The Mola-Mola, the giant ocean sunfish in Bahasa Indonesia, is like the ambassador of scuba diving in Bali. Meeting the heaviest bony fish in the world (it can weight up to 1000 kg) is like searching for the Holy Grail for most scuba divers coming from all over the world. It is only on my second trip to Bali that I finally had the chance to meet a mola-mola while diving in Nusa Lembongan. In English, the mola-mola is a sunfish but in many other Latin languages such as French it is a “moonfish”. Whatever its name, its unique flat round body whose diameter could be up to 3m and its two long vertical caudal fins give it a recognisable look. However, mola-mola are shy. Meeting them at their cleaning station, where they come from the depths of the ocean to get their skin cleaned by small fish, is the only way to get close interaction. You need to be lucky to see them.
Nusa Lembongan: escaping to paradise
Bali is an archipelago composed of its mainland and 3 islands near its south-east coast:
- Nusa Penida: the largest island is mainly wild and protected from mass tourism with high cliffs where waves crash powerfully.
- Nusa Ceningan: the smallest one is facing Nusa Penida on its north face. It is a famous place for cliff diving.
- Nusa Lembongan: this island is north of Nusa Ceningan. This is where all the guesthouses and scuba diving centres are. The island has a beautiful long golden sandy beach (Jungut Batu) and an amazing mangrove. It is also linked to Nusa Ceningan by a suspended bridge, as the 2 islands are very close to each other.
The charm of Nusa Lembongan resides in the fact that it is Bali and it is not Bali at the same time. Geographically, it is a separate island but administratively it is part of Bali. It is Bali because culturally Nusa Lembongan shares the same Hindu culture, hence everywhere houses and temples share the same style with their delicate carvings, flower gardens and sacred monster statues. However, it is not Bali because here the rhythm is different. The size of the island does not allow any traffic or big supermarket.
Where I was staying, on the beach of Jungut Batu, the coral barrier reef protects the shore creating a beautiful turquoise lagoon where small fishermen boats cross surfers and paddlers. From there, the view of Bali’s Volcanoes at sunset is just stunning as you are perfectly orientated to the west. Despite its size, the island offers many interesting parts to explore. In the mangrove at the north, you can see coral between the roots of the tree. In the south, the seaweed farms harvest one the most common cosmetics’ ingredient and the suspended bridge leads to Nusa Ceningan and its jumping point.
Mola-Mola or not Mola-Mola in Bali?
Only a 20-minute boat ride away from Nusa Lembongan, in the Ceningan Channel between Nusa Ceningan and Nusa Penida, lies the famous dive site of Crystal Bay. I can tell you that its name is not overrated. Maybe, because it was my first dive after all my Scottish underwater adventures, but I could not avoid thinking: “Wow! What visibility!” It was only 30 m; according to what I heard, the visibility here can be up to 40m. I knew the currents in Nusa Penida were at 23 chilly degrees compared to the 28-30°C you’ll find in other dive sites of Bali. Sorry, I cannot say cold. 23°C is nice, from 10°C, this is cold! Nevertheless, a 5mm full wetsuit is a suitable choice to dive here.
The dive starts on the sandy slopes of the lagoon; you swim in the directions of a couple of pinnacles where all butterflyfish, longfin bannerfish and angelfish play around. From there, you can find the wall that is going down to 40/60m. The observation depth of the mola-mola is between 18m and 30m, so unfortunately to get a chance to see them, you will need first to be an advanced diver.
Remember sunfish are shy animals. For the video I shot of the mola-mola, it was initially only our buddy team of 3 who saw it, so I thought I was shooting the video on my own. After a look at my dive computer, I stopped because of dive time/depth/air consumption reasons, and because the mola-mola was running away in the blue. I turned back and then I understood: I saw a “wall” of scuba divers behind me. Even me, I was scared, so imagine that poor sunfish! To avoid the crowd, the best is to go with the boat leaving the first in the morning or with the last one!
Even if I feel very lucky for this single encounter with a mola-mola, I cannot wait to go back to Crystal Bay to increase the odds of meeting these gentle giants again. They are so beautiful and enigmatic! No wonder my dives in Crystal Bay made it to my list of the best diving in Asia-Pacific.
Manta point: the manta ray highway experience
All scuba diving day trips start in the morning to end at the beginning of the afternoon. 80% of the dive trips will offer a dive in Crystal Bay and Manta Point. Manta Point is the cleaning station for manta rays with almost guaranteed sights. Be careful, there are 2 dive sites: Manta Bay and Manta Point. Both are offshore of Nusa Penida but Manta Point is much further away than Manta Bay. The big action with Manta rays happens in Manta Point, not Manta Bay because it is also more exposed to the currents. So be sure to insist you want to go to Manta Point if the conditions allow it.
