Gili Air: Sunsets, Sharks, and Urchins, Oh My!

We have taken up a new hobby and completely immersed ourselves (pun intended) this past week in the Gili Islands: scuba diving! I have done 10 dives and Gregor 11, the reason for this discrepancy will be revealed shortly. We have been down as far as 30 meters, seen an octopus changing colors, followed a school of big snapper around a shipwreck, dodged spawning titan triggerfish, played pass with an egg yolk underwater and generally have had the time of our lives! Our only regret is not having amazing photos of the rich marine life and undersea landscapes to share with you – we have a waterproof camera but we were often deeper than its 15m rating and we were already quite busy learning new things pretty much every moment. So enable your imagination and/or just look at the numerous sunset photos we have instead.

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an outrigger at low tide and sunset

We had targeted Gili Air (an island off of Lombok in Indonesia) a little while ago as a good place to take the plunge into dive certification (I’m sorry, it’s just too easy). To get there we had a long but fairly easy travel day flying from Hong Kong through Singapore to Denpasar on Bali and spent an unremarkable somewhat dingy night in the Kuta neighborhood. This wasn’t the most enamoring introduction to Indonesia but happily this was rectified the following day when we caught a boat from Bali out to the Gilis. There are three islands here, each with their own shtick. Gili Air, which means “water island” so named because it has a source of fresh water, is best known as the island to go to if you want to dive, whereas Gili Meno is the honeymoon island and Gili Trawangan is the party island. Our boat happily dropped a bunch of meatheads and Jersey Shore beachaholics off at Gili T, and then brought the more low key remainder to Gili Air.

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Gili Air waterfront
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sunset with Gili Meno on the horizon

We have nothing but good things to say about Gili Air. It’s a small flat island with no cars and everything within easy reach (walking around its beach perimeter takes less than two hours). Gorgeous aquamarine waters gently lap on coral beaches and multicolor outriggers while inland, chickens, cows, cats, and monitor lizards stroll around under palm trees. No ugly concrete towers here, just modest homes, some fancy bungalows, and charming guesthouses. The atmosphere is relaxed and friendly, as are the locals. It’s clean and calm. The weather was just perfect – 30C and mostly sunny each day – which we especially treasured after melting in Vietnam and getting drenched in Hong Kong. Great food options are everywhere, from cheap Indonesian fare (mixed rice plates, satay, curries) to fresh grilled fish and excellent Western choices like sandwiches and salads. I don’t think I could dream up a better place to hang out in between demanding training sessions and exhilarating dives!

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a plate of nasi campur from Moeslim Warung: 20,000 IDR or $1.50. super tasty
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horses are used on Gili Air to haul stuff (and lazy folks) around
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view from the pool we had access to
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this sunset photo has a cat
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grilled fish in banana leaf

Soon after arriving we showed up at our dive center of choice and before we knew it we were in front of a TV watching PADI training videos (outside on a cushion near the beach!) and in the pool with full gear the next morning. Our scuba journey was guided by CJ, a kind-hearted, patient instructor from the US who has been living here for the past 9 months. She led us through skills in the pool that seemed really intimidating at first but turned out to be easy with a little practice, like removing your mask or regulator underwater. Our first dive came just as quickly, backrolling off the boat at the aptly named Turtle Heaven.

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here is where we had to sit and study.
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7 Seas’ beautiful outrigger dive boat!

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Dive one was fun but we both felt rather wobbly and uncertain in our new environment. For non-divers, a big aspect of being in control while diving is maintaining the appropriate level of buoyancy for whatever depth you’re at. This involves a combination of inflating/deflating a vest you wear as well as breathing control (your lungs make a big difference) and it’s not entirely intuitive, so we were bouncing around a fair bit. Our second dive went way better – still far from perfect, but we were in control enough to enjoy ourselves and really be amazed at how awesome diving is! CJ did a great job focusing on the most important skills and mindsets. She’s also a yoga instructor and I think that helps – there are a lot of parallels in terms of body and breath control, and remaining focused and relaxed. Unless you’re clueless or reckless it’s no fun feeling out of control in potentially hazardous conditions, and she got us feeling informed and comfortable with ease.

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on the sundeck of the Mutiara Hitam after our first dive!

