18 Metres Below Sea Level from 5550 Above

Our second day of ocean dives, and final day of the course got underway when we clambered back into the boat the following morning. We were surprised to see that yet another boat had sunk that night right beside the first one. Everybody was confused why another, nice, new looking boat had sunk on a calm evening, but that’s just Indonesia I guess. It had been mentioned that they were hoping to take us to Manta Point that day, where we would likely see giant 6 meter wide reef manta rays so we had high hopes, but unfortunately the choppy seas and unpredictable currents synonymous with the rainy season made it too unsafe to go there. Instead we made our way around the island to Crystal Bay, the world famous diving site we had seen from the warung on New Year’s Eve. Unfortunately it was not the season for mola mola so we didn’t see any of those strange creatures either, but we did have an amazingly fun dive.

Emily had a bit of trouble equalizing the pressure in her ears on the descent so Rich stayed with her and I went with Shauna, who had joined us for part of her Divemaster training. She operated our new underwater camera for the first part of the dive, and then I got to use it during the second dive. We descended onto a sandy slope and I immediately saw several flounder hovering around on top of the sand. They are a particularly strange species that are born with eyes on the sides of their heads like normal fish, but as they get older they start to swim on their sides and one eye moves towards the other until they are both on top of the head. It was almost impossible to spot them when they were stationary because they hug the sand so tightly and actually change their colour slightly to match that of their substrate. Shortly after I saw a juvenile lionfish, which is a very distinctive looking species sporting masses of poisonous spines. It is found naturally in these waters but was introduced through the pet trade to the Caribbean, where it is currently wreaking havoc on the local ecosystems by eating everything smaller than it. Once Emily sorted out her ears we descended all the way to 18 meters, the maximum depth we are permitted to go to with our new Open Water diving certification. Rich then took us to what he had called a coral bomb, a giant sort of round mass of coral growing out of the sand. It was quite impressive to look at, with all sorts of strangely shaped coral agglomerations contributing to its girth and height. On the swim towards it we saw several species of eels poking their heads out of the sand and looking around. Upon reaching the bomb we followed Rich under an overhanging piece of it and looked up to see the bubbles we exhaled hit the roof of coral above and make their way up to join a large, gyrating pocket of bubbles at the highest point of the roof. As we turned and swam away we could see thousands of little bubbles seemingly boiling out the top of the bomb, as our air slowly filtered through the coral on its way to the surface.

Due to currents and choppy water we had to go back to Mangrove Point again for our last dive. Along the way we passed an area of strangely flat water where it was apparent something different was going on with the ocean currents. Rich explained it was a large upwelling where nutrient rich water from the deep moves up to the surface, which results in high densities of phytoplankton and zooplankton. They in turn feed the rest of the food chain, including some very large pelagic species like manta rays and whale sharks that are known to inhabit or move through the area. The current at our dive site was much stronger today so we really had to practice staying low on the reef to avoid shooting ahead of Rich and Shauna. Again this section of reef surprised us with its beauty, as apparently we had dived on the most pristine part of it. The density and color of different species of coral was amazing, with an equally impressive assortment of fish. We zipped right along, hardly having to swim at all in the current, and noticed a couple of exciting new species like a moray eel, a nudibranch, and a ghost crab living in an anemone. Toward the end of the dive we were swept over a devastated area full of dead, white shattered coral all lying flat on the sea floor. It may have been a result of dynamite fishing, which is slowly being outlawed around many dive destinations. The locals throw dynamite out of boats, let it explode in the water and collect all the dead fish that rise to the surface to eat. After the dive we were awarded our new Open Water Diver certification cards and went back to the deck of our bungalow to enjoy the sunset over the ocean with a few Bintangs.

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Scuba School

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.

Sometimes She Drives Me to Drink: New Year’s on Nusa

We caught a tourist shuttle from Ubud to Sanur early in the morning and found a relatively cheap fastboat to the island of Nusa Lembongan. Fastboats are quite common in the touristy areas of Indonesia as they link the plethora of islands that make up the archipelago. They are covered boats about 40 feet long that tend to sport an unnecessarily high number of outboard motors. The signs for the different companies advertised boats with anywhere from 750 – 1000 horsepower. Ours turned out to be a very, very fast boat captained by a crazy, shirtless Indonesian man with a penchant for high speeds in high seas. We bombed across the strait between the islands, launching off big waves into the air and thundering back down into the next swell. The waters around Indonesia can get very rough and choppy during the rainy season and today was no exception. I found the crossing to be rather terrifying and even Emily, who thus far seemed to be missing the part of her brain that encodes fear, was a bit nervous. It was quite a relief when we cruised into the sheltered bay on the island and things settled down. I got into a better mood right away when I looked out the boat window and saw a dolphin come to the surface and dive down again.

