Yellow Rocks of Bali
(Shore diving Bonaire style on the North Coast)
On the island of Bonaire, more than 60 yellow rocks along the roadside point the way to easy to access shore diving sites. It’s one of the things that makes the island stand out in the minds of divers worldwide. These iconic dive site markers practically circumnavigate the island and symbolizes dive freedom. To dive when, where and how you like, not to be tied to dive operators schedules or crowded cattle boats is alluring to many. You simply hire a truck, throw tanks in the back and hit the road!
In the past number of years, Sharkman and I have been searching for the Asia equivalent of the “yellow rocks”, looking for the same dive freedom as Bonaire but with the bio-diversity that only the coral triangle can deliver.
On the north coast of Bali, we found what we were seeking. There were no yellow rocks exactly (but it would be a GREAT idea to mimic Bonaire on this account) but we found an easy and inexpensive way to shore dive using a car/driver and the local villagers.
How did we Figure it Out?
Last week we were in Bali. We decided on a whim to grab some mileage tickets and head over for eight days of diving. We rented a villa in the small village of Tembok. Tembok is about a 40 minute drive from the dive area of Tulamben and about 50 minutes from Amed. The villa was reasonably priced and was ocean front with a pool. Our villa boasted a beautiful house reef and our thought was to dive mostly off our own front porch, have meals cooked there and totally chill out.
We knew it was the rainy season and that we would expect some rain each day. In fact, the first few days we had pretty much non-stop rain. As it turned out, our house reef, which was quite nice, was a little too near a river outflow and by the third day the visibility was down to 3 meters of brown water. We were a little frustrated and realized we would have to venture out and about to find descent diving.
On a Bali trip in April, 2014, we had dived the Japanese Shipwreck of Amed from the shore and it had a beautiful reef attached. So we talked our villa host into driving us out and diving with us at this site. We found clear visibility and had a couple of great dives. On the way back to Tembok, we noticed a few signs indicating public access to other shore dives. So we decided that the best idea was to get a car and driver and check out the shore diving along this coast. For us, since we were already staying at the villa, we paid the $55/day rate for car and driver which is about average if you rent through the major agencies.
How Does Shore Diving on the North Coast Work?
There are a number of public access points to dive sites with signs and many without. We used dive site maps we found on the internet from various dive operations to make a list of the sites up and down the coast of Tulamben and Amed. Our driver was also familiar with a couple of them. There is one main road along the coast and you can either look for the signs or simply drive down a street to the water and see what’s there. Often a site will be indicated as “next to” a dive shop so you can find the public access road that way.
We had tanks as part of our stay at our villa so each morning we loaded up six tanks and headed out with an idea of the area we wanted to dive. Then we picked site and went for it.
What we found is that very few dive operations on the coast have boats so most dive shops simply load you up in a vehicle and take you to these shore diving spots. You do have a dive guide with you, so if you are not comfortable diving without a guide, this is an option. We wanted total freedom.
Arrival at a Dive Site.
What did we Find?
When we pulled up to the first dive site we found that there was a thriving little business going on! Local villagers were on hand at most sites to offer assistance. For a small fee you get:
1. Porter Assistance. This assistance varied from site to site. At some sites, it seemed the entire village was vying to be the one to haul your tanks out of your truck and carry your gear to the water. Usually the older women won out! These women have some muscles on them! At some sites, there was a husband and wife team (again, the women doing most of the hauling work). And at some sites, there were people manning the area but not really helping too much. You might as well use them because you pay no matter what!
2. Shower- Most of the sites have a shower to rinse off after the dive. They will charge you for it automatically so if you don’t use, you need to tell them to take it off the bill.
3. Tanks. At many of the sites, there are tanks for rent. If not, they can usually get them for you. We preferred to bring our own tanks since we had no idea where or how the tanks are filled. We recommend getting your tanks from a reputable dive shop.
How does the Billing Work?
1. After you complete your diving, one of the villagers will present you with a bill. They will charge about 5000 IDR for porter service per person and about the same for a shower. If you have the porters actually carry your gear up or down the beach so you can enter or exit the water at another point, you will probably pay 10,000 IDR per person. Then there are “taxes” or “donations” to the local villages. Again, for the average traveler coming to dive, the costs are minuscule. As of this writing the exchange was 12,500 rupiah to $1 USD.
2. Costs varied tremendously from site to site. For two of us to do one dive we paid anywhere from 20,000 to 45,000 rupiah. So cost varied from less than $2 to about $4. If you dive the wreck of the Liberty which is the most famous site in the area, you can pay up to 80,000 per person.
3. Tanks. On average it costs 35,000 IDR to rent a tank at these sites (less than $3 USD)
Getting to Know a Dive Site
Do not rely on local “intel” from the porters to understand a dive site. Most of them do not speak English. We found information from websites as best we could. However, since most local shops use these sites, there was often a local dive master there who was happy to provide site info for us. We would ask questions such as:
- Current direction and strength (and daily cycles)2
- What the reef structure looks like
- What, of particular interest is at the site (where are the critters?)
- Ingress and Egress points
- Anything to look out for – at one dive site, a local dive master warned us that the trigger fish were nesting (they can be VERY aggressive during this season)
Driving on Bali
If you are not familiar with the driving style of countries like Indonesia, better you leave the driving to a local or drive yourself in the local area only.
Driving up from Denpasar to the north coast can be slow and frustrating. There are more scooters on the road than you’ve ever seen in your life and you need to understand how to drive with and around them, how to pass other vehicles and the local rules of the road. On our first trip to the north coast, we drove a rental vehicle. And while we didn’t have any problems, we decided it was just easier to hire someone. Hiring a car and driver is cheap. You can then relax and enjoy.
Another reason to hire a car and driver is then you have someone who will stay with your stuff. We didn’t feel that the area was unsafe but if I prefer to, for example, not take my housed camera on a dive, I wouldn’t want to leave it in the car.
If you do prefer to rent a car, you might want to consider having a transfer up to the north coast, then hiring a car locally to just cruise around to the dive sites and not worry about the long drive up.
Can Anyone do This? Know thyself and your abilities
This type of diving is not for everyone and we don’t recommend it across the board. As a diver, willing and wanting to DIY it, you must:
- Be competent in your dive skills
- Be competent in your ability to navigate dive sites that are unknown to you.
- Understand currents and changing dive conditions to egress at a safe and correct point.
- Be confident in dive planning and understanding of your dive computer to plan and execute non-decompression, repetitive dives.
- Have a dive buddy with the same above abilities.
If you are confident in the list above, this is a great way to dive the North Coast of Bali. Some day I may even go back with some yellow paint and dig up some rocks!