MADE UP OF 17,000 ISLANDS, Indonesia’s rich and diverse marine life is world-famous. That’s a lot of ocean to cover, so it’s not surprising when diving around the Nusa Tengarra region and Komodo National Park (KNP) that it’s all about the liveaboard.
I chose Komodo Dancer’s 10-day trip from Bali to Laban Bajo (Flores), a) because I like exploring lesser-known sites as well as the “famous” ones, and b) because my last Aggressor/Dancer Fleet trip blew me away.
This time, I swapped white glass-fibre luxury for a beautiful 30m twin-masted wooden sailing yacht. Komodo Dancer was built pinisi-style in 2001 – she’s sturdy, spacious, comfy and performed the job of a floating hotel perfectly.
All meals were taken outside on a large deck, which also served as the dive-deck. There’s a huge camera and storage area along one side and, with a maximum of 16 guests, the boat and three tenders never felt crowded.
Travelling up the east coast of Bali, the first stop on our 28-dive journey was Indo’s most famous wreck – the ss Liberty. Torpedoed by a Japanese submarine in 1941, this WW2 US supply ship now lies in 30m a stone’s throw from shore.
Having dived the Liberty in 1999, I was excited to see how much it had changed. We weren’t blessed with good visibility (7-10m at best) but it still offered up a profusion of marine life, including spotted garden eels, cuttlefish, boxfish and hundreds of glassfish dancing around the rib-like structures.
Our guide also pointed out candy crabs, pink squat lobsters and a shy harlequin ghost pipefish. The elements haven’t been kind to the Liberty, and nowadays it’s definitely more reef than wreck, but what a first dive!
Subsequent dives at the Moyoa and Satonda Islands included Angel Reef, Long Reef and Lake Entrance, the first of these being the most memorable.
This steep pinnacle is covered with colourful gorgonian fans and surrounded by schools of fusiliers, jack and triangle butterflyfish.
A pregnant pufferfish caught our attention, then an eagle-eyed diver spotted a juvenile angelfish hiding in a clump of staghorn coral. The hard corals were especially pretty at this site, which hosted a huge variety of angelfish and wrasse.
Other creatures included cuttlefish, octopus, moray eels, sting rays, bumphead parrotfish and a banded sea-snake scuttling to the surface.
Our guide found a pygmy seahorse but, of course, I had my wide-angle lens fitted. He assured me that there would be many more chances to see them.
DIVING VOLCANOES ALWAYS adds a touch of mystery and adventure to a trip, and Sangeang did not disappoint. The almost 2000m peak became a recurring backdrop to our journey.
Deep Purple proved to be one of my favourite dives of the trip. Dropping onto volcanic sand in 7m we were at once engrossed in a small coral outcrop teeming with critters – pipefish, frogfish, anemone shrimps, spider, porcelain and an orangutan crab and numerous colourful nudibranchs.
By the end of the dive it was meh, not another nudi! This site is 360° of critter heaven – we spotted mantis shrimp out for a stroll, a striking swimmer crab out for a peep, and blue and black ribbon eels out for a waft in the surge.
Popping to the surface, slightly shivering from our 80-minute dive, one of the guests announced: “That was better than Lembeh!” And it would get better! Hot Rock, aka Bubble Reef also loomed large on my fav list. Finning down through “streaming bubbles of toastiness”, the volcanic underwater vents rule out any danger of getting cold on this dive.
Once we’d all taken childlike delight in the underwater Jacuzzi, it was time to veer down the black sandy slope to a coral bommie rich with marine life, including soft coral crabs, white frogfish, longnose hawkfish, giant scorpionfish, sweetlips and pretty clownfish.
Tikno Reef and a night dive at Bontoh Reef also wowed us with critters including mantis shrimp, zebra crabs, juvenile emperor angelfish, cuttlefish, skeleton shrimp, ghost and pygmy pipefish, decorator crabs, squat lobsters and “lots more weird creatures” (in the words of our illustrious guide Komang). For a mad-for-macro photographer, Sangeang Volcano is my version of paradise.
So, five days in and we finally steamed into KNP, and our first stop was one of Komodo’s most exhilarating dives, Castle Rock. It got mixed reactions from my fellow-divers, but on one thing everyone was agreed – it’s not for the inexperienced.
The pinnacle begins at 4m and plummets to murky depths. Finning madly against the current at 15m, we were suddenly enveloped by schools of butterfly bannerfish, banded angelfish and fusiliers.
Next, three whitetip sharks glided past in front of schools of surgeonfish, jack and tuna. I’m told that the visibility is never great here (10-15m), so it’s not ideal for photography.
This dive is all about hooking on and watching the underwater world go by.
Surfacing was probably the hairiest part; down-currents are common here, and dangerous. Hiding out behind the top of the rock, we watched warily as our bubbles swirled behind us like a giant washing machine.
It wasn’t the easiest dive but it did offer the most fish life we’d seen so far, and made a great introduction to KNP.
Komodo Island South is where divers get the chance to dive Manta Alley. Within a minute of descending our first manta loomed out of the haze, closely followed by another, then another.
After a while we cruised over to the alley itself, and I don’t think any of us were prepared for the traffic-jam of rays on display before us. There were mantas flying over our heads, mantas being cleaned, mantas sucking up plankton – so many that I lost count.
