Another in our series of where to find guaranteed big fish encounters in Southeast Asia. If you want to swim with manta rays, then head to Bali and sign up for a snorkel trip to Manta Point at Nusa Penida. Nusa Penida is a wild island just 45 minutes away from Sanur in Bali. There are a number of outfits that run manta ray snorkel and dive trips out there. We did a snorkel trip with the well-established dive shop, Blue Season.
Why did we go with Blue Season?
They run ‘snorkelers only’ trips on fast boats. You are accompanied by two divemasters, who are your guides in the water, and a couple of boatmen. The company is super-safety conscious and runs a tight ship. They are not the cheapest but the high degree of professionalism impressed us. They are a particularly good choice for novice snorkelers.
Blue Season picked us up from our lodging at 7am. We met with the main guide and our fellow snorkelers for the day. Four of the snorkelers were complete newbies and the other was a diver. So, a fairly mixed bunch.
The guide runs you through the paperwork, which basically absolves Blue Season of any culpability if you die! They take contact details, so at least your folks find out fast! Then, it is out to the water. Blue Season provides wetsuits (it is cold out there), booties, snorkels, goggles, life vests, and fins. They provide lunch, water, coffee, and towels too.
The boat was called ‘My Darling’. No idea why but it amused the crew too. I suppose when you are out in the water surrounded by boats, you definitely ain’t going to forget the name.
The head dive master briefs everyone before each snorkel. He tells you the expected conditions and about the currents. In the water, one dive master leads the way and the other trails at the back. Both carry safety buoys.
The boat ride to Nusa Penida is beautiful. You get a great view of Gunung Agung, the huge volcano that looms over eastern Bali. Nusa Penida itself is a rugged island with rocky cliffs jutting down from soft green hills. Sea stacks and arches dot the coastline. It looks more like northern Scotland or the California coast than a tropical island. Nusa Penida is sparsely inhabited, but we heard that there are a few accommodation options and that it is the antithesis of touristy Bali. It could be worth staying a night or two.
The Manta Rays of Nusa Penida
As ever, with wildlife trips there are never any guarantees. But Manta Point is a cleaning station and mantas love to be cleaned on a regular basis. There are hundreds of fish at the station that love nothing more than feeding on the parasites that live on manta flesh and blood.
The station itself is an underwater raised rock just offshore from Nusa Penida. The waters are choppy and the tides strong. It is safe, but you are advised not to get too close to the cliffs.
We leaped in and swam a few meters. Within seconds, Laura saw a giant manta but it was a fairly ghostly presence in the distance. A minute later, we were faced by one of the most awe-inspiring sights we have ever seen. There were 8, 9, 10… maybe more… manta rays circling around the rock. Even the guide whooped! Looks like this was a hot day for cleaning!
We hovered over the mantas for 45 minutes. After a couple of minutes, you pretty much pick up the pattern of movement. When the tide is strong, you drift in and out with it. The mantas do the same. When the tide is calmer, the manta rays circle around the rock. They dive down and back up again. As they do, they open their humongous mouths to suck down millions of tiny plankton. Cleaner wrasse cling to the mantas, feeding on the parasites that hook on to them.
Mantas are extraordinarily graceful swimmers. They are curious too. There are tales of older mantas approaching and swimming with marine biologists who have studied them for years. I never got the impression any of them were checking us out, but they do come really close, within a few feet at times. The biggest of the mantas was totally black all over. This is quite unusual since most mantas have a white underbelly speckled with a few black splotches.
Mantas can grow up to 6.5m across, but I reckon the biggest one we saw was about 3.5m across. After 45 minutes or so, the guide told us time was up. We could have swum with mantas all day. We were the last back on the boat and the guide had to practically drag us there. We were ecstatic at our close encounter with so many mantas. The guide reckoned we saw 12-15 individual rays. Typically, the guides expect to see 6-8. So, it was a bonanza day!
Curiously, our fellow snorkelers seemed quite muted. This seemed odd to us. If this had been my first snorkel I would have been doing f@#king cartwheels back to the boat!!
The only downside of the experience is the poor swimming etiquette of fellow snorkelers. Everyone on our boat was respectful of other swimmers from other boats. But, on occasion, I got bashed about by inconsiderate fuckwits trying to get their manta selfie or whatever.
Some video footage of the amazing mantas:
After the glory of seeing giant mantas in somewhat wild waters, the next snorkel was a more sedate affair. We sped along rocky coast of Nusa Penida for twenty minutes or so and moored up in a snug little cove with a cute little beach. The cove protected us from the stronger currents further out. There was good visibility, a lot of lovely soft coral, and the usual coterie of shallow water reef fish.
This is a nice spot for first-time snorkelers to get some practice in, but for us it was completely overshadowed by the manta ray spectacle that preceded it.
Drift snorkel off Nusa Lembongan
After lunch, we moved on to the waters just off Nusa Lembongan. Again, after the mantas, this wasn’t so exciting but there was some nice coral. This snorkel was a little more challenging since this was a drift snorkel in moderately strong currents. The guide briefed us on the currents and once more we leaped into the ocean. For this snorkel, it was important to stay together. Once more we had a guide up front and one following the group at the rear. The boat drifted ahead of us.
The current whizzed us along at a fair old pace. A couple of the newbies had the occasional problem with coordination in the strong currents and I got clattered a few times by the odd fin. Before long, we were back at the boat.
Nusa Penida trip: Is it worth it?
To be honest, the snorkels after the mantas really are an anti-climax. But, Manta Point is absolutely worth a hundred bucks of anyone’s money. I hear it can be a bit of a shit show in high season with way too many boats, divers, and snorkelers crowding around a very small area. Even in low season with just a few boats in the water it gets hectic at times. But, for fifteen blissful minutes before the other boats arrived I was in absolute snorkeling heaven. Definitely the best thing we did in Bali.