The Diva and the Deep Blue Sea

In the faraway crystal-clear waters off Indonesia, LAUREN WEISBERGER learns how to dive with style.

It took all of ten minutes to walk from Amanwana resort's main pavilion to my air-conditioned tent, unpack my bags, check my BlackBerry (no signal), and then...nothing. No agenda, no itinerary, no appointments, no scheduled meals, not one single episode of Entourage saved up on TiVo. It was a thoroughly bizarre feeling. So after pacing around and exploring my patch of private Indonesian beach, I bolted to the dive center—a breezy pavilion with every imaginable scuba accessory, comfy couches, and a rotating crew of barefoot instructors with wet suits unzipped to the waist, half of them Indonesians and the other half Brits. Among the diving cognoscenti, the reefs in the Flores Sea in central Indonesia are considered some of the most beautiful and biologically diverse in the world: the holy grail, paradise found. And I was here to dive—or rather, to learn how to dive.

Hi," I said to the first person I saw. "Am I supposed to be doing anything?"

Yoyok, one of the instructors, gazed at me and grinned. "Whenever you're ready," he said. "But don't you want some lunch before we start? A swim? Take some sun?"

Well, that didn't sound much like the stressful, instruction-packed, text-heavy lessons I had imagined. And what about the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) Open Water Diver certification course? For as long as I can remember I'd wanted to learn to dive, but alas, it had never happened. There were the requisite snorkeling sessions in my younger years—where I discovered I hated that bobbing-prey sensation—and a misguided semi-, sort-of dive lesson in Puerto Rico with an enormous instructor named Pucci, who didn't believe in learning "all the skills" PADI recommended. I had once signed up for certification in Santa Monica, only to quickly cancel after hearing of a nearby shark attack. There was even a dive story planned for this publication that would have centered around a certification trip to the Maldives had the plane not been scheduled to depart New York on Tuesday, September 11, 2001. Finally it was going to happen.

Or so I hoped. The trip was grueling despite the legendary Singapore Airlines pampering: I had flown 19 hours from Newark to Singapore, staggered through a four-hour layover, flew another three hours from Singapore to Bali, and barely even remember the jet-lagged night I spent at Amanusa, yet another of Aman's five luxury Indonesian resorts, just 20 minutes or so from Bali's Denpasar Airport. I wasn't sure I could handle a third flight, but at nine the next morning I was belted into the eight-seat floatplane that would take me from Bali to Moyo Island, a nature reserve on the westernmost ridge of the Nusa Tenggara archipelago that runs from Lombok all the way to Timor. We flew over the active Mount Rinjani volcano and past Sumbawa Island. About an hour later we splashed down on a lake-calm ocean and water-taxied directly to Amanwana's jetty. The plan was to spend four days acclimating at the jungle resort and getting certified. After that, I could use my new skills on a five-day diving cruise to Komodo Island.

It sounded like the perfect work-and-reward program in which I would race to master five full videos, hundreds of pages of quasiscientific literature, four open-water dives of progressively greater depths, and dozens of underwater skills, then get to dive some of the most fertile reefs on earth. Only no one was racing to do much of anything.

Yoyok watched me try to process all this laid-backness. "No problem," he crooned. "Time to chill out, too. Come back whenever you want and we'll do a fun dive."

"Let's go now," I said. More time to waver was going to benefit neither of us. So we headed down to the water's edge, where all of our equipment was already laid out in neat rows on the dock."No sharks, right?" I asked, trying to sound casual. Yoyok laughed and demonstrated the underwater hand signal for "shark," made by placing the thumb vertically along your nose, all five fingers pressed together, like a fin. It was the most sinister gesture I'd ever witnessed. "No need to use," he said. "No sharks here." Then why, I wondered, the special shark sign?

The first dive, intended simply as an introduction to the water, was a revelation. Just past Amanwana's jettied sundeck and white-sand beach is the Sea Wall, a reef with a vertical face descending 120 feet and rife with the type of gorgonian fans divers spend a lifetime seeking. When Yoyok handed me a brownish-green echinoderm (essentially a starfish with no arms), I recoiled. But its spongy, Tempur-Pedic-like texture was more familiar than I had expected. He showed me how to stroke the purple sea anemone so that the tangerine-colored clown fish would swim into our hands and pointed out a starfish so blue only a J. Crew catalogue could accurately describe it.

