Golden Bridge Gate to Serene Ceningan
Sunset’s last rays turn Mount Agung’s summit amber, it’s eruption-scorched cone cutting a foreboding shape above evening mist, as the fast ferry carves its way through lazurite seas toward the lights of Lembogan island’s resorts.
Half an hour from Sanur Harbour (Bali’s Charing Cross for fast ferries), the island was once haven for those seeking peace from the mainland. These days arrivals are met with the familiar endless beachside restaurants, resorts and guest houses that have proliferated across Bali.
I am headed instead for neighbouring Ceningan - a place few, it seems, have heard of. This parallel island joined by the “yellow bridge” only wide enough for motorbikes, has a single dive resort. It’s quiet with a traditional village feel.
The resort’s pool (which is used for PADI Open Water training) and Bougainvillea flowers.
Ceningan Resort has operated for three years and has a good relationship with its island community as well as an international reputation. The resort, managed by husband and wife team Sandra and Robert, was proud winner of the 2018 Dive Operator of the Year BlueGreen360 Award.
The first thing that strikes you: there are only eight bungalows. The gardens are dressed with the customary bright pink Bougainvillea flowers but set against a lush green mangrove. Fiddler crabs, each with one implausibly large white claw, dance on the mud at low tide. Gerygones sing among the dense foliage and Purple Herons pass to and from nearby roosts at dawn and dusk.
Perhaps not surprisingly the resort is busy most of the year. Yet when I ask director Robert Scales, what next, his answer is refreshingly honest.
“We don’t plan on building more bungalows” he says, “we plan on replacing one of our boats. For now, we are working on the new pool, new classroom and diving facilities, doing more landscaping and expanding our gardens. Right now we grow our own lettuce and herbs such as basil, kale, and mint ... which we use for our mojito cocktails”.
Looking back towards the yellow bridge. To reach here, you take a fast ferry from Sanur Harbour which includes a 20 minute car journey to the bridge. From there, Ceningan Divers will pick you up from the bridge by boat and transfer you to the resort jetty.
The resort recently became Green Fins accredited, a UN program to reduce diver impacts on reefs. Robert is optimistic. He says “there are many operators working together to improve standards. Things have improved markedly over the years” We are also working with Bali’s Coral Triangle Center doing coral reef monitoring. We spearheaded Trash Hero Ceningan and lead the weekly beach cleanups on Nusa Ceningan.
Sustainability and diving should go hand in hand. Low impact resort choice is just a start to offsetting the effect of what is, for most of us, an indulgent past time - not to mention the aviation fuel burnt to get to these places.
Guests Andrew and Julie work in the London banking sector and I asked what attracted them here. “It was largely the ecological credentials of the place”, says Julie. I get the sense everyone here, people from Germany, England, Scotland, Australia and Singapore, share the same philosophy. No one needs typical luxury, they are seeking an experience that doesn’t take away from the place.
Customary Indonesian hospitality, clean, comfortable rooms, good food and great small-group trips is all most people want ... that and the relative seclusion a place like this brings. It’s far enough from the incessant hum of Bali’s traditional tourist centres, to be ‘differently’ exclusive and feels like a get-away in the full sense of the word.
Bungalows at Ceningan Resort use bio septic toilets, well-water for showers and the resort runs a strict no plastic policy. Energy independence is still a way off. “Solar production can’t keep up with the demand for air conditioning”, says Robert. Whereas once tourists would have been happy with a fan, aircon is a commodity most now can’t do without. Robert’s hopeful that eventually this problem will be solved too.
Heading out to a morning dive. Most of the sites are no more than about a 30 minute boat ride.
After four years of quite regular trips and about 75 dives, I had decided it was time to do a long-overdue Advanced PADI Dive course. Ceningan Divers was highly recommended for its training but mostly I wanted to learn somewhere with strong sustainability values.
For the beginner there is a pool for basic skills. First-timers were doing their PADI Open Water during my stay. Diving doesn’t have to be scary but it does have to be well taught. Robert says “we do small group lessons over four days for PADI Open Water courses. It’s something you only do once in your life so it’s worth doing well”.
The Advanced qualification I was taking, among other things, permits you to go slightly deeper. It’s also to refresh and refine skills, reinforce some of those things that have become habit, specialise a little bit and get valuable pointers from trainers who dive every day. My instructor demonstrated the same values which Ceningan Divers promote: safety, and a passion for marine wildlife and respect for the reef and ocean conservation.
Our first dive, there is mild current and visibility is good. There are other boats around but enough space to feel like you’re getting away.
A Banded Sea Krait commutes to the surface for air, passing us as we descend. We reach the sea floor and gently proceed down a shallow slope. A toothy Moray Eel turns out of its hole, agape, threatening skyward ... it’s posturing towards a Wobbegong resting inches from its home. Nearby, a Giant Frogfish stands motionless inside a barrel sponge. A cold current emanates from the deep, and a Mottled Ray glides past, its shape shimmering through the thermocline, then we round a corner and two Ocean Sunfish are hanging motionless.
