JOHN LIDDIARD finds out
AFTER POINTING OUT a sizeable nudibranch with six clumps of bubblegum-pink broccoli growing from its back, dive-guide Semuel surfaces from the dive and tells us he has never seen that species before.
Let’s put this into context. Semuel was one of the first Indonesians to train as a dive-guide in Lembeh. He has subsequently worked in all the locations on any diver’s Indonesian bucket-list. He is an expert at finding weird and wonderful macro critters.
You could put him in the middle of the underwater equivalent of an empty concrete car-park, and he would find a loose chip with something small and interesting underneath it to look at through a macro lens.
And he has just seen a slug that is new to him. Just slugging along on the shallow sand. It was definitely new to the rest of us.
Back ashore, I ask our Canadian host Eric McAskill, a self-confessed obsessive nudi-nut and not diving today. Eric has even published books about nudibranchs. I show him on my camera screen. “Allen’s Ceratosoma!” exclaims Eric. “It’s rare and number 3 on my want-to-see list.”
I ask Eric about numbers 1 and 2, but don’t take notes. Those Latin names go in one ear and out the other.
I look up Allen’s Ceratosoma in Paul Humann’s book and it is “known from Indonesia and Philippines”.
A bit of Googling and I discover that it is camouflaged to hide among soft coral, so sand is not its usual habitat. It is the only species of nudibranch with such long broccoli extensions.
Discovered in Mindanao in 1993, it has since been reported in West Papua and Timor. This is likely the point at which a reader writes to the Editor and tells us that it can be seen all over the place in Wotsit Unpronounceable, and there are 13 similar varieties, but it’s new for me, new for Semuel, and the kind of sighting that makes a trip.
That is one of the thrills I get from diving. To dive somewhere new and see something new, often of the macro variety. It doesn’t have to be exploring in the expedition sense, just somewhere that isn’t a mainstream destination, that has yet to feature in the magazines, and has the prospect of revealing creatures I haven’t seen before.
When Sarah at Dive Worldwide had suggested Kalimaya Dive resort, I needed no convincing. Kalimaya is located on the east side of the Indonesian island of Sumbawa, the next island to the east from Bali and Lombok, and the next island to the west from Komodo. Definitely the right part of the world for unusual creatures.
What’s more, the small resort has been open only for a few months, is the only dive-resort on the eastern half of Sumbawa and the only dive-centre covering an area previously accessible only by liveaboard. The idea ticked all my boxes.
The diving regime is to start the day with two guided boat-dives, then follow up with unlimited guide-yourself shore-dives through the afternoon.
In practice, this works out comfortably as a leisurely lunch and a single shore-dive mid-afternoon, with a night-dive for those so inclined.
THE HOUSE-REEF HOLDS MY INTEREST easily throughout the trip. It’s a long-enough stretch to need three dives to cover it all. While there are forests of spiny coral on the reef-crest and some larger coral-heads on the slope, it’s a muck-dive rather than a site for big-scene wonder.
Once I get to know it, the house-reef has the advantage of enabling me to plan a dive for specific subjects.
If I have the wrong lens for a subject one day, I can return to the same area the next day more suitably equipped.
A patch of plate corals is home to three ornate ghost pipefish, but they are a little large for my 105mm lens. A day later I am back with a 60mm lens, find the coral, find the fish, take a few photographs, then find another ornate ghost pipefish a couple of metres away.
I have to count them all again to make sure that it really is number four in such a small area. Ironically it’s the first pictures, those taken with the “wrong” lens, that turn out better.
I enjoy the simplicity of all the local dives. Depth is typically 10-15m and there is usually a small amount of current, but nothing that requires hard work. The standard aluminium 80 (11-litre) cylinders last forever, even for an air-hog like me.
The local sites are ideal for beginners and for macro photography, especially when you have an expert guide along to help spot the critters.
Interesting wildlife abounds, though sometimes it can take a bit of work to find. Semuel can be relied on to locate a steady stream of creatures, but we all have our moments of discovery and share them with each other.
Tiny fluffballs turn out to be nudibranchs that I can’t see properly except through a macro lens. In a field of grey elephant-ear sponges, what looks like a broken chunk turns out to be a sizeable paddleflap rhinopias.
I point my lens, and it flaps towards me. I have to back off to fit it all into the picture, while thinking that the face resembles that of actor Geoffrey Palmer.
As well as the rare and unusual, there are plenty of what regular travellers to this part of the world would label “the usual suspects” – various species of moray eel, anemonefish, cardinalfish, hawkfish and an unending supply of nudibranchs and crustaceans.
I see my first spotted porcelain crab as soon as we descend on my first dive on the house-reef, tucked into its anemone home. There is something about porcelain crabs that makes them ever so cute, and they show up nicely against their typically green hosts.
Many years ago I would have blown an entire film on this one subject, then spent the rest of the dive wishing that I hadn’t. Such musings have become a cliché of effectively unlimited digital photography.