I’ve been incredibly lucky the first day I dived Manta Point. You are almost sure to see a couple of manta rays there, but that day, we found ourselves in the middle of a school of manta rays. That day the visibility at the dive site was lower than usual but this is what you want. It means more plankton, and more plankton means more manta rays coming for a snack! Was it 20 or 80 manta rays surrounding us? It is hard to tell. They were swimming in circles around us. All the divers in our group gave up counting as there were so many of them swimming so fast in all directions.
I will never get bored diving with manta rays. Their enormous size, their elegant shape and the gracious way they swim is just mesmerising. Most were dark grey and white and some totally black. I used to say how much I loved my experience at the Manta Point dive site of Komodo, but what happened that day in Nusa Penida, is putting this dive very high in my top dive ranking. According to my dive guide, he only experiences this once every couple of months.
When is the best period to see mola-molas in Crystal Bay?
Everything I read before indicated that the season of the mola-molas was from July to September. Nevertheless, by watching carefully the Facebook groups of underwater photographers asking when the picture was taken, it seems more and more the season is delayed until August – October. Most people hardly see any mola-mola in July anymore and now there are regular sightings in October. Mola-Molas need cold water so I bet climate change might be one the reasons. Generally speaking, even in the season, the peak being the month of September, you will need luck to see a mola-mola. Some unfortunate divers dived there many times without seeing one but when you see one, it is a blessing from the Ocean so I guess I was really lucky to see one mid-October.
Diving in Crystal Bay & Manta Point: the current issue
Sorry to say but if you a beginner diver with only 10 dives, I would like to suggest you take some experience before diving Crystal Bay and Manta Point. The currents around Nusa Penida can be really strong so you need to know how to fin kick efficiently and to deal with all sorts of currents: backwash currents, front currents, downward currents taking you to dangerous depths or upward current taking to the surface. Please, be aware of this and don’t try to overestimate your experience. I can tell that my UK scuba diving experience has been excellent training for my current management skills. I am grateful for all the scuba divers here who gave me their best tips.
Remember: a dive always starts into the current. First of all, listen carefully to the dive briefing and stick to your Divemaster and your dive buddies. While kicking against the current you are going to consume much more air, so be very careful and often check your air gauge. If the current becomes too strong, there is no point of fighting. You can grab a piece of rock if you can (but it is not an excuse to damage coral, be careful at what you touch), or try to hide behind a rock being close to the wall. If at any point, the divemaster calls the dive, game over, everyone has to go back on the boat. Don’t get pissed, it is for your safety!
The currents in Manta Point can be that bad, that sometimes the boat skipper will not even try to get there. This is what happened to me during my first trip to Bali, 4 years ago. Once again, don’t get pissed, but try always to have some buffer days in your diving holiday organisation to deal with bad weather.
If you want to live the same adventure, I recommend you to contact Dive Concepts. Beyond offering the cheapest deal on Nusa Lembongan, they offer the most friendly and professional experience. Their Indonesian divemasters rock and take their spotting duty seriously to make sure you’ll see the best of every dive site.
Jungut Batu Beach, Nusa Lembongan
Phone: +62 813 3923 4161
How to go to Nusa Lembongan to see the Mola-Mola?
4 years ago, Nusa Lembongan was not part of my trip, first because there were not many dive centres and it was more complicated to go there. So I dived near Nusa Penida from Sanur, but it wasn’t ideal. Now many speed boat companies offer a 25 min ride to the island from Sanur Beach. If you are looking for the cheapest solution, the public ferry will take you there in 1 hour and a half.
After a first relaxing week in Ubud, in the middle of the rice fields and the temples, nothing easier for me to just go to Sanur with my rental car in only 45 minutes. The price for the return trip (with open return) is about 450,000 IDR, but if you have good negotiation skills, you can try to get it 100,000 IDR cheaper. There is a big parking lot on Jalan Inna Grand Bali Beach, just behind the Le Meyeur Museum. I could let my rental car there safely for the 3 days of my stay in Nusa Lembongan. At the beginning of the street, there is a check-in point. They ask you to pay for the parking per day, but they do not give you any ticket so nobody can know how long you stay. For 3 days I gave 30,000 IDR, it is not the end of the word. When I came back, it was so practical to get the car to continue directly my adventure to Tulamben.
Where to stay in Nusa Lembongan?
In Lembongan, I stayed at Pondok Baruna as it was a friend’s favourite. I directly understood why. Large rooms with an extremely comfortable bed in a small one-floor building with only 6 rooms next to a swimming pool. 1 min walking on the right I had my dive centre, 2 min on the left I could go to the long beach of Jungut Batu.
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