They are tantalisingly close to the reef but other divers ahead of us are a bit too keen. The current isn’t conducive to staying put anyway, so we watch from afar ... as we turn back, we see with two or three flaps, these harmless monster-sized fish, disappearing into the distance.
Photo, Ceningan Divers. Ocean Sunfish congregate in cold water upwellings in and around Nusa Penida Marine National Park. This usually happens between about July and October.
As it happens we have another Sunfish encounter - alone - on the second dive and hang quietly for five minutes, about 15m away as ‘our’ sunfish reclines head-up, attended to by Long-finned Banner Fish, one of the predominant cleaner fish for the Ocean Sunfish here. The landscape and visibility is fantastic so we practice navigation skills, adding Giant Trevally, Green Turtle and a few nudibranchs along the way. Not bad for the first two training dives.
A side note: at the first sunfish, a diver from another resort, was wearing gloves; hanging onto the coral and breaking pieces off as we watch.
Glove wearing is completely unnecessary and banning them is one of the measures Green Fins introduces as part of its accreditation policy.
Ceningan Divers doesn’t allow its guests to wear gloves and operates a strict no-contact policy. The average diver impacts a reef 5.79 times per dive, which is contributing heavily to the loss of coral at unregulated dive sites.
Like all large marine animals, these fish can be curious but most often scatter, if provoked even from afar.
The code of conduct specifies 5m. We gave ours more like 15m and would only have got closer if it had come to us. It’s important never to chase any animal. The time they spend at these cleaning stations is vital for health and fitness and we don’t know what damage we’re doing to them with continual disturbance.
Also, Sunfish are easily disturbed and in the eagerness to get close, most divers probably don’t realise, they are are jeopardising the experience for themselves and everyone else too.
Currents and surge around these islands are naturally variable and occasionally quite strong. Our afternoon drift dive is a bit of a rollercoaster ... great chance to practice buoyancy under pressure ... but no time to stick around and admire much.
But diving is, like all nature-based experiences, hit and miss. Having less refined experiences means, you enjoy even more, the ones that thrill. Low points make it more rewarding and a good team - like Robert’s - will find conditions to suit interests and skills from beginner to expert.
The conditions on our final couple of dives are almost perfect. It’s calm and clear enough to enjoy the serenity of the underwater seascape, a view all too frequently missed, when searching for critters - though we do have an encounter with four appropriately named Sexy Shrimp, waggling their adornments like tiny burlesque-dancers, perched on a tiny table-coral - and a Green Turtle we left undisturbed, taking a nap beneath an overhang.
Landscape with Moorish Idols (left) and a Clown Triggerfish (centre right).
The privilege of visiting with operators that promote a genuine care, is they attract people who are like-minded. The thrill for me, was to share time with Robert’s staff and guests, people who care as much as I do about conservation.
Because how we define sustainable diving is more complex than our own behaviour. It’s a collective effort and we all need to do more to promote it in the consciousness of all divers. To know the place you’re visiting isn’t making empty promises but instead working hard with guests and the local community to actively manage and conserve habitats for wildlife, is essential. Because, the future of all the world’s reefs is under threat more than ever.
Thankfully the dive industry has places like Ceningan Dive Resort to help showcase the way things should be, to lead by example, and give other resorts and the world’s divers hope and alternatives to be more responsible.
On a final footnote, sustainability is more important, rewarding and valuable than anything over and above the critical safety and skills elements learnt during the Advanced Dive course. It was a significant part of discussions in the Advanced Course, due to Ceningan Diver’s commitments and my interests. Yet it is not part of the voluntary syllabus (thought it is an underlined message). Hopefully in due course it will become more detailed and compulsory. This way, together, maybe we can all learn to do more to protect the world’s most fragile places for us and future divers to enjoy.
Getting to Ceningan
Contact us and we can arrange door step to door step travel, as well as advise on seasonality, an airport hotel (if required), transfers and other needs.
The main thing to be aware of, is that Ceningan is reached via ferries to Lembogan, which leave from Sanur. It's a wet-launch, which means you need to be wearing shorts as the walk to the boat will have you in up to thigh-deep water. After check-in, your bags will be carried to the boat by porters, then you board. Check the wind direction. Sit on the leeward side juts behind an open window if you can - the boats roll a bit and it will be a more pleasant trip, if you have some breeze (waves constantly crash into the windward side and windows have to remain shut).
On arrival in Lembogan, you will be ushered to a car waiting to take you to Ceningan (20 minutes). Remember, everything can seem a bit chaotic in Indonesia but it works. Put your faith in the staff and they will get you there. You will be dropped at the Yellow Bridge. Walk down the left hand side and ask for Ceningan Divers. Your boat should be there ready to pick you up.