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  • Writer's pictureAlly Landes

GET A LOAD O' KOMODO | Komodo National Park


A UNESCO MAN & BIOSPHERE RESERVE AND WORLD HERITAGE SITE

Komodo has been a dive bucket list destination for quite some time and with a little research, a plan quickly came together. The main highlight to doing this trip was to get in during the manta season, and June ticked all the boxes! I read good reviews that Scuba Junkie was a reputable operator and their newly established dive centre is in Komodo itself.


Indonesia’s Komodo National Park, established in 1980, was declared a UNESCO Man and Biosphere Reserve in 1986 and a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1992. It is located between the provinces of East Nusa Tenggara and West Nusa Tenggara. Boasting a total surface area of 1,817 km (marine and land),it mainly comprises three larger islands – Komodo itself, Rinca and Padar, while the rest of the park is made up of smaller islands, seamounts and pinnacles. It is most famous for being home to the last surviving population of wild Komodo dragons (around 3,000 of them) and for having one of the world’s richest marine environments. There are over 1,000 fish species, almost 300 types of coral, 70 sponges, 14 species of whales, six turtle species, and even dugongs in this protected area.


Komoda National Park
Komodo National Park

In the north of the park is the Flores Sea, fed by the Pacific Ocean, and in the south is the Sumba Sea which is fed by the Indian Ocean. These two massive bodies of water move through the park spreading nutrients, which creates a very rich marine world. The park is known for its currents which are a big part of why the marine life is so varied. The currents are responsible for keeping the water nutrients rich by means of the constant water movements. This is one of the reasons there is such a healthy manta ray population in the area. There is, however, no guarantee of seeing them.


When a line of turquoise divides deep and shallow waters.

The science behind the success of this marine park’s health is truly quite remarkable. The Komodo National Park is located between two oceans whose temperatures work conjointly. The Pacific Ocean feeds the Flores Sea with warm clear water for 6 months of the year, whilst the Indian Ocean feeds the Sumva Sea with cold and nutrient rich water. These two contrasted conditions complement each other well and in turn they swap roles, so the south of the park gets the warm clear water and the north in turn becomes cooler.


Komodo National Park
Komodo National Park
Komodo National Park

The start of your diving adventure begins in the small fishing town of Labuan Bajo at the western end of the large island of Flores. This is the gateway to the Komodo National Park. Komodo Airport is located just 2 km from Labuan Bajo’s centre (a 5-minute drive) with 4-6 daily flights arriving from Bali or elsewhere. Getting the flight arrival to coordinate with the dive centre’s boat departure is a bit of a gamble. We flew with Nam Air (Sriwijaya Air) and they rescheduled our flights twice, flying both in and out, which meant there was some unexpected waiting around to do. Scuba Junkie can organise a pick-up for your arrival so you at least know exactly how much to pay to get you from A (airport) to B (Scuba Junkie head office). We were advised to go and eat in the little Italian restaurant, La Cucina (the pizzas are great) which is a two-minute walk from Scuba Junkie’s head office where you connect to catch the boat over to the resort. The restaurant is charming and has a nice view from the terrace (except for the construction going on next door) overlooking the harbour, and they have WIFI to pass the time. Make the most of the WIFI if you need to as you won’t have any at the resort.


Labuan Bajo

We rendezvoused with the other dive guests at the head office after lunch and all our bags were loaded onto a pick-up truck, and we followed on foot through a little alley way to the harbour to board the transfer boat en route to Scuba Junkie’s Komodo Beach Resort which is an hour’s scenic boat ride, passing beautiful lush green islands all the way.


On reaching the Komodo Beach Resort, you are greeted by the Scuba Junkie staff who come to help carry your bags over and get you settled in the lounge area where you can enjoy a cold drink, coffee or tea and freshly baked goods of the day by the very talented kitchen staff. We got a batch of fresh donuts.


Scuba Junkie Komodo Resort hidden within the trees.

You are briefed on how things work at the resort and register your details, sign the liability releases and make your payment before checking into your room. Do not forget to renew and bring a copy of your dive insurance with you as you won’t be able to dive without it – remember, there is no WIFI at the resort so you can’t go online to retrieve it. If you did not opt to make a bank transfer for your resort stay and dives, it is important to note that the payment is made in cash, preferably in Indonesian Rupiah, or it can be made in USD, EURO or GBP. We made our payment in Indonesian Rupiah and it took 4 visits to ATM’s in Bali to be able to get the full amount out due to daily withdrawal limits. It’s a good job we had found this out at the very start of our trip. You’ll be carrying hundreds of local notes around, so make sure you have a big envelope to store it until you get to the resort. You will also need to purchase the Komodo national park permits at the resort and those are in Indonesian Rupiah only so get all your cash needs done on the mainland as you won’t be able to get cash on the islands.


