Awe-Inspiring Komodo

Our boat pulls up over the dive site, fighting for position against a strong westward current. Deep blue water gives way to lighter turquoise: we’re over the submerged seamount called Castle Rock. The surface is energetically swirling as the tidal flow washes over and around the big underwater obstacle. One of the crew calls out – up ahead, fish are jumping. Something below is making them nervous. We draw near, checking our gear, and then follow our guide into the water. We must descend quickly, kicking into the current, aiming for the sweet spot referred to as the “split” where the current parts around the rocky reef. Being too slow means missing this prime viewing location – or worse, being pushed clear off the dive site and into the blue. We’re on target, however, and I’m doing my best to kick efficiently without sucking down a lot of air. As we drop I spot first one shark, then another, and then several more. Seconds later we’re clinging to the rocks at 22 meters, being shoved around as the Flores Sea washes over us. Immediately ahead no fewer than eight whitetip reef sharks are cruising around in the current among huge schools of fusilier, surgeonfish, and trevally. We found the action – welcome to Komodo!

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reefs everywhere!

Be warned: pretty much all we did in Labuanbajo was dive. It was absolutely amazing and we have almost no photos of it to share with you. What few underwater photos we have come woefully short of representing the spectacle. So I must resort to some wordy descriptions which I apologize for. But if you imagine the most extravagant and vibrant fish-packed reefs, whether from photos or aquariums or the Planet Earth TV series, what we saw over our time here in no way fell short. By comparison to the Gilis which were relaxed and entertaining, diving here was far more intense and awe-inspiring. Fish were much bigger and more plentiful, the range of life large and small was mind-boggling, and the currents and topography were absolutely wild.

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Labuanbajo: cute, grungy, and bustling

But first, before we did any of this, we arrived in Labuanbajo with no plans on record. We secured a room and then walked the busy little front street of the town, eyeing innumerable dive operators offering everything from quick day trips to week-long liveaboard experiences. We had come to realize by this point that July and August are the high season here so finding lodging was tough and relatively expensive. These being the circumstances we thought a liveaboard for a few days might make a lot of sense, and so we shopped around for one. Now, we knew the diving here to be challenging and as freshly minted advanced open water divers we didn’t want to get in over our heads. We wanted an outfit that would be able to gauge and adjust for our abilities. We settled on Blue Marlin Komodo – though a bit more expensive than others, I believed they would give us both a safe and rewarding experience, and the food onboard promised to be excellent as well.

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our liveaboard boat, the Ikan Biru

We signed up for three nights on the liveaboard, and after a day off between travels, set off from Labuanbajo into Komodo National Park on the Ikan Biru (“Blue Fish”). What followed was a wonderfully busy few days of world-class diving, beautiful coastal panoramas, delicious meals, comfortable siestas, and quiet open-air nights on the covered top deck of a great little boat. There were four other guests along with us (all awesome people) and three dive staff plus the gracious local crew. We loved every minute of it! Our fellow divers were Laura, from our recent home of Oakland, CA; Sophia, from Denmark; Lars, of Sweden; and Lars’ daughter Freja who is a scuba force of nature with 100 dives at the age of 17. Sean our liveaboard director made us feel super prepared for each dive, and Edwin and Alex were both fantastic guides.

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view from the deck

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lunch onboard beats most of our land-based meals!
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relaxing after a dive and hearty breakfast
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sunset (or sunrise? can’t recall) from one of our moorings

Each day on board followed the same routine. Wake up with the sunrise, grab some coffee and fruit, and brief the first dive. Hop on the skiff to zip out from wherever we were moored or anchored, dive, and return for breakfast including freshly baked bread (a rare treat in Indonesia at all, let alone onboard a small boat). Rest, brief, dive #2, then eat lunch; rest, brief, and dive #3; rest and watch the sunset, brief, and dive #4 at night; dinner, maybe a beer, and then, being quite exhausted, go to sleep. During downtime: chat with our new friends, oogle the scenery as we moved from place to place, flip through fish ID books and try to remember all of the cool things we saw during the last dive.

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Laura prepares her gear on our dive skiff
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Elaine gears up on deck, with our guide Edwin in the background
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Sean briefs a night dive as the sun goes down
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Sean drew great briefing maps before each dive

I made a total of 18 dives here in Komodo, and Elaine 15, so there’s no way we can relate them all (at least here). They were all amazing and ran the gamut from serene sunset and night dives to fast, adrenaline pumping drift dives or splits like Castle Rock. Most of these were during our liveaboard trip, but we liked diving here so much (and had some time to burn while we were renewing our visa) that we went back out on some day outings. So, too much to cover, or really even fully absorb yet. I will retell our most epic single dive, however; this occurred at a site called The Cauldron, early on in our working up the Komodo learning curve.