Nusa Lembongan was really nice and we found a fairly cheap place with a pool right on the beach that we pretty well had to ourselves most of the time. We took it easy for the first couple of days and just relaxed and swam in the pool, testing our new snorkeling gear and underwater camera. On the third day there we took a sweltering walk around to the other side of the small island to Mangrove Point, a group of small warungs and tour outfits offering snorkelling trips on the reef and boat tours through the mangroves. We had bought our own snorkels and flippers in Kuta so we started wading out through a long, shallow expanse of water toward the boats and other snorkelers and divers about 250 meters offshore. Fearless Emily, who didn’t bat an eyelash when a 3000 pound rhino started to charge us in Chitwan, and enjoys terrifying Mach 3 bus rides, was mortified that she might poke her foot on an urchin and was moving very slow indeed. But when she bent down and picked a particularly spiny one out of the water, balancing it on her flipper, I was convinced that maybe this idea was a bit ill-conceived and we walked back to the beach. We wandered past a few more warungs and found a better spot with deeper water and better access to the reef, so we waded out through the mangroves until it was deep enough to swim. Along the way we swam over a number of seaweed gardens, which the locals grow and harvest, mainly for the carrageenan the plants produce which is used in a wide variety of processed foods and cosmetics. The snorkelling was amazing and we had a great time swimming around looking at all the tropical fish and corals. There were loads of colourful angelfish, trumpet fish, pufferfish, needlefish, and rainbow coloured parrotfish to be seen in the shallower areas where we swam. When we looked out into the deep blue water there were swarms of thousands of small fish flitting through the water. We spent about 2 hours swimming around and had a great time playing with our new underwater camera.

The following day was New Year’s Eve so we decided to do something a little different and rented scooters for about $6 to explore the island. We drove along the north side of the island around a huge area of mangroves on a fairly rough road full of broken pavement and deep puddles. I was having a great time navigating the bumpy terrain but I don’t think the rougher stuff was Emily’s cup of tea as she has numerous scars from a previous moped accident. Eventually we got to a big yellow suspension bridge over a shallow waterway that connected Nusa Lembongan to an even smaller island called Nusa Ceningan. It was quite narrow and about halfway across I was surprised to see a local on a motorbike come flying across toward me. He had to stop and lean his bike to the side with the handlebar through the railing to make room for me and Emily and the others behind us. Indonesians always seem to move frustratingly slowly until they get into something with a motor, at which point, without exception, they take off like bats out hell and leave all common sense behind in the dust. Nusa Ceningan was a nice little island and the small roads wound around and around in the hilly terrain, making for a very fun drive. We got to the top of a hill and parked at a little warung on the edge of a huge cliff that overlooked a deep ocean channel running between Nusa Ceningan and Nusa Penida, the larger island to the southeast. Penida was strikingly beautiful, covered in rolling green forested hills and lined with palm trees and cliffs, interspersed by a beach here and there. We looked right across to Crystal Bay, a very scenic little sheltered inlet with jagged rock formations, white sand beaches and turquoise coloured water. It is a world famous dive spot for seeing mola mola, a very strange looking deep water fish that comes into the shallows at certain times of year. We enjoyed the views over a mango juice and snack of calamari, then took off to a very photogenic small beach called Dream Beach, where we again dismounted and went for a small walk across a green field where we spotted a mother cow and two calves that looked surprisingly like deer. Across the field we found a spot called Devil’s Tear that consisted of a rocky section of coastline that dropped into the ocean. Right at the water level there was a half-submerged cave, and when the ocean swells rolled in a huge amount of air and water would get compressed within it and come spraying out in a loud, watery explosion.

Throughout the day I drove ahead because the navigating was definitely my department, but unknown to me Emily was having all sorts of adventures behind me. Several times I turned around to discover she was nowhere to be seen so several times I swung around in busy traffic to find her doing various things like getting her picture taken, talking to children or enjoying the views. After quite a number of stops for this reason I was well ready to park the bikes and have a few New Year’s drinks on the beach. Emily had other plans however and decided we should go searching for a fruit store down the busy main street. I reluctantly agreed, and after pulling over to talk to at least one child, a couple of false starts to wait for traffic to pass by that was about a mile away, and nearly causing no less than two accidents, she bought a small, not so sweet, single pineapple that she decided not to eat until the next day.

The stress incurred toward the end of the bike ride was swiftly washed away by a cleansing ale at our favourite restaurant/bar on the beach called Scooby Doo’s, which was conveniently located next to our hotel and served delicious, cheap food and cold Bintangs. We had a great feast of seafood pizza over beers, an overpriced rum based drink served in a coconut, some free New Year’s vodka shots, and some margaritas. While we were sitting at our table on the beach a big thunder storm rolled in from the sea with strong winds and driving rain so we moved inside to the bar. The proprietor of our hotel was at the bar enjoying a few New Year’s drinks and was much more talkative than he usually was during the day so we chatted with him for quite a while. He informed us that every New Year’s Eve there is a big thunderstorm and that is why he was sitting inside. He also explained that there were no big beach parties on the island because the police cracked down a few years ago and told the locals they weren’t allowed to drink in public or shoot fireworks off on the beach. He quite hilariously described Chinese tourists to be rich, but “like ducks,” because whenever he gives them directions to go one way they go the other. We bar hopped down the beach to a very expensive resort with a thankfully clean bathroom that I just barely made it to as some bad food consumed earlier in the day caught up to me. After that we made our way back to a pizzeria on the beach for some drinks and the countdown to New Year’s. The skies opened up again and we got fairly wet sitting at the only outdoor table left in the place, but we were having such a great time it didn’t matter. At this end of the beach locals were setting off fireworks every few minutes, so apparently the police hadn’t clamped down here as they had a couple hundred meters away at our hotel. The whole evening we were seeing loads of random flashes of light across the strait on Bali, which we determined must be small fireworks set off by the millions of locals on the island. As the countdown to midnight started the flashes ramped up until the entire coastline was alight with a dizzying array of flashes, big and small, and of every colour imaginable. They peaked right around midnight, but continued all night.