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Published in Diver Magazine UK May 2019

GILI TURTLE SURPRISE
by Nigel Marsh

I have dived many sites loaded with turtles in Asia, but I had never seen so many friendly and laid-back green turtles at the same site. These turtles were so relaxed with divers that they completely ignored meas I snapped photos, and one was so comatose that it was unaware that an octopus was climbing over its shell! I was really surprised to see this many friendly turtles in the Gili Islands, in fact these islands managed to surprise me time and time again.

Ringed by coral reefs, studded with palm trees and featuring white sandy beaches and clear blue waters it is easy to see why the Gili Islands are a popular holiday destination. Located off the north-west coast of Lombok in Indonesia, the three Gili Islands - Gili Trawangan, Gili Meno and Gili Air - lure divers, snorkelers, sun seekers and loads of backpackers. Indeed so many backpackers descending on the Gili’s they have achieved a reputation as party islands. However, they received an even worse blow to their reputation when hit by a series of terrible earthquakes in July and August 2018. The earthquakes killed over one hundred people in the Lombok area, left thousands homeless and destroyed countless buildings.

While some of the resorts suffered damage, most were quickly back on their feet and eager to welcome back divers and other tourists.To prove this the Indonesian Ministry of Tourism invited me and several other journalists to visit the Gili Islands in November 2018.

To be honest, the Gili Islands were never high on my list of places to visit in Indonesia. The thought of loads of backpackers, dance parties booming all night and crowded beaches just didn’t appeal. I had also heard mixed reports on the diving; some saying dynamite fishing had destroyed the corals, while others reported there was a wonderful mix of dive sites and some great marine life. So I accepted the invitation with some reservations and a few questions that needed answering – had the islands recovered from the earthquakes? Are they overrun with backpackers? And what was the diving really like?

With Lombok located just east of Bali, most visitors to the Gili Islands arrive by boat. But our group went the other option of a flight from Bali to Mataram (the capital of Lombok), then a drive to the northern end of the island and finally a quick speedboat run over to Gili Trawangan. Arriving after midnight I was instantly relieved to hear no thumping dance music, it was actually very quiet as we checked into our accommodation, the lovely Laguna Gili Beach Resort. Exhausted after a long day of travel I went straight to bed.

Up early the next morning I first looked around the dive resort. Set in a pretty garden, the resort has large air-conditioned Balinese-style rooms, two pools, a restaurant/bar and a well-equipped and well-laid out dive centre.The only thing separating the resort from the white sandy beach was a road. At first glance I thought this was a poor place to have a road, but then realised that the only traffic using this thoroughfare were bicycles and horses and carriages (known locally as cidomo). There were no noisy cars, trucks or motorbikes on the Gili Islands. I had never realised this and it was the first surprise that made me really like these islands.

Walking up and down the main road I found numerous dive shops, dive resorts, beach resorts, tour companies and other businesses. And most appeared to be open for business. I didn’t see any earthquake damage until I ventured onto the back streets, finding a few collapsed buildings. There were also numerous tourists, not so the beach and roads were crowded, but enough to make it look like things were getting back to normal.

GILI MUCK

With breakfast out of the way, enjoyed watching the horses trot up and down the road, we soon had our gear sorted in the dive centre and were off for our first dives, to explore the local muck. While researching my guide book Muck Diving, I discovered there was one popular muck site at the Gili Islands called Hann’s Reef. But we were heading to muck sites on the adjacent mainland that I had never heard about, so another pleasant surprise.

Our first site was called Kecinan and featured a grey sand slope dotted with mooring lines. Zig-zagging up and down the slope in depths from 30 to 80ft, we soon found typical muck critters like shrimp gobies, razorfish, shrimpfish, pufferfish, filefish, blennies and lionfish. There seemed to be quite a few tiny ‘Shawn-the-sheep’ nudibranchs on the seaweed, but I was more interested in larger muck critters. And our guide Leon delivered, with four frogfish, a cuttlefish, a finger dragonet, a thorny seahorse and a cockatoo waspfish.

