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NORTH KOMODO – NORTHERN EXPOSURE

By Nigel Marsh and Helen Rose

 

Komodo National Park is renowned for having some of the richest waters in Indonesia. The southern waters of Komodo are particularly famous for sensational dive sites, but also notorious for strong currents, cold thermoclines and murky plankton filled waters. However, there are also many incredible dive sites in North Komodo where divers will find far more enjoyable warm clear water.

 

Covering an area of 1733 square kilometres, Komodo National Park was one of the first protected marine parks in Indonesia. Originally founded in 1980 to protect the most famous inhabitant of the area, the Komodo dragon, the park was expanded in 1991 to incorporate the surrounding rich marine waters. The park encompasses the three large islands of Komodo, Rinca and Padar, but also includes dozens of smaller islands, reefs and sea mounts.

 

Boarded by the cool waters of the Sumba Sea in the south and the warm waters of the Flores Sea in the north, one of the reasons this area is so rich is because of the mixing of these two bodies of water. However, this mixing in the narrow channels between the islands of Komodo also creates very strong currents, up-wellings and down-wellings that can be a challenge for even experienced divers.

 

We had wanted to dive Komodo for a very long time, but after hearing many reports of cold dirty water it didn’t sound very appealing for a tropical dive holiday. But then we met Ah Gan, one of the owners of the liveaboard Blue Dragon that has been operating in Komodo for six years. Ah confirmed that Komodo can have cold dirty waters at times, but explained that these conditions were more common in South Komodo, especially if you go out of season. Ah added that the best time to dive South Komodo is January to April, and they generally don’t head south outside these months. He told us about a dive group that demanded to dive the famous dive sites of the south out of season, against the advice of the crew, and experienced these cold dirty waters, and then complained about it! Ah also mentioned the wonderful diving in North Komodo, which Blue Dragon explores from May to December, and added that these waters are always warmer and clearer than the south. We were sold, so booked on a journey to explore North Komodo in June.

 

Our exploration of North Komodo began in the town of Labuan Bajo, on the western tip of Flores, where Blue Dragon and what seems like another hundred liveaboard boats are based. While you can dive parts of Komodo from several shore based dive operators, to really explore these rich waters it is best to join a liveaboard vessel.

 

Labuan Bajo harbour is quite a sight, a real journey back in time, as the harbour is full of traditional timber boats that look like they have been plying these waters for hundreds of years. Blue Dragon is one of these boats, 26m long and only six years old, but constructed in the traditional Phinisi style gives the boat a lot of character and makes it look much older. Blue Dragon accommodates 14 divers in seven air-conditioned cabins. The boat is basic, but having positioned itself at the budget end of the market this is understandable, we found the boat comfortable, the crew professional and the meals very tasty, but also discovered that the crew didn’t compromise on diver safety. Each week Blue Dragon departs for a six day trip into the Komodo National Park.

 

CHECK IT OUT

Boarding Blue Dragon at lunch time we were scheduled to depart straight away, with our first dive to be at 2pm. However, two late arrivals, due to a diverted flight, meant a late departure and a checkout dive outside the Komodo National Park. In fact our checkout dive was only just outside the harbour at a spot called Sture Rock. Checkout dives can sometimes be a little average and this one didn’t look promising with green water lapping around the boat.

 

Descending down a rock wall the visibility was only 10m, but at least the water was warm at 29°C. At first the rock wall was only sparsely covered in coral, but the deeper we got the better it got. Arriving at the base of the wall at 20m we were greatly surprised by the wonderful corals – gorgonians, ascidians, sponges, soft corals and sea whips. We had barely been on the bottom for a few seconds before Helen found a zeno crab clinging to a sea whip. For the next hour we had a delightful dive exploring this unexpectedly rich dive site. We found a great variety of nudibranchs and reef fish, plus mantis shrimps, porcelain crabs, jawfish, shrimp gobies, banded pipefish, thousands of yellow sea cucumbers and many other invertebrates.

 

This site also made for a wonderful night dive with no shortage of subjects for our cameras. Darkness saw the emergence of a large variety of crustaceans – spider crabs, decorator crabs, hermit crabs, crayfish, coral crabs and numerous shrimps. But other creatures we found included two huge basket stars, flatworms, moray eels, squid and several pretty nudibranchs.

