Komodo Once Again

21 May 2005

On a beautiful warm May morning, 11 divers - KSDC members and friends from Jakarta, Bali, Chicago and California - assemble in Bali for a 90 minute GT Air flight from Denpasar to Labuan Bajo on the island of Flores in Nusa Tenggara Timur, Indonesia.

We pile onto a small twin propeller plane of a distant vintage. The KSDC members take up half the plane. Carl's vast array of luggage accounts for the rest.

Once again, Kapal Selam is in the capable hands Grand Komodo Tours and Dives who organised our scuba trip to Alor last November. It's a short hop from Labuan Bajo airport to the dock where the good ship Temu Kira is waiting for us, our home for the next 8 days. Dive Masters, Herry and Augusti, introduce the rest of the crew as we slip anchor and head off into the open sea. We are briefed that first few dives will be in the north of the National Park but later we will sail to the south where we will find more current and colder waters.

According to 'Diving Indonesia' by Kal Muller and David Picknell the Komodo region offers 'amongst the most exciting diving in the world'. Shallow seas and a large number of islands produce rapidly changing tides and strong currents. Upwellings produce very cold waters. The reefs are very healthy with little damage to the coral from fishing or from divers. Although many dive companies offer trips to the region we will only encountered other divers occasionally.

We get two dives on our first day. At Sabolan Kecil we find OK vis around two underwater islands with a sandy bottom in between. Often there is strong current but today the Gods were merciful. Many, many garden eels (never seen such a huge number), cuttlefish, white scorpion fish, colossal Gorgonian fans. Great healthy hard and soft coral and a good variety of fish.

We also get a night dive at Sebayur Kecil where the much-in-demand Spanish Dancers make a guest appearance.

22 May

Every day the sun starts to rise at 05.30 and, for half an hour or so, sun and moon are visible together as we say Howdy to a new day of diving, eating, sleeping and not much else. Today, daybreak reveals a beautiful blue sea alive with swirling currents. Everywhere you look there are islands varying from craggy rocks to larger masses - all are arid and appear to be empty of people. Go and tell the world how beautiful Indonesia is!

A leisurely start as we undertake our 1st dive of the day at just gone 08.00. Current City (off South Rinca) is the name of the site and we all wonder if it will up to it's name. Only one way to find out and in we all go.

This is by far the most beautiful dive I have done in a long time.

A small rock in the sea that, subject to the currents, we can circumnavigate in 10 minutes. Our pre-dive briefing tells us of the many currents we will encounter but for the first 30 minutes I cannot see why it so named. But by minute 31, I am in no doubt. We swim into the swirling current and my air level starts to drop alarmingly - welcome to Current City!

But we are in Fish Heaven - white tipped sharks, Napoleon wrasse, trevally, jackfish and many Nudibranchia including one spotted by Mia laying eggs.

Our 2nd dive (Tatawar Besar) is a nice drift over beautiful coral. Good vis - octopuses, more Napoleon wrasse and turtles.

While waiting on the dinghy to be ferried back to the mother ship we see two eagles on the island of Pulau Tatawa. One is perched high on a tree top, the other is on the wing gliding and soaring, suddenly swooping on it's prey. The natural world is wonderful in Indonesia, both above and below water.

This is a VERY HIGH TECH VOYAGE!! Satellite phones are in evidence but, for most of us, our humble mobile phones pick up a signal every so often from the smattering of tele-masts on land, even in this remote region. This allows calls to be made and SMS messages made and received. For Wolfgang with his GPRS account, it is even possible to send and receive emails via his PDA phone.

For reasons unexplained, our final diver, Budi, was unable to join us for the Bali flight yesterday but a speedboat ferries him out to us and now we are 12. I didn't see him arrive but I was told it was very James Bond with him leaping onto our dive ship from a super high-powered speedboat, a girl under one arm, a bottle of champagne under the other ... actually, that's not true but he did bring the contents of a medium sized Surabaya tech shop and, suddenly, Brata and Carl had a rival for the title of Gadget King.

At Pulau Penga (today's Dive 3) we are promised strong current from the north east to the west which will be stronger at the surface than at 20m. The site is a small rock and we descend into the poorest visibility we have encountered so far where we find giant clams, turtle amongst other delights.

A beautiful sunset followed by our night dive at Pink Beach (Pulau Sebayur)

Much colder at 26°C and a gentle current. For me, it is a much more interesting night dive than yesterday's. Two fat slipper lobsters are spotted and Ecological Awareness is weighed up alongside filling our empty tummies. Naturally, we do the right thing but next time those delicious crustaceans may not be so lucky....