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typical view from the boat after a dive near Gili Meno

When we decided to do the Advanced certification – because we were having such a great time learning! – we had to choose 5 dives to improve our skills. We chose buoyancy, wreck diving, deep diving, navigation and night diving. My only previous experience diving was in the Whitsundays in Australia and my friend who was a certified diver did a night dive, which I (Elaine) was not able to do, and raved about it. So I was very excited to do one here. Plus we had been hearing rumors around the dive shop that there was a coconut octopus where we would be diving that only came out at night. Coconut octopus carry a coconut shell around with them and when they feel threatened they hide inside it. This one, though, had been spotted carrying a discarded cup under its arm by the handle and hiding inside that! Also, there was a little hole in the cup where it would peek through, how amazing! Of course we were dying to see this live and so geared up for our night dive at sunset with a couple other folks joining us.

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Elaine and CJ getting ready for a dive

The “house reef” just outside the dive center is amazing, we dove there earlier in the week and that was where we were going to do our night dive. However, the tides here in Indonesia are extreme, as are the currents, so low tide means really low tide. The tide on our night dive was low, so it required a bit of scrambling over dead coral to get up to waist deep so we could begin the dive. As we entered the water it was very clear how unpleasant this task was. CJ never wears booties, but had twisted her ankle earlier in the week so was wearing them for this dive. The rest of us – Gregor and I and two others from Chile – were barefoot and struggling on the sharp coral with heavy tanks. CJ managed to navigate the plateaus and valleys with relative ease, but behind her we were all kind of flopping around in calf deep water wondering when we would be able to swim.

At this point you may be thinking, this is not worth it. Why the hell would anyone put up with all this so they could go shine a light on some fish in the scary abyss? I hear you, but did I mention the coconut octopus? So we trudged on and about a minute into this unpleasant entry I (being first in the line of the 4 of us) would just put my hand down and kind of crab-walk until I could swim. That was pretty slick until about 9 seconds later when my left hand came down on a sea urchin. Uhhh…. I pulled my hand out of the water and shined my flashlight on it and sticking out of my pinky and ring finger were about 12 black spines. At this point (clueless) I thought maybe it was no big deal, I could just pull them out and we could be on our way, but sort of shocked I sat down and – wait for it – sat on another sea urchin. By now I had alerted the group that I had been spiked in the hand and decided that it was time to head for shore. As I walked past them I indicated that I thought I had also sat on one and could sort of feel the flashlight beams on my butt as Gregor involuntarily gasped, “Oh God”. I decided I needed to quickly exit the water and figure out what to do next. Gregor was not far behind me, thankfully and the rest of our group was cautiously wading back to shore. In his calm, confident, triage voice that I hope to never hear directed towards me again, Gregor expertly checked with CJ to confirm he could remove this heavy tank from my back and did so and I stumbled back to the dive shop, thankfully very close to where we were, all while my my fingers were getting numb and dark and I had quills in my butt, which I had not seen directly and did not care to.

By the time I climbed the stairs the group had pretty much caught up and the dive center was having a staff meeting which thankfully included a nurse they have on staff that CJ called over. “She should sit down she might pass out,” I am pretty sure I heard her say and I thought, ‘that’s a good idea, though I should lie on my stomach because, again, I have quills sticking out of my butt’. Somewhat of a spectacle now, the nurse was inspecting the damage along with Matt, one of the other instructors. They are both French and for some reason when French people speak English it sounds immediately believable and calming to me, which seemed great because Matt said he knew exactly what to do about the situation! “Merveilleux!” I thought, these people are great. Then came his solution, delivered in a very nice French accent, “First you remove the big ones, then you take beer bottle and with your finger and – smash smash smash! Very quick for to break up ze spines. They are very brittle so you must smash into little pieces so they dissolve. Very painful, but in 2 or 3 days, no more!” I laughed, but the nurse said, “No, this is true, we will do this?” Oh my God these people are serious! I am in Indonesia with poisonous spines sticking out of my hand and butt and people want to hit me with a beer bottle!

— Ok so quick backstory- Gregor and I went to the “Dokter” yes, that is how they spelled Doctor on the sign, to get some advil the other day and were greeted by a 20-something just beaming and who could not wait to tell us how exciting his day had been as he had just given a German tourist 3 stitches from a bike accident! So, in my current, spiny predicament under normal circumstances I probably would have sought professional medical help, but armed with that knowledge I figured I would take my chances with the French nurse and the beer bottle. —

So along came 2 beer bottles, one empty one for the nurse and one full one for me (thank you) and after brief nudity, creative poses for getting a skin tight wetsuit off while trying not to dislodge any overlooked quills and some oohs and aaahs from the crowd at either success or failure of spine removal ensued, it was time for the smashing. “I am sorry,” the nurse said before she began. Ok, so actually the beer bashing was not that bad. I think if Matt had done it it would have been. He said he had about 100 spines in his foot in another country and when he went to the ER they used a hammer, but as he pointed out this was much cheaper. When she was done, voila! I could sit down! Quite amazing, actually. My hand still hurt, but not really that bad. I took some advil, went to bed and was back at the dive shop at 8:30AM ready to do our wreck dive.

