For nature lovers keen in watching wild dolphins in their natural habitat in South East Asia, Lovina at north Bali should on be their must-do list. This town is a laid-back 12 km stretch of coastline to the West of Singaraja. It is a welcomed respite from the bustle of mainstream enclaves like Kuta in the south. One thing that strikes you first is the black volcanic ash sand at Lovina beach. From a distance, the calm water looks dirty but is in fact crystal clear and safe for swimming. As with other parts of Bali, this sleepy town quickly fills with tourists from all over the world in July to August while Asians and Australians take their turn toward the year end.
Dolphins Watching in Lovina, North Bali
Kalibukbuk is the largest and most developed village but it is just two narrow streets of resorts, bars, restaurants, mini-marts and dive shops running down to the beach. There is a fairly wide range of accommodation from resorts, beach front villas, home stay BnB, restaurants and ‘warungs’ (small local eateries) to suit all budgets and tastes. Prices here generally about a third lower than in Kuta. But some of the more luxurious resorts are by no means cheap.
Lovina can be easily accessed by bus from all parts of Bali but the ride is both long and arduous from the East or South. My personal recommendation is getting a trusted local driver to pick you from airport and who also usually doubles as your guide (details at the bottom of this blog). Another reason why I seriously proposed engaging an experienced and safe driver as the roads of Bali are winding and narrow (my guide refers to them as Jalan Tikus – Rat Street. Not that you see rats, but that it’s narrow) And Balinese motorists come in all forms – some helmeted, some not, some taking the middle path slow, some stopped as and when they please without signaling, etc.
You can travel from Kuta in about 3 hours and from the airport or Sanur about 2.5 hours depending on traffic condition. The usual routes take you through Bedugul and through the winding mountain routes through Munduk. Along the way, you get to see temples, lakes and rice paddies that come to signify Bali. Should your flight arrived via the early morning slot (like in my case) your driver will stop for lunch at a local eatery along Luwus to experience Bali famous dish – the Babi Guling (roasted suckling pig, picture below).
Babi Guling, one of Bali most popular dishes. The pig is stuffed and marinated with a spicy mixture usually comprising herbs like turmeric, coriander seeds, lemongrass, black pepper and garlic and spit-roasted. It’s served with rice and fried pig innards and vegetables. It’s readily available at a wide choices of warungs where locals go to for lunch or dinner.
Our choice of accommodation in Lovina, the Lilin Lovina Beach Hotel. Just 5 villas (one 2 bedrooms and 4 one room villas) beachfront set-up just steps from the tranquil Lovina beach. You could walk bare-footed from your villa porch directly to the beach. One reason I chose this hotel was we could simply walk to our boat at the beach right in front of the hotel. The dolphin boats typically set off at 5.45am-6am daily. Now imagine if you were staying at Kuta, you need to pull yourself out of bed at ungodly hour for the 2.30am-3am pick up time at hotel to arrive at the beach by 6am. Factor in the winding roads and fatigue, going directly to Lovina after your arrival at Bali and stay for at least 2 nights presents a more relaxing option. And Lovina is more than just dolphins, if I may add.
Dusk at Lovina. When you are having fun, time always slip away more quickly. We arrived in Bali at the 10am flight, after customs clearance and baggage collection, a three hours drive , a twenty minute lunch, it was already late afternoon when we reached our resort. As you can see in the picture, we were the only guest on the 1st night. By the following night, all were fully booked. It doesn’t take much to fill up this resort.
The rooms at Lilin present a fresh take on resort-styled living. There is no cabinet to hang your clothing. But in its place, you have opened styled bamboo and wood hangers for that purpose. The TV and DVD players are available on request as many guests have preferred doing away with it. The hair shampoo, conditioner and body cleanser are stored in glass bottles and smelled really great. And this is the 1st time I see a 19L distilled water drum dispenser in the room. So staying hydrated is not a problem here.
The resort’s resident kitten- complimentary as part of the hotel amenities. This kitty and his mate became our constant companion at the resort. They certainly up the laid back ambience of beach front living.
Dawn breaks at Lovina. The air is cool and crisp while the cacophony of cockerels in nearby houses or beach dogs muted barking in the distance provided timely wake up call. No need to set your Smartphone alarm or the hotel front office wake up call.
The Lovina black sand beach. Just had to shoot this picture before we set off for our dolphin sighting. We have seen similar black sand beaches in Langkawi but the texture of the volcanic ash sand feels finer here. And the sand does not really stick to your feet. Just a splash with water from water urns at the resort porch and our feet are clean again.
