A Bucket List Dive at Manta Point, Nusa Penida

First dive we swim towards the cleaning station and I feel the gentle swell and surge pushing me right and left as we swim along at about 10 meters. Moving slowly I see blue spotted Stingrays. First one, then two, then a group of four stacked on top of each other. The entire 49 minute dive goes by without one Manta. The water is beautiful, there are plenty of Stingrays, Triggerfish, Oriental Sweetlips and even a rare Octopus sighting. But not one Manta…returning to the surface I’m feeling cold and disappointed. When we got in the water I heard that little voice say, “Say a mantra and be grateful”, but as I got out of the water it was hard not to feel let down.

As we pile on the boat my sea sickness starts to return. It’s the first time I have ever felt queasy on a boat. Nico takes a vote to see how many people want to stay at the site and try again in an hour or so. It is the first time all season he hasn’t seen a Manta at this site and he doesn’t want us to leave disappointed. If we wait it out, there’s a good chance we’ll see a few, the day isn’t over yet. We all agree to stay, have lunch and dive this site one more time.

It was worth the wait. Close to 40 minutes later the captain of our boat starts whistling and yelling, “MANTAS! MANTAS!” Rushing to the side of the boat we’re yelling, “WHERE? WHERE?” As we look in the distance there’s one black fin, then another.

Zuri asked, “Wow – how many are there?” and Murray replied, “Why don’t we get in the water and find out?”

I had my equipment on and did a buddy check in record time. By then the Mantas were swimming closer to the boat. You could have put on a snorkel to swim with them.

We only descended about 10 meters and suddenly Manta Rays were circling all around us. I was in awe. Excited, afraid and totally in the wonder of it all, I couldn’t figure out what to do next. I watched Murray swim beside an enormous black one. It must have had the wing span of at least 8 feet. Murray was swimming as close as he could possibly get for a good shot with the camera. Their wide, triangular shaped fins looked like bird wings as they smoothly sailed through the water. I was filled with wonder as these enormous, majestic creatures elegantly glided all around me. I counted 10 circling around at once and I could see and feel a few more in the distance. Fins spread as they smoothly glided up towards the surface, then effortlessly dipping down closer to me. Six..seven…eight…nine…cruising all around me. I just kept floating, breathing in and out, slowing my breath down and making my air last as long as possible.

Their flat, black bodies looked like huge bats. The cephalic lobes that wrapped around their mouths remind me of a thick, wide, detachable Victorian era color on a man’s shirt. Acting as a funnel for plankton to get into their mouths it’s a built in water filtration system. The lobes were opening and closing as they swam around looking for smaller fish to help remove parasites from the mucus membranes that protect their skin.

A few more circled above me so I looked up to see 5 huge slits for gills on both sides of their bellies. I noticed some blotches on their bellies and their thin, sting ray like tails as they cruised around me. It seemed like there were at least 16 swimming with us.

I started to silently say to each one of them, “You’re beautiful, you are truly beautiful”. Did they hear me? Could I have a telepathic connection with a Manta Ray? I realized as they swam closer I began to feel more fear. They were enormous. I gently and consciously went in and out of fear and wonder, trying to stay in the wonder of it all.

After almost an hour of passing the camera back and forth and swimming along with them I started feeling really cold so I signaled to Murray and started to ascend. Hovering at the 3 meter safety stop I was still surrounded by Mantas, even more had begun to play closer to the surface. I gently lifted my head out of the water and floated with my regulator in my mouth and just watched them. The blanket like bodies looked flat from my view at the surface. Two came close to me as if they wanted to play, I got scared and started to swim away.

Murray popped his head up to the surface to talk to me and said, “Are you alright? Do you want to go back to the boat?”

“I’m cold” I said, “But I’m happy watching them from here.”

“You can get really close if they let you” he said, “I was trying to tell you to get closer to them. They don’t bite or sting or I wouldn’t be swimming this close.”

