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Ocean dream at Lembongan | The West Australian

Leonie and I are sitting in a 9m open boat just off the rugged coast off Nusa Penida near Bali with skipper Plung at the helm and his knowledgeable first mate and cameraman, Wayan, at the ready.

It’s just after 7.30am on an overcast morning and already there are about 20 boats in two locations with crew and passengers in earnest search for the majestic manta rays, a major tourist attraction in these waters.

The manta is a massive, unhurried creature that moves along with as much grace as a pelican gliding the air currents.

We engaged Plung from Ocean Dream Lembongan for about $80 (there are cheaper options) for three hours, leaving from Mushroom Bay near our Bay Shore Huts bungalow, which cost less than $100 a night including breakfast taken from a deck with views across Badung Straits to the imposing Mount Agung which is often shrouded in mist.

Skipper Plung.
Camera IconSkipper Plung. Credit: Ray Wilson/Supplied

The circus that is the departure “port” at Sanur on Bali for Nusa Lembongan (about $40 return) is a fading memory, even though this was only our second day on the island.

It was chaotic.

An old fella was shooed away from Leonie by the ticketing ferry man as he tried to sell her a baby pigeon which he cradled in his hands as if it were a winning lotto ticket. For some of the time tourists can be sitting ducks up this way, but a pigeon?

Anyway, it would have been totally redundant because the wifi on Lembongan was excellent.

Without a jetty, boarding the boats about a quarter the size of a Rottnest ferry, anchored in the shallows can be hazardous. Tourists throw their shoes in a crate before wading into the water stirred by a swell and try to embark without stumbling against the propellers of the six outboard motors.

Boat push at Mushroom Bay
Camera IconBoat push at Mushroom Bay Credit: Ray Wilson/The West Australian

With a surging sea, often the stern gets stuck on the shore, triggering the appearance of a handful of staff, each weighing no more than 60kg wringing wet — and they were — trying desperately to get the boat floated as crew up towards the bow heave on poles to help get the ferry free of the sand.

It was the eye-opening introduction to our five-night stay on Lembongan but those memories were quickly breached by the urgent cry of “manta, manta, manta” from Captain Plung.

Tourists started tumbling over the side of all sorts of boats, including the traditional outrigger canoes (jukung or kano), which bring visitors to Manta Point and Manta Bay from Lembongan during the day and also are used as fishing boats to net mainly skipjack tuna for consumption by the locals.

Leonie Wilson has a close encounter with a manta ray.
Camera IconLeonie Wilson has a close encounter with a manta ray. Credit: Supplied

It was thoughtful of Plung to ask whether Leonie and I could swim as we plunged ungainly over the gunwales to join the posse of swimmers flipping and flapping in the 26C tropical waters.

Plung pointed in the direction of the manta, which had a wing span of four to five metres, as we joined the herd and started tracking the beast which was about six metres below and totally unfussed at being the star attraction.

As it glided along at pedestrian pace, the pack followed but I spotted another manta and motioned to Leonie to swim to me. We had this big guy almost to ourselves for what appeared an eternity.

After about 15 minutes we motioned to Plung, who was navigating through the surface traffic keeping an eye on us, that we were ready to get back aboard. At that point the experience ranked equally with our swim with a humpback off Tonga five years ago. A reassessment in its favour was to follow soon.

Two rays...Ray Wilson and a manta ray.
Camera IconTwo rays…Ray Wilson and a manta ray. Credit: Supplied

Our emotions were still buzzing from the first swim when Plung announced we’d try one more spot, and after about 500m he slowed the boat and began jabbering away to his mates on board other boats as the action-stations bellow of “manta” rang out.

This time the water was gin clear, as transparent and magical as a sand patch off Rottnest as Leonie and I jumped over again.

While the previous dive put us in the back stalls, this time we were in the front row, close enough to touch the manta who circled us and other swimmers without showing any sign of unease. Apparently, they are curious and smart.

It was wonderful in a pack your dacks sort of way. With its huge open mouth looking like a grill of a futuristic car that Elon Musk would design, the experience was as scary as it was exhilarating.

No matter how many times you are told these creatures, which date back 150 million years, are harmless, they don’t look harmless and the hairs on the back of my neck were of the same opinion.

At one stage Leonie tucked her legs into her chest as the manta swung her way as she figured she might have been swallowed whole. He would have bitten off more than he could have chewed though because he doesn’t have teeth.

So, they couldn’t eat you alive which is reassuring but the real sting in the tail is that there is no sting in the tail because mantas don’t have a venomous barb like the common old seaweed type of stingray.

Mantas are on the endangered list of sea creatures with numbers falling in recent years, partly because the gill plates in powder form are regarded as a health tonic in areas such as southern China.

That trip ended with a dive at Crystal Bay, again off Penida, a spot where reef fish of every possible colour dance in the currents, giving a theatrical performance worthy of any world snorkelling stage.

There is much more to the “Nusas” — Lembongan, Penida and Ceningan — than the manta rays, but the lifeblood of the area is undoubtedly the sea.

And following the adrenaline rush from the manta swim, Leonie and I decided to hire a scooter (under $10 a day) and head to the mangrove forest which covers the nor-east corner of the island.

Mushroom Bay, Lembongan.
Camera IconMushroom Bay, Lembongan. Credit: Ray Wilson/Supplied

At times in life logic gets trumped by romance and this was one of them of those times. The last time I rode a motorbike was in 1975 on Bali when my test involved manoeuvring the 125cc (I think) around a group of boulders on a dirt paddock. I remember I didn’t fall off, which was enough to get a licence, but also remember I had to whistle up the kid who rented me the bike to sprint over and show me how to stop it.

Anyway, I’d never driven a scooter either. Even by my standards where anything mechanical is a mystery, this should be a simple exercise. The problem is the roads are narrow, filled with potholes and crowded with scooters ridden by locals, which is no threat, and at times ignorant tourists which is far from fine. Helmets are generally regarded as surplus to needs.

Anyway, after a few self-taught lessons up and down the driveway into Bay Shore Huts, Leonie and I set off for the mangroves on a white-knuckle ride, before a swim about 400m offshore for an hour, marvelling at the coral and the fish life.

We came across our favourite, the eccentric looking trumpet fish, and all sorts of exotic species scooting around in and about the sea grass and under coral ledges, some looking like giant German war helmets.

Lembongan is an island for surfers, snorkellers, kayakers and stand-up paddle boarders, even cliff jumpers at Ceningan, or it can be nothing of the above. Many people use the tranquillity of inland villas to sit around a pool in the sun for a few days, eat cheaply and well, drink Bintang (wine is expensive) and read a book. Anymore laid-back and there would be no pulse to the place.

Our high-water mark of our five-day visit was eating at a Japanese restaurant in the middle of nowhere called Oishii – just do it – but of course the real highlight was to play with the mantas.

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