Lovina is north facing. So the sunrise appears from inland, fringed by the Mt. Batur highlands. Over the 3 days we stayed at Lovina, I would say it’s a nice sunrise to wake up to. In this Oct-Dec hot season, it gets noon-hot and sunny from 1030am onwards. Really scorching hot, so get those sun lotion handy and keep well hydrated.
Our guide/driver Leo, teamed up with his uncle named Putu, who is also an experienced fisherman. His boat was clean and well maintained. In fact, he switched to quieter type of single outboard motor so that noise level are minimized, for benefits of both dolphins and tourists. I understand his boat Bulan Bintang is named after his daughter.
I have to admit this the only 2nd time my entire life that I did a selfie (ok, wefie, in this case). Just had to get myself into the picture, for this exciting dolphin sighting trip. Coming from highly urbanized Singapore, we had seen dolphin in captivity at marine parks and perhaps a cursory glance (which we could not even confirmed) during one of my many dive trips to Malaysia. So the prospect of seeing wild dolphins is highly anticipated.
Along the way, you can see structures like this located at various parts of the bay. According to our guide, these are “fish house” (or rampon, as the locals called it) which are actually man-made sanctuary for reef fishes. It’s quite expensive to construct and privately owned by wealthier fishermen.
The sea at Lovina is generally calm and peaceful at most time of the year, except for Jan-Mar period where it can get windy and choppy. So tranquil that you will be forgiven thinking it’s a lake. Just look at the reflection of the boat outrigger reflected in the mirror like sea surface.
At first impression, we seems to have the entire Lovina bay to ourselves, save for only one or two other boats speeding to the same sighting area (about 1 km out to sea). Of course, there are few more other boats in the distance, far far away but I couldn’t be more mistaken as you will see later.
These are the older version of double motors of older boats. It’s noisier than the single newer type of motor. But either way, these traditional outrigger boats (called jukung in local language) can’t outpace any of the dolphins, which are swifter and more agile. I checked with my guide and was advised he have never heard of any dolphins being injured by the motors blades. “The dolphins are very smart animals.” He said. I felt better already.
From just 1 or 2 boats beside us earlier, suddenly, the bay is filled with boats, as many as 25 during our first trip. Apparently the boatmen observed each other closely. Once the first possible dolphin of the morning is sighted, the whole gang of boatmen throttle up to zoom in on the center of action. Some observers have decry that such activity intrude on the dolphins and disrupt their natural environment. I am no marine biologist so I unable to comment on the matter. But from my observation, the Lovina dolphins appeared healthy with many juveniles spotted, frequently breaking the water surface and even doing aerial jumps. The locals know the dolphins are their lifeline and are mindful not to undermine the dolphins natural habitat.
Our first dolphins sighting of the morning. Suddenly, the 15-20min or so of scanning and searching the water surface and horizon paid off. Everyone gets excited and soon, you will be treated to a spectacle quite unlike anything else (that’s if you are like me, a wild dolphin “virgin”).
Pods of dolphins suddenly appeared out of ‘nowhere’. I asked my guide how many can we expect during the approximately 1 hour trip. He said “maybe 50, 60, maybe more” but half way through, I already lost count at 100. Dolphin sightings are a sure thing at Lovina, you have to be pretty unlucky not to see any, according to him. So far, he have yet to encounter none on any trip. During my 2 trips, I estimated we saw at least between 150-200 dolphins. And that is only around a small area of the Lovina Bay.
One of my favorite angles of dolphins photography. It reminds me of tail shots of gigantic sperm or humpback whales tail shots in nature documentaries. On a side note , “Killer Whales or Orcas, are actually dolphins. In fact, they are the largest member of the dolphin family, Delphinidae. Now strictly speaking, whales are marine animals of the order of Cetacea and occasionally Cetacea is used to refer to not just whales, but also porpoises and dolphins.” (from: Today I found out)
There are a few species of dolphins at Lovina. On both trips, the species we spotted was the Stenella Longirostris or Spinner Dolphins, mainly found in the tropical and subtropical waters in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Spinner Dolphins are six to seven feet long, pointy snout and have a three parts color pattern on their bodies. The pattern has a dark grey back, a pearl grey side panel and a whitish belly.
