N I G E L M A R S H P H O T O G R A P H Y
U N D E R W A T E R I M A G E S A N D A R T I C L E S
BLUE DRAGON - KOMODO LIVEABOARD DIVING ON A BUDGET
By Nigel Marsh and Helen Rose
Komodo has some of the best diving in Indonesia and the easiest way to explore the rich waters of the Komodo National Park is on a liveaboard boat. Numerous liveaboards of all shapes and sizes ply these waters, but for those on a budget that wish to experience the best of Komodo you should look no further than Blue Dragon.
We first heard about Blue Dragon at a dive expo when talking to Ah Gan, one of the partners of Blue Forest that own the boat and also a dive resort in Malaysia. They were looking for exposure in the Australian market, and we thought they had a product that would appeal to Aussie divers, liveaboard diving at a great destination and at an affordable price. We exchanged details and soon had some dates arranged for a visit.
Blue Dragon has been exploring the waters of Komodo for the past six years. When they first set up business in the area there was only a handful of boats exploring these bountiful waters, but since then several dozen more boats have appeared on the scene. A typical Blue Dragon trip is six days, and includes 16 dives and also a visit to view the famous Komodo dragons.
Our exploration of Komodo began in Labuan Bajo, a small town on the western end of Flores, about one and a half hours flight time from Bali. Joining us on our trip was Ah Gan and also divers from Malaysia, Indonesia, China, New Zealand and Australia. Our first stop was the local supermarket to stock up on beer and other treats. While meals, tea, coffee and bottle water are included in your trip price you need to BYO any other food and drink, and the local supermarket is quite cheap with Bintang beer only $1.20 a can.
Our first view of Labuan Bajo harbour was like stepping back in time, the picturesque harbour dotted with hundreds of traditional timber boats, with one of the larger ones Blue Dragon. Built six years ago, but looking like it was over a hundred years old with its traditional Phinisi style and materials, Blue Dragon is 26m long with three levels and accommodates 14 guests in air-conditioned cabins. We quickly settled in our double cabin with en-suite, which was small but comfortable, and then checked out the rest of the boat.
Our cabin was on the lower level, with two other double cabins. On the middle level are four cabins with bunk beds and share bathroom, plus the kitchen, crew quarters and dive deck, which was small but quite functional with hanging space and wash tubs. The upper level has a large covered lounge/dining area, where we spent most of our time, and also a sundeck and bridge. There was also an upper sundeck above this level, which was a great spot for afternoon drinks while watching the sunset.
The crew, all local guys, were friendly and extremely helpful, and included three experienced dive guides, boat handlers, the cook, deck hands and of course the skipper. With our group consisting of 16 divers we discovered that Blue Dragon have a second smaller boat (Komodo Trails) tailor made for two to six guests, so four of the group stayed on this boat but joined us each day for meals and dives from the larger boat.
With the late arrival of two guests our afternoon checkout dive was delayed until 4pm and ended up being at a site not far from the harbour. Anchoring at a small island called Sture Rock, the crew got the two tender boats ready, which were always in the water to drop off and pickup divers, while our guide Syam gave us a detailed dive brief.
Once in the water we found the visibility was only 10m, but the temperature was lovely at 29°C. We didn't expect much from this checkout dive but were quickly surprised by the rich coral, numerous reef fish and a good collection of invertebrates. We explored a rocky wall covered in pretty corals in depths to 25m, and saw sea whips with zeno crabs and gobies on them, lovely gorgonians and soft corals, huge barrel sponges, nudibranchs, moray eels, mantis shrimps, banded pipefish and thousands of yellow sea cucumbers. Our only complaint about this site was the silt, which covered the corals, but we should have expected this at a site so close to the harbour. We also did a brilliant night dive at this site and marvelled at all the nocturnal critters; crayfish, hermit crabs, decorator crabs, spider crabs, basket stars and squid.
Overnight we travelled two hours west into the heart of the Komodo National Park. Diving in June our itinerary was to explore the northern section of Komodo in the Flores Sea. We had hoped to dive Komodo's most famous dive site, the legendary Cannibal Rock which is in South Komodo in the Sumba Sea. However, as Ah Gan explained the diving in Komodo is very seasonal, with the south best in January to April and the north dived the rest of the year. The crew want to show their guests the best dive sites with the best conditions and are very safety conscience, as this area is notorious for strong currents. Following the crew’s advice is highly recommended, as Ah told us about a dive group that ignored this advice and demanded they go south out of season, and experienced cold dirty water and then complained about it!
