“From birth, man carries the weight of gravity on his shoulders. He is bolted to earth. But man has only to sink beneath the surface and he is free.”
Our arrival in Labuan Bajo, the gateway to the Komodo Islands, marked the final leg of our Indonesian Island hopping adventure, and we had managed to successfully save the best for last. Over the course of the next three days we would be taking a PADI open water diver certification class, finally achieving something I have been aching to do since I was a preteen.
I was a ball of nervous energy the moment we stepped off of our plane and onto the tarmac of the Komodo Airport. Our class didn’t start until the next morning, but I had already managed to build up a respectable amount of anxiety over it. As a kid, I grew up swimming in Lake Michigan all summer long. I have always loved the feeling of being in the water. Combine that with my fascination with animals, and a love for reading about adventures, and developing a deep desire to dive is a logical progression. For me though (a near constant worrier), seventeen years of wanting to achieve something produced an odd combination of extreme excitement mixed with undercurrents of dread. What if I got underwater and found that I didn’t even like diving? Or worse, what if I loved it, but failed the course?
Vince, as usual, was completely calm and I endeavored to adopt his attitude as we settled into Labuan Bajo. We arrived in the late afternoon with enough time to check in at our hostel, then our dive shop, and walk around town a bit before sunset. We found that the main street of Labuan Bajo had about four different themes: dive shops, restaurants, souvenir stores, and little stands where you could book day tours. We took the opportunity to book a day tour for our no-fly day (the day after our PADI course), and then settled in to eat dinner at a restaurant that had outdoor tables overlooking the harbor. As we ate, the sun began to set and nearby mosques played the call to prayer.
After dinner we had dessert at a little shop that sold crepes and ice cream, then we returned to our hostel where we watched the last glow of sunset from a rooftop lounge.
In the morning we had to walk all the way across the street (yeah, Labuan Bajo isn’t very big) to get to our dive shop, Blue Marlin Komodo. There are scores of dive shops in town, but I had selected Blue Marlin based on their reputation, and the fact that they have a training pool.
We met our dive instructor, Shannon, and spent a little time getting acquainted before he led us down to the pool to begin the course. Day one was spent learning how to set up and operate our tanks, regulators, gauges, and BCDs (buoyancy control devices). After all of our gear was ready, it was time to don wetsuits and jump into the pool.
Shannon said that we would probably do two pool sessions to get through all of the skills we needed to pass the course, but once we were in the water we got on a roll. At first, the feeling of breathing through my regulator was strange and unpleasant, but after a few seconds underwater I got used to it, and was quickly enjoying myself. We floated around near the bottom of the pool, trying to get the hang of controlling our buoyancy. This proved to be the most difficult aspect of diving for me, and I didn’t feel that I really had a good handle on it at all while we were in the pool. Still, I kept up as Shannon signaled for us to perform different skills like clearing our masks and regulators, and signaling our remaining air. After a while he began to show us skills that he hadn’t mentioned before we got into the pool, and when we finally resurfaced he told us that we had managed to make it through all of the pool skills. This was good news to me because I had grown quite cold, and I was eager to be done with the pool.
After shedding our wetsuits and changing, we went upstairs to Blue Marlin’s restaurant for lunch and Shannon set us up to watch some PADI training videos. This took up the rest of the day and we left around dinner time, excited to come back the next morning for our first two real dives.
In the morning we found out that the boat Blue Marlin usually uses for open water divers was out of commission and we would be joining a group of certified divers on a faster boat. This was good news because it meant less time in transit, and more time to finish up our videos after the dives. Mountainous islands surrounded us as we motored to the first dive sight, Siaba Besar, where we prepared our gear and got ready to plunge into the water. The certified divers went in first and disappeared beneath the surface. Then Shannon instructed me and Vince to sit on the edge of the boat and roll into the water on his count.
My heart began to race with anticipation as I sat on the side of the boat. Shannon gave us the “okay” signal and we returned it. I put a hand over my mask and regulator to keep them in place, then Shannon counted to three and we all rolled backwards off the boat at the same time, bobbing to the surface to regroup before diving.
On Shannon’s signal, we let the air out of our BCDs and began to sink below the surface. Well, Vince and Shannon began to sink below the surface… I was still too buoyant. Shannon noticed and attached a couple of extra weights to my BCD, which did the trick. Within no time, I was diving too and we began our decent to the sandy bottom of the dive site which sat at 12 meters deep.
A sandy bottom may not sound like it would contain a wealth of awesome creatures, but when we paid attention and looked closely, we found some pretty amazing animals. Among my favorites were a frogfish, a nembrotha nudibranch, blue-spotted stingrays, a delicate looking lionfish, a unicorn fish, and heaps of sea turtles. We saw a grand total of nine green sea turtles at this dive sight, and I was even able to break out my GoPro and take a picture of one (the only picture from any of the dives that was actually taken by me).
We were in the water for almost an hour, but since the dive was so shallow we still had a lot of air left in our tanks when we surfaced. We signaled our captain that we were ok and ready to be picked up, and then we clamored onto the boat, passing our flippers up to the crew before climbing aboard. There were towels ready and we sat in the sun trying to warm up as the boat sped away to our next dive sight, Tatawa Besar.
