A large and still undiscovered island 30 minutes from Bali, Indonesia, Nusa Penida had been on our scuba diving bucket list ever since we were in Lembongan 18 months before.
Although there are many things to do on Nusa Penida, it’s a destination where divers have a chance of seeing two of the oceans giants; the weird fish Mola Mola and majestic Manta Ray. To see both has the potential for an amazing adventure.
But what is so fascinating about the elusive Mola Mola? Related to the pufferfish and triggerfish, the moonfish or headfish is the largest bony fish in the world. Its unusual shape makes it look like a floating head with wings.
However, Mola Mola and Manta Ray sightings are never guaranteed, nothing in nature is. Would we be successful in our quest of seeing the strangest looking fish in the ocean AND the most graceful?
Nusa Penida is one of three islands between Bali and Lombok in Indonesia, Nusa Lembongan and Nusa Ceningan make up the trio. At 200sq km, Nusa Penida is significantly larger than its neighbours however tourists have only just started to appreciate its unspoilt, rugged natural beauty.
From the south of Bali, the 20km journey takes 30-45 minutes by fast boat. Due to its close proximity to Bali, Nusa Penida is predominantly Hindu but Muslims also live here
As long as you manage your expectations when scuba diving Nusa Penida, you shouldn’t be disappointed. Nusa Penida has deep-water trenches and nutrient-rich waters which attract many beautiful marine creatures, making it a year round diving destination. As most people dive here for Mola Mola and Manta Ray, dive sites during “high season” can be quite busy, so consider choosing another time of year for seeing the other cool stuff.
Mola Mola Season: Although Manta Rays (reclassified as Mobula Rays in 2017), can be seen all year round, Mola Mola season is July – November. However, as with all things in nature, marine life will do what it wants not adhering to “seasons” or “best times”.
I know people who have seen Mola Mola in December and April, but were unlucky during August. This is not the fault of any dive centre, marine life will do as it pleases, whether or not the conditions are perfect for them or not.
Cold water: If you want to see Mola Mola, they like to hang out in cooler temperatures, so if you see or feel a thermocline, fingers crossed Mola Mola are nearby. For the best chance of seeing Mola Mola, expect anything between 20 -25°c.
If you are an inexperienced diver, have little to no experience of currents, or are unsure of what to do, take a Drift Adventure or Drift Diving Speciality course prior to your trip, or just to brush up on your knowledge.
Swells: Around Manta Bay and Crystal Bay there can be high sea swells. If the swell is more than two metres, most reputable and safety conscious dive centres will not travel here. This isn't for your inconvenience, its just too dangerous in a small dive boat.
Safety is of paramount importance when diving in currents, so always ensure you dive currents with a reputable dive centre such as Scuba Junkie who we dived with. A good dive centre will tell you what to do in a current, and will not take you if a) they don’t think the conditions are safe and b) you would not be able to handle the currents. Our Dive Master briefed us on what to do before the dive, he also had a reef hook should it be needed.
The good news is that Mola Mola can be seen at many of Nusa Penida’s 20+ dives sites around the island. Gamat Bay, Ceningan Wall, Manta Bay and Manta Point are all along the same channel as Crystal Bay. They can also be seen all along the north coast at Toyapakeh, PED, Sental. We saw the shadow of a Mola Mola at Buyuk, but it swam away when a nearby dive group started tapping with their tank banger.
Enough of the introduction, let me show you what you can see when scuba diving Nusa Penida.
Dive site: Manta Bay
Did we see Mantas at Manta Bay? Oh yes we did! Two days later, a group dived with around 50 mantas at this same dive site.
Did Crystal Bay deliver, and did we see Mola Mola? Sy did, sadly, I felt the water was just too cold for me after the first dive so stayed on the boat. This is my biggest diving regret to-date.
A Mola Mola swam up from the deep, breached the surface flapping its fins like wings, then crashed back into the ocean swimming away. Sy watched this activity, hoping that I saw it as well. Alas, I never. Like I said, my biggest diving regret!
Dive sites across the North: Buyuk, PMG and SD
At Buyak just after we dropped in, we saw the shadow of a Mola Mola and it looked like it was swimming towards us. We swam to get a closer look, but alas another group were nearby using their tank banger and it swam off. After this initial sighting, we hung out in the blue feeling the thermacline, hoping he would return again.
Ceningan Wall and Gamat Bay
Mola Mola facts
- Mola is Latin for “millstone” which is apparently what the fish resembles due to its grey colour, rounded shape and rough texture.
- The largest oceanfish weighed 2.5 tonnes, the equivalent to an SUV.
- Molas can dive to deep depths of 487 metres (1,600 feet).
- They travel great distances, one tagged Mola Mola recorded 1,609 km (1,100 miles) in three months.
- After making deep dives in cold water, the Mola Mola often surfaces and appears to sunbathe in order to regulate its body temperature.
- Mola Mola’s are classified as “vulnerable to extinction”, as its greatest threat is bycatching. An estimated 340,000 were caught in a single year in a South African fishery.
- Females can produce as many as 300 million tiny eggs per clutch.
