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'


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