There are 3 accommodation options available at the resort. There are a few Sea View en-suite Fan Rooms or Sea View en-suite AC Rooms (you need to be quick to book these), and then there are the Garden Bales for budget travellers with shared bathroom and shower units. The mattresses were unfortunately not at all comfortable in our room, so we didn’t sleep very well, but the Indonesian food served in the dining area was surprisingly the best food we had for the duration of our holiday. Those living on the island for long periods of time get a little tired of eating the same food every day so they serve international cuisine once a week, and our last night landed on their Italian night which was a real shame as the Indonesian food is really fantastic and it would have been nice to end the trip with the food they are best at. I discovered my first taste of tempeh and have been craving it since. Make sure you try their banana pancakes with Nutella for breakfast. You’ll thank me later!


You will be quick in getting used to cold showers as there is no hot water at the resort, but it’s all part of the adventure. Sometimes air gets trapped in the pipes as we found out and there were 2 occasions when we had no water at all which can be inconvenient when you’ve got a hand full of soap before checking to see if the tap works. We booked in for the 4 days/3 nights with 6 dives and were lucky to get the last Sea View room with AC when I booked the trip back in March. If you are planning a trip over with only diving in mind, then get the 9 or 12 dives as 6 was definitely not enough to see the full variety of marine life (we only got one dive with mantas), but as this was our first trip to Indonesia, we also wanted time to explore other parts of the country and get a good mix of land and sea. There is so much to see and do, you really have to decide what it is you want out of it.


DIVE DAY 1


1 | MAWAN – MANTA DIVE

THE EXPERIENCE: ★★★★

DIVE SITE INFO: This gorgeous sloping soft coral reef is home to several manta cleaning stations. There’s much to see aside from manta rays though. From sharks to hairy shrimp, the occasional stargazer and all manner of nudibranchs.


Mawan – Manta Dive in Komodo National Park

WHAT WE SAW: It turned out Yoi our dive guide, was not as experienced as we had hoped and he jetted off ahead of us and never once pointed anything out. We however slowed down to enjoy the moment (it’s a very relaxed dive and there was no current) and we managed to see so much once we took it all in. First in view was a juvenile Blacktip reef shark (Carcharhinus melanopterus) and two Bluespotted ribbontail rays (Taeniura lymma). Yoi wasn’t heading out to show us anything in particular as I kept an eye on him, but he was on a mission to get through the dive site, and soon realised we were in no hurry. I’m glad we took our time with the blacktip as I did not see another one on the rest of our dives. Amongst some of the beautiful coral, of the more prominent encounters, we saw two Yellow-edged moray eels (Gymnothorax flavimarginatus), an Orangutan crab (Achaeus japonicus), Scorpionfish (Scorpaenopsis sp.), a Red-spotted coral crab (Trapezia rufopunctata), a Leaf fish (Taenianotus triacanthus) with a crazy revolving eyeball which I only realised after looking back at the video footage, and a few Clark’s anemonefish (Amphiprion clarkii). This was a really nice introductory dive which you really need to take the time in to get a really good look around. There’s plenty to see in all the nooks and crannies.



2 | SIABA KECIL – DRIFT DIVE

THE EXPERIENCE: ★★

DIVE SITE INFO: Although this site can be dived at slack tide, we like to wait until the current has picked up for this exhilarating drift dive. Sometimes called the ‘superman drift’, this is an adrenaline filled dive along with a beautiful reef with a stunning overhang. After exploring the amazing topography, the current will die down and you can look for macro species or enjoy the schooling fish in the beautiful hard coral garden.


Siaba Kecil – Drift Dive in Komodo National Park

WHAT WE SAW: This turned out to be a very disappointing and barren dive. We were joined by our dive buddies Denise and Chris – a couple from Australia – and their dive guide Aldo who had decided with Yoi to take us in a different direction from the rest of the group to try and find dugongs that had supposedly been spotted in the area. This dive was unfortunately a write-off as our guides decided to hang in strong current for something to happen which we had not fully understood from the briefing apart to keep an eye out ‘IN CASE WE SEE’ dugongs. When we signalled that we had had enough of fighting the current and the wasted time of seeing nothing, we were lucky we got to spend a brief moment with a curious hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) just as we got on the move. Our drift dive gradually took us through to a large area full of very damaged coral and we saw nothing more than one last passing hawksbill turtle just before we surfaced. It was very evident that this side had faced the destructive fishing practices such as dynamite, cyanide and compressor fishing which severely threatens the park (the coral reefs) and the resources themselves (the fish and invertebrates). Although this illegal practice has reduced today, destructive fishing practices continue, mostly by immigrant fishermen. There are several areas on the other dives where we noticed coral graveyards.


