“Meester Lion and Mees Claudia are you ready? -We go find Mola?”
Diasa’s thick accent only added to his charm. At 80 feet he would pause and peer intently into the blue. Following his gaze, we saw nothing but blue water. But Diasa was unfazed, he would swim a little further, once again pausing to peer into the blue. After a few minutes of this we shrugged our shoulders and turned our attention to the colourful wall, leaving the peering to the expert. We were on a quest to see Bali’s Oceanic Sunfish, and to be frank, we were a touch sceptical.
But before long Diasa reached back, tapped his tank, and pointed one hand towards the deep blue. His other hand was moving up and down, clenched in a fist with thumb and little finger extended - the universal signal for the Oceanic Sunfish.
"...Diasa...pointed one hand towards the deep blue. The other hand was moving up and down, clenched in a fist with thumb and little finger extended - the universal signal for the Oceanic Sunfish."
"The sunfish was suspended, mouth pointed up at the surface. in a trance, while the seemingly tiny banner and butterfly fish went to work cleaning the passive giant"
Still we saw nothing. What was he on about? All we could see was a few banner fish and butterfly fish milling about in blue water. But something in Diasa’s eyes made us look more intently as we followed him slowly into blue water.
The whitish mouth was what we saw first, and as we approached the large prehistoric shape became apparent. The sunfish was suspended, mouth pointed up at the surface, in a trance, while the seemingly tiny banner and butterfly fish went to work cleaning the passive giant.
The Oceanic Sunfish, also known as the ‘Mola Mola’, is the largest bony fish in the sea. It is unusual looking fish due to the lack of a caudal fin, has a very rough skin, can grow up to 10 feet in length and can weigh more than a two-ton pick-up truck!
In subsequent dives with Diasa, we learned fast: rule number one: find banner fish activity in the water column and there is bound to be a Mola Mola being cleaned; rule number two: never underestimate Bali Hai’s dive guides!
From then on we stuck with Diasa like a remora on a shark, waiting for the tell tale hand signal that caused a fluttering in the chest.
"...from then on we stuck with Diasa, like a remora on a shark..."
During our trip, the Bali Hai crew ensured direct drops on Mola’s 4 days in a row, the winner being 8 sightings during a single dive. Most dives the Mola’s were lined up in rows, at times four or more!
This was precious time with one of the most archaic looking creatures on our planet. Most divers do not even know of its existence. It is rare to find divers that have ever seen one up close, and very few divers have had multiple sightings.
34 sightings in 6 dives was certainly an underwater photographer’s epiphany!
For us this was indeed an icon dive experience, but it came with many conditions and precautions that are in place to protect these magnificent creatures and ensure that by diving with them, we do not disturb their natural behaviour.
We had to contend with some very strong currents, sudden down currents, as well as cold thermo-clines ;we very quickly realised the value of choosing a safety conscious operator with an intimate knowledge of the region, based in the immediate area with an actual Mola Mola code of conduct in place.
Some operators arrive with day-trippers from all corners of the island, and throw caution to the wind. Their opportunistic and irresponsible tactics may unfortunately have a damaging effect on future diving with the Mola Mola in Bali. Responsible operators like Bali Hai Diving Adventures are doing everything within their power to ensure long term management measures are in place to conserve this resource. They support sustainable practises and go to great lengths to minimise diver impact. Divers can do their part by supporting operators with this kind of vision, especially when it comes to diving with the Mola Molas. There is more to it that simply jumping in and hoping to see the sunfish. Michael and his dive guides monitor the tide and plan accordingly, they know when and where the Molas are likely to be and they know when it is safest to dive the raging currents. We dived at different times every day, based on the changing tides.
On a day trip, they do not have this luxury, and often the divers do not see the Mola because they are restricted to a time of day which is not condusive to Molas, and find themselves in some tricky conditions underwater.
Michael Cortenbach, managing director of Bali Hai Diving Adventures, runs a sterling operation, having been in this game for 15 years. But 15 years ago, he recalls, no one knew about this fish. Rumour had it amongst the locals that there was something big in the waters - tiger shark was the popular misconception owing to the large dorsal fin!
Michael’s contribution to observational and formal research has resulted in a better understanding of this creature and how to protect it. Through the years he is one of very few that has kept track of the moon phases which signal the arrival of Ocean Sunfish in Balinese waters.
The Bali Hai Tide Huts, on Nusa Lembongan, a small island off Bali.
Spectacular views, and Mola Mola's only a stone's throw away.
The island of Bali is the morning of the earth – beauty emanates from every crevice. During our trip, we discovered that her riches overflow into the ocean, and divers cannot afford to miss out!
Take the time to make the most of the incredible diversity that Bali has to offer: Mola Mola’s, healthy reef systems, wrecks dripping with corals, not to mention rich black sand slopes, where the rarest, most unusual critters abound.
Take it easy, stay for a while- give Bali your undivided attention, and she will reveal her astounding secrets …..