Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Diving in Bali

While João had grown up next to the ocean and surfed most of his life, he had never really had an interest in seeing what lay beneath the waves.  But this trip had given me a renewed interest in diving, and after a friend told me just how amazing it was in Bali, I knew I wanted to spend some serious time in the ocean during our time there.  I managed to convince João to give it a try, showing him photos of colorful reefs and incredible marine life, tempting his artist eyes to view this entirely different world.  And so, we wound up at Crystal Divers, a shop at Sanur in Bali, discussing rates for dive courses.  I already had my Open Water Diver certification, and after taking a few dive trips over the past few months, I wanted to upgrade to the Advanced certification, while João would be pursuing his Open Water.  

What seemed like it would be a straightforward process (sign up, pay, take the course, dive, done), became slightly more complicated when João revealed he had had asthma as a child, meaning he would need to take a lung capacity test to dive.  We scheduled a visit with the doctor, and while he confirmed that his lung capacity was fantastic, we discovered that he actually had a slight ear infection that needed to be cleared up before he could dive.  We had to delay our plans by a few days while we waited for his ear to heal, but the extra days relaxing in Sanur were wonderful, and we truly didn't mind the extra time.  Two days later, João began the first of two days at the dive shop, spending the mornings in a classroom setting and the afternoons practicing techniques in the pool.  I spent those days mostly relaxing on the beach, reading, writing, and getting in a run along the beach one morning.  

Joao and his instructor Amin for the first day of classroom and pool work

For my Advanced course, I simply had to do some bookwork - reading and answering questions at the end of particular chapters - then complete five dives over the course of two days to practice specific techniques - deep diving and navigation - as well as a couple of 'specialties' - drift diving, wreck diving, and fish identification.  Once João finished the classroom and pool work, his course required four 'check out' dives over two days.  He and I would go our separate ways for our first days of diving, then spend the second day diving together.

Day 1

While João would be staying closer to Sanur for his first dives, practicing some basic techniques in a shallower setting surrounded by incredible sealife, I was headed to Manta Point, Tugu at Nusa Penida, and Blue Corner at Nusa Lembogan for my first three dives of my advanced course.  The ride out to Manta Point was a long one, and we rode in a small speedboat that was tossed up and down over the choppy waves as we cruised to our dive spot.  I felt increasingly sick with the constant jolting, the rising nausea like the surging waves around me, and it wasn't any better when we stopped.  I looked out over the side of the boat trying to see the gorgeous scenery, the rock cliffs coming out of the water, but I couldn't focus on anything but sky sea sky sea sky sea as the boat shot up and down in the waves.  My instructor, 'Magic' Toto, tried to calm me down, explaining what to do if I felt sick and needed to vomit underwater, as I was clearly a bit green sitting in the boat.  Everyone else had already gotten in and descended, and I was worried that my course would be finished before it had even started!  Determined, I put on my gear and sat up on the edge of the boat.  And then, I turned and lost my breakfast all over the side of the boat.  With a quick apology to the crew and a quick prayer of thanks that I had gotten sick before my descent - the last thing I wanted to do was vomit underwater - I rolled off the back of the boat and into the water.  

I still felt a bit foggy as we slowly descended, and I struggled to clear my ears at one point, when I looked up to see a massive Manta Ray glide by off to one side.  I was equally thrilled to see the incredible animal and scared that it would be the only one I would see, while I was still so focused on my own body and my descent and unable to fully take in my surroundings.  Thankfully, I would have nothing to worry about in that respect!  As this was my deep dive, we did our full descent to 30 meters (100 feet), doing all the necessary exercises for my certification, while taking a look around for any Mola Mola (sadly, we didn't find any).  We gradually ascended up a bit, passing a sea snake in bands of grey and blue swimming through the water, and a colorful nudibranch on the ocean floor. 

Then, as we got higher, we saw them - a whole group of mantas, swimming in big loops, massive, majestic creatures gliding through the water like sea angels.  I was blown away… I lost count of how many there were - big and small, moving in a massive underwater circle - a mating dance.  Toto and I spent the rest of the dive staring in disbelief and wonder, no camera between the two of us, with a mass of divers all around us watching the creatures.  

Finally it was time to wrap up, and we swam far away from the crowd, where we could see nothing but clear ocean, stopping at a depth of 5 meters for our 3 minute safety stop.  And less than a minute later, my eyes grew huge as I quickly pointed behind Toto at the absolutely enormous manta swimming right towards us.  And it wasn't just one.  The entire line of mantas - I counted 12 as they swam by, but I can't be sure - flew right beside, over, and all around us, making their loops.  It was absolutely hands down one of the most incredible things I have ever witnessed.  Toto and I were both practically screaming and dancing with excitement under the water as the mantas glided all around us.  When we finally surfaced, he told me that was his best manta experience ever, and he has over 13,000 dives!  It certainly made up for being so sick before the dive!!

Magic Toto's dive log entry - dive # 13,492 - for our Manta experience

Thankfully the boat went to a much, much calmer spot for the second dive - Tuga at Nusa Penida - though the ride over was still plenty choppy.  I lay down on a bench and squeezed my eyes shut to try and keep the world from bobbing up and down so much.  One of the other divers felt so sick that he actually sat out the second dive entirely!  Toto and I went in last to give ourselves a proper surface interval, and the dive - this one for fish identification - was a very peaceful, calm, easy one, as we swam over thorny forests of brittle coral.  We spotted an enormous lion fish, a colorful blue and yellow nudibranch, an orangutang crab, a massive mantis shrimp, clown trigger fish, a school of butterfly fish, plus boxfish, needlefish, bannerfish, angel fish, surgeon fish, and bluefin trivali.  In my mind it's a blur of beautiful colors, and I imagined how João would react to taking it all in.

