Swimming with the fishes

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Around October last year, I went to a little island north of Sumatra, Indonesia, called Pulau Weh to learn how to Scuba Dive, and it was one of the most amazing experiences of my life.

 

I was with my friend Todd, who I met in Langkawi, and we flew from Penang, Malaysia to Banda Aceh, Indonesia, and it was the first time I’ve seen a commercial plane with open propellers like that. From Banda Aceh, there is a slow boat that we just about got on to before it left. And man, it is sloooow!

To get from the port on Pulau Weh to Iboih, had a crazy ride in Pulau Weh’s version of a tuk-tuk – a motorbike with a little side-cart for me, Todd and our backpacks that I was sure wouldn’t make it up any hills we encountered. Even though the insane system of ‘hoot & go’ they seem use didn’t actually get us into a crash, we could still feel the little engine struggle to drive us around for an hour. Eventually we made it to Iboih, and the tuktuk driver took us along a long path (super tiring with our bags!) to some bungalows he claimed were owned by his mother. At first the bungalows seemed a bit dingy but we grew to like them…especially after the woman that actually owned them (Norma) met us after a day and agreed to give us a much nicer bungalow for the same price – $6 per night for me and Todd!

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With a view like that what could we complain about! And after a little research and walking around, we came across the place we would learn to dive:

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We booked ourselves onto the PADI Open Water Scuba Diver course and went around exploring. We found some interesting food and met some lovely people, including some Australians (Brett and Aiden) and some lovely girls from the Netherlands (Lou-lou and Arte), who were all lovely enough to give us lots of tips and advice about diving to put our minds at ease. To be honest I really appreciated it because I was feeling quite nervous – I used to be a fairly strong swimmer but that was years ago and I’m much less fit now. Plus, diving to me has always been something that sounds exciting and scary at the same time, and the kind of adventure I came travelling to find 😀

After a questionable breakfast with a choice of eggs, rice, nuts and (I think) fish and veggies, we got started with our diving course. Our diving instructor, Lorenzo, introduced himself with a smile on his and I was already feeling more confident. Now of course, before you do anything like this its always good to read up a bit and feel like you at least kind of know what you’re doing before you jump in, so we were given a nice thick theory book and told to finish the first couple of chapters before our first dive. A couple of hours and a healthy lunch later, we were ready to go.

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Now I don’t often take pictures of myself but I was so excited that I just had to! And of course, it’s good practice to prepare your own equipment before a dive (and mandatory when learning), so we got prepped while Lorenzo and the other guys got the boat prepped. When we were ready Todd and I headed over to the boat, equipment on and ready with knowledge. I’ll be honest I don’t have many boat pics or dive pics because I didn’t want any of my stuff to get wet. Besides I figured I’d learn first and take pictures when I can go diving for fun 😀

The first dive was incredible. We got off the boat onto a platform, and launched from there, using the giant step method to get in the water, after doing our safety checks. That first moment in the water was a bit scary, but once I got used to using the mouthpiece and oxygen tank to breathe, I opened my eyes and took a look around. I was absolutely astounded, I felt like new world had been opened up to me. Pulau Weh is an amazing place to learn how to dive because the water is near-crystal clear, and it just feels incredible to be there and be able to see 10 feet down from the surface. We then descended, making sure to equalise the pressure on the way down. I actually didn’t know humans could do this, but apparently if you hold your nose and then try to breathe out through your nose your can force air out of your ears which allows your to equalise the pressure inside your body. It’s actually really cool and I use it on flights now and my I never have a problem with my ears anymore. Who knew!

So the first dive is quite simple, mostly just getting comfortable with the launch, being in the water, using the equipment, and starting on some easy exercises to learn about buoyancy. We were underwater for over an hour and I love every single minute of it! I have to say that I found it hard to control my breathing properly for diving but Lorenzo is a fantastic instructor and helped me improve on a ton by the end of the course.

After the dive we came back to a beautiful view. We cleaned the equipment and put it in the proper place and decided to get some food because diving makes you super hungry! I did actually get cramps during the dive so I decided to have lots of potassium every day to make sure it didn’t happen again, so I treated myself to a banana milkshake and a banana pancake that evening.

