The Diving Adventures of a Grandad in Training in Gili Trawangan
For those of you who have never heard of the Gili Islands, they are three small islands of the coast of Bali’s neighbour Lombok in Indonesia, renowned for diving and a reputation for wild parties.
Yours truly, being towards the twilight years of my capability to party, set off from Stansted Airport in the UK with great fear that I’d be the oldest swinger in town, not really my comfort zone! But I wanted to help the Island after the recent devastation of the Earthquake and see what was going on for myself. At this point, I should mention I did visit Gili T three years ago and stayed on the quiet side of the Island. This time I was travelling without my wife and staying slap bang in the centre of the Gili Universe with Manta Dive.
After an 18-hour flight and brief stopover in Bali, I was soon enjoying the two-and-a-half-hour boat trip to the island, getting carried away chatting on the top deck of the boat – a big mistake and a recipe for sunstroke. The cooling breeze takes the sting out of the ferocity of the sun and before I knew it my head resembled a ripe tomato. The Gilli Getaway speedboat passes via Nusa Lembongan and Nusa Penida so you get a good tour of the area, before dropping you off on the pristine beaches of Gili T. Even better, there is no hunting for Manta Dive, as it's right in front of the drop off point.
A bustling dive centre, Manta Dive seems to have a steady flow of courses, from Open Water to technical diving and instructor training. My arrival was no exception, as I checked in and settled into my room. Manta Dive was a hive of activity. The first day, I’d already decided to relax. I wanted to take a walk around the island to see how it had changed and see the damage still evident from the Earthquake.
It's fair to say Gili T is in a state of transition, with some hotels completely flattened and much rubble still evident, especially on the quiet eastern side of the Island. The hub of the island seems to have recovered well, and it’s a testament to the hard work of those on the island to have reached such a high standard in such a short time. Manta Dive's accommodation and facilities were no exception. Unless you take a really close look, you could be forgiven for thinking there had been no damage.
It seems also that in the rebuilding process, a number of new developments are being constructed; perhaps there are some positives in such a sad situation. I’m reliably informed that Lombok is in a much worse state and many of the island's local employees are still living under makeshift tarpaulin homes. Here is where I really have to pay homage to the spirit of the locals of Gili T, many have lost everything and yet they retain such a positive outlook and zest for life, its amazing and a testament to their humanity.
Moving on to the diving. The first trip daily starts at 8:45 a.m. and for the first day, I arrived early as I had a new Apeks Wing and wasn’t sure whether I’d configured it correctly. For those of you contemplating purchasing one, they are great once set up, but correctly threading the webbing from the instructions supplied is pretty unlikely! Three instructors later and multiple attempts to thread the straps for the tanks while comparing my gear against other setups, we had something that worked.
For the first dive, which was to be a drift dive at Halik, the clock was ticking and my stress levels were rising. Hoping for a nice relaxed start was purely wishful thinking. Things were conspiring to make me consume air faster than a steam locomotive. At this point, it’s worth mentioning that travelling as a solo diver means that not only is your buddy a complete stranger, but the dive sites are already planned. Unlike group travel, there is no nice easy check dive.
Manta Dive restricts dive groups to four divers maximum per instructor, and our guide Eddy, not only was technically a great diver, but seemed to know the habitat of every type of marine life. As a consequence, my buddy and I were treated to sightings of whitetip reef sharks, blue-ringed octopus, a couple of turtles, nudibranch, pufferfish along with the usual and abundant small reef fish. My buddy, intent on stopping to taking photos while drifting, added to my stress levels and as a consequence, the dive ended after 45 minutes. Diving in the Gilis is like taking a warm bath, the water temperature of 28°C allowed me to dive without the constraints of my wetsuit.
Throughout the week, I dived seven sites. There were options on some days to do two morning dives and a night dive, but with jet lag still dragging my energy levels down, I opted for two dives a day. Halik, Deep Turbo, Shallow Deep Turbo, Turtle Heaven, Shark Point, Seahorse Bay and The Bounty. With the exception of Seahorse Bay, which is a bay on Lombok, the other sites are no longer than a ten-minute boat ride, each with its own character and interest.
Deep Turbo is a deep reef, probably the dive site with the best display of corals, and is home to many different species such as stonefish, butterfly fish, bannerfish, snappers, titan triggerfish, frogfish and turtles. The shallow part for the reef is not so great, with evidence of dead corals, but we still saw five whitetip reef sharks, scorpionfish, turtles and a host of nudibranchs. Turtle Heaven is a superb site, with great corals and as the name suggests – heaven for turtles. Centred on a pinnacle, the plateau hosted no less than ten green turtles, however, we were unlucky with the current and fighting against it limited the time we could stay without excessive exertion.
Shark point is another great site, home to the wreck of the Glen Nusa perched on a sandy beach. Marine life was varied, with blue spotted rays, a large whitetip reef shark, schools of sweetlips and jackfish, plus more turtles and nudibranchs. For most of the dives, the visibility was fine and greater than 15m, however, at Seahorse Bay, the swell had churned up the sandy bottom reducing visibility to less than a metre in places!. On the seabed itself, however, the visibility improved to about 5m and opened up an incredible array of macro life. More varieties of seahorse than I could count, as well as juvenile pufferfish and triggerfish.
With it being the rainy season in Indonesia, it was inevitable that one dive would be in rain, The Bounty is a wreck site, although we didn’t penetrate. The wreck is home to plenty of nice corals and reef life, bannerfish, angelfish and plenty of sea cucumbers, although the biggest highlight for me was finding a pygmy seahorse. At less than 1cm in length, it was an incredible spot!
A dive trip to Manta Dive on Gili Trawangan isn't just about the diving though. Even though its diversity of sites and marine life has to be considered world class, a dive trip to Gili T is about a more holistic experience and value for money. I’ve been in Sharm El Sheikh diving and left as 'Billy No-Mates', chomping on a steak while contemplating my solitude. At Manta Dive, there are always divers of all ages, keen to enjoy sharing their travel and dive experiences. For solo travellers it’s great, and for female travellers it's also very safe.
There are many great dive centres on the island, but, of course, I couldn't try them all out. I’ve been asked how diving around Gili T compares with other destinations, but it's an impossible question to answer. The island has a character all of its own and is not just about the diving. It’s not a premier spot for big oceanic marine life, but for value for money and a great overall experience then Gili T is very hard to beat.
Will I return to Gili T? Try and stop me!
Alex Kydd is a renowned underwater photographer, see more of his stunning imagery at www.alexkyddphoto.com, with thanks for the pictures accompanying this review.
DIVE Magazine visited Gili Trawangan and Manta Dive in April 2018. You can read Mark 'Crowley' Russell's celebration of 'The Dive Island with Spirit' at this link.