After the second dive, I rested out on the front of the boat, eating my lunch, soaking in the sun, before we moved on to the third location - Blue Corner at Nusa Lembogan - for a drift dive.  Toto was sneaky and actually allowed everyone to get in the water before asking the boat to shift to a slightly different spot which he swore was better, and I trusted him!  We plunged in and descended, and with the current it felt like everything was suddenly in fast motion!  As we floated, we stayed nearly motionless ourselves as the current carried us.  We had a couple of big sightings - first, a school of dolphins right at eye level passed by, then we saw two eagle rays and an enormous Napoleon ress fish.  Then, another pod of dolphins passed, closer to the surface this time!  After that, the currents became all mixed up, and it seemed we were swimming against the current both to peek over a large shelf and against the current again to go back, the water a mix of warm and very, very cold.  As we ended the dive, we saw unicorn fish with what looked like long, pointy noses, and other fish with gorgeous forked tails with touches of electric blue.  

Finally back on board the boat, we compared notes with the rest of the group - no molas, but everyone had seen the dolphins - and I curled up again to ride out the bumpy return trip, which was thankfully not so bad as the way out.  I was still a bit out of it and fairly exhausted when we got back, and I was anxious to find João and hear how his day of diving had gone.  While he had struggled with some of the more technical aspects - totally normal for a first day of diving - the sights he was able to take in were amazing, he said, and he was looking forward to seeing if the next day would be better as he would hopefully be more comfortable under the water and able to actually absorb his surroundings more.

Day 2

Our departure for our shared day of diving was incredibly early, as we met at the shop at 6:45, piling into a comfortable van for a two hour drive to our next dive site, Tulamben, the site of a wrecked US cargo ship sunk by a Japanese sub during WWII.  João and his instructor Uning were joined by Mark, who was working on a Dive Master certification, and I was paired with Amin, my instructor for the day.  We passed gorgeous tiers of bright green rice fields as we drove north, finally arriving in a much drier spot missing the lush greens with had just passed.  We climbed out of the van and geared up in the parking lot, and local women portered our tanks down to the shore on their heads!  This was my first shore entry, walking into the surf over smooth black rocks and descending by simply following the sloping ocean bottom downward.  

The wreck itself loomed over us on a steep slope, covered in corals, surrounded by fish.  Amin led me a bit away from the wreck at first, down to a deeper spot where we found a gorgeous - and huge! - blue nudibranch with a golden 'crown' coming out of its back - appropriately named a Cinderella nudibranch.  We worked our way back up to the wreck next, spotting some lion fish and mantis shrimp, as well as dozens of other colorful varieties of sealife.  We didn't really go into the wreck, but we did go through a couple of openings where it was still open to the surface above for safety purposes, but also provided gorgeous views with the tangled metal wreckage and the light from above.  

As we emerged from the wreck, off to the right we saw a garden of eels, their long, slender necks curving out of the ground like something from a Tim Burton movie.  Looping back around, we saw a huge sweetlips before slowly making it back towards the shore and emerging.  It was wonderful to see how thrilled João was coming up from the wreck - he had succeeded in feeling more comfortable with the technical components of the dive and been able to soak in his surroundings - and it was wonderful to be able to share the experience with him.   

After a rest, a snack, and some navigation review, we made our way back to the shore for our second dive.  I spent the first part of my dive navigating a small out/back and a square in a shallow sandy area before we swam around small outcrops of coral out a bit from the wreck, taking our time to view a whole family of 'nemos' - two larger ones and bunches of itty bitty ones - in a large pink anemone which seemed to be all alone in the sand.  We made our way back to one side of the wreck, seeing a juvenile ribbon eel with a small streak of blue poking out of the sand.  We then visited a massive grouping of cleaner shrimp that Amin obviously knew well, as he took out his regulator and opened his mouth, the cleaner shrimp creeped over to him, climbed in his mouth, and began to clean!  

After Amin's trip to the underwater dentist, we made our way back over to the sandy bottom area, to a spot Uning had dubbed the 'barracuda dentist'.  Sure enough, there was a large barracuda just hanging out, mouth slightly agape, getting his teeth cleaned by tiny fish!  We swam up to him, me sitting close by enough to where the barracuda actually turned at one point and swam right at me!  He then circled around in a small loop, returning to his dentist appointment.  After that we left him be, returning slowly to the surface and making our way out over the slippery rocks.

After removing and stowing all our gear, we rinsed off and went to a small restaurant around the corner for a meal of nasi gorang, then piled back into the van for the long drive back to the shop.  Once we returned, we filled out our logs and completed our paperwork, officially becoming certified as Open Water and Advanced Divers!  That day also marked my one year travel anniversary, so we capped off the day with a tasty dinner and a relaxing massage.

The entire diving experience in Bali was absolutely unforgettable for both of us, and ever since we've been looking for ways to get under the ocean again... including just a few days later.  After stopping in Ubud and visiting neighboring island Lombok, we would return to Sanur for one more dive trip, in hopes of giving João his own experience with the mantas. I'm so thrilled that I was able to introduce that world to João, and give him a glimpse under the waves that he had grown up with.

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