When our tanks finally ran low, Yoyok had to drag me to the surface. Everything had gone so brilliantly on my very first dive that I decided then and there it was my calling. The breathing, the swimming, the communing with marine life had all come so easily—I was a natural.

Day two involved a dive packed with much more information and, as a result, a need to rethink the previous day's "I was born with this talent" mentality. After a breakfast of French toast topped with sweet mangosteen served on the porch of my rather posh tent, I cruised over to the dive shop like I owned the place. Yoyok instructed me on the proper names and usage of the equipment, and we practiced dry runs of mask clearing, buoyancy control, and dealing with runaway regulators. I watched intently as he demonstrated an entire sign language, one in which TI could communicate everything from "I'm okay" to "No air, can't breathe, give me some of yours." The only thing I was unprepared for was the stress of processing it all while actually in the water.

Then came the real dive. I shimmied into my wet suit and scanned my tank and regulator with an intensity usually reserved for the sale table at Saks. As the air released from my buoyancy-control vest and I sank in Yoyok's wake, I wondered with amazement how I could ever have been stressed about something so easy. It was not until we hit the sand that I had a sudden and unexpected realization: I was sitting on the ocean floor with 38 feet of water overhead, depending on a machine for oxygen. Was the tank's O-ring airtight? Was my mask leaking? What was the sign for "low air"?

In that moment, it all seemed so fundamentally, undeniably stupid that I began to choke. Yoyok turned to me and gave the me the "Okay?" sign with his thumb and forefinger. I forgot how to sign back, instead emphatically shaking my head no. I was headed straight for the surface with no thought to safety or protocol when I felt a hand clamp firmly on my shoulder. Yoyok pantomimed breathing slowly, until I was calm once more. After that first—and only—panic attack, the certification took on a languid routine. With one-on-one instruction and a daily schedule set entirely to my personal preferences, I had the ultimate in dive luxury: time. Over the next three days I grew comfortable with the absence of TV, DVDs, newspapers, and Internet access (save one ancient laptop in the library so maddeningly slow I often heard other guests swearing at it). Soon meals stretched from 30 minutes to two hours, and I read all 250 pages of the textbook over afternoon tea while reclining on a daybed in the music pavilion.

When the other—and quite experienced—divers at the resort heard I was learning to dive here, they shook their heads and laughed. "You're spoiled for life," muttered an otherwise rather reserved gentleman. One woman, who claimed to have dived every major ocean and sea, told me the warm, coral-rich waters of Indonesia were the only ones she visited annually. Her eyes widened when I told her I was just learning, that I had never been underwater anywhere else. "Once you dive here," she said, "there is no anywhere else." It wasn't until I had passed my final exam and held my brand-new PADI Open Water Diver card that I understood what she meant. Learning to dive at Amanwana is a little like being taught to serve by Pete Sampras: overkill, to be sure, but truly fabulous.

The Ikan Gurami is a funny little boat. She doesn't look like much from the outside, especially when she's anchored near the superyachts that cruise past her from Sydney on their way to all the usual hot spots. Compared with her alter ego, the Silolona—Aman's grander and more glamorous cruiser—the Gurami appears almost bereft (see "Raising the Gurami"). Still, we enjoyed the 89-foot-long floating Aman, with its two cabins featuring king-size beds, wide-screen TVs, and private cushioned balconies.

Immediately after boarding, we began to cruise through the Nusa Tenggara to Satonda Island, where we'd have our first dive and the chance to explore its mysterious crater lake. Our ultimate destination was Komodo Island National Park, an archipelago situated 250 miles east of Bali. Home of the dragon, yes, but also a stretch of islands set among pristine virgin coral, whales, and manta rays. Anie, the diving instructor who accompanied us, began to excitedly recount her whale-shark spotting the last time she'd dived this area. "All of a sudden, my light was cut in half. I looked up and it was right there, just overhead. It was at least seven meters long!"

