Learn to Dive on the Cheap in Pulah Weh

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Imagine being inside a snow globe, only instead of snowflakes swirling around you, it’s hundreds of multi-colored fish. That’s what it’s like to dive in the tropics, and no matter how many times you do it, you’ll never cease to be amazed. And there’s no better or more affordable place on earth to learn than Pulau Weh, which is a pristine island on the northern tip of Sumatra, Indonesia with aquarium-like clear water and an eye-popping concentration of marine life. Best yet: very few adventurers know about this little gem of an island and the underwater treasures in its protected marine reserve, so it’s blissfully laid back and virtually devoid of tourists – you can practically have it all to yourself.

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It’s been a number of years since John and I took a plunge into the deep blue sea and we’d lost our dive cards, so we decided to get PADI certified again. After making myself nuts looking for deals online for days on end, I discovered that the dive centers on Pulau Weh offer the cheapest diving certification courses in the world. And these are reputable PADI outfits, so rest assured that the instruction and gear are high quality and safe. Get this: it only cost us $280USD per person, and they threw in a free extra dive after we were certified! Scoring a bargain this good – especially when you know your friends have paid 2-3 times more to learn in a boring pool – is kinda like peeing in your wetsuit: you get a really warm feeling and it’s your little secret. 🙂

If you’re already certified, or want to tack on additional dives, the per-dive cost is a measly $12USD – truly unbelievable. And with extremely affordable over-the-water bungalow accommodations ($35-43USD/night), as well as damn-near free food, plus super cheap flights and ferry rides, you can have a world-class adventure and learn to dive for less than the cost of a new mobile phone.

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I mean seriously, look at that water! This is at the Iboih Inn – we stayed in one of those cute little bungalows, which have to be some of the lowest cost over-the-water bungalows on earth.

It takes 3-4 days to learn to dive and get certified, and lucky for you, it’s on-the-job training. You’ll get to check out spectacularly colorful fish while learning how to clear your mask underwater, practice breathing calmly underwater (and not swallow your regulator) while getting stared down by curious eels, and discover how to equalize your ears while seeing gorgeously healthy coral gardens and freaky little nudibranchs (which are essentially psychedelic sea caterpillars).

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Many of the practice dives are at the beautiful and calm Rubiah Sea Garden, which make for easy, relaxing, safe experiences underwater. And man, the marine life is just off the charts – we saw thousands of blue and black triggerfish, octopi, lionfish, dozens of eels, black-tip reef sharks (don’t worry, they’re harmless) and rainbow-colored parrotfish. There are also plenty of places to dive with turtles, dolphins, manta rays and even the occasional whale shark. And on our dive at the Batee Takong site, we saw gigantic man-sized clams, 5-foot-long sweet-lipped fish (that looked like a gill-bearing version of a pouty-faced Kardashian), waving sea fans, blue coral, lobsters, big-ass tunas and soft fingered anemone with Nemo darting out to say hi. Here’s a great little video to give you a feel for what it’s like to dive in Pulau Weh’s waters:

John and I have dived a number of sites around the world, and Pulau Weh utterly blew us away. It’s a truly fantastic place to get certified, and an amazing location to enjoy some the most spectacular wonders of the underwater world. Happy diving!

Getting there:

You’ve got two options:

  1. Fly into Banda Aceh, Indonesia and catch one of the twice-daily high speed ferries to Sabang, Pulau Weh (1 hour). There are also slower ferries that run a few times per day.
  2. Fly to Medan, Indonesia, and then fly directly into Sabang, Pulau Weh.

You can find ferry schedules and flight options here.

Note that there aren’t many taxis in Sabang, so you should ask your hotel to arrange transport. It’s about a 45 minute drive from the port and airport to Iboih, which is where most divers stay.

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Where to stay:

The best place stay is in the tiny town of Iboih, which sits right beside the marine reserve and a large forest reserve – the highest concentration of dive sites are right next to the town. There really aren’t any fancy places to stay on the whole of Pulau Weh, but you’ll find a few simple, clean, comfortable and very affordable places in Iboih.

My favorite is the Iboih Inn – the location is absolutely stunning and the owners (Lisa and Mohktar) and staff are truly wonderful, welcoming and helpful people. They’ll arrange all your car and boat transfers from Banda Aceh to the hotel, and can hook you up with dive operators, too.

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You’re going to want to log some time on the spectacular deck of the Iboih Inn.

At the hotel’s restaurant deck, you can perfect your “sit-down-snorkeling” while relaxing on beanbags – just look down into the transparent water below and you’ll see fish in every color of the rainbow, turtles and maybe even a monkey swimming around. Each bungalow has its own balcony and hammock, drinking water tanks, air conditioning and mosquito nets, and there’s plenty of hot water in the shower. And the views from the over-the-water bungalows are incredible.

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And you’re definitely going to want to log some time on the hammock on your balcony of your bungalow at the Iboih Inn.

