Depth Junkies

ON 20-21 SEPT 03, I had the privilege to dive Bali with the locals, Bali residents belonging to the Kapal Selam Diving Club (KSDC). A relatively new diving club, it caters to local and expat divers and aims to enjoy and preserve Bali dive sites. The club organises regular trips to local sites, and periodic trips to other sites outside Bali. KSDC is a non-profit organisation, which means that the diving is purely for thrills and the friendship sincere. A journal of my trip with KSDC details my fabulous first dives in Nusa Penida, and equally fantastic re-visit to Tulamben sites.

Friday 19 Sept 03

At 4AM, the loud holler of my alarm clock jolted me from my fitful slumber. Sleep did not come easy, as my mind was preoccupied with my upcoming dive trip to Bali. Anticipation sped up my blood, panic fed off my peace of mind. Have I forgotten to pack anything? Would my luggage arrive in Bali, and not some other part of the world? Are the people I'm about to dive with as nice as they seem in cyberspace?

When I got to the airport, the first glitch took place: I was at the wrong terminal! I went to Terminal 1 instead of Terminal 2 where my Malaysian Airlines flight to KL and Bali is supposed to take off from. Bad omen? Fortunately, the terminals are not far from each other, and I was quite early so I made it to Terminal 2 in no time. I had nearly 2 hours to kill before the plane takes off, so I decided to call Rizal. If I had to be awake at 5AM, someone else has to be awake too *evil grin*

At 12.45PM, my plane touched down at DPS airport. The rest of the day passed in a hazy blur, my sleep-deprived brain simply refused to cooperate. In the evening, I met up with some old friends at Bali Scuba HQ (BSHQ) in Sanur. I was introduced to new friends, members of the Bali-based Kapal Selam Diving Club (KSDC). I'm glad to say that they're indeed as nice as they appear in cyberspace! :) Erwin, the head honcho (organiser), reminded us that we will be meeting at BSHQ at 6AM the next day.

Saturday 20 Sept 03

I was the first to arrive at BSHQ. By 6.15Am, all the trip participants have gathered and were roaring to go. The usually uneventful 1.5-hour drive to Padang Bai was perked up by Hengky's jokes, Armando's driving prowess, and general heart-stopping moments usually experienced on Indonesian streets.

Upon arrival at WaterWorxx Dive Centre (WDC) in Padang Bai, we quicky loaded up our gears onto WDC's two twin-engine dive boats. Sixteen divers (plus two guides) were divided into two groups. The first group was led by David and Rizal, and consists of Armando, Ulin, Krisno, Richard, Alice, Elice, and Tom. The second boat contains three dive leaders: Wolfie, Hengky, Erwin, with their followers: Otti, Mia, Oka, Lala, Yoni, and Irene.

The one-hour journey from Padang Bai to Nusa Penida passed quicky. The water was blue and flat, the sky clear and cloudless. Our first destination was Sental, a site along Nusa Penida's north coast. According to Wolfie, mola-molas have been spotted here over the past few weeks. Crossing out fingers, we backrolled into the 27C water.

We descended quickly into a sweeping 2-knot current, and drifted deeper. It was certainly a sight to behold: the 18 divers crowding the water made me thought of an underwater mall. To get away from the crowd, Mia and I swam ahead and left everyone behind. The underwater scenery was breathtaking - the reef on my right was a steep slope, a profusion of colours and life. Gorgeous soft corals decorated every nook and cranny, schools of glassy sweepers and anthias busily darted around the gorgonians and tubastreas. There was no sign of the reported coral bleaching - thank God. Surgeonfish, moorish idols, puffers roamed the reef, and parrotfish busily munched on the corals.

About 10 minutes into the dive, I turned my gaze to the deep blue on my left, and spotted a dark shadow in a distance. Approximately 30m away from me, a round, disc-like shape appeared, with tall fins on its top and bottom and a stump as a tail. A Mola-mola! I was so stunned I forgot to breathe. I tried to stop drifting to see if the fish would head in my direction, but the current was too strong. I turned around to signal to the rest of the group, but they were too far away. I signaled to my buddy Mia, and turned around to find... nothing. I spent a good 5 minutes trying to fight the current and looking for the elusive fish, but luck was not on my side. I had about 20 seconds of a glimpse at the mola-mola, but my objective for the dive was met! It doesn't matter that nobody else saw it, I did! :)

Slightly disappointed by the super-brief encounter, I leveled off at 22m to watch the reef on my right and occasionally glance at the deep blue on my left (just in case my mola came back). Twenty minutes into the dive, the current changed direction and we drifted back. After a while, Erwin stopped and pointed at something. Everybody else stopped too. Wolfie - who throughout the dive held on to a plastic floater/surface marker (this should be a PADI specialty course!) - pointed at a lump of green hard coral. Or so I thought. I reversed a little and finally realised that he was pointing at a huge frogfish, moss-green in colour and shaped like the hard coral it was resting on. It was so big that I actually had to back away to recognise its shape.

