Sunday, April 20, 2014

Bobbi and I chill for a week on Pulau Weh, Indonesia, with Lumba Lumba Divers

April 6-9, 2014 PULAU WEH, Indonesia, with Lumba Lumba Divers

My logged dives #1273-1279

Bobbi and I had a holiday in April, and this was a good time to see hammerheads in Layang Layang, or Sparrow Island, in the Spratley's north of Borneo. It was complicated to arrange. There is just one dive resort on the tiny atoll in a dropoff in the Sulu Sea. We managed to get a booking but then we had to pay them in advance. They would only accept bank transfers, and we had no idea where we were sending the money, but at some inconvenience we managed to get our bank to transfer the money only to find from their side they still needed a payment slip. Even when they acknowledged that the money had been deposited to their bank they still needed this document to satisfy their accounting office. It defied reason but we gamely played along, sent the money in two installments, requested travel documents from their side, and meanwhile noticed that friends on Facebook were having their trips the week before ours cancelled. We figured, or hoped, it was the weather (cyclones in the area in the news saying how weather was slowing the search for the missing Malaysian Airlines jet under way at the time). 

Some time later we discovered that the problem was with the missing Malaysian airliner, but not so much the weather. The search effort was taking all available military materiel including the plane that does a periodic test flight on Layang Layang runway to certify its continued use for Malaysia Air Wing jets, This plane was re-prioritized to the search and as a result the runway did not get an overdue inpection. Meanwhile Layang Layang resort was taking money from customers and then telling everyone there was a problem with the runway, but without any details what the problem was. 

Our cancellation notice came a week before we were due to depart. Initial reaction was sheer disappointment, followed by what about the money, and that quickly overtaken in a scramble to find an alternative destination. By now we had purchased tickets to Kuala Lumpur and Kota Kinabalu, so we focused on two places on Borneo on short notice. Both promised to send details, neither did, though the one in Malbul eventually sent word we could still go there on the day we were set to depart (alas, way too late). These options were of interest mainly because we could have used our tickets to Kota Kinabalu, but in the end we blew off that portion and flew instead from KL to Banda Aceh on the north tip of Sumatra and then caught a boat to Pulau Wei, where friends at Nomad Ocean Adventure had worked and could not recommend the place highly enough.

I used to dive a lot around Abu Dhabi and I can tell you that there are barracuda, turtles, many kinds of sting rays, sharks, sea snakes, eels, cuttlefish, batfish, grouper, and much more living there, but on a typical dive, if you are expecting to see any of those you are likely to be disappointed. The diving is nice, and chance of interesting animals exists, but it's that way anywhere, if you work there you see everything, but when visiting a few days, you are lucky to catch a glimpse of a fraction of what is there in the water around you. Some visit in good conditions, great visibility, and hit it lucky. Some get poor vis, rough seas or debilitating currents, and see almost nothing.

We had smooth flying to Banda Aceh, got a taxi to the harbor using the dispatcher at the airport, caught the ferry, easily got a cab from there at what we found later was the standard price, and on arrival in Lumba Lumba after 24 hours of travel, found a well run and relaxing dive center. Lumba Lumba means dolphin in Bahasa (and we did see a pod or two from the boat). The owners Marjan and Ton have built up a loyal clientele over the years, and we dived with many of these satisfied customers there on return visits who told us this place was worth coming back to over and over. Our own experience, jaded divers that we are, was less sanguine, but still quite pleasant, no complaints. 

We had one great dive where we saw sharks and a flotilla of devil rays overhead. On all dives we saw octopus, a treat, and off the house reef we found one just sitting in the sand trying to ignore us, but preening there for as long as we stayed and aimed my GoPro camera at him (and another one, when I scratched the sand outside his lair, twice blew a jet of water at me, in a go away gesture – second time I got the hint and left him alone). 