And as an extra bonus, if you love primates and want an experience of a lifetime, you might just get the chance to swim with a monkey that the owners of the hotel rescued. His name is Hansi, and yes, I am in love with him! They rescued him when he was a baby and was left for dead in Sabang, tied to a tree by some jerk; Lisa and Mohktar have kindly cared for him ever since. Note: he’s not a pet – primates are never pets – he’s got teeth and greets people by gnawing on them, so they keep him out of arms reach of guests. He needs exercise and loves to swim, and since I have a fair bit of experience rehabilitating rescued primates and have no problem being gnawed on or closely inspected for fleas by tiny monkey fingers, I had the rare pleasure of taking Hansi out for daily dips. Hansi can hold his breath longer than most people can, and he’s a damn good swimmer!  Lisa is actively looking for a rehabilitation and release program for Hansi, so he may not be there much longer, but if you get to meet him, be sure to bring him a dog toy to make his day, or maybe take him out for a swim (if you don’t mind being a giant monkey chew-toy).

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My simian soulmate: Hansi, the pigtail macaque monkey.

Other hotel choices in Iboih include: Eric’s Green House, Yulia Bungalow and Treetop.

Diving FAQs:

What’s the best time of year to dive in Pulau Weh?

Diving happens year-round on the island. The highest visibility is during the dry season, which is usually from April through November, but it’s getting harder to predict the seasons since global warming is messing up weather patterns. We went during the wet season and the diving was still spectacular. 

Can I dive with contacts?

Yep. Your eyeballs will never come in contact with water. During certification class, the first thing you learn is how to clear your mask of water, which is incredibly easy to do, and you do it with your eyes closed.

How sporty do I need to be to dive?

Not at all. I’ve seen divers power through a pack of cigarettes, huff and puff on a 2-minute walk down the beach and then dive for 45 minutes without a problem. You just need to be able to handle having a heavy tank on your back when you’re on land or in the boat.

If the water’s warm, will I need a wetsuit?

The surface temperature in the waters of Pulau Weh is gorgeous – you can comfortably swim in it with just your bathing suit for an hour. But it gets cooler as you descend, and you’re not moving a lot, so wearing a wetsuit will keep you from developing headlights.

Will eels eat me?

Probably not, unless you’re a total douchebag and poke them, in which case, you might deserve to be eaten.

Is the training material filled with 1990s models laughing like crazy people?

Oh hell yes. While there’s lots of extremely useful info in the workbooks, you’ll also get to learn stunningly dorky phrases to help you remember dive checklists, like “Begin With Review and Friend” and enjoy plenty of photos of people looking positively out-of-their-minds with excitement while reading dive charts.

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What to bring to get certified:

All you need is your bathing suit. The dive shops will supply you with everything you’ll need for your dives.

Women travelers:

Pulau Weh is a part of Aceh providence, which is governed by Sharia law. So women are supposed to wear modest clothing that covers their arms and legs, and head scarves (aka tudongs or hijabs). But foreign female travelers pretty much get a pass, especially if you speak a few words of Bahasa Indonesia – locals absolutely love hearing westerners speak their language. I felt comfortable wearing sundresses around the island. You don’t have to wear long sleeves or a tudong, but showing a little respect for local customs goes a long way, so perhaps consider leaving your booty-shorts and low-cut tops at home and bring a scarf to drape over your shoulders.

Good to know:

There are two ATM machines in the town of Iboih.

Some – but not all – of the hotels take credit card but charge a 2-3% fee. For your meals, which are very inexpensive, you’ll need to pay in cash.

If you’re flying through Banda Aceh, be sure to consult the ferry schedule to coordinate your boat ride and your flight time. If you’re catching a morning flight out of Aceh, you will likely need to arrive the night before since the first boat from Pulau Weh doesn’t arrive until mid-morning.

Dive operators:

Rubiah Tirta Divers

This is the outfit through which we got certified and did all our dives. Our instructor, Andy, was great, and the gear was in good working order (although some of the wetsuits have seen better days). Our only issues were: 1. Their seating area out front is always filled with chain-smokers, which is annoying if you hate second hand smoke, and especially irritating if smoke stuffs up your sinuses, which is no good before a dive. 2. They’re a bit disorganized. They’d say “come at 10am” but then you arrive to find that your instructor is out on a dive and you have to sit around in a cloud of smoke for an hour. Other than those little gripes, we had a great time with them.

They’ve got a few boats, including some big ones that can handle choppy waters, which is really nice.

Monster Divers

These small operators are a favorite among many divers, but note that they only have a tiny boat, so they often can’t hit some of the big dive sites, like the Canyon and Batee Takong, when the seas are anything other than glassy.

Iboih Dive Centre

Also located in Iboih, this is another solid outfit.

Lumba Lumba Dive Center

These guys are in Gapang, which is a little ways outside of Iboih. I didn’t visit them since we stuck to Iboih, but I’ve heard really great things about them from friends.

Have a fantastic trip! 🙂

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