Scuba Diving in Indonesia
Any length of time spent on the Internet searching for diving-related sites in Indonesia will quickly show you that diving is very popular in Indonesia. As the largest archipelago in the world, Indonesia has over 17,000 islands spread across 3,000 miles with an estimated 80,000 kilometers of coastline, 3.1 million square kilometers of territorial waters and an estimated 10 to 15 percent of the world's coral reefs.
Indonesia is strategically located across both the Asian and Melanesian-Australian biological realms which are divided by the imaginary boundary called the Wallace Line. This location leads to Indonesia's top ranking alongside Brazil as one of the most biologically rich countries on the earth. Evidence of this biodiversity is found both on land and in the seas of the archipelago. The abundant species of marine life are found in numbers and concentrations directly attributable to the length of the coastline and proliferation of coral.
The sport of diving in Indonesia is relatively in its infancy, with diving centers in operation for a little over 10 years. Many popular dive locations have already been damaged due to encroachment by man, while new locations are constantly being explored and sought by diving aficionados. There are still many areas in Indonesia in which no one has ever dived before ... opening up the possibilities of new discoveries of pristine diving conditions and the sighting of unique marine species.
The beautiful reefs throughout the archipelago are accessible any time of the year. Many seasoned divers feel that April to December are the best times to dive just before the worst of the rainy season (January through March). However, if you have a particular destination in mind, check with the operators of dive resorts there, as different regions may be fine during the rainy season too.
If you're looking to get away from the hustle and bustle of Jakarta, the peace and tranquillity you find in many diving locations will soon refresh even the most flustered expat!
Tanah Air Kita
The seas sounding the Indonesian archipelago are considered an integral part of the nation, as evidenced in the term Tanah Air Kita, which literally means our “home water land”. The seas have been a unifying factory between the diverse cultures and peoples throughout the archipelago. Many Indonesians are greatly dependent for their livelihoods on the bounty of the seas, which they have fished and exploited for years. Fish and shellfish, pearls, seaweed and shells are only a few of the many treasurers found in Indonesian waters.
While traveling through the archipelago in search of pristine diving conditions, you will also have a chance to be exposed to Indonesian rural culture, far off the beaten track. Take time to see the local sites wherever you are, try the local cuisine and check out the local handicrafts.
The biggest challenge for divers in Indonesia is choosing from the many great locations in which to dive. The best dive sites are in unpopulated, remote locations where mankind hasn't destroyed the reefs yet. To get to these remote locations becomes a tactical challenge, especially now that the price on new budget-oriented airlines has led to decreased flights by national airlines to distant islands.
National airlines do not have enough airplanes, tend to be 'disorganized' by western standards (primarily due to inadequacy of computerized reservation systems) and there are inevitable delays, overbooked flights and cancellations. Trying to reach remote islands can be a frustrating experience and the best planned schedule can be destroyed by travel disruptions. This precludes the 'quick trip up to Manado' for a weekend of diving, when the flight schedules are so undependable.
We can't emphasize enough the need to confirm, and re-confirm flight bookings as soon as you reach your destination. Even if you are told that the flight you want is full ... go to the plane and try to get on the flight. While many flights are supposedly over- or fully booked, in actuality they often aren't. It might help to pay a 'fee' for assistance in getting on your desired flight. Even people with confirmed reservations can be bumped because someone else had the foresight to grease the wheels of the reservations system.