When we got back up on to the boat, the rest of the group had seen all the beautiful hard coral garden and the schooling fish as they had gone in the direction that had been described in the briefing. It does happen, but this was led primarily to poor dive planning which is a shame when you only have 6 dives to see as much as possible. Dugongs would have been nice, but there is absolutely no guarantee you’ll be lucky enough to see them and we had not expected it as it is so rare.


Magnificent sea anemone (Heteractis magnifica)

3 | TATAWA BESAR – DRIFT DIVE

THE EXPERIENCE: ★★★★

DIVE SITE INFO: This gorgeous reef begins with an abundance of soft corals. As you drift along the sloping reef the corals change to beautiful hard corals making this one of the prettiest sites in Komodo. The site is rich with schooling fish.


Tatawa Besar – Drift Dive Komodo National Park

WHAT WE SAW: This was a proper fun, fast drift dive with lots of beautiful coral. We dived with Chris and Denise and luckily their dive guide Aldo took us to see two resident Giant frogfish (Antennarius commersonii) which is always a dive highlight. There are a variety of Butterflyfish (Chaetodontidae) and Angelfish (Pomacanthidae), the distinctive and good-looking Harlequin sweetlips (Plectorhinchus chaetodonoides) and the Oriental sweetlips (Plectorhinchus vittatus) and the gorgeous Clown triggerfish (Balistoides conspicillum) which I love, as well as the camouflaged Crocodile fish (Cymbacephalus beauforti). It was a very good last dive to make up for the poor second.


Tatawa Besar – Drift Dive Komodo National Park

BAT ISLAND SUNSET TOUR

If there is one thing you want to make sure you do not miss out on when you’re in Komodo, it’s the sunset fruit bat tour. It is part of your schedule if you have booked the 5 night/6 day package, but you’ll need to pay the extra if you are on the shorter resort dive package (you just have to see when it can be done, dependant on the number of guests going). It’s only a short boat trip over to the edge of Bat Island to wait for the hunting hour to begin. The sky gains hues of pinks and oranges and just as the sun has tucked below the horizon, the bats take flight and spread through the sky in the thousands as they head out to feed. It’s stunning to take in all the other lamplit boats and guests watching as the skies change colour and fill with rodents in flight.



DIVE DAY 2


4 | WAENILU – MUCK DIVE

THE EXPERIENCE: ★★★

DIVE SITE INFO: A sandy slope with lovely soft corals. Usually little to no current, so a great opportunity to look for smaller, more bizarre critters.


Waenilu – Muck Dive Komodo National Park

WHAT WE SAW: This dive led me to find my first ever Wunderpus octopus (Wunderpus photogenicus) which I was ecstatic about. What a special find! It was unfortunate that I only discovered the Wunderpus just as we were reaching the end of our No Decompression Limit (NDL). I noticed something wriggle below me as I signalled to make our way up and decided to descend back down to see what it was and literally got 2 minutes to film and take a photo as I signalled to Denise to get in with her camera. She had not yet realised what it was and couldn’t have been happier with the result to the end of this dive.


Other highlights included a very beautiful Yellowbanded pipefish (Doryrhamphus pessuliferus) and two very tiny Pikachu nudibranchs (Thecacera pacifica), a juvenile Ribbon eel (Rhinomuraena quaesita), its jet black head protruding from the sand with a very faint yellow dorsal fin. I have not often seen the juveniles and although it is thought they are a different species of ribbon eel, there is in fact only one. Juveniles and sub-adults are jet black with a yellow dorsal fin and are born male. Adult males are blue with a yellow dorsal fin and the most common I have seen, whilst the females are yellow… but begin their life as a male. They are protandric (it is the only moray eel that is) which in a nutshell, means they can change from male to female as a survival tactic. And a Black-spotted pufferfish (Arothron nigropunctatus) got in just before we surfaced above masses of soft corals which I always find a photogenic species.



