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Maria Munn

Shocking, sad, crazy (I’m being too polite here) and milli- mammoths of words more passed through my head as soon as I saw some photos on Facebook of manta rays being killed for their gills in a fish market in Lombok in Indonesia. Many years have passed since 2004 when I promised myself that I wanted to help shark conservation organisations. I knew that now was the time to get going as fast as I could and go undercover at the fish market with my partner Michel to find out exactly what was going on and help in some way to get these beautiful animals protected... and squeeze in some diving around the best sites that Bali has to offer.

A phone call to Sarah and Sasha of Dive Worldwide that same day, 3pm one Monday afternoon and I passed out in shock when they told me on Tuesday morning that the whole

itinerary to take in four different islands in five days was all sorted and all I had to do was to get on the plane on Thursday morning. Phew ....

Sveva, the owner of Bali Diving Academy greeted us with a lovely warm welcome before we swiftly caught another flight on to Lombok, a 2 hour drive, time to squeeze in the briefest powernap and then a spritely 4 am start to head to the market. As soon as we arrived, there was already a mobula there lying on the floor. Many, many more animals arrived that morning, too many to mention that left me totally distraught. Gigantic thresher sharks measuring 2 metres plus, tiger sharks, hammerheads, rare six-gill sharks, bronze whalers, blue sharks, makos, even a ghost shark. I even found an eagle shark still alive in the market, bought it and took it back in the sea in the

desperate hope that it would swim away. Sadly,

it couldn’t and it was the saddest day of my life to have to leave it in the market to await it’s fate. Michel stayed on for another 10 days to find out who was buying the fins and gills and where they went to and at what cost. The good news out of this heartbreaking mission is that the Manta Trust, Shark Savers and Aquatic Alliance have been able to use the statistics to hopefully protect the mantas through a CITES proposal.

Straight afterwards we journeyed through the mountain range of Lombok, taking in extensive forests with white powder sandy beaches nestled in between and views of pristine azure blue bays. We took a fast boat to the neighbouring Gili Islands. We stayed one night on Gili Trawangan, the largest island of the three, and arrived to more

powder white beaches with relaxing views of the stunning mountain-scape that my feet relished in the abyss of it all. No traffic is allowed here and my days as a holiday rep in Greece were revived on seeing donkeys with carts trotting around

the island. I started pining for a Greek salad and Ouzo but instead was whisked off immediately for a night dive to sample some of the astonishing 3,500 marine creatures that have been recorded in Indonesia. That is some 2,000 more than those living on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.

Both the night dive and the following early morning dive at Manta Point left me wanting to

dig my heels in and stay! On the night dive we encountered frogfish, nudibranchs, cuttlefish and a friendly leaf fish to name a few... and a spectacular sunset on surfacing as we waited for our boat to pick us up. Shark Point is a turtle mecca with

large numbers of green and hawksbill turtles resting on the shallow, sandy slopes. Venturing deeper, further encounters included Napoleon wrasse before bumping into numerous reef sharks. What an adrenaline filled way to start the morning.

Ten minutes to pack and it was time to catch the fast ferry back to Sanur and then another scenic drive through the stunning rice fields and spiritual temples to check-in for one of the world’s best wreck dives, the USAT Liberty in Tulamben. This amazing 120 ft long American treasure was sadly hit by a Japanese torpedo during the Second World War. The ship was stranded and after the explosion of Mount Agung in 1963, the magma flow forced the ship back into the sea. Prolific amounts of all kinds of coral sponges cover the wreck from huge barrel sponges to gorgeous orange structures, as well as gigantic pink wwcoral fans.

The greatest thing about this wreck is that it can be explored by both snorkelers and divers as the highest point of the wreck is just 3 metres from the surface. Just make sure you get there at the crack of dawn or before to avoid the rush.

Critter-wise, brace yourself for all kinds of magical life; harlequin shrimps nestling in the sand, blennies, huge groups of fusiliers, frogfish, ghost

pipefish, huge schools of glassfish, almost man- size barracudas and at night-time you can see a friendly large group of bumphead parrotfish having eighty winks nestled in the wreck itself.

If you are planning to go there, try and do at least two day dives, plus a night dive to make the most of it. I’ve never encountered so much life in one wreck alone in over 10 years of exploring our underwater world. Truly incredible. The local dive sites surrounding the Liberty are also teeming with magical macro opportunities from friendly frogfish to more pipefish, cuttlefish, leaf fish and all other kinds of critters to sweep you off your underwater feet. Just make sure that you pack spare batteries and lots of memory cards.

The next day was another journey over to yet another island paradise of a very different kind, Nusa Lembongan; Once again in search of mantas, this time ones which were still swimming in our oceans. Again, as always we were met

by Bali Diving Academy’s always friendly and welcoming team and again, as soon as we arrived it was time to don my dive kit and explore. One again, I was on a macro mission, this time in the scenic area of Crystal Bay, a gleaming turquoise part of the ocean nestled close to an ever rhythmic Hindu Temple in chant. This area is also famous for its summer encounters with Mola Molas just off the walls here, but in the shallows more harlequin shrimps, pipefish, blennies, groupers and huge schools of fish abounded amongst large pristine coral bommies. However, the real draw here are the manta encounters.

Both Aquatic Alliance and the Manta Trust are dedicated to helping protect the local populations of mantas in Bali as well as providing education programmes for both the local communities as well as overseas visitors. Passionate about their work, they regularly go out with their guests to identify the manta rays by their individual unique markings on their undersides and, of course, visitors who see the mantas without the research teams are always welcome to submit their own photos for identification. To learn more about their work visit www.aquaticalliance.org or www.mantatrust.org. Up to ten mantas have been experienced on just one dive. This particular morning, I only got a fleeting glimpse of one passing, but it was still incredible watching its huge 4 metre wingspan gently glide through the water, as well as trying to tell it to please avoid the fishermen at all costs and to stay safe on its journey through the seas.

My final dive took me to another site teeming with pristine corals of all shapes and sizes, through gorgeous clear shimmering azure blue waters at ‘Toya Pakeh.’ Yet another harlequin shrimp passed

me on its lunchtime mission, and more blennies, fusiliers and all kinds of nudibranchs were hidden in the rainbow-coloured staghorn corals that seemed endless.

It was the most action-packed trip in my ten

year career, spanning hours of driving through atmospheric and breathtaking, peaceful landscapes to exploring majestic seascapes of all kinds. All proving that Bali rightly deserves its reputation

to offer world-class diving for everyone. Crazy

as it was to squeeze in a four centre break in

just five days, it really is worth taking the time to sample different islands and the unique culture

that accompanies them. All I missed out on was maybe the most important part of this kind of trip, the chance to relax and be pampered in one of the many soul-reviving spas that are on offer.

But the important job was, I’m pleased to say, achieved. Both the Manta Trust and Aquatic Alliance have recently achieved important funding through a recent PADI Project Aware “Ocean Hero” Award to continue the critical work to save our precious manta rays and in turn, help to protect the world’s richest reefs for everyone to encounter.

A very special thank you goes to Dive Worldwide and to all the lovely team at Bali Diving Academy for all their help.

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