SEVENSEAS Marine Conservation & Travel Issue 22, March 2017 - Page 94

any of the best spots to see marine life are only accessible with the use of SCUBA equipment. Gili Meno is not such an area.

It is the smallest of 3 islands collectively known as "The Gilis" just to the west of Lombok, Indonesia. It may also be the best place I have ever snorkelled to see marine life...and I have a fair few places under my belt!

This tiny island comes almost completely circled by coarse, white sandy beaches, and can be walked around in just an hour and a half, or longer if you decide to stop for a beer and bite along the way. As a bonus, you don't have to worry about the location of your guesthouse or hotel, as everything is a short walk. On the flipside, light sleepers should bring earplugs, as there is also no escaping the call to prayer in the mornings!

On either side this little dot has to compete with Gili Trawangan, a popular backpacker spot well known for it's nightlife, and Gili Air, the reigning king of sunsets. Here you can watch the light fade behind the backdrop of Bali's intimidating Mount Agung Volcano.

Perhaps it is the small size or the low number of visitors that makes Gili Meno so perfect to me. It could also be the fact that it seems full to the brim with Green Sea Turtles (Chelonia mydas). Nearly every shop on the island has postcards with a turtle in the picture, and pages of search results appear for Turtles on Gili Meno. (I admit to my part in keeping that business alive!)

Against a global trend of decreasing populations and multiple species climbing ever closer to that IUCN 'Critically Endangered' mark, finding real wild turtles is easier here than anywhere else I have been. I focus mainly on Green Sea Turtles here, but Indonesia is actually home to six out of seven of the extant Sea Turtle Species, including the already critical, and stunningly beautiful Hawksbill Sea Turtle.

The abundance of turtles here is in part, I'm sure, due to the multiple home-grown conservation projects on the island. Last time I saw two separate projects that collected, cared for and fed new hatchlings from their most vulnerable point right after hatching until they had developed more size and protection. Anyone who has worked with Sea Turtles before will know the estimate that only one in every thousand hatchlings will survive to breed in the future - not high odds! The aim of these small-scale projects on the island is to protect and feed the hatchlings in tanks until they are a couple of months old and less vulnerable to their many predators. Hopefully this would raise the number of turtles that survive to breed, and halt or reverse their decline.

To see the turtles of Gili Meno, one only needs to get into the water. Snorkelling gear can be hired for USD 3-5 a day, and the water is warm and inviting. Alternatively, full day snorkelling tours around the island trio can be bargained for USD 15-20 a person, including lunch on the boat, gear hire and a local guide - in case you are nervous about misjudging the currents and becoming lost at sea on your own!

I found the best part of the island for snorkelling was the north-east shore. A mostly sandy shore made it easy to get into the deeper water without being a coral pincushion, (not to mention damaging a fragile environment) and it seemed fairly protected from prevailing winds. This is also the spot where I fell in love with Gili Meno. Myself and my girlfriend headed out in a lazy afternoon for a short 45 minute snorkel and saw eight turtles. That's right, eight, in 45 minutes! Eating, swimming, coming up for air and lazing on the seafloor, we saw them at their best. If your significant other is not already a keen snorkeller, take it from me that this will get them into it!

I should of course mention that this took place in September, and sea turtles are rightly known to make some of the greatest migrations on earth. Turtles from Indonesia have been found in waters at least as far as Western Australia, so there is a chance that we just hit a sweet spot for turtle numbers. Either way, I take no responsibility if you end up seeing nothing but beautifully clear, deep azure waters, as you snorkel undisturbed by boatloads of groups frequently found in such biodiverse areas.

The lack of expected crowds is because Gili Meno is not the easiest place to get to. The closest airport is on the south of Lombok, which doesn't have a great number of connections, and the so-called 'fast-boats' have been at the centre of some well known, and sadly fatal incidents in the past few year...basically they have a tendency to explode. The "public boats" meanwhile feel like they will tip over and sink if they hit a wave wrong.

If you have the budget, AirBali run helicopter transfers to Trawangan, by far the safest and most scenic method of transport here. Catch a public boat (or private charter) across to Meno and a cidomo (horse cart) to your hotel. Or just walk it, after all it isn't far wherever you stay! If you don't have that kind of budget, you can fly domestically to Lombok Airport from a few places (including Bali) at a fraction of the price of a helicopter. From there get a taxi to Bangsal and then a public boat to Meno.

For those who do want to boat it, be aware that seas can get very rough here, and remember the aforementioned safety record of 'Fast-Boat' services. I heard talk of the Dive Shops on the islands running speedboat transfers to Bali's Amed Town at slightly higher cost, and with far greater comfort and safety, but if you can't get one of those make sure to do your research. Most of the speedboats are dangerously overloaded, with improperly sealed petrol tanks and smoking on the rear deck allowed. Buy direct, as touts and agents in Indonesia will often show you a different leaflet or picture than the boat you end up on.

If you have a lot more time than money, it is possible to get the 'slow boat', a large and solid vehicle ferry that makes the crossing to the port of Lembar in around 5 hours. This is incredibly local, but surprisingly comfortable, with air-conditioning and power outlets on the inside decks and a tuck-shop cafe on board serving always dependable Indonesian Coffee. Adding in transfer time to Bangsal and across to Meno, along with what I would call 'fluid' scheduling means you can expect to spend 2 days to get from Bali all the way to Gili Meno though.

None of this should stop you from going, quite the opposite in fact. Plan your trip, and spend a few days on Gili Meno. Find yourself a patch of heavenly beach all to yourself, rent some snorkel gear and get into the beautiful shimmering sapphire water. Pack plenty of sunscreen, and always remember to take precautions and let someone know where you are going and when you will be back if you head out alone. The Gili's are small, and close to each other but are also home to strong currents and deep water. In case you don't like the suggested ways of getting here - do not try to swim between the islands!

Freediving in Gili Meno

by Joshua Clayton


March 2017 - Sustainable Travel