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Learning to dive in Indonesia’s gorgeous Gili Islands

By: Michelle Ng

“This had better be worth it,” I told my boyfriend Jotham as the fast boat we were on jerked violently on the choppy waters. I focused all my attention on fighting back the queasiness in my stomach. At the other end of the boat, a little boy no older than five had already lost the fight. Our friendly local guide, who had picked us up from our hotel in Bali earlier that morning, sensed my discomfort and offered me a chilled towel and bottled water.

“Sometimes, like today, the water condition is not good so the journey will be quite bumpy,” he explained, almost apologetically. Alas, not the ideal start to our holiday, but we were crossing our fingers hoping that the destination would make up for it.

We were heading out to Gili Trawangan, “Gili T”, with the sole purpose of becoming certified as Open Water Divers. Gili T is one of three small islands – the other two are Gili Meno and Gili Air – collectively known as the Gili Islands, just east of Bali, off the northwest coast of Lombok, Indonesia.

The Gili Islands have long been known for their thriving marine life and clear waters with high visibility almost all year round, making them a haven for backpackers and tourists looking to go off the beaten track. Naturally, diving is the number one activity, followed closely by snorkelling and, for the even more adventurous, free-diving, where divers dive with a single breath and no scuba equipment.

Island life

After two hours, our guide finally announced our arrival at Gili T. I had pored over multiple websites promising endless blue sea and equally blue skies, so I recognised the island immediately and perked up; Gili T certainly lived up to its reputation as a stunning, remote eco-island.

There are no docks on any of the three islands so everything, from passengers to fresh produce to giant crates of cheap Bintang beer, arrives directly on the beach. The goods are then hauled onto the backs of strong local men and carried ashore. With no motorised transport, the only means of transportation is via horse and cart, bicycle or on foot, a welcome change from the city lifestyle we’re so accustomed to.

Dive centres and accommodation suitable for all budgets dot the circumference of the island, and most are conveniently located near the drop-off point. After a short walk, with the aid of directions from our boat guide, we found our way to Manta Dive, where we had signed up to do our SSI Open Water Diver course.

The Preparation

The SSI Open Water Diver course is a four-day course and we had exactly four days on the island, so there was no time to waste. After dropping our bags at Gili Villas, we met with Aan, our bubbly local dive instructor with sun-kissed skin and hair and a sunny personality to match. We later found out that she’s the number one female Indonesian instructor and has certified the most number of students in her many years as a dive instructor.

Preparation for the course starts in the training pool, located within the dive centre compound, and is supplemented by theory learnt via a course book and videos. Everyone  has to sit through a multiple-choice test on the last day of the course, but to make it less painful (we are on holiday after all!), study sessions are usually done in your own time and are rather flexible so you don’t have to be stuck in a classroom on a beautiful sunny afternoon.

We had signed up online and had studied most of the theory on the SSI website before arriving, so we had significantly fewer study sessions than those who signed up at the dive centre itself.

In the training pool, we were joined by four Europeans to form a dive group, and Aan familiarised us with the various scuba diving equipment. Over the course of two days, she taught us all the essential skills, such as mask-clearing (clearing your mask of any water that has seeped in), regulator recovery (in case your regulator falls out of your mouth) and weight-belt ditching (in the rare case where you need to ascend to the surface immediately, especially if you’re running low on air).

Now, I’ve watched enough National Geographic documentaries to know that touching the coral reef on the seabed is a big no-no. Corals are sensitive creatures and may be destroyed upon contact, so keeping buoyant underwater is key. Easier said than done

The whole lot of us bobbed up and down helplessly like balloons as Aan patiently taught us to adjust our buoyancy compensator (BCD) to achieve neutral buoyancy. Once we’d got our training pat, we were ready to go out to sea for the real dives.

The dives

To qualify as an SSI Open Water Diver, you need a minimum of four dives in the open water with a dive instructor, so Aan scheduled us for two dives a day (one in the early morning and another in the late afternoon, with a break for lunch in the middle) for the next two days.

