Like a knight of yore on a sacred quest, NIGEL WADE finally faces the prospect of bringing an epic journey to a stirring conclusion - at a Balinese location he has already visited four times before! Can his quarry live up to the weight of expectation?
I’VE BEEN WAITING MY whole diving life to catch a glimpse of just one of these enigmatic and rare creatures, clocking up well over 100,000 miles travelling to the places where they live in the vain hope of an encounter with this superstar of the underwater photographer’s world.
In the past I’ve mostly been greeted with: “You should have been here last month” or, worse still, “No, we haven’t seen one of those in years”.
So you can imagine my surprise when dive-guide Nina casually dropped “and we’ve been seeing a few Rhinopias here too” into the sentence as she delivered the afternoon dive-briefing.
The hairs on my arms stood up, and a shiver ran the length of my spine as the excitement levels instantly went off the scale. This was followed a few seconds later with a feeling of dread when I remembered all the times I’d heard the same words, only to find this elusive animal conspicuous by its absence.
After 20 minutes of fruitless searching, my pulse quickened at the sight of dive-guide and spotter Norris hovering over the dirty black-sand seabed.
He was punching the water with one hand and pointing at what looked to be a bit of discarded rubbish with the other.
I finned closer. The anticipation was electric, but quickly evaporated at the sight of a beautiful, striped wonderpus, its eight appendages snaking in different directions as its oblong eyes set on stalks checked out the commotion.
I shouldn’t have been crestfallen but I was – it was impossible to hide my disappointment. My shoulders slumped, and I simply went through the motions of taking a few snaps.
Norris could see that my heart wasn’t in it and grabbed me by the arm. With a confused look he pointed again, this time a few feet past the small octopus.
I followed his direction to see the ugliest of mugs staring back at me, a creature with facial features only its mother could love. It had huge white umbrella-like eyebrows and an upturned snout sporting what resembled a Victorian moustache. This particular species is commonly known as a paddleflap – wait for it – Rhinopias!
It was a beautiful moment, and the frustration and unproductive searches of yesteryear melted away as my heart raced in my chest.
This little aquatic icon lay motionless on the algae and black sand, propped up on its pectoral fins and posing like a professional model as I frugally recorded its likeness with my camera.
I was lost in the moment, enjoying every second of this long-awaited meeting while trying to ignore the frantic tank-banging coming from a few metres away.
My wildly gesticulating guides were relentless and determined to get my attention, so I reluctantly left the pink paddle-flap, wondering what all the fuss was about. Then I froze, slack-jawed, as I gazed at, not one, but two more Rhinopias lying a few feet apart.
Both were deep crimson in colour but very different in appearance – one was another smooth-skinned paddle-flap, while the other had lacy appendages all over its spotty red body.
This species, the frondosa, is possibly the most amazing critter I’ve had the privilege to see under water.
The Rhinopias is a creature that’s haunted my dreams, inspiring me to travel to the far-flung corners of Asia and beyond – and here I was, face to face with three of them. I felt as if I’d scored the ultimate hat-trick.
TULAMBEN IS REGARDED AS the diving epicentre of Bali’s north-east. Nestled in the shadow of Mount Agung, this coastal fishing village has numerous dive-resorts dotted along its volcanic shoreline, but few are as luxurious or better-placed for divers than our home for a fortnight, Villa Markisa.
The resort is the brainchild and home of Christiane Waldrich, who first dived the Tulamben black-sand slopes in 2002. She found an underwater realm rich in biodiversity, but it was her love of nudibranchs that motivated her to explore the area further, and in the process she has discovered and recorded more than 600 species of these multi-coloured sea slugs.
Christiane built Villa Markisa adjacent to her favourite critter hunting-ground at Seraya Secrets. The resort consists of bungalows, villas and well-appointed rooms in the main house, a swimming pool, bar, restaurant, spa and, of course, a fully equipped dive-centre.
Since its discovery, Seraya Secrets has become established as one of the world’s best muck-diving sites. Creatures that are seemingly rare in other parts of Indonesia regularly make an appearance here.
Harlequin shrimps, ghost pipefish, mimic octopus and pygmy seahorses are just a few of the critters commonly found within a few fin-kicks of Villa Markisa’s dive-centre.
On our first dive there, Balinese guide Sumatra pointed out a number of beautifully marked tiger shrimps. We also found some truly miniscule frogfish – sorry, did I say we? Some were so small that I couldn’t actually see them without the aid of a magnified viewfinder, having to rely solely on the sharp eyes and experience of the younger man.
Surprisingly, nudibranch sightings were few and far between, the polar opposite from our visit to this site last year, when they appeared abundant.
This is undoubtedly because of the current El Niño sweeping the planet, elevating sea temperatures and causing distressed animals to seek the deeper, possibly cooler waters further from the coastline.
Those that can’t move often suffer the consequences, as was the case with a few anemones, their bleached white tentacles, although beautiful in appearance, marking their last sad throes of life.
TULAMBEN ISN’T ALL ABOUT muck-diving, however. Five minutes north on Markisa’s small dive-boat lies one of the world’s most famous wreck-sites.
The USAT Liberty was torpedoed and damaged on her way from Lombok Strait in 1942. She was towed towards the harbour at Singaraja but, taking on too much water, was beached at Tulamben to enable salvage of her cargo and fittings.
The remains were left rusting on the beach until Mount Agung erupted in 1963, and the resulting earth tremors and magma flow are said to have caused the wreck to roll off the shore.
It now lies on its starboard side some 30m from the beach, totally encrusted in rich coral growth.
