I emerge from my hotel room to prepare for the first day of diving in Komodo National Park. In the next couple of days, my life can be summarized in a dive mantra, Eat Sleep Dive Repeat. Komodo National Park is accessible via Labuan Bajo fishing town. As the first dive site is located 45 minutes away from Labuan Bajo port, we set sail and embark on a journey to enter the area designated as Komodo National Park, inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991. The 45-minutes journey provides a beguiling impression of what would be a fantastic diving trip.
Located at the juncture of two continental plates, the marine ecosystems are the shatter belt for Australia and Sunda ecosystems. To date, there are approximately 40 dive sites identified to cater for diving tourism and many others either remaining unexplored or requiring deep sea diving technical skills. Komodo National Park lies within the coral triangle of the Indo-Pacific region. It is one of the world’s best dive destinations.
From the speed boat, we shift to a proper dive boat meant for 20-30 pax. By proper dive boat, I mean to say there are rooms for live aboard expeditions, kitchen and toilets. The captain of our dive boat skillfully moor the anchor to secure the dive boat as we near our first dive site, the Castle Rock. A skill one has to master so as not to damage the reefs. Pre-dive routine of prepping our gears begin.
With a back roll negative entry, I descend down the crystal-clear water in a group of 8 divers following closely Karim and Pak Salleh, the dive masters. The dive site is known as Castle Rock, a seamount covered with psychedelic coral reefs teeming with invertebrates and fishes. The drop off depends on the current movement. It is wise to expect some serious current, topping seven knots of water movement. In our case, the strong current prepares us to what is the default situation in most dive sites in Komodo National Park.
As buddy system is essential in diving, I pair up with Diki, who is a dive instructor himself. I have never done a back roll negative entry before. In fact, I only heard of it for the first time on the dive day. Most of the dive sites in Komodo National Park lie in the open sea, so it is always a back roll negative entry depending on the strong surface current. When it is time for me to descend, I realize I am descending way to fast that my dive computer produces a beeping sound. An alert for fast descent. I almost freak out when I realize I am already at 32m depth. 32 meters depth at a blink of an eye. I lose Diki my dive buddy, but there are few others who fight hard kicking to an acceptable depth. I choose to resurface after a safety stop; Pak Salleh is with me when I resurface. When we change note later, atleast 3 – 4 divers were pulled to more than 30m depth.
If you get caught in a down current, try to remain calm. Stop. Think. And then act. Maintain natural breathing to conserve air, and swim out into the blue. Although you may be in a scary situation, remember that down currents generally become weaker further away from the wall or drop off. While you’re swimming out, you also want to swim up — aim to swim a 45-degree angle. (Scuba Diver Life)
I feel lucky that Pak Salleh is with me on the boat. After gaining composure, we make our descent near the seamount. I am spared the strong current the rest of the diving team had to experience.
As soon as I reach the rock formation, the current is bearable and I get to enjoy the vibrant colours of the reef and fishes. The huge schools of pelagic marine life are bound to steal the show as they swim pass the deep blue waters. The free swimmers are giant Napolean wrasse, barracuda, reef sharks, bumphead parrotfish, dogtooth tuna and the like. Nearby, schools of fusiliers make a pulsating force that bring the whole underwater to life.
Located just few hundred meters from Castle Rock lies another spectacular dive site known as Crystal Rock, which is a part of a series of seamounts that form a chain with Castle Rock and Gili Lawa Laut. As I make a quick negative entry descent, sunshine sparkles over the clear water as though I am gliding through transparent waters into a colourful oceanic aquarium.
Crystal Rock thrives with soft corals and abundant reef fishes since the currents feed the life at the reefs. Vividly coloured soft corals together with giant barrel sponges and impressive table corals spread beyond the horizon with thousands of anthias and schools of yellow-ribbon sweetlips. Watch out for the black snappers, blue finned trevally, big eyed trevally, tuna, mackerel and white tip reef sharks for incredible big fish schooling action. The best time to dive at Crystal Rock is during the slack tide – the time when the tide is turning.
