SO ARE WE GOING TO SECRET BAY tomorrow” I ask at the dive-centre desk.
I must have spoken too loudly. “Sssh!” hisses Kurt, the senior instructor, approaching sternly with finger to lips. “We don’t want everyone to hear. They’ll want to go too!”
The dive crew at the Pondok Sari Beach Bungalow Resort are really not as elitist as this incident may suggest, but it does amuse me that visiting a site called Secret Bay should turn out to be such a clandestine affair.
The fact is, I have turned up in the north-west of Bali at the wrong time.
It’s a half-hour car drive from the dive centre at Pemuteran to Secret Bay, and the staff long ago learnt that the best way to avoid complaints from customers about the visibility being poor, the water too shallow and cold or the currents too aggressive is to dive there only on spring slacks. That way, no-one should be disappointed.
This week, it’s neaps. My trip has been organised by Werner Lau’s head office in Switzerland, and because visiting the unique Balinese muck-diving site had been my priority, I had rather assumed that any time-sensitivity would be taken into account.
Enough said. If you want to dive Secret Bay, email the dive centre and check with the guys on the spot.

TO AVOID MY OWN DISAPPOINTMENT, the very helpful Swiss manager of the dive centre, Dude (sounds cool, but pronounced dooday) drives me, discreetly, to Secret Bay. In the car behind are Stefan Brand and Barbara Ebel, who run the latest Werner Lau resort, Siddhartha, a few hours east.
I would be going on to Siddhartha for the last part of the week, but the couple are interested to see how Secret Bay compares with their own star critter site, Seraya.
Secret Bay lies near Gilimanuk, the ferry port for nearby Java, but it looks tranquil and scenic enough at our entry point, a beach of dark volcanic sand.
Of course, no other diver is in sight.
The bay has nothing to offer coral-fanciers, but it does have enough bommies and assorted debris to provide hiding places for marine life.
Only about 12m at its deepest, it lies off the fast-flowing Bali Strait. Intriguing life-forms are swept into the bay through a narrow channel of cool, nutrient-rich waters, and in the absence of large predators they seem to thrive.
Whatever the state of the tides, I’m happy to be exploring this rest home
for critters. We have been issued with oversuits, but 24° is hardly chilly, and the 3-5m visibility is no problem when small, slow-moving animals are the quarry. The shallow depths mean that time is not an issue, either.
I’m quite easy to please!

ON A METAL FRAME we find two plump frogfish, one orange, one lemon. The yellow one has a white fungal growth over one eye, giving it a piratical look. Below them, a dark flathead crocodilefish rests, doormat-style.
A greenish, angular, horned fish I haven’t seen before hovers nearby.
It’s a bristle-tailed filefish. On the sand, dragonets move anonymously until a stretch of the fins reveals their butterfly-blue tips.
Tiny banggi cardinalfish are everywhere, often sheltering among the long spines of sea urchins on the sand, standing out against their blue-dotted red shells. Cardinalfish are becoming endangered in many parts of the world, as fish-collectors sweep them up.
We move across the dark seabed, noting ranks of razorfish dancing through the water on their noses, the occasional nudibranch and hermit crab, and the always-fascinating magnum sea cucumbers. Buried in the sand, all that can be seen of them is a ring of feathery tentacles, each dipping in turn to feed the ever-hungry mouth.
Another metal frame, on which dull-looking corals and sponges have been planted, swarms with fish of at least a dozen kinds. A blue-spotted sting ray slips from underneath it, and takes off in a puff of sand.
We reach the foot of a lighter sand slope, and follow its contours. Here and there, strands of bright green weed host clinging thorny seahorses, black, tan and orange. And all through the dive a variety of odd scorpionfish trundle about, like the bizarre Indian Ocean walkman, moving awkwardly on its adapted fins, lolling Ambons and ill-favoured but very watchable sea-moths.
It’s an intensely enjoyable 80 minutes, not quite Lembeh Strait but then, I have only had the one shot at Secret Bay.
Barbara Ebel is less impressed. “Our critter site is not such a scrapyard,” she tells me. Me, I don’t mind scrapyards, but I’m keen to go compare.