Our second muck dive was just around the corner at Seahorse Bay. This site also had a grey sandy slope, but with a lot more seaweed, sea pens and sea anemones. While we found ribbon eels, nudibranchs, moray eels, lionfish, scorpionfish and commensal shrimps, it was the seahorses that were the main feature. Clinging to the seaweeds we counted half a dozen pretty thorny seahorses.

After lunch we dived the resort’s house reef, which is accessible from the shore. However, with a current running we did it as a boat dive so we could drift the sloping reef. House reefs can be a bit hit and miss, and this was a bit of both. Most of the slope was coral rubble, but there were several healthy coral patches to explore. Concentrating on the small stuff, I soon found mantis shrimps, nudibranchs, octopus, ribbon eels and an ornate ghostpipefish hiding in a featherstar. But the highlight was the rich collection of small reef fish – angelfish, butterflyfish, wrasse, pufferfish, damsels, hawkfish, lionfish and a snowflake moray eel.

GILI REEFS

Day two and we were ready to explore some of the Gili Islands coral reefs. First up was Deep Turbo, a series of coral ridges off the north end of Gili Trawangan. Jumping in to find the visibility close to 100ft was a wonderful surprise, as it had only been around 40ft on our first day. We descended into a gutter full of garden eels, then swam over a ridge decorated with whip corals, gorgonians, soft corals and barrel sponges. Looking around I spotted a large Maori wrasse, and in the distance was a small reef shark.

Swimming from ridge to ridge there was plenty to see; colourful healthy corals, a blue spotted maskray, a large starry pufferfish, batfish, snappers, squirrelfish and numerous reef fish. On one ridge was a resting green turtle. We snapped numerous images while the turtle ignored us.Leon our guide also didn’t seem to be particularly excited either. I thought this very strange as most dive guides in Asia get very excited when they find you a turtle. It wasn’t until the end of the dive that I realised why.

Continuing from ridge to ridge we then had a long swim in mid-water to get back to the fringing reef that surrounds Gili Trawangan. We could tell when we reached it as the visibility dropped to 30ft and the healthy coral got replaced by coral rubble. But that didn’t matter as there were a dozen green turtles to be seen. No wonder Leon wasn’t interested in one turtle.

These turtles were resting and getting cleaned, and they were completely unperturbed by our presence. I then remembered reading somewhere that the Gili Islands claim to be ‘the turtle capital of the world.’ It was one of those silly claims that I laughed at, but seeing this many turtles in one spot I can see why they would make such a boost.

Our second dive of the morning was to cement this turtle reputation at a site called Turtle Heaven. This sloping reef off the northern end of Gili Meno didn’t have the nicest corals or the best visibility,but what it did have was plenty of turtles. At first we drifted along a sloping reef covered in mushroom corals and home to small reef fish. But arriving at a ridge covered in coral rubble and a dozen green turtles, we paused the dive for thirty minutes for some very close turtle time.

These turtles were sleeping, rubbing their bellies and occasionally jostling for the best positions. Some were also getting cleaned, their skin getting picked by cleaner wrasse and their shells getting scrapped of algae by surgeonfish. Not one of them was worried by our close proximity; in fact a few of them returned from getting a breath of air and almost pushed us out of the way to get the prime positions. But the funniest thing I saw was the turtle with the octopus clambering over its shell. It was hard to tell if the octopus was looking to see what was happening or was attempting to manoeuvre the turtle off its home. Exploring the rest of this site we found a feeding hawksbill turtle that was also accustom to divers, plus an ornate ghostpipefish and schools of basslets, fusiliers and feeding mouth mackerel.

GILI ART

Our afternoon dive was also on Gili Meno, but was very different exploring a site called Meno Slope. We started this dive in the shallows on a rubble slope only 12ft deep, the location of a unique sculpture garden. Created by artist Jason deCaires Taylor, the site features 48 life-sized human statues arranged in two circles. It is quite surreal swimming around concrete human forms which are decorated with algae, sponges and other marine growth.

