Diving in Bali

Well; my internship is over, my ten days of ‘playtime’ after my internship have come and gone, and I’m now coming to you live from the chilly west coast of Canada again. As happy as I am to be home, I’m really going to miss Bali, but not quite as much as I’m going to miss all the new dive buddies I met whilst I was there! My trip was absolutely incredible and I’d love to go back some day to do some more diving…you might even be able to talk me in to doing some snorkeling (which, oddly enough, I don’t usually like doing)!

It's not hard to have fun when you're surrounded by dive buddies as awesome as these guys!

It’s not hard to have fun when you’re surrounded by dive buddies as awesome as these guys!

I wanted to take some time to talk about the different dive sites I was privileged enough to be able to dive whilst I was in Bali.  I’m going to start by talking about some really general info about Bali itself as well as some things to keep in mind for diving there. Then I’m going to give a quick review of the sites I was lucky enough to dive whilst I was there. A lot of my dives were at either Tulamben or Nusa Penida, but I was also fortunate enough to dive at Amed, Menjangan Island, and Sanur Channel. I was also lucky enough to go snorkeling when I was in Komodo National Park (a one hour flight and then 3 hour boat ride from Bali) so I’ve included a bit of info from there as well.

Bali is a relatively small island in Indonesia. It has a really incredible culture; the architecture is beautiful and incorporates a lot of artwork, most notably statues and small shrines for almost every building. The predominant religion is Hinduism, and the Balinese make small offerings daily for luck. It’s really easy to visit a lot of beautiful cultural sites, just be aware that sometimes a certain type of dress is required (typically a sarong…and there are vendors selling them everywhere so it’s really not an issue). The vast majority of the Balinese people I met were really wonderful people, and a large number of them seemed to have mastered the perfect ‘Cheshire Cat’ grin, which you can’t help but try and reciprocate!

Meeting some of the locals in Ubud.

Meeting some of the locals in Ubud.

One thing that I really liked about Bali was how safe I felt. The worst issue I ever had was a cab driver that ripped me off, and even then it really only amounted to about $1 USD. Maybe things would be different if I had been staying in a city like Kuta (which has the reputation of being a pretty crazy party town) but in Sanur I really never had a problem; I felt safe walking alone at night, I was never harassed by anyone, and (to the best of my knowledge anyway) no one tried to rob me. I even realized as my internship was wrapping up that I’d been living in something of a ‘red light’ district, but never had any issues related to that fact.

Even though I would recommend Bali purely based on the quality of the diving, don’t get so distracted that you miss out on the things on land!

Diving in Bali is incredibly popular, and there are dive shops dotting all the cities near the coast, which makes it very easy to get out for a LOT of diving in a very short time. One thing I really liked about Bali was that it was very easy to get ‘package deals’ for activities. Say, for example, you’re staying in south Bali and diving out of a shop there, but you want to go to Tulamben, which is on the northeast coast: no problem! The dive shop will arrange a driver, a divemaster, and probably lunch too! If you’re staying a fair distance from the shop you can also usually arrange for a driver to come and get you from your hotel without too much trouble.

But enough about the above-water stuff…let’s talk about the diving!

One quick disclaimer; this is definitely not an exhaustive list! A quick glance at a map will tell you there are dozens of dive sites in Bali, but these are the ones most often visited by Bali Scuba (with the exception of Komodo National Park), the dive shop that I did my 30 day divemaster internship at.

Amed

Site Description: Amed is located on the northeast coast of Bali, not far from the more popular site of Tulamben.  From Sanur the drive takes approximately 2 hours depending on traffic.  The sites are very near to the shore but you do use boats to get to them, so the entry/exit procedures require a few extra logistics.

The boats in Amed are small and cramped, but an excellent way to access dive sites that would be a very long surface swim otherwise!

The boats in Amed are small and cramped, but an excellent way to access dive sites that would be a very long surface swim otherwise!

Level of difficulty: moderate. The only reason I say this is that entry and exit could potentially pose a challenge for some divers. You load your gear onto a very small traditional Balinese boat, motor to the dive site (maybe 100 meters off the beach), then hop over the side and put your gear on in the water. Once your dive is over, you remove your gear in the water and pass it up to the captain before hauling yourself back into the boat without the benefit of a ladder. But frankly, if I can do it (which I did, albeit not especially gracefully) then I’d say the average diver can do it too. But if you’re a bit older or really uncomfortable with small boats then I might recommend you go elsewhere.

Exposure protection: a rashguard or shorty wetsuit is all you need here…the water is about 30°C.

My favourite part: I’m a huge fan of wall dives, and the wall at Amed is the equal of any I’ve never seen! There are also a ton of fish and some really beautiful corals. When I was there we saw a really massive school of medium sized fish slowly rotating in a sort of ‘tornado’ pattern, which may have been in response to the white-tip shark that we spotted shortly after.

This school of fish was HUGE! It rotated slowly and looked for all the world like a tornado made of fish.

This school of fish was HUGE! It rotated slowly and looked for all the world like a tornado made of fish.

Also, there are some really neat artificial reefs just off of the harbour that house some really neat animals! My personal favourite was a large triggerfish absolutely covered with little cleaner shrimp.