EVEN IF YOU SHOULD MISS OUT on Secret Bay, the Pondok Sari resort at Pemuteran has plenty to offer divers.
The resort itself, set in Bali Barat National Park, is remote, a long if scenic drive over the mountains from the capital Denpasar in the south-east, where the airport lies and tourism is centred.
The resort is modelled on an idealised Balinese village, with accommodation in vast air-conditioned bungalows with rather rustic garden bathrooms, walkways enclosed by dense vegetation, lots of Hindu statuary, antique wooden furniture and subtle lighting to create a relaxing environment.
There is a spa, the restaurant is good and the service impeccable.
The dive centre is typical of Werner Lau establishments I have visited – that is, hard to fault, with personable, well-informed and safety-conscious staff, and free nitrox on tap.
The diving hub is at Menjangan, an island to the west that takes about half an hour to reach by boat, offering spectacular views of the cloud-wreathed heights of Java on the way.
We all understand the pleasures of a plunging wall – spectacular coralline structures, clouds of fish and the joy of alternating between searching holes, overhangs, corals and sponges for signs of life one minute, and gazing out into the blue the next.
Sites like Napoleon and Gorgonia at Menjangan don’t disappoint, though don’t expect to see too much big wildlife in the blue. Sate yourself on the diversity on the walls, and the fun of hanging out in the vertical plane.
One of Pondok Sari’s best features lies just steps from the dive centre, though I realise this only shortly before leaving.
The Coral Reef Project is a fine example of conservation at work – a collection of some 50 coral-cultivating frameworks conceived on a grand scale.
The Project has expanded over 20 years into a skeletal cityscape of towering cages, pyramids, domes, tunnels and other assorted shapes lying in up to 7m of water, and extending out to the house reef. The hard coral growth, stimulated by mild electric currents, is impressive, the fish life even more so.
I dive it first after dark, and while it’s difficult to grasp its scale, it makes an enjoyable and mysterious night dive, punctuated by sightings of bright red painted frogfish, blue-spotted rays, many scorpionfish, sponge crabs and a variety of nudibranchs.
Revisited by day, I note impressive numbers of fish, ranging from the large – some of the biggest batfish I’ve seen – to the ubiquitous anemonefish and scorpionfish, and clouds of humbugs darting above acropora corals and anemones.
Divers are invited to adopt their own coral structure. The Project shows what can be done, even in a part of the world not notably short of healthy coral.

THERE ARE NOW FOUR WERNER LAU dive centres on Bali’s north coast.
A few hundred metres east of Pondok Sari is the very upmarket Matahari resort (they share four boats). Then there is the attractive Alam Anda some way to the east and, dropping into the north-eastern corner of the island at Tulamben, the Siddhartha resort.
The enclosed Pondok Sari, two hours’ drive away, seems almost claustrophobic when you step inside the expansive Siddhartha, which Stefan Brand designed for divers on Maldivian lines.
Everything is spacious and generously proportioned, from the well-appointed bungalows with their panoramic views and sophisticated facilities to the carefully thought-out dive centre, managed by Barbara. This resort has a large spa and a fine restaurant overlooking the infinity pool and bar.
Most of the clientele are German or German-speaking, but don’t mention the World Cup and you’ll get away with it. I am there during that tournament, and everyone politely refrains from putting the boot in about England’s footballing failings. I leave my red Three Divers T-shirt unworn.
As I arrive, I am able to enjoy the guests’ ecstasy as they smash Argentina. Before I leave, defeat by the Spanish side has left them noticeably quieter.
Now I can compare Barbara’s favourite critter site with Secret Bay. Seraya is just a 10-minute boat-ride east, and my guide Konant knows exactly where to find the critters.
The site has nudibranchs galore, many varieties I have never seen before. If I enjoy sea slugs, I am also increasingly fascinated by the incredible range of shrimps found in the Far East, and Seraya hosts them in abundance.
The mouth of a pipe is packed to bursting with red army shrimps, while candystriped cleaners swarm all over moray eels in their holes.
Colourful commensal shrimps can also be seen, but best of all is a pair of harlequin shrimps, creatures that are hard to match for beauty. They put me in mind of Regency ladies lifting their ball gowns to reveal striped stockings. Fetchingly set against a bright red back-drop, they distract me for some time.
But there is so much to see on this unpromising black sandy bottom – here an ornate ghost pipefish, there a brightly winged dragonet, or an octopus trying out a range of colours before settling on a fetching blue/red theme.
A blue-spotted ray swims side by side with a flounder, showing some sort of solidarity of bottom-dwellers, and a large cuttlefish proves completely imperturbable. These are just highlights – it’s an endless parade.
Much as I enjoyed Secret Bay, if the cast of characters makes a site I can see Barbara’s point – don’t miss Seraya if you’re in Bali.

