A different look at Bali

This year I have spent a good 3 months doing research in the waters around Bali. I worked and lived in Bali 6 years ago and it has been great to be back, even if a lot has changed since I left.

Depending on who you’d ask, Bali brings very different images to mind. For many Europeans it’s a far away tropical dream destination. For Australians it’s a surf or party destination and for many other people it is the ideal island to do yoga and revitalise (whatever that might mean). Travel agents and tour companies love to cash in on this image of an unspoiled paradise with the loveliest people you can find.


Sunrise in Amed (north-east Bali)

Lately Bali has also being getting an increasingly negative connotation. To some people it is just a place where Australians or backpackers go to get drunk and make absolute fools of themselves. It’s a place where tourism is tipping the scales from a paradise island to a congested, resort filled, money driven place for people who don’t care about the local culture. In this version of Bali, there is no more romantic notion of an idyllic paradise, quite the opposite.

As always, there is some truth to both sides of the story. Tourism has increased massively, it’s estimated that nearly 4 million people will visit Bali in 2015 (compared to just over 2 million in 2009). Traffic has increased, new roads have been built, countless new resort sprung up and big buses now drive around hordes of tourists to uninspired commercialised tours. It used to be normal cars or motorbikes taking out a fraction of the people to admire Bali’s unique culture. I am not claiming there was no tourism here 6 years ago, but the intensity with which it has increased is staggering.

I must admit that I struggle with this increase in tourism, I loved living here years ago, loved the people, the diving, the culture, the food, the diving,… Some of that has changed or is gone, which is unfortunate. It is especially difficult as I do believe tourism can be a sustainable alternative to more exploitative use of the environment. The question is how to find the right balance. It is easy for us as visitors to regret the loss of small island charm and the increase of pollution that comes with mass tourism. But who could deny the right of local communities to hop on the tourism bandwagon and make a better living for themselves and their families?


Rice fields in the centre of Bali

What I can say, is that there is still a lot of beauty out there. Head away from the busy south and explore the interior or head to the less explored northern coast. The northeast is stunningly beautiful, even if there might be more tourists around than there used to be. I still feel extremely lucky for being able to do research here and very frequently still just stop for a while to take in the beauty of it all, whether it’s on land or under water.


Getting ready to explore a new site

While dive tourism in Bali has also increased a lot, there are still many untouched places left to explore. Sure, it’s great to dive with manta rays or marvel at Mola molas, and the USAT Liberty still is a great wreck dive, but there is so much more. I might be biased as my research looks at small critters in the sand, but I just can’t contain my excitement when I survey a new site and find it has lots amazing critters like seahorses, ghostpipefish and a range of cephalopods. Next time you dive Bali, try to find a way to explore those sites that are dived less and enjoy the feeling of being away from the crowds and the excitement of finding new critters. Oh, and be kind enough to let me know if you find an amazing new muck site!




Explosions of colour in the centre of marine biodiversity


Sea Safari 6

I recently returned from another liveaboard trip, this time in Raja Ampat. I’m writing this blog in Sorong, after just having disembarked from the Sea Safari 6. We spent 10 days diving both the south and north of Raja and it was pretty spectacular. I was lucky enough that Safari Bali saved me a free spot on the boat again, allowing me to do research. The only thing I had to do in return, was talk about fish, since I do that all the time anyway, I consider this to be a pretty sweet deal.

The Raja Ampat region is found in the east of Indonesia, in the province of West Papua. The name “Raja Ampat” means “Four Kings” and comes from a local legend. The legend tells of 6 eggs that were found and from which 4 kings, a woman and a ghost hatched. In marine biology circles, the area is known as the global centre of marine biodiversity. It lies in the very centre of the Coral Triangle and is home to nearly 600 coral species and 1600 fish species. For comparison, the entire Caribbean has less than 70 species of coral.


Raja Ampat: Painemu Lagoon


Unknown to most people, the Birds of paradise found here and in the Halmahera region further west also played an important role in publishing the theory of evolution. Between 1854 and 1862 Alfred Russel Wallace traveled and conducted research in Borneo, Sulawesi, Halmahera. He was collecting specimens of all kinds of animals, amongst others the birds of paradise found in the region. His observations of these birds helped him develop his own theory of evolution, parallel to Darwin. Darwin had been working on his manuscript for many years, but was hesitant to publish any of it. A letter from Wallace to Darwin, in which Wallace explained his ideas, sparked Darwin to finally publish his magnum opus. Darwin presented the article “On the Tendency of Species to Form Varieties; and on the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection” in 1858 at the Linnean Society as a joint work from himself and Wallace. Once Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” was published, Darwin ended up getting all the credit for the theory, but if not for Wallace and his birds of paradise, things could have turned out very different indeed.

While the birds of paradise are pretty amazing (we did go on land for a few hours to try and spot a few), the reason for this trip was to observe the diversity under water. This was the second time I dived Raja Ampat, and I can tell you it is fantastic. I’ve never dived anywhere else where the colours are so…everywhere, just everywhere. The quantity of soft coral, gorgonian seafans, corals, sponges, ascidians, etc is just staggering. You’ll find shades of every colour everywhere, some sites are so overwhelming that you’d almost forget to look for small critters and instead just float around to try and take it all in. Especially when there is a lot of sunlight and strong currents ensure all soft corals look like pink, orange, yellow, purple or white balls of fluff spread out over the reef. One such dive prompted the comment “This must be the campest divesite ever!”, and I couldn’t agree more. Many of the divesites around Raja Ampat look like the marine equivalent of letting a 6 year old kid decorate the Christmas tree…

soft coral

Explosions of colour (source)

Of course the diversity extends beyond corals, the fish life is just as great. It might be harder to find critters than Komdo or Lembeh, but there is a lot to make up for that. One of my favourites are the wobbegongs you find everywhere, especially at the northern divesites. But it’s also great to see all the schooling fish, and a very healthy amount of predators. We’ve seen a fair few sharks, tunas, Spanish mackerels, and other pelagic predators you don’t see very often in Indonesia. It’s also great to see lots of large groupers, since they are a very popular food-species, having a lot around means that protection is working and fishing pressure is not too high.

Fish soup

Fish soup in Pulau Daram

This protection can be credited to the efforts of many local and international NGOs working in the region. Their work helped motivate local and national governments to establish Indonesia’s first MPA (Marine Protected Area) network. Raja’s 15 MPAs protect nearly 6 million hectares of marine habitats. The area is also a shark sanctuary where capture and killing of sharks, rays, dugongs and turtles is prohibited. To me, knowing that this beautiful area is being protected in the best possible way makes diving it an even more rewarding experience.