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  • This must be soft coral heaven, I thought, as I drifted down a wall covered with iridescent animals. Their colors shimmered in the bright sun, and the spaces around them were filled with brightly painted crinoids and a host of other reef-dwelling invertebrates. Hovering in the warm, clear water, and dazzled by the profusion of life, I almost forgot about the gut-wrenching van ride that had brought me here.

    There were vase sponges... sea whips, hard corals, enormous anemones... forests of tunicates—it was almost overwhelming.
    I was diving at Pulau Menjangan (Deer Island), a tiny island in the Bali Barat National Park, on the northern coast of Bali, Indonesia. The trip had started in Kalibukbuk, one of the many villages that make up the Lovina coast, on the northern side of Bali. Lovina is a relatively quiet and peaceful area, far from the crowded markets and aggressive vendors of Kuta Beach in the south, but even Lovina has traffic, motor scooters and colorful salesmen selling trinkets and carvings. The street vendors are part of what gives Bali its charm, but I was ready for some down time in the water, where I knew the fish wouldn’t be trying to sell me hand-carved chess sets.

    So I had hooked up with Spice Dive in Lovina. The staff’s attention to safety and ecological sensitivity was impressive. Oxygen is carried on every dive, close attention is paid to the dive profile, and a safety stop is mandatory. Spice Dive divemasters also maintain a strict “hands-off-the-reef, look-don’t-touch” policy and fish feeding is discouraged.

    In the beginning, though, I wasn’t sure I’d make it.

    Every available space of Deer Island’s underwater wonderland is filled with giant seafans, vibrant soft corals and gorgonians of nearly every shape and size.
    It was early when our group left the Spice Dive shop for the 30-mile drive to Bali Barat. Our driver was Tole, a cheerful young Balinese with a penchant for clove cigarettes. Like all drivers in Bali, he was utterly unfazed by the crowded, chaotic road. Driving far faster than even the most jaded Los Angelino would consider prudent, Tole passed at high speed literally within centimeters of pedestrians, cyclists and oncoming traffic. If you survive the drive, I thought, you’ll survive the dive. At the end of an hour we arrived, slightly shaken but unscratched, at Bali Barat. After a quick refreshment stop while gear was loaded on the boat, we were on our way to Pulau Menjangan.

    The lushly forested island sits about seven miles off the coast. It’s uninhabited, and access is tightly controlled by the Balinese government in an attempt to keep the place unspoiled. We wasted no time in testing that commitment. After a short briefing by Agus, our divemaster, we were in the 85°(F) water.

    The reef sloped gently out from the beach to a depth of about six feet. Then it dropped vertically into the depths.

    I’ve dived on walls before, but this was the most dramatic drop-off I had ever seen—not just because it started in such shallow water and was so absolutely vertical, but also because of the many creatures that made the wall home.

    The complex shapes of underwater Bali are reflected in its temples and architecture throughout the island.
    From the top of the reef to our working depth of 60 feet and beyond, the wall was a mad profusion of life. Fluorescent red, purple, pink and yellow soft corals were everywhere. Multi-hued crinoids seemed to fill every available space, more of them in one square meter than I had seen before on entire reefs. Giant seafans six feet across jutted out into the current that swept us gently along. There were vase sponges almost five feet high, sea whips, hard corals, enormous anemones filled with elusive clownfish, forests of tunicates—it was almost overwhelming.

    I remember one particular spot seemed to epitomize the reef. A brilliant orange seafan jutted out into the water. Perched atop it were so many crinoids—red, black, green, calico—I almost couldn’t see the fan. Surrounding the fan were bright red, purple and pink soft corals, like vibrant bushes around a glowing tree.

    Then there were the fish. The water was thick with them, in every shape, size and color: butterflyfish, angelfish, wrasses—big and small, parrotfish, triggerfish, damselfish, and the list goes on. At times I was unable to see the reef through the clouds of fish. A few feet away from the wall, large, deep-water pelagics hovered in the blue. Below us, a reef shark glided by.

    Topside on Deer Island.
    A closer look at the wall revealed a macro photographer’s dream. Tiny, colorful creatures seemed to cover every square centimeter. There were tunicates and sponges no larger than my fingertip, shrimps, tiny corals, polychaete worms and a lot of creatures I couldn’t even identify. My biggest problem was running out of film too early in the dive.

    The dive itself was over far too soon. We surfaced to find the boat waiting to take us back to the beach for a lunch of Balinese specialties. After lunch I went snorkeling over the edge of the wall. It was without a doubt the best reef snorkeling I have ever seen. I never tired of swimming over the edge and watching bright, sun-drenched sand and coral, almost within arm’s reach, drop suddenly away into a blue abyss. The epitome of the wall experience.

    I spent the next hour cruising down to 30 feet, exploring the endless nooks and crannies filled with exotic creatures. The only thing that could have pulled me away from this, and finally did, was Agus standing on the beach and waving his arms to indicate that it was time for our second dive. This time we’d be looking for Whale Sharks.

    The second spot was just as spectacular as the first, except the reef sloped more gently into the depths. We drifted along in a gentler current, our eyes torn between soaking up the beauty of the reef and squinting into the blue depths searching for large, dark shadows. Visibility was only 60 feet today, so any passing Whale Sharks would have had to be close. Unfortunately, none were. Memorable on this dive, though, were the two territorial triggerfish that tried to take chunks out of our skin during the safety stop.

    Multi-hued crinoids unfold from just about any perch available.
    In fact, that’s one thing that can be said about all the fish at Pulau Menjangan: They show no fear of divers and frequently come within touching distance. Even the large lobster I encountered poking out of a hole seemed fearless.

    Agus just shrugged when I asked him about it later. Maybe some of the other dive operations were feeding the fish, he said, or maybe the fish somehow know they live in a protected area. I tend to believe it is the latter, perhaps because of my eternal optimism (and because I would swear that the Garibaldi in Southern California know they are protected), because I don’t see how a dive operation could feed and train all the fish on an entire reef. Besides, the current usually sweeps divers along too fast to set up a fish feeding operation.

    Too soon it was all over. Flyingfish flitted across the glassy water in front of our boat as Pulau Menjangan receded behind us and the cloud-bedecked mountains of Bali grew larger. Even Mr. Tole’s wild ride back to the Spice Dive shop couldn’t rattle the sense of calm I felt after an incredible day of diving.

    Time Travel in Sangalaki | Images of Lembeh Straits | Siamese Seas
    Bali's Deer Island | Diving Across Malaysia | Southeast Asia: Getting There | Index