 

THE SEA MOUNTS

Overnight we had a short two hour journey into the heart of the Komodo National Park. We woke to find ourselves anchored off the northern end of Komodo Island with bright blue water surrounding the boat. After a detailed briefing from our dive guide Syam we were keen to get into the water to dive one of North Komodo’s premier dive sites – Castle Rock.

 

Blue Dragon operates two tenders for dropping off and picking up divers, and also for safety reasons because of the currents in the area. Our group loaded into a tender and headed out into open water and on the signal we rolled overboard. Descending we were happy to find little current, but even more pleased to find the visibility 30m and the water a pleasant 27°C. We then followed Syam into the blue, until a dark shape materialised; a sea mount covered in fish!

 

Castle Rock rises from deep water to within 3m of the surface. We settled at 30m and were surrounded by spectacular corals, but we hardly paid the coral any attention as we couldn’t take our eyes off all the fish! Swarming around us were thick schools of batfish, trevally, snappers, fusiliers and surgeonfish. But if that wasn’t enough there were also a dozen white-tip reef sharks, several large Maori wrasse, mackerels, sweetlips, gropers and several patrolling giant trevally. We had heard that big fish were a feature of Komodo, we just hadn’t expected so many!

 

I would have loved to have my wide angle lens, but had gone with a macro lens as you just don’t expect to see a sight like this on your first dive at a new location. Fortunately there was no shortage of macro subjects; leaf scorpionfish, lionfish, gobies, blennies, blue ribbon eels, porcelain crabs, cleaner shrimps, nudibranchs and a wealth of small reef fish kept my camera busy. Castle Rock proved a great introduction to North Komodo diving.

 

Our next dive was on another sea mount; but this one broke the surface and is called Crystal Rock. I had very wisely changed to a wide angle lens as we explored this colourful pinnacle, which was washed by a current that limited us to one side of the rock. Crystal Rock is decorated with spectacular corals; golden soft corals, huge barrel sponges, forests of sea whips, gorgonians and pretty hard corals in the shallows. But we were once again distracted by all the large fish; schools of trevally, snapper and sweetlips, plus more reef sharks, Maori wrasse, batfish and gropers. In two dives at North Komodo we had seen more big fish than any other destination we have dived in Indonesia.

 

THE BIG DRIFT

With currents always present at Komodo drift diving is popular and unavoidable, with some of the best drift dives done in the narrow channels between islands. Our first drift dive ended up having little current as we explored The Cauldron. This site had a mix of everything; coral gardens, coral walls and a sandy channel, all decorated with pretty corals. We were looking at the big stuff again; the snappers, sweetlips, trevally, groper and reef sharks, but this site also had garden eels and even pygmy sea horses.

 

The drift dive at Golden Passage was a lot more exciting, with a very fast paced current. We zoomed over coral gardens and small coral heads, but there were also plenty of caves and ledges to investigate at this site. The corals were a particular feature of Golden Passage, large gorgonians, big barrel sponges and walls covered in radiant soft corals. We spotted garden eels, turtles, humphead parrotfish, moray eels, flowery gropers, sweetlips, snapper, batfish and trevally, but the highlight was a school of barracuda.

 

The most famous drift dive at North Komodo is Manta Point, and with a name like that it is naturally the local manta ray hangout. Unfortunately we didn’t see any manta rays in the two dives we did there as the conditions were just too good – too clear and too warm, as the manta rays gather here to feed on plankton. We may have missed the manta rays but we still had two enjoyable dives at Manta Point, exploring coral gardens, coral walls and even a vast plain of coral rubble. This coral rubble at first looked quite barren, but a closer inspection revealed blue ribbon eels, nudibranchs, mantis shrimps, gobies, boxfish and cowfish. Manta Point also seemed to have a large population of hawksbill turtles that were too busy eating sponges to be worried about us.

 

OUR FAVOURITE

On every trip there is always a dive that you remember above all others, and at North Komodo it was Batu Belong. This pinnacle of rock rises a few metres above the water level and then plummets into deep water. Usually washed by strong currents, which restricts diving to one side of the rock, we managed to descend on Batu Belong between tides and almost circumnavigated the entire pinnacle.

