For several days on Nusa Lembongan we had been intermittently studying the theory section for our Open Water dive course, and on January 2 it was finally time to start the practical part. We walked over to the company that would certify us, called Big Fish Diving, and met our main instructor, an English Divemaster named Rich, as well as our assistant instructor, a girl named Shauna from Saskatchewan who was completing her Divemaster course. They went over all the theory stuff again for what seemed like ages and then we put on all of our equipment and practiced a number of diving skills underwater in the pool like emptying the mask of water, taking the mask off and putting it back on again, taking the regulator out, finding it and putting it back in again, and removing the weight belt and replacing it. The trickiest one was at the surface of the water, when we had to remove our buoyancy vests and maneuver them and the air cylinder so we were sitting and floating on it, then flip around onto our backs and shrug back into the vests. With the weight belt on you would sink like a rock if you lost hold of the tank or vest and would have to quickly remove it.
The next day it stormed all day so it was lucky we only had theory to do again. We finished up the rest of our assignments and moved to a new hostel just down the beach for a change of scenery. On the 4th we woke up excited to do our first two ocean dives and made our way over to the dive shop to sort our gear out. After collecting everything we needed we walked with Rich and the other divers to the beach and boarded their nice diving boat. On the way out of the harbour we couldn’t help but notice one of the boats that had been anchored there had sunk yesterday during the storms as it now sat on the ocean bottom, half submerged in the shallow water. We made our way around the island to the shores of Nusa Penida, and after gearing up, rolled backwards off the boat into the sea, descending into a different world beneath the waves. We followed Rich on a little swim over the reef, seeing a myriad of different fish and all sorts of different coral in that short time. He pointed at a hole in the sand, and when we looked in we were surprised to see a large white eye peering back at us, which Rich later explained was an octopus. We found a sandy patch on the sea floor to kneel on and followed Rich’s hand signals and prompts to practice the same dive skills from the pool. At the beginning they were easier in the ocean because we had much more room to move around, but after a while the current picked up a bit and started pushing us around as we struggled to stay anchored in the sand and put our weight belts back on. Again, the trickiest bit was taking the vest off on the surface and struggling back into it, but we managed without too much trouble.
Back on the boat we had a quick lunch of nasi campur and made our way back to Nusa Lembongan where we did our second dive of the day at Mangrove point, the same spot we had snorkelled at. I found it kind of fortunate we got to see the same site from the two perspectives, as the contrast between snorkelling and diving became very apparent. While snorkelling you observe everything below from a distance, but while diving you are immersed in it. All the tropical fish and colourful coral are suddenly at arm’s reach. You can go deeper, stay down longer, and see a wider range of species in vastly greater detail. We did a couple more dive skills, but the current here was quite a bit stronger and it was very difficult to stay in one spot so we spent most of the time letting the current carry us over the reef, checking out all the critters that lived in and around it. Rich was meticulous in trying to train us to swim very close to the coral, which we were a bit reluctant to do because we were afraid of hitting the fragile structures with our flippers. His reasoning was quite sound, however, so we tried our best. The current is slowest directly above the reef due to friction between the moving water and all the coral, so the higher in the water column you swim, the faster you will go, and the lower you swim, the more time you have to enjoy all the sights the reef has to offer. It was quite tricky to get our buoyancy right, because when swimming to different depths you have to constantly find a new balance between gravity and your varying buoyancy both by inflating and deflating your vest and breathing in and out. Due to the effects of water compression the deeper you go the less buoyant you are, so more air needs to be released into the vest from your cylinder. As you come up in the water column, the air in your vest expands and you become more buoyant so it must be vented out, or you could rise uncontrollably to the surface. At the same time you have to balance all that with your breathing, because every time you take a breath in you rise and every time you exhale you sink. It is a skill that is tricky in the beginning, but apparently fairly easy to master with a bit more practice, something like learning to ride a bike.
Once the dive was complete we boated back to the dive shop where we filled out our new dive logs and wrote our final exam, the last part to the theory section of the course. Afterwards we chatted with Rich for a while and he told us about how cool diving under the ice was, something he had done a little bit of in Norway. By this time we were both hooked on diving and happy to hear about options to continue it back in Canada.