A once-in-a-lifetime diving adventure in Gili Islands

Colourful reefs, fascinating marine life and friendly locals await divers and snorkellers at the Gili Islands.

A diver swims with a sea turtle in the Gili Islands, Indonesia.
  • Laura Waters
  • October 2019

I re-adjust the bag on my shoulder and stare at a hand-painted map on the wall of the dive shop. Scattered across its azure seas and bright-green islands are the names of dive sites: Secret Reef, The Bounty, Good Heart and Shark Point, to name a few. I feel as though I’ve fallen into the pages of Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1883 novel Treasure Island until a sudden and noisy blast of air escaping from a scuba tank behind me whips at my legs, drawing me back to the 21st century. I’m in the Gili Islands of Indonesia, on my way to visit Turtle Heaven, one of eight dive sites I’m going to explore over the next four days.

Despite having nearly 400 dives under my belt, the thrill of discovery hasn’t waned and within an hour I’m gleefully backward-rolling from a wooden outrigger into the balmy waters of the Lombok Strait. With me are two local guides from Laguna Gili Dive Center opens in new window and four experienced Aussies, the combined dive count between us nudging well into the thousands. I sink to 10 metres, where the current becomes a gentle, calming sway. Piled beneath me are what feels like thousands of discus-shaped mushroom corals in shades of lilac, yellow, pink and green. It’s like I’m swimming through an upside-down party.

A woman prepares to dive in the Gili Islands, Indonesia.
The Gili Islands offer diving tours for all levels.

Casually finning our way past the colourful party guests, we drift to a mound 50 metres away and there, lounging between coral heads, are our turtles – a dozen giants around a metre long. The map is right – this place does feel like heaven. I slowly drift towards a large turtle, admiring the intricate patterns that adorn its shell, and then our eyes meet. I feel a connection, an awareness of each other’s existence, but then he tires of me, turns away and gets on with his day under the sea.

The turtles of the Gili Islands certainly aren’t shy. They, along with pastel coral gardens, shipwrecks and beaches with powder-soft sand, are one of the main reasons visitors flock here. Forty kilometres east of Bali – or 15 minutes by boat from Lombok – these three coral isles are surrounded by dreamy aquamarine water. Each has its own vibe but all offer, essentially, varying states of relaxation. Originally settled by Sasak and Bugis farmers who planted coconut groves, the islands are now popular with backpackers, families and expats in search of an escapist paradise.

Two local Gili boys ride a bike.
The Gili locals are always up for a friendly chat.

Gili Meno is the least developed, offering a chance to play Robinson Crusoe, while Gili Air has a balance of comfortable accommodation and chilled bars. At 6.5 kilometres in circumference, Gili Trawangan is the largest and liveliest, with clubs cranking up nightly near the harbour. It’s here on its most populated east coast that I’m staying. Swaying palms line white sand shores and discreet accommodation ranges from basic to luxury. It’s peaceful save for the occasional call to prayer from a mosque (the Gilis are predominantly Muslim, in contrast with the Balinese who are mostly Hindus) or the jingling bells of a passing horse and cart.

A decree against motorised transport has kept it this way, a kind of enforced simplicity that means people must move about on foot, by bicycle or on colourful horse-driven taxis. It invites a slower pace of life and barefoot culture rules. “No shoes, no shirt, no problem,” assures the sign upon entry at Scallywags Organic Seafood Bar & Grill opens in new window on Gili Trawangan’s southern shore.

The three islands invite visitors to unwind and lose days to the lure of a sun lounge and the gentle lapping of the Lombok Strait but I resist. I’m here to slip beneath the surface, to see a world far removed from the terrestrial one. I thrive on experiencing things I haven’t encountered before and my moment with a green turtle is one of them. Such glimpses expand my perspective and show me a world beyond the one my human brain is familiar with.

A school of fish swims among the corals in the Gili Islands, Indonesia.
Get up close and personal with the sea creatures of the Gili Islands.

In Turtle Heaven, it doesn’t take long for another resident to raise its bulk slightly on two flippers and I see that it has been sitting on a smug-looking octopus. A game of peekaboo ensues as the slippery character retreats and rises again from under the turtle’s shell – it’s another moment that fills me with the exhilaration of discovery and leaves me in awe of the wonders of nature.

“We are very proud of our turtles,” says John Rahasia, manager at Laguna Gili Dive Center. The islands are a nesting site and John explains that the combined efforts of dive shops and the local community have helped protect nests and ensure as many eggs as possible hatch. “When divers join Laguna Gili they sign an agreement not to touch or harass marine life or collect shells,” says John. He understands that divers expect ethical and responsible diving and environmental practices. Dive shops collect donations for Gili Eco Trust, which was founded to protect reefs from destructive fishing practices and has expanded its activities to waste management and sustainable eco tourism.

A sea turtle at the Gili Islands, Indonesia.
The turtles of the Gili Islands are curious and unafraid!

With two morning dives complete, my afternoons are free to relax or explore the narrow backstreets. I wander the dirt roads of Gili Trawangan, past private homes and the odd tiny shop, engaging with locals more interested in a friendly chat than making a sale.

The underwater quest continues at Kecinan Bay on Lombok’s north-west coast the next day. Amongst the rubble and tufts of sea grass hide wondrous creatures: thorny seahorses hovering with tiny dorsal fins fluttering to a blur and brilliant blue ribbon eels. A basketball-sized blob hangs upside down, stumpy back “legs” outstretched between two mooring ropes. I wouldn’t have spotted it if it weren’t for my dive buddy’s beckoning. “Ah yes, the giant frogfish,” he tells me when we resurface later. Missing a swim bladder, they use modified pectoral fins to walk over the sea floor and my inner treasure hunter is elated when I later spot one in action.

Good snorkelling can be found directly offshore (on Gili Trawangan, the north-west coast is best) and other spots can be reached by boat. One site off Gili Meno is literally a work of art. Nest is the creation of British sculptor Jason deCaires Taylor, a ring of 15 life-sized couples, with solitary figures curled on the seabed at a depth of four metres.

A woman snorkels off Gili Trawangan in the Gili Islands.
Gili Trawangan is a must-visit spot for amazing snorkelling.

For those ready to go deeper, Gili Trawangan is the ideal place to learn to dive. The water hovers at a welcoming 27-29°C and there are around 26 dive shops, some with truly state-of-the-art facilities. Laguna Gili’s 4.5-metre-deep training pool makes practice descents easy.

The Gili Islands’ 30 dive sites are all easily accessible and cover a multitude of terrain. Deep Turbo, north east of Gili Trawangan, reveals swathes of intricate red sea fans and coral whips, while white tip reef sharks cruise Shark Point off its west coast. The Bounty – a sunken pontoon off Gili Meno – lies at 20 metres, encrusted with coral and teeming with fish life.

At the end of day four, I rinse the salt from my body for the last time and choose from the many restaurants, illuminated by fairy lights strung between sprawling kapok trees, that spill onto the beach. Toes buried in the sand, I scribble notes in my dive log, recording the odd, unforgettable and magical things I’ve seen.

No matter how widely travelled we are, there are always new frontiers to explore, new discoveries to make and it’s the lure of what I might find that keeps me sinking below the surface time and again. It seems that hand-painted map I studied on my first day on Gili Trawangan was a treasure map after all.