Everyone was enraptured. I'd been reassured countless times that with the exception of small white-tip reef sharks, sightings in these waters were rare; since shark fins are a delicacy in China and fetch a premium price, the Flores Sea had been virtually depleted. I read all about—and made peace with—the seemingly endless marine dangers, including jellyfish, stingrays, and water snakes, but the shark possibility was persistently unnerving.

After the first night of seas so rough I had to cling to the bed to avoid being thrown, we settled easily onto the Gurami—so comfortably, in fact, that the days at sea grew or a little fuzzy around the edges. We dived and trekked and sunned by day; nights were a relaxed flow of cocktails, followed by an early dinner of freshly caught reef fish and caramelized banana with sticky-rice pudding. The crew of seven (including a chef, a captain, and a cruise director) knew how to vanish and reappear at all the right times. They serviced the boat and prepared the meals, but they also carried our water bottles on volcano treks, introduced us to village elders, carried heavy scuba tanks, rinsed and maintained the dive gear, defogged our masks, chauffeured us by dinghy to and from dive sites, and welcomed us back to the Gurami with glasses of watermelon juice, plates of pineapple and jackfruit, and icy cold towels for desalting face and hands. Beyond the underwater panorama we explored each day, diving Aman-style was, in a word, effortless. I would simply announce that I'd like to have a look around and within minutes the dinghy was prepared, the equipment the instructor suited up. My only responsibility was donning my wet suit, and the crew often assisted with that, too.

During the first four days at sea, we dived in Satonda and Banta and charming nameless reefs in the Gili Islands. When we reached Komodo national park, its hot, arid, unbeautiful terrain felt anticlimactic coming on the heels of our colorful days at sea. We saw none of the dragons on Komodo, and while we had better luck spotting them at Rinca island, they were not half as interesting to watch as the swaying kelp forests of the deep.

When I finally did see a shark, I spotted it all on my own, probably 12 feet in the distance. We'd gone diving that morning as an afterthought, one last mini excursion before beginning the trip back to New York. In my ten days of diving I had seen a dozen sea turtles, an entire school of manta rays, and enough dangerous stonefish, barracuda, crocodile fish, and fire coral to warrant bragging rights. I had been stung by plankton on nearly every square inch of flesh that wasn't covered in neoprene. I had 17 dives under my belt, a total of 500 ten minutes underwater, and was feeling so confident that I had to look twice when the silver fish darted by...and it had a fin. I grabbed Yoyok's tank and pointed frantically, but he just stared at me. Then I remembered the universal shark sign. I placed my hand perpendicular to my forehead and looked at Yoyok, whose eyes immediately widened in appreciation. He held his own hand up for a high five as I memorized the shark's physical characteristics for later identification. So what if it was only slightly larger than my overgroomed Maltese, or that it probably would have fit in her tote bag? Who needed to know that I saw creatures significantly more terrifying on the subway every day? I had seen a real, live open-water shark. My beginner's dive logbook was complete.


RAISING THE GURAMI

The history of Amanwana's newest Komodo Island cruiser, Ikan Gurami, is a nautical Cinderella story. She was abandoned once, having sunk in Sumbawa's port after 26 years of hauling cattle, wood, and rice. In 1996, Amanwana's British-born general manager, Ian White, hired a local dive team to recover the old cargo boat because, as he explains it, "she has soul! And a charm way beyond what we could create from new." So began years of restoration: engine upgrade, main-cabin design, swapping the cheap wood for rich teak, and ensuring that every square inch was hand-sanded by one of 20-plus carpenters. The result is a superluxe charter that cruises the Nusa Tenggara island chain in search of the infamous Komodo dragons.

AMANWANA From $650 to $750 per night; Komodo Expedition, $2,250 a night for a four- to five-night trip. Moyo Island, West Sumbawa Regency, Indonesia; 800-477-9180; www.amanresorts.com. AMANWANA From $650 to $750 per night; Komodo Expedition, $2,250 a night for a four- to five-night trip. Moyo Island, West Sumbawa Regency, Indonesia; 800-477-9180; www.amanresorts.com.

LAUREN WEISBERGER'S LATEST NOVEL IS EVERYONE WORTH KNOWING, PUBLISHED BY SIMON & SCHUSTER.

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