The thrill of travelling is equivalent to breathing fresh air. Try imagining right now as you sit. Close your eyes, inhale deeply and drift off to an exotic destination. I am on the lovely island paradise of Nusa Penida. Penida is located just off the coast of Bali, Indonesia. A short speedboat ride from the quaint coastal beach resorts of Sanur provides easy access.
People travel from all over the world to visit this pristine island mecca. Nusa Penida has recently become extremely popular with dive enthusiasts, day-trippers and long-stay travellers alike. Several locations have become Instagram famous almost as soon as the photos were posted. Postcard-perfect crescent moon shaped beaches are surrounded by wild picturesque cliffs that only adds to a photographer’s desire to arrive early and stay late to enjoy the scene in solitude.
Speaking of solitude, we experienced just that with an early morning motorbike ride to Diamond beach. After an hour motoring along the beautiful south coast, we headed north up into the hills. This is a case of the journey is as good as the destination. The first stop was Atuh beach for a fantastic sunrise. Word to the wise - take the first left turn off the main road. If you're lucky you will have the entire point to yourselves. A short hike down the hill puts you on the beach. Time to go for a sunrise swim.
Atuh is a popular spot for longer stay travellers and ex-pats living or working on the island. It is off the beaten track for day-trippers and tends to be less crowded than the iconic Insta-Famous spots of Kelingking, Angel's Billabong, and Broken Beach. Care for more hiking? Head to the other end of Atuh beach and hike up the zig-zag path to a stunning lookout over both Atuh and Diamond beach. If hiking up and down cliffs is a tad out of your league you can take the pretty route through the rice fields and drive around.
If you prefer to drive straight to Diamond beach bypass the first left turn and follow the road signs to second left, which confusingly also point to Atuh. There is a 10,000 rupiah entrance fee (about 65 cents) from this access point. A short walk leads to steep stairs cut into the rocky cliff face that lead down to the beach. Many people only make it this far to get their photo snapped with the pretty view of the beach in the background. If you continue uphill to the point, you are rewarded with a spectacular panoramic vista overlooking both beaches.
If you are feeling brave, venture down the path to the beach. It is not a difficult climb as there are stairs and a rope barrier for most of the way. The last few jack-knife turns are the hairiest with no rope and the path becomes quite narrow. However, it is well worth the effort to get to the pristine deserted beach below.
Just above the bottom of the trail, there is a small warung (local cafe) selling drinks and simple Indonesian fare. For the social media photo craving fans, some enterprising Indonesians have constructed a huge swing out over the beach below. They strap you in with a homemade harness, which actually appears quite secure. For the less adventurous there is also a giant bamboo birds nest hanging over the cliffs for that Insta-pic.
Twenty metres further down the path, descend to the pristine beach. It was very surprising that no-one who made it as far as the swing and basket photo spot bothered to take the last few steps to the beach. It certainly didn't bother us, and we had the entire place to ourselves for several hours. I can't remember the last time I had a perfect white sandy beach all to myself! We were incredibly spoiled, however, we paid the price, hot and burned to a crisp. Remember to bring sunscreen and water! It is probably best to avoid skinning dipping so as to not offend local people. Although if you’re the only ones there just remember more sunscreen.
After our modest morning dip, we hiked back up to the top of the cliffs. By mid-morning, the beach is starting to see a slight increase in sun worshippers. We backtracked down the hill to Atuh beach for a late breakfast of fresh fruit and the national dish of nasi goreng (fried rice) with an extra fried egg and a well-earned ice cold fresh coconut. By early afternoon we are thoroughly sunkissed and decide to head back up the trail to our motorbike.
Some days when you're travelling and just enjoying the ride you just don’t want it to end. Start the day with a sunrise, might as well finish the day with a sunset. After a quick road soda, we decided to regroup and head off for sunset at Crystal Bay.
Crystal Bay is revered as one of the best dive spots in Indonesia with a chance to catch a glimpse of the elusive Mola-Mola. Molas, also known as sunfish are some of the most unique and magnificent creatures in the underwater world. Bring your wetsuit though, this site can be chilly. The best time of year for sightings is September-October. However, it is still better to be lucky than good. This year they have even been sighted completely out of season in February and March!