5 | KARANG MAKASSAR – MANTA POINT

THE EXPERIENCE: ★★★★★

DIVE SITE INFO: This fun drift dive has a long flat topography with coral bommies and stretches of reeds speckled along it, acting as the manta cleaning stations. Here we can see mantas cleaning, feeding and even mating. Macro critters can also be spotted along the coral rubble that forms much of the dive site.


Karang Makassar – Manta Point Komodo National Park

WHAT WE SAW: This is not a pretty dive site and when you get below the surface, it’s a rubble bottom as far as the eye can see. Nevertheless, this is the dive we had been waiting for! It had taken one of the Divemaster interims 15 dives before he got to see his first Reef manta ray (Mobula alfredi), I had been incredibly worried that Tony and I would not get to see them at all and then we both got to see our first manta face to face on our 5thdive. Almost immediately after our descent, I was messing about with the GoPro filming Denise, when I heard Tony shouting for me to turn around (sound effects all on video for the ultimate memory keepsake). As I did so, my/our first ever manta glided majestically out of the gloom and came straight at me, gracefully giving me a show of all sides as it looped around us. Just as it glided past me, in came a Spotted eagle ray (Aetobatus narinari). It’s hard to compensate for both photo and video, but video took precedence so it is the better footage of the two mediums and yet I still need to find the time to edit a film of it all. We saw 5 mantas in total which was fantastic. We saw what we came for, and that is always a bonus when plans pan out.


On following the direction of the current, we had a fantastic drift dive that went on for about 2 km. We saw a juvenile Whitetip reef shark (Traenodon obesus), I missed it, but Tony saw another Blacktip, big schools of fusiliers, only 5 grazing Green humphead parrotfish (Bolbometopon muricatum) the largest species of parrotfish which still remains one of my favourite memories from my dive trips to Sipidan – I had been expecting to see them in Indonesia, and especially in Komodo in similar numbers, but this was not to be. We did see quite a few Titan triggerfish (Balistoides viridescens). These evil beasts still make me nervous unlike anything else underwater.


The rubble at Karang Makassar – Manta Point Komodo National Park

6 | SHARK POINT

THE EXPERIENCE: ★★★★★

DIVE SITE INFO: Beautiful sloping coral reef that extends into the main channel where there is a good chance to see black and whitetip reef sharks swimming by. Shallows up to a large area of extensive hard corals which we fondly call “turtle town”.


Shark Point Komodo National Park

WHAT WE SAW: This dive site should be renamed ‘Turtle Point’ as this is exactly what you will see, and plenty of them. We saw no sharks which I always find so sad and actually surprised me as I had thought I would have seen plenty of them in Komodo’s national park. This site hosts some very healthy cabbage coral in great numbers as well as other interspersed species of hard corals, such as staghorn and acropora. I got one of my favourite seascape shots from this site with the background dotted with Lemon damselfish (Pomacentrus moluccensis) and what looked like they could be Yellowtail damselfish (Neoglyphidodon nigroris). It’s a very beautiful dive which we thoroughly enjoyed as an end to our underwater Komodo experience.


It’s Green Turtle galore (Chelonia mydas) and they are not at all camera shy – we had a good photo shoot with one having a spa session with a cabbage coral. Amongst the wonderful world of underwater species, we saw a Trumpetfish (Aulostomus chinensis), lots of my favourites – the deep red Glasseye (Priacanthus blochii), Spine-cheek anemonefish (Premnas biaculeatus) and Western clown anemonefish (Amphiprion ocellaris), a very large Starry pufferfish (Arothron stellatus) just lazing on the sandy bottom, a Black-pitted snake eel (Pisonophis cancrivorus),an almost translucent Crocodile fish performing his camouflage magic, and a colossal colony of neon green Favites abditawhich is Calcareous coral, that brightened up its colour once I shone my light on it.


Shark Point

THE DIVE BOATS

It just so happens, Scuba Junkie have the biggest, fastest and most comfortable day boats in the park. Their 2 ‘fun’ dive boats which you will be assigned to for the duration of your stay, are the ‘Birostris’ (named after the Oceanic manta ray) and our boat, the ‘Afredi’ (the Reef manta). They are very spacious and both have a sundeck with comfortable bean bags for lounging about and getting some sun (there is also a shaded area), while looking out to the stunning scenery and possibly spot the odd dolphin.



Breakfast and lunch is served at the table by the bow of the boat on your diving days. Breakfast is a selection of pancakes, eggs, fresh fruit, bread, tea and coffee. Lunch has both a meat and vegetarian option and was delicious on both our days.