“I keep getting scared” I told him.

“Ok” he said, “then let me know if when you want to go back to the boat.” Then his head disappeared and he descended back down.

I decided to stay in. I made sure to stay between 3-5 meters on the surface, put my regulator back in my mouth and went down to play with the ones hovering close to me. There were two enormous black ones and I reached out to them. For the next 10-15 minutes I just swam 3-5 meters from the surface gliding along with 3 manta rays. One would swim directly towards me as if to play a game of chicken and then quickly turn left before I even had a chance to get close. I felt the tables had turned and I was the one moving towards them and they were playing hard to get. I simply stayed in the wonder of it. I felt the fear and just relaxed into swimming next to them and allowing them to come closer to me. Swimming as close as they would let me, I soaked up as much of the experience as I could.

For the next 20 minutes I floated next to some of the most fascinating creatures in the water. As I checked my air and saw it was getting low, I silently started to say goodbye to the ones around me. I smiled to myself as I reached the surface and said to myself it was a bucket list dive.

Down Under in Amed

Down Under

As we sit down to have breakfast with Nico and Murray, our two dive guides for the weekend, I can smell the thick, dark Bali coffee sitting on the table. Ordering eggs and toast we start to talk about the sites we’re going to dive. As I look out over the treetops at the cobalt blue ocean I feel the excitement of being back diving in Amed.

Zuri fills out her paperwork before we get started. As usual, the atmosphere with Nico and Murray at Baliku is lively with constant chatter.

Zuri looks over the questionnaire and says, “Wait, you can’t be over 45 and smoke?”
I look over and notice Murray putting out his cigarette, so I say, “Guess that let’s Murray out, we can’t dive with him.”

Nico retorts quickly, “For Murray he already has to mark “No” for half the questions.”

“But there are no “Are you a legend” questions. That would be a YES answer,” Murray defends himself with a completely straight face.

“I don’t understand”, Nico replies

“I’ll explain it to you later” I quip.

“Okay great”, Nico tells me, “That very handsome guy over three will get your equipment sorted.”

And we’re off for a full day of diving at Jemeluk drop off.

Our SUV pulls up to the sight and 6 small Indonesian kids run from the side of the road to our car. A skinny 7-year-old boy wearing blue faded shorts and a worn red t-shirt runs to the back of the car and squeezes in between two taller girls to help pull out the plastic blue crates filled with scuba gear. Gathering around the back of the car the kids help pull out the oxygen tanks, BCD’s and regulators to carry them to our set up spot. As we set up our equipment I hear the skinny little boy yell out, “NNNIIICCCCOOO” and our Belgium guide flashes a big smile as he laughs at his little Indonesian friend.

What I love about shore diving is walking into the water slowly and feeling the gradual decent until eventually you find yourself 30 meters below in God’s aquarium. Immediately a Stingray swims past me. I remember being in Thailand at a fish farm feeding the sting rays and how thick and slippery their skin felt. As I look to my right I spot a lone Trumpet Fish and a small Puffer Fish swims by. Soon a little school of Razor Fish drift past and Nico cups them with his hands playfully.

Staring at the coral reef I spot a big Dogface Puffer Fish casually swimming in and out of the reef. A Unicorn fish swims by and in the distance I spot a Clown Triggerfish (Big-spotted Triggerfish), one of my favorite fish in South East Asia.

Breathing in and out, the darth vadar sound from my regulator lulls me into a meditative state. I see the water getting shallow as we begin to swim closer to the shore. Suddenly Nico is waving his arms to get my attention. I swim higher to meet him, as I’m cresting over the coral reef there is the biggest school of Bigeye Travallies I’ve ever seen. They formed a cyclone shape and swim tightly together hardly moving at all. They look like a tornado starting a few feet above the coral reef and spreading up close to the surface, beams of sunlight streaming down through them. Nico swims just under them and floats effortlessly while watching them above. I hover quietly watching him floating below the cyclone shaped school and make a mental picture of the one lone diver floating below of hundreds of Travellies as the sunlight beams down between them.

