As you head out from the shores of east Bali on your morning dive you are surrounded by a host of tiny outrigger fishing boats, their sails flashing in the sunlight as they dance over the waves. It is a unique, entrancing and inspiring sight, all the more so because this is a very special place.
These fishermen (and you in your dive boat) are scudding over waters that lie on the cusp of geological and biological change. In the past, at times of low sea levels, this coastline marked the very tip of a massive Eurasian Continent. During those periods you could have walked all the way from Bali to Paris without getting your feet wet. However, even when the world’s oceans were at their lowest ebb, you could never have gone any further east without harnessing wind or mechanical power, due to the depth of the chasm between Bali and Lombok, the next island in the chain.
In the 19th century the great naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace spent time in the islands of what is now Indonesia and remarked on how different the species of bird and animal living in the west of the archipelago were from those that inhabited the east. His findings led him to draw a line on a chart that ran through the Makassar Straits between Borneo and Sulawesi, crossed the Banda Sea and continued down through the straits between Bali and Lombok. To the west of the line, in Bali, Borneo and beyond, animal and bird life was predominantly Asian. On the other side of the line, in Lombok, Sulawesi and further east, the animals and birds were strikingly different, mainly species that originated in or resembled those found in New Guinea or Australia. Brilliantly, he deduced that the reason was geological rather than biological: “I believe the western part to be a separated portion of continental Asia, the eastern the fragmentary prolongation of a former Pacific continent.” Of course, we now know that he was absolutely right!
During his trip Wallace also came up with the notion that natural selection was the driving force behind evolution. At the same time Charles Darwin was on the Beagle sailing the seas on the other side of the Pacific and drawing similar conclusions. But that is an entirely different story.
A Very, Very Big River
What Wallace could not know, in fact something that no-one noted until almost 100 years later, was that one of the factors preventing species crossing Wallace’s Line was an enormous moving body of water. The fossil and historical records show that elephants, orang-utans, bears, tigers and other Asian mammals never managed to bridge the gap. They got as far as Borneo and Bali but no further. Even those animals that tried to swim over or were caught on driftwood after a flood could never make the crossing as everything that enters the water on one side of the line is swept away far from land long before it can reach the other side.
In the Pacific Ocean to the northeast of the Indonesian archipelago, the sea level is about 20 centimetres above average. In the Indian Ocean south of Indonesia the sea level is 10 centimetres below average. This 30-centimetre drop between the oceans creates water movement on a massive scale, a phenomenon variously known as the Indonesian Throughflow or Pacific – Indian Throughflow. The most direct path between the oceans and the path taken by a large portion of the Throughflow, as you may have guessed, runs right along the Wallace Line between Borneo and Sulawesi then down through the straits between Bali and Lombok.
Visualise it as a very, very big river pouring through a canyon between continents. How big? Ocean current flows are measured in units called Sverdrups with one Sverdrup being 1 million cubic metres of water per second moving past a given point. The flow of the Amazon is about half a Sverdrup and the combined flow of all the rivers in the world is about one Sverdrup. The flow of the section of the Indonesian Throughflow that courses past the eastern tip of Bali is estimated to be 2.6 Sverdrups, that is, two and a half times the total of all the rivers of the world put together!
Creatures Great and Small
Thus, a vast amount of water is drawn from the Pacific Ocean and sweeps through tropical seas, across the equator and past the islands of northern Indonesia. As it travels, it picks up and carries along with it an enormous quantity of marine larvae, eggs and juveniles and deposits them wherever it encounters land. It is no surprise that most of the legendary Indonesian scuba diving destinations lie along the route taken by the Throughflow. For example, the calm bays of black volcanic sand in northeast Bali are astonishingly rich in rare species. Enterprising dive operators need only sink a stripped motor bike frame or a dozen broken bottles set in a block of concrete and they soon become a collecting point for small fry seeking sanctuary. These tiny fish attract predators such as frogfish, lionfish, scorpion fish, eels and other rare and fascinating creatures and they in turn attract scuba divers and snorkelers.
Dive guides who work in the area often report larger sightings too, such as dugongs and a host of cetaceans, including killer whales. There are sightings of bizarre and highly unusual marine life. Last year an amateur diver captured video of a long entirely transparent eel; the film became a Youtube sensation.
Diving the Throughflow
Beyond the calm water in the bays, the Throughflow provides dramatic drift diving along unusual seascapes. Towering barrel sponges lean at 45 degrees as if in the presence of a powerful wind and, in places, pinnacles and walls are scoured of their usual natural coating. But in the valleys and other places where the topography provides a little shelter from the onslaught of the current, the enormous profusion of corals and fish life can take your breath away. In one bay, for example, just a few metres off shore from the lines of colourful fishing boats that decorate the beach, you can find hectares upon hectares of multi-coloured staghorn coral, as glorious a sight as any of Bali’s rice field terraces. Drifting over these fields of pointed sculpture in pastel shades, populated by clouds of damselfish which rise and fall as you pass is a true magic carpet ride.
Cool Animals in Cool Water
The Throughflow passes by the southeast coast of Bali too and close to the village of Candidasa a series of small islands, some not much more than jagged shards, are home to some of Bali’s fishiest diving. Schools of jacks, rainbow runners and barracuda use the dramatic rock formations for shelter from the current and reef sharks circle around watching for weakness and waiting to strike.
Further south, attempting to block the southern end of the Lombok Straits like an ill-fitting plug is Nusa Penida, the exposed part of an undersea ridge that connects Bali with Lombok. The Throughflow races by on both sides of this island, offering healthy coral, lots of big animal sightings and exhilarating drifts. Sometimes, however, the ride can be a little too wild and conditions can change rapidly and vary dramatically. One day you will drop in on a site and be entertained by a dozen manta rays, which sweep in from the deep to feed on plankton in calm, bottle green water. On another day, the same site will be empty of fish and the ocean will merely throw you around in a soup of spume and spit you out into the southern ocean on a fast train ride to the horizon.
Seasons have an effect on the speed of the Throughflow, with August usually the strongest month when the southeast monsoon is at its zenith. This also coincides with mola-mola season around Nusa Penida. The arrival of these bizarre creatures may be linked to the increased strength of the current but this time of year also sees an upwelling of colder water in the south of the Lombok Straits and that may be significant too. The reliability of mola-mola sightings during this period has created a small boom in the local diving industry. Be warned if you are thinking of joining the crowds: water temperatures can drop to the high teens centigrade but when you are face to face with an oceanic sunfish measuring four metres from tip to tail you will probably not even notice!