Rescue Me: Scuba Adventures in the Perhentian Islands, Malaysia

It is a dreary, wintery day in Colorado. Skeletal stems poke through patchy snow under the pall of grey skies while a chill wind incite drafts in the house. But no mind! I have rediscovered a bottle of “Herbert’s Coconut Oil,” which I bought while traveling last spring. Longing for the tropics, I indulgently spread it through my hair, close my eyes and let the traveling soul in my imagination wander back to Malaysia…

Oh there is so much to recall… the incredible hospitality and delightful company of my friends and hosts; “banana leaf” rice, beef noodle and sublime Japanese cuisine in Kuala Lumpur (KL); coconut-stealing monkey gangs and raucous jungle-birds on Langkawi; and the pretty, history-laden streets of Melaka.

But in this reverie, I am rolling into teal waters bejeweled by the dazzling equatorial sun, waters that held more than a few surprises from cleverly adorned sea slugs to sassy sea cucumbers and scuba divers (literally) on the loose.

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I sighed as the sea washed away the grit accumulated on the long journey from KL, and as I peered at the reef below, excitement pushed aside any remaining weariness.

Before arriving in KL, I had been in the Philippines completing a rescue diver certification. The course was part of an ongoing quest to defeat the sea-monsters in my psyche and inspire my underwater “confidence to soar” (as promised by the advert).

I was delighted to be in Malaysia for a reunion with my hosts, friends and fellow adventurers Alis, Fiza and Magic, whom I met while traveling the year prior. We had come to the Perhentian Islands with two additional friends—Kenneth and Jules—for what Alis called yoga diving. It seemed the seas were about to deliver: the water was still and warm, the site shallow and the visibility spectacular.

Escape from KL
We were all ready for a bit of underwater zen. It was Labor Day weekend, and 18 hours earlier we had been among a throng of travelers escaping KL’s urban bustle. Traffic was crawling and TBS station was jammed. We barely made our overnight bus to the east coast.

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We had skipped dinner, but Alis found some delicious chicken curry and roti just before departure. Once aboard, Magic poured welcome night-caps until, one by one, we dropped into rumbling slumbers. The next morning, we groggily de-boarded the icy bus into an insinuating heat at Khota Baru and split into two groups for the 50-kilometer taxi ride to the port town of Kuala Besut.

Alis, Magic and I were in a struggling taxi. The seats vibrated harshly and its failing exhaust system clamored in our heads. And the driver had a few malfunctioning parts of his own! In cycles, he would drive madly fast and then fade away, only to awaken moments later, and seeing the fast-moving road ahead, brake hard—to his, and our, surprise.

Once at the brimming port, we maneuvered through the crowd, first for strong coffee and a welcome breakfast and then to purchase marine park passes and board the ferry to Pulau Perhentian Kecil (kecil for “small” as it’s the smaller of the two main Perhentian islands).

After a stop on Long Beach to drop off gear, we checked in to what we deemed “the palace” on neighboring Pulau Perhentian Besar (besar, meaning large). The palace was a suite outfitted with a chandelier and fancy glass shelving (the perfect amenity for our self-toted bar).

Calm Seas
It was late afternoon when Alis, Magic, Fiza and I found ourselves floating in those teal waters. Kenneth was already below refreshing rusty dive skills with an instructor, and Jules was on the beach starting a basic scuba course.

Alis jokingly said to Fiza, a somewhat green diver, that at least her buddy was a certified rescue diver. In scuba, everyone dives with a buddy. They a) keep an eye on you, b) help you out should anything go awry and c) are available to witness your amazing sea-creature sightings.

The rescue course is designed to help divers recognize and react to emergency situations, but on such a calm day, we could hardly imagine any of my new skills would be needed. So, we laughed and descended, waving to Kenneth on our way to see what we could in the brilliant Malaysian sea. About twenty minutes later I thought, “I am soooo relaxed!” And then…

Runaway Kenneth
…a weight belt dropped from above. I glanced up, saw a blur and instinctively reached skyward, wrapping my hand around the first thing I touched, which happened to be Kenneth’s ankle.

Gradbišče hidroelektrarne Ožbalt 1958, potapljač
Diver with weighted boots, 1958
Yes, it was our friend Kenneth! He had finished his refresher and joined the group.

I was then (stupidly) surprised that we quickly began to ascend. To help me out, my brain resurrected an image of a helmeted diver with weighted feet tromping along the sea floor. “Oh yes!” I thought, “Divers wear weights because they allow us to descend and stay under.”