23 May

A 07.00 start and 8 of us are off to See the Komodo Dragons, Varanus Komodoensis, very large monitor lizards native to Komodo and the neighbouring islands.

Komodo island has a population of 1,200 dragons and we are going to go on a 4 km trek armed with just ....... well, nothing except a Park Ranger carrying a not very frightening stick. It's probably safer to be 30m down in Current City.

Useful dragon info:

  • The rangers no longer feed freshly slaughtered goats to the dragons to amuse the tourists (shame)

  • The rangers are considering feeding freshly slaughtered tourists to the dragons to amuse the goats (not true)

  • Visitors numbers to see the dragons are down and were much higher 8-10 yrs ago

  • Maybe 15 visitors a day but in June-August up to 50-60 a day

  • There are more males than females at the moment

  • A female can lay up to 33 eggs depending on conditions and the seasons

  • Not many of the 33 baby dragons will survive as, amongst other things, Ma & Pa Komodo Dragons are cannibals

Two docile dragons are in residence at the rangers station and one is fitted with a GPS tracking device on it's back. I don't know who installs these things on the man eating monsters but I cannot see many applicants when their job falls vacant. And I imagine it falls vacant fairly often as he or she grapples with these cuties.

Budi goes way beyond the call of duty in getting up close and personal, his camera at the ready. He seems to have a fascination with capturing the dribble coming out of their salivating mouths. Brave or stupid? We are not sure but we all clear off for our trek wondering which of his body parts will remain when we return. The trek is through beautiful and empty terrain. No further dragons are encountered. We rescue sharp-shooter Budi (10 fingers, 10 toes and other body appendages apparently intact) and get back on the Temu Kira for the comparatively safe sport of diving.

The 4 stay-behinds did a dive at Manta Alley and after breakfast, that is where we go to again. One of the most exciting and challenging dives I have ever done. Let me say that again - EVER DONE!!

A spectacularly rugged and beautiful location with strong waves crashing onto 3 rocks. Our briefing warns of strong currents but I can't wait to get in as it is probably safer underwater than it is on the wild and turbulent surface. This a manta cleaning station and we are given a high probability of seeing these strange and elusive creatures. (And they are given a high probability of seeing those strange and elusive creatures that are KSDC divers).

We descend from the dinghy into poor visibility and strong current. Our group fails to rendezvous on the bottom so 4 of us hang onto a rock at 7m while our DM goes off in search of the missing divers. We regroup after 10 minutes and are carried away on a fantastic current. Everyone does their Leonardo/Kate Winslett impersonation (drift diving Superman-style is so last year). This is exhilarating but it gives little chance to observe our surroundings as we fly past everything. Eventually we shelter behind a rock where we mess about around until the reason we are here appears. First we see a faint dark shape and then in full - A Total Close Up Encounter.

The first Manta Ray approaches us head on AND WE ARE LOOKING DIRECTLY INTO IT'S MOUTH CAVITY. This magnificent creature is the size of a light aircraft! The brave KSDC divers hang onto a rock as the beast approaches hoping they really are plankton-eaters rather than the carnivores we left behind on Komodo island.

Estimates of the number vary from 4 upwards. Budi tells he us he saw 7, distinguishing them by their size, the way they swam, their colours. It sounds good but we are not sure.

A world class dive!! Scuba heaven!! Unreal!!

After lunch we return to Manta Alley - we would be crazy not to.

The same poor vis and, boy, is it cold but we find more surge than current.

Sightings include 2 manta and one black tip shark

That evening I miss the night dive at Cannibal Rock and the next day Yoni stopped wanting to be my buddy!

24 May

A return to Cannibal Rock, off South Rinca for our first (pre-breakfast) dive.

This felt cold with moderate current and vis was 5-10m at best.

The fish spotters are rewarded with frogfish x 2 but the highlight was post-dive when a family of dolphins swam alongside our boat as we steamed off to return to Current City

The whole time during this trip our boat passes through the most amazing scenery. The cliffs and mountains and coastlines are quite simply breathtaking. We are here to dive but a voyage to Komodo National Park for non-divers just to immerse oneself in landscapes of a staggering beauty would be very worthwhile.

After our second dive and lunch, five of us take the RIB to the island of Palau Tatawa Besar where we find pristine white sand beaches and absolutely no human life whatsoever.

Today's Dive 3 is at North West Tatawa Besar in North Komodo. Poor vis and a strong drift current with turbulent whirl pools. We virtually circumnavigate the entire island in a sub-aquatic rollercoaster ride. Amazing turtles are spotted as are whale sharks (by Mul and Carl), giant barracuda and more. But it is difficult to get a fix on anything as we race past in varying degrees of control (or lack of), exhilaration and/or panic. The latter part of the site is dead coral, not the pretty and healthy stuff we started off seeing.