In past years the wreck has been home for a large school of jack, forming tight tornadoes above and around the Liberty’s superstructure. I was disappointed to discover that these much-photographed fish are no longer present, having moved to possibly quieter or more productive hunting-grounds a few years ago.
The current Liberty A-listers are the resident bumphead parrotfish. These huge corallivores spend the night resting in the shelter of the hull before congregating at the stern as the sun’s rays start to penetrate the water. They briefly cruise the reef slopes, before dispersing to munch their way around Tulamben’s numerous coral reefs.
The best time to be in the water is around 6am, with the sun rising a few minutes later. This meant a pre-dawn start involving alarm clocks and strong coffee, yet even at this ungodly hour other divers could already be seen in the water as we rolled off the boat, a testament to the popularity of this dive-site.
The bumpheads were already awake and seemingly doing their ablutions as they lazily wallowed around the sandy slopes. The sight of these Neanderthal-looking beasts pushed all thoughts of sleep-deprivation from my mind as I joined their throng of admirers.
The wreck itself is a treasure-trove of marine life. Most square centimetres of rusting metal have been adorned with a kaleidoscope of colourful sponges, corals and gorgonian fans with countless species of fish, crustacean, cephalopod and mollusc sharing the real estate.
Every dive I’ve done on the Liberty feels like an assault on my senses, delivering unexpected encounters. This dive was no different, with the sighting of two pygmy seahorses nestled in their yellow seafan at the bow and a Chromodoris nudibranch with a hitchhiking emperor shrimp on its spotted flank.
IF DIVING ON MUCK OR WRECKS doesn’t light your fire, the area immediately south of the Liberty offers prolific coral reefs and would be our destination for a mid-morning dive.
Belying the unimaginative name of Coral Garden, the site boasts a stunning anemone field housing differing species of clownfish at its summit. Further down the reef slope, the topography changes to the now-familiar volcanic black sand with sporadic coral outcrops.
One of these was frequented by hinge-beak, candy-stripe and red-banded cleaner shrimp, all offering a wash-and- brush-up service to the resident fish.
We watched in awe as a crimson coral trout swam slowly around this cleaning station, its naturally cautious nature set aside as it postured boldly, patiently waiting for a few of the resident shrimps to jump onboard and meticulously pick away parasites from its body.
It was fascinating to see a potential shrimp supper confidently move around this fearsome mini-predator’s array of sharp white teeth, earning its own meal through a partnership born over millennia of mutual trust.
I’m a reef-nut and, as nice as Coral Gardens are, I wanted more. “That’s not a problem, Nigel,” Christiane told me. “We’re going further south to visit a really spectacular reef tomorrow – are you coming”? That has to be a trick question, I thought, overwhelmed by the anticipation of the coming day’s diving.
Again leaving before sunrise, the skipper sped his boat over glassy waters, hugging the coastline as Mount Agung’s peak caught the first of the rising sun’s red glow. This outstanding sight alone was worth the effort of the early start, but there were more spectacles to come.
After the short ride we arrived at the Pyramids. This site consists of dozens of man-made structures, built from a variety of building materials that include concrete blocks, tyres and metal tubing.
THE FIRST HOLLOW PYRAMID structure was built in the late 1990s, with others added later that have become the permanent residence for countless marine animals, sponges and corals.
The first one we visited was enveloped by a swarm of golden sweepers, hugging the contours of the structure as they expanded and contracted during their endless search for passing plankton.
Others were covered in crinoids, their feathered fronds appearing to soften the hard lines of the structures. The pyramids give way to a fringing reef made up mainly of large coral bommies, again teeming with life.
I encouraged Nina to pose for a few photos by a densely populated outcrop and, concentrating on capturing the moment, we both missed a beautifully camouflaged ornate ghost pipefish.
Its livery had been almost invisible next to the crinoid it mimicked – it was doing a great job of remaining hidden in plain sight, so much so that we didn’t discover its existence until viewing the images later that evening. The Pyramids and their adjacent reefs had proved every bit as spectacular as Christiane had promised.
Night-diving on the black-sand sites can also yield some memorable encounters. Submerging after the sun had dropped below the horizon at Sidem, the home of the three Rhinopias, eagle-eyed guide Norris found some rarely seen filamentous scorpionfish.
These tiny specimens share an uncanny resemblance to the Rhinopias, but are only an inch or so in length.
Another first for me was the discovery of a mototi octopus. This is a close relative of the blue-ringed octopus and has the same deadly cocktail of toxins stored in its saliva. Unlike its famous cousin, however, the mototi has only two iridescent blue rings, one on either side of its body, and these are displayed when the animal is excited or feels threatened.
For me, Bali is the jewel in the crown of Asian diving. This was my fifth voyage of discovery there, enjoying underwater encounters of which I’d only dreamt.
Tulamben appears as a tiny spot on the Bali map, but the diving around this traditional fishing village has gained almost legendary status.
GETTING THERE: Nigel Wade flew to Denpasar with Malaysia Airlines via Kuala Lumpur. There are other options from Heathrow via hubs at Singapore, Hong Kong and Doha, www.malaysiaairlines.com. Road transfers to Tulamben take around three hours.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Villa Markisa, www.villa-markisa.com
HEALTH: Nearest recompression chamber is in Denpasar.
CURRENCY: Indonesian rupiah plus US dollars and euros.
PRICES: Return flights from UK to Bali from £450. Transfers from Denpasar cost 60 euros each way. Seven nights in a detached bungalow at Villa Markisa costs from 1120 euros pp (two sharing), with full-board (three meals plus afternoon tea a day) for 420 euros for two people for seven days. A 10-dive guided shore-dive package 270 euros. Boat fees from 7 euros per dive (Tulamben area).
VISITOR INFORMATION: www.indonesia.travel