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(butt spines not pictured)
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classy horses-on-the-beach-at-sunset… I bet this is a better photo than they got

Everything else went off without a hitch, and one week later we each have two certifications, 8 hours of dive time (just the start of many more, I think), and a new appreciation for life under da sea (cue Sebastian the crab). As a poor substitute for actual photos, here’s a list of noteworthy critters we saw which you can google if you like. Also imagine fields and pinnacles of corals, innumerable tiny neon colored reef fish, lots of squishy non-coral things that also claim to be animals… and a great bunch of people, both instructors and other customers, to enjoy it all with!

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CJ our instructor
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view of the beachfront bars from out in the shallow low tide
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another sunset! this one with locals digging around in the low tide shallows

No obligation at all to read this list! Only there if you want to nerd out on sea creatures, and/or get envious and come to Indonesia too.

  • Countless angelfish, surgeonfish, 20170629_203054.jpgbutterflyfish, parrotfish, triggerfish, and moorish idols
  • Green and hawksbill turtles cruising around, eating, and snoozing on the bottom
  • Scorpionfish and lionfish
  • A mantis shrimp scuttling around like mantis shrimp do
  • Lots of types of clownfish hanging out in their anemones
  • A rough tail shrimp, a coral banded cleaner shrimp, and an anemone shrimp. These guys are tiny and half transparent so thanks other people who spotted them, no chance we would have
  • Puffers: blackspotted, immaculate, and some really huge map pufferfish
  • Cute little spaghetti garden eels
  • Several day octopus hiding out in dark corners, including one that changed both color and texture while we revisited it during some underwater navigation practice
  • A pair of yellowtail barracuda
  • A blacktip shark, nicely spotted by Elaine
  • A whitetip shark (only briefly)
  • Moray eels big and small chilling out in their holes: yellowmargin, blackspotted, reticulated, and giant
  • Sea feather stars of all sizes and colors
  • Comb jellyfish (with the little multicolored lights!)
  • Nudibranch: swollen phyllidia and banana (big!) to name a couple
  • Coral groupers, bluefin trevally, golden trevally, amberjack, and a big fat double-lined mackerel
  • A couple types of trumpetfish and cornetfish
  • A big school of scissortail fusilier encircling us
  • A batfish (spadefish) lolling on its side while being cleaned by bluestreak wrasse
  • Lots of other stuff we don’t know how to recognize yet…

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Specifics: Gili Air is a Muslim majority place and we were there through the end of Ramadan, which meant that the locals were celebrating and most everything was closed, but it was okay. It was nice to see the local places opening up when everyone went back to work. The mosque that was a couple hundred meters from our room was bumpin’.

We stayed at Villa Karang Homestay for $16/night which included breakfast. The room was great except the bed was a bit musty because it’s pretty humid all around Bali, apparently this is a common problem. Shower was part saltwater which is typical. “Homestay” is a bit of a stretch – they are a set of budget rooms affiliated with the beachfront resort by the same name, so no character but you do get to join in on the pool and buffet breakfast. The breakfast I thought was great, but Gregor was disenchanted by the repetitive whiny island music they played and the temperature of the pancakes. Sad!

We dove with 7 Seas and can’t say enough good things about them. Perfect combo of chill and professional, and while we really liked CJ our instructor we would have been more than happy to train with any one of their staff – all super nice and helpful people. Thank you 7 Seas for being so awesome!

The best food we found was: Warung Moeslim for cheap and delicious nasi campur (soft c like an “s”, mixed rice with tasty stuff); Easy Gilli Warung and Lemongrass Cafe for other local stuff like curries; Le Sate Bar for… sat(e/ay); and Shark Bites for a range of really good western dishes from cheap lunch pasta on up, plus good coffee and super nice owners. Shark Bites and Moeslim became our go-to’s while there (thanks CJ for the pointers!). If you’re walking around after sunset try some spicy grilled corn on the cob from one of the cart vendors.

Make sure you get to the western beach for sunset(s). There are plenty of waterfront bars to relax at that aren’t very expensive. Mowie’s has surprisingly awesome jackfruit tacos (sounds weird, right?).

One thought on “Gili Air: Sunsets, Sharks, and Urchins, Oh My!

  1. I’m trying to be sympathetic, Elaine, but it would be easier if you weren’t such a good writer. It’s hard to maintain appropriate empathy when visions of that beer bottle (and the Doktor!) keep intruding.

    Like

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