After admiring the sculptures we did a drift along the sloping reef, finding hard corals in the shallows and more colourful gorgonians, whip corals, sponge and soft corals in depths to 70ft. Two approachable turtles were once more the highlight of the dive.

GILI NIGHT LIFE

The night life, especially in the area we stayed, was quite subdued; no loud music or dance parties. In fact the loudest noise on the island was the call-to-prayer of the nearby mosque. The party island image of the Gili Islands was taking a real hit.

We enjoyed our own night life with a night dive on Hann’s Reef. This site features a sandy slope and coral gardens. We started on the sand, and soon found a cone shell out on the hunt, several box crabs, including one that was eating another cone shell, and numerous small prawns. Going no deeper than 50ft we also found elbow crabs, hermit crabs, flatheads, sole and a tiny robust ghostpipefish. We expected to find a good range of cephalopods, but a very bright full moon may have made them a little shy. We did see one tiny bobtail squid that was barely a quarter of an inch long. Amongst the coral were sleeping fish, saron shrimps, moray eels, an ornate ghostpipefish and I was surprised to find a juvenile banded toadfish, a species I had only seen in Raja Ampat.

GILI WRECKS

The next day, our last day of diving on this brief trip, saw us dive one of the Gili Islands signature dive sites, Shark Point. Our dive brief mentioned sharks, schooling fish and a scuttled shipwreck, but we somehow missed the shipwreck on our drift dive. Instead we did a wonderful drift over coral ridges packed with fish life.

Drifting over coral heads, ridges and gutters I was amazed by the fish life, schools of squirrelfish, soliderfish, snappers and fusiliers. There were also a few pelagic fish, a small gang of trevally and a large tuna. The only sharks I saw were two whitetip reef sharks, but the guides informed us that blacktip reef sharks and silvertip sharks are often seen. We also encountered blue-spotted lagoon rays, batfish, a variety of angelfish and a banded snake eel looking for a meal. And once in the shallows we encountered another large population of green and hawksbill turtles.

Our final dive saw us visiting a shipwreck off Gili Meno known as the Bounty Wreck. But like most of the dives we did in the Gili’s we first did a drift dive along a sloping reef. This site was home to a good population of reef fish and turtles. We found several hawksbill turtles feeding on coral rubble and one was even snapping down sea salps floating by in the current. A large coral bommie kept us busy for a while, as it was covered in gorgeous corals and swarming with baitfish.

At the end of the dive we finally arrived at the Bounty Wreck, a 100ft long floating platform that now rests upside down in depth from 25 to 50ft. This wreck is covered in corals and home to a multitude of fish, with a large school of drummer milling around the bow. It was a great way to finish three brilliant days of diving on the Gili Islands.

That afternoon we got a horse and carriage ride to the other side of the island and enjoyed cocktails as we watched the sunset over Bali. The resorts on this side of the island seemed to have suffered more earthquake damage, with two of them closed for renovations.

The Gili Islands really surprised me, I had expected them to be overrun and possibly spoilt from too many backpackers, but instead found a very pretty and peaceful destination. The diving also surprised me, a good variety of dive sites, some great marine life and one of the friendliest turtle populations in Asia. I was really glad I accepted the invitation, otherwise I would never have visited this little surprise package.

Getting There

Fly into Bali then there are two options to get to the Gili Islands, a fast boat from Bali or a combination of car and boat if you fly into Mataram, Lombok. The boats from Bali depart from Padang Bai, Benoa, Serangan and Amed, and the crossing can take 90 minutes to two hours or longer depending on the route and sea conditions. Garuda and Lion Air have daily flights between Bali and Lombok, with the flight only 30 minutes. It is then a 90 minute drive followed by a 10 minute speed boat ride to reach the Gili Islands.

Accommodation

Laguna Gili Beach Resort

When to go

Year round, but rains in December and January can reduce the visibility. The visibility in the Gili Islands is generally around 50 to 70ft, but can vary from 20 to 100ft plus. The water temperature varies from 26°C to 29°C.