Poor Mia has a brush with Fire Coral and ends with an inflamed skin rash. Various unorthodox remedies are suggested which reveal more about a certain diver's warped fantasies (but that's not for a wholesome family website such as Kapal Selam Diving Club).

In between dives, Scrabble is played every day and every day it adds new and weird words to the English language. (Ever heard of "Sweepy"?). Foolishly, I mention I have the Oxford Dictionary loaded on my laptop and from that moment I am not given a moment's peace as I am called to adjudicate on the most ridiculous attempts to score Scrabble points. Ari and David - "Sweepy" is not a word, OK?

Our fourth and final dive is a night dive at Gililawa Darat, North Komodo. An octopus is seen at very close quarters as is a moray out in the open devouring a damsel fish. Towards the end we get close to a huge nurse shark.

25 May

It is an early start today with the first dive at 07.00. The Usual Suspects are stumbling around at 05.30 to see daylight break - Carl, Wolfgang and I. (Why do Indonesians love sleep so much?)

Yet another dramatic show is put on by Mother Nature as last night's full moon and the rising sun are visible together in the crimson sky.

We kick off at Castle Rock, North Komodo. It is low tide so the current is running to the north and our briefing tells us it is possible to see black tip sharks at 30/35m. Well, I fail to spot the black tips but am very happy with the pygmy sea horse that is found.

Mid morning finds us at Crystal Bommie, North Komodo, close to the previous site. It is now high tide with slack tide in 30/40 minutes. The current is splitting into two and we are told to look out for pygmy sea horses and sweetlips with the south-west side of the rock being the most interesting location.

For me, this was a great site but, unusually, two other large boats are dropping off divers at the same time so things get a little crowded underwater. Only occasionally do we encounter other dive boats in Komodo. For one of the top diving locations in the world, it is incredibly empty, in contrast to dive locations such as the Egyptian Red Sea.

Post lunch, our third dive is at Light House, North Komodo, off North Gililawa Laut island.

We dive on the north of the island with the current running from north to south but with the likelihood it will change direction within the hour. Once again, the current splits when it hits the rock and expected highlights include giant grouper, schooling batfish and possibly sleeping nurse sharks.

25 metres down and the current is not running as expected. We swim into current for too long but when we give up and turn around we have a very nice dive amongst the soft and hard coral. Huge batfish swim right up to my face.

Throughout our travels, Carl has a fishing rod hung off the side of the boat. Today we are in luck and he lands an enormous barracuda. Suddenly, it's sashimi time!! Thanks Carl, ALWAYS happy to have you on our scuba trips - you bring the fishing gear and I'll bring the wasabi and soy sauce!

About our boat, the Temu Kira. It may not be the smartest vessel on the seas but it is very comfortable and spacious. Everything is efficiently run with the top class boat crew assisting in kitting up, getting us safely and quickly out of the water once we surface. Dive Masters, Herry and Augusti know their stuff and their briefings tell us everything we need to know. They know the sites backwards and accurately read the sea conditions for us.

And as for Mr Cook, it's the same guy who was looking after appetites of the Kapal Selam divers on our scuba trip to Alor in November 2004. Absolutely no complaints are heard.

Today, we finish off (dive # 4) with a nice sunset drift at Toromoncong, North Komodo.

26 May

Pre-breakfast we are at GPS Point, North Gili Banta, off Gili Banta, North Komodo

OK vis and swirling current. Three sleeping sharks at very close quarters and a blue spotted ray.

Our second dive is at Roller Coaster, off Gili Banta, North Komodo. (I'm not sure if that is the official name but that is what I wrote in my log). The current is going out and we are told to stay down and stay close to the reef as two current streams converge at this location creating a washing machine effect. Expect big eye trevally, red and black snapper, marble rays.

This is a beautiful site, first a slope and then a wall with an extended safety stop in a coral garden. Hardy any current and certainly no roller coaster. As the dive progressed I kept thinking any minute now the current is going to hit and I going to be sucked down but it never came.

Today's number 3 is at Gali's Rock, North Komodo. We are at low tide with the current running north to south. We can expect it to get stronger in 30 minutes or so. This is a good site for mackerel and, if we are lucky, manta rays. I remember this as a nice dive with current continuous throughout but not so strong. Yoni obviously found it more challenging as, soon as she emerged from the sea, she devoured a large plate of noodles. "I think I deserve this" she said.