Nusa Penida Travel and Visa Information
- Language – Balinese is the official language, however English is understood and spoken. Bahasa Indonesian is also generally understood.
- Currency – Indonesian Rupiah, £1 = 18,000 IDR
- Wi-Fi – Available in most places; scuba diving centres, hotels, bars and restaurants
- Climate – Tropical with two seasons; Wet/Monsoon is October to April, Dry is April to October
- ATM’s – There are two ATM's that accept Western cards on Nusa Penida. One is near Toyapakeh Harbour, the other is at Sampalan Harbour.
- Visa - A 30 day visa is given at the time of arrival in Indonesia (not for all countries, check with your embassy).
- Driving - Left side of the road
- Airport – Nusa Penida's nearest airport is in Bali, Ngurah Rai International Airport.
- Religion – Predominantly Hindu, but also Muslim.
Scuba Junkie opened in Nusa Penida July 2018, however we have stayed with them in various locations since October 2014. An award winning dive centre, many of their locations are Green Fins registered, which means they are in the list of “most environmentally friendly dive and snorkel operations in the world” (two of their centres are in the top 10). They are a leader in conservation both above and below the water, their Mabul resort has an amazing turtle hatchery.
Malaysian Borneo: Kota Kinabulu, Semporna, Mabul
Indonesian Borneo: Sangalaki
Indonesia: Komodo and Nusa Penida
Dive equipment: All new and in excellent condition. Full 5mm Bare wetsuits are amazingly comfortable, and not restrictive at all (I don’t like full wetsuits!). Their custom made Scuba Junkie BCD’s all have an SMB (surface marker buoy) in their pocket for your safety, should you become separated from your buddy, or dive master during the dive by a strong current. Regulators breathe freely and smooth, booties and fins in varying sizes to suit everyone.
Dive boat and crew: The dive boat is large, well maintained, has a ladder for exiting, and tank ranks for storing tanks safely (this is important when driving along in sea swells). The crew are very helpful and friendly, tea, coffee and biscuits are provided for surface intervals. Delicious lunch box provided on diving days.
Dive Masters: We judge all dive guides and dive masters by Scuba Junkie standards full stop. Sy did his Dive Master at SJ Mabul, and they are highly regarded for their training within the dive industry. Safety standards are adhered to at all times, and a strict “no touching, no chasing” policy is applied by all dive centres. The Dive Masters at Scuba Junkie Nusa Penida met all these standards, but then again, I wouldn’t expect anything less.
Accommodation: Their dormitory and private rooms were still being painted when we visited, so unfortunately we were unable to stay with them. Their accommodation is now fully operational, so future guests will be able to book a dive/accommodation package, just as you can with all of Scuba Junkie dive resorts.
Bali, Sanur port: Many fast boats run several times daily from the port of Sanur in south Bali, arriving into Toyapakah in Penida, on the north coast. Do note that there is no jetty at Sanur and you will need to wade into the water to board the boat. Make sure you wear flip flops which can be removed easily, and either a pair of shorts or walking trousers that you don't mind getting wet. There is a set of steps near the check in desks so look out for them, otherwise you will have to climb over rocky boulders to reach the beach and your boat (whichever company you choose).
We used Angel Billabong via the website www.penidago.com, cost was 150,000 IDR per person each way.
Bali, Padang Bai port: Fast boats also run from here, but also the slow ferries which stop in Sampalan in Penida, also on the north coast.
From Lembongan: Grab a local boat from “the yellow bridge” for 60,000 IDR per person.
From Gili Islands: There are no direct boats from the Gilis, however you can get the Eka Jaya fast boat from Gili Air or Gili Trawangan to Padang Bai, then onto Nusa Penida.
Unfortunately Scuba Junkie’s accommodation wasn’t quite ready when we visited (it is now fully operational), so we stayed at the excellent Arsa Santhi a minute’s walk away. The rooms were spacious, the bed very comfortable, great shower with hot water and good power, all staff were exceptional and friendly, breakfast was tasty and plentiful.
Nusa Penida is a developing island, so infrastructure is still in its infancy. Inland roads are very bad and here is no public transport, no Grab, Uber, Go Jek or taxis of any kind, so most people travel around on a scooter.
In the past year, the Government has invested in building a new road all around the coast, however driving inland to the tourist spots can be described as treacherous. Steep hills up and down, you will encounter broken concrete roads with holes and gravel. It is sometimes a strain on the forearms holding the scooter slow and steady downhill, and if you are not confident on a scooter, you may find it extremely challenging.
If you do hire a scooter, ALWAYS WEAR A HELMET. Locals do not wear them, and you may see many tourists without them posting photos on Instagram “no helmet, sorry Mum”. Accidents are frequent due to the hazardous road conditions, and people scootering too fast.
Don’t be one of the accident statistics. It’s better to arrive at your destination with helmet hair, than not arrive at all.
If you break your collar bone or any other part of your body, not only will you not be able to go scuba diving, but you will need to get a fast boat back to the mainland to go to hospital, and that is the end of your Nusa Penida holiday.
Cost: 75,000 – 100,000 IDR per day depending on your haggling skills
Have you been scuba diving in Nusa Penida? What did you see? Tell us in the comment section below!
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