Another highlight of the dive was the newly-certified divers in the group (I won't name names for fear of retribution). Several times during the dive, I had to giggle at the holding-hand formations between a new diver and a more experienced one. Does it deepen the bond between buddies? I should try that next time ;)

Forty minutes into the dive, I decided to surface because I was tired of getting pulled up by my nearly-empty tank and 3mm wetsuit. I thoroughly miscalculated my weighting - how dumb is that? I spent the surface interval beating myself over the head with an imaginary hammerhead. Even the light banter and jokes on board couldn't alleviate my mood - what can I say, I'm my own harshest critic.

Our second site of the day was Crystal Bay, a small bay area near the Ceningan Channel. It a cove protected by a small island just off the shore. The water was very flat within the cove, and we saw several other diving boats stopping there for surface interval. Just outside the cove, the surface was swirling and churning, indications of a very strong current below. We anchored off the shore, and watched as boatloads of divers entered the water. Wisely, we waited til they were out of the water before we entered.

As we descended, I started regretting my decision to switch to my 0.5mm suit. My computer displayed 26C on the surface, but the temperature dropped rapidly as we descended. The change in temperature was literally visible, the water becomes clearer as the degrees plummet. Visibility was easily 40m. We hit thermocline after thermocline, until my computer showed 20C - my coldest dive ever! My fingers and lips felt numb, and my nose felt like an ice lolly. We swam deeper, and the reef plunged down into a bottomless wall. Sweetlips, moon grouper, angelfish, and seemingly hundreds of moorish idols decorated the already-colourful reef. Soft corals covered the bottom; it was so prolific that I couldn't even see the sand.

Suddenly I saw Erwin gesturing me to hold on to the rocks on the wall. I obeyed, but I was puzzled as to why he (and everybody else) were stuck to the wall like geckos. I knew there was current present, but not strong enough to warrant a "pitstop". Suddenly I felt my legs drop from my normally horizontal diving position. Tried as I may, I couldn't get horizontal. Then it hit me - it was a downcurrent! I started watching the bubbles, and true enough, they were spiraling downwards. About 20 meters away on my right, I can see the water getting sucked into the bottom like a flushing toilet. Despite the freezing water, I broke in cold sweat - what if I got pulled down?

Slowly, we swam up and away from the downcurrent. In the shallows, the current slackened enogh for us to slowly look at the cracks and crevices. Hengky pointed out a giant moray eel half-hidden under a big rock, its head easily the size of a newborn baby's. Everywhere I looked, healthy anemones, table corals, tubastreas, sun-mushroom corals grew in abundance.

In the shallows, strong surge pulled us in every direction. Up, down, backwards, forwards; we were like puppets on a string. We all struggled to stay in position. After a good 5 minutes, I ascended and got back on the boat. The surge was making me a little ill, and from the green-ish faces of Mia and Oka I knew I was not the only one.

An hour of surface interval and a box of nasi campur (rijstaffel) later, we were ready to roll again. This time, we started our dive from the now-defunct Quiksilver pontoon off SD Point. We descended to find a steep slope, covered in corals not as prolific as Crystal Bay but awe-inspiring nonetheless. A 1-knot horizontal current swept us, so I relaxed and let the current take me. A big green turtle swam past, totally oblivious to the divers. At one point the current slackened enough for us to stop, hover midwater, and watch a school of enormous Jacks. I never knew they could grow so big!

My buddy Mia also pointed out to something, but I didn't know what it was until I got to the surface. Apparently there were two white-tip reef sharks hanging out at about 20m, and I missed them! :( My only consolation was, the dive was my longest dive to date: 71 minutes!

We then got back to the boat and headed back to Padang Bai. What a day! Three great dives in a day was more than I could have hoped for... I wonder why I waited 63 dives before diving in Nusa Penida.

From Padang Bai, we drove to Tulamben and settled in early into our rooms at Paradise Tulamben. Two more participants, Bayu and Sonia, joined us at Tulamben for the Sunday dives. The next morning's first dive was to start at 8am.

