For many, scuba diving opens up a whole new world of exploration and adventure, as they scour the seafloor and view an endless array of ocean life, and Bali provides some of the best dive spots anywhere. Annabel Thomas, 47, from Buckinghamshire, UK, opened AquaMarine Diving – Bali in 1999. She spoke with Carla Albertí de la Rosa about what to expect beneath our waves.
Annabel Thomas: We have a much greater diversity and greater quantity of marine life.
Q How does Bali diving rate compared to other locations around the world?
A We are located in the Indo-Pacific, the world’s richest marine biogeographic zone. So we have a much greater diversity and greater quantity of marine life, coral, fish etc than – for example – the Caribbean or the Red Sea, which is very popular for Europeans. There are parts of the Red Sea which have good diving, but again there are other parts where you can’t even see the few remaining corals and fishes because there are so many divers in the water. That’s not something you’re going to encounter in Bali. In Bali you can go diving in Tanjung Benoa with all the banana boats and parasailing but that’s as bad as Bali’s diving can get. The “diving” there tends to be the Japanese doing introductory diving. I know Bali is one of the best locations to dive in the world if you dive away from the southeast coast.
Q Do most people who come here do so explicitly to scuba dive, or are there some who just decide to do it – perhaps for the first time – while they’re here?
A It’s a huge mix. AquaMarine initially only took bookings via email prior to people’s arrival in Bali, so obviously it was people who were planning to do diving or learn how to dive in Bali. We got underwater photographers who were going to other parts of Indonesia and wanted to check the diving out here in Bali. The company has pretty much stayed like that; we are heavily reliant on our website. But we also get phone calls from people who are already here, either as a result of talking to people who have been diving with us before or who checked out our website before coming here.
Q So where are the top spots?
A Tulamben, up on the northeast coast. A very rough estimate would be about 50 percent of Day Trips go to Tulamben. It’s famous for the 120 metre USAT Liberty Shipwreck, which lies 20-30 metres off the beach. Because it’s in a bay, it’s sheltered so it can be wavy during the rainy season but not the rest of the year. The water is usually warm, calm and great for snorkelling.
Also the island of Nusa Penida, great for drift-diving. You sit in a current which takes you along and you just watch the reef and the fish go by. Also, Manta Point, in the southwest of Nusa Penida, where we have a really high percentage chance of seeing Manta rays.
Q What is a typical diving holiday going to cost, and how long will it last?
A That’s like asking, “How long is a piece of string?” I mean, some people just do a Day Trip to Tulamben Bay and then we have underwater photographers that spend their entire 30 days Visa on Arrival going round the island diving. It’s extremely varied.
Q We’ve seen some dive shops that don’t provide pool training for first-timers. They tell them they can learn out at sea. What do you think of that?
A Well, you can learn the basic principles of scuba diving and actually experience it for yourself with the Discover Scuba Diving Programme. We usually take people to Tulamben where diving is straight off the beach, or we will take them to Blue Lagoon, just outside Padang Bai, which is closer to south Bali. You sit with your instructor and go through simple theory and safety procedures. You then just walk into the sea from the beach and, staying shallow enough to still stand up, put your face in the water and breathe using scuba just to get used to the whole idea. You can then basically snorkel around on the surface, but using the scuba gear. And finally descend below the surface – easiest to do in water that is too deep to stand up in. Once underwater, you stay stationary kneeling on the bottom until you get used to the whole idea that you really are breathing under water, because it’s a long time ago that our ancestors were doing that. We do DSDs on a ratio of one-to-one, unless there’s a couple or group that want to do it together.
Q Are there many cowboy outfits around?
A There are anywhere, and that includes Bali, but none that I’m going to name.
Q How safe is this activity? A number of people have died scuba diving in Bali in recent years.
A Scuba diving is really very safe. I would say that the majority of injuries and deaths are simply due to people making careless and unnecessary mistakes or being complacent. The rules of scuba diving are very few and simple. For example “Breathe slowly and deeply, and never hold your breath,” and “Ascend at a maximum rate of 18m/min,” which means monitoring your depth gauge, pretty much not ascending any faster than your slowest bubbles.