We were a little disappointed that we couldn't dive Cannibal Rock, but when we woke the next morning to calm seas and lovely blue waters we knew that following the crews advice would be the best move. Our first real dive in Komodo National Park was to be the famous Castle Rock, one of Komodo's premier dive sites, and it didn't disappoint.
This pinnacle of rock rises from deep water and terminates just below the surface. Gin clear 30m visibility greeted us as we descended on this sea mount, as did swarms of fish; schools of batfish, trevally, surgeonfish and fusiliers. But swimming amongst these thick schools of fish were also white tip reef sharks, gropers, GT's, mackerel and Maori wrasse. Protection has obviously worked in this area as this was one of the fishiest dive sites we have seen in Asia. There was just so much to see on Castle Rock it was hard to know which way to look, at the wonderful corals decorating the bottom, the multitudes of reef fish, the abundant invertebrate species or at all the larger fish cruising around us. Ah had warned me to put on a wide angle lens, but I had been lazy and left on the macro lens, I would have regretted this if there hadn't also been some great critters like leaf scorpionfish, porcelain crabs, nudibranchs and blue ribbon eels. We surfaced from this dive buzzing with excitement.
This dive really set the tone for some incredible dives over the next four days. We dived similarly impressive pinnacles at Crystal Rock and Batu Belong that left us spellbound by the rich mix of corals and marine life, especially the thick schools of reef and pelagic fish. We also enjoyed drift dives at The Cauldron and Golden Passage, seeing lovely corals, schools of pelagic fish, gropers, turtles and white tip reef sharks.
Currents, up-welling and down-welling are one of the reasons that Komodo is such an incredible dive destination, as they bring rich nutrients to these reefs, but can also make the diving a challenge at times. The dive guides on Blue Dragon are very mindful of this and gave very detailed briefings before each dive and always had two tender boats in the water for quick diver pickups. Up-welling in particular can bring unexpected thermoclines; we came prepared with hood and vests, but never needed them, enjoyed 27°C to 29°C water temperature on every dive.
Komodo is well known for manta rays with Manta Point the main manta site in the north, but the diving conditions were just too nice for mantas, as Syam said "too clear and too warm for manta". We did two nice drift dives at this site, which is quite unusual with a sand-dune-like bottom of broken coral, but with plenty of fish and invertebrate species to be seen. We saw turtles, cuttlefish, gropers, blue ribbon eels and moray eels, but another group were lucky enough to see a manta.
On any liveaboard one of the most important elements for a successful trip is the food, as divers are a hungry mob, and on Blue Dragon the food was plentiful and delicious. Most of it was local Indonesian cuisine, and it was a treat, wonderful satays, curries, noodles and other tasty dishes. There was also fresh fruit and afternoon sweet treats. It was also a joy just cruising around so many picturesque islands in calm seas.
On day three a windy afternoon saw us retreat to the shelter behind Sebayur Island, the reef here is usually a checkout dive site but was very enjoyable with 30m visibility. Exploring the colourful reef we saw turtles, crocodile fish, garden eels, gropers, schools of trevally and fusiliers and also a large cuttlefish. The night dive at this site was also impressive with many crustaceans on the move.
All the sites we dived were great for either wide angle or macro photography, but our final three dives were exclusively for macro lovers. The sandy beach at Wae Nilu is a wonderful muck site with sand, coral rubble and soft coral gardens to explore. We first did this site at night and were very impressed by the critters, but it was even better during the day. We did 90 and 80 minute dives here and saw mantis shrimps, nudibranchs, flatworms, cowfish, ghost pipefish, frogfish, commensal shrimps, zebra crabs, shrimp gobies, razorfish, cuttlefish, demon stingers, blue ribbon eels and many other species. The visibility was only 10m at this site, but it was perfect for macro photography.
After five wonderful days of diving it was time to pack the dive gear away and get ready for dragons. In the afternoon Blue Dragon pulled into a calm lagoon at Rinca Island, where the rangers have their headquarters. We went ashore and picked up a few guides and went in search of the legendary Komodo dragon. There are around 2000 dragons on Rinca Island, as well as monkeys, deer, water buffalo and pigs, and the dragons eat all of them, plus the odd human. We didn't know how far we would have to trek to see a dragon, but it ended up being just to the ranger’s camp where seven large fat dragons were laying below the camp kitchen waiting for handouts. They were still an impressive sight and topped off a wonderful trip to Komodo.
We enjoyed six wonderful days on Blue Dragon and are already planning a returned trip to explore South Komodo. The boat is charming, a little rustic with a few faults, but we have been on far worst liveaboards in Australia in the past. However, it was easy to ignore these minor faults when you remember the budget price and the wonderful diving to be experienced in Komodo National Park.
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