15am, planning to reach Padangbai by 8.30. However, fate had a cruel way of toying with our plan. Right after passing the big Welcome to Tulamben sign, Pak Oka's car ran out of petrol! Bugger, bugger bugger! We all parked alongside the winding road, and got off the car to take photos and have a little chat while waiting for Pak Oka to come back with a jerry can of diesel fuel. It was a nice break, although I was fidgeting at the thought of being late. Yup, I'm a little uptight when it comes to being in charge ;)

Despite the setback, we managed to reach Padangbai in good time, where Vincent, David Ruland, and three other guests from Australia were already waiting. After splitting the big group into two, we set up our gear and started on the short journey to our first dive site of the day: Gili Biaha. Famous for its fabulously pristine reefs and Shark Cave, it is also notorious for its ripping and unpredictable currents. We were lucky that day, though. When we got there, the surface was calm and the water a pleasant 27°C.

We descended into the abyss, and was welcomed by the vista that was Gili Biaha. It was my first time there, and I was truly impressed by the healthy corals, gin-clear water, and the absence of currents throughout the dive. My first foray into the famous shark cave was indeed awe-inspiring. It was a small opening beneath a wall that opens into a wide cavern, inhabited by about 7 white-tip reef sharks. I suspect there are usually more sharks, but the first group had obviously been in there and scared off some of the sharks. The view from inside the cave was also breathtaking. Sunlight streamed into the cave, which made for a picturesque silhouette of the cave entrance and the sharks patrolling it. We spent quite a bit of time just hanging out and trying to take pictures of the cute sharks.

Outside the cave, the reefs are practically infested with Nembrotha purpureolineolata. We saw at least seven of these colourful slugs, busily munching on ascidians. There were also other types of nudibranchs that our eagle-eyed guides spotted, including a Nembrotha kubaryana and a Chromodoris reticulata. It was, all in all, a fabulous dive!

The second dive was at Gili Tepekong, another site that's world-famous for its swirling currents that can go in all directions and freezing cold upwellings. There are times when the boatman would warn divers that the currents are going wild - when this happens, listen to the boatman and abort the dive! That day, we were again lucky. We arrived at the site to find a mirror-like surface. We were cautious at first, because the surface can be deceiving. But we worried over nothing, we descended into swimminng pool-like calm waters, and went straight to the swimthrough at 18m. We exited at 26m to a gorgeous view of the reefs.

Not long after, my dive computer was showing that I only had less than 10 minutes NDL left! A little worried, I started ascending slowly, and stayed above the group the whole time. Then I saw my buddy Eric Loh, and noticed that he, too, had started his ascend. Then, in the corner of my eye, I saw Eric Lee also on the same depth as me, avobove everybody else. Then I realized, all three of us were wearing the same computer, the Suunto Stinger, which is more conservative than other computers. I saw David Ruland looking at the three of us with a smirk :)

After Gili Tepekong, we headed back to Padangbai for lunch. The third dive was going to be at Blue Lagoon/Tanjung Sari, just around the corner from the main beach. I've always had nice dives at this site, even when the viz is low. As expected, the viz was indeed on the low side that day. However, the things that we saw there more than made up for the silty water. A blue ribbon eel (well, he's black because he hasn't matured yet), a cute pair of white and brown leaf scorpionfish, and the highlight of the day: an Indian walkman (Inimicus filamentosus). Another nice diving day!!

After the third dive, we packed up and left Padangbai. We were to stay in Sanur that night, but first we had to make a stop at the Kepiting Super (Super Crab) restaurant before going to bed. We had a yummy dinner and went back to the hotel for an early night. It was not a very tame night as planned, though, because one of the boys decided to skinny-dip before going to bed, completely oblivious to Lala who was also swimming (albeit in her bikini). Not wanting to see how that nude swimming ended, I went to bed early to prepare for my Nusa Penida dives the next day.

Final Day
Day four started off a little scary. Since dawn, the rain had been pouring down as if floodgates were opened. Those who have not seen or heard tropical rainstorm, it was one of those that would make you think "do I need to be rescued when it stops?" Thankfully, the rain slowed to a trickle, and finally stopped at 7am. The sky was still a little grey, but the clouds cleared so we were elated.

We made our way to Sanur Bay, where David Leksono (of Bali Scuba) were already waiting with our gear onboard My Darling, our boat for the day. Fandy (also from Bali Scuba) and Vincent were also there to meet the rest of us. Today we had a special guest, my newly-certified-diver and flatmate, Tio. He had just finished his Open Water course the day before, and was keen to dive more.