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The Ikan Biru from the sunny foredeck

The Cauldron is located in a channel between two islands in the north area of Komodo. There is a large bowl-like depression maybe 40m in diameter at the narrowest part of the channel. When the tide is falling the current flows eastward through the channel, over the Cauldron (churning up the surface) and out through a necked down area called “the shotgun”. The fast current makes for an exciting dive and also – we hoped – attracts awesome large stuff like manta rays. The dive plan is as follows: drop in west of the channel and explore the mix of sand and corals there; enter and check out the Cauldron for a little while; exit via the shotgun, hanging on with reef hooks at opportune times; and then swim perpendicular to the current to get out of it as it pushes us east, wrapping up in a soft coral garden called China Shop.

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The Cauldron lies below this channel that funnels the tide

Things started out as briefed; Elaine and I backrolled off the boat with our guide Edwin and dove down to mosey between coral bommies, looking at groupers, morays, and turtles. Being a little ways away from the channel we only felt the current as a slight tug. After ten minutes or so we were swimming across an open area from one coral group to another when Edwin pointed ahead and waved his arms. What we really hoped to see, but did not expect to as they are scarce this time of year: a manta ray!

This is perhaps the most graceful thing I have ever seen. The manta slowly approached us out of the blue as we hovered and watched. Whether it was curious or we were simply in its way, I don’t know, but it cruised within a few meters and slowed. It was like an encounter with an alien species, or rather, a native species with us as the aliens. Nothing quite looks as comfortable with its surroundings as a manta ray does. After a few moments of checking each other out it calmly banked away on its huge wings and glided off. Huzzah! We were all psyched – everything else on this dive would be icing on the cake (we thought).

We followed the manta a little ways to see if it would turn around, but it disappeared. Then we explored around a bit more, following Edwin up against the current. We stumbled upon a big whitetip which was the first we had seen in Komodo and certainly the closest we’d been to one – cool! Then it was clearly time to head to the Cauldron, at which point things became confusing. Not entirely sure where we had ended up, Edwin surfaced to look around and then headed off at a strong clip, Elaine and I kicking along as best we could. We crossed over some corals and then out over a barren stretch of rock and sand which seemed to go on forever. In between kicks and watching my dwindling air supply I exchanged skeptical looks with Elaine. At a certain point I became convinced we were in the completely wrong place and that we would run out of air and surface somewhere unexpected off of Komodo – I didn’t see how we could have possibly strayed so far against the current earlier on.

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Our guide Edwin – “I think it’s this way, guys!”

I had given up on actually seeing the Cauldron when it finally came into view maybe forty minutes into our dive. Whew! I didn’t have much air left, however – I signaled 60 bar to Edwin (this is ~30% of a full tank and just a hair above the 50 bar time-to-surface reserve). We sailed over the bowl of the Cauldron – no time to stop and look! – and straight into the shotgun. As briefed we hooked onto the lip for a couple minutes for the experience of current blasting in your face before releasing and sailing backwards and away. Fun! That was cool, time to wrap it up.

Or not. A mere 40 or 50 meters downstream Edwin pointed up to the side. Another manta, this one surfing the current with ease alongside us! And another, a little further away! Edwin signaled to grab on again and we did, clumping up and waving in the current. I watched the rays up to my left for a few moments until Edwin managed to get my attention and point backwards – there right behind our little group, almost joining us, was yet another of the huge black and white creatures. This was an awesome and awkward few minutes as we craned our necks around to watch, my tank in Edwin’s face, him looking at my air gauge (okay, one more minute!), ropes of the reef hooks biting into our hands. It was unreal, as if we were hanging on the lip of a waterfall while this magical creature levitated effortlessly below us.

The time quickly came to depart and so we were shoved out of the shotgun, our manta friend lifting up and over us to make room. Dive still not over, however – we had to exit the current to the north and get to our pickup point. Edwin, well aware of my air status, signaled me over and pulled his secondary regulator free. I took it and, both of us breathing from the same tank and locked quite close together, we kicked and kicked with Elaine alongside until we were in still waters off of the China Shop reef. Whew! Back to my reg, safety stop at 5 meters, and then surfaced 52 minutes after our adventure began, giddy and smiling.