It didn’t take long to arrive at the sight, and our surface interval (the time you take between dives to let the nitrogen levels in your body return to normal) wasn’t over yet. As we waited to get back in the water, Shannon regaled us with what sounded like a tall tale. He told a story of a group of divers who had been pulled out to sea by a strong current while they were diving Tatawa Besar. After they floated in the ocean for about ten hours, the current changed and swept them onto an island where they spent two more nights, beating off hungry Komodo dragons with their weight belts before a search and rescue team finally found them. I struggled to decide if I believed the story, but sure enough, a quick Google search confirmed it.
With that comforting yarn fresh in our minds, we rolled into the water and started our descent. This time I had no problem diving, and I began to focus more on my positioning, trying to keep my body in a trim, horizontal line. This sight had a medium current that made for an easy drift dive. We really didn’t have to do much work as the water pulled us along the reef at a perfect speed. This allowed us to focus on looking for wildlife, and we ended up seeing a whitetip reef shark almost immediately. That would have been exciting enough for me, but as luck would have it, we were in for an even cooler sighting.
Just as we were about to turn the dive, we came across a broadclub cuttlefish! This was my first sighting of a wild cephalopod, and I was basically losing my cool over it. I tried to take a video of it, but I was way too excited to get any good footage at all, so Shannon took my camera and filmed while I just watched the cuttlefish in fascination. Cuttlefish are closely related to octopus, and have similar camouflaging abilities. This particular cuttlefish was completely relaxed and apathetic to our presence, so we got to watch it hovering as its skin pulsed different colors for a good minute before it swam away.
After the cuttlefish swam away, we resurfaced and got back on the boat where we had lunch on our way back to Labuan Bajo. Then it was more videos and quizzes for the rest of the day. At the end of the day, we took the written exam for the PADI course and passed. That meant that the following day’s dives were the only thing standing between us and being certified open water divers. There were also a couple more skills we still had to perform.
Any vestige of my nervousness had vanished by day three of the course. I obviously loved diving, so I didn’t have to worry about that anymore, and with the written exam out of the way, I was just eager to get back in the water. There were only two other divers on the boat with us that morning, another open water student and her instructor. This left us with tons of space to spread out, and a more relaxed vibe. Our first dive of the morning was at a site called Sabolaon. Here we saw a scrawled filefish, some golden spadefish, and a transparent anemone shrimp. The latter was incredibly tiny, and we had to get close to a large sea fan to observe it. As we left the shrimp, I looked down and saw another cuttlefish, this one so well camouflaged that it looked as if it were part of the reef. Our presence startled it, and it’s body changed color and shape before our eyes as it swam away from us. Shannon once again caught it on film. Other notable sightings on this dive included a gargantuan anemone with clownfish darting in and out of it, and a graceful hawksbill sea turtle.
Shannon captured excellent video of all of these encounters, making me realize that I have a lot of practice ahead of me if I’m ever going to be good at using my GoPro underwater.
Our next dive site was called Anita. Here, we spent our surface interval doing our required swim test near a tiny, sandy island. The test consisted of a short snorkel, and then ten minutes of just floating in the water, which I found relaxing.
With that out of the way, we got into the boat for a briefing on the site and to don our gear for the last time. Anita is known for blacktip reef sharks, so we were hoping for a good sighting. Since it was our last dive of the course, Vince and I were responsible for counting down the roll in, orienting ourselves once underwater, and turning the dive when our air hit 120 bar (yes we learned to dive using all metric measurements and now I hate diving with standard gauges).
We aimed for a reef far below us and slowly descended to 18 meters. Shannon crackled a water bottle as we dove. He had explained that sharks are attracted to that noise, and he was hoping to draw them in, but maintain a delicate balance of keeping them curious without working them into a frenzy. For some reason, I felt uncomfortable on this dive. The water felt colder and darker than it had at the previous sites, and my mask wasn’t fitting as well I wanted it to. The more uncomfortable I felt, the harder it was to keep my mind from racing. I wouldn’t say I was in a panic, because I was still functioning mostly like normal, but I did start to notice that my air consumption was higher than it had been on our previous dives, even the other 18 meter one.
Just as I was starting to really worry about being too worried, Shannon pointed to the murky blue water out in front of us. A faint shadow was moving toward us at lighting speed, and soon it took form as a large blacktip reef shark. It swam past us with incredible grace and then vanished back into the blue abyss. Shortly after that, another shark appeared, and then another. It’s hard to say how long we floated in that spot watching sharks darting in and out of view, but we saw about six of them in total, and the encounter completely snapped me out of the strange funk I was experiencing. The moment had been absolutely magical, and I noticed afterwards that I was calm again, and my air consumption leveled back out to normal.
The rest of our time underwater flew by, and in what felt like no time at all, Vince and I turned the dive. We slowly ascended, making a safety stop before resurfacing and signaling the boat. A few hours later, we were back at Blue Marlin going through footage from the dives with Shannon, and looking through a giant guidebook to identify all of the animals we had seen. We had passed our open water certification. It felt surreal to think that I was actually a SCUBA diver.
Throughout our course, Shannon had repeatedly sited the notion that 85% of all people who do their open water certification never dive again. I honestly have no idea how accurate that is, but I am happy report that Vince and I have already done two more dives back home in Michigan, and are currently working towards our advanced open water certification. We will also be diving in Puerto Rico this winter since it is officially way too cold to dive in Michigan right now. I’m beyond excited to keep diving, learning more, and exploring the underwater world!