The Critter Cradle is a eye-opening muck diving site located on Bali’s Northwest Coast at Puri Jati.
Drive along the coast to Siririt. Although the mountains towered over us, the coastal landscape was flat, the plain here, better known for its successful agriculture than anything else.
Arriving at Puri Jati we were amused to find that the only entry to the bay was wedged between a vineyard and a rice paddy. At its heart was a lovely temple and just as we pulled up, the local villagers started their rice harvest. While the guides set up the equipment we wandered over to greet them.
Sliding down over the sand, we hovered fairly closely on Ketut’s tail. We were unused to such a landscape and barely knew what to focus on. But he took us in hand and we soon got the feel for it. Pausing by a dinner plate sized patch of grass, he would gently wave his hand over it. As the fronds moved, he would watch for a change in the texture, and then he would magically reveal a creature. The first was the smallest slipper lobster we had ever seen. Under four centimeters long, this was a perfect replica of an adult, yet you could still see the incredible texture on its carapace.
We finned a little further and Ketut repeated the trick with some Halimeda algae, only to reveal the tiniest of beige seahorses. The smiles started and the cameras clicked frequently! OK, we were getting the feel for this. Moving at a snail’s pace over the sand, we would inspect every lump or outcrop. A walnut-sized rock might have a crab beneath it, a small tin would harbor a coconut octopus. Even when the film was all gone and the digital card was full, we would hover slowly and just wait for another minute creature to materialize. It was amazing what did and we were still spellbound at 82-minutes when Ketut tapped his computer and suggested we should go up. Where had the time gone?
On our second dive, we headed a little further to the west side of the bay, to the drop-off. After a long swim at 10m (33ft), desperately ignoring the urge to inspect every tiny object we swam over, we dropped over the edge and down to about 25m (82ft). The slope was a garden of small soft coral trees interspersed with sea cucumbers, sand dollars, and a few urchins. We spotted a cockatoo waspfish that was the size of a fingernail and a hand-sized adult a few meters away. Ketut pointed out a tiny white stonefish just 10mm long and several lionfish that were no bigger. There were more tiny seahorses and just-born filefish. To reinforce the maternity theme a split branch of bamboo harbored newly-laid squid eggs.
Perhaps a fascinating babies Ketut found – we would never have seen them – were two frogfish. The first was the nestled on the sand and hardly seemed bigger than the grains sitting beneath him, while the second must have drifted into some algae and settled there. They were both so tiny they hadn’t even developed a lure. Strangely, there were very few adults of any of these critters. Many fish eggs live life as plankton, then drift into calm waters. No doubt this sheltered bay gave them safe haven.
Although we had been in the water for such long stretches we couldn’t relinquish the chance of one more dive before sundown. Heading back over the sand we spotted a mass of shells, some with imperial shrimps living on them, and more imperials on cucumbers. We had just passed an eight centimeter-high juvenile batfish and were heading back to shore when there was one final discovery, one that more than justified the decision to spend the day diving here… a mimic octopus.
This absolutely delightful creature is one of nature’s best. A small member of the family, its body just the size of an egg, the mimic has long legs that are striped in black and white. His form of defense is to change his body shape from one thing to another. We watched him perform this impressive dance for ages, turning from a flounder to a crinoid and even a lionfish. We followed him around on the sand, camera firing madly until he eventually found a hole to dive into. He disappeared for a few minutes then reappeared to perform one of his finest impressions, a sea snake. Applause all round.
Bali’s Northwest Coast
The gentle silence and incredible calm of Bali’s northwest corner is a stark contrast to the cacophony of noise that greets arrivals at Denpasar’s sophisticated airport. And stepping out into bustling Kuta leaves you with no illusions that the Island of the Gods is also a serious tourist destination. But if you’re looking for the Bali of picture postcard beauty… the one we remembered from our younger days, when rice paddies were more prominent than shopping malls, then all you have to do is head north. Here, the island returns to an oasis, away from the hustle and bustle of the modern world. It seems that the fish must think so too, as they settle to spend their early years in the comparative safety of Siririt Bay.