The ride to Nusa Penida that day was rough. Strong wind was blowing from the East, causing big waves and a bumpy boat ride. When we got to our first planned divesite, Manta Point, the wind was picking up, causing the waves to roll even higher. Worried that the condition may get even worse, David abandoned the plan and asked the captain to go round the island where the wind will be blocked.

True enough, the sea was flat and the wind non-existent on the other side. We quickly geared up for our first dive at Tugu, a site marked by a temple called (what else) Tugu. David warned against unpredictable currents, ubiquitous in Nusa Penida. Despite the warning, we descended into calm, still water. Visibility was a decent 15m, which is considered rather bad for Nusa Penida - but the corals were the main attraction. Lush and colourful, the abundance of soft and hard corals were simply glorious. There were also several cute critters: Eric spotted a Chromodoris elizabethina, and a pair of Risbecia tryoni.

After 30 minutes of calm, easy dive, suddenly the current picked up. It was a garden-variety current, a minor 1 to 1.5 knot, but it worried me because we had some inexperienced divers in our group, and some who are, but have never been to Nusa Penida. I wasn't too worried about the inexperienced ones, because Fandy was there to look after them. The onew who have not been to Nusa Penida, however... well, let me just say, you don't know what "current" is until you dive Nusa Penida. When the current hit, the group scattered. Some tried to stop by holding on to rocks while the rest drifted. At one point, Vincent, David and I had to stop to wait for the rest of the group to catch up. Apparently they thought that they have to hold on to something when there's a current, any current. Perhaps I should have mentioned that one only holds on when the current is going upwards or downwards... in a horizontal current, one just drift and try to stay with the group. It was an exhilarating ride for the first-timers, though. Everyone surfaced with grins on their faces.

For the second dive, we checked out a few possible sites for current. First we checked out Ped, but the currents looked forbidding. Then we moved to Toyapakeh, but again the conditions were rather unfriendly. Ripples on the surface indicated that the currents rage just beneath the surface. In some places, there was even a vortex on the surface, indicating a powerful downcurrent. Finally, the dive guide decided to take us to Mangrove, a site off Nusa Lembongan. It was a nice, shallow site, located within a protected bay. The visibility looked great from the surface, and it was indeed great underwater. However, I got a rude shock when I jumped into the water - it was like a sudden cold shower. It was 24C on the surface, but when went deeper the temperature dropped to a steady 22C throughout the dive. I could see Peiyi visibly turning bluer by the minute, and poor Tio shivering in his shorty wetsuit. Oh, did I mention Eric Lee was in a sleeveless vest and board shorts, and I was in a lycra rashguard and board shorts? But frankly, after the first 10 minutes, I couldn't feel the cold anymore. It's just all over numbness ;)

Mangrove was a great site. The corals were abundant and very healthy, forming an unbroken carpet all over the slope-y landscape. No coral rubble was present - everywhere I looked, I saw a profusion of soft and hard corals. The visibility was excellent, at least 30m (one of the advantages of the cold water). Lala took many wide-angle shots, with yours truly as the model :)

After Mangrove, we went back to Toyapakeh to see if diving was possible. We had lunch onboard, had a brief snooze after, but the currents in Toyapakeh stayed iffy. To avoid tricky underwater situations, our guide decided to take us to Ped instead. Repelled by the slightly murky surface, I decided to stay onboard while everyone goes diving. I spent some quality time taking pictures of people snoozing, as well as to pack up my gear so they're out of the way when the divers surface. The captain and his crew were discussing how they would get us back to Bali island, and pointed out the huge waves pounding our route home. Looks like a rough ride! The captain pondered, and decided that we should head towards Padangbai first, then head West parallel to the beach so we can avoid the massive waves raging all over the direct route home.

My instinct was spot on - the dive was average, and the visibility not so great. I didn't miss much. Our journey back was going to be rough, so I prepared myself and sat all the way back so I could get some fresh air. But nature was really not with me that day. The minute I sat down, it started to rain buckets. Bloody hell! I shifted back under the shelter, and sat on the floor for the next 90 minutes. The journey that usually takes 45 minutes was doubled by the route we had to take - skirting around the big waves instead of trying to fight them.

We reached dry land with just enough time to wash our gear, shower, and head out to dinner. Dinner was at Ming's Resto, a delightful French-Balinese restaurant in Sanur, where we were expecting more Submariners and some hangers-on to join us. Dinner was delightful as always, assisted of course by many bottles of liquid ecstasy otherwise known as alcohol. Before people got too trashed, the party was moved back to our hotel, which thankfully was within walking distance from the restaurant. At the hotel, pandemonium ensued, as traditionally expected of a Kapal Selam trip's last day. Booze-induced happiness and general insanity made for a memorable night indeed. The party ended with a group swim, some fully dressed, and some in embarrassingly un-sexy underwear. What a trip!