After a few days on the Gili islands, I decided to walk up to a remote beach and try some snorkeling. Gili Trawangan has a LOT of dead coral washed up on it’s beaches. This is due to trampling and dynamite fishing, but is mostly due to a severe El Nino warm ocean current about 10 years ago. After seeing the detestation of the coral in Thailand a few years before, my expectations were low. The first time I went out I didn’t even bother bringing my camera.
When I hopped in the water at coral beach, my expectations were met. The water was only a few feet deep even hundreds of feet from sure and, consequently, the coral was mostly trampled. As I’d swim further from shore, things would gradually get a little better, so I just followed the fish. Once I got about 100 yards off shore though, things began to quickly change. Water here was 3 to 10 meters deep, and there were huge coral formations and lots of fish. It was awesome. I even came across a sea turtle. I followed it, and swam very close to it for about 5 minutes (at which point the water was getting too deep to see much. Once I got to particularly deep water I even saw the ghostly outline of a 6′ shark. The shark was shy, but it was a bit disconcerting so far from shore while by myself. Also, one of my fins was as tight as a tourniquet, and my left foot was turning colors. The water was also getting rough, and so far off shore it was best to head in.
The next day I headed out with Evan (from Victoria) and Bart (Pole from Amsterdam) and snorkeled nearly to exhaustion. We immediately saw turtles and tons of outstanding coral formation. The most scenic parts were in water that was about 5 meters (15′) deep. Whenever I’d go down to check something out, I could only stay for a few seconds before having to head back up for air- something that has always bothered me about snorkeling. Beautiful coral…interesting sea life…a nice island…warm, deep water…and about 8 dive shops to choose from. I decided that this was about the best opportunity ever to learn to dive.
All of the dive shops on the island set a fixed price, so the only way to shop was to talk to a few instructors and see who you like. The first shop I went to was Trawangan Dive . The couple who worked there (Di, from UK and Kim, from Paris) gave me some slicon to re-seal my camera underwater housing, and gave me some snorkeling advice, a few days before, and they seemed nice. I also checked out a few other shops. They all seemed fine, but Trawangan Dive was the only shop where I was able to talk to my instructors, and the only shop where I’d be the only student in the class.
Kim was my instructor. She’s been diving all over the world since she was a very small child, and has been a dive instructor in Thailand and Australia before coming to Gili. My first dive was a “discover diving course”. This was a basic introductory dive, just to make sure I really liked it without spending much money. The instruction was simple, and Kim was a very effective instructor, so everything went great. At the last minute, another guy who does an ‘intro’ dive every couple of years joined my dive. Since he’d already done it a few times, he didn’t require much instruction. Unfortunately, once we got down there he seemed even less skilled at it than I was, and he blew threw his air pretty quickly. We had to surface when I still had about 40% of my air left, but I still had a great time (I got to see a sea turtle and a water snake) and decided to continue on with the course.
The course moved a long pretty quickly. I went through several tanks of air in the pool, learning things like mask clearing, buoyancy control and, most importantly, safety issues and how to deal with emergencies. I think having learned things about fluid dynamics in engineering school helped out a lot.
Surfacing from my first ‘official’ instruction dive
On my next two dives, we saw lots of wildlife (while practicing the necessary skills, such as buoyancy, mask clearing, alternate air, regulator recovery, etc.). There were several turtles, moray eels, mantis shrimp, lion fish, big puffer fish with monkey-like faces, tuna, etc.
My third dive included my first wreck- a sunken barge off of a neighboring island. The fish just loved this thing. The photo didn’t come out well, but I encountered a wall of small fish, some tuna, and other divers. At one point, Kim was pointing excitedly at an old tire. I was right next to it, but didn’t really see anything interesting there, so I just shrugged. She had my camera at the time, so once we returned to shore she showed me that we found a scorpion “stone” fish- an extremely difficult to spot, ugly, extremely deadly- but completely non-aggressive fish.
Diving the wreck
My fourth dive- the last of the course, was along a sea wall. There was a strong current, so we drifted along for a while, enjoying the scenery. At one point, a pair of curious cuttlefish came out of the distance to check this out. Cuttlefish are amazing, and amazingly intelligent, animals. These things were really checking us out for quite a while simply because they were interested. Even though this is a no-no, after a few minutes Kim went over to one of them and started petting it, which the cuttlefish had no problem with. I got some video of this, which I might get up later if I get around to it.
Of course, this was the last dive of my course. One of my tasks, besides compass navigation and buoyancy control, was to swim without my mask for 30 seconds and then put it back on and clear it (which feels really weird at first- some people freak out at this). Unfortunately, the current was so strong at this point that we had to grab onto some random anchor cable. Kim had to hold onto my vest so I could demonstrate the task without getting swept away.