Can you see the family structure in this pod ? very human-like indeed ! From left, papa, mama, elder child and youngest child.
Caught this juvenile alongside an adult, certainly an amazing sight !
One of many pods of dolphins you will see. Swimming towards you, alongside your boat, away from you, near, far, it will challenge your ability to stay focused and predict where they break the water surface after inhaling air. This is what I call photographers’ adrenaline-rush. It’s like a baptism of fire. It will make you a better photographer.
I was blessed to capture when one of the adults performed an aerial jump. I was lost for words when I saw this image on my camera LCD screen on playback, speechless ! As if I struck gold !
Down with a big splash ! It was this juncture that I decided we should do another dolphin watch session the next morning before we move on to Kuta. How often can we witness such nature spectacle ? The subsequent pictures you see are from my 2nd dolphin watching session. I was doubly blessed on the 2nd session as you will see.
A few pods of dolphins all rushing out to deeper water in search of food…the dolphin boats are generally on low throttle at such moment to maximize viewing experience and minimize disturbance to the dolphins.
Another amazing sight of jumping dolphin and I was so lucky to be ready for it. This picture looks like a normal dolphin shot, except for one thing, did you notice there’s no other boats behind? that’s the difference in getting an experienced and service oriented boatman. Our boatman, Putu, observed the sea environment and break away from the big group of boat and look for our own dolphin where we can better enjoy the experience. Most of the other boatmen simply shut their engines and content to let their clients “wallow” within the congregation or follow other boatmen. All their pics are usually with boats in the background. Now you know, not all boatman are the same.
You could almost hear the dolphin shout “Weeeeeeee”. But jokes aside, you can really hear the dolphins breathing and purging the water from their blow hole and even their animated squealing.
My best shot jumping shot of the trip, truly beyond my expectation. My guide asked me if I enjoyed the dolphins so far, I replied jokingly ” Nope ! too many dolphins!” Frankly , I could die happy. 🙂 LOL
My fave daddy and son shot (or perhaps mommy and daughter ? )
Oh my God ! A spinner dolphin doing the “moonwalk”. Perhaps the late Michael Jackson got his inspiration watching dolphins ?
Here I am, asked my wife to snap a pic for memory. All the dolphins pics you saw are shot with my Canon EOS70D with Canon EF70-200mm F4L IS lens. I have shot fast paced F1 Grand Prix and various sports event but I can honestly say shooting dolphins (especially those jumping into the air) presents a whole new ball game.
You might wonder what’s pictures of my family having breakfast at our resort have to do with the blog flow so far ? Well, the usual schedule for most boats is to proceed to do snorkeling right after dolphin watching at the reefs, which are just a short distance from our resort. So you have a crowded reef snorkeling session. So instead of adding to the ‘mayhem’, we throttled back for our lovely unhurried breakfast after which, all the snorkelers would have left and we had the entire reefs to ourselves. That’s one huge advantage of staying at a beachfront villa. Hmm, now you see how’s the flow is coming along ya? Great tip ya?
Our tasty Danish pastry, just had to show this yummy pic of the chef’s work. I seldom take Danishs for breakfast. But the hotel breakfast set menu is pre-arranged. But having tasted it, it’s a crime to complain. :-9
Superbly baked egg omelette to round off breakfast with fruit plate. May I add coffee and tea was pretty good too. Bellisimo !
I think I just have to come to back to Lovina again. Just look at that view. So nice indeed!
Got our guide to shoot a picture for my family and myself. The depth at this reef is shallow, about 6-7 feet. The corals in the reef are thriving with no sign of coral bleaching from what I can see. Plenty of hard and soft corals and the marine residents are really friendly especially when you brought bread with you.
Look at the colourful fishes ! Shot with dedicated underwater camera. The bright sun light and clear water helped plenty toward getting shots like this.
There may not be bigger fishes like tuna or barracuda at this part of the reef. But when you do see those predators, I think these little friends will be in peril. For nice colour pictures, I prefer these little friends too?
The calm water at the reef means your children will enjoy the snorkeling session too, instead of contending with choppy waters and mass crowd as in other touristy snorkeling sites elsewhere.
So here you are, if you like advice on the Lovina dolphin trip, please feel free to drop me a message.
Many thanks for coming along the pixels journey. Do look out for updates on my website for other adventures. For other self-drive adventures, do check out my other travelogues here.
P.S – All pictures used in this blogs are all rights reserved and copyrighted to Jensen Chua Photography.