All your dive equipment is taken care of, labelled and loaded into baskets at the dive deck in the stern of the boat. It’s organised! The boat is also equipped with emergency 100% oxygen, first aid kit, lifejackets, fire extinguishers, marine radio, sonar and GPS. Both boats are 20 m x 4 m and have 6 cylinder Mitsubishi engines.


Dive equipment at the stern of the boat.
The sundeck

If you are planning on travelling with your own equipment, it’s good to note that wetsuits will take a long time to dry when it’s humid. We always travel with our regulators, fins and masks and were happy to rent the BCDs and wetsuits. Don’t forget that there is limited luggage allowance on the small internal flights and you may have to purchase some extra allowance if you’re taking all your kit with you.


THE KOMODO DRAGONS

To end a wonderful stay with Scuba Junkie, your last day requires an early morning check out and you will experience one last tour over on Rinca Island where you will spend an hour walking around the island with a guide who will introduce you to the resident Komodo Dragons. These big lizards are awesome and very special to see. There is also a tour over on Komodo Island which we did afterwards when we moved on to our next destination, but this one will soon no longer be available as the government is planning on a year-long shutdown from January 2020 in order to restore the habitat. It is the more beautiful island of the two and rightly so, as it is the UNESCO World Heritage site itself. It will have to be seen how the island will be offered to tourism after its rehabilitation as there is still some debate.


Rinca Island's Komodo Dragon Tour
Komod Dragon on Komodo Island
Komodo Dragon on Komodo Island
A very young Komodo Dragon on Rinca

The Komodo Dragon is the largest living species of lizard and can grow to a maximum length of 3 metres, though this is rare, and they can weigh as much as 70 kg. An ambush hunter, these reptiles are able to run at speeds of up to 20 km/h over short distances. Who knew?!? It has been claimed that they have a venomous bite through two glands in the lower jaw which secrete toxic proteins, but scientists are still disputing this. The park rangers will tell you a few tales of attacks and keep you vigilant. They are of course carnivorous, they eat everything with or without a beating heart and are known to eat their young, which is why they live their first 2 years of life up in the trees, hiding from the adult cannibals. The young eat birds, small lizards and bugs. When they get big enough, they come down out of the trees and start hunting the deer and pigs on the island. I’ve read that they occasionally ate human corpses, digging up bodies from shallow graves. It caused the villagers of Komodo to move their graves from sandy ground to clay and pile rocks on top of them to deter the lizards.


Do not pester the dragons! They run faster than you do…


Komodo National Park
Komodo National Park

SCUBA JUNKIE

Conservation and protection of the oceans sits at the very head of Scuba Junkie. They have a conservation arm: Scuba Junkie SEAS that focuses on empowering communities and engaging with them to reduce negative impacts – from destructive fishing methods to reducing waste. In Komodo, they run Divemaster internship programmes, providing alternative livelihoods for those who may otherwise turn to fishing.


Scuba Junkie engage with the local community as much as possible, running awareness weeks throughout the year (Manta Week, Shark Week and Marine Week) where they do school visits to talk about local issues and what kids can do to help the local marine life. The resort is always working towards reducing impacts and being as eco-friendly as possible.


Scuba Junkie has five locations across Malaysia and Indonesia, at some of the top dive spots in South East Asia: Sipadan, Nusa Penida and Sangalaki.



Beautiful scenery of Komodo

TRAVEL INFO

Currency: Indonesian Rupiah (IDR)

Credit cards are widely accepted in hotels, large restaurants, and most shops.

ATMs are common in all major Indonesian cities and tourist destinations. Withdrawal limits are dependant on your respective home bank. Machines are loaded with IDR50,000 or IDR100,000 denomination notes, as indicated on the machine; however keep in mind that the bigger notes can be harder to split, especially in rural non-tourist areas. It is also best to withdraw money from ATMs in major cities before venturing into more secluded destinations.


Voltage: The standard voltage is 230 V and the frequency is 50 Hz. You can use your electric appliances in Indonesia, if the standard voltage in your country is between 22-240 V (same as UK, Europe, Australia and most of Asia and Africa).


Visa: Visas are issued upon arrival and are valid for 30 days, but you will need to check your nationality is available on the visa-on-arrival countries list.


Climate: Indonesia’s climate is almost entirely tropical. The dry season is April to October, while the wet season is November to March.


Language: Bahasa Indonesian is the national and official language and is used in the entire country. While generally not widely spoken, an acceptable level of English can be understood in a number of major cities and tourist destinations including Bali, Batam, Jakarta, Bandung, Surabaya, and Yogyakarta.



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