Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Diving the Gili Islands

I remember first reading about the Gili Islands in a travel memoir before I even moved to Indonesia. The three islands of Gili Trawangan, Gili Meno and Gili Air were described as little-known rustic outposts for road-weary travelers looking for a place off the beaten track to put down their heavy backpacks. Days easily turned into weeks and months as travelers languished in hammocks, swam in the turquoise sea and enjoyed life on the traffic-free islands.

Today these islands are a major tourist destination in Indonesia - especially Gili Trawangan, which has gained a reputation as a party island with all-night raves and easy access to 'shrooms and pot. And although the diving opportunities were said to be plentiful, I had also heard that a lot of the coral around the islands had been damaged by El Nino beaching. For these two reasons, I had never been particularly interested in going to the Gilis but when I started researching places to dive with Henry, I reconsidered the Gilis because they're relatively easy to get to from Jakarta; they're tourist-friendly and offer a mix of Indonesian and Western food; and several friends had described Gili Air to me as a particularly lovely and romantic island with private bungalows and bamboo lounge chairs on the beach. So, we went to Gili Air and it was exactly as promised - I would recommend it to anyone looking for a little romantic getaway. However, things with Henry didn't exactly work out and I found myself finishing out the rest of the week by myself on Gili Trawangan - the one island I had been avoiding for the past year and a half.

Although I would never have planned a trip to Gili Trawangan for myself, it ironically turned out to be a pretty great solo travel destination and not nearly as much of a party island as I had feared. The island pretty much consists of one main street lined with dive shops and beach-front restaurants offering a good variety of food. Actually, it was pretty ideal in that way. I booked myself into a vaguely Indian themed hotel two doors down from the Blue Marlin dive shop and in between dives I went to a place called 'The Deli' that had excellent European style sandwiches and protein shakes. And the diving itself was much better than I had expected too. I have never seen so many sharks and turtles in my entire life! On practically every dive I saw one or the other. The coral, of course, can't compete with Gorontalo, but it was fun to see the bigger stuff. There was also a shipwreck and an interesting artificial reef called 'biorocks' that hosted a ton of marine life.

Yellow boxfish

Giant clam

Coral crab

Sea urchin


Sharks under rock
But without a doubt, the best diving experience I had in the Gilis was an exploratory muck dive with one of the Blue Marlin instructors. After a few days of seeing lots of sharks and turtles, I found myself getting restless and longing for a good macro muck dive but 'Hans Reef', the muck diving site off Gili Air, wasn't being dived that week because the water was green. After a bit of discussion with the instructors at the shop, Donna mentioned a brand-new site called 'Magic Pier' off the mainland of Lombok. This site was so new that Donna had never been to it. In fact, only one person on staff had ever dived it and he was out sick. Donna warned me that she had very little information to go on but she had been wanting to check out the site too for some time. So she agreed to take me there provided I understood she couldn't guarantee me anything and there was a good chance we wouldn't see anything at all. But being a newly certified Muck Diver, I was more than up for it and found it thrilling to be heading out for a real underwater exploration.

Once we got to the site and figured out which buoy corresponded to the rough sketch we had gotten from the shop, we splashed in and dropped down along the buoy line to 17 meters. There was only about a half meter of visibility!! Good thing Donna had her compass with her - she successfully led us towards the jetty despite the poor vis but I had to be extra vigilant about keeping my eye on her. I didn't want to get separated in half a meter of vis! After a good 20 minutes of poking around in the poor vis, we ascended to 11 meters where we found LOADS of cool stuff on the chain off the pier. We were convinced we could have found frogfish there if we had stayed longer but we decided to surface after 68 minutes. I really wanted to dive the site again the next day now that I knew what to look for but I had to fly home. If I ever go back to the Gilis, I'll be heading straight for 'Magic Pier'.

Unidentified fish at 'Magic Pier'

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Return to Gorontalo

With my newly certified dive buddy at my side, we set out overland for Gorontalo, where we met up with my ELF friend Mark for four days of excellent diving with Rantje. It was fun to show my sister where I used live and work and even more fun to show her my old diving haunts! And, after 60+ dives in Gorontalo last year without a camera, I was thrilled to finally be able to take pictures at some of my favorite dive sites. Although Colleen didn't get to see any of the whale sharks that occasionally cruise by overhead, she did see many other interesting things that make diving in Gorontalo so special such as the enormous intricately carved Salvador Dali sponges, the hundreds and hundreds of types of corals, the mysterious Jinn Caves dive site, and the local fishing village of Olele.

Surface interval @ Hidden Beach
(Rantje later used this photo in the new German language edition of the Miguel's Diving brochure!)

White-eyed moray eel

Beautiful Gorontalo corals!

Big ol' clam

Gorgonian crab @ Jinn Caves

Blue-spotted fantail stingray @ Jinn Caves

Unidentifed frogfish
Surface interval @ Olele Village
Another great Gorontalo dive comes to an end
Colleen left Indonesia with 18 dives under her belt! And she's a born natural too, although that's no surprise since she's a great swimmer. I can't wait for us to have more diving adventures together, wherever in the world that may be!

Monday, January 10, 2011

New Diver in the Family!

My sister, Colleen, came to visit me for nearly two weeks over Christmas vacation and she's now the second certified diver in the family!! She did her Open Water course at Two Fish Divers Lembeh at the same time Megan and I did our Muck Diver course. Lembeh is a pretty ideal place to do the Open Water course because there's virtually no current and divers can see some very cool stuff. My lucky sister saw a wonderpus on her second dive ever!

My sister with Gizmo, her Open Water Instructor
After completing her Open Water course, Colleen also did the Deep Adventure Dive and the Peak Performance Buoyancy Adventure Dive in preparation for the next stop on our diving vacation - Gorontalo!

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Wow..Muck Diver Course!

My ELF friend Megan and I have the distinguished honor of being the first two PADI certified Muck Divers in the world! We took this brand new course while staying with Two Fish Divers in Lembeh, Sulawesi - the "muck diving capital of the world".

Muck diving is diving in sandy, muddy or "mucky" water. The visibility might not be so good and there will probably be some tires and trash strewn about. But many people are drawn to this type of diving for chance to glimpse and photograph some truly bizarre looking creatures, or critters as they're called in the muck diving world. Lembeh is particularly famous for its black-sand muck diving.

Helen, one of the Two Fish instructors who designed the course, guided us through a series of peak performancy buoyancy drills underwater and told us about some of the crazy critters at Lembeh. As we we looked through a critter identification book before one of our dives, I mentioned to Helen that the thing I wanted to see most of all on this trip was a stargazer. I'd seen pictures of this creature before and it really freaked me out because it looks like a skeleton head buried in the sand. Helen said that the stargazers are seen more often on night dives but lucky for us, she managed to find one for us during our morning dive!

Stargazer - freaky or what?!

Some other special Lembeh critters I saw for the first time:

Giant Yellow Frogfish

Flamboyant Cuttlefish
The creatures in Lembeh were amazing. In addition to these, I saw snake eels, several strange crabs, spiny devil scorpionfish, coconut and reef octopuses, Ambon scorpionfish, Banggai cardinalfish, and many common seahorses. But this is still not enough - a return trip to Lembeh is a must in the future to check off a few other critters on my wish list including a hairy frogfish, a mimic octopus, a wonderpus, and a blue-ringed octopus!

Helen and I demonstrating the dive signal for 'ghost pipefish' - another great muck critter!