He plunged into the water and darted in front of us, the effortless movements of his slender body a telltale of his affinity to the ocean. He looked around, scanning the corals beneath him, and noticed a small arch encrusted with corals tucked amid the colorful garden. Suddenly he took a dive a few meters deep, and swam through the small brittle arch, before finally resurfaced. His graceful maneuver reminded me that of a dolphin.
The Frenchman, Nicolas, was born in Tahiti, and the ocean has never been far from his life – probably also part of his decision to move to Bali, as well as his career of choice as a marine videographer. Together with Made the snorkeling guide, a Singaporean travel writer who couldn’t swim, an aloof and at times seemingly confused Melburnian, James and I, we set off for Menjangan Island off the coast of Bali’s northwest earlier that day.
Our boat harbored at one of the island’s beaches, adjacent to another boat which arrived earlier. Before we jumped off to the water, Made reminded us to always stay in group. With a bell-equipped stainless steel rod in hand, he was clearly the one to follow. I obediently swam behind him and tried to not lose sight of the man, although the beauty underneath occasionally distracted me. I spotted and further inspected striped surgeonfish, checkerboard wrasse, neon damselfish and more colorful underwater critters before I realized that Made was nowhere close. However the relatively gentle current assured me that there was nothing to worry about, unlike what I experienced around the Pink Beach at the Komodo National Park.
Suddenly a loud metal rattle emanated through the water coming from a direction. I swam towards the source of the sound and found Made with his small bell. When he saw me he pointed down, using the stainless steel rod, towards a certain point at the coral reefs. My eyes followed and I swam in circle, struggling to see what he was pointing at. Then there it was. A small moray eel hiding inside a crevice, waiting patiently to ambush its prey.
Made was so familiar with the underwater world of Menjangan for he had been working at the resort since its inception, first as a diving guide then a snorkeling guide. “Working as a diving guide is more exhausting,” he said. “I worked only for two years before I changed job into a snorkeling guide.”
He knew every nook and cranny of the colorful coral carpet blanketing Menjangan’s underwater shorelines, as well as the wall that dropped down into the depths. At the second snorkeling site, a few hundreds of meters away from the first, he helped me spot two types of clownfish rubbing their bodies around stinging anemones: Ocellaris clownfish (the species of Nemo) and Clarke’s anemonefish.
I followed him while marveling at the sheer drop of the wall, bordered by red gorgonian sea fans and giant table corals. At one point Made stopped and looked down at a section of the wall, seemingly attracted by something I couldn’t see. He signaled to me to give him the underwater camera I was holding. He then took a dive. Moments later he resurfaced and handed the camera back to me as it was apparent that he had spotted some lionfish and managed to capture some images of them. This underwater world is his playground after all.
One hour earlier, however, I spotted a type of fish I had never seen before, swimming around in such a bizarre way. Excited, I came closer, only to be faced with a hard reality: the ‘fish’ was apparently a plastic bag, carried away to the sea by the currents.
A recent eye-opening research suggests that China and Indonesia account for more than a third of all plastic waste washed out to the sea, and the trend goes anywhere but down as the world’s economy continues to grow while people’s awareness of the ecological impact of plastic garbage, particularly in developing countries, is still worryingly low. Except in Rwanda, of course, where a nationwide ban on plastic bags has been in effect since 2008.
Made explained to us that every year a group of scientists always come to Menjangan to measure the coral growth as an important indicator of how healthy, or not, the waters around the national park have become. As far as I could see things were looking good, despite the fact that Menjangan Island was not exempted from the annual ‘trash season’, bringing garbage swept away by sea currents. The problem is certainly not to be taken lightly, but in spite of that Menjangan’s underwater gardens are nothing short of amazing, a true world-class snorkeling and diving site in a remote corner of Bali.
On our way back to the mainland Made told us, “the Japanese are the best tourists… they always say ‘good’ even though the visibility is low due to the plastic garbage,” he chuckled.