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a shallow drift dive let us bring our little camera (only good to 15m). Elaine!
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not even close to capturing what these reefs are like
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drifting along!
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clownfish are easy to photograph because they actually stay put in their anemone
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Gregor exploring a reef

What else did we see over so many dives? I’ll wrap up the recap with a hyper-abbreviated list of some of the fish and creature highlights. Of course it’s more than just checkboxes of this-and-that: it’s a whole combined experience and visual impact of expansive corals, darting schools of big fish, and so many remarkable sights that they become commonplace (definitely lost count of the turtles and sharks we saw). But here’s a few cool things to google: a broadclub cuttlefish hovering right in front of us and flashing ripples of light and color across its body like it’s an LCD screen. A huge giant moray out and swimming down the picture perfect coral slope of Batu Bolong. A hairy bat crab tucking itself into its burrow; a white V octopus scuttling around in the dark at night; a dark green angler frogfish perched on a rock, sitting on its feet-like fins. Tiny little iridescent bobtail squid. A weedlike orangutang crab clutching its coral home. A wispy sea feather star swimming along (normally they just sit there, seeing one swim is really cool). A venemous banded sea krait (that’s a snake!) hunting in the reef right next to us. The list goes on…

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leaving Ikan Biru for a night dive
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farewell Ikan Biru!

Oh yeah – I almost forgot, we also went and saw Komodo dragons! This was quite anticlimactic. One reason for this is it came at the tail end (no pun intended) of our wonderful liveaboard diving experience, with the shuttle speedboat bringing us to the big park island of Rinca on the way back to town. Another reason was that despite taking a (fairly short) wilderness hike through the park, the only dragons we saw were wallowing about near the ranger station and kitchen. They claim to not feed them – I’m skeptical. At any rate we got a good close look at these hefty reptiles and took in a few scenic panoramas of the island.

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Elaine wasn’t thrilled about posing next to these ones
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the blue waters of the Flores Sea around the island of Rinca
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dramatic cape pose
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underwater critter signs with our dive pal Laura

Beyond diving, life in Labuanbajo has been pretty relaxed. We bounced around between a few different rooms while not on the liveaboard, ranging from barely tolerable to quite cushy. Meals also were widely varied, from cheap street rice and delectable grilled market seafood to some of the best pizza we’ve found anywhere in the world (thank you chef Marco for leaving Italy for Indonesia!). Our stay here was drawn out somewhat by the need to renew our visa: once we returned from the dive trip we had already burned up three weeks of our allotted four, and with so much of Indonesia left that we might like to see, we decided to extend. This was a several-day overly complicated procedure of which I will spare you the details but we got through it fairly painlessly and took an extra day trip diving while we waited for it to process.

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at Kantor Imigrasi on tiny scooter
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this guy followed us from the hotel while we got coffee
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fanning the flames at the waterfront fish market
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deliciously fresh grilled squid

Our stay in ‘Bajo now draws to a close, having finally made plans to depart. I could totally just stay here and keep diving indefinitely – the idea of becoming a divemaster and instructor here is quite tempting! – but there is more of the world to see. At least for now.

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our final location, beachside lounging
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‘bye ‘Bajo!

Specifics: we stayed in Komodo Lodge (quite nice, and good value once you adjust for higher Bajo prices); Hotel Mutiara (very cheap for here; we survived 3 nights and were both happy to have saved some money and happy to depart); and Sylvia Resort (quite comfy but too far away from town). We dove with Blue Marlin Komodo (both liveaboard and a day trip) and Scuba Republic (a day trip). The Blue Marlin liveaboard was fantastic and I would absolutely recommend it. For the day trip I preferred Scuba Republic: their boat, though slower, is much more comfortable and it’s cheaper. We enjoyed eating at the public fish market down by the port; rice plates at Warung Mama; pizza at Made in Italy (yes it’s more expensive than normal Indonesian fare, but for what you get, it’s a good value); and having cold Prost beer and nachos at Blue Marlin’s sunset view patio.

Visa extension: took a total of three days and three visits (which were all quick and courteous for us). The office is on the other side of the airport so you need to get a ride or rent a motorbike. We had read and heard that unlike in Bali, Imigrasi here requires sponsors for every extension. We lined one up but then it turned out it wasn’t necessary, perhaps due to the fact that we weren’t doing our divemaster training (this was one of the few questions they asked). Come to your first visit dressed nicely, with photocopies of your passport page, visa page, a printout of your departure flight receipt, and a black pen, and you should be all set.

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