Sunday, 21 September 03

Energised by a night of good sleep, we got ready for our dives off jukung (traditional outrigger canoes) in Batu Kelebit, a coral reef just off the shores of Tulamben. The small, narrow wooden boats can only accomodate three passengers and one boatman, so I dreaded gearing up in-water. True enough, I had a hard time looping in my crotch strap - it kept twisting and sticking between my... nevermind.

Upon descending, I noticed that the visibility was not at its best. Or perhaps it just seemed so because I had 40m viz in Penida the day before? Anyway, I really can't say it's bad, because it was 10-15m viz. Rizal was the divemaster for this dive. Slowly, Mia and I headed down, following Rizal's lead. We went down, down, down, ... and when I glanced at my computer, we were already at 30m! I was puzzled, but I wanted to see how deep everyone would go.

When I hit 38m, I decided to go up a little. At the same time, I noticed my buddy Mia leveling off and starting to ascend a little as well - we're really in tune! Rizal also started to go up, but I was horrified when I noticed that the group - including some newly-certified divers - were still descending. Mia and I spotted Krisno (about 10m below us) and signaled him to come up a bit. The depth junkies, however (you know who you are), have gone much deeper. I shudder to think how deep.

The rest of the dive was an uneventful classic multilevel dive. The corals were healthy, although covered in a little bit of silt. A hint of coral rubble here and there were the evidence of past reef bombing. No sign of the blaktip reef sharks I saw during my last dive here. I spent the rest of the dive watching other divers and their activities - Tom and Bayu taking pictures, Elice looking for her (missing, or AWOL?) divemaster, Mia and Sonia posing for pictures. There were so many of us that the fishes decided to take a hike - so I hung out and observed the divers, and practised my backward kick & helicopter turn :)

Getting back up onto the jukung was a pain in the arse, but I managed. Already I was looking forward to the next dive, which was the SS Liberty shipwreck. This site is one of my all-time favorites - the lack of currents, the magnificent structure of the ship, the abundance of marine life, and the eerie ghost-ship-like atmosphere kept me coming back for more.

Entering the water from shore, we went down slowly and swam towards the direction of the shipwreck. The ocean floor and the wreck were covered in fine volcanic sand - a diver with crap buoyancy can very quickly reduce the visibility from 10m to 0m in 5 seconds flat. Sonia led the dive, going slowly through the middle of the wreck. Hungry surgeonfish followed us everywhere, expecting to be fed. Several came as close as 5cm from my mask, totally unafraid. A spiraling school of jacks put on a great show for us, swirling and turning like a washing machine in the middle of the wreck.

Leveling off at 12m, we stopped and took a good look around. Rizal spotted a Djeddah snapping shrimp digging out sand from its burrow, guarded by a goby. A giant clam flashed its brilliant colours, and retracted its mantle when my hand swept past.

We then headed up towards the sandy bottom, where Sonia spotted a scorpionfish perfectly camouflaged between metal scraps of the wreck. I also saw a bizarre fish the shape of a snapper, but with a horn protruding from between its eyes. The horn was almost as long as its body, and had light brown and white stripes. None of us have ever seen it, and I couldn't find it in my marine life book. A genetic freak?

During our safety stop, tens of garden eels popped out of their sandy homes, giving us a goodbye show.

After a yummy lunch of Babi Pelecing and copious amount of Coke, we boarded the jukung again. This time, we were heading for Kubu, a relatively new site 30 minutes away by jukung from Tulamben. It was (thankfully) another shore dive. We descended right into the shallow part of the reef, and I was amazed at how healthy it was at 3m. We slowly made our way to the outer part, towards a gorgonian fan where three pygmy seahorses were found before. Not wanting to crowd the scene, I wandered off to let the divemasters find the pygmies. I hovered and watched two trumpetfish (one blue, one yellow) fight over territory. I also found banded boxershrimps hiding under rocks.

When all the other divers were done with the pygmy sighting, I went over and spent a few minutes with the cute Mini-Me seahorse. Nearby, two zebra lionfish were hanging mid-water, showing off their frilly fins and majestic colours. Shallower up, Bayu spotted a scorpionfish, sleeping vertical on a coral.

When my computer showed 60 minutes, I reluctantly ended my last dive for this trip. We cleaned up, packed up, and left Tulamben... to attend the KSDC barbecue! Fun, food, alcohol, and a little bit of mayhem... we had it all. But, that's another story!



A big thanks to the organisers and the members/friends of KSDC diving club for the great trip and great dives. I hope this is the first of many.