On a beautiful day just like any other, divers in the water were enjoying the underwater scenery and rich marine life around Pulau Weh in Aceh, Indonesia. All of a sudden, they heard a loud and painful noise forcing all of them to cover their ears. Many thought it was a tanker passing overhead, but the sight of all the moray eels swimming out of their holes must have been something totally unimaginable and bewildering.
The divers then surfaced and headed back to the dive shop, not knowing what to make of the strange phenomenon until they started seeing brand new bungalows floating on the sea.
Back at Gapang Beach, almost all the wooden houses and restaurants had disappeared, and Lumba Lumba Diving Centre had its front façade smashed away. The divers had to wait two hours until the surge was safe enough to land the boat. It was the day of the 2004 Tsunami.
Fortunately and miraculously, the tsunami that hit Aceh on December 26, claimed very few lives on Pulau Weh located only one hour north of Banda Aceh. The owners of the dive center, Ton and Marjan Egbers, survived by standing atop the dive gear rinsing shed and a tree located just beside the shop.
Most of the destructive power of the tsunami was the strong pulling power of the receding wave, where everything was swept out to sea including fins and masks prompting the owners to later joke that they were the dive shop with the mismatched fins. Today, there are hardly any signs that this terrible tragedy had ever happened, save for a thin blue line on the dive shop’s window to indicate the height of the tsunami wave. The resilient Acehnese have picked up their lives and Pulau Weh is back in business.
I have come to Pulau Weh to discover for myself an island that is touted as a place to “dive in crowds of fish, not in crowds of divers”. Lumba Lumba’s website was pretty impressive, the destination was attractive and not too far away. The reviews on Scubaboard.com were really good, and Air Asia had just started a convenient direct flight from Kuala Lumpur to Banda Aceh. So, I asked myself, why not? There was the chance of meeting mantas, whale sharks and mola molas plus the ultra slim chance of seeing a megamouth shark. This island was the site of one adult sighting and one discovery of a dead juvenile megamouth shark right on the beach in front of Lumba Lumba Diving Centre! With any luck, I could very well be the next guy to brag about a sighting. After a pleasant and hassle free flight, a pass through a very primitive immigration line, and a hunt for my bags in a pile of luggage just dumped on the floor, my traveling partner, underwater photographer Asther Lau, and I were on our way to the Ulee Lheue ferry terminal.
On the way, we stopped by a solemn remnant of the tsunami—a mass grave. There were no grave stones there, just an empty grassy field where all the unidentified victims were buried. The place is peaceful, and a few Acehenese can be seen praying and weeping. At the Ulee Lheue ferry terminal, it is easy to see why the tsunami had such a devastating effect; the terrain is very flat making it very easy for the tsunami to flow right through. You can also see the black domes of the Grand Mosque in Banda Aceh where in pre-tsunami times, the view was totally blocked by tall buildings that are now gone.
Pulau Weh is an active volcanic island that rises hundreds of meters from the sea floor. The recent conflict between the Free Aceh Movement and the Indonesian Army has not affected Pulau Weh as the fighting was confined to the Aceh mainland. Under martial law, a blue book system was implemented. Foreign visitors had to get a 14-day visa in Medan before proceeding to Banda Aceh, and from there, were escorted by police all the way to Pulau Weh.
Since the 2005 peace agreement, all fighting has stopped, and divers have started to return. The new Air Asia flight now makes it really easy to get here. Whereas in the past, the only flights to Pulau Weh were from Medan or Jakarta. From the ferry terminal in Balohan, it’s an hour ride on a bumpy and twisty mountainous road to Gapang. We occasionally got glimpses of the sea and some very interesting wildlife such as monkeys, wild boars, monitor lizards, goats, cows and buffaloes.
We stayed at a brand new bungalow overlooking the beach. In the mornings from our balcony, I could hear the chirping of birds, insects, cocks crowing in the distance and the sound of the waves as they lapped the beach. All this together with tall coconut trees surrounding our bungalow gave the place a serene atmosphere. Lumba Lumba Diving Centre has been in operation for ten years now and has recently completed the last of seven new bungalows. They also have very ambitious plans to upgrade all the bungalows with air conditioning, hot water, wireless internet and even a new swimming pool.
It’s an easy hop to the dive shop where the Acehnese dive masters love to hang out between dives. Out in front of the shop is a nice area where you can sit around to fill up your log book. We went to Dangdangna Restaurant for breakfast, located just next door, where the resident top dog ‘Cheeky’ came over and sat under our table on the sand. I buried my feet in his nice fur and gave him a massage with my feet. He really loved it. Here, the food came in big portions and was very tasty, too ...