This is the second post in my three-part series on how NOT to have a diving trip. Malapascua 2013 was very nearly a complete wash-out, but one last dive saved the trip. One year later, on another solo travel escapade, I was not so lucky …
Disaster trip no. 2: Brunei, September 2014
The plan: A mini-break with four days of diving in Brunei. I was keen to check out an off-the-beaten-track dive destination, and especially, to see the four big Labuan wrecks and do some photography.
What actually happened: Things got off to a bad start when, prior to my arrival, the dive shop told me that two of the famous wrecks were currently out of bounds. This was due to border restrictions (they are on the border with Malaysia) and the Malaysian coastguard no longer tolerating Bruneian dive boats. Oh well, I thought, there are a couple of other wrecks in the area — there would still be plenty to see … famous last words!
Day One in Brunei, and I and a couple of local divers were all kitted up and ready to dive. As the speedboat powered past the breakwater, the sea turned the colour of milk tea and the waves were heaving. There was no question about it — we had to turn back. No diving on that day. Same story on Day Two, only they didn’t even bother getting the boat out — the waves were even bigger. I was stuck on my own for two days in a sleepy suburb in a tiny, unexciting little kingdom with nothing to do!
Day Three was announced to be diveable. As the boat headed out in the morning however, we were stopped by the Brunei Marine Police — the bay was out of bounds until noon for military exercises. We passed a couple of hours back at the pier debating whether there were crocodiles in the muddy water (apparently there are, sometimes. Makes hopping in to take a pee an adventure in itself — will I come back out with all my limbs?). We finally got underway in the afternoon, and after ten minutes the speedboat engine sputtered out. Some frantic tweaking on the part of the boat crew ensued, we lurched forth for about five minutes, then it died again. And again a third time. The incredible thing is, after an hour of this rigmarole we did actually reach a dive site! But by that time, I was vomiting over the edge of the boat. And I don’t get seasick easily.
It defies belief that we actually managed to do two dives that day: the ‘Australian’ and ‘American’ wrecks. Visibility was the kind that makes average conditions in Hong Kong seem like a mountain spring, i.e. it was measurable in centimetres. On top of that, there was a ripping current — just going down on the mooring line was a bit hairy. The other guest diver, Yuka from Japan, shredded her shin on one of the wrecks. (She then lost her divemaster and promptly shot to the surface — but that’s another story). All we could do was inch along sheltered flank of the wrecks for a bit, experiencing them like the blind men with the elephant. So yes, I’ve dived these two big historical wrecks but can’t really say I’ve seen them. All in all, quite character-building!WWII commemoration wreath laid at the ‘American Wreck’ — I needed to get inches away to see what it actually was.
Day Four, the sea was calmer but the visibility was still terrible. A dive to a small wreck at 20m plunged us into nearly pitch darkness and the divemaster and Yuka were completely ill-equipped. I gave Yuka my back-up torch and led the dive, constantly checking they were following. Yuka opted out of a later dive at a shallower reef site that afternoon (unsurprisingly) so I led that too, and the divemaster followed me around whilst I attempted to take pictures. It was a bit like doing a night dive in Hong Kong on a bad day, only at 4pm and with slightly more soft corals. I felt quite at home!
Worst part: all of the above, with a special emphasis on Day Three. The frustrating thing was that I glimpsed a lot of interesting marine life and I could tell that had the visibility been even just a few mediocre metres, it would have been enough to make these dive sites really cool. I’m not a fussy diver and I’m used to less than perfect conditions but near zero vis on every dive is not what I go on holiday for. With only five dives out of a possible 12, this trip was a total disappointment!
The upside: I’m not sure there was one! Though I am thankful to the friendly Bruneian diver who took pity on me on the first day and drove me around the capital city to see the sights (this took approximately 30 minutes) and then took me to a cafe with his friends (this is where trendy Bruneian hang out. Did I mention it’s a dry country?)
It could have been worse (if that’s possible): Nitrox is provided as standard at the dive shop I used, since the sites are deep-ish for recreational dives. However, when I asked to analyse my tank on Day One, the staff looked at me like I was a fussy customer. They then had to unload my tank from the boat which was already on a trailer attached to the back of a van (this is the normal procedure: the boats are carted out to the water every day and then back again). I didn’t insist on the subsequent days, feeling I’d inconvenienced them so much the first time, and at no point was I asked to analyse my tank. I know I should have been more pushy, as human error can happen. This was poor practice on the part of the dive shop.
Lesson learned: Again, autumn is probably not the best time for dive travel in South East Asia. I suspect Brunei is a place that’s quite good for diving if you live there, but as an international dive destination, doesn’t really work: the sites are all out in the open sea and very exposed, there is no alternative, sheltered dive site for when the weather is rough. And on land, there’s not an awful lot to do! The verdict:
Next: my third and latest diving disaster! Think you can’t get seasick in the sea without actually being on a boat? Think again!
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