Yes, duh. But, what can I say? I was thinking more about fish than physics.

In its rescue course manual, the certifying organization PADI lists this problem as an “unintentional loss of weights” which can lead to a “runaway ascent and possible decompression illness,” (which is potentially fatal, yikes!).

As trained, I dumped the air in my BCD. (The BCD is a vest-like garment with bladders that divers use to control their position. Air in the BCD increases your tendency to float.) I then finned down trying to reach the weights, but the most I could manage was staying level. (So much for my underwater Wonder Woman fantasies!)

Mixed Signals
Glancing up, I made eye contact with Alis (an ever-vigilant diver), and I frantically pointed at the weights on the ocean floor. Now, in scuba “sign language” enthusiastic pointing does not mean “Something’s wrong!” It means “Look! Amazing sea creature!!!”

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Clever scuba signals chart by Christina Konstantinidou at Sifnos Diving Center.
And Alis rightfully thought “Oh, Chris is really excited about a fish!” Then her gaze followed the cascade of bubbles, and her next thought was, “Why is she holding Kenneth’s leg!?”

Magic, possibly through husband-wife telepathy, noticed the to-do and was able to retrieve and return the weights.

And all was well. Although we almost lost Kenneth again… to another group of divers, which was humorous but less concerning.

We had a chuckle about the mishaps on the surface (though PADI advises that ribbing the rescued can cause emotional stress and should be avoided). We also talked about what I learned in the course: if I hadn’t caught him, Kenneth should have dumped his air and flared his arms and legs to create resistance while exhaling.

Runaway Fiza
So as you see, Fiza was not the one who needed rescuing that day. But… she had her own mini runaway ascent the next morning. Recalling our discussion, she dumped her air, flared her arms and legs, and exhaled! She quickly corrected her ascent and rejoined us just as I was saying to Alis (with slightly more accurate hand signals) “Oh no, I’ve lost Fiza!”

Still Seeking Zen
We finally found tranquility later that afternoon, diving at Temple and then De Lagoon sites. I spaced out and enjoyed the ride so much at Temple that my log simply says, “Lots of fish and corals! Yoga diving : )”

At De Lagoon we had a sighting that was a bit more noteworthy—a sea cucumber!

I know. Sea cucumbers are not often the talk of a dive. Sure, a few are spiky and colorful and some host tiny well-dressed crabs or shrimps on their rooftops, but many are drab oblong blobs on the sandy bottom.

So, we gaped in surprise when we swam past a sea cucumber “standing” on a rock and swaying. Magic said it was happy to see us pretty ladies. (You can imagine those signals.)

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Well, Magic, it may indeed have been happy to see pretty ladies… the smoking hot sea cucumber kind anyway. This behavior is associated with breeding. It’s also possible that cucumber was a lady itself because both sexes stand on end to send their reproductive goods into open waters.

Seaside Celebration
That night we celebrated our good fortunes with a beach barbecue orchestrated by Alis and Magic. We had had a lovely afternoon, Kenneth was reacquainted with diving, Jules was well on her way to becoming a certified diver and Fiza didn’t float away!

And, I finally felt more confident in the water. So, I sent my instructor (Tim at Sea Explorers in Dauin) a thank-you note for training me well and inspiring that much-needed confidence. And he replied that he hoped as I was half as proud of myself as he was of me. (Blush blush!)

The night drew on and, with good company from the dive shop, we enjoyed the feast and several outrageously funny hours of Cards Against Humanity, which were well lubricated with rounds from our bar.

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The delightful Flabellina rubrolineata nudibranch. Photo by Timon Bogumil.
I stayed to dive for a few more days after my friends returned to KL and continued celebrating the good fortune of simply being a nomad. Those days held a mix of navigating wrecks in cloudy water and yoga-diving bliss. And the sea was still full of surprises including the aforementioned delightfully adorned nudibranchs, like the Flabellina rubrolineata pictured, and another astonishing sea cucumber–the giant spiky Thelonata ananas or Pineapple Sea Cucumber.

Afterward, I headed to Langkawi to meet Alis and Magic. We stayed in an antique Chinese farm house, went on a delightful nature walk at an iconic jungle hotel and were awoken nightly by serenades from those raucous jungle birds. And we had bats! But that, my friends, is a tale for another time…

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