Lazing on a lounger at a shisha-themed resort called Pesona, I wonder which of the fifteen different dive shops should be the one to help me conquer my fear of being eaten alive by a great white shark. I’m on Gili Trawangan, one of three outlying islands off the coast of Lombok and only three hours away from most major tourist spots in Bali.
I’ve been living in Bali for almost six months and the sea’s been whispering my name like a seductive porn star. Practicing my buoyancy control with a host of multi-skilled, suntanned masters from foreign shores is looking more appealing by the minute, especially as I watch the brightly coloured boats sail past, full of semi-naked girls and guys all glistening in suncream from their roofs and decks.
Apart from of a few practice dives in Jamaica with a bulky cornrowed rasta called Bob, I haven’t done much scuba diving, but getting in with the divers on the Gili islands seems to be making people’s holidays to Bali and Lombok much more exciting. Not only are these oceanic masters a fun bunch who’ll tell you with utter certainty that no, there are no great white sharks in Indonesia and yes, they will absolutely rescue you first if there’s a tsunami, they also seem to know their way around the bars and local eating spots as well as they do the reefs. Bonus.
I choose to bless the Big Bubble dive shop with my shameful inability to swim like a human instead of a disabled octopus. Arms flailing, I take my first plunge and, although it’s a while before I regain the confidence I built up with rasta Bob, soon I’m flipping about like a mermaid.
Don’t drink and dive
Discover Scuba Diving takes half a day and if you’ve never before strapped fins to your feet and explored the deep with a tank of nitrogen on your back, this, right here is your chance. Fun dives cost on average $40 in the Gilis. Diving can be an expensive hobby – take it from someone who’s now broke – and this is your cheapest option. The Open Water course takes three to four days ($365) and gives you that all-important license to dive 18 metres.
Despite falling off a moving dive boat with my tank on my back (error), I manage to complete my PADI Advanced Open Water diving course ($290) while staying on Gili Trawangan. I do mine over two weeks because I’m quite busy doing other things, like discovering the dangerous appeal of Joss, an energy drink powder that’s pretty much a must in the Gilis, when followed by a vodka shooter in Tîr na Nôg, the Irish Bar. But you can do your Advanced in as little as two days, letting you dive to 30 metres. This is how you’ll spot the big fish – I see tons of stingrays – and if you head on over to Tulamben in Bali’s east afterwards, you can dive the USS Liberty and the Japanese shipwrecks ($70 with Baliku Dive, balikudiveresort.com), both amazing shore dives, meaning you walk in slowly and don’t risk falling off a boat.
Be careful if you opt to do your four-week Dive Master course in the Gilis ($785 plus books). At the end, it’s almost as compulsory to drink as much as you possibly can through a snorkel as it is to be able to zip up your own wetsuit and strap on a tank and compass. Did I mention that Gili Trawangan has been labeled the new Ibiza? You can party round the clock but remember, there’s quality surface-time and there’s flooding your bloodstream with all the wrong chemicals. The famous weekly parties on Gili T occur on Mondays, Wednesdays and Friday nights and the venues change on rotation. But don’t drink and dive, people. Especially not if it’s Joss on offer.
If you’re interested in keeping things green while you dive in the blue, all the dive shops on Gili Trawangan work alongside the Gili Eco Trust. Each diver pays a one-off reef tax of RP 50,000 (about $5) which goes toward maintaining the reefs, cleaning the beaches, educating local kids in ecology and protecting turtle hatchery, among other things.
Big Bubble has its own Biorock reef regeneration programme in the waters at the front of the dive shop. These nifty structures of all shapes and sizes, including a motorbike you can actually sit on, encourage new corals to grow, stop beach erosion and offer a home to thousands of fish and live corals. You can also take a course in reef gardening or PADI Biorock Specialty ($295), both of which can be completed in less than three days. If you can tear yourself away from the party scene, that is.
Swimming among the stars
I know I’ll never be able to afford to go to space, but when it comes to floating weightlessly in an alien environment, night diving is the closest I reckon I’ll ever get to joining Richard Branson and his mates on a Galactic voyage. Night diving offers the chance to enter the indigo depths and soar among the stars, in the form of bright neon bioluminescence swarming around the Biorock reef. I see octopus, squid, cuttlefish and plenty of sleeping fish, all of which look even more colorful by torchlight.
There’s a price agreement to keep things civil between the dive shops on Gili Trawangan, so prices for dives don’t tend to vary, although you’ll generally get a discount if you book in advance. See bigbubblediving.com for tips and info. Finding a bed is easy too. Backpackers on Gili Trawangan will easily find a fan room in a homestay for RP 100,000 per night ($10) in “the village”, but if you fancy a treat, go slightly upmarket at Pesona Resort like I do ($35 per night). God knows I need air-con after a few nights of homestay slumming – it’s bloody baking out there all day on a boat.
By day, I swim with Hawksbill and green turtles, creep up on lionfish, photograph snapping moray eels and dive pretty walls alongside blue-spotted rays at Gili Meno and Gili Air. Shark Point fails to attract any sharks but reefs Halik, Meno slope and Mirko’s bring ghost pipefish, banded sea snakes and sweet lips with pouts to rival Angelina Jolie’s. I fail to spot the pygmy sea horses, but photos in the dive shops are proof they’re down there. Maybe next time.
All aboard a liveaboard
You can’t go a day in the Gilis without bumping into some bronzed bragger who’s just got off a liveaboard. They’ll look extra salty and windswept and will be propping up the Irish Bar with tales of fire-breathing dragons and diving with sharks. You might roll your eyes like I do, but you’ll definitely be intrigued, as there are few other places in the world where you can do this stuff so cheaply. With a liveaboard trip you’ll stay for up to eight days on the ocean wave, on a traditional wooden schooner, which has to be the absolute best way to dive in Indonesia. Prices for a four-day, one-way trip to Flores from Gili Trawangan tend to start at around RP 1,000,000 ($100) and an eight-day trip including all food, dives and equipment is roughly $1400.
It’s pretty easy to stroll up the strip and see which dive team you like the look of. Pick the people you think are the hottest. Chances are you’ll be heading off on your boat with them and you might even meet your match – this actually happens more than you’d think.
You’re here to experience world-class scuba diving on what are still relatively undamaged reefs. Cannibal Rock is well-known as one of the most colourful dive sites in the world. Not only will you definitely find Nemo, you’ll get your pick of sea apples, photograph purple gorgonian fans and swim through rocky underwater outcrops, caves and chimneys. And yes, there are plenty of sharks.