We’re happiest when we’re learning – it’s true. As a relatively novice diver still messing with buoyancy, I’m falling in love more and more with this easter-egg hunt that is scuba diving; where each dive site teaches you something new, and your logbook filling with the most amazing marine creatures you’ve spotted becomes your most talked-about topic on the end-of-day boat ride. During a trip that would push my own dive boundaries by a seemingly nautical mile – one where I would have to fight off a titan triggerfish, and go deeper than I have ever been before – diving really grabbed me by the straps of my BCD, rattled me a little, and showed me how truly incredible our underwater world is.

We were staying on Lombok, an Indonesian island famous with mountain trekkers for its all-seeing deity Gunung Rinjani and amongst explorers for its high jungle waterfalls. I had been recommended by many to dive the surrounding waters of Gili Trawangan, the largest island out of the famous three Gilis – islands that seem to float from the scalp of Lombok like a protruding thought bubble. It’s easy to see why Gili Trawangan attracts agog backpackers and weekend divers the world over – arriving by a local-run bangka, those postcard beaches and gin-clear waters are everything a young international wanderer or nine-to-five work-bound human desires in a getaway. From the boat, gazing down you could clearly see the myriad coral turn the seabed into a kaleidoscope, and with 50-metre visibility, this was going to be a good dive. 

Sometimes a top experience can be born from one spontaneous decision, and during the dive spotting my first-ever whitetip reef shark swimming below a colourful collection of fish that bustled from side to side like the bikers on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City, was evidence of just that. I was lucky, it was the right time, the right moment. There are times, however, when a lack of planning means a trip can go horribly wrong. To reduce the chances of that ever happening, we bring you tips on what to look out for when choosing a dive destination:

Timing

In planning a dive trip, timing is everything. It can determine whether you come face-to-face with a whale shark, or your dive is disrupted by thousands of particles in the water. Diving conditions change by the season, and marine life may come and go in certain months, so researching the best time to dive is crucial to get the best out of your trip.

Getting the best bang for your buck

Money. We unconsciously live it and hate to waste it. Sometimes paying that little extra to secure a top dive experience, and for a matter of your own safety, means that you won’t throw your money away on a less-than-grade-A dive. Before you pay, check out online reviews of the dive site and compare operators side by side (their pricing, reviews, services, etc.) so you don’t end up spending a fortune on a dive that offers very little.

A freediver swims above a whale shark. © FeeFiona, Wikimedia Commons

A freediver swims above a whale shark. © FeeFiona, Wikimedia Commons

How “touristy” it is

We love to explore the untouched, the uncrowded. Because, come on, who likes to be knocking into and fin-slapping each other like a school of groupers, when diving? You want that one-to-one experience with that shy mantis shrimp, or arrogant looking turtle. Again, check reviews before heading out, and talk to people in the area.

Finding a contact in the area

Having someone who knows the destination well, or somebody who can show you around, can often make a trip. It offers a fresh perspective, and can take you to places off the beaten track. Check your Facebook friends list for those who might know, or contact the dive operator with any questions you may have. 

Underwater environment

It’s good practice to research the underwater environment before diving into it. Whether that is to highlight any potential dangers, or for general enjoyment. Knowing the area and the marine creatures that inhabit it means that you can be more aware of your surroundings, and gives a better chance of identifying those rare fish that hide themselves away from the bustling coral city life.

Clownfish hide within an anemone. © Tom Fisk

Clownfish hide within an anemone. © Tom Fisk

Accommodation

Whether you’re used to premier suites or bunkbeds in rooms that sleep 12, it’s good to check out where you’ll be resting your head after diving. Research online into the closest hotels, hostels or resorts and see what services they offer. It pays to book ahead, saving you wandering around in the afternoon heat upon arrival with your carry-on-luggage looking for a place that sleeps two.

Preparation is often key to making a dive trip work. However, in some instances a rash decision can turn into a top experience. It’s down to you whether you wish to play it safe and plan, or dive haphazardly into a trip. After all, it’s your holiday.