Popular Dive Locations
The most popular dive sites are:
- Bunaken near Manado in North Sulawesi
- North shore of Bali near Menjangan National Park as well as the wreck of the USS Liberty off Tulamben, Bali
- Sangihe-Talaud Islands, a small archipelago between North Sulawesi and the Philippines
- Selayar island south of South Sulawesi
- Ambon, Lease and other islands in the Banda Sea in Maluku
- Tukang Besi archipelago, off Southeast Sulawesi
- Togian islands in Tomini Bay in Central Sulawesi
- The waters between Komodo and Labuhanbajo islands in Nusa Tenggara
- Raja Ampat islands and Cendrawasih Bay on the north coast of IrianJaya where there are dives on ship and aircraft wrecks
- Maumere Bay, Flores
- Magic Mountain on the south coast of Sumba, near the Oberoi resort
- Alor and Roti islands, Nusa Tenggara
- Bangka Island north of the northernmost tip of North Sulawesi
- Sangalaki in East Kalimantan
What you'll see
The underwater sea gardens teem with fish and other marine life. Depending on where you dive, you are likely to see:
- whale sharks
- blue ribbon eels
- stone fish
- scorpion fish
- sea urchins
- crown-of-thorns star fish
- giant octopus
- manta rays
- sea horses
- scorpion fish
- dugong (manatee)
- sea turtles
- reef sharks
- Napoleon wrasse
- large reef lobsters
- groupers, jack fish, tuna
- sea fences, sponges, sea anemones
- reef fish of every imaginable color and pattern
- over 500 varieties of soft and hard corals
Words can hardly begin to describe the variety of marine life in Indonesia. It's as if someone took a paintbrush and spattered and drew every imaginable color in every imaginable pattern on numerous different creatures. The result - the warm waters of Indonesia teem with abundant bright colored fish and other marine life - creating a kaleidoscope of color.
Many marine creatures have highly developed camouflage systems which protect them from their enemies. Look closely and carefully and you'll soon discover much more than what you saw in your initial dive. Repeated passes by an area in different directions will reveal fish hidden in small caves and creatures hiding behind coral and other marine life.
You'll find different types of marine life in various depths and current conditions. Hard coral thrive in areas where there are rougher waters and wave action, while lacy, fine structures can only live in shallower, calmer water. The coral reef is an amazing inter-dependent ecosystem where all the inhabitants are constantly competing for food, light and space.
As a beginner, you will probably spend all your time in fascinationover the endless variety of marine life ... but as you become more experienced, you'll undoubtedly come to learn more about the inter-dependency of the various creatures and marine plants and want to learn even more to prepare for your next dive!
Threats to dive locations
The marine ecosystem is extremely fragile and is easily damaged whenever it comes into contact with mankind. Knowing what to do and not to do while diving will help to ensure that future generations will also be able to enjoy the abundant marine life which lives off and around the coral reefs.
Just as throughout much of the Pacific Ocean, fishermen seek to catch lots of fish quickly and easily ... so they toss dynamite into the waterwhich kills the fish and they float to the surface to be easily netted from the boats. This method of fishing not only kills the fish, but also destroys the coral reefs, the basic and most vital component of the marine ecosystem. While this practice is in fact illegal in Indonesia no one is enforcing this regulation in the poorly regulated fishing industry.
It takes a year for a centimeter of coral to grow - and will take dozens of years for coral stands which have been damaged by dynamite to return to their former glory.
Widespread destruction of coastal habitats off Kalimantan have also been caused by forest fires in recent years which have had serious consequences for the survival of adjacent coral reefs. Coral Cay Conservation was involved in surveying and monitoring of reefs adjacent to the Kutai National Forest Reserve to collect data on destruction. Silting from erosion, construction or logging also endangers marine life off the coast.
Unaware divers contribute much to the destruction of coral reefs. By stepping on the coral, you are actually destroying the ecosystem. The suntan/sunscreen often worn by snorkelers and divers also pollutes the water and contributes to the killing of coral reefs. Oil and gas leaked from the boats that bring divers to remote locations also do their part to destroy coral reefs.
Follow these simple precautions to prevent destruction of coral reefs when you dive:
- Don't spear fish while diving
- Don't step on the coral reefs
- Don't take live shells from the marine ecosystem
- Don't wear suntan/sunscreen to protect your skin, instead wear protective clothing that blocks the sun's burning rays
- Ensure that the boat's anchor doesn't hit or drag over corals, instead- tie the boat to a mooring buoy if possible
- Don't rip off sections of living coral from the reef
- Ensure that all waste from your visit is carted away and no garbage is thrown into the reef or left on the beach
- Don't feed anything to the fish, except something that comes from the sea itself. Bananas, bread, and other foods are not healthy for fish.