We boarded our boat, George, on the beach right in front of the dive shop for our first-ever dive. We felt a mixture of excitement and nervousness on the way to a dive site named Shallow Shark Point – where, despite its name, Aan had reassured us, shark sighting is rare and, when they appear briefly, they are small harmless sharks.

After doing the necessary safety checks at the dive site, we held on to our masks, crossed our fins and did a backward flip into the sea. I’ve done my fair share of snorkelling, but diving is a completely different experience: you’re part of the ocean instead of just peeking in from the surface.

Luckily for us, visibility was very good. Most of the time, we were just drifting along with the gentle current while staying as neutrally buoyant as we could, taking in the vibrant marine life around us. Sadly, we didn’t see any sharks that day, but we did spot schools of clownfish and angelfish, pufferfish and beautiful, unspoilt corals.

That afternoon and the next morning, we did our dives at Halik. The saying “practice makes perfect” rings true with diving. With each dive, I felt more confident and at ease underwater, moving about more gracefully than the previous dive, and was rewarded with sightings of octopus, scorpion fish, Moorish idols, box fish, giant stingrays and plenty of other gorgeous marine creatures I didn’t recognise.

Our fourth and last dive was at Turtle Point, where we descended to the maximum depth of 18 metres along a coral-covered cliff. As expected, turtles were in abundance, and at one point, Aan pointed out the large, grumpy head of a moray eel and a little anemone shrimp cleaning up the tentacles of a coral.

Little did we know, Aan had a surprise for us. In mid-ascent, she stopped, signalled us to gather around her, reached into a pocket in her BCD and indicated that we do the same. We did the same and fished out our SSI Open Water Dive certificate with our picture printed on it!

That night, our dive group celebrated our massive dive success and had our first drink of the trip (we weren’t supposed to drink before diving) and clinked glasses till late into the night by the sea.

Early the next morning, Jotham and I packed our bags and boarded the fast boat to Bali with heavy hearts; at Gili T, we had found a little piece of paradise on earth.

Our lovely villa
Our lovely villa

Dive with

Manta Dive is one of the leading dive resorts in the region, offering dive courses for all levels from newbie to instructor. Kids over seven can learn to dive, too. The experienced dive staff are a good mix of Indonesians and Westerners and speak a range of languages. They operate dive centres on both Gili Trawangan and Gili Air, the second-largest island, which is slightly more laidback and quieter than Gili T.

They operate two lots of accommodation on Gili T: the Manta Bungalows and Gili Villas. The former is mid-range accommodation with a high ceiling, a generous balcony and an open-air bathroom; the latter, where we stayed, is a cluster of four spacious villas. Each villa has two bedrooms with ensuite bathrooms, a private swimming pool, a living room and a kitchen. Breakfast is made to order; two lovely local ladies come at your requested time to lay the table and prepare your breakfast in the kitchen.

The Extras

Besides diving, there are plenty of activities to do on the Gili Islands. Go island-hopping and visit the other two islands, Gili Meno and Gili Air. Cooking classes, yoga, kayaking, kite-surfing, horse-riding, fishing and cycling ensure that there will never be a boring moment.

In the evening, the locals set up a night market selling various local food and sweets, which is always crowded and has a great atmosphere. There are also family-owned warungs, cafés selling healthy salads and juices, and upmarket seafood restaurants along the beach. Everyone is catered for.

Getting there

There are two ways to get to the Gili Islands – fly to Bali or Lombok and from there, travel by boat. Fast boats from Bali usually leave from Serangan Harbour and the journey takes two hours. Motion sickness pills are usually provided, and it’s advisable to take one even if you don’t usually suffer from motion sickness, as conditions vary from day to day. For those with young children looking for a shorter travel time, a better option is to travel via Lombok. Either hire a private boat or take one of the daily speedboats to get to the Gili Islands in less than 30 minutes.

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