There were quite a few of these artificial reefs scattered in the Amed harbour; they housed some really incredible species!

There were quite a few of these artificial reefs scattered in the Amed harbour; they housed some really incredible species!

Watch out for: the entry/exit from the boats is a bit of a drag, but it shouldn’t be what stops you from checking out this site unless you really have trouble getting in and out of boats. There was also a fairly decent current here, but as the boats are ‘live’ it doesn’t really matter where you pop up from your dive, so we just moved along with the current when we were there.

Why you should dive here: Amed is just as nice as Tulamben (albeit lacking a shipwreck) but has none of the crowding that is common at that site.

Komodo National Park (snorkeling only)

Site Description: Komodo National Park is a world heritage site located a mere 3 hour boat ride from the city of Lebogan Bajo (which fortunately has an airport) on Flores Island. Though this park is better known for the Komodo Dragons (incidentally, that’s why I was there…the snorkeling turned out to just be an amazing bonus!) diving off of liveaboards is becoming increasingly common…and frankly if I’m ever lucky enough to go back to Indonesia a Komodo liveaboard dive safari is probably going to be my first stop!

Level of difficulty: moderate (estimated). It’s hard for me to give an accurate assessment of how difficult this area would be to dive because I was only snorkeling, but we saw some pretty strong-looking currents ripping through some of the islands, and the multi-dive per day nature of liveaboard diving means that fatigue can be a major issue if you’re not careful.

Exposure Protection: I snorkeled in my rashguard and I was quite cold, so I’d suggest at least a 3 mm full wetsuit but a 5 mm probably wouldn’t hurt if you’re prone to getting cold during a dive.

My favourite part: On our way back to Flores from Komodo island we stopped off near a small island at a dive site known as ‘manta alley’. We were only snorkelling, but the visibility was so good that we had no trouble at all spotting the mantas jetting around on the bottom, which was at least 15 m deep. My absolute favourite moment was spotting one 3m tip-to-tip behemoth that glided over the bottom with such ease that we soon left us behind as we struggled to keep up against a moderate current.

At manta alley there were at least 5-10 manta zooming around beneath us....I had to remind myself to keep breathing!

At manta alley there were at least 5-10 manta zooming around beneath us….I had to remind myself to keep breathing!

Watch out for: the currents here can be very strong, and a few years back a dive group was actually lost at one of the sites due to current and they drifted for over 14 hours before finally making it to shore…only to get chased off of the beach by hungry Komodo Dragons. Luckily everyone survived, but clearly this story could’ve had a pretty sad ending.

Why you should dive here: even though I was only snorkelling here, the variety of coral, the visibility, and the sheer diversity of species absolutely blew me away. If I make it back to Indonesia for a dive trip in the future my first stop will be a Komodo liveaboard.

Menjangan Island

Site Description: To dive at Menjangan is a multi-day undertaking; it’s on the far northwest tip of Bali and from Sanur the drive is a little over 4 hours. Once there, you stay in a small town and frankly there really isn’t anything to do out there but go diving or lounge by the hotel pool…but you don’t want to do anything else anyway, that’s how good the diving is!

Level of difficulty: easy…but be cautious of the occasional strong current. This is a common theme to Bali diving; but we only had a strong current for one of the six dives we did. You should also be comfortable with boat entry/exit procedures because all dives are off of small-ish wooden boats but the procedures are very straightforward, and there are ladders available.

Exposure protection: a rashguard is all you need here…the water was 32°C when I was diving.

My favourite part: I saw my first sea turtle here, so that’s obviously going to be a huge highlight for me.

This turtle glided right past me so effortlessly that I actually felt jealous!

This turtle glided right past me so effortlessly that I actually felt jealous!

I also really liked the huge amounts of unbroken coral we saw here…sadly, many of the more popular sites in Bali show a lot of evidence of divers crashing into corals, but evidence of that was mostly absent at Menjangan.

An example of the stunning coral reefs in Menjangan

An example of the stunning coral reefs in Menjangan

Watch out for: We had an ‘accidental’ drift dive in this area…the current was much stronger than expected and pulled us quite far away from our planned ascent point. That said, our boat captain figured out what was going on pretty quick, and he was still quite close by once we eventually surfaced. As we were using an SMB, it didn’t take him long to locate us.

Why you should dive here: Menjangan has an incredible variety of sites. When I was there I got 6 dives in, and each one was notably different from the rest. We had some deep wall diving, a drift dive along the edge of a large coral reef, and a few dives on an underwater mound that didn’t *quite* reach the surface but still gave us an amazing platform on which to start our dives.

Nusa Penida

Site Description: Nusa Penida is about a 45 minute boat ride from Sanur, which is on the southeast corner of Bali. The island itself is stunningly beautiful; keep your eyes trained outside the boat to get a good look at an island paradise! This site is well-known as a hangout for both manta rays and mola mola (ocean sunfish) but make sure you go in the right season…I didn’t see either animal whilst I was there.

