Turquoise meets sapphire where the shallow waters off the coast of Gili Trawangan become deep. The white sand burns your feet and the sea seems to glow, reflecting the bright hot sun through crystal clear waters.
Waters so crystal clear, in fact, that I saw a sea snake the first time I went for a swim.
Black and white-striped, the sea snake lurked amongst the coral. It’s candy-cane colouring belying its no-doubt deadly intent.
It was only a fleeting glimpse of one of the most venomous creatures on the planet but it was enough for this fearful traveller. I darted away – too shocked and scared to utter a word until I was back on dry land.
The banded sea krait, as I found out later, is indeed extremely venomous and fairly common in Indonesian waters, particularly around the Gili Islands. It rarely bites humans unless provoked and even then fatalities are rare.
You see, the banded sea krait suffers from what I like to call daddy longlegs syndrome. You know the urban myth that these long-legged insects are actually highly venomous but don’t have the fangs necessary to cause any harm? Well, apparently the sea krait has a similar problem: short fangs.
Deadly sea snakes aside, Gili Trawangan is not a good island for swimming. Coral surrounds the island, making getting into the water without footwear painful, particularly at low tide. There’s a small area just north of the jetty where it’s not so bad – but it’s still not ideal during low tide.
Nevertheless, Trawangan is a great place to snorkel due to the fact that the same coral that hurts your feet is also a feeding ground for fish and all manner of other sea creatures. Snorkel gear is cheap to hire – available at a street-side stall near you! – and the island’s crystal-clear waters means visibility is good.
So good, in fact, that on my second time snorkelling I saw an almighty fish on the edge of my peripheral vision.
“What the hell is that?” I thought, as I swam rapidly towards it.
As I neared this incredibly fat-looking fish it dawned on me. This was no fish; this was a turtle.
I threw my head out of the water, glancing back to shore and then all around, looking for someone to verify what I was seeing, looking for someone – anyone – to tell me my eyes were not playing tricks on me.
It wasn’t the bends because I wasn’t deep enough and I certainly wasn’t drunk because I’d yet to drink my first Bintang of the day. It was a turtle.
I followed it for five minutes, watching closely as it moseyed along like an old man in a supermarket. It moved starboard, I moved starboard; it moved closer to shore, I also moved closer to shore.
No more than 10 meters away I saw another snorkeller heading out from shore, so I swam over and told them about the turtle – it just seemed like the right thing to do – and then for the next 10-15minutes we swam on either sides of the turtle.
I was struck by how clumsy the turtle was as it lumbered about awkwardly. Every now and again the current would become too strong for a moment and it would be swept to one side; later it got caught on an anchor rope and I thought I was going to have to help it get free.
It was an incredible experience. When the turtle would go up for air, its head would breach the surface for no more than one second. I can only imagine what a boater would think to see that little head for a second only for it to be gone the next.
Eventually I waved goodbye to the turtle and the best experience I have ever had snorkelling. Seeing first a sea snake and then a turtle on the Indonesian island of Gili Trawangan had to be two of the most life-affirming swims of my life – for very different reasons.
One made me fear for my life; the other made me happy to be alive.