Diving: Indonesia – an introduction

Lots of varieties of soft corals and feather stars diving Sahaung near Bangka Island at Thalassa Dive Resort North Sulawesi diving Indonesia by Diveplanit

Introduction

Smack bang in the centre of the Coral Triangle, diving Indonesia delivers the biggest biodiversity on the planet: more than 3,000 species of fish alone, not including the corals, plants, crustaceans, worms, nudis and other, some as yet undefined, critters to be encountered there. The 17 thousand islands offer some of the world’s best dive sites: from mola-mola to mantas, spectacular coral reefs to extensive wrecks and plenty of muck diving too. There are dive sites to suit all experiences, and dive resorts and liveaboards to suit all budgets. You could spend a lifetime diving Indonesia – the hardest bit is to work out where to go next! We make it easy by giving you the Top Ten dive locations below.

Indonesia is well represented by its national motto: “Bhinneka Tunggal Ika” which literally means: ‘many, yet one’. Indeed there are many, – it is the fourth most populous country on earth, with over 250 million people, from over 300 ethnic groups, spread over 17 thousand islands, lying either side of the equator, which from west to east span over one eighth of the circumference of the earth. So diving Indonesia presents incredible biodiversity.

Two divers above the coral and sponges diving Crystal Rock at Komodo National Park diving Indonesia Credit Moana

All of the islands of Indonesia lie within the Coral Triangle. (Actually its shaped more like a short sock with the toe extending to the Solomon Islands, its sole running over the top pf Australia, its heel running around Sumatra and taking in Malaysia, and its top extending up to north of the Philippines.) Needless to say, it is the global centre for marine diversity. There are more than 3,000 species of fish alone, not including the corals, plants, crustaceans, worms, nudis and other, some as yet undefined, critters. There are a large range of habitats and environmental conditions which are caused primarily by its location.

Indonesia's location within The Coral Triangle - why diving Indonesia is the best for biodiversity

Location

The observant will notice that Indonesia sits above Australia on the map; the informed will know that Indonesia straggles the Eurasian tectonic plate, Sulawesi and westward, and the Pacific Ocean plate Maluku Islands and eastwards, both of which sit above the Australasian plate meeting it one or two hundred kilometres south of Indonesia’s southern arc of islands. Let’s just say it gets quite complex from a tectonic perspective, which accounts for the 150 or so of Indonesia active volcanoes.

This same arc of islands forms the boundary between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, and because of deep water currents moving bodies of water steadily around globe, there is a steady flow – referred to as the Indonesian Throughflow – of around 15 million cubic metres per second of the Pacific flowing into the Indian Ocean. Depending on the narrowness of the gap between the islands this flow can create a water current averaging up to 0.6 mph. That being the average, current in specific areas can be significantly higher.

Colourful bommie with diver for scale diving Blue Magic at Raja Ampat Dampier Strait West Papua diving Indonesia by Diveplanit

All of this adds up to bringing you the world’s biggest and best biodiversity. There is so much great diving in Indonesia, it will take you a lifetime to cover it all. You will need to pick one or two areas to target in any one trip. Once you have done that, there are plenty of dive operators of different types only too willing to help you explore them.

Dive Centres

There are different types of dive operators, and some have more than one modus operandi. They can be split into four modes:

Dive Resorts

The dive resorts pretty much have you as a captive audience throughout your stay. The obvious benefits are that once you’ve arrived, you can spread your gear out and chillax. No time wasted commuting to dive sites, hot shower as soon as you get back from a dive, charge everything to the room – it’s a home from home. Bundle and save: it’s a dive holiday. If you are staying for a week, you’ll dive 17 sites, some which might look a little bit like others; some you might dive twice. The only major drawback is if your expectations are not met – you are pretty much stuck with it. You can expect a resort to organise any transfers, and cater to some of your less obvious demands or ‘intolerances’, given notice. An example of a great dive resort is Thalassa in north Sulawesi.