Level of difficulty: moderate-difficult. This is the one site that I would very strongly suggest you avoid if you’re not a confident/competent diver. Currents here can be exceptionally strong and down-currents are not uncommon. In particular, the site known as ‘Crystal Bay’ can be a little spooky…currents and thermoclines are unpredictable at best and there is a lot of boat traffic, so you really need to keep your wits about you. The west side of the island is also where I dove in the strongest current I’d ever experienced…although I’m a relatively strong swimmer, there was absolutely no way I could make any headway against the current at all…it felt like riding a roller coaster! Lots of fun, but if you’ve not had any experience with drift diving it can be a bit daunting.

Exposure protection: 5 mm full wetsuit is strongly suggested here, though if you’re tough you could also get away with a 3 mm full suit instead. The water temperature here can get as low as 20°C, which can be quite a shock to the system after the 35°C air temperature.

My favourite part: Nusa Penida features a near-continuous blanket of different corals, and there’s little beasties hiding in every nook and cranny!

The walls of Nusa Penida are carpeted with incredible invertebrates

The walls of Nusa Penida are carpeted with incredible invertebrates

I was also fortunate enough to get a look at a 2 m long tuna as it swam past during one of our drift dives…I haven’t looked at sashimi the same way since!

Watch out for: strong down-currents pop up here sometimes, so make sure you have a plan for dealing with them. From a conservation standpoint also keep your eyes one the corals; I saw a lot of damage here indicative of divers crashing into the coral or kicking it with fins. In the case of an emergency (i.e. strong down-current) I will always advocate grabbing on to whatever you can find if it means keeping yourself at a safe depth, but the amount of damage I saw suggested poor buoyancy control was the major culprit here. Unless divers start paying more attention at this site they risk destroying what makes it such a pleasant spot to dive.

Why you should dive here: currents are what make this a tricky spot to dive, but a good drift dive is always a nice change of pace! I’m more of a ‘methodical’ diver usually, but the super fast drift dive I did here was absolutely exhilarating.

Sanur Channel

Site Description: Sanur Channel is (as you may have guessed already) very close to the town of Sanur; it only takes about 5-10 minutes to get there from the Sanur harbour. It’s quite shallow and depending on where you descend there’s a lot of sandy bottom to kneel on, but in other spots the substrate is blanketed with corals.

Looking out towards Sanur Channel

Looking out towards Sanur Channel

Level of Difficulty: easy, though the current can kick up fairly regularly in this area, and when a strong one comes through it can be a bit more challenging.

Exposure Protection: I wouldn’t dive here without a 3mm full wetsuit…it can be quite chilly depending on what the tidal cycle is doing. If you’re prone to getting cold on a dive I’d even say that a 5mm full wetsuit wouldn’t be out of the question.

My favourite part: a lot of divers I spoke to really didn’t have any interest in diving in Sanur Channel….when compared to some of the other dive sites in Bali it tends to fall a bit short. But let me take a moment to say that it’s only comparatively not that great…a nice dive site should never suffer neglect because it just so happens to be surrounded by gems! I really liked this site for its ease of accessibility and interesting reef features. Most notably; there’s a (super dorky-looking) “Water Walk” outfit in Sanur that gets tourists to walk around in the reef with a big diving helmet on. Other visitors to the reef benefit from this though, because they’ve strung up a sort of walking path through the reef that is practically a self-guided tour for divers right through the heart of a very lovely reef! Not to mention you get to laugh at the tourists struggling along the pathway as you zip around their ears.

Watch out for: The current can be very strong here depending on what point you’re at in the tidal cycle, and the visibility can be (comparatively) bad as well. No risk of losing your buddies though…you’ll still have at least 5 meter visibility on average.

Why you should dive here: in my opinion this is a great place to go if you’re not an especially confident diver, and it’s an especially good place to go if you’re time limited and need to be finished all your diving by the early afternoon. Furthermore, although the reef was small I thoroughly enjoyed just hovering over the ‘walking paths’ through the reefs and watching all the fish swim past.

Tulamben

Site Description: Tulamben is one of the most well-known and popular dive sites in Bali, and with good reason! It’s only a few minutes down the road from Amed, at about 2 hours away from Sanur. It has three main dive sites; the wreck of the USS Liberty, the coral garden, and the wall. All three sites are acceptable for divers of any confidence level, just watch out for those errant fin kicks! There are a LOT of amazing fragile corals, sponges, and sea fans at all three of these sites, and it would be a real shame to lose any of them due to carelessness.

Level of Difficulty: This is a very easy dive site. There is very little current, and every time I experienced it it was quite easy to swim against. Open water students are regularly brought here for their third and fourth ocean dives and as long as your buoyancy and kicking techniques are up to the challenge of staying off of the bottom this is one of the best sites in Bali for beginners.

Exposure Protection: a rashguard is all you need here unless you’re very prone to getting cold. At the absolute most you could wear a 3 mm full suit, but a one hour dive in a rashguard was easy as pie at this site.

My favourite part: although most people come here for the shipwreck (which is incredible), I actually preferred the coral gardens.

There's wonderful little eye-treats everywhere you look at Tulamben!

There’s wonderful little eye-treats everywhere you look at Tulamben!

