Things I Learned While Diving in Bali

Ready to dive

“You ready?” Mark asks me.

I nod, but I’m trying to think of a way to get out of this task without betraying my cowardice.  Maybe I could claim a surprise attack of food poisoning?  Should I pretend to black out?  Or fake a sudden and unfortunate allergy to water?  We’re getting ready to descend 12 metres under the sea for the very first time.  As Mark slows our narrow jukung boat and kills the motor, I look around at the dizzying turquoise seascape surrounding us.

Mark in our jukung boat

White, foamy waves gently lick the side of our boat and greyish clouds cover the sky, indicating an approaching storm.  Or perhaps imminent doom, as divine punishment for the insanity that I was about to commit in the name of adventure.

This was the fourth day of my Open Water Diver certification course in Sanur, Bali.  The task for today?  Diving into the recesses of a sunken shipwreck.  Panicking, I started to play in my mind all of the horrific scenarios that could occur during the dive:

  • getting vertigo and passing out underwater
  • running out of air and passing out underwater
  • losing my instructor and spending hours looking for him, Nemo’s dad-style
  • seeing a shark
  • losing a valuable body part to a shark
  • being eaten by a shark

I began to think of the absurdity of it all.  Why was I leaving the safety of our small but sturdy boat to descend into darkness, trespassing into the territory of such dangerous creatures as predatory sharks and irritable rays?


Just before sunset

But let’s start at the beginning…

I arrived in Bali on a warm, muggy evening in April with a plan to spend eight days diving, rafting, elephant-riding, and beach-hopping.  I was met by the sight of impossibly tall palm trees swaying in the wind, aggressive taxi drivers calling loudly for the attention of potential passengers, and a descending sun disappearing quickly from the horizon.

A street in sleepy Sanur

As I made my way out into the noisy throng, an amicable Balinese driver, sent from my guesthouse to retrieve me, waved me over, and we immediately departed for my new home.  The driver showed me to my room, which was by far the most luxurious place I have ever stayed in – a poolside, private suite with an enormous widescreen TV, comfortable bed, and a balcony looking out onto lush jungle foliage.

My sweet guesthouse room

I had decided to splurge on this trip and stay somewhere a little more elegant than my usual accommodations of a bunk bed in a shared hostel room, where one could breathe in the scent of sweat and moldy socks, see the beaten travel packs strewn across the floor in total disarray like North Face just threw up, and listen to the sounds of snoring and whispered conversations in the dark.  Yes, this was a well-chosen upgrade.

I started my course early the next morning and discovered that I was the only student who had registered.  I was initially disappointed; I had wanted to meet other people on my trip, as I was travelling solo.  However, I realized the benefits of the circumstances: I had private instruction for the full six days of the course, an advantage for a student with an exceptionally slow learning curve for anything even remotely athletic.

My dive instructor, Mark

My instructor, Mark, sauntered over and introduced himself.  He was a friendly but unnervingly blunt New Yorker who had been living in Bali for eight years and who spoke Bahasa Indonesian fluently.  I quizzed him on all things Balinese and aquatic throughout the course and became increasingly fascinated by his stories of life as an ex-pat.  I learned a lot from him about diving and life in Bali, and I think he learned some things from me as well:

  1. Not every full-grown adult can do math at higher than an elementary school level (he discovered this when I attempted to calculate the amount of residual nitrogen that would be in my body after a dive, using a simple graph, and I came up with the wrong results three times in a row – perhaps that would have been a good time to tell him I almost failed high school math twice?).
  2. Being a good swimmer in a pool does not mean you won’t crash into coral structures or large rocks while swimming in the ocean.
  3. Even if you repeat an instruction five different ways, and as simply as possible, this does not mean your instruction will be heeded, or understood, by your nervous, panicky student.