Thalassa Resort from the water diving Black Rock near Manado with Thalassa Dive Resort at Thalassa Dive Resort North Sulawesi diving Indonesia by Diveplanit

Dive Centres

Dive centres offer trips, typically, but not always, leaving from their Dive Centre to a specific dive destination, usually determined a few days prior depending on conditions and the requests of clients, or the requirements of their trainees. If you are not in Indonesia on a I-am-diving-every-possible-day basis, you can tee up a dive day with one dive centre, and if you like their style, book a couple more. If you only have specific days available, but you really want to visit specific sites, you should phone around. Don’t assume the closest dive centre to your hotel will be the best; and do assume the cheapest won’t be!  A great example of such a dive centre is Blue Season in Bali.

Training in small groups at Blue Season Bali with Blue Season Bali at Bali diving Indonesia by Diveplanit

Liveaboards

Life on the ocean wave is not for everyone. Most trips are for a minimum of 5 nights, and you will be thrown together with your shipmates for much of that time. In most situations, a camaraderie develops amongst the like-minded which can lead to live-long (Facebook) friendships. In the odd situation, you might need to escape to the foredeck or retreat to your cabin if you are not particularly enamoured with your shipmates’ behaviour. On the plus side, most liveaboards are very well appointed, possibly better than many average resorts. There is always a sea breeze, and rarely mosquitos or the lingering aroma from nearby drains. Knowing that you are an even more captive audience than at a resort, the meals tend to be very good, and coordinated with your diving. On a liveaboard you can often pack in three or four dives per day. Resorts often limit to two, with an occasional night dive. The Liveaboard package usually includes transfers, and may also include a one-way flight back to your origin if you are not returning to the same port. An excellent example of the kind of liveaboard you would enjoy is Moana Cruising.

Moana in full sail diving Indonesia in particular the Komodo National Park Indonesia Credit Moana

Dive Safaris

Probably not limited to Indonesia, but certainly befitting Indonesia’s wide flung geography, there are dive companies who specialise in dive safaris. I.e., they offer or can build specific itineraries which can take in all of the above. More than just a travel agent, their dive guides will remain with you for most of your trip, or personally hand you over to a liveaboard with whom they have a partnership. This enables you to book a longer itinerary allowing you to cover more than one of Indonesia’s many diving destinations without having to worry about travelling between them, with all the hassle that that can involve. The best example of such a dive company we found is AquaMarine Diving – Bali.

Aquamarines modern minibuses diving with Aquamarine Diving Bali from Padang Bai at Bali diving Indonesia by Diveplanit

Selecting your Dive Operator

Once you’ve worked out which areas you want to cover, and how you want to dive, you will have narrowed down the available operators from which you can select. Then it’s worth doing some serious (and methodical) research. Here are some general questions you might want to consider, whatever kind of dive operation you chose:

  • What’s the diver to guide ratio?
  • What brand and model of computer will I get with the regs?
  • How many persons is the boat surveyed for, and how many do you take?
  • Which days each week to you go dive site xyz?

Be specific, and if the answers are vague, well that speaks volumes.

Other questions you may wish to ask relate to the sustainability of the operation and the integration of that operation into the local community:

  • Do they participate in clean-ups or contribute to reef restoration efforts?
  • How do they source their power and water?
  • What do they do with their waste?
  • What proportion of staff are from local communities?
  • Do they contribute to, or participate in, local community projects?

7Seas boat by the 7Seas dive shop diving with 7Seas Dive Gili at Gili Air Lombok diving Indonesia by Diveplanit

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Dive Sites

Top ten areas for diving Indonesia by Diveplanit

Here we present some of the more established areas, and try to give a taste of what’s available and why – based on its location. (If there’s lots of detail, it’s because we have personal experience of a place, if not, we are working from what others have told us). Working anti-clockwise from Bali…

Bali and the Nusa Penida group of islands

Bali is very accessible and has a feel that could hardly be described as mainstream Indonesia. It sits on the west of the Lombok Strait where the water is heading south. Much of its coastline is the edge of a volcano – one in particular – which means that you have black sand shelving steadily. This makes for great muck diving. There are exceptions to this where rocky outcrops have allowed reefs to form, such as Gili Selang, or wrecks like the USAT Liberty have developed into artificial reefs, or around Menjangan Island in the north west, or where bio-rock reefs are being created (successfully) artificially, such as in Pemuteran.