There’s a ton of awesome little critters in and around the many different kinds of corals, and for the careful observer there are dozens of invertebrates to be found in this area.

Colourful inverts abound in the coral garden at Tulamben.

Colourful inverts abound in the coral garden at Tulamben.

On one especially memorable dive my buddy and I came across an incredible cuttlefish that seemed absolutely determined to put on a light show for us! Other gems stumbled upon in the garden include a multitude of different nudibranch species, cleaner shrimp that were more than happy to jump up and pick at your fingernails, massive schools of fish, and a white-tip reef shark.

It's important to keep your eyes open and don't ignore the substrate during your dive...you never know what you might find! This ribbon eel was pretty shy, but eventually poked his nose out far enough to me to get a picture.

It’s important to keep your eyes open and don’t ignore the substrate during your dive…you never know what you might find! This ribbon eel was pretty shy, but eventually poked his nose out far enough to me to get a picture.

Watch out for: other divers. This site is incredibly popular, so you are probably going to end up tripping over other groups, especially around the Liberty. On more than one occasion I was kicked or crashed down on by divers from other groups, which can put a real kink in the dive.

Why you should dive here: the over-abundance of divers is irritating, but it’s very easy to see why so many people want to come to Tulamben; it’s a super easy shore entry, porters carry all of your gear down to your entry point, and the diving is absolutely incredible. Unless you’re agoraphobic, no dive trip to Bali would be complete without a visit to Tulamben.

Well…there you have it! I can honestly say that the diving in Bali is some of the best I’ve ever experienced! It’s not enough to make me hang up my drysuit for good and flee to warmer climes…Pacific Northwest diving will always be where my heart is, but after this trip I’m thinking that there will be many more visits to Indonesia in my future!

I want to take a quick moment to thank everyone (staff AND students) at Bali Scuba…what a time!

I've never felt as comfortable in the water as I did in Bali! 32 deg C water is hard to beat, as is virtually unlimited visibility!

I’ve never felt as comfortable in the water as I did in Bali! 32 deg C water is hard to beat, as is virtually unlimited visibility!

So long…and thanks for all the fish.

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End of an Internship

Well…I’m afraid I’m going to be a bad blogger this week (especially since I’m already late with this post) and say that I was simply too busy to write anything.

In my defense though, I went to a few new dive sites and finished up my divemaster internship (YAHOO)!

Tune in soon…I plan on doing a review of all the dive sites I’ve been privileged enough to visit over the last few weeks!

In the meantime, I’m gearing up for 10 days of downtime throughout Bali, as well as a quick jaunt over to Komodo.

I’m going to miss diving here, but I’m also excited to get back to my drysuit in Canada. 🙂

The Importance of Being Buoyant

Another week in paradise has come and gone! I still feel so incredibly lucky to be able to take this time and do my divemaster certification here in Bali.

This last week I’ve been diving in the ocean a lot less…after all, there’s a whole pile of skills that have to be done in the pool! Fortunately Bali Scuba has a pool right on site, so that makes things lots easier. I’ve also had a number of knowledge reviews to work through…I’m sure all the PADI certified divers remember those lovely tasks from their open water courses. A necessary evil…can’t do the fun stuff without putting in some legwork first!

There is something that I’ve really been starting to notice out here that I want to talk about with this blog post. During this internship I’ve been going diving with a lot of novice divers again (back in Canada I’ve mostly been diving with people that have been diving regularly for years). It’s incredibly rewarding to see so many people getting excited about the underwater world and learning to dive and know that I’m helping them achieve their goal of learning to dive. Unfortunately, I’ve also been noticing that in a lot of the sites frequented by novice divers there’s also an awful lot of broken coral and sponges.

Sadly, errant fin kicks can do a lot of damage to sedentary animals

Although the damage to this coral is a relatively small area, it represents years of growth.

At first I wondered if this was a result of boat anchors being carelessly dropped on the reefs, but the more I’ve watched the divers at these sites the more I’m realizing that a good chunk of the damage I’ve seen is very likely due to divers with poor buoyancy control either accidently crashing into the coral during an uncontrolled descent, or inadvertently kicking the coral with their fins as they swim past. The scale of the damage would support this theory as well; most of the broken corals or sponges I’ve spotted have been damaged by something much smaller than a boat anchor, and the damage also appears to be localized to a small fin-sized area.

There’s a very important fact to keep in mind here: although this damage looks very small to animals of our size, breaking off a chunk of coral only 30 cm (one foot) long represents years of growth for slow-growing animals like corals or sponges. Essentially for coral reefs this sort of damage can be the classic ‘death by a thousand small cuts’ a lot faster than we might think, simply because the animals don’t grow quickly enough to compensate for the damage.

Let me make a quick point before I continue; I’m not ripping on new divers. I was a new diver once too (obviously) and I know that my buoyancy control was very poor for quite awhile. I’ve also seen quite a number of divers that look like they’ve been in the sport for awhile (you can often judge by the condition of a diver’s gear whether or not they rent or have invested time and money into acquiring their own equipment) that have very clearly not placed enough emphasis on learning how to control their buoyancy. In my opinion, the issue is not necessarily poor buoyancy control, but dive operators that are under pressure by their clients to go look at the “really good sites” that typically have a lot of sensitive animals in them. The end result is that divers that are not especially good at maintaining their buoyancy end up perilously close to these very sensitive animals.