- Don't buy endangered shells or coral from beach sellers. Your purchaseonly encourages them to go and take some more from the sea for the next tourist. The most endangered species include several varieties of the giant clam, nautilus, Triton's trumpet, horned helmet and top shells. Think twice about harming Indonesia's marine environment for the sake of a souvenir.
By following these simple precautions you can do much to preserve the marine ecosystem and ensure that Indonesia's underwater resources are preserved for the enjoyment of future generations.
Dive Shops and Services
In Jakarta, there are a number of dive shops which provide equipment and services to divers. If you are interested in learning to dive, their PADI-certified instructors will teach you the basics, usually in a hotel pool, and lead newcomers on learning dives in Pulau Seribu, the Thousand Islands. If you're unsure about learning to dive, they'll even give you a free introductory lesson in the hotel pool. Many people get hooked quickly as they find that nothing compares to the exhilaration of breathing underwater in weightless splendor.
Dive shops also organize diving tours to the other islands in Indonesia, and are knowledgeable of the 'best' dive locations. You'll quickly find the dive pro becomes one of your best sources of information on diving in Indonesia.
While you can bring your own equipment, dive shops also stock a complete supply of international-brand dive equipment including wet suits, fins, masks, tanks, regulators, compressors, weights and various paraphernalia used by divers. Be extremely cautious about using rental gear as the safety cannot be assured do to overuse and lack of repair and maintenance of the equipment.
There are also an increasing number of dive shops/services in popular diving areas including, Manado and Bali. Many dive operations are run by expatriates. Seek those with reliable dive boats and English-speaking dive masters with international certification. Nothing could be worse that trying to communicate with someone in a foreign language in the midst of an emergency.
Don't forget to bring proof of your certification with you when you travel to Indonesia to dive.
There are several formal and many informal dive clubs based in Jakarta and other areas where there are high concentrations of diving enthusiasts. Ask at your local dive shop if they know of a club which dives and plans trips together.
Challenges of Diving in Remote Locations
Be advised that the more remote the location you are planning to dive in ... the less likely there will be any kind of professional diving services or compressors there. This means bringing in adequate tanks, and other necessities to use during your dive. Be aware that decompression chambers will NOT be available anywhere near these remote locations. Accordingly dives to depths below 30 meters should be left to cautious professionals.
Live aboard boat are available for travel to/through remote locations which are not easy accessible from a major city. These boats range from basic (read inexpensive) to luxurious (expensive).
There is a diving chamber in Jakarta. If you are a member of DAN, there is a network you can contact. If you require further assistance, International SOS has two expat doctors trained in diving-related medicine and they can fly you in a sea level cabin on 100% oxygen to Singapore, Darwin, or Cairns (depending on the dive site in Indonesia) where there is a higher quality of care. Contact International SOS at 750-6001 if you require further information.
Costs of Diving in Indonesia
The cost of an average dive depends on the amount of equipment you own yourself, the cost of travel to the location, the cost of boat rental and guides.
Beware that flights to remote locations are often canceled without any prior warning and a weekend away diving may turn into a week before you can get back to Jakarta.
The quality of guides varies from location to location. Local guides are often poorly. While they are knowledgeable about the local underwater sites and may be a good scuba diver themselves, that doesn't necessarily mean that they have adequate training in dive planning, emergency procedures or speak enough of a foreign language to be able to communicate easily in an emergency situation. If you are prepared for most possible emergencies yourself, you will not have to depend on your guide to rescue you should you experience difficulties. This is where there is a definite advantage to join a group of highly experienced divers until you become one yourself. Look for dive leaders that have the international PADI or POSSI certification as opposed to local certification. Rely on the advice of friends or seasoned divers in choosing a good guide for your dive.
Links for information on Marine Resources and their conservation:
World Wildlife Fund - Indonesia office - www.wwf.or.id
Other Resources on Diving
Get a copy of the Water Sports Map, published by the Indonesian Tourism Promotion Board. It pinpoints the locations, visibility, depths of coral reefs, current conditions and what you'll see at the various popular dive locations throughout the archipelago, including the locations of various shipwrecks with abundant marine life.
The Periplus Editions book entitled “Underwater Indonesia: A Guide to the World's Greatest Diving” is a great resource.
Water World - one expat's experience learning to Dive in East Bali.