Deep down in turtle heaven
Diving delights off Lombok
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