So what to do about it? Yet again, there’s a few relatively straightforward (though sadly, not very simple) ways that divers can have a positive influence on this problem.

The first one is very basic: if your buoyancy control is poor, put the effort in to make it better. I know this is much easier said than done…it took me a long time to get my buoyancy control to the point where I was happy with it and could move easily through the water with minimal effort. The three big things that helped me get better were regular diving (i.e. practice), taking classes that taught better buoyancy techniques, and seeing video of me diving.

Propper buoyancy control takes time and practice; but it’s well worth the effort! Try and keep your body parallel to the ground, with your legs straight out behind you and your head oriented straight ahead of you.

Obviously not everyone is as lucky as I’ve been; regular diving is tricky if you don’t live near a dive site, and diving is not exactly a cheap hobby. But frankly practice really is the best way to get better at something. Diving as often as you can means that you don’t forget about new ‘tricks’ you came up with to improve your buoyancy control. If you dive one day and realize that if you hold yourself just so underwater your buoyancy improves, you may not be able to remember exactly how that was if your next dive is over a year down the road.

For those of you that are vacation divers, taking a course that focuses on good buoyancy control may be a much easier option than regular practice. I understand not wanting to take up vacation time to do a course, but remember that in colder climates or even in inland areas there’s usually a dive shop not too far away; what’s stopping you from doing your course there? Even if you don’t want to do dives in a quarry or in cold water, there’s no harm in learning the skills you need there to enjoy yourself when you’re diving on vacation.

PADI offers a Peak Performance Buoyancy specialty course, and there are other organizations that offer similar courses (though PADI is certainly the mostly commonly used training organization for recreational divers). The only other program that I’ve had experience with is an organization known as Unified Team Diving (UTD) based out of the United States; the course I took was called ‘Essentials of Recreational Diving’ and it had a lot about proper buoyancy and propulsion techniques.

One big benefit of the course I took with UTD was that they had a diver with a video camera following behind us taking video of all of the students on the dive. I found this incredibly useful because it let me see exactly what it was that I was doing during the dive and know exactly when some minor adjustment I made would have a good or a bad impact on my buoyancy control. Based on how much I benefited from watching that video, I would encourage every diver to use video of themselves as a training tool whenever possible.

The second way that divers can contribute to solving this broken coral problem is to recognize if they have poor buoyancy and dive accordingly. For example, if you know that your buoyancy control is a little weak, and that you’ll be diving over a sensitive bottom, consider diving so that you’re at least 2 meters above the substrate. Obviously this means that you could miss some of the fine detail or small critters running around on the bottom, but it’s a small price to pay if it means that you’re helping to protect sensitive reef habitat. In the same vein, if you’re diving a wall or shipwreck don’t get too close to the sides, and above all avoid touching any part of the wall or wreck unless you are faced with a possible emergency (i.e. uncontrolled ascent).

Another possibility is for a diver to ask the dive center what dive sites they would recommend for someone with poor buoyancy control. Dive shops will be more than happy to realize that they have a customer who has the reef’s best interest in mind and will tailor their programs accordingly.

Ultimately, it is every diver’s individual responsibility to dive according to their own abilities, and keep the environment in which they are diving in mind when they make decisions regarding where they will dive. In my opinion, it is also the responsibility of dive shops to avoid areas with sensitive animals like coral and sponges if they know that they are leading divers with poor buoyancy control. Though it may seem a bit draconian to suggest that divers that “aren’t good enough” can’t go to certain sites, it is important to remember that excessive damage to sensitive animals is not only bad for the animals…it’s bad for other divers and local tour operators as well. If too much damage is done to a popular dive site, the very thing that makes it popular will eventually be gone, and then we all lose out.

Well, I hope this post gave you some good food for thought about your diving practices. If you have any suggestions of other methods to improve your buoyancy or reduce incidental damage to corals and sponges from issues like those I’ve discussed here, I’d love to hear from you!

There’s something fishy about the aquarium trade…

This last week has seen me really starting to get into the divemaster course, which is great! Sadly, it does mean a little bit less diving in the ocean (though not by much), and then when I do dive, I’m doing coursework. I know…woe is me! I’m doing an incredibly interesting dive certification on an island that boasts incredible dive sites no matter which way you turn!

There is one common thought that goes through my mind almost every time I descend to a new dive site out here; “Wow! It’s like the biggest aquarium ever!”

Coral Reef at Tulamben, Bali

That might seem a bit strange…but all the animals here are ones that I’ve only ever seen in aquaria back home; some have been large and public, such as those This last week has seen me really starting to get into the divemaster course, which is great! Sadly, it does mean a little bit less diving in the ocean (though not by much), and then when I do dive, I’m doing coursework. I know…woe is me! I’m doing an incredibly interesting dive certification on an island that boasts incredible dive sites no matter which way you turn!found in the galleries at the Vancouver Aquarium. Other species I’ve seen for sale in pet stores, as well as in small aquaria that I’ve had to maintain for some of the various jobs I’ve had over the years. Imagine my surprise when I suddenly realize that this HUGE anemone I’m looking at is actually the same species as the little wee ones I’ve looked after in a pet store. People want to buy them because clown fish really like them…the one I found in the wild was easily large enough to accommodate the five clownfish that were wriggling around in its tentacles. The one at the pet store was a midget by comparison.