The next dive brings us to Batu Bolong, a local name for the hollow rock, which is a rock pinnacle in the middle of the sea. It is the home to some of the strongest currents in Komodo with down current on the east and west of the rock.
During the briefing, the dive master warns us to be extra careful with the down current and stay close to the wall. We descend to a depth of 23.3m before zigzagging up the enchanted rocky wall and gliding pass abundant healthy coral and reef fishes.
Since there is no opportunity to drift due to strong currents, it is worth to stay awhile to witness the dynamic spectrum of the underwater wonder where survival, prey and camouflage are the way of life. As I struggle for neutral buoyancy, I witness the beauty of marine life beyond imagination. Apart from reefs and fishes, Batu Bolong also offers pelagic action with sharks, turtles, tuna, barracuda and wrasse high on the bill.
Let truth be told that Batu Bolong remains as one of my favourite dive sites in this entire world.
The star attraction of Komodo National Park’s underwater world is the school of mantas foraging for the planktons, which they prey into their mouths using their distinctive cephalic lobes. There are two manta points in Komodo National Park which would allow you to experience diving with the gentle giants; Taka Makassar (Manta Point) and Manta Alley. On the way to Taka Makassar, the dive guides point to black flapping wing underneath our dive boat. The first glimpse of the mantas excites us all until we realize our boat is tilting to the right because we are all standing at one side of the boat. Too much excitement over mantas, I suppose!
As we descend the Taka Makassar dive site, a grey reef shark is seen resting at the bottom of the seabed. The visibility is between five to ten metres due to the density of the plankton in the water.
Just as I am about to make mental note of the different underwater environment from the previous three dive sites, two huge mantas swim pass us, flapping their pectoral triangular wings which make them look as if they were flying graciously in the water. The upper body of the manta is black or dark brown, while the lower body is white. The giant manta rays are often seen swimming against the current, filtering the planktons. Here, remain as flat as possible to the bottom to encourage the manta rays to stay on the reef top. Some will inch closer to check you out and play around the bubbles that tickle their lower bodies.
Komodo National Park is also known for its muck diving or macro diving where divers would roam the muddy sediment that lies at the bottom of the dive sites in search for macro creatures such as nudibranchs, shrimp, octopus, seahorses etc. Muck diving is for the trained eyes since most of the time the creatures are only as small as an inch. As we have too short a time to try all muck dive sites in Komodo National Park, we only get to dive in Siaba Besar.
A pair of trained eyes would notice slimy psychedelic two-horned sea slugs clinging tight to the corals and sponges or crawling on the seabed. The nudibranchs as they are called, are popular creatures among underwater photographers. Later, I spot two crabs carrying two jellyfishes struggling to escape. Gliding forward, a blue-spotted stingray scrabbles the sand for mollusks and worms. The flamboyant cuttlefish graces our presence by changing its skin colour and pattern in a blink of an eye. It lives up to its name by perpetually flashing vibrant yellow, maroon, brown, white and red along its body. Other macro dive sites are Wingkol, Namu Island, Sarang Island, Cannibal Rock and Three Sisters.
Our final dive is the Three Sisters, which is three seamounts lying on a 30m sandy bottom. It is known for macro and reef diving. Descending down to the sandy bottom, the surrounding is covered with murky sediments; a perfect site for macro diving. Due to the strong current, our dive plan is to dive around the walls of the seamount. The walls are covered with soft and hard corals and the visibility is as far as 15m – 20m. As we do our safety stop routine at 5m deep, a school of giant blue finned trevally swim around us to ambush the reef fishes.
The dive trip to Komodo National Park was made possible by Wonderful Indonesia dive tourism campaign for Malaysia and Singapore market from 19.09.2016 – 23.09.2016. A report of the dive fam trip was also published in Gaya Travel Magazine 11.6. Also a shout out to Utusan’s underwater photographer, Mohd Hazli Hassan aka Bobo for giving me permission to use his underwater pictures (those with watermarks).