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Mola Magic!! 17 Oct 2006

Posted by cat64fish in Tales from the N2 bar.
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Mola-molas (or sunfish, as they are also known) have been on my list of fish to see for as long as I can remember, right alongside all the other big stuff like whalesharks, mantas etc. So it was with mixed emotions when I heard of people sighting 5, 6, 7 molas in dives in Bali. Previous experience had warned me that I might go and hear those dreaded words “… you just missed them … there were 7 of them here last week …”. However, I put those thoughts behind me … and prepared suitable protection for me and my monster baby for mola hunting on the 21 and 22 Sep 2006.

I was filled with nervous excitement as I prepared to enter the 20 degC plus water, with my monster baby in tow, to catch a glimpse of these strange giants. “The water looks good.” our guide, Menyun said. “Upwelling of cold water and the surface is calm … should be cold, but currents will be ok … and we are the first ones here!”


Menyun, our guide for the day

Indeed, we (Eunice and myself) were up at 6.30am for a bit of breakfast, before loading up onto Bali Scuba’s van at 7.30 for a short drive to the beach, where the boat was moored. There, we were joined by David, Bali Scuba’s owner – who had some new “toys” to try out. A small skiff brought us to he speedboat, where all our gear was already loaded up.


Me loading up my monster baby onto Bali Scuba’s speedboat


Eunice in layers, and her “special” cut off gloves

As we headed out, we were amazed by the surf breaking about 400m offshore … No wonder Bali is a surfer’s paradise, if the surf was this big on a relatively calm day! Once through the break in the fringing reefs, we were off, our twin 250hp engines shooting us through the 2m high swells towards Crystal Bay in Nusa Penida, off in the hazy distance.

The first clear sight of Nusa Penida was dramatic – waves crashing against its sheer cliff faces, bringing to mind the axiom “an immoveable object meeting an unstoppable force”. Then around the bend, the sheltered Crystal Bay … with a beach! We were the only boat there, but not for long, Menyun assured us. We geared up quickly and plunged into the chilly water. What would we see? Would I come up disappointed? More importantly, would I get any good photo?


The coastline of Nusa Pernida, on the way to Crystal Bay

I flashed back to the time on a liveaboard in the Philippines when my group saw a mola at Apo Reef – never seen there before, the veteran guides had told us. Three cameras, one video cam, but we only managed one hazy, blurry photo of the mola swimming away from us. Murphy was really busy that day as one of the divers had her macro lens on, the other’s camera didn’t work and the video cam decided to go on a holiday. And me, slow to react as usual, managed only one shot before the fish vanished into the deep.


A very hazy photo of the mola that got away in the Philippines

Back to the chilly present, I was glad for my 6 mil suit, hood and gloves that kept most of the cold out … that is until we hit the thermocline at about 20m – my dive computer showed 23 degC (down from 25) but it must have been at least 19! The cold literally took my breath away, and I was afraid with all the huffing and puffing I was doing, I’d run out of air and miss the show. Not to mention my depth was beeping and flashing, indicating my impeding exceedence of my normal dive limits.


All suited up and no where to go but down!

And then, in the blue … the unmistakable shape of the mola! Trying to remain calm, as we were told, so as not to startle the fish, we breached 45m for our first clear view of this amazing giant. It was in the typical face-up position it assumed for cleaning, with the schools of butterflyfishes and bannerfishes and the odd angelfish, pecking frantically at its skin for parasites.


The first mola we saw, in a typical “face-up” position for cleaning

So mesmerized by my first clear sighting of a mola, I vaguely noticed Menyun pointing behind the fish …. to another 3 mola lined up in a row in the same face-up position!! Trying not to scream in excitement, I (very calmly, I thought – but it could just have been the nitrogen talking) took a few pictures of the first mola and then proceeded to ascend slightly to try and get the 4 molas in a frame. No such luck as they were too spread out, and the nearest one was beginning to look nervous. Still, I managed to get 3 in a frame, which, now thinking about it, was quite amazing, given that I had to make split-decision thinking at about 45m to reset my camera settings in rapid succession to get the shot.


More-lah molas!!

We finally had to ascend to begin our decompression, elated, but craving for more. On our way back, we saw the 2nd batch of divers (about 5 in the group) heading in the direction we had come from. On the surface, the once empty cove now had 5 other boats with their divers getting ready to enter the water. We could see 4 more steaming in, and Menyun said that as many as 20 boats could be at the site! Wow … that’s about 100 divers in the water looking for molas on a crowded day!

Regardless of the crowd, I now had some pictures in the bag, and was eager to get more. Menyun’s plan was simple … come early, and be the first on the water for each dive, while the others were still finishing up their surface interval time … brilliant! We spotted 5 more molas in our next 5 dives – 3 more on the second dive, but none on the third, as the waters were getting warmer. The cold upwelling currents had gone, taking the molas with them. The next day’s diving was not as exciting as the first, as the upwelling currents didn’t start till the second dive, and only 2 molas were sighted, one each on our second last dive and last dive. We would have had a better session on our last dive with the mola if a diver from another group hadn’t gone rushing up to it and spooked it away. *Sigh* … humans!

With the number of divers and boats coming to this tiny part of the island, one wonders if this activity is sustainable, or if it harms the molas … being cautious divers, we *try* to keep a respectable distance, but our strobes would undoubtedly cause some disturbance to the behaviour of these animals. In the other extreme, impatient divers who rush up to the mola for that “once-in-a-lifetime” shot would cut short their cleaning … leading to who knows what effects? Even the shear number of divers in the water all bubbling away, is probably enough to scare these gentle giants away.


A wall of bubbles – a scary sight, and no doubt a scary sound as well, to the fish

While there is probably no shortage of cleaning stations – Menyun says there are even bigger molas on the other side of the cove, but the currents are so strong it is almost impossible to dive there – it is likely that Crystal Bay will become less of an attraction to the fish if the disturbance continues for a long time. I guess only time will tell.


Man-mola … mola-man?

Here are some links that have info on the sunfish:
http://www.amonline.net.au/fishes/fishfacts/fish/mola.htm
http://filaman.ifm-geomar.de/Summary/SpeciesSummary.php?id=1732
http://www.csulb.edu/web/labs/sharklab/students/current/dan/flash/project_mola.html

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