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Day 2 started off with the same breakfast, and after all the homework of completing the allocated section reading we were ready for the test. Full marks, I think! Alright time for another dive 😀

 

This dive was largely the same as the first dive, except with a tiny bit less guidance so I had to think a bit more about what I was actually doing and help cement what I had learnt into my head. This time, we practised some more buoyancy exercises and actually did a little bit of exploring, moving around, trying to get used to not using our arms (diving is not swimming!). It sounds simple but it’s pretty strange trying to move around in the water without really using your arms like you would when swimming – if you use your fins properly you can propel yourself and you move your whole body for direction. To be honest I still struggle with it – every so often you might see me flailing my arms around frantically trying to move away from some coral before I hit it 😛

 

We had a quick lunch and then out for another dive – although this one was mostly just practise, not really part of the course, just to make us feel more confident before we move on. It was very similar to the morning dive, but I was really feeling quite tired by the end of it. Diving is exhausting! And we weren’t even done for the day – sure we went back to our bungalow but we had to complete the next section of the book and the sections were getting much thicker! However, as I learnt later, it is not necessary to read the book as thoroughly as I did. Todd and I had a bit of a competition going on with how much we had got through the book and how well we did on the tests – at first I was winning but as the sections got longer he (unbeknown to me) was skimming through and getting more than enough right for it to be an effective tactic. Oh well, slow and steady wins the race

Plus we had the hammock, which was pretty awesome and provided complete relaxation, especially with some good music. At least until it got dark and we started getting eaten alive by mosquitos!

Still quite a lot of fish!

That evening we joined Aiden and some of the others for some fantastic grilled fish at the local grillery (it’s a thing trust me). It was quite a nice break from all the random Indonesian food where I didn’t know exactly what was in it, and the large number of banana shakes I had been having to help prevent me having cramp whilst diving. It was really nice and here we got a chance to meet Sandra from Germany, and her friends. We almost ended up ordering too much fish due to a misunderstanding (actually not the first time that’s happened – but that’s another story) but luckily they realised we couldn’t possibly eat that much fish and all was well.

 

Day 3, and the book work was almost done with! I think we had one last chapter by this point, swiftly covered. It turns out that in Pulau Weh they don’t dive after 12pm on Fridays, because Fridays are like Sundays, for some reason, so a lot is closed. Specifically for the sea though, it was partially to give the sea a break from humans and the effect we have on it, out of respect for nature. Kind of a strange thing but it works for the locals. This meant we spread our last 2 dives over the course of 2 days, making them both really chilled out days. There was a cafe close to the bungalows that most of us would hang out at when we weren’t doing anything else. Quaint little place, lovely people and good food! The sign in the picture above is from there too, really made me smile every time I looked at it.

Anyway my point being I think we spent a lot of time in that cafe that day, and some time walking around exploring a bit too. I wanted to go snorkelling but some of the girls said the people who rent out the equipment were being pretty unreasonable – almost forcing them to pay for broken equipment!

 

The fourth and final day of our scuba diving course had finally arrived. It was almost anticlimactic – just one final test on everything we’d learnt and one final dive to make sure we could carry through with our word. Oh well, I’m now officially certified as an Open Water Scuba Diver, which means I can go down to 18m. It doesn’t sound like a lot but once you get down there and have to try and get back up in one breath as an emergency ascent when you’ve run out of air, it’s hella deep! Now I can finally go and do what I set out to: go and dive in and around Australia and New Zealand 😀 Great Barrier Reef, here I come!

Lorenzo in the front being cool with Aiden chilling in the background

You know it’s actually surprisingly easy to get a PADI Open Water license – pretty much just do a couple of dives after learning all the theory and you’re good to go. But maybe it’s cos we had such an awesome diving instructor who really made sure we understood what we learnt and really went above and beyond. I really just want to emphasise how amazing it was to have him as an instructor and how much I appreciate it. Thank you Lorenzo! And a shoutout to Iboih Dive Center who were fantastic and helping me throughout the whole process and for people such chill people!

 

I’ve got more diving stories but this is a long post already.

 

Til the next one,

Sinbad

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