Diving Right In
By William J. Furney
The Bali Times
I’d heard so many accounts of how wonderful diving in Bali is that I decided to just go for it and see for myself if the tales were tall, or true.
So at a hotel in Lovina on the north coast on Christmas Eve, I learned the basics of scuba diving with divemaster Wayan – while bumping into startled swimmers. It was fun, the being underwater bit, not the whacking-into-folk bit.
Christmas Day dawned searingly bright, and Wayan, a driver and an Australian couple who were joining us for snorkeling at the dive location of Menjangan Island clambered aboard one of those ubiquitous little, white tourist vans.
“This might be a new hobby for you,” said Mark, as we departed just after 8:30am. “Might,” I ventured, “I’ll tell you afterwards.”
Mark and his partner Tiara were holidaying in Bali before traveling around various Southeast Asian countries, including Thailand and Malaysia, where Tiara said she had family. Friendly and humorous young Australians with easy smiles – reassuringly typical – they were considering an expatriate lifestyle and had been thinking of a move to Dubai, until the global financial meltdown struck and bought about all that uncertainty. They were bored by the 9-5 office life and wanted an infusion of excitement in their lives. We chatted about my expatriate life here (“How easy is it to move to Bali?” Tiara had asked, to which I replied, “How easy is it to move to Australia? Same thing.”) on our way to a small cove where we would catch a boat to the island.
The sea was mirror-flat, calm, as we jumped aboard with other vacationing snorkelers on one of many waiting boats owned by a cooperative belonging to the expansive West Bali National Park where we were.
For a Christmas Day, spectacular weather (last year I was on the east coast of the island and it rained, and rained, with fury). Here: cobalt skies reflecting with the brilliant sunshine into water that was at times aquamarine, at others a deep sapphire, hues of turquoise between.
A 30-minute glide brought us close to the tiny Hindu-revered island and the snorkelers – a group of surly Russians who spoke to no one (lack of English, and the associated insecurity, I assumed) and a bikini-clad Belgian girl who sunbathed on the bow – jumped in to the invitingly warm waters as Wayan and I pulled on our gear.
“Ready?” said Wayan, who had earlier told me he had dived here “1,000 times.”
“Ready,” I replied, and he backflipped in.
“I went off sideways, as not ready for flipping over, regulator clasped so tightly between my teeth I feared I was laying the foundations for lockjaw.
We floated in our pumped-up jackets (BCD – or Buoyancy Control Device) until Wayan gave the thumbs-down sign, to go under, and I signaled yes with an OK sign of thumb and index finger forming an O. (Thumb-up sign, in scuba-diving parlance, signals you want to surface – and the two must not be confused).
And down we went. Or rather, Wayan. Despite my attempts to descend, with the aid of the blow-out valve on my jacket, and copious weights around my waist, my 70-kilo frame was going nowhere – too light. Wayan came up and removed one of his weights and added it to my belt. (I’m fat; I don’t need as many weights as you,” he’d earlier said.)
Now I went down. On the bottom – sandy with small clumps of coral and some mildly startled marine life – Wayan knelt while I still struggled to remain below. “Okay,” he signaled, and pointed to his ears? “Okay?” I replied, meaning the pressure was fine. “Stay with me,” he gestured – both index fingers beside each other – and with a kick of our fins, we started our undersea odyssey.
For a while, it was hard to relax and marvel at the submarine world, as I kept my focus on my equipment – where’s that inflate valve gone to, the spare regulator? But as the minutes passed, I let it all in, and it was good.
Deeper we went, over expansive beds of colorful corals. I looked up and saw the ocean’s surface like a lofty ceiling. Wayan picked up what looked like a long, rectangular sponge and brought it to me, imploring me to touch it, but I refused. (So much for the divers’ creed of Look But Don’t Touch.) It was a sea cucumber, said Wayan later, much prized among the Javanese for making soup.
Still further we went down and came up against a swirling school of silver-colored fish, and that was the moment that made it for me: my Christmas wonder-moment of childhood.
We finned on, and after a bit I began to feel restricted by the gear and wanted a break. I signaled to Wayan that I want to go up and he responded with an “OK?” I OK’d back, thinking I was saying “I’m fine,” but still wanted to surface, and Wayan swam on, with me trailing. I had had no choice but to continue, and as the moments ticked by, I became even more restless and wanted to get back on the boat. At 28 minutes down, my throat became suddenly and extremely dry from the air in the tank and I told Wayan I’d had enough – pointing repeatedly to my throat and wiggling my hand from side to side to indicate that all was not well. Up we went, stopping momentarily halfway to decompress.
