The waters of Bali are awash with reef fish of all shapes and hues. From the warm and gently sloping reefs in the north to the current-swept shores of Penida and Lembongan in the south, the diverse diving will ensure you will not be short of encounters with bizarre, beautiful or even behemoth reef fish in Bali.
Reef fishes may be relatively sedentary, spending their adult lives on a small part of the reef, or they may be more mobile, moving about the reef or from one reef to another. Thanks to Bali's location in the centre of the Coral Triangle, there's no shortage of diversity on its dive sites, and there's always a cute, cool or colourful species to spot on every dive. Here are ten of our favourite reef fish in Bali to keep your eyes peeled for:
As members of the scorpionfish family, leaf scorpionfish resemble the missing link between regular scorpionfish and rhinopias. They can be found throughout Bali's dive sites and are relatively sedentary creatures, remaining within an area of the reef for a while. Your dive guide should know where they like to hang out, and their lack of movement makes them a reasonably easy fish to photograph.
The stonefishes are a subfamily of the scorpionfish family, and they are capable of packing quite the punch. Often touted as being the most venomous reef fish, in Bali, you can find them hiding in the sand on most dive sites. Reef stonefish tend to stay within a small area of the reef, often buried up to their eyeballs in the sand at the reef's edge.
While we should always try to avoid contact with the reef and the bottom when diving, this is especially important when searching for stonefish. Their backs are lined with spines, which act like hypodermic needles when pressed downward, shooting venom upwards into the offender. What follows next can only be described as severe pain!
While they may have faces that only their mothers could love, stonefish are always a pretty cool find, and your guide should know the best places to look for them.
Although relatively common, ornate ghostpipefish are well camouflaged and can be tricky to spot. These small, delicate fish are almost transparent, and the coloured trimmings on their fins can change colour to suit their background. Related to seahorses, ornate ghostpipefish have a distinct snout and are usually found in pairs hiding among featherstars, sea fans and weeds.
They are not always present, but rather appear in phases. If you spot one, chances are there will be many more on the reef. The ghostpipefish larvae are planktonic and drift into Bali's reefs on the currents. Once they have settled into a section of the reef, they will assimilate the surrounding colours to blend in.
Bumphead parrotfish rank among the bigger reef fish in Bali, and the best place to spot them in large numbers is the USAT Liberty wreck in Tulamben. There's a resident school of bumpheads that treat the wreck like a hotel; they head to the wreck at dusk for a sleep, and wake up at the crack of dawn to head out in search of breakfast.
Insider tip: Book a dawn dive on the wreck for the best chances of seeing the bumpheads. The wreck is at its quietest in the mornings, before the day trippers arrive, bringing divers from all over the island.
Everyone loves a cute frogfish, and you need not worry: there are frogfish of all shapes and colours in Bali. They got white frogfish, black frogfish, giant frogfish, small frogfish, warty frogfish, ugly frogfish, cute frogfish, painted frogfish, red frogfish, fat frogfish, hairy frogfish, sargassum frogfish; if they don't have it, you don't want it! Leaving Tarantino quotes aside, you can find frogfish on all of Bali's dive sites, and again, your guide will have a very good idea of where to look. They make excellent photography subjects, as they don't move too much, but the uniform colour of the black ones makes them notoriously difficult to get a clear image of.
Top spots for frogfish include under the jetty at Pandang Bai, at the USAT Liberty wreck and at Seraya Secrets in Tulamben.
Not all reef fish in Bali resemble fish. Despite their equine appearances, marine biologists assure us that seahorses are true fish. The rich reefs off Bali's coastline offer the chance to see a few different species of seahorses, with pygmy, common and thorny seahorses all quite common. Head up to the warm waters around Tulamben and Amed for the best chances, although they are also commonly spotted in Padang Bai to the east and Secret Bay near Menjangen Island.
To see pygmy seahorses, you just need to let your guide know; they will know exactly which sea fans to check and even which corner of that specific sea fan. Common seahorses like seagrass areas and thorny seahorses can be found on the reefs, often clinging to sponges or soft corals with their prehensile tails.
The reef manta ray (Mobula alfredi) is one of the largest and most iconic of all the reef fish in Bali. A cursory glance at a map of Bali's dive sites will give you a huge clue as to where to spot these huge rays: Manta Point and Manta Bay dive sites, on the ocean side of Nusa Penida.
Reef mantas are smaller than their oceanic cousins and like to frequent relatively shallow waters along coastal reefs. They head to Manta Point and Manta Bay to enjoy a pampering session at the cleaning stations, and while your guide may be reluctant to promise you mantas, you have to be quite unlucky to draw a blank at these sites. To maximise your and everyone else's enjoyment, be sure to pay close attention to the briefing and keep a respectful distance as the mantas circle the cleaning stations.
Black-Tipped Reef Shark
The shark-infused waters around Bali offer the chance to see a few different species of shark, with black-tipped reef sharks quite commonly encountered. More mobile than their white-tipped cousins, black-tips can often be seen cruising the shallow reef areas, and although tricky to photograph, their markings are quite distinguishing. Aside from the black tips to their pectoral, dorsal and caudal fins, they often also have a distinctive dark stripe along their bodies.
They tend to be quite skittish and don't hang around divers, but they patrol up and down the reef in small sections. If you see one, try and wait without too much movement, and there's a good chance it will come back and pass you again.
Not many divers would mention long-finned bannerfish when asked to list their favourite reef fish. In Bali, however, they can lead you to a pot of gold, so to speak. One of Bali's most famous denizens of the deep is the oceanic sunfish, or mola mola. While the huge sunfish are not technically reef fish (they are pelagic), they come to the reefs around Nusa Penida to get cleaned, and much of the mola's makeover is performed by the long-finned bannerfish.
Keep an eye out for them when diving at Crystal Bay and watch where they are heading. They may be on their way to an appointment at a cleaning station...
While the Indonesian wobbegong shark may belong to the carpet shark family, they are much more rug-like than carpet-like. They are usually found lying flat on the reef or under an overhang and don't move unless disturbed. Should you see one, be sure to approach slowly to avoid bringing a quick end to the encounter, and don't get too close. They pose little threat, but they have been known to defend themselves if they feel threatened or trapped. Give them plenty of space, but if you approach slowly, you should be able to get close enough for a great photo...