The same goes with catching the sunset. The sky turned a brilliant red and orange as it started to dip lower in the sky behind the small island that occupies the mouth of Crystal Bay. There is nothing better than a sunset beer after a beautiful day travelling around a beautiful island. I imagine we will sleep well tonight and be right as rain to do it all again manana en la manana.
The landscape of Nusa Penida is without a doubt one of the most wildly dramatic and beautiful I have seen. Underwater, Nusa Penida also doesn’t disappoint. Penida is famous for its resident manta ray population of more than 300 individuals, and many dive operations both here and in nearby Lembongan participate in programs studying and protecting them. Divers also come from Bali, from even as far as Tulamben, to see them.
Manta point gives divers the best chance of diving or snorkeling with these enigmatic creatures. The mantas visit cleaning stations here throughout the day, and although nothing is guaranteed, you have a very good chance of a close encounter. When we were there it was a case of non-stop bombardment!
Numerous times I would be filming one of these beautiful animals and catch a glimpse of movement out of the corner of my eye as another huge ray dive-bombed me. One manta who is known as “Cauliflower” has been known to intentionally poop on divers heads when they are not looking. They are known to be as intelligent as elephants and dolphins and have the largest brains of all fish. So there is no surprise that they find it amusing to play with divers in this way.
In March when we were there, divers were seeing up to 30 mantas on a single dive, and often large groups “training” across the cleaning stations, barrel rolling, playing and flirting with each other. On two dives I witnessed multiple groups of four or five at a time, taking turns on the cleaning station, and when I quietly waited they would come very close, flying right over my head.
Many divers get a little over-excited when they see a manta for the first time. This is completely understandable, as I still get excited even after thousands of experiences with them. However, please remember not to chase or touch them. Mantas don’t like to be groped (neither do I), and they gravitate to those who treat them with kindness, curiosity, and respect. Mantas also recognize individual divers who they have encountered many times before, so don’t be surprised if they make a beeline for their favourite local guide.
We dived with Nomads Penida which also has a unique conservation and divemaster training program. It focusses on surveying the reefs and fish stocks through visual observations and the use of a BRUV (baited remote underwater video), studying plastic pollution and microplastics, holds bi-weekly beach cleanups, replants mangrove forests to maintain overall reef and island ecosystems, and continually observes the manta population resident to the area. The nearly all-female instructor staff (purely coincidental rather than by design) are dedicated environmentalists and are very passionate about preserving our beautiful marine environment.
Nomads are also one of the few operators who visit Malibu Point in the far east of Nusa Penida. As this site is about 45 minutes boat ride from Toyah Pakeh at the main drag of Penida (and even further for Lembongan dive shops) it is rarely dived. The reef is pristine and one of the most colourful I have seen around the Bali area. There is not a centimetre of reef not covered by coral, often fantastic visibility, and a variety of marine life from macro creatures such as nudibranchs and orangutan crabs to large schools of unicornfish in the deep. We even saw a sargassum frogfish drifting in the weed at the surface. Divers have also been known to be supremely lucky here to dive with a pod of up to fifty dolphins! It is definitely worth making time to include this little known site in your itinerary!
The dive shop also promotes fun at every opportunity and appears to have it integrated into its standard operating procedures! Beach cleanups are a very social occasion, diving, of course, is always fun, and the owners have been known to be an integral part of post-dive celebrations, even going so far as to invent their own delicious cocktails. Beers in the pool after diving have become a Nomads tradition!
I am lucky to live in Bali only a half-hour boat ride away from Nusa Penida, so I know this will certainly not be my last visit. For sure I will return in Mola Mola season in search of this elusive beast. I have not yet exhausted my delight in the beautiful diving and spectacular island scenery. In fact, there are still many more spots to explore here both underwater and on land. So this is just the first chapter in what I am sure will be a long term love affair with this island paradise.