Diving at the Edge: Gapang Bay in Aceh, Indonesia

SCUBA diving can offer fantastic underwater adventures, but like any popular activity, it can become over-commercialized. This often happens at popular dive sites. Instead of enjoying a unique, new experience, divers are sometimes shuttled through a process that is better at getting money out of their wallets than giving them an unforgettable underwater experience.

But if you look around you can find offbeat locations with spectacular diving at a reasonable cost, where the service is great and the diving community is a lot of fun. One of these places is Gapang Bay on Pulau Weh, a small island off the northern tip of Sumatra, Indonesia.

Getting off the beaten path

Decades of civil conflict in Aceh kept the region cut off from the rest of the world. Although Aceh has been peaceful since the devastating 2004 tsunami, Gapang Bay remains undeveloped, with few modern facilities that many tourists prefer. But there’s a plus side to this: it’s also pristine and unspoiled, ideal for adventure tourists. And because it’s an officially protected area, it should remain that way for some time to come.

Fabulous diving

There are about twenty dive sites around Pulau Weh, mainly in the bay. Most of these are a short boat ride away- no more than 30 minutes, at most. The variety of underwater life is breathtaking, from large creatures such as Hawksbill turtles, black-tipped sharks, Napoleon wrasses, barracudas, and manta rays to small wonders including nudibranches, razor fish, blue ribbon eels, ghost pipefish and many more, all living in a colorful, vibrant coral reef. On any given dive in Gapang Bay, divers are likely to see moray eels and octopuses, and will occasionally see dolphins. On a really good day, they might even see a sunfish.

New divers can become PADI certified, learning in the ocean instead of a sterile swimming pool. With enough time and enthusiasm, they can continue their training and get advanced certification, or even go all the way and become divemasters.

There are also two wrecks, a tugboat and a German freighter scuppered by its own crew at the end of World War II. Night diving from the beach is also spectacular, giving divers a chance to see nocturnal creatures rarely seen in the daytime.

Great company

Because there is no luxury accommodation- most divers stay in simple bungalows that cost about $5.00 per night, often with sporadic electricity and shared toilets- most tourists are true adventurers who are always glad to share their experiences. Divers hang out at the most popular dive shop, Lumba Lumba (which means dolphins in Indonesian) or at one of the cafes. This makes Gapang Bay a great place to meet people and learn about other great dive locations around the world.

Cultural issues

Aceh is an autonomous province of Indonesia which is under Sharia (Islamic) law. Although it’s mild in comparison with countries such as Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan, it is more conservative than other parts of Indonesia. Luckily for the tourists (and possibly because of them), Gapang Bay is nearly a Sharia-free zone. It’s possible to have a beer with dinner or wear a bikini. It is important, however, to be sensitive to local cultural norms. | suite101.com