Pretty reef scene with fish diving Indonesia by Diveplanit

The Nusa Penida group of islands is a rocky outcrop with steep drop-offs. Here you will find fringing reefs in sheltered areas, and pelagics visiting in-shore where that is close to a drop-off. It is also where you will find the Mola Mola – a fish really high up on the weirdness scale.

Gili Islands

Though possibly best known for being on the back-packer trail, the three Gili Islands are well-served by numerous dive operators. Unfortunately a lot of coral has been destroyed by unlawful fishing practices in the past, though many excellent dive sites still remain: there are walls and channels, plenty of turtles, and you will see sharks at the aptly named Shark Point. Efforts have been underway since 2000 to restore the reefs with many bio-rock installations already yielding fruit.

Diving Indonesia s Gili Islands has the best dive sites for diving with turtles & is a great place for travellers to meet new buddies. Dived with 7Seas Dive Gili

Lombok

The main settlement on Lombok is Mataram, and 12km south is Sekotong Bay. The bay itself offers sheltered diving, but the closer you get to Bangko-Bangko – the western most point – the stronger the currents will get.

The best diving is along the southern edge of Lombok which has steep drop-offs and sheltered bays. Typically, there are currents flowing towards the west, so any of the sites exposed to this current, notably The Magnet and The Cathedral, will provide challenging, yet rewarding, diving. When we say challenging we mean negative entry into strong current, and when we say rewarding we mean eagle rays, schools of tuna, reef sharks and hammerhead sharks.  Elsewhere, in the many sheltered bays, especially Belongas Bay and up near Kuta the diving varies according to site and offers coral gardens, walls and caves where you can see anything from the big stuff taking shelter from the current, through the usual mid-sized reef fish down to sea snakes and pygmy seahorses and nudis.

Komodo National Park

The Komodo National Park incorporates the three main islands of Komodo, Pinca and Padar. The rugged hillsides of dry savannah of these islands contrast starkly with the brilliant white (and pink!) sandy beaches and the blue waters surging over coral reefs.

As a result, the underwater terrain is also varied with sheer cliff walls, pinnacles, channels, sandy flat bottoms, underwater plateaus and slopes which make for a marine environment rich in many habitats including coral reefs, mangroves, seagrass beds, seamounts, and semi-enclosed bays. This diverse habitat supports an even more diverse fauna with over a 1,000 fish species and 100’s of corals and sponges. As well as the little stuff like nudis and pygmy seahorses, dugongs, sharks, manta rays, whales, dolphins, and turtles also make Komodo National Park their home.

A coral topped bommie diving The Cauldron at Komodo diving Indonesia Credit Moana

Note that the North and South parts of the National Park have different environments, water temperatures, viz, and windy seasons. The currents can be strong too – but this is more related to the moon phase.

Alor (Archipelago)

The Strait between Alor Island and Pandar Island to its west offers world class diving, though it should be noted that currents can be strong and surface conditions potentially rough.

However, the strong currents that attract the big fish like Whitetips, Grey Reef Sharks and tuna, and even Sunfish, Mantas and Whalesharks can be seen if you are there at the right time and lucky. It is also possible to snorkel with pilot whales that hunt in the waters between Pantar and Alor.

Access is via the main town of Kalabahi, which is 12 km from Mali Airport on the northern tip of Pulau Alor.

Ambon

Ambon is an island within the Maluku group known historically as the spice islands. This is another area renowned for its muck diving, but also the very strange critters to be found there such as the Rhinopias, Mandarinfish and frogfish.

Raja Ampat

Being both remote, and having one of the lowest population densities makes Raja Ampat simply stunning in respect of the unspoilt nature of the marine environment. In recognition of this national treasure, several Marine Protected Areas have been established. It breaks records for biodiversity of all types of species from coral to fish. Here you will see the big and the small and in abundance. Raja Ampat means Four Kings and refers to the four principal islands of: Batanta, Misool, Salawati and Waigeo (but in fact compromises almost 1500 other islands, atolls and uninhabited limestone outcrops).

Featherstars and anthias diving Sardine Reef at Raja Ampat Dampier Strait West Papua diving Indonesia by Diveplanit

North Sulawesi (Bunaken, Lembeh and Bangka)

North Sulawesi has three areas of diving, each offering its own unique appeal.

