Before 1998, the closest surfers got to the Serangan reef breaks was on their airplane’s final approach (if landing during west winds), a half mile straight up in the air. Even then, to check the swell they were arriving to, they’d either be looking south to the distinctive curve of Nusa Dua, or to Sanur up North. Not straight down at a jumble of white water.
The reef back then was nearly 1.5 kilometers from Serangan beach, and to get to Serangan island itself you had to take a boat, as there was no bridge.
Consequently, the Serangan breaks were only sporadically surfed by expats with boats in Benoa Harbor, who’d take a dinghy ride. Only rarely would exploring surfers bother chartering a fishing outrigger to take them there. You couldn’t see from the break from anywhere, and judge whether the time or money would be worth it. If there was a swell, then Sanur, Hyatt, or the breaks down Nusa Dua way were no brainer options.
That 1.5 kilometers between beach and reef was Bali’s largest and most pristine sea grass lagoon. Then in 1997 a business consortium of powerful Jakarta people, in cahoots with the military, decided to landfill the lagoon, bringing in big honking sea dredges to pump sea floor muck. Pipes big enough to siphon whales, or a surf charter vessel, gushed and gushed and gushed, the flood visible from the far distance of Sanur’s shores. It was an ecological disaster of almost Biblical proportions, and then it turned into an economic disaster as well with the financial meltdown of 1998, leaving behind a moonscape of gray grit and goop.
But it did provide a land bridge to the island and driving access to within easy paddle distance of the reef. There wasn’t in those early days any sandy beach, just gray seashell muck. Took a while for the sand you see there now to gather. Those in the know bribed the Turtle Island Development Corporation guards and cruised right on through for solo surfs. Yeah, sure, Serangan is your basic B grade spot with A grade moments, but the lack of crowds, surfing by yourself or a few mates, more than made up for that (although I personally would take one Nusa Dua blue beauty over ten Serangan peaks, even with that notorious Nusa Dua current—except living where I do up Sanur way, I can’t stomach the traffic anymore. Serangan is much closer and easier on the nerves).
Despite the easy as pie access, Serangan was a secret spot for years. There wasn’t even a warung on the shore, not until one of the Serganan seagrass farmers opened a shack on close to the breakwater.
But there seems to be a “tipping point” law for secret spots—one day you’re surfing a place with say half a dozen others, maybe a stranger in the mix, and the next day, bam, it seems the whole horde is on the beach. It happens that fast. I’ve seen this occur over and over again on Bali, and it happened to Serangan in 2004 or so (my memory for dates is notorious, but I do remember the day I first saw a van-load pull up, and that sinking feeling in the stomach, knowing the place truly was history).
At any rate, Serangan Island today is surely one of the most unique surf breaks in the world, not for the surf, but for the cosmopolitan crowd that it draws from all over the world, at all stages of ability and talent and ages, on various water craft. The easy reform rollers, and the smaller peaks further surf, attract the surf schools as well.
I’ve seen from above air photos of places like Rincon or Kirra, the caption mentioning the crowd, and I’ve counted boards in the water in the photos. And I tell you, it’s not a patch compared to some days out at Serangan—I think my highest count one mid-morning was at 136 in the water, with about the same on the beach.
And to think it used to be the most inaccessible, and un-seeable, break on Bali.
That whole landfill is private property. If it gets turned into a marina, or hotel development, access might be shut down. Then the break might once again belong to those who put the time and effort to getting to it.