It’s no exaggeration to say that scuba diving opens up whole new worlds - after all, learning to dive is all about developing the skills required to explore beyond our natural element.
But diving also offers the chance to discover entirely new travel destinations that may otherwise pass under the radar for many holiday makers.
The Gili Islands are the perfect example of this. While they first found fame as part of the backpacker trail in the 1980’s, the subsequent discovery of the island’s fantastic underwater world led to the development of the dive industry that we see today - one that draws visitors from around the world looking for a slice of island life, beautiful beaches and plenty of diving and snorkeling.
Today the Gilis may look rather different from when those first pioneering backpackers arrived but the islands remain one of Asia’s best dive destinations, particularly for those looking to expand their horizons and explore the underwater world for the first time.
Gili means ‘small island’ in Sasak, the local language of Lombok, making the term ‘Gili Islands’ a slight misnomer. There are many Gilis surrounding Lombok, yet the phrase has become synonymous with a trio of islands which lie off it’s north-west coast. These islands, Gili Air, Gili Meno and Gili Trawangan, are well known for their idyllic scenery, chilled vibe and abundance of sea turtles.
However, despite their similarities, each island also has its own unique feel. Gili Trawangan has the beachfront bars and loud music, Gili Meno offers peace and tranquility, and Gili Air is a mixture of the other two with an authentical Indonesian feel.
It is believed that Bugis fishermen discovered the islands up to 200 years ago and frequently used them as a rest stops during sea voyages. Natural fresh water available on Gili Air made it an ideal spot to rest and refuel on long trips. During the second world war, occupying Japanese forces used these islands, both as a strategic lookout-post and prisoner of war camp. The remains of a machine gun bunker on the hill of Gili Trawangan and a sunken patrol boat, in the bay between Gili Air and Lombok, are visible relics of this period.
It wasn’t until the 1970’s, when private companies moved in to establish coconut plantations, that permanent settlement began. Hundreds of inmates from over-crowded prisons in Lombok were sent to join the small farming and fishing communities and help with cultivation. Several poor harvests led to the farms being abandoned and left locals to their own devices.
A decade later, following Bali’s rise in popularity, backpackers began venturing to the Gili Islands searching for a more authentic, untouched Indonesian paradise. Word of the islands’ crystal clear waters, laid-back lifestyle and abundance of sea life quickly spread and thrust the Gilis into the limelight.
Learning to dive in the Gili islands
So what is it that makes these islands so good for learning to dive? Here are our highlights, all of which combine to provide beginners with a fantastic, all round learning experience on the Gilis.
One of the real highlights of the Gilis lies with the islands’ location, or rather, the location of their dive sites. There are 15 or more dive sites dotted around the Gilis, all within 30 minutes of any dive centre. This means that unlike many other destinations where you’ll spend an entire day at sea, most boats in the Gilis will return to their beach between dives.
Imagine making two dives before lunch with a beach-side coffee break in between - well, that’s scuba diving Gili style. Not only can this make for a more relaxing day, it also gives divers flexibility to pick the sites they’d like to visit and work their diving around other activities.
2. Marine life
Indonesia’s central location within the famed Coral Triangle means it is blessed with an incredible variety of marine life, and the Gili islands are certainly no exception. They are probably most famous for their abundance of sea turtles but the attractions don’t stop there. An array of incredible macro life calls these waters home, including pygmy seahorses, frogfish, blue-ringed octopuses and more.
Reef sharks, schools of trevally and stingrays are also common sightings, with a rare but occasional manta ray or whale shark passing through. This fantastic mix means that even experienced divers can enjoy the diving, whilst there is plenty of excitement and interest for beginners.
3. The dive industry
Since the 1990’s, the dive industry on the Gili Islands has grown and grown, into what is possibly the highest concentration of dive centres and resorts in Indonesia.
Beginners can choose from a huge range of dive centres to complete their Open Water course or get some extra dives under their weight belts, or more experienced divers can train to be dive professionals during one of the many Instructor Development Courses. And as well as PADI and SSI courses, you can complete TDI tech diving courses with some of the leading tech diving pioneers in Asia.
In general, conditions in the Gilis make for easy diving and are perfect for learners or those who are newly certified. The water temperature around the islands sits pleasantly at around 28° or 29° for large parts of the year and can creep above 30° from time to time. A 2mm ‘shorty’ wetsuit is plenty of protection from these temperatures, but don’t be surprised if you see people diving in even less. Board shorts and a rash guard can be enough for some.
A long, rolling boat ride over rough seas can often be enough to put more experienced divers off the task in hand, let alone beginners. The sickness and discomfort brought on by a rocky boat journey can increase anxiety and have a negative impact on your diving experience. Luckily, the sea conditions around the Gili Islands are mild at worst and mirror-like at best. Considering the short journey times, and incredible views of Mount Rinjani to the east and Mount Agung to the west, these boat rides can be almost as enjoyable as the dive itself.
The Indonesian Throughflow, where water passes from the Pacific Ocean to the Indian Ocean, means that diving in this country can involve currents, and strong ones at that. In fact, it is often because of these strong currents that you can find such a variety of vibrant marine life throughout Indonesia. However, compared to other parts of the archipelago, the currents in the Gilis are considered mild and dive operators here are happy to accommodate all experience levels. Drift dive techniques are generally used throughout the dive sites, meaning divers simply float with the current and are collected by the boat after surfacing.
Life in the Gilis is slow, with plenty of relaxing activities and no motorised transport. The beauty of these islands is that, despite their close proximity, each has its own unique personality. This means holiday makers can choose the island that best suits their needs and desires.
A single traveller looking to meet people and a young family looking for some quiet time can both enjoy this destination equally. Expect traditional Indonesian mixed with West Indian island vibes and beautiful boutique settings.
For obvious reasons, destinations that are built purely around scuba diving can be intimidating to first-timers or those with limited diving experience. However, the Gili Islands boast a variety of activities beyond diving, such as yoga classes, relaxing spas, snorkelling, sub-winging and stand-up paddle boarding. The array of pastimes on offer makes this an attractive holiday destination for everybody.
The best of both worlds!
The Gili Islands provide leisurely diving in near perfect conditions, making them an ideal location for learning to scuba dive.
Many of the anxieties typically felt by inexperienced divers are greatly reduced in the calm and relaxed atmosphere, both in and out of the water, while perfect practice training sites ensure students get the most out of their course. For anybody looking to dip their toes into the world of scuba diving, the Gili Islands should definitely be high on the list. With amazing sea life, calm conditions and paradise settings, these islands really are the best of both worlds.