The five islands of Bunaken in the Bunaken Marine Park are surrounded by deep trenches providing a constant nutrient-rich water flow around the islands. This terrain provides both great walls of hard and soft corals (apparently 300 varieties) and also a rich variety of sealife (1,500 fish species). You’ll find everything from turtles to squat lobsters.

Swim up close with turtles diving Muka Kampung at Bunaken at Thalassa Dive Resort North Sulawesi diving Indonesia by Diveplanit

On the less accessible northern tip of North Sulawesi is the island of Bangka which does not drop off so steeply. The result is a large area of pristine and magnificent coral formations and abundant reef life.

On the eastern side of North Sulawesi lies the island of Lembeh. The strait between the island and the mainland is arguably the black sand muck diving capital of Indonesia. There are 40 odd sites offering relatively calm and shallow conditions, perfect for photographing the weird and wonderful critters to be found there. The diving is not limited to black sand – there are also wrecks, pinnacles and coral gardens.

Dwarf lionfish diving Black Rock near Manado at Thalassa Dive Resort North Sulawesi diving Indonesia by Diveplanit

Central Sulawesi  – Togean

The Togean Islands in the Gulf of Tomini, provides some of the calmest deep water dive sites in the world. As a result, there is a great variety of reef formations: isolated coral atolls with sheer walls, fringing reef slopes, barrier reefs, and thirty odd coral gardens. The Islands are also home to deep water features such as “The Crack” – an awesome swim through at 50 metres

South Sulawesi

The renowned resort of Wakatobi lies in South Sulawesi.

Derawan – Kalimantan

Derawan Island is in the province of East Kalimantan in Indonesia. The dive area includes submerged reefs and off-shore islets Sangalaki, Kakaban, Maratua, Panjang and Samama.

Another world class diving destination, but beware of both strong currents and up- and down-wellings. Similar to Nusa Penida, some sites are famous for large gatherings of manta rays. For those who’d prefer to gentle snorkel, there is also a jellyfish lake with harmless jettyfish.

Not so easy to get to though: first get to Berau, then 2 hours by road; or go to Tarakan, in Northern Kalimantan, and then south 3-4 hours by speed boat.

Belitung

Not really in the top Ten (there were eleven if you counted carefully!), but if you find yourself in Jakarta for a short period of time, this is still a diving option just a short flight away.

A noduled seastar diving Lighthouse Wreck at Belitung Island Bangka Belitung Islands diving Indonesia by Diveplanit

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Local Information

Before you go, it’s always a good idea to browse your own government’s website to see whether there are specific issues for your particular destination(s). Here’s a link to the Australian Government’s Smartraveller website which tends to be pretty comprehensive for Indonesia as it’s such a big destination for Australians.

Customs, Visa & Passport Information

Visitors are normally granted a 30-day visa on arrival for a fee of US$35. There can be lengthy queues at Immigration and Customs when you arrive at Denpasar; for a small fee, a local can assist you through processing very quickly. Check out the fees in advance and take (Australian or US dollar) bills in a combination of face values to cover the fees and this extra cost. Some airlines flying from Australia to Jakarta and Bali may offer a visa processing service on board the flight – take advantage of it. An additional 30 day extension visa can be purchased at immigration offices in Indonesia.

All persons departing Indonesia are required to pay departure tax (in Indonesian currency) at the point of departure. Departure tax can vary depending on the airport. From Jakarta International Airport, you will need to pay 150,000 IDR. From Bali International Airport you will need to pay 200,000 IDR, and Rp.25,000 will be charged on domestic routes.

Currency

The currency of Indonesia is the Rupiah. In round numbers AU$1 = 10,000 IDR. Credit cards, US$ and AU$ are widely accepted, obviously less so the further off the beaten track you go. Check with your resort or operator in advance, and carry cash only as required. Local ATM’s will usually dispense local currency against a Visa or Mastercard, but sometimes, with maddening randomness, they won’t.

Standard banking hours are from 8 am to 3 pm from Monday to Friday, though often you can change money at your hotel reception.