Based on that last paragraph, you might think that I’m about to go on a rant about how these animals shouldn’t be in tiny little fish tanks. Well…close guess, but not quite right. Realistically the capture of these fish for private aquariums is just another fishery…and I’m all for making use (in a sustainable way!) of our natural resources.

The problem is that in many regions the capture of live fish and invertebrates for the aquarium trade is not sustainable. As with many other fisheries, capture limits are either non-existent or too large to be sustainable, and local governments rarely put enough effort/resources into enforcement, meaning that many people openly flaunt the catch limits. Furthermore, in many regions the methods used to capture fish are pretty awful.

In Indonesia one method that has been used to capture fish for aquariums is known as ‘Cyanide fishing’. A harvester swims down to the reef with a squirt bottle bull of Cyanide, and then shoots a little jet of poison into cracks and crevices in the reef. The poison will often paralyze a targeted fish, which then floats out of its hiding place and is scooped up to be sold at a later date. Although many of these fish die from the cyanide, enough of them recover from the poison to make the method economically sound. Even then, if they survive the harvest method, many of these fish are now too weak to survive the journey to the pet store.

Despite the high death toll, the aquarium trade is so lucrative that it’s still an incredibly profitable industry. The truly sad thing is that the people that make the most money are the wealthy ‘middle-men’…the harvesters themselves are often in pretty rough shape economically, and they see the least return for their efforts. Perhaps the saddest part of this story is the damage done to the reef itself…as you can imagine, the small living animals that make up coral reefs can’t handle a poison like Cyanide, and areas of the reef where Cyanide fishing takes place can be irreparably damaged, which makes it difficult (if not impossible) for heavily fished areas to recover.

There an important fact to bear in mind here; the aquarium trade is incredibly lucrative. Some estimates actually place its overall value as equivalent to the trafficking of illegal drugs such as cocaine. With profit margins like that, there are always going to be unscrupulous characters that will do whatever it takes to make a quick buck; the bigger tragedy is that said unscrupulous characters make their money off of people that have no more nefarious designs than making a pretty fish tank.

Despite this doom and gloom, there’s some hope to be had here.  As with many problems we face in the marine world, this is an issue that could potentially be addressed without full cessation of the harvest (although I would argue that in many coral reefs around the world, an absolute cessation of harvest may be the only way they will ever recover from damage already done).

Here are some suggestions I have if you’re interested in having your own aquarium at home, without doing needless damage to the beautiful ecosystems that we strive so hard to re-create:

1) When purchasing animals from a pet store, ask where they came from and how they were harvested. There are a lot of companies out there that use harvest techniques that do far less damage to reefs than Cyanide fishing. By buying from those companies you’re making your money do the talking for you, and demonstrating that environmentally sustainable harvest methods are important to you as a consumer. Please bear in mind; animals sustainably harvested will probably cost more than those that aren’t. I argue that monetary difference is absolutely worth maintaining healthy ecosystems halfway around the world from whence your new little beastie came.

2) If the manager/owner of the pet store can’t tell you where/how the critters were collected DO NOT make a purchase at that store, as it is likely that the critters were collected in an unsustainable manner. Again, this is a case of making your money talk; don’t be afraid to let the proprietor know (tactfully please! Putting people on the defensive over their business practices is unlikely to win many sustainability ‘converts’) why you’re not going to purchase your critters from them. If said proprietor realizes that people are more likely to purchase sustainably harvested critters then that will put pressure on the suppliers to alter their collection methods, and the wild reefs will benefit.

3) If you are not ready for a salt water aquarium, don’t get one! This might sound a bit snarky, but it’s critical that people understand that maintaining a salt water aquarium (to say nothing of a ‘reef aquarium’ with live corals) is a huge investment of time and money, and that aquarium maintenance is a skill that takes time to fully cultivate. If this is your first aquarium, consider starting with an easier set up, and do your homework! Read up about proper aquarium maintenance, and talk to people that have some experience with aquariums about the best way to maintain them. Sadly, many people suffer from an excess of exuberance, and try to build an aquarium that is beyond their ability to maintain. Ultimately this results in the death of all the critters inside the tank, not to mention a lot of wasted money! When you consider the environmental cost involved with simply getting a critter into your tank, it’s pretty sad to think that so many of them die simply because the chemical balance of the tank was incorrect when they were placed inside.

Well, that’s all for me until next week! If you have any further suggestions as to how we can make positive change in this industry I’d love to hear from you. Until next time!

Hello from Bali!

Hello from Bali! I’ll be here for 40 days, and 30 of those days are going to be spent becoming a divemaster, and diving as much as I possibly can! Hopefully I’ll be able to go back to cold water diving after this…I suspect it’ll take a bit of prodding from my dive buddies from back home!