Above water, the boat chugged toward us and I got out of my gear and crawled aboard. I slumped in a corner and lit a cigar, not sure what to make of this new experience.
The snorkelers climbed back in and we headed to the island for a packed lunch.
“So how was it?” Tiara asked.
“Interesting,” I said.
“Interesting good or interesting bad?”
“Not sure yet.”
“Did it feel like you were in space?”
“Not really,” I said, a bit spaced-out.
I went for a wander atop the island and chatted with some traditionally attired Balinese who were resting and eating at a pavilion by a temple; they were from Negara, they said.
“Do you want to stay here tonight?” one of them said of the hotel-less isle.
“Here,” he said, pointing to the open-air pavilion.
On my wander, I saw a group of acacia-like trees that looked oddly out of place and more reminiscent of Kenya. I didn’t come across any of the creatures for which the island is named, though: deer. My cellphone rang (reception in this outpost!) and I chatted with the caller awhile before heading back to the boat.
All aboard and we chugged to new site, at the other side of the island. Along the way, other divers and snorkelers were in the water. This was Mark and Tiara’s second trip here in as many days, lured back by the intensity of the underwater scenes.
This was to be my second dive, but I was already feeling like I’d had enough and fancied I’d stay on board for the duration, while the snorkelers had their go. Them in, Wayan suited up and I procrastinated, eventually coming out with: “I don’t want to go in deep water. The last time was too deep for me – a beginner.”
“Okay,” said Wayan.
“Only the shallow part,” I said as I slowly put on my gear.
It was a mistake.
Straight after jumping in, I knew this was not a location I liked: the sea surface had become choppy (not that that matters when you’re submerged, but it nonetheless unnerved me) and directly down the seabed sloped off to darkness. Ahead was a coral outcrop attached to the island.
Wayan signaled to go down, and I halfheartedly OK’d and he descended. I tried to, but couldn’t get far below the surface. Wayan came up, took my hand and pulled me away from the rocky outcrop I was nearing. I retracted my hand and prepared to go down again, pressing over and over my buoyancy-release valve. Nothing. Still floating around like a headless chicken. I started to swim to shore, to the outcrop. Mistake No. 2. I’m fit and hadn’t felt tired from the first dive, but was now starting to rapidly fatigue. I looked down below the surface and saw the depth and foolishly thought of the heavy weight on my back and how I could do this. Panic! No. 1 No-No in diving.
I got myself atop the coral outcrop and stood in water up to my chest, and Wayan, thinking I was mad, hastily came after me.
“It’s dangerous here. The waves can throw you against the clifface,” he shouted.
But I wanted nothing other than to be on dry land, and in my fins awkwardly inched toward the cliff. I told Wayan I didn’t want to dive any more and he said to get back in the boat – only it was a distance away and I didn’t feel I had the energy or will to swim out to sea to it. “Wait,” I said to Wayan, “Wait.” Until I drew on some reserves and on my back swam to the craft. Relief, being back on board. But Wayan wasn’t giving up, and instructed the captain to go to a shallower site.
“Ready?” Wayan said, after anchor was dropped.
I didn’t want to let him down – but I was the paying client! – and pondered getting back in. But then I thought: it’s a wiser person who knows when to stop than one that continues something he’s unsure of. And then I knew I was finished, which led Wayan to say he “felt bad” because he was my teacher, my instructor. I told him not to worry about it and soon enough all the snorkelers were back on board and we were chugging back to the Bali mainland, passing boats of Hindu pilgrims along the way, their shrieks of alarm ringing out as they hit rising waves.
Back on dry land, at a shack in the cove, I chatted over coffee with some of the others, and we recounted what we had seen. In our minivan back to Lovina, the Australians and I talked about living in Bali; about the mass of dogs here; about corruption in Indonesia; and about incarcerated Schapelle Corby and whether she really is innocent of smuggling drugs into Bali.
That night, my body still rocking to the movement of the boat, I drifted off amid magnificent, weightless scenes of life under the waves. It was spectacular, amazing, wonderful – all of those adjectives, and then maybe some more. On surfacing I had looked up at the sky and felt a connection with being a miniscule part of what this existence is. It was like that scene in the movie Contact, where Jodie Foster is on a beach in space and reaches up and touches the sky, which ripples.
But I am a land creature, and now as I sit here recounting this tale for you, at a packed restaurant by Lovina Beach, the Belgian snorkeler (who had asked me if I was Dutch; I’m Irish) is here and a heavy rain has closed in and we’re wet all over again. But on solid ground.
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