Best of all, none of them seemed bothered by the small group of divers watching with wide eyes and big smiles. The visibility was murky, the current was ripping and the temperature was much cooler than in the north, but there wasn’t one complaint.
Not surprisingly, we did three dives here, and during the second were lucky enough to see a school of cownose rays in the distance, too.
After a day spent playing with mantas, it was back to KNP for another famous site. Dropping into the channel at 12m we were greeted by a large expedition of bumphead parrotfish and a small school of barracuda swimming in the blue. Drifting with the current, we spotted turtles and lots of parrotfish.
Skirting a wall covered in colourful soft corals, we took a sharp left and emerged into a second channel.
Fusiliers, fairy basslets, sergeant-majors and butterflyfish whooshed past us as we looked for more mantas. Instead we were rewarded with whitetip sharks, a mobula ray, more turtles and large crocodilefish.
PRETTIEST DIVE OF THE TRIP was awarded to Current City on the north side of Batu Bolong, a site marked at the surface by a small rock with a hole in it.
Hidden below is a giant landscape of life that slopes to 70m and beyond. It’s another site with visibly strong currents, great for attracting pelagics such as spotted dogtooth tuna and jack, but also dangerous without experienced guides.
We floated along a steep slope of orange blossoms, pink fans and barrel sponges before dipping into an amphitheatre and its main attraction, mating octopuses.
In the shallows we encountered the prettiest and most colourful corals so far, accompanied by a cloudburst of pink, orange and fairy basslets. It’s such a special site, and two dives are scheduled here so that you get to experience both sides of the rock.
This area of Indonesia is as rich as it is diverse – walls, pinnacles, channels and volcanic black sand all wrapped up into one unforgettable trip.
Throw in spectacular views and a chance to come face to snout with the infamous Komodo dragon, and KNP is well worth the schlep from Europe, and the price tag.
You could combine the trip with diving at Lembeh Strait or elsewhere in North Sulawesi (and decide for yourself who has the better muck stuff!).
Otherwise there’s plenty of land exploration and relaxation to be done on any of the islands – Bali, Lombok, the Gili Islands and/or Flores.
I’ll never forget the delight of finding something as awesome as a yellow, fluffy creature with eyes that sparkled in my torchlight (see left).
It just goes to show, it doesn’t matter how often you dive, sometimes it’s the journey and destination that count.
Let me be honest with you, over the past 20 years of diving I have not, and have never been, an enthusiastic night-diver.
Given the choice between a glass of wine and jumping into the same ocean I’ve already spent 4-5 hours exploring, just to see a couple of shrimps, a parrotfish sleeping in its vomit cocoon and perhaps an octopus – I’ll take the vino any day.
And don’t get me started on how much colder it always feels during a night dive…
That said, Komodo, you’ve changed me. I’m converted! I ended up doing every night dive, bar one, and even then, while I was sitting on the top deck appreciating the sunset and indulging in a different kind of bubbles, I felt anxious, as if I was missing out somehow.
Clear standouts were the Circus at Gili Banta, and Wainilu in the park itself.
The shallow slope at the Circus looked like an ordinary patch of rubble but on deeper inspection it blossomed into Critter Central.
Dropping in directly next to our first stargazer we had finned only a few metres before we found a coral outcrop with two leafy scorpionfish, twin spotted lionfish, decorator crabs, white mantis shrimp and a giant stonefish hiding under plate coral.
Tag on an octopus, cuttlefish, baby clown frogfish and more nudibranchs than spots on a cheetah –it was a spectacular 60 minutes.
Wainilu is perhaps the most famous night dive in KNP. There is so much life in the harbour that the whole dive went by in a blur of weird and wacky creatures.
Decorator crabs moved stealthily through the rubble; arrow, zebra and spider crabs hid within coral clusters and frogfish, short-fin lionfish and bobtail squid were easily found and photographed. We also spotted more stargazers (right), juvenile sweetlips, cuttlefish, snake-eels and sea-pens.
Now, I promised you teddy bears and gremlins – well, this is where they lurk! The teddy-bear crab (Polydectus cupulifer) took me weeks to identify and gets the “cutest critter
of the trip” award. “Ugliest” award goes to the demon stinger or Indian walkman (Inimicus didactylus), which looks remarkably like evil Stripe from the Gremlins movie. Both were found within metres of each other on this site.
And just when I thought I could add no more critters to my list, the final night dive offered up mating mandarinfish and dragonets. Komodo, you rock!
If the teddybear crab (Pilumnus vespertilio) isn’t the coolest critter I’ve ever found under water, it’s certainly the cutest. When my torch passed across it on a night dive I had to do a double flick. There may or may not have been an “OMG!” squeal through my regulator.
My initial impulse was to touch it to see if it was as fluffy as it looked.
Of course I didn’t, because (a) touching underwater marine life is bad and (b) though I wasn’t sure what it was, anything that adorable had to have claws!!
My instincts were correct. The claws of the teddybear crab are often disguised with anemones, although this one was a mass of fuzz, too overgrown to confirm either way.
Sometimes called the “hairy crab”, it belongs to the family Xanthidae, is found throughout the Indo-Pacific region and hides in sandy or muddy areas, with minimal coral.
Apparently it isn’t great to eat, either, often containing toxins (similar to pufferfish) that are not destroyed by cooking. Giving it a cuddle is one thing, eating it Ewwgh.