Going “Deep” In Indonesia: Diving The Gilis
It is a glorious morning.
With the sort of light that deserves to have a few moments taken to stop, breathe it in, and absorb the possibility it brings; to make a memory of the way the sun dances across the sea, sprinkling it with gold; to relish the cool that blurs the horizon; to squint your eyes into the gentle mist which offers the promise of the hot day ahead.
But I am doing precisely none of these things, too distracted by the certainty that this will be the last dawn I see.
[Pause for dramatic effect]
Today I am scheduled for my first deep scuba dive: The dive that has prevented me from taking the PADI Advanced Open Water qualification since I first strapped on a BCD almost five years ago. And I’ve been awake all night, running possible scenarios through my head.
A lot can go wrong at 30 meters underwater, I’ve decided.
My head exploding like a pressurised grape or being eaten by the Loch Ness’s salty compatriot were perhaps a couple of the rather more far-fetched outcomes, sure. But at the very least, it must be pretty dark down there.
What if I get disoriented? What if I bolt for the surface? And I do not much like the sounds of this “getting narked” business. What if the anaesthetic effect of nitrogen narcosis (breathing in this compressed gas at depth) has me casually removing my life-conserving air supply far below the surface?
I had tried to console myself with the fact that it is not like I am being asked to descend in the murky waters of a highland lake. Instead, this scene plays out on Gili Air, the medium-sized of the three Gili islands, just off the coast of Lombok, and not far from Bali.
The tropical waters here are crystal clear, famous for their reefs, abundance of turtles and honeymooners (only the latter of which is to be keenly avoided). It is hard to imagine a more perfect spot to “go deep.”
Yet reason continued to elude me as, palms sweating, the entrance to Oceans 5 comes into view. It is only pride that serves to overwhelm my compulsion to run in the other direction and have done with it.
I find my instructor amidst the traditional sun-bleached, torso-baring bustle of an early a.m. dive shop.
He goes by the name of Pierre, Belgian — “not French!” — and during the previous day’s exercises, including buoyancy control and navigation, I had decided that Monsieur P. and I weren’t likely to be life-long friends.
Pierre was strict. And thus, rather scary, wagging his finger at me as I bobbed helplessly past the metal rod I was apparently, somehow, supposed to be touching with my nose in an orderly fashion.
He also failed to comply with my imagination of the dive instructor aesthetic, conspicuously lacking in the shaggy hair department, and rather low on “happy-go-lucky.”
As we motored towards the dive site, however, traits I had resented in my mentor the day before suddenly became reassuring. He was clearly the unspoken leader of the whole operation, reprimanding those on the boat who failed to adhere to rules and regulations, with uncanny ability to see in several directions at once.
I was, I decided, in good hands.
So, masks on, regulators in, backward roll, splash: in we went and down we went. Myself, Pierre and a Danish character who had a great deal of enthusiasm but unfortunate propensity for clumsy lashings-out of the flipper.
10 meters . . . 12 meters . . . I glanced at the depth gauge on my computer every few seconds as we kicked gradually further into the blue.
This is now the deepest I had ever been (officially) and Pierre checks back to see I am still up for going further. I am.
We drop further still.
And then I do the thing I promised myself I would not do, the equivalent of looking down when scaling a cliff: I look up, tilting my head to peer through the thermocline to the world above.
The panic I had been expecting does not come. I could not have felt more relaxed, elated by serenity and calm.
Reaching maximum depth, a huge barracuda emerges from the dark azure of wider ocean.
Pierre turns and gives me a huge grin and an “ok?” sign.
“Ok,” I nod, grinning — I imagine — somewhat maniacally.
I feel a rush of gratitude towards my underwater cohort.
What I had not realized before but realized then was that this guy was a pro. What I had construed as strict, was actually better understood as calm and considered professionalism, without which I likely would have bottled out before you could say “Moby Dick.”
All too soon, he is signalling to us it is time to come up. One of the downsides of going deeper of course being the reduced bottom time.
Right arm extended, my hand is the first to break back through the looking glass, the surface of the water a mirror below which an alternative universe conceals itself; a place where red doesn’t exist and doing the moonwalk is a legitimate possibility.
Back onboard I bask in the heat of that misty early morning promise made good, revelling in my albeit predictable survival.
Now my fear of going deep has only been replaced by a desire to go deeper. Trust me, once you go deep, you never . . . um . . . go shallow? Wait, no, that doesn’t work.
Either way, go find yourself a Pierre and get down there, “down where it’s wetter, down there it’s better, take it from me” [me and Sebastian the crab].
And as for the Gili Air as a location to base yourself? With reasonably priced accommodation in places like the newly opened Begadang Backpackers, as well as easy access to dive sites around Gili Trawangan and Gili Meno, you couldn’t ask for much more from a desert island.
A restless Brit with big dreams and limited cash flow, Hannah is a freelance journalist and student. She is currently being sponsored by the European Union to take a Masters in Journalism and International Politics at the University of Amsterdam/University of Santiago, Chile, and the Danish School of Journalism. Check out her site DontDoNothing.com.