It’d been a while since we’d had any good beach time on our trip, so we decided to check out the Malaysian islands called Pulau Perhentian next. Funnily enough, we ended up spending 9 days there at a wonderful beach-front resort but never really made it to the beach. The reason? We fell in love with scuba diving while we were there, and spent all our time under water.
We’ve always loved snorkeling when we vacation (anyone remember when Jes lost his wedding ring on our honeymoon???) and actually went and bought our own mask and snorkel in Penang before we left because we thought it’d make our lives easier while in the Perhentian islands. When we do snorkel though, Jesse is always spending his time taking massive breaths at the surface before diving down into the water to try and get a closer look at the marine life. So it didn’t really surprise me when he asked me if I’d be interested in trying scuba diving this time. I’d never really thought much of diving before, but also wasn’t opposed to it so we decided to sign up for a course and try our hand.
We took our PADI Open Water Diving course at a place called Universal Diver on Pulau Besar, which became our second home while on the island. We ended up having an awesome instructor named Gary, and fantastic classmates named Sabrina and Kelvin. To make a long story short(er), we just had a ball every day watching the cheesy PADI videos to learn our lessons and then getting out into the water to watch Gary demonstrate and then let us fumble through our new techniques. Mask clearing (shudder), hovering, breathing through the alternate regulator, kick-kick-glide…ah, so many fun memories! Everything was new and different and exciting. I’d had these preconceptions that diving was complicated, cumbersome (with all the equipment) and dangerous but I was wrong on all accounts. Even Jesse had some initial anxiety about whether his ears would be able to equalize properly underwater given some past history of ear pressure issues when we fly, but that turned out to be totally fine as well. And after getting through those first few crazy breaths underwater, it didn’t take long to realize how incredibly simple, enjoyable and rewarding diving was. Not only that, all the people we met involved in the sport from the wonderful staff at Universal Diver to our classmates and all the other experienced divers enjoying their vacation were so friendly and great to spend time with. The sport seemingly came with no awkward stigmas or attitudes. It was so refreshing to be with people who just wanted to share in the same fun and awesome underwater experience. We loved all the incredible staff at Universal Diver, with specific shout-outs to Charlotte, Haslo and Ali who were all so great at what they do and so much fun. Our excellent instructor Gary and his girlfriend/co-instructor Bobbie are two Londoners who decided to quit their jobs and live abroad for a few years teaching diving and enjoying life, which we thought was pretty awesome. Most of all we had the best time with our classmates Sabrina (from Malaysia) and Kelvin (from Singapore) as well as Kelvin’s girlfriend Shu (originally from Malaysia, but now living in Singapore). You know you’ve met great people when you can spend all day with them diving and still look forward to enjoying dinner with them at night. We had so many lovely conversations getting to know them, and so much fun sharing our diving experience with them. Shu was already an experienced diver, and shared some incredible stories with us about previous dives she’s done and gave us super helpful tips for our future dives as well. On top of that, we all shared a mutual love of food and travel, and had great fun trying each other’s meals and slurping on Snickers smoothies together for dessert. Learning to dive came with so many perks, the best of which for sure was getting to know all these awesome people.
Of course the most memorable moments were the actual open water dives we did at all the various spots around the island. We saw so many types of beautiful fish, turtles, blue spotted stingrays, moray eels, baby bamboo sharks and all sorts of super cool coral. I don’t think either of us had expected how incredible it was going to be seeing all these creatures up close and how quickly we’d fall in love with this sport. I’d never realized how many other types of life there are underwater and how much I wanted to see and learn more about them. We got a real kick out of discovering the odd personalities or habits that different fish had, like the little black and white one that would bite us on our ankles or legs whenever we encroached on his space (sadly Gary set up one of our in-water classes right beside this fish one day). We also loved the way porcupine fish swim so slowly and always seemingly in pairs with another. The hawk’s bill turtle we saw feeding around a big plate of coral seemed completely unbothered by all of us hovering and staring at him, while the moray eels all shied away from us if we got too close. In many ways it completely opened our eyes to realize how much more there is to discover in our travels.
Though we were spending most of our days underwater, at night we’d return to our gorgeous ocean-view chalet and remember how beautiful the actual beach and island looked. The sunrises and sunsets off the beach of our resort were stunning each day, and we couldn’t have asked for a better place to spend our out-of-water time. Before we arrived we were nervous about how quickly we might get sick of the food (the islands are not quite the street food mecca that Penang was), but we were pleasantly surprised by the variety and tastiness of many of the dishes our resort had to offer. The nightly BBQ dinners at the Cocohuts restaurant were fresh and filling, and some of the other Malaysian dishes surprised us as well. We also had some great fun getting to know our favourite waiter/chef/boatman/do-everything-man, Chili, who would always come by to have a nice chat with us whenever we sat down. We stopped thinking about whether we should go explore the rest of the island for better food, and started to just look forward to the comforts of enjoying our time with new friends.
