Deep down in turtle heaven

Div­ing de­lights off Lom­bok

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - DESTINATION AFLOAT - PENNY HUNTER

Ac­cord­ing to Hol­ly­wood, in space no one can hear you scream. Un­der­wa­ter, how­ever, squeal­ing with ex­cite­ment is per­fectly au­di­ble. We dis­cover this on our chil­dren’s foray into in­ner space as scuba divers. It’s the sight of a green sea turtle rest­ing med­i­ta­tively on a reef that prompts a high-pitched burst of bub­bles from my daugh­ter’s reg­u­la­tor. Her out­burst is closely fol­lowed by the un­der­wa­ter sig­nal for “awe­some” — make an “x” with your arms, point thumbs and pinkies, and wig­gle your hands wildly.

As it turns out, this turtle is the first of many we en­counter around the Gili Is­lands, a trio of pic­ture-postcard isles off the north­west coast of Lom­bok, near Bali. The Gilis are billed as one of the top turtle-spot­ting des­ti­na­tions in the world. The ocean is a calm, balmy 28C and of­fers vis­i­bil­ity of up to 30m — ideal con­di­tions for our chil­dren, age 12 and 13, to earn their stripes as PADI open wa­ter divers.

Tur­tles aren’t the only draw­card of the Gilis. If Bali, with its sprawl­ing re­sorts and per­sis­tent touts, feels over­cooked, here you can find a slower pace of is­land life.

Our isle of choice is Gili Air, 30 min­utes by outrig­ger from Lom­bok and a fam­ily-friendly spot. We wake each morn­ing to the crow­ing of roost­ers and the call to prayer (un­like Bali, Lom­bok and the Gilis are pre­dom­i­nantly Mus­lim). Mo­tor ve­hi­cles are banned and the only en­gine we hear is the evening hum of an air com­pres­sor fill­ing tanks for the next day’s div­ing.

The clip-clop of hooves and the jin­gle-jan­gle of bells add to the is­land’s sound­track as brightly dec­o­rated pony-drawn carts (called cido­mos) jaunt along dirt tracks that tra­verse the is­lands. Ev­ery­thing that ar­rives here, from build­ing sup­plies to back­pack­ers, is of­floaded from boats and hauled by these hard-work­ing horses, and they lend the is­lands a rus­tic charm.

But the main al­lure is the beaches and the ocean. On the nu­mer­ous boat trips we take dur­ing our stay, we are as­tounded by the clar­ity of the wa­ter sparkling be­neath the hull. Our ac­com­mo­da­tion, sim­ple A-framed bam­boo cot­tages set amid well-tended gar­dens, is op­po­site a reef, which means we can take a dip in the pool, stroll 20m to the ocean and be snorkelling among but­ter­fly fish and Moor­ish idols at the drop of a sun­hat. From morn­ing to night, the ocean’s sur­face is dot­ted with snorkels and stand-up pad­dle board­ers, and echoes with the happy chat­ter of tourists ex­plor­ing the un­der­wa­ter world.

But if you re­ally want to get out and find tur­tles, div­ing is the way to go. Gili Air has about 14 scuba out­lets, and un­der an ar­range­ment with lo­cal NGO Gili Eco Trust, they all op­er­ate on a fixed price sys­tem. This means there’s no un­der­cut­ting, which can lead to a lais­sez-faire at­ti­tude to safety and the en­vi­ron­ment. With price not a fac­tor, the choice of dive school be­comes more per­sonal. For the kids, we want an in­struc­tor who can en­gage them and al­lay their fears, but most im­por­tantly make it fun.

Af­ter do­ing the rounds, we set­tle for the dive school next door to our ho­tel, Blue Marine Dive. And we hit the jackpot with our in­struc­tor. Ver­ena “Vee” Haberer is a blonde 27-year-old Ital­ian who speaks four lan­guages, grew up snow­board­ing in the South Ty­rol and did her first dive in Lake Garda in 8C wa­ter with 30cm vis­i­bil­ity. How that ex­pe­ri­ence could con­vert any­one into a scuba en­thu­si­ast is a mys­tery but she in­sists she “loved it from the first breath”. The kids take to her im­me­di­ately. It doesn’t hurt that she sports a cute blue­bird tat­too on her torso and the glint of a tongue pierc­ing. She is pa­tient, calm and the epit­ome of cool.

Day one of the three-day course be­gins as the chil­dren wres­tle with strange equip­ment, watch in­struc­tional videos and learn skills in the pool. That af­ter­noon they are ready to plunge into their first ocean dive. The ex­pe­ri­ence is ex­hil­a­rat­ing and it ap­pears they are hooked (or pos­si­bly ru­ined) by their good for­tune. Hav­ing spot­ted five tur­tles on their first dive, will any­where else be able to match this ex­pe­ri­ence? But they have also learned some im­por­tant lessons. One, if you spot a turtle, don’t just swim off to get a closer look, obliv­i­ous to the fate of your dive buddy (younger sib­ling) left be­hind. Two, don’t treat the dive school like your bed­room.

Vee re­minds them their equip­ment is their re­spon­si­bil­ity. Sod­den wet­suits are not left on the ground, BCD vests are rinsed and hung up to dry and reg­u­la­tors are care­fully re­turned to the equip­ment desk. Some­how Vee has man­aged to achieve in one day what I’ve failed to do in a decade — get the kids to pick up af­ter them­selves.

Snorkelling at Gili Air, top; head­ing out on a dive, above; a lo­cal turtle

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