Q How many people have you seen during your time in Bali getting the bends?
A Usually, but not always, people get the bends through diving unsafe profiles, but it can happen for no apparent reason. AquaMarine has handled two cases of the bends in 10 years. Bali’s recompression chamber is at Sanglah Hospital in Denpasar.
Q What happened?
A The first one was an Italian woman who was doing stupidly deep dives and for too long each dive. Most divers have a dive computer that tells you how deep you are, how long you’ve been diving, how long until you go into decompression, etc. Dive computers come with alarms but you can choose to completely ignore them. That’s what she did.
With the other case, it was a girl doing her PADI Open Water Diver course with AquaMarine and we have no idea why she got the bends.
Q Mankind is more interested in exploring the heavens than the waters of our own planet. Much of what lies beneath the waves is unknown, from the territory to species, especially concerning deep-sea exploration. Why do you think there such a lack of interest?
A I don’t know if it’s a lack of interest. Maybe it’s just that the universe is much larger than the ocean. When you look up at the sky, you can actually see the moon, stars, planets, but if you stand on a boat or on the beach, you can’t really see down into the ocean. But day and night you can look out and see what’s up there. It’s the whole rocket thing: mankind wants to go as fast as possible; we have spaceships and go to the moon, far away, and everyone can watch it on television. Children want to be astronauts; they want to go to the moon – it’s somehow more appealing than below the ocean.
Q Rebreathers seem like an advanced step ahead of scuba equipment. And they don’t emit bubbles, which is good for not disturbing marine life. They don’t appear to be widely, if at all, available, though. Is it to do with cost?
A Yes, I would have said that is the reason. I’ve never tried rebreathers but I would love to. But with rebreathers it takes time to assemble and disassemble the gear, and you have to clean them afterwards … I don’t personally “do” cleaning! With scuba gear, it’s simple – basically you rinse out the seawater.
Q What other kinds of diving technology can we look forward to? What are you seeing at the international trade shows?
A I’m not really a gadget girl. I dive to go under water, not to play with gear. I am not into the latest gizmos – I like good quality, basic gear that it easy to maintain and therefore, when I’m at trade shows, that is what I look for.
Q What qualification do you need to be a diving instructor and is it the same as in other countries?
A We are a PADI 5 Star Gold Palm Resort, so our instructors are certified by PADI. However, there are a number of other agencies apart from PADI. If you’re a PADI instructor in Indonesia, you’re an instructor worldwide.
Q In many parts of the island the ocean is dirty, covered in plastics and other human waste. How is this affecting the local marine life?
A It’s definitely not great. In terms of pollution, chemicals kill off corals and if you have resident marine life there, it will also probably die. Fish that don’t have to stay in one place will move away. Also, for turtles, the main part of their diet is jellyfish, and therefore they can mistakenly eat plastic bags.
Q A lot of coral has been destroyed in waters off Bali, particularly due to bomb fishing, which is outlawed. On your dives, do you see coral growths getting worse or improving?
A Some corals grow very fast and others are very slow growing. In the past 10 years the areas that had noticeable damage are more protected; so coral is coming back. But not all parts of Bali are protected, although it’s better than it was 10 years ago.
Q What other issues are affecting Bali’s waters?
A Bali’s waters… we’d be going with pollution. Whether it’s by the petrol company Pertamina, outside Padang Bai, or also, in all of Indonesia, Bali included, people traditionally throwing stuff in the river and it then going out to the sea. This is fine if it’s banana leaves but now everything comes in a plastic bag, they still throw it into the river and it goes into the sea.
As far as diving is concerned, towards the end of each year we see the big Mola-Mola (Ocean sunfish) coming up to recreational diving depths to get cleaned by Long-fin bannerfish. And every year there’s more marketing and publicity for people to come to Bali and dive with the Mola-Mola; so every year there are more boats, companies and divers that go to the same spots. And unfortunately there are then quite a large number of divers who have either not been fully briefed or are simply not following the briefing. They go too close and harass the fish, scaring them off the cleaning stations.