If you’re a certified Scuba diver, you know this scene too well; floating around beside a beautiful underwater wall abundant with vibrant coral, getting up-close and personal with a timid pygmy seahorse, or holding on and feeling the force of a strong current blasting over your face as you watch sharks and schools of barracuda in a feeding frenzy in the open waters above you. The opposite of this scene, however, which most divers won’t experience in their lifetime, is the one I’m sitting in now: under 18 metres of atmospheric pressure in a hot, humid and claustrophobic hyperbaric chamber.
The dangers of diving in Indonesia are not heard about as much as the joys are. Naturally, we try to focus on the positives rather than get bogged down with the negatives, and why worry about getting the infamous ‘Bends’ until you’ve actually got it? Unfortunately, there are dangers to diving in Indonesia, which, if all dive outfits were to practice safe management and responsibility, could be significantly avoided.
I am told through the voice on the intercom inside the chamber to take a five-minute break from the oxygen mask. This is my third, and hopefully, final day inside and when resurfaced from this dry dive, total time spent will have been 12.5 hours under pressure in an attempt to alleviate the nitrogen bubbles which have built up in my body after a dive trip to East Kalimantan. Treatment at Jakarta Navy Hospital’s Hyperbaric Centre consists of an examination by one of the Navy doctors, followed by a certain number of hours in the chamber at the relevant pressure table for your condition, combined with pure oxygen treatment for the most part of your stay.
The most common misconception of decompression sickness is that it occurs when you resurface from a deep depth too quickly. The truth is that you can actually get this painful sickness coming up from a depth of only six metres. Divers put their lives into the hands of their equipment, however my dive computer did not enter a decompression dive alert, and many other divers who ‘got deco’ can vouch for me on this.
Alejandro Septien has been diving for 20 years and has not once had any problems. He is now sitting beside me in the chamber for treatment of Type I DCI. “I don’t understand how this happened,” he tells me. “I always follow the rules!” Alejandro, a Mexican expat and new to Jakarta and Indonesia, was diving around the idyllic island of Bangka, and on this occasion had to rent all his gear from his local dive operator, including a dive computer. “I did all my safety stops, didn’t do any deep dives, and didn’t drink the night before, but a few hours after I had ascended, I started to feel a pain in my back. Initially I thought it was from the strain of carrying the scuba equipment, but after two days when the pain moved to my legs, I knew something was wrong.” In Alex’s case, the gauge of the rented equipment was off, causing him to do his safety stops deeper than planned.
Dr. Padma, the Chief Navy Dr. at the Hyperbaric Medical Centre in Benhil insists that at the first sign of decompression sickness, attention must be given immediately. “There are many factors which can lead towards decompression sickness, including not getting enough sleep, consuming alcohol or being physically tired,” she explains. “If you have any tingling sensations, pain in your body, visual disturbances, vertigo, fatigue, lethargy, or a feeling of confusion, come to our hospital for a consultation immediately.” The sooner you treat symptoms, the more chance you have of fully recovering. After treatment you are also told to rest, drink a minimum of three litres of water a day, not fly for at least 72 hours and, should you live on a high floor in an apartment, take the stairs or go up in the lift very gradually.
If you have insurance with Divers Alert Network (DAN) then your treatment will be fully covered, however for many, decompression sickness can cost thousands of dollars, and more importantly, your life. Rendra Herthiadhi, Banyu Biru Explorer founder and DAN Instructor, believes that a common misconception is that dives within a No Decompression Limit or within dive table range are 100% safe. “This is not the case,” he tells me. “Generally dives conducted within NDL should be safe, but DCS could still happen and hit an unlucky diver.” According to DAN statistics, five people’s lives were lost to diving in Indonesia in 2011, of which bodies were recovered, and at least 39 recreational divers were treated for DCS in Indonesia. “Whilst many of these were for mild cases of DCS, several were of a very serious nature, requiring urgent assistance,” Rendra adds.
In stunning East Kalimantan, our dive operator at Nabucco Island Resort were irresponsible by allowing maverick dive guides to continue to work, even when they were aware of their negligence; escorting tourists down to depths of 40 metres without mentioning this in the pre-dive brief and ascending carelessly without proper safety stops. Regrettably the owners of the dive resort were not willing to take any responsibility for their reckless guides. Although their dive outfit come across as reputable, the results were to the contrary. It is always best to do some reconnaissance work before you plan a dive trip and ask fellow divers for advice on trustworthy dive operators.
Of course we are all responsible for our own actions but naturally, when you are new to an area, you trust your local guide, putting your lives in their hands and following blindly. Adrienne Jo Salcau is a PADI certified Divemaster and guide, and one many have come to trust. “I never take divers past 30 metres unless they’re very, very experienced,” she tells me as we discuss my dives at Nabucco. “First thing is a check dive so I can assess their skills. I don’t bring unfamiliar or inexperienced divers right into current or deep dives. If I’m doing four dives in a day, 30m is the absolute max and should be done first, then each dive should be shallower and I always, always do a safety stop. Being a dive guide involves a lot of things, but the main priority is safety.”
