Sure, the temples, volcanoes and rice paddies of Bali, Indonesia are gorgeous, but some of its most unique and spectacular sights are actually underwater.
Just off Bali is the island of Nusa Penida. It’s one of the only places on earth where gigantic, majestic manta rays regularly come in to a very special little bay to get cleaned by fish, and you can snorkel or dive among them and have the experience of a lifetime. It’s also one of small handful of places where you can dive with SUV-sized mola mola (aka sunfish) – the heaviest (and weirdest) bony fish on earth. The mola mola looks like a little kid’s drawing of an Easter Island head statue crossed with a seriously mutant fish from outer space.
So get that swimsuit on and let’s dive in.
Manta Rays and Mola Molas at Nusa Penida
A 30-minute speedboat ride from Bali will take you to the sparsely inhabited island of Nusa Penida, which is surrounded by nutrient-rich waters, deep-water trenches and crazy thermoclines that attract a wide variety of large pelagics, including manta rays, mola molas, tunas and sharks. These conditions also create some pretty vibrant coral reefs. But once I learned that we could swim with gigantic, graceful manta rays and freaky sunfish, I started jumping up and down and had approximately zero interest in looking at sea fans. Let’s face it: this place is all about swimming with the big stuff.
The best place to swim with mantas is at Manta Point, which is a cleaning station where little fishies give the mantas a true Asian fish-spa experience. These gentle, graceful, endangered creatures have massive wingspans up to 5 meters/15 feet, and they visit Manta Point throughout the year. Most stay pretty shallow, so many people can see them while snorkeling there. But if you’d like to see them fly by you, under you, over you and at you – which is an insanely cool experience – schedule a dive.
The dive is quite easy and not deep, so it’s suitable for beginners. And seriously – they swam RIGHT BY US within an few centimeters of our stunned, awe-struck faces. We saw probably 15 -20 of them, which was an unforgettable experience.
Best time for spotting the rare mola mola is August through October when the water is the coldest. We dove in June and got really lucky – we saw two! They live in the depths of the ocean and only come up occasionally to get detailed by fish, so you never know when or where you’re going to see one. There are a few sites where they’ve been seen most frequently, the most popular being Crystal Bay. Note that you’ve often got to dive pretty deep to see them – we were at 34 meters when two big boys mysteriously appeared out of the deep blue depths.
Can we talk for a minute about how weird these things are? Tell me it doesn’t look like something that your (possibly sociopathic) little cousin drew. Can’t you just hear that little weirdo saying: “My fish is just a big swimming head. I’m gonna put a big, strange fin on top, and another on the bottom, and he can never close his mouth, and I’m going to make him flat like a billboard…” I mean, you’d keep your pets away from a kid that drew a fish like this, right?
These crazy-ass fish have tiny mouths, which they can’t close, and they have the strangest way of eating. Inside their mouths are big teeth that curve inward. They suck in jellyfish, then spit them out so they get shredded by their teeth. They suck jellies in and out until their dinner is tenderized to their liking. You couldn’t invent a weirder fish if you tried. And I love them!
How to dive these sites and where to stay
Diving these sites is cheapest if you stay on one of the three islands near the dive sites: Nusa Lembongon, Nusa Ceningan or Nusa Penida. You’ll also get to the sites earlier than those coming from Bali. We stayed on Nusa Lembongon, which has the most lodging and restaurant options of the three islands, and dove with Tamarind Divers, which is a fantastic dive outfit. We stayed in a cute private hut at the Hai Tide Beach Resort, pictured here:
Tamarind Divers got us to the sites before anyone else was there, so we got the mantas all to ourselves for a good 20 minutes before we saw other bubbles in the water. It was quite magnificent to be alone with the mantas!
There are some beautiful beaches, sea caves and sights to see on these three pretty islands and there’s a range of accommodations and dive shops on each. We were glad we stayed out there rather than in Bali. These three islands are pretty chilled out and not hustling and bustling like Bali.
Some great dive outfits include:
This Nusa Penida dive outfit has all new gear, experienced dive masters, their own boat, and only take out small groups – we loved them!
These guys are also located on Nusa Penida and our friends really liked diving with them.
If you’re staying on Ceningan, these guys are highly rated.
If you’re staying on Bali, there are lots of dive/snorkel day trips from Sanur. People really seem to like this outfit:
To dive these sites, fly into Bali and then you’ll take a boat out to the islands. There are multiple ferries leaving from Sanur to Nusa Lembongan every day, and the trip only takes about 30 minutes. You can choose a boat that’ll drop you off in the main village, or in the Mushroom Bay, where many people end up staying. You can check the boat schedules and book your boat trips on Lembongan Fast Boats. If you’re staying on Nusa Penida or Nusa Ceningan, you’ll still boat out from Sanur to Nusa Lembongan. Most hotels will arrange to pick you up there and transport you to the hotel.
Happy diving and island hopping!