Weather

The Indonesian climate is distinctly tropical. The east monsoon from June to September brings dry weather while the west monsoon from December to March is moisture-laden often bringing rain, with the heaviest rainfalls recorded in December and January. The transitional period between these two are interposed by occasional rain showers. Humidity varies between 60 and 100 %.

Temperatures vary by location and range from 21°C to 33°C, except at higher altitudes which are much cooler.

Dress Code

Dress code is casual for both night and day. Pack t-shirts, shorts, light cotton dresses and swimwear. Sunscreens and hats are a must and joggers or sandals are good protection for walking and swimming around coral.

Visitors are asked to be careful not to offend local sensibilities. Wearing bikinis and ultra-brief swimming costumes is fine at a resort but not when visiting villages or shopping in town.

Locals swimming diving Belitung Island Bangka Belitung Islands diving Indonesia by Diveplanit

Observing Culture

Whilst at the resort, western culture is acceptable – and anything that isn’t will probably be politely pointed out to you. But once travelling around in Indonesia, which has a majority Muslim population, here are a few things you should be aware of:

  • Many Indonesians do not eat pork, or drink alcohol, and hence the concept of toasting with a drink is not practiced.
  • Many Indonesia women do not shake hands on greeting; many Indonesia men will shake hands with both hands.
  • During Ramadan, many Indonesian will fast during daylight hours, or certainly not eat in public. Eating, drinking and even smoking in public during this time can be considered impolite at best.
  • It is considered very rude to get angry, but not, for example, to stare. Don’t point with your index finger, try to remember to use your thumb.

Health

We recommend you take precautions against being bitten by mosquitoes, including using insect repellent, wearing long light coloured and loose-fitting clothing and ensuring your accommodation is mosquito proof. Tap water is not safe to drink. Unfortunately, bottled water is the only safe option in many places. However, many establishments do now provide water-cooler refill stations so you can refill your own water bottle.

It’s handy to have a stainless steel water bottle, as you can fill that with boiled water, seal it, cool it in a sink of cold tap water, and then put it in the fridge.

In the event of a medical emergency, contact the local emergency services on 118. Even if you suspect a decompression related injury, go through your local emergency services. You can additionally call the DAN International emergency hotline +1-919-684-9111. There are decompression chambers in Bali, Jakarta, Manado, Makassar and Kalimantan.

Telecommunications and Electricity

WiFi is available in resorts and hotels of any reasonable size. However, it may be restricted to around the lobby area, and you are likely to be sharing the fixed, available bandwidth with others.

Telephone numbers within Indonesia may have between 5 and 8 numbers depending on how old the exchange in that location is. Add to this the area code, and it can get pretty confusing – so always double check the digits and the number of digits if someone gives you a number verbally. The International access code varies depending on the telephone company used by the hotel.

Power points in Indonesia are 220-240 volts AC 50Hz with the European two round pins. (Type C, E and F). Some up-market hotels will have multi-sockets, but take at least one adaptor, depending on many gadgets you have. You can also get multi-cord USB adaptors which allow you to charge multiple mobile devices via a single USB power adaptor.

Tipping

Most hotels will add a 10% surcharge to your bill. In restaurants, where no surcharge has been added, 5-10% is the norm.

Useful links:

Indonesia’s official English language website.

Getting There

From Australia, Air Asia, Garuda, Qantas and Virgin all fly to Denpasar – and there is disappointingly little difference between their prices. Check the websites of all these carriers for specials. Fares are not as cheap as they used to be, but there are still deals to be had.

Jakarta is the other main hub into Indonesia, and there may be specials to Jakarta if you can work an itinerary around that, and then you could take in Belitung Island.

If your origin is not Australia, other transit points could be Singapore or Kuala Lumpur, directly to the airport closest to your dive destination. These would be:

  • Manado (MDC) for North Sulawesi
  • Makassar (Ujung Pandang) (UPG) for South Sulawesi
  • Sorong (SOQ) via either Jakarta, Manado or Makassar for Raja Ampat
  • Ambon (Pattimura Airport) (AMQ) via either Jakarta, Manado or Makassar for Ambon
  • Labuan Bajo (LBJ) via Bali (Denpasar) for Komodo

Click on the banner below to check out some options via Wego.