I have that picture in mind as we end our first dive at Jemeluk drop off. For our second dive we make sure to bring the camera. As soon as we descend the biggest Cuttlefish I’ve seen is there to greet us. It hovers in front of us and changes its colors and patterns. It’s the first time I’ve seen a cuttlefish camouflage. It was the highlight of the dive. For the next 40 minutes we floated around, snapped photos and enjoyed the vibrant reef and life down under.


Same Cuttlefish


Lion Fish

Lion Fish



The Wandering Jen

Scuba Diva

photo by Cameron @ Dive & Relax
It was only last week, just before I came to Malaysia that I was in Southern Thailand. It’s already starting to feel like so long ago. After Phuket I jumped on a boat to Koh Lanta because I wanted to dive two sites that are local favorites, Hin Daeng (Red Rock) and Hin Meuang (Purple Rock). It was tough to find a boat going out there because it’s the end of the dive season (April 30th is when most boats stop going to the sites farther out because of the weather) and these two are at least an hour boat ride from Koh Lanta by speedboat. As it was the end of the season, I was lucky to get on any boat going out there, it took us 3 1/2 hours on a slow boat with Lanta Divers and I was just happy to find a boat that was going. Once we were out there I only saw one other dive boat the whole day. It was great.
Hin Daeng & Hin Meuang are two huge, deep water rocks that are well-known for sighting manta rays, whale sharks and leopard sharks.  Hin Muang is Thailand’s highest vertical wall, submerged below sea level. It’s covered with vibrant, purple, soft corals. The marine life, both big and small is beautiful and impressive. What surprised me the most was the size of the fish out there. I recognized many of the same fish I’ve seen at Koh Bida and the Similans, but they were 2-3 times bigger. Apparently, this too far out for fisherman, so the fish can obviously grow bigger when they are not being hunted. We saw great barracuda’s, bearded scorpion fishes,  coronet fishes, at least 8 moray eels, longfin batfishes, blue triggerfish, yellow tail triggerfish and a silver wall of travelly swimming past. On that particular day we didn’t spot any manta rays, whale sharks or leopard sharks, and I wasn’t able to get any photos of our diving from the others I was with.
Fortunately, the next day I had arranged to join Dive & Relax to try Koh Bida (again) and Hin Bida. Cameron from Dive & Relax was really helpful when I was trying to find a boat going out to Hin Daeng and Hin Meuang and suggested that I could experience some great things at Hin Bida. Dive & Relax is a great  company that has speedboats and offers dive trips, snorkeling, private trips and PADI courses on Koh Lanta. They’ll organize a nice day with lunch, experienced and professional dive guides and a small group of people to go with.  You can check them out at www.diveandrelax.com.
We had a great day diving, the conditions were really good and we experienced some fantastic sightings. As soon as we descended Hin Bida there was a big leopard/ zebra shark (photo above) just lying at the bottom of the sea, staring at us while Cameron took pictures until it swam off. It is a truly beautiful animal. At Koh Bida Nok, there was a big red octopus that we watched for at least 5 minutes. It was on the rocks and kept expanding and contracting and changing colors, camouflaging itself with the rocks. Then it swam in front of us from one rock to another, it was amazing. Usually when I’ve seen them they are hiding between rocks and you can only see a tiny little part of them.
Lastly, there’s a beautiful photo below of a cuttlefish. It’s the last photo at the bottom. This is the first time I’ve seen one and Cameron got a great shot of it. It was so nice to dive Koh Bida again and have better experience. Enjoy these fantastic photos courtesy Cameron at Dive & Relax.
photo by Cameron @ Dive & Relaxphoto by Cameron @ Dive & Relax
photo by Cameron @ Dive & Relax

The Downside of Diving Phi Phi

Photo courtesy of Tom Booth

No matter how many times I walk into situations staying open to experience whatever happens, when I least expect it, I step into a situation where I wasn’t paying any attention to how high my expectations were…and experience the crash…I know it’s common, we all do it.