GUESTS AT SIDDHARTHA usually make the trip down the east coast to see the big rays and, in season, giant sunfish at Manta Point.
I have missed that boat by spending extra time at Pondok Sari, my choice, but Barbara does want me to visit the pygmy seahorses at Payung Payung.
This we do, even though the well-camouflaged pair we find turn relentlessly away from my camera, a manoeuvre I can’t discern at the time as they’re so tiny.
Another dive with Konant at Kubu Reef, a five-minute boat-ride from the centre, reveals impressive numbers of fish, plus a school of barracuda and a glimpsed whitetip shark.
We later return to the dive centre on an extended underwater swim through diverting reef shallows.
Most vital is to dive the famous USAT Liberty wreck, which lies a short boat-ride from the centre. Torpedoed by a Japanese submarine in 1942, while en route from Australia to the Philippines, the 1918-vintage armed transport ship was taken in tow, but ended up on the beach at Tulamben.
Twenty-one years later, the eruption of the nearby Gunung Agung volcano, which lies brooding and cloud-wreathed behind Siddhartha, caused tremors that propelled the 120m-long vessel about 30m out and down into the water, breaking it towards the bow.
Fortunately for divers at all levels, the wreck lies within swimming distance of the shore, its deck tilted seawards and dropping to little more than 30m.
Most striking on arrival are a pair of the wreck’s resident bumphead parrotfish. Not always easy to find when it’s light, these two giants are hanging out under the dive-boat.
We drop onto the stern, heading around the deck over the engine-room and main hold towards the bow.
The wreck is richly populated with corals, sponges and hydroids, and many fish, from coral trout to oriental sweetlips. I am particularly taken by a pale-coloured leaf-fish spotted as we cross the break on the way back along the port side. Perched on one fin, its resemblance to a map of Bali, with Pemuteran at its tail and Tulamben near its head, is inescapable!
After exploring the wreck, we enjoy an extended deco stop in midwater among the vast school of resident big-eyed jack, accompanied by a couple of giant trevally that seem to be policing this vast herd.
One dive isn’t enough – the Liberty wreck would repay several visits. The same can certainly be said of Bali.

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: Fly with Malaysia Airlines via Kuala Lumpur.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Pondok Sari Beach & Spa Resort, Pemuteran, pondoksari.com and Siddhartha Dive Resort & Spa, Tulamben, www.siddhartha-bali.de. For more on diving at both resorts go to www.wernerlau.com
WHEN TO GO: Year-round, but March-June and September-December are recommended. Secret Bay: contact Pondok Sari dive centre direct for tide details.
MONEY: Rupiah
PRICES: Regaldive can arrange seven-night packages to Pondok Sari (from £1099) and/or Siddhartha (from £1327), including flights and transfers. Three-day dive packs cost from £180 at either resort, www.regaldive.co.uk. A two-dive Secret Bay excursion from Pondok Sari costs 70 euros
TOURIST INFORMATION: www.indonesia.travel