Besides the white sand beaches, fried noodles and sticky weather, to me Indonesia will always mean diving. After 14 proper dives (and one dramatic false start), I have fallen truly, madly, deeply for diving, Savage Garden stylee.
In the past 15 years I’d done 3 dives – all pretty hairy arrangements with no real training, but led me to know I’m comfortable with being underwater.
Lesson #5: O-ring, oh no…. an O-ring is pretty essential to diving.
The very first dive in Gili T was with my schoolfriend Kellie, who wanted to dive for the first time. After we had dived to around 6m under the surface, I heard a muffled bang and then a loud hissing noise -my O-ring had blown. What this basically means is that the component connecting my regulator (thing I breathe through) to my air tank had broken, so all the gas was now leaking out of my tank very quickly. Oh goody, my worst nightmare of losing air underwater was happening on the first dive, hurray!
The dive instructors are true pros, so after a little confusion I was quickly breathing from my instructor’s tank and we were heading back up. All my focus was on staying close to her and getting to the surface, so what had happened didn’t really sink in until later. Apparently it’s very rare for the O-ring to blow whilst actually underwater, neither instructor I had had ever seen it happen during a dive, so isn’t something to be focused on – but it did make me feel a bit nervous going back into the water a few days later.
My nerves quickly disappeared once I was in the water again though. When you’re underwater there is such a calmness, you weightlessly drift and float along, getting an insight into a whole world of colourful life with the crackle of the coral as your soundtrack. The more dives you do, the more natural the movement and buoyancy becomes, until you can focus almost entirely on the ebb and flow of currents, the depth of your breathing and what curious creatures surround you.
Lesson #6: it really is just like Finding Nemo
The visibility on the Gili islands and Komodo was fantastic (usually over 25m) and the reefs rich with life (even if the coral itself had suffered due to dynamite fishing in the past). It literally felt like diving into the real world version of Finding Nemo – families of clownfish getting tickled by anemones, countless turtles gliding through the ocean looking half-asleep (they eat jellyfish, which don’t provide them any nutrition, but do put them in a stoned-like state), huge schools of fish seemingly rushing to get to their destination, octopus and cuttlefish instantly shifting their camouflage to match the backdrop, smaller fish riding the slipstream of giant manta rays, moray eels slithering through hidden cracks in rocks, menacing looking sharks effortlessly soaring through strong currents… Everything is beautiful and curious and playing it’s role in this hidden world.
I wanted to do my PADI Openwater qualification during this trip, which is the first level of qualification in diving where you learn basic skills and can dive to 18m. However after a few dives I decided to go BIG and do the Advanced Openwater as well, to ensure I could do the more challenging dive sites across Southeast Asia.
In the Openwater, you do 4 dives and practice simple skills, like taking equipment on & off in water, navigating with a compass and achieving neutral buoyancy (where you’re not rising or sinking underwater).
For the Advanced Openwater you pick 5 types of dives to learn more specific skills, and I went with Peak Performance Buoyancy, Navigation, Deep Dive, Nitrox (enriched air) and Night Diving.
Night diving was a whole new experience, where you descend into complete darkness and shine a torch as a spotlight onto the coral to try and see nocturnal predators on the prowl. You’re surrounded by luminescent plankton, so if you hide your light and kick your fins, tiny glow in the dark specks dance around you, your own underwater rave!
Things got a bit geeky with Nitrox (which I loved, surprise surprise), where the air is ‘enriched’ to allow you to stay underwater for longer. Normally tanks contain around 21% oxygen, simulating our atmosphere, however increasing the % of oxygen allows you to safely dive for longer at reasonable depths. This allowed me to stay at 25m for a much longer time where I met 5 white-tipped reef sharks, and was my favourite dive in Gili T by far!
I then moved further East across Indonesia to get to Komodo National Park. A collection of 29 islands, Komodo is world-class for diving as well as its dragons. The great diving could be due to its location, sandwiched between the Indian and Pacific ocean, its strong currents favoured by larger animals or that it has been protected for over 35 years ago – although nobody really knows why.
My two days of diving were incredible – on my first dive at Batu Balon, around a pinnacle of rock, I met a large white-tipped reef shark and a dancing manta ray. My second dive was at Manta Point, where huge mantra rays effortlessly glided against currents so strong, we had to kick and cling to the bottom to try and stay in place. I did a ‘macro dive’, which is all about spotting peculiar small fish camouflaged to the sand and coral, each with a cool story shared by our passionate dive guide. Thinking about the oddball frogfish walking still makes me chuckle, and the two lionfish fighting goes down as one of my coolest GoPro vids to date. A few of my favourite moments, click to watch my vids…
I saw a few large manta rays, but this playful little manta stole the show for me.
Lionfish deliver their venom through the needle-like dorsal fins on their back, which is what they are battling with in this video.
This hairy frogfish is designed to camouflage with the coral, and wobbly teeters across the sand. Some good frogfish facts here…
Anyway, I’m sure you get the gist that I’m a fan of all this diving malarkey, and there will be a few good opportunities to dive again on my trip. Everyone I’ve met said I’ve done it in the wrong order, and that diving Thailand is a disappointment after Indonesia (which was definitely my experience snorkelling around Koh Tao), but I may check out some of the better sites on the West. Borneo and Philippines are also an option, but if you have any recommendations for this chunk of the world, please let me know!
I finished off my trip to Komodo with the legendary dragons. Growing up to 10ft, these are the largest reptiles alive today, with a closer resemblance to Godzilla or dinosaurs than a gecko. They harbour deadly bacteria in their stomach, so when they bite their prey becomes infected and has a slow, sad decline (sometimes weeks) until the dragons return to finish them off and eat their dinner. The male Komodo has a double penis (eew), and their mating takes around 3 hours – but there have been curious reports of female dragons laying fertile eggs, without ever meeting another dragon. The dragons are now protected from humans, but that doesn’t apply both ways – humans are frequently attacked by the dragons, with fatal consequences if not treated quickly. All-in-all, these are pretty curious creatures… but I’m pretty glad I didn’t grow up on Komodo island.