This time I felt the let down on the second day of my recent dive trip to Phi Phi Island. After such a solid and positive experience on the Similan Islands live aboard I was excited to sign up for a two day trip to Phi Phi to dive the infamous sites there, Shark Point, Bida Nik & Bida Nai. It was a short two day boat trip that included four dives on your way to Phi Phi, a nice stay overnight at a hotel so you can explore the bars for an evening and then three dives the next day on the way back. It was a no brainer, sounded perfect.

The trip started out on a high note when I sat next to a really nice Australian couple about my age on the ride to the boat. Then, Tom, one of the handsome dive guides from the Similan trip jumped in the car. Things were feeling good. My expectations were high…the usual signal to relax… The boat was nice, the trip was really well organized and the rental equipment was good. There was really nothing about the crew, or the dive company or anything that could be controlled that made this a “less than average” experience. Tom was my guide again and he had his camera and we goofed around and got silly sometimes. That was all a plus.

Our first two dives at Shark Point and Koh Bida Nik the visibility was ok, not great. No one can control that, it’s simply Mother Nature so you make the best of it. We saw a few sting rays’, snapper and clown fish. It seemed amazing; unfortunately, I couldn’t see too far in front of me. Koh Bida Nik was the same, shaded batfish, scorpion fish, lion fish, puffer fish with juveniles, coronet fish and titan trigger fish. I still couldn’t see too far in front of me but there was so much life around me it was amazing. The highlight of the day was when we were on the boat during a rest period and a huge school of dolphins came right near the boat for about 20 minutes jumping in and out of the water. It was great to watch.

I digress, because I was talking about getting caught up in my expectations. By the third dive there was no visibility and the current was strong. It was a workout. I put on a smile, did the dive, and saw a moorish idol and various parrot fish but I couldn’t see them unless they swam right into me. I thought about this as I was resting after. I’m still a beginner and thought about passing on the last dive, it was going to be a night dive, and I knew there was no visibility. I’m listening to that inner voice more and more, while keeping a beginners mind. I didn’t want to miss out on anything; even though I knew when I got out of the water I could barely see anything. Why do we do that? Why is that fear of missing out so strong at the most obvious moments?

I did the night dive at Palong Bay with Tom and he was safe and very cautious. He knows the site really well. When we finished our decent we could barely see. We had our flash lights; I could see Tom if he was 2 -3 feet in front of me and that was it. Everyone else looked the same to me in wet suits. Tom was wearing bright shorts and a shirt and that’s the only way I could follow him and only if I was shining my light right on him. I had gotten into the habit of staying close to him (and kicking him in the head regularly) and this time I was so close that when he spotted a couple of sea horses I could see them immediately from his flashlight.  He knew where to find them and took our group to them as soon as we descended. I saw them right away knew the others would want to see them. For some reason people get really excited about seeing seahorses, I don’t really, and we had just seen some earlier in the day and taken pictures. So I backed off and floated above letting others in my group come in closer because the visibility was so bad. Suddenly we were descended on by a whole different group of divers. Because we couldn’t see anything it felt like they came from out of nowhere. One minute I’m floating quietly, the next these two women are treading water on top of me, kicking me and having absolutely no control over their buoyancy or anything else. Everyone in my group was backing off to get away from them and they were following Tom’s light to the see the seahorse. It was a total cluster fuck. Once I backed off I lost Tom’s light, there were what felt like hundreds of other divers all around me, everyone looked the same and I had no idea what direction I was facing because I couldn’t see anything. Not everyone was trying to see what we were looking at; it was just way too crowded down there. Suddenly it felt like there were tons of dive groups. It was chaos. Long story short, one of these girls stepped on a sea horse and crushed it trying to see the other one. Once we came up for air Tom told us she saw her smash it with her fin and he didn’t know what happened after that because he was too busy shoving people away with his hands so they couldn’t get any closer. He was pissed off when we got out of the water and the rest of us were just confused. It was so crowded down there and we couldn’t see 2 feet in front of us; total diver chaos. I didn’t know about the seahorse smashing until we got back on the boat. It turns out these girls were on our boat with their own dive guide. It sort of killed the day for me. I learned about the down side of diving, especially in crowed areas at night.