I’ve finally realized a dream that I’ve been nursing since I started diving…I took the plunge into tropical waters! Burdened with a mere 3mm wetsuit (and even then I felt pretty toasty) and a tiny fraction of the weight I would have needed if I were diving in my drysuit I went for two fun dives in Sanur with Bali Scuba. This was my first time diving in the tropics, and only my third time ever diving in a wetsuit (to give some perspective…I’ve got 111 lifetime dives after the two I did today).

Yesterday saw me taking the plunge at the dive site called Tulamben. It’s a two hour drive from where I’m staying in Sanur (for some quick perspective on distances, it’s on the opposite end of the island from where I’m staying; the island is quite small for a location with such amazing stuff!), and even the drive was amazing! We drove through a mountainous area with incredibly picturesque rice paddies, and we were lucky enough to spot a troupe of monkeys on the way back!

Obviously though, the real gem was the diving. Tulamben has three main sites. The first is a large shipwreck; the USS Liberty, which saw action in the first and second world wars. Now the ship is home to an absolute plethora of marine life! The highlight of that dive for me was the pygmy sea horse, which was artfully spotted by the instructor and dive master candidate supervising the open water students that I tagged along with.

Can you spot the pygmy seahorse? It’s roughly in the center of the photo.

The second site is called the coral garden, and it contains…you guessed it…coral. It also has the always-charismatic clownfish (the starring character from the Disney movie Finding Nemo).

Found him!

As for the third site, it’s a wall that drops straight down from a point about 200 m from where the Liberty is. That site will have to wait for another day though, as we only had time for two dives.

One thing that has really impressed me in the short time that I’ve been here is the diversity of fish species. There are so many different fish! This is pretty new for me…there are incredible fish in the Pacific Northwest, and we have very impressive diversity in our invertebrate species, but we can’t hold a candle to the fish diversity I’ve seen in the last two days! At the risk of sounding like a huge geek, I can’t wait to start identifying all the new species I’m seeing! Luckily, I’ve got a lot of local knowledge to draw on at Bali Scuba.

Species identification (fish and invertebrate ID) is a tricky skill, but that warm glow of satisfaction after picking out a particularly tricky fish is always a pretty nice reward! If you’re looking to get into species ID, I have a few suggestions for you. This list is not at all exhaustive, and you may find that there are other techniques that will help you ID some of the critters you see underwater, but these are the techniques that work for me. If you have any other suggestions I’d love to hear them!

1)      Invest in some ID books: this may seem like a total no-brainer…but notice I say ‘buy the book’ instead of ‘google it’. The reason for this is one that I’m sure we’re all familiar with…the internet is a powerful tool but anyone can put information out there without getting it properly fact-checked first. I’ve encountered many incorrectly labelled photos of underwater critters during my own internet searches, but formal ID books are typically fact-checked for accuracy. That’s not to say there won’t be an occasional error…but you’re more likely to get an accurate ID from a book than the internet, in my opinion. I suggest shelling out a few extra dollars and getting one with pretty colour pictures that are supplemented by an artist’s rendering of what the ‘ideal’ member of the species should look like. Though underwater photographers are super talented it’s rare they can capture a picture of a moving beastie that clearly demonstrates all of its identifying features.

2)      If possible, try and get a picture. This obviously means either investing in your own camera gear (Ikelite is one of several companies that supply underwater housings for a variety of camera models), or enticing an underwater photographer to come diving with you. Some species have very minor differences between them (i.e. 3 stripes vs. 4 stripes, a band across the eye vs. a ring, vertical vs. horizontal stripes). Even if you get a good long look at a species at depth, when you’re looking through your ID books on the surface it could be hard to figure out exactly which beastie you were looking at unless you have a photograph to refer back to.

3)      Talk to someone who knows the area. The most common way to do that is to get a dive master from a local shop to take you on a ‘Discover Local SCUBA’ tour. Even though the dive master you get might not be an expert, he or she likely knows the names of the popular beasties in the area, and even if he/she can’t tell you the exact name of a certain fish, they’ll likely know someone nearby who can.

4)      Take a REEF (or other) identification course. These courses are specialized for certain areas, and once you finish the course you’ll not only have better ID skills, but you’ll also be able to contribute to local scientific databases, which will help inform marine biologists about the population trends in a given area…I can’t stress enough how valuable that sort of data is!

5)      My final suggestion has evolved from advice from my birding friends…look for the GISS: General Impression Size and Shape. Is the beastie in a group or on its own? Does it have prominent fins? Spines? A big mouth? Is it the size of your hand, your forearm, or your body? Is it round? Or fusiform (like a tuna)?

Well that’s all from me for this week…This weekend I’m going to get started on some of the ‘formal’ learning required for my DM course, but it’s already looking good for me to be able to get back into the water early next week!

Back in the Water!

Now that I’m back (at least temporarily) in the Vancouver area, I absolutely had to get back in the water, and what better place to do it than at Whytecliff Park!