Yoni also came up with the quote of the week; "I sleep like a baby and eat like a baby". No one argued with that.

Yet more dramatic coastal landscapes with wild and rugged mountains sweeping down to the sea. Hardly any trees and no people or cultivation. These are the Empty Lands of Indonesia and they are quite beautiful. This scenery goes on forever and it's magnificence never stops. I make no apologies for enthusing about the above-water landscapes. Go and see for yourself!

Our last night dive is at Gili Banta Bay, North Komodo.

This is a sandy slope with a small amount of reef and a few rocks.

We find sole, red shrimps, coral crab and very large lion fish.

Poor stargazers are dug up and terrorised.

It is a nice shallow dive and I see what I want to see in 20/30 minutes but for the sake of my buddy, I hang on in there (say Thank You CC!!). At last, my fading torch batteries oblige us to ascend after 60 minutes. On the surface we see more stars than can be imagined.

27 May

Our last day of diving.

Dive 1 is at Light House, North Sanyang. The coastline is quite green with black sand beaches, not the arid landscapes of earlier in the week. We find a black sand bottom with current. There is a cave but I do not enter as I am torch-less. This is a nice dive in a different aquatic environment to our previous dives.

We are in a rush today as we fly tomorrow late morning so it is a short surface interval before Dive 2 at West Sangyang; a brown sand bottom with a reef at 15m and garden eels at 20-30m.

This is not a comfortable dive for me as it is too soon after breakfast.

Everyone seems to be having fun in spotting, photographing and/or videoing creatures the size of a pin head amongst the small clusters of rocks and coral.

I am sorry to say I find this dive too boring and, after signalling to CC, my buddy, I do a solo ascent. As I slowly rise from 20m I look down on my fellow divers, most of whom will remain submerged for 30+ minutes longer. To me it is strange as they cluster in groups around tiny rocks. But, if they were to look up, I'm sure I would look crazy to them - "Why is he leaving this amazing site so early?". The subtleties of macro diving are often lost on me and I'm sure it is my loss rather than theirs.

Eventually the others join me on board. Seven sets of kit get washed, five don't.

The Enthusiastic Five (CC, Mul, Wolfgang, Dave and Ari) squeeze in a final dive (total 26) and by early afternoon it is all over until the next time.

This is the first chance I get to observe the process by which the boat crew supervise the divers' ascent and get them back on board. The process runs like a well-oiled machine with the dinghy maintaining a constant presence over the expected ascent area. The bubbles breaking on the surface help the captain of Temu Kira to position the main boat close to the spot so, on the surface, divers have the choice of a short surface swim the Temu Kira or being picked up by the dinghy. Lines are thrown to tow divers in and everyone is helped onboard and de-kitted.

The crew never let us down once. While not the swankiest boat, a better run livaboard is hard to imagine.

By now, the boat resembles a scuba garage sale with dripping kit dangling from every conceivable hanging point. Inside, the dining lounge cabin has more computer hardware on display than most missions to outer space as photos are downloaded, files are swapped and internet connections are made to check email.

On our last night we berth in the ferry port of Sape on Sumbawa island. As night falls the traditional end of trip party commences. An interesting array of intoxicating liquor from Mexico, Scotland and USA appears and the fun begins. Thanks to the tireless work of Mul and Tom, no glass remains empty for long. Toasts are proposed, friendships are sworn and it all goes downhill from there. Incriminating photos are taken, (male) nipples are displayed (perhaps an American bonding ritual??) and the ship's crew entertain us with songs. It's the usual KSDC end of trip party and we all pay a heavy price the next morning with sore heads. 'Never again' we swear - until the next time.

28 May 2005

An early start as we have a 2 hour road journey to get to the airport at Bima. We travel through the majestic landscapes of Sumbawa of green fields and mountains.

Our plane lands in Bali at noon and a last lunch is taken before we all go our own separate ways. One member, however, does not join us. Not unreasonably, he is longing to see his wife. The three things he tells us he is most looking forward to are;

  1. Red wine

  2. Pizza

  3. Love making

No one is sure of his order of preference (maybe all three together??) and, of course, he shall remain nameless. Let's just say, sometimes we all want to be a bit of a lone Wolf and we quite understand why he did not want to join the Gang for a last lunch in Bali.

So that's it. A fantastic trip. Superb diving. Excellent company. Thank you to our coordinator, Mia for all her hard work, to our Dive Masters and the boat crew.

The next major KSDC diving trip is to Bunaken, Sulawesi in October 2005, four long months away. An eternity away but my deposit is paid and I am already counting off the days.

See you there!