By Farah Nadiah on May 2, 2018
Some 30 years ago, the legendary dive-master Pak Condo Subagyo travelled on foot from his hometown in Central Java towards east Indonesia in search for the meaning of life. He chanced upon Komodo National Park, which is located within the Lesser Sunda and made a life-changing decision to base in Labuan Bajo and dive in Komodo National Park, day in and day out. Today, he speaks of Komodo National Park as paradise on earth with scenic islets and mind-blowing underwater wonderland. My recent diving trip to Komodo National Park reaffirms Pak Condo’s undying love towards Komodo’s aquatic and marine life. Having dived at some of the world’s best diving destinations, Komodo diving experience tops the list.
I emerge from my hotel room to prepare for the first day of dives in Komodo National Park. For the next couple of days, my life can be summarised in a dive mantra: Eat Sleep Dive Repeat. Komodo National Park is accessible via Labuan Bajo fishing town. Since the first dive site is located 45 minutes away from Labuan Bajo port, we set sail to the designated Komodo National Park, inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991. The journey provides a beguiling impression of what would be a fantastic diving trip.
Located where the Australia and Sundanese continental plates meet, the park is the shatter belt for the ecosystems from both plates. Komodo National Park lies within the coral triangle of the Indo-Pacific region, making it one of the world’s best destinations for diving. To date, there are approximately 40 dive sites identified to cater for diving tourism, while others remain unexplored or require technical deep-sea diving skills.
Dive #1: Castle Rock
With a back roll negative entry, I descend down the crystal-clear water in a group of eight divers following closely dive masters Karim and Pak Salleh. The dive site, known as Castle Rock, is 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 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 it swims past the deep blue waters. The free swimmers here are giant Napolean wrasse, barracuda, reef sharks, bumphead parrotfish, dogtooth tuna and the like. Nearby, schools of fusiliers make pulsating force that brings the whole underwater to life.
Dive #2: Crystal Rock
Just a few hundred metres from Castle Rock lies another spectacular dive site called Crystal Rock, which I make quick water as though I am gliding through transparent water sonic 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 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.
Dive #3: Batu Bolong
The next dive brings us to Batu Bolong 23.3 metres before up the enchanted rocky wall and gliding pass abundant healthy corals and reef fishes.o
Dive #4: Taka Makassar
The star attraction of Komodo National Park’s underwater world is the school of mantas foraging for planktons, which they prey into their mouths using their distinctive cephalic lobes. There are two manta points in Komodo National Park that afford divers the experience of diving with these gentle giants: Taka Makassar (Manta Point) and Manta Alley. As we ride towards 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 realise that our boat is tilting to the right because we are all standing at one side of the boat!
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 10 metres due to the density of the plankton in the water. Just as I am about to make a mental note of the different underwater environment from the previous three dive sites, two huge mantas swim by, flapping their pectoral triangular wings that 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. When diving here, divers are recommended to remain as flat as possible at the bottom to encourage the manta rays to remain on the reef top. Some will inch closer to check you out and play around the bubbles that tickle their lower bodies.
Dive #5: Siaba Besar
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 the 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. Since 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 the 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 molluscs and worms. The flamboyant cuttlefish graces our presence by changing its skin colour and pattern in a blink of an eye, living 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.
Dive #6: Three Sisters
Our final dive is the Three Sisters, which comprises three seamounts known for macro and reef diving, lying at a 30-metre sandy bottom. As I make my descent, the water is covered with murky sediments, perfect for macro diving. Due to the strong current, our plan is to dive around the walls of the seamount, which are covered with soft and hard corals, with visibility as far as 15 to 20 metres. As we do our five-metre deep safety stop routine, a school of giant blue finned trevally swims around us to ambush the reef fishes.
Komodo Dragon Watching
During the day off from diving, there are plenty of activities to do within the Komodo National Park. One interesting activity is to catch a glimpse of the Komodo dragons, whose ancestors can be traced back as far as the Cretaceous Era, beginning slightly after the end of the Jurassic period. The world’s largest lizards have adapted to the harsh environment of Komodo National Park and can be found in Komodo, Rinca, Gili Motang and Nusa Kode. However, there are only two gateways for visitors to see the dragons: Loh Liang in Komodo Island or Loh Buaya in Rinca Island. Although there are more Komodo dragons on Komodo Island, the chance to encounter the Komodo dragons on Rinca Island is higher due to its smaller land size.
The long-tailed macaques welcome us at Loh Buaya pier as they sit on the mangrove trees that surround Rinca Island. As we traverse the 600-metre nature path, the vast and barren hilly panorama unfolds. Two deer stand on their two legs reaching for the leaves of a banyan tree where a Komodo dragon weighing over 120 kilograms lies sleeping under it. Since Komodo dragons are effective predators whose method of killing is by ambushing along the game trails or at the water holes, all visitors must be accompanied by a ranger inside the area. I follow the ranger who is holding a stick as protection for a medium route trekking that takes 2 hours to complete. Besides the rolling mountains, there are dragon prey skulls, dragon nests, wild animals, open savanna and a panoramic view from the peak of Rinca Island.
Panoramic View at Padar Island
The most scenic view must be from the peak of Padar Island, the third largest island in Komodo National Park, where three horseshoe bays can be seen in one shot. Dropping by at the anonymous bay while waiting for one of the dives, I hike the porous loose rock hill under the searing hot sun one baby step at a time. There is almost no tree along the trek to shelter me from the sun. When I claim a break in the disguise of tiredness, I stop, turn back and enjoy the view. Padar’s majestic vistas make the profusely sweaty experience worthwhile. For divers planning to hike on Padar Island, be sure to use proper hiking shoes, sunscreen, and a hat.
Pink Beach or Pantai Merah
On the other side of Padar Island, there lies a stretch of beach known as Pantai Merah or the Pink Beach, derived from the pink colour of the sand that is caused by microscopic animals called Foraminifera that produce a red pigment on the coral reefs. When the corals break off and wash ashore, they are combined with fine sand to produce the pink tint that can be seen especially during dusk and dawn. The beach is a spectacular choice for snorkelers and beginner divers since both soft and hard corals fringe the shoreline with abundant fishes.
Café.In.Hit is arguably the best coffee shop in Labuan Bajo. The smell of rich coffee lingers as soon as one enters this coffee shop. The Le Pirate Restaurant next door offers western and seafood cuisine in a pirate-inspired setting. The seafront Seafood Tree Top Restoran is famous for its fusion Chinese food, with steamed and grilled fishes cooked in three types of sauce or sweet-sour as their speciality, considered as Labuan Bajo cuisine. For the adventurous foodie, there is a row of seafood stalls close to the main jetty or at Wisata Kuliner Kampung Ujung for them to taste authentic grassroots gastronomy.