The long octopus encounter is in the video above. That octopus was on the house reef, where the video below was taken.

more videos forthcoming

We saw the lovely panoply of usual reef fish and some large trevaly and plenty of small animals like cleaner shrimp and tiny crabs living on anenome. There were a lot of moray eels of all kinds (including one shy black and white blotchy one) lots of scorpion fish, macro life everywhere, amazing creatures down to the size of a grain of rice, nudibranchs, colorful slugs the dive guides pointed out as nudibranchs though they were not, banded shrimp, tiny pipefish, razorfish dancing upright, garden eels slipping into the sand whenever approached, blue spotted rays, titan, blue, and clown triggerfish, creatures everywhere, all to be seen in a relaxing place at a very economical price for diving (made more economical with a generous instructor discount), but in our short stay though we were consistently treated to pleasant, challenging, and interesting dives, apart perhaps from the devil rays, we saw nothing amazingly phenomenal.

Which is to say no mantas, leapord sharks, wrasse, turtles, whale sharks, or megamouth, all of which are supposed to live here (on our last dive at the Canyon Marjan's group saw a Napoleon, just as they were surfacing, but it eluded Bobbi and I, who surfaced just before). 

It's not surprising that we didn't see all the creatures we wanted to, or that not every dive was a wow dive, on just a 4-day stay. There were tricky currents, a bane of this place preventing our entry into some of the best parts of the best dive sites, guides being conservative, favoring diver safety over adrenaline rushes, and maybe they were protecting us from ourselves. It's great to be on home turf, where you know the sites and know the currents and can judge if you just push through this one you'll hit nirvana on the other side. We were turned back at the door of Nirvana time after time, or maybe we were saved from death by drowning, we'll never know. We weren't there long enough to get to know the guides or for them to know us, so we dived conservatively, and saw quite a lot, but not as much as we imagined we likely would have seen if we had been able to fulfill our dream of diving Layang Layang.

Would we come back? If given the opportunity yes, but infrastructure in the area is limited, food choices are limited, there is no alcohol except Bintang available at the dive center (nor wifi except that available at the dive center, open 8 a.m. To 8 pm,but free for divers) Given the local culture, the dive center was a great oasis, and locals were tolerant to the point of overlooking cans of take-away Bintang consumed at local warungs, but for those seeking a sybaritic life between dives, Aceh might be a little Spartan or just the cure you need, all good for you of course, and I hope I've weighted the scales fairly here.

Overall we enjoyed it. Nice diving, nice people, competent dive facility, world class diving, a little remote and lacking in on-shore variety, but if you like to sleep :-)) and prefer to get to know local cultures, and support one in need after the calamity on Christmas eve 2004, you'll find a tolerant and welcoming one here. The diving is great for families and those learning to dive. It's also good for experienced divers, so I'm trying to be informative here, not at all complaining.

The dive center has accommodation It was full when we were there, but they kindly found us a house on the hillside behind the center with great ocean views on the veranda, just $15 a night, owned by a fellow names Mus whose house was ajacent to his rental unit. Mus arranged for a cab to come pick us up from the dive center our last morning of diving there. We were flying the following morning and overnighting at Freddies, a place in Sebang whose South African owner assiduously answers email, which is how we were able to arrange to stay there. So for $15 we got driven to Freddie's which is a beautifully situated and delightfully laid back place, passing for fancy in those parts, with bungaloes build into a hillside overlooking a beach. There was a bar there and decent food, and while you are enjoying what you like the staff there arrange for a car to come get you next morning bright and early, hand you your ferry ticket before bed, serve a great buffet breakfast and send you on your way for a bill for all just mentioned including accommodation of about $65. And the driver who took us to the ferry pier used his mobile to arrange a taxi from the Banda Aceh harbor to the airport at the normal published price. We texted our names and when we arrived off the boat there was man on the other side bearing a sign with our names, to take us there no problem. So it seems complicated with the boat and plane transfers, but on the ground we found the people made it easy for us and detected no attempt at ripoff.

And it was a beautiful day out as well, and when we arrived in Kuala Lumpur we got to meet with Fizzy, recently with Nomad in UAE, and one of the people who convinced us to give Pulau Weh a try.

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