By the time we were finished our certification we’d done 5 open water dives over 4 days and pretty much couldn’t contain our excitement over how incredible this experience was, not to mention the regret of how we hadn’t tried this earlier in our lives. So it didn’t take much discussion for us to decide that we didn’t want to stop diving yet. We still had a week left before our flight to Nepal and so we decided to stay put and keep diving. We signed up for the Advanced Open Water Dive certification course which meant another 4 dives for us and some new, fun skills. Sadly Sabrina and Kelvin had to return to their normal lives, but Gary remained our instructor and we continued to have as much fun as before though we did miss our old classmates. For this course we got to choose 4 advanced specialty areas that we were interested in learning more about. We chose to tune up our “peak performance buoyancy” skills where we had to hone our breathing techniques in order to complete a hilarious underwater obstacle course that included hovering over a small object, swimming through a surprisingly small hoop and knocking over little 3-4 inch high weights that were propped upright on the bottom of the surface with nothing but our regulator (the breathing piece in our mouth) and no part of our body touching the ground. We also learned about wreck diving and got the chance to dive around a site where an old transport ship carrying sugar had sunk in the early 90s, hence the name “Sugar Wreck”. It was amazing to dive down and see this massive ship on its side before you, with huge masts jetting out of it and marine life completely taking over every part of its surface. It was also fascinating to see all the random things that remained from the ship, like old printers and tires just sitting on the bottom of the ocean. We took a navigation course which had us using a compass underwater and Gary swimming us in random circles around a site and asking us to navigate him back to where we started. Not surprisingly, my already horrible on-land navigation skills got magnified underwater and I pretty much never knew where we were. Thankfully I don’t think Jes and I have any future plans of doing independent diving, so we should always be following a divemaster who knows the area and site and will guide us back safely to our boat! Our final course called Underwater Naturalist. Basically we dove around with a clipboard and pencil, and ticked off or wrote down the names of all the different marine life forms we saw as Gary pointed them out to us. It was surprising once we actually saw the list at the end to realize just how many different things we could see in one dive. We even rented an underwater camera that day and asked Gary to take some photos for us (we were not skilled enough white balance the photos ourselves) but sadly the battery died within about 15 minutes so we didn’t quite get all the photos we’d hoped for! Oh well, you’ll just have to trust us on how amazing everything looks underwater!
Probably the most memorable dive for us came right at the end of our time in the Perhentians when we were lucky enough to participate on a dive to support the annual Pulau Perhentian Crown-of-Thorns Starfish and Reef Clean-up effort, organized by the Marine Park. There were more than 100 participant volunteers from different organizations, dive clubs, as well as locals who came together to clean up various sites around the islands. Our group was assigned the task of removing and collecting any crown-of-thorn starfish we saw at a specific site. Crown-of-thorns is a type of starfish or seastar which have venomous, thorny spines covering their bodies, and will live and prey on live corals, often killing them in the process. This destructive feeding can end up disrupting the entire reef ecosystem which obviously is something everyone wants to prevent. So we set out on a beautiful day with the best underwater visibility of our whole time there to dive around a beautiful site in search of these spiky, venomous creatures. I’d be lying if I said we weren’t a bit nervous about this whole ordeal, since we were still pretty new to diving and now had to attempt to remove these scary creatures from the coral… creatures which Gary had, in previous dives, told us to just stay clear of at all costs! But there we were, about to dive into the water with with what looked like a small paint roller pole to help pry the crown-of-thorns off the coral and a mesh bag to carry them in as we searched out for more, all the while hoping the spiky thorns popping out of it don’t accidentally brush against you and sting you with their venom. Thankfully, our dive club’s office manager/divemaster Charlotte sort of took us under her wing and patiently helped us as we fumbled through our new task. Jesse spotted the first one on a large vertical wall of coral, and then eventually after a lot of searching Charlotte spotted one for me. We probably took a lot longer than most to get them off, as we were really feeling the pressure to be able to hover properly and so close to the coral without crashing into it (let alone the actual crown-of-thorns itself) while completing our task. Never had the gentle lulls of the water felt so strong to us before! But thankfully we both succeeded without getting stung, and it felt pretty great to have been able to help out in the cause. We then followed Charlotte around as she swiftly and skillfully dove down into what looked like impossibly tiny crevices and emerged with huge chunks of stray rope or debris. On top of all the excitement from the clean up, it was just a gorgeous dive itself where the visibility was incredible and we were able to see so much underwater. Then when we returned from the dive itself, we enjoyed a fantastic free home-cooked lunch provided by the park (probably the best food we had the entire time there, actually) and were even given certificates and t-shirts as thanks for our participation. All in all, we really felt lucky to have shared in the whole experience.
There’s a funny lesson or motto at the end of the PADI course which sort of preaches to students about the merits of continuing your dive education and experience. It says, “Go places, Meet people, Do things.” And as cheesy and hilarious as it sounded when we first heard it (and all the many times we poked fun of it with our classmates and instructors), it turns out to be a perfect way to summarize our experience in Pulau Perhentian. Through diving, we met some incredible people, discovered a truly beautiful island and we did some really cool stuff underwater. And honestly, I think this experience intensely changed us. It sparked a new love and new curiosity for something we had never really thought about before. Now, it seems, all we want to do is keep diving. So much so that we are already re-planning our trip to ensure we get more diving in before we come home. And I suspect all our future travels will be shaped around whether we can fit in diving as well. So for those who’ve ever thought maybe they’d like to try diving one day, I absolutely whole-heartedly urge you to just do it. And don’t wait. Because you’ll probably start to regret not having gone diving in every previous vacation you’ve ever gone on like we did :)
Actual travel dates: March 29 – April 6, 2013