 

We were captivated by this site as soon as we descended, with the sloping wall in front of us completely covered in lovely corals, with not a bare patch of rock to be seen. However, we could hardly see the corals for the clouds of small fish – swarms of fairy basslets, damsels, surgeonfish, triggerfish and fusiliers.  We also encountered plenty of bigger fish; sweetlips, batfish, Maori wrasse, snapper, trevally, gropers and white-tip reef sharks. Slowly moving along the wall we found numerous ledges and crevasses to investigate, home to moray eels, shrimps, pufferfish and squirrelfish. But this site also had more than its fair share of macro critters – leaf scorpionfish, porcelain crabs, blennies, lionfish and many colourful nudibranchs. We spent over an hour exploring Batu Belong and just didn’t want to surface and leave this rich pinnacle of life.

 

Fortunately we returned for a second visit, but this time the notorious Komodo current was running. The current was an impressive sight as it ripped around the rock, creating waves and whirlpools on the surface. Underwater it was quite calm in the sheltered pocket behind the rock, and there was even more fish life than the first dive, the calm side of the pinnacle the place to be. We saw all the same marine life, just more of it, plus a few hawksbill turtles that were sensibly staying out of the current.

 

A LITTLE MUCK

Komodo is most famous for its large fish and magnificent reefs, but for those after a critter fix North Komodo also has an excellent muck site called Wae Nilu. After enjoying warm blue water on every dive at North Komodo the green waters at Wae Nilu didn’t look very appealing. But once on the bottom the critters captivated us so much that the 10m visibility was not an issue.

 

We enjoyed three dives at this site, including a night dive, and where enthralled by the range of species on show. Wae Nilu has three very different environments, in the shallows are coral rubble banks, next there is the sloping bottom covered in soft corals, and as you get deeper there is a sloping sandy bottom. Each of these environments had their own critters, and each was great fun to explore.

 

Starting deep on the sandy bottom, around 16m to 20m, in this area we found shrimp gobies, jawfish, ghost pipefish, blue spotted stingrays, sea pens and many anemones with their resident anemonefish and commensal shrimps. There are also fire urchins to be seen here, one of which was home to a pair of zebra crabs. We didn’t spend a lot of time in this area as the best variety of critters was in the soft coral zone between 7m and 15m.

 

These small soft corals, and the sand patches between them, were home to lionfish, hermit crabs, blue ribbon eels, tiny cuttlefish, nudibranchs, leatherjackets, a rhino boxfish, flatworms, many juvenile reef fish and a huge number of mantis shrimps. At night we saw decorator crabs, shrimps, brittle stars, spider crabs and a demon stinger in this zone. But the standout creature for us in this area were all the thornback cowfish, they are just such a cute fish with their big eyes and perpetually pursed lips.

 

We probably should have spent more time in coral rubble zone, but saved this area for an extra-long safety stop. Here were hundreds of urchins and millions of cardinalfish, but the best critters were hidden in the rubble or between the sponges. Nudibranchs were a feature, including a few species we hadn’t seen before, but we also saw razorfish, juvenile sweetlips, small moray eels and numerous anemonefish and lionfish. But the highlight was several painted frogfish that were hiding in the sponges in only 6m of water. Wae Nilu is a wonderful muck site where just about any critter you desire can be found.

 

THE BIG LIZARD

After sixteen wonderful dives at North Komodo we packed our dive gear away, but our Komodo adventure wouldn’t have been complete without seeing a Komodo dragon. These giant lizards are found on a number of islands in the area, with Blue Dragon visiting Rinca Island, which is home to 2000 of these incredible beasts. Following a ranger guide, armed only with a wooden staff, we did a short trek and saw seven of these very large, but very lazy dragons. They are an impressive sight, but we would have liked to see them in a more natural setting, as all the ones we saw had taken up residence in the ranger’s camp, hoping for free feed. It was still a very entertaining visit to Rinca Island, as we also saw many of the animals that the dragons eat; deer, water buffalo and monkeys.

 

Our six day journey to North Komodo exposed us to some of the best diving we have experienced in Asia, and the water wasn’t cold or dirty. We are now keen to explore South Komodo, but we might have to pack a thicker wetsuit for that adventure!

 

 

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