We got through it, and I now had my PADI open water certification, which allows me to dive with a friend down to 18 meters (60′). Since the bulk of the expense was already over I decided to take a couple of dives the next day. My morning dive was at “Shark Point”- near where I was snorkeling. While the instructors at Trawangan Dive are highly professional Europeans, the dive masters are locals, some of whom are more concerned with finding interesting fish than safety. This dive- my first since being certified, was down to 24 meters (78 feet- hard to see the surface from there), which was a little disconcerting at first. We did see a lot of animals down there, including rare, vibrant blue-ribbon eels, moray eels, blue-spotted sting rays and, most interestingly, about 5 small white-tip reef sharks.
Another interesting thing we saw on this dive was an ‘isotherm’. This is where a shallow, warm current and a deep, cold current come together. When we hit it, the temperature felt like it instantly dropped 10 degrees, but that wasn’t the strange thing. The weird part is that we could SEE the isotherm long before we felt it. The junction between the warm and cool water was very mirage-like and distorted. It was similar to seeing syrup dissolving into water. Very interesting.
When diving, your tank starts out with 200 bars of pressure (200x atmospheric pressure). The deeper one dives, the more air pressure you need in your lungs to breathe, so the quicker you use up your air. Once you hit 50 bar, you give the signal for “low on air” and begin your ascent- especially on a deep dive, where you need a few minutes at 3-5 meters to decompress. When I hit 50 bar, I gave the signal. The dive master acknowledged it, but then signaled me to look under a nearby ledge. There were lobsters, so I took a picture. Then he wanted the camera so he could take a picture. We checked out the lobsters for a while, and then I was at 45 bar. The other divers on this trip (a French couple) were very experienced and weren’t using their air as quickly. When I saw we weren’t going to come up for a bit, I started swimming several meters above everyone else so I wouldn’t use my air as quickly (and to decompress a bit more). Eventually, I was at about 8 or 9 meters, and the other three were down to around 20 or so. I was just hanging out, waiting, when the dive master signaled me to come back down!. I shook my head ‘no way!’ and gave him the signal for 20 bar- just enough to give the official decompression time to finish with almost no reserve. He wanted me to breathe from his alternate air source (he was a little guy, and had lots of experience, so he had lots of air left). If he would’ve given me his alternate air when I was at 50 bar, that would’ve been fine, but there was NO WAY I was swimming back down to 20 meters without enough air to get back up on my own. One of the older, more experienced Trawangan dive masters saw this exchange and thought I was out of air, so he left his clients with MY dive master and came up to give me his alternate air source (which I eventually would’ve needed, since he didn’t know I was already almost done with my decompression time). Anyway, I didn’t get into any situation that I couldn’t have safely gotten out of on my own, but I was really pissed off at this guys disregard for everything HE is supposed to do and I just learned! My first certified dive was a particularly poor time to pull this, so I was a bit pissed off.
Nevertheless, the dive shop was an excellent place to hang out (free coffee and tea!). Shawn and I spent a good chunk of the week there having drinks and talking to people- lots of fun (it was SO nice to do something as simple as getting your own cup of coffee, instead of ordering it at a restaurant!). A lot of people kept telling me how great night diving is. One problem with diving is, once you get deep, all the long-wavelength colors like red and yellow get washed out, and you’re left with blue and grey tones (that cuttlefish picture, above, had to have most of the colors added manually). You wind up with something a bit like this…
At night, you have artificial light and plenty of color- where it isn’t absolute blackness, that is. The weather was getting bad, so I was a bit nervous, but it was hard to turn down a new adventure. Since we’d have two dive masters for three clients I figured it’d be safe enough. The only calm spot we could find was right off shore, so the terrain and visibility weren’t great. Also, at night, everything becomes WAY more difficult. Even not running into others…or kicking them…or not being kicked…is extremely difficult. It was like a little underwater mosh pit. We didn’t seem much. Many of the fish looked a bit groggy and stunned. One needle fish really liked my light and came RIGHT up to it for a long time. We also saw some enormous sea cucumbers, and a small octopus. We also came across what looked like a jungle gym, but was the size of a house. This is a steel structure they run electricity through to stimulate coral growth. It looks like it was working well, but it was surprising to have the strong current run us into it as it abruptly came out of the shadows. You just can’t see far at night!
When we finished, I remembered something I had heard about before that I HAD to try. I covered my light and waved my hands around in front of my face. The sea was immediately filled with a mini meteor-shower of light from the luminescent plankton that glow like fireflys when disturbed. When we got to the boat, I’d hold on, put my face in the water, and kick to watch the ensuing light show. This was VERY cool, and this experience alone made the night dive worth while. Other than that, though, night diving was difficult and a bit disappointing, so I don’t think I’ll be doing much of that in the future, if any.
Now that I’m certified, I’m going to HAVE to dive the great Barrier Reef next month, which should be amazing (although expensive). I also hope to dive the Galapagos while in Ecuador, and in the future I hope to dive at the channel islands with my old California neighbor, Randy, Belize with my current neighbor, Chris, and the Florida Keys with Shawn’s cousin, John. While the last thing I need is another expensive hobby, diving is decidedly cool and something everyone should try. (Everyone who an swim that is- Kim says she has had students who couldn’t. Crazy!). There’s yet another amazing life experience to check off 🙂