NEVERTHELESS, OVER THE TRIP I continue to take photographs of every porcelain crab we find, and eventually come across something even cuter. It’s a tiny anemonefish alongside it, smaller than the crab’s claw and not much larger than the tip of an anemone tentacle.
Despite similarities dictated by geography and geology, each dive-site has its own character and range of inhabitants.
At Snake Island the critters are the various crustaceans that inhabit fire-urchins, or perhaps it’s just that there are plenty of fire-urchins for the critters to live on. I enjoy a couple of dives with endless striped zebra crabs, spotted Coleman shrimps and yellow Brook’s urchin shrimps.
That isn’t to say that we see only those creatures. Other highlights of the dive are a leaf scorpionfish and at least two varieties of crinoid shrimp.
I say “at least” because, even with photographs, it can be hard to be certain of just what we’re looking at among the feathered arms of their hosts.
PEARL FARM, NAMED AFTER the farm further into the bay where we dive the headland, is the only local site I would note for larger scenery. The headland develops into a colourful coral wall from 5m to 12m, a nice bonus to the sheer volume of macro finds.
Further afield, the diving changes from easy macro to big scenery, sometimes with quite stimulating currents – the kind of dive where some divers like to use current hooks, though I’m happy enough using the shape of the reef and back-eddies to pick my way along.
The currents are hard to predict. In addition to the usual tides we have seasonal currents and the exchange of water between two oceans. On any one day it’s possible to guess the most likely time for the best diving conditions at these sites, though never with any certainty.
Heading south along the coast of Sumbawa and out into the Sape Strait, the plan is to dive Roger’s Wall.
The washing machine that greets us is simply too turbulent, and instead we dive in the lee of Roger’s Island.
A few days later and nearby at Kalimaya Canyon the current is easily manageable, as is the surge. The canyon is a cut all the way through the middle of a small island, just a few metres wide. It narrows and funnels into a tunnel before popping out as a shallow trench into the reef on the other side. That part of the dive is reminiscent of some of the spit-you-out tunnels at St Kilda.
Once through the canyon the reef slopes around the end of the island and onto a pretty wall of table corals.
I spend a good 10 minutes shadowing a sea-snake that’s snuffling among the rocks without a care in the world.
A second dive nearby at J’s Dream involves ducking behind the lip of a wall as the current tries to push us off. Once safely hidden, the back-eddy keeps us in.
Tucked into small caves and overhangs we find bamboo sharks and whitetip reef sharks. A larger whitetip is patrolling off the wall. This is a site reputed to be good for big fish, though we see no larger sharks or manta rays today.
We get some distant manta sightings at Galley Rock off Gili Banta, an island about two-thirds of the way to Komodo.
Our follow-on dive is at Lula’s Hat, presumably named after where Lula lost her hat. Water circulates in a large bay, pulling out nutrients and plankton, so it could be another good spot for manta rays. It turns into a pretty reef dive with a nice shoal of glassfish, but no mantas.
A site that does live up to its promise is Bubble Reef at the Sangeang volcano, one of the most active in Indonesia. It last erupted in 2014.
As we approach, a puff of smoke rises from the crater. Then an old lava flow comes into view as a now-solid grey-brown river that winds back from the beach and out of sight towards the peak.
BUBBLE REEF IS OUR HOST Eric’s favourite location, especially for macro, so he takes time out from working at the resort to join us for the day. He gets to dive only every few days, because he’s busy supervising the building of a new villa and, more immediately, a jetty due to be completed within weeks. This will greatly simplify boarding the boat, and provide easy all-tide access to the house-reef.
Dives tend to start with a synchronised backward-roll out of the boat on the count “three, two, one, go!”. Eric has his own system and calls out “a bibbidi, a bobbidi, a boo!”, and we go on boo. It has more to do with Mr Garrison’s maths lesson in South Park than Walt Disney.
Spurs of black sand with small outcrops of reef fan down from the shore, some trickling tiny bubbles escaping from the volcano.
It’s the only dive on which we see a reticulated chromodoris nudibranch.
I doubt if that is anything to do with the location, other than that it stands out nicely against the dark rocks.
This background also contrasts well with some of the more regular creatures, such as the blue-spotted Kunie’s chromodoris nudibranch.
Semuel calls me down to a gorgonian. He has found a family of pygmy seahorses, now one of the staple critters for any trip to Indonesia.
We are over the lip of a wall and towards the end of the dive. Having captured a few photographs I head shallower again to conserve air, but he calls me back to point out another creature I had swum past – a tiny algae octopus camouflaged among the crust of sponges and hydroids on the rock.
It’s my last day, and we have a pair of dives at a long rock that looks like a buffalo from the side. With the current stirring up a washing machine again, we hug the flank and admire the big scene, with shoals of fish and occasional whitetip reef sharks.
The current turns, and we finish on a platform of reef beneath where the tail would be. Nice dives, but it’s the surface interval that makes my day.
Today’s site was chosen because it’s close to Komodo. I could hardly travel all this way and go home without stopping by to see one of the famous dragons.