Whytecliff park on a summer day

Whytecliff park is a very well-known dive site in the greater Vancouver area. In fact, if you’ve learned how to dive in this area, chances are you did at least one of your first open water dives here. It’s very accessible, and it has a wide range of different dive options; you can keep it nice and shallow in the bay, or you can challenge yourself with a tech dive by going to the right and following the wall down to a depth of your choosing. If you’re a critter diver (like me!) there are some excellent opportunities to see some really neat species down at the plumose anemone (Metridium spp.) garden at about 50 feet on the right hand side of the bay, just down from the day marker.

One thing I really noticed during my dives on Tuesday was just how many rockfish (Sebastes spp.) there were; most of them were hanging out at the garden, but we spotted a couple on our descent through the bay as well! I love seeing this kind of fish (especially in such numbers, and some of them were quite large!) not just because they have some beautiful markings, but also because they’ve been hit hard by over fishing, and it’s good to see that the different species are still hanging in there!

Rockfish were over fished for a variety of reasons, but the two of the three main reasons were that they are absolutely delicious, and they can be a fairly predictable fish, which makes them easier to catch. As the name suggests, they like to hang out near piles of rock. So, if you want to catch one, just zoom out to a rocky reef and drop your line.

The third main reason these guys were over fished has to do with their life history. They’re typically a very long-lived fish (scientists have demonstrated that some of the larger species will live to be nearly 200 years old!), and unlike humans, female rockfish become much more reproductive as they get older. The individuals that make the biggest reproductive contributions to the overall populations are typically old, fat females with a well-established territory over a rocky reef…exactly the type of fish that your average fisherperson is keen to catch.

So why are there so many rockfish at Whytecliff? Aside from the fact that it has excellent underwater geography (a rocky reef with some good currents to bring in all kinds of tasty rockfish food), Whytecliff park is also a marine reserve: there is no fishing allowed within park boundaries. Although marine reserves are not always the best conservation tools, they are potentially a very good method of looking after a species like rockfish (long-lived, fairly stationary) because they provide a shelter where fish can grow into those big fat females I mentioned earlier, and therefore have tons of babies that (hopefully!) spread out and populate other areas with less protection.

It will still take some years before we can known for sure if places like Whytecliff park are having a positive effect on overall rockfish populations, but when you’re trying to preserve such long-lived species, it’s very important that we take the long view, and give the populations the time they need to recover. In the meantime, I plan on visiting Whytecliff a LOT more in the future…but it’s going to have to wait until December, because I’m about to head to Bali for 40 days!

That’s right! This Saturday I take off for sun, sand, and SCUBA! I’ll be doing a divemaster internship with Bali SCUBA, and I’ll be blogging about it as I work my way through the course. So stay-tuned for jealousy-inducing stories (and hopefully pictures! I bought my first ever underwater camera for the trip) in the coming weeks!

The Next Big Adventure

Well I’ve been MIA for awhile…but I have a very good excuse!

For the last two years I’ve been working on a master’s degree in biology…and this Friday it all comes to a head! That’s right…I’m going to be defending my thesis and (hopefully!) finishing up graduate school.

But something else equally as exciting has been in the works…two weeks after I defend, I’ll be on a plane to the beautiful island of Bali to do a 30 day divemaster internship!

I’ll be doing this internship with the folks at Bali Scuba; a dive buddy of mine from my Scientific Diving Course did his training with them several years ago, and he absolutely raved about the experience. I’ve always found that personal recommendations are the absolute best way to find out where to dive and who to dive with, so it wasn’t a hard decision!

As excited as I am, I have a lot of stuff to take care of before I go…picking the dive shop might have been the easiest part! For one thing, there are a number of vaccinations I have to get before I go, and some of them have to be done weeks in advance. Since this is a diving holiday, I want to make absolutely certain that my health is taken care of. It may not be the most physically demanding sport out there, but every time I hit the water I don’t want to have to worry about anything other than the dive.

One other very important thing I’ll have to take care of is health insurance. As a Canadian, I’ll freely admit that this is a topic that I’ve not had to worry about for a good part of my life, but not when it comes to diving! For one thing, I discovered that in British Columbia (my home province) I’m not fully covered in the event of a severe diving injury. As all divers know, a severe decompression injury can send you into a decompression chamber for several hours, possibly even for several different treatments. But in BC you’re only covered for so many ‘chamber rides’ every year (I believe the number is two). Now granted, these sorts of injuries are uncommon if you practice safe diving procedures, but accidents do occasionally happen, and I’d rather not have just one more issue to worry about if an accident happens to me.

If you’re diving with any sort of regularity (or diving AT ALL on vacation in another country) I strongly suggest that you take out SCUBA-specific insurance from the good folks over at the Divers Alert Network (DAN). They provide divers with all kinds of important medical information, and when you buy a membership you’re supporting much-needed research into diving medicine. Furthermore, you’ll get a subscription to their magazine when you join. They also offer trip insurance and gear insurance in addition to their SCUBA-specific medical insurance.

Well, that’s it for me for this week. Wish me luck for Friday! I’ll be back next week chatting more about how I’ll be preparing for my trip to Bali, and hopefully soon I’ll be able to get some refresher dives in!