Up and out at 6am the next day, the shop was a hive of activity, Divemasters rushing around kitting everyone up. Myself and Grumpy, being working divers, don’t like anyone touching our kit. I just prefer to be the last one to check it before I jump into the ocean. As Scarface said “Who put this thing together? Me. Who do I trust? Me…that’s who.” We were to be plagued by the boatboys during this fortnight, constantly twiddling the valve knobs behind our heads as we prepared to dive. It annoyed me, but really riled Grumpy.
But I digress. We headed for Canyons and Tekong for the first day’s dives. I was not to be disappointed. Dropping to a maximum 36 metres, we were pushed and pulled by the surge close to the rocky shore; the seas are pretty fierce around here, this being the first land the vast sea meets as it hits Indonesia…it’s literally the front line. Canyons’ topography is amazing, huge crevices and gullies between boulder formations, the flanks lined with rows and rows of huge gorgonian fans waving in the current like small trees on a blustery day; truly stunning. Visibility was good for at least 25m, and I had never seen such a wide variety of fish species in one dive before. We drifted on the strong current, and I could see plateaux below plateux underneath us. This site goes down to around 55m, if my memory serves me correctly. On finishing this dive, I encountered a beast I had been longing to see: the Napoleon Wrasse. These creatures can grow to 2m in length, and are a myriad of blues and greens. Beautiful in an ugly way, their heads are dominated by a huge hump and lips Mick jagger would be proud of. They are also fairly tame, and will hang around as long as you don’t make any sudden movements. This character was happy to let me swim around and float alongside him for a good ten minutes before he tired of me and dropped into the depths. I surfaced elated: not bad at all for a first dive. My log for this dive actually states “Indonesian diving is the best in Asia.” This place is unmissable, believe me; especially when you consider that it works out around £12 per dive with pro discount, and us having our own gear. Cheaper than chips.
There are a few average dives arund the island, but even these are better than a lot of places you may dive in Malaysia or Thailand. The other standouts for me were Shark Plateau at Tokong, and Peunateung. The former was where two of my favourite experiences occurred; on our first dive there we were drifiting with the current, and I was a little further out than the pack. Someone drew my attention to a huge marbled ray travelling alongside us, closer to the group than myself. I cursed myself for being so distant, and sped up to keep pace with the creature. In a flash, it banked like an aircraft, and hurtled past me; one huge eye rotating to examine me as it cruised within a couple of metres of me. To look into the eyes of a huge creature underwater really is a special moment in your life I can do no justice with words; you feel a connection with it that you immediately think impossible: that you acknowledge each other. Sometimes you catch yourself saying “Hello, mate…” in your head. I know how that sounds. This benign animal would bear me no malice; I would prefer to look into the eyes of the Great White (from inside a cage, obviously). To stare and be stared at by the ultimate apex predator of the ocean would be incredible. I’m told it is quite a thought-provoking experience to be scrutinised by something which is figuring out whether it can devour you. Barracuda also stalk the waters of the island, and at Tokong I fought to hang onto a rock, observing a 100+ strong school effortlessly facing into the speeding currents, their sleek missile-shaped bodies perfect for mocking all that nature could throw at them. At one point I ascended, and drifted through them, amazed at the fact that there were two species in this school, separated by an invisible line. A baby blacktip shark completed a great dive here.
Peunateung has immense vertical drop-offs and walls covered in fans. This site is deep, dropping down to around 75m in places. There was a deep wreck I wanted to dive, and the shop insisted myself and Grumpy do a “check-dive” to make sure we could cope with the narcosis and challenges this presents. This was despite the pair of us haughtily showing them our logbooks; Grumpy’s an experienced instructor, and I’d done 134 dives in the last 5 months, one of those to 60m, and 80% of them wreck penetrations. So we were a bit pissed off at the perceived slight, but had a good dive. I was thankful I had none of the bad ju-ju I’d had at Apo Reef at 60m; I’d gone 20m beyond my previous limit in one dive there, and had scared the shit out of myself. I’m adventurous, but not suicidal. What I was going to witness in the few days before the wreck-dive was going to reinforce that.