Komodo, Diver’s Paradise
It’s not exactly a secret among experienced divers, but Komodo has some of the best diving in the world. While land-lubbers are more focused on the famous dragons, underwater fans realize that Komodo National Park protects some of the best preserved coral and underwater life on the planet.
Why? As with Nusa Lembongan, deep channels with cold currents from the south seem to be protecting much of the coral from the hot water streams that have ravaged calmer Asian waters to the north. So far bleaching seems to be relatively minimal. Moreover, nature has gifted Komodo with wild ripping currents which make dynamite fishing difficult. (They can blow up the reef, but the strong currents drag all the fish away.)
Beyond natural protection, national park status has preserved Komodo’s underwater treasures. Although poorly enforced, bans on fishing within the park seem to have slowed the overfishing that has occurred across much of Indonesia. The waters around Komodo still teem with life.
We each did a total of 18 dives here, the most we’ve ever done in one location. (In reality, I easily could have done 100 dives here, but diving ain’t cheap, people.) Komodo is blessed with a diverse selection of sites which range from seamounts such as Crystal Rock and Castle Rock to excellent coral-covered slopes such as Tatawa Besar and Siapa Kecil. Wall fans, such as myself, will also be happy with sites such as Tengah (Pengah), Batu Bulong, and spectacular Tatawa Kecil. And the wildlife…
Currents bring in huge schools of fish as well as large numbers of sharks and rays. Wildlife is everywhere and blacktips, whitetips, grey reef sharks, Napoleon wrasse, mantas, marble rays, eagle rays, and bumphead parrotfish are regular visitors. Incredibly, we saw mantas at four different sites, including Makassar reef where large numbers of mantas are commonly found. On multiple dives we witnessed giant trevallies hunting in vast clouds of fusiliers. As if that weren’t enough, we found pygmy seahorses at at least three different locations. But diving these sites can be somewhat challenging.
Komodo is famous for (or rather notorious for) its legendary waters. Quickly shifting tides, eddies, swells, down currents, up currents, and whirl pools can leave divers scrambling for their lives. Many of Komodo’s sites are not really appropriate for newbie divers, although that in no way stops them from coming. Good dive guides are absolutely essential for a quality dive experience, not to mention for your safety.
Because of the extreme conditions, Thomas and I chose to go with very experienced local guides. Both of our guides, Darmin and Vincent, had done over a thousand dives in local waters and were intimately familiar with each site we dove. Dive briefings with elaborate site maps were extremely detailed and included alternatives for dangerous current shifts. Both guides read currents from the surface quite well and moved through sites with ease indicating exactly where to swim to avoid swirling eddies and invisible obstacles. With their help, the currents became an attraction rather than a danger.
In fact, several dives feature the currents. We did an amazing dive through Golden Passage that felt a bit like we were diving white-water rapids. This was Komodo diving at it’s best with washing machine currents and storms of fish in all directions. But even experienced divers get caught off guard. Our dive guide Darmin zigged when he should have zagged and ended up doing a couple of somersaults over some rocks and coral. Ouch! My adrenaline was off the charts all the way through. But challenge reaps reward, the crazy currents whipped up a visual feast of underwater life which simply does not occur in calm waters. We held on to a couple of rocks flapping around in the hurricane currents watching the live version of a Jacques Cousteau’s greatest moments. It was worth the trip to Indonesia for this one dive alone.
Another magical moment occurred at magnificent Tatawa Kecil. Strong but manageable currents kept us close to the northern wall as we moved from the pygmy seahorses up through the cave through some crevices towards the shallow shelf near the surface. As we swam up over the edge of the wall, the mind-blowing panorama of table coral growth came into view. Great visibility with perfect lighting highlighted the incomparable site of layer upon layer of pastel table coral clinging to every bit of rock. Pure, 100 percent aquatic fantasy. (I could actually hear Thomas gasp underwater.) It instantly made it into my top ten list of most spectacular sights on the planet. The above photo DOES NOT do it justice.
But if spectacular coral and pelagic overload don’t do it for you, there’s more than enough to keep macro fans entertained. Wainilu in northern Rinca offered up some posing harlequin shrimp, bright yellow box fish, twig-like pipefish, and a plethora of hard to identify shrimp and crab species. (Night dives must be amazing here.) Tengah (Pengah) also featured a ton of crocodilefish, orangutan crabs, anemone shrimp galore, and several varieties of scorpionfish. Night dives along the wall at Tatawa Besar revealed some stunning giant crab species, decorator crabs, a variety of spider crabs, painted rock lobsters and our first slipper lobster (yay!!!). And don’t miss Siaba Kecil if you are looking for mandarin fish. Half the species we spotted here were not in any of our wildlife guides – now that’s good diving.
In a way, Komodo just might make it hard to dive other locations in the future. It’s so intense, so rewarding that it just might have set the bar too high. What could we possibly do to top it? I guess we’ll just have to shell out some dough for the holy grail of diving, Raja Ampat. But could Raja possibly be any better than this?
Tips for diving Komodo
Thomas and I really shopped Komodo. We went to virtually every dive shop in town to discuss offerings and dive prices.
To be honest, as was the case in Puerto Galera in the Philippines, we were quite underwhelmed by what we found. Several big name operations had people manning the shops who could barely speak English let alone answer specific questions about dive sites or Komodo highlights. One very well known operation told us that Makassar reef featured 16 different kinds of mantas – yikes!!! We hightailed it out of there quickly. (I won’t mention the operator because we are hoping it was just a fluke.)
Considering a splurge, we priced several high-end liveaboards. Since we had arrived late in the season, most liveaboards seemed to be limiting their dives to classic Komodo sites in northern waters, which we could easily reach on day trips. We pushed for options that included southern Komodo and southern Rinca, but offerings were limited and pricey with warnings of rough seas and bad visibility. After doing the math and considering the limited offerings, it seemed that day trips out of Labuanbajo would offer us more bang for our buck. (We’re not looking for fancy cabins, we want to dive, dive, dive!!!)
We ended up going with Komodo Aqua Diving. Business savvy Reny and knowledgeable dive guide Darmin won us over with what seemed to be the most competent reception in town. Although we did have a couple of boat breakdowns, which caused limited delays, Darmin and second guide Vincent were both professional and clearly very knowledgeable. We loved every dive and grew to appreciate their talent greatly.
During our stay in Komodo, we began to understand that while local operations can initially seem somewhat unprofessional, the dive guides themselves are highly skilled individuals, often with years of training. This presents an interesting choice for visitors to Komodo: go foreign or go local. Seemingly professional foreign-run liveaboards based out of Bali or Lombok (or occasionally relocating from Thailand) get the glitz and the glam right, but what is the dive experience really like? Some foreign dive masters we met had worked several seasons in Komodo, but they lacked the intimate knowledge of Komodo sites and currents that can make or break your experience. We also noticed several high end operations diving in relatively large groups. We can’t help but wonder if they were using a lead local guide to navigate the site with foreign dive masters to handle the large number of people. In iffy situations which require quick decision making, that is not a great setup.
We’ve heard numerous scary accounts of divers being led into down currents or eddies, especially around sites like the Cauldron or Batu Bulong. Although it is difficult to determine how many of these stories are true, we began to wonder how many of these stories were due to guides with insufficient knowledge of the currents rather than currents themselves. We dove several sites with strong quickly shifting currents and Darmin and Vincent navigated the challenges with ease.
We are not stating that local operators are always superior to foreign-run operators. We are simply suggesting that divers need to consider many variables when choosing a dive shop or liveaboard. Komodo is not diving 101 – a good dive guide here is much more important than a fancy cabin or a nice boat – so chose wisely.