We ended up on Phi Phi Island and went to a bar for a beer. Phi Phi felt like a tourist trap to me after that. A bunch of bars, restaurants, hotels and the usual tourist hawkers. I’m sure on a different day with my peeps it would be fun. The next day the visibility was ok, not great, but we had fun. I had experienced my first lesson in overcrowded dive sites and how important it is to pay attention to everything around you when you are 15 meters underwater and not destroy the life down there. It’s a reminder about keeping my expectations in check and paying attention to everything around me. At the end of the trip, once again, Tom had some awesome photos. The photos below are courtesy of Tom Booth.

Photo courtesy of Tom Booth

Photo courtesy of Tom Booth

Photo courtesy of Tom Booth

Photo courtesy of Tom Booth

Photo courtesy of Tom Booth

Photo courtesy of Tom Booth

Photo courtesy of Tom Booth

Photo courtesy of Tom Booth

Photo courtesy of Tom Booth

Photo courtesy of Tom Booth

Photo courtesy of Tom Booth

Photo courtesy of Tom Booth

Photo courtesy of Tom Booth

Diving in Gili Air

Sitting here listening to the gentle sound of the ocean about 100 feet away I’m feeling totally relaxed, tired and beginning to really understand how my mind plays tricks on me. Today was our first underwater dive and I hit a place of being completely fascinated by the world underwater. I’m not sure if I can ever eat another fish again. I love how they swim in schools. It’s so completely peaceful and full of life down there. We only went 10 meters below and I could feel the different world. So difficult to explain, it’s like a combination of meditation, floating and underwater exploration. The visibility is clear in the water and the as you drive out in the boat the water is the most beautiful crystal clear turquoise blue. It’s breathtaking above the water and below.

Zuri and I are staying at a place called Ocean’s 5 dive school and it’s really the perfect set up. They have sweet little bungalows that have a 25 meter pool just steps outside of your bungalow. Then only steps away from that is the ocean. The day starts out either watching a video about diving or flopping in the pool to do some exercises and then we just head to the ocean to try it all out there. It’s amazing. Our instructor Phil is from south London and even though his accent is hard to understand at times we make each other laugh. He’s also a genuinely sweet guy who is passionate about diving.

Gili Air is clean, peaceful and totally laid back. It’s the kind of beach town where you feel like you can kick your shoes off and never put them on again until you leave the island. After a full day of classes and diving we just take a nap and then head to a beach side warung for happy hour and dinner. Zuri and I tend to pick the happy hours that offer popcorn with your drinks. That’s a full day here and I’m spent by the end of it. There’s nothing better for me then ending the day having dinner on the beach listening to the sound of the ocean and talking with a good friend. Those are my happiest memories.

The sunsets have been amazing here. I heard about the sunsets before we arrived and I have not been disappointed. A beautiful sunset after a day of diving. Yesterday we went down 30 meters (100 feet) and we saw about 4 sharks. Over all we’ve seen, sharks, tuna, lobster, puffer fish, sea turtles, star fish…that’s just naming a few. In four days we’ve done 5 dives with the Oceans 5 people and we have not been disappointed. I’m looking forward to trying a few dive sites around Bali now so I can keep everything I’ve learned fresh.

Zuri & I hanging out at Scallywags
Komang, Zuri & I at Chill Out Lounge for Happy Hour

Beyond Happy Hour

On the Boat
Fav Chairs at Scallywags