Diving is a wonderful sport and pastime, which brings us closer to the curious wonders of the underwater world and its inhabitants, but we cannot deny the dangers involved and must remember that we are merely guests in the ocean. Allow more time between dives, do fewer dives per trip (it’s not a race), always do safety stops and come up slowly, allow a minimum of 24 hours after your last dive before you fly, and ensure every dive guide provides a proper brief, which you stick to. Don’t allow yourself to become a statistic and may you never have to sit inside this hyperbaric chamber to save your life.
Rumah Sakit TNI AL Dr. Mintohardjo (Jakarta Royal Navy Hospital)
Jl. Bendungan Hilir No. 17, Jakarta.
021 5703081 Ext. 176/326
Direct line to Hyperbaric Medical Centre: 021 5732221
First published in Indonesia Expat, March 27, 2013
Also published in Diver’s Alert Network Deeper Magazine October 2013
There’s a long weekend coming up and you’re trying frantically to book a villa in Bali but it seems everywhere is fully booked. Belitung have no availabilities and you don’t fancy attempting to drive to Bandung or Pelabuhan Ratu for fear it will take you hours and hours to get there. So where are you going to go?
My answer to you is Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. Direct flights from Jakarta to Kota Kinabalu (also known as K.K.) are available and are cheaper than flights to Bali. In two and a half hours you’re in another country and another world and you can enjoy a pedestrianized city with light traffic and fresh air. The attractions in K.K itself are limited to shopping, walking and eating, however it’s what’s just outside of the city that makes the journey to this side of Borneo all the worthwhile.
Our trip was somewhat adventurous, starting with a two-day hike up and down Mount Kinabalu, located in Kinabalu National Park, a two hour drive from K.K. Peaking at 4090.2 metres this is one of the easier mountains of this stature to conquer and a lot of effort has been put into this trail. Starting the ascent at 9am, we hiked through lush rainforest, admiring several miniature waterfalls during the way, and enjoying rest stations equipped with toilet and treated spring water.
The trail to Labuan Rata, the lodge where hikers rest overnight before ascending to the peak, is six kilometres up and we were four clicks in before the inevitable happened to slow us down – the tropical heavens opened and what a downpour it was. One thing every tour operator and website will tell you is to make sure to bring waterproofs and how right they all were. Waterproof trousers is the one thing you need most after a waterproof poncho.
Spotting Labuan Rata was a glorious moment, which meant shelter and rest. This lodge is made up of several unheated dorm-style rooms of various sizes, equipped with bunk beds and showers. Downstairs a large canteen area serves decent buffet meals for the famished trekker. After cleansing, adorning our thermals and eating as much as we could, our weary bodies tried to catch a few hours sleep before waking again at 1.30am for the final push to Low’s Peak to watch the sunrise.
Now this is where the hike gets hard. Leaving at 2.30 am after a light breakfast, head lamps light the way up steep rock-face and there are actually three segments where you have to pull yourself up rope – gloves with a grip come in very handy. It’s a three-hour climb to the bitter-cold finish where the waking sun welcomes you with open arms and the incredible view opens up to you (if it weren’t below freezing I would have stayed for much longer admiring it).
Two hours later and back at the lodge, a big breakfast was thoroughly enjoyed, followed by a short hour’s rest before a four-hour hike down the mountain the same way from which we came. In true rainforest fashion, the heavens opened up again halfway down, but we smiled and enjoyed it knowing that we were on our way back to a warm shower in a warm hotel room and that our feet could soon get some much-deserved rest.
The next day we organized a day trip to visit a small orangutan sanctuary where young rescued orphans were being rehabilitated. At 130 Ringgid each this was a lovely morning out and meant we were free to walk, yes again, around the city in the afternoon. There are many day trips available, which you can book via a tour operator or through your hotel. Orangutan sanctuary trips book up fast so make sure to reserve in advance during high seasons.
Next on our itinerary was diving at the renowned Sipadan Island, one of the word’s top ten dive destinations. Sipadan, in the Celebes Sea, is only half a km in length and 200 metres in width, and was once at the centre of a territorial dispute between Indonesia and Malaysia, with Malaysia being awarded the island by the International Court of Justice on the basis of “effective occupation” in 2002. Jacques Cousteau said, in his film Borneo: The Ghost of the Sea Turtle, “I have seen other places like Sipadan, 45 years ago, but now no more. Now we have found an untouched piece of art.”
Untouched it may have been, but nowadays many boats from neighbouring islands take you to Sipadan and120 divers daily are permitted to dive in its surrounding waters, with a permit fee of 40 Ringgid per person per day. We enjoyed three dives a day and were lucky to gain access to Sipadan for two whole days, enjoying an abundance of sharks – black tip and white tip – Hawkbill turtles, schools of barracuda, schools of jack fish, schools of bumphead parrotfish and an array of other species of fish and macro sea life, including a rare spotting of a Dragon Seamoth which was one of the sweetest creatures I’ve ever seen!
With such a profusion of divers, it is so important to dive responsibly in these waters to lessen the degrading the effect dive tourism has had on its once pristine reefs. We witnessed a diver carelessly diving along the bottom of the ocean, dragging his second regulator across the reef, breaking off bits of coral on his way. As much as we all tried to pull him up and tell him off in sign language, he carried on, which brings me to an important point; learn to dive properly before you attempt underwater photography.