In many ways, Koh Tao and Gili Trawangan are sister islands in Southeast Asia. Both are small tropical diving meccas, filled with backpackers in search of scuba certifications. I wrote a Guide to Diving in Koh Tao a few years ago, and judging by the number of aquatic-related questions I’ve received since first landing in Indonesia, the internet is in dire need of a Gili Trawangan version.
The Gili islands are a fantastic destination for divers both novice and scuba savvy. Those completing an Open Water certification and diving for the first time will be comforted by the warm water, high visibility, short distances to dive sites, and common sightings of peaceful turtles. Veteran divers will be delighted by tec-friendly ship wrecks, challenged by drift dives with crazy currents, and rewarded with not-infrequent shark sightings.
Let’s dive in!
Dive Courses in Gili Trawangan
Typically, it takes three days to complete the Open Water Course with either predominant certifying agency, PADI or SSI. Both agencies are active on Gili Trawangan and while some shops are loyal to one over the other, many offer both. If you have a preference, be sure to state it when looking for a dive shop. Personally, I am a PADI girl.
While the material is not too challenging, you will be required to watch videos and read relevant book chapters, and you will be tested on the information. Of course, you also get to dive! You will log plenty of pool time and log four open water dives by the time you’ve got your certification card in hand. You’ll then be licensed to dive anywhere in the world with a buddy, independent of a professional, to a depth of 18 meters — and that certification is good for life.
How Much Will It Cost?
There is a price agreement on Gili Trawangan that all dive shops have signed on for, meaning that prices are uniform across the island. This benefits the dive shops, of course, but I think this actually benefits the consumer as well — you can make your dive shop decision based on factors much more important than price.
The Open Water course runs $370US, while the Advanced Open Water is $295US. Unlike on Koh Tao, accommodation is not included in the course price and prices are not negotiable. For more information on Going Pro in Gili Trawangan, read my Becoming a Divemaster series.
Some schools have photographers and videographers on staff who can come along on the final dives of the course and either take photos or make music-video style film of your day. Camera rentals are available for certified divers, but students on a course are not allowed to use cameras (that’s PADI and SSI’s rule, not the dive schools!)
Fun Diving in Gili Trawangan
For already certified divers, fun dives start at $37 each, and go down with package prices and discounts for having your own gear. One of my favorite parts of diving on Gili Trawangan is how close the dive sites are. The harbor is used only in very low tide, so typically getting to a dive site means hopping onto the boat anchored beachside in front of the shop and kicking back for a ten minute ride.
Most shops do two dives per day with a nice long lunch and rest period between (plus a night dive, upon request.) At Big Bubble, we went out for a dive at 10am and at 2pm. Two-tank trips can sometimes be exhausting and so I loved this schedule, which ensured everyone was fresh and ready to enjoy each dive.
Dive Schools in Gili Trawangan
There are between 15-20 dive schools on this tiny, five-mile-in-circumference island. As I mentioned above, the price agreement across the island removes cost as a factor in choosing a dive shop. With that out of the way, it all comes down to finding the best fit for you.
If you are looking for a small dive school and an intimate experience, Mango Dive might be perfect for you. Tucked into the Northern stretch of the island’s main drag, this dive shop offers personalized service and — this is key — my favorite logo on the island.
If you’re looking for a tec diving school that will bring you into the world of mixed gases and rebreathers in a safe environment, Blue Marlin is your shop. They make regular trips to the area’s Japanese WW2 Wreck as well as exploratory dives to search for fabled walls and reefs.
If you are looking for a big dive school with somewhat of a party atmosphere, head to Trawangan Dive. For those that are familiar with Koh Tao, this is Gili Trawangan’s answer to Ban’s Dive Resort. Love them or hate them, these schools can be a good choice for those looking to find friend to have a post-dive pint with.
If you’re looking for a medium dive school with the best of both worlds, I recommend Big Bubble. This is where I did my Divemaster course after extensively searching the island for my perfect fit. There was a wide range of instructors to learn from and customers to shoot the breeze with, and I never felt rushed or swept away in the crowd. Update: Recently Big Bubble has gone through a major change in location and staff, and I hope to return to Gili Trawangan so I can vouch for them again soon!
When it comes to picking a school and an more specifically, an instructor, don’t be afraid to ask questions!
- Do they have an instructor that speaks your language, and access to manuals in that language?
- How many students will be in your group?
- What time do they leave in the morning? The dive schedule in Gili Trawangan is pretty uniform and most schools leave between 9am and 10am for the first dive — still, that might be an important distinction for those that are out partying until the mosque call starts at dawn.
- Is the equipment up to date and in my size? Gili Trawangan has a general good record of safety and most shops have up-to-date equipment. Sizes, however, can be limited.
- How qualified is the instructor? Some students may appreciate the enthusiasm and up-to-date training of a new instructor, while others may find comfort in a teacher with tons of qualifications and years of experience.
- Do you like the instructor? You’ll be hanging out with them for a couple days!
Gili Trawangan’s Top Dive Sites
Shark and Manta Points are the two most frequently visited sites around Gili Trawangan. And yet — and this is a major departure from Koh Tao — they almost never feel crowded. Taking up a large swath of Gili T’s North West waters, Shark Point boasts an impressive variety of sea life with schooling trevally and jacks, chilled out turtles, nervous octopus and of course, the dive sites’ namesake, the shark. Black tips, white tips, and reef sharks all call Shark Point their home.
Manta Point, sadly, does not see as many mantas as Shark Point sees sharks. However, the trade-off is a mild current, a variety of corals, and sightings of stingrays, sharks, and cuttlefish. Like many dive sites on Gili Trawangan, Manta Point is not defined by pinnacles or other distinctive characteristics, but rather an amorphous, gently sloping reef.
This slope along the north side of Gili Trawangan is my favorite dive spot in the area. It’s unofficially broken into Deep Halick and Shallow Halick, the shallow side being one of the best spots on the island for underwater photographers thanks to the array of colorful soft and hard corals and abundance of tropical fish. Sightings of 5-10 turtles per dive are not uncommon in the shallows, and sharks are often found in the deep. Schools of bumphead parrotfish are occasionally spotted here around the full moon.
In summary, it’s no surprise that Gili Trawangan has evolved into one of Southeast Asia’s most popular dive hotpots. Many readers have asked me about the differences between diving in Gili Trawangan and Koh Tao, and I hope this post helps answer some of those questions. The two are similar, though I prefer that Gili’s dive sites are closer and less crowded and I prefer the schedule of one diver per trip. The sites also have better overall visibility and healthier coral, and turtles and sharks are much more abundant. On the other hand, I think Koh Tao has a better variety of dive sites with shipwrecks and pinnacles and shallow reefs all accessible to non-tec divers, as well as more impressive and common schooling fish.
Basically, you can’t make a bad choice. If you learn to dive in one, you better fun dive in the other. Either way, diving is a lifetime skill and hobby that you can take with you no matter where you go in the world. The ocean makes up 70% of our globe — don’t count it out of your travels!
Curious about my underwater photography setup? Check out my Obsessions page for information on my camera gear, editing programs and more.