Me, learning dive basics

The first two days of the course were spent in the classroom and the swimming pool.  Mark tested me on various diving tasks before we entered the ocean, including some scary ones like what to do if your mask fills up with water and you can’t see (flailing around blindly is NOT the answer, as I discovered through the exasperation and repeated corrections of my ever-so-patient dive master), what to do if you run out of air, and what to do if you have a cramp underwater and can’t move.  I swim a lot and have snorkeled quite a few times, but even still, I surprised myself with my excessive lack of coordination and grace underwater.  Although, even without the giant vest and metal cylinder attached to my back, my corporal awkwardness could still make ballet look like sumo wrestling and diving look like a giraffe doing gymnastics.

In spite of the odds against me, we were able to go through all the tasks, and finally, I was deemed ready to dive in the ocean.

Various coral structures at Tulamben


Coral and fish galore

It was time.  We were about to roll back off the edge of the boat and into the warm water only inches below where I was seated.  During this dive, we would visit the famed site of Tulamben; that is, if I could work up the courage to fall in and not have a fit of hysteria on the way down.

I calmed myself with a few deep breaths, and then we rolled back and started swimming down immediately.  After a few metres of an ear-popping, vertigo-inducing descent, my fears dissipated.   Mark stayed close to my side, and as we made our way to the prime dive site, we saw a plethora of colourful lionfish, barracudas, and manta rays.

U.S. Liberty cargo shipwreck site

We finally reached the highlight of our dive, the site of the U.S. Liberty shipwreck.   This army transport ship was torpedoed by Japanese forces during WWII, and now it sits just off the northeastern coast of Bali, encrusted with coral and home to a wide variety of tropical marine life.

Suddenly, we were surrounded by giant purple fish that approached in the dozens and started nibbling on my hair.

Giant school of fish

I immediately thought these were the nasty and territorial triggerfish that my instructor had warned me about.  In a panic, I glanced over at Mark, but using hand signals, he made it clear that they posed no threat to my safety.  Later on, he told me they were harmless wrasse and that other divers often brought breadcrumbs down to feed them, so they associated divers with dinner (but not in the Jaws kind of way).

Hovering beside a WWII shipwreck

As we ascended, I reflected upon the mishaps and accomplishments of the past week.  I had run out of air and forgotten the most essential, life-saving hand signal on one dive, felt the panic of vertigo setting in on another, and crashed into an underwater rock wall while avoiding a rapid current.

And still, despite all this, and despite having a severe case of clumsiness, a gross ineptitude for following simple instructions, and the inability to do grade five math problems, I had obtained my certification as an open water diver.  I had descended 12 metres underwater, to a new world where vibrant tropical fish caress your skin, begging for food, and coral closes in on a decades-old relic of war.

Mark, ascending into a school of fish

These are some of the most important things I learned that week:

1.  You should always avoid creatures that are either really pretty (lionfish) or really ugly (pufferfish), or that stare at you really aggressively without moving (triggerfish).  While this is a good tip for diving, I feel like this advice can also apply to dating.


2.   Don’t wave at other divers.  While this may seem excessively unfriendly, a wave is the universal diving signal for “Help!  I’m drowning or otherwise in distress!”  So unless you want a group of concerned diving Samaritans to helpfully drag you to surface and perform CPR on you against your will, don’t be friendly.

3.  There are around 25 hand signals that new divers need to memorize in order to communicate with their group and other divers.  While they are all important to learn, the one you should probably not forget is the one for “I’ve run out of air and need to share your tank with you!”  This happened on one of my dives, although waving my hands frantically in front of my dive instructor’s face seemed to communicate this perfectly well in my mind.  However, in reality, it may confuse your instructor, and it may make him believe that you wish to perform the closing number to “Chicago” underwater rather than convey your increasing lack of oxygen, so it is VERY important not to forget your hand signals!

4.  Working harder does NOT make you move faster or more gracefully.  This may seem counter-intuitive, as most things in life (becoming a lawyer, running a marathon, winning an eating contest, etc.) require hard work and speed to get ahead.  However, kicking around while huffing and puffing is only good if you are playing Charades and are trying to convince your team that you are an adolescent frog attempting to hunt for food.  In the diving world, it is a great way to run out of air quickly, tire out your muscles, and perhaps destroy a fragile and invaluable ecosystem.

Here are more photos from my trip on flickr.  Enjoy!

Jukung fishing boat at Sanur Beach


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