“I’m glad we’re not scuba divers,” I mused to Paul, flicking through the Lonely Planet Indonesia while lounging on the couch in our Seattle apartment one Sunday afternoon. “It’s so expensive, and if we were divers we would have to add so many places to our itinerary. We don’t have time for that!”
How things change! When we left home, we thought that our trip was going to be focused on mountains, jungles, and culture. Beaches were places where gap year backpackers got drunk, and there was nothing that interesting to see underwater anyway. We never would have guessed that by the time we arrived Labuanbajo, the gateway to Komodo National Park in Indonesia, we would be more excited about the diving than the dragons, I would have Advanced Open Water certification with 28 logged dives, and Paul would be ready to overcome his fear of water and do a dive course.
My first impressions of diving weren’t wrong. Diving has a tendency to grab hold of your travel plans and get you to go places you wouldn’t consider otherwise. And yes, it can be expensive. We wanted to find a reputable, safety-conscious operator that could give us a great Komodo dive experience at a reasonable price. Two types of dive boats mainly ply the waters of Komodo: the luxury liveaboards with a price tag of $250+ per person per night, and the day trip boats that make the 2-hour journey between Labuanbajo and the dive sites every day. There is one other option, offered by the recommended operator Wicked Diving, that offers the best of both worlds.
The Komodo Dive Platform
Wicked Diving has figured out an ingenious way to make the liveaboard experience accessible to budget-to-midrange divers. They have a liveaboard known as the “dive platform” that is permanently moored in the central Komodo area close to the most popular dive sites. The Wicked Diving day trip boat shuttles you to the liveaboard, where you can stay for as long as you want.
Unlike traditional liveaboards, the ship doesn’t move from its central location, saving fuel and cutting costs. They have a smaller dive boat that whizzes divers to the sites. The price includes 3 dives per day, all meals, and transport to and from Labuanbajo. It’s still not cheap, but it is way more affordable than traditional liveaboards, super convenient, and a lot of fun. I don’t know why more dive shops don’t have similar set-ups because it makes so much sense. We were lucky and had a fun group of fellow divers during our stay. We stayed on the Wicked Diving liveaboard for three days and two nights.
The ship was moored in a bay with stunningly clear water near Siaba Besar island. We quickly settled into the routine of life on the dive platform. There is an early wake-up call followed by a light breakfast before gearing up and setting out for the first dive of the day. Then there’s second breakfast, dive #2, lunch, and dive #3. This is enough to wear you out, so there’s time for a snooze before an optional trip to one of the nearby beaches for a bit of snorkeling or just watching the sunset. Then there’s dinner and hanging out with the gang under the stars before collapsing into your berth.
Sunset above and below the sea.
Did I mention that Komodo is gorgeous above the water, too? One of the nice things about staying on the dive platform was the chance to see some of the park’s less well-known beaches. Many of Komodo’s beaches have pink sand because of the abundance of pink and red coral in the seas. There is a famous “Pink Beach” where all the tour boats stop, but just about any beach in the park can be your own pink beach.
But the diving is what you’re really here for. While Paul started his Open Water course and did a bunch of dives with one-on-one instruction, I got to join the experienced divers for some of my most incredible underwater adventures so far.
Batu Bolong: Best Dive Site Ever?
The highlight of the trip for me was the dive at Batu Bolong. The site is a narrow rock pinnacle that protrudes a few meters above the surface. Standing alone in the ocean, it is buffeted by strong currents that have protected it from overfishing. The result is a proliferation of fish in a tiny area. At either end of the rock, opposing currents meet and produce nasty whirlpools. In fact, when we set out to dive the site as the first dive of the day, the divemasters judged that the current was too strong and unpredictable to be safe. We came back later in the morning and enjoyed absolutely perfect conditions.
We dropped down and within seconds were surrounded by schools of fish with giant trevally and Napoleon wrasse hunting them. This was going to be an awesome dive!
Batu Bolong has everything. There were giant turtles, pristine coral, groupers, and just about every other kind of fish you can imagine. Avoiding the whirlpools at either end, we slowly zigzagged upwards. My favorite section was at 10 meters and above, where lots of sunlight illuminated millions of red anthias. I had never seen so many brilliant red colors underwater. It was like a psychedelic drug-induced vision but it was real. This underwater spectacle was the equal of any mountain vista in Washington, it was that beautiful. I didn’t want to surface, and the guide practically had to drag me back onto the boat.
Seriously, watch this video for some underwater psychedelia.
Manta Rays at Makassar Reef
You can’t go to Komodo and not dive or snorkel with the manta rays at Makassar Reef. This site is a 2km mostly dynamited reef near Komodo Island. Despite the near-total destruction of the reef, the area has several cleaning stations where manta rays line up to get parasites nibbled by small cleaner fish. Sightings of mantas are almost guaranteed. We dove Makassar Reef twice and saw lots of mantas both times. This is a great dive site because it is shallow – no more than 13m – and all you have to do is find a manta spot, grab something solid on the bottom, and enjoy the show. We got treated to a parade of mantas circling around a cleaning station, and several more winging past us.
Manta rays are incredible creatures. I will never get tired of swimming and diving with them. They have the ghostly presence of specters when they glide by in the distance, but up close they show remarkable curiosity. They often swim up close to divers to have a closer look. Mantas are one of the most intelligent species of fish and can live up to 30-40 years.
Down Current at Tatawa Kecil
You can’t have a conversation about diving in Komodo without someone mentioning the area’s infamous down currents. The islands of Komodo National Park are situated in a strait where the Pacific Ocean and Indian Ocean meet. The collision of these waters against and around hundreds of islands and seamounts sends currents in every imaginable direction, and sometimes the only way that the water can go is down. This was one of the things that worried me about Komodo and prompted us to wait to go there until I could chalk up a few more dives.
On day 3, our first dive was at Tatawa Kecil. The divemaster worked out that we needed to enter the water before a certain time in order to catch the most favorable conditions. Somehow that didn’t happen, and 20 minutes into the dive, we were caught in the strongest current I have ever felt. Weirdly, I didn’t realize it was a down current at the time. I had always imagined that a down current would tug you vertically from below. Instead, this current was coming at a nasty diagonal angle. Following the guide, I stopped worrying about air consumption and kicked for my life. We made slow but steady progress upwards. By the time we met up with Paul and his instructor Sarah, clinging to the wall at around 10m, I was pretty stressed out and worried that this experience would have scared Paul away from diving for the rest of his life. Fortunately, he avoided the worst of the current and was surprisingly chipper when we surfaced.
As we got closer to the surface, the coral and fish here were really beautiful, almost the equal of Batu Bolong. Too concerned about staying alive to think about photo composition, I turned on my GoPro and blindly waved it around. The picture above was the only decent capture that I got.
So, now I have dived in one of Komodo’s famous down currents and lived to tell about it. Would I like to repeat the experience? No thanks! I’m pleased that I did OK with air consumption and kept my cool in difficult conditions. But, it also made me decide that I don’t want to dive the truly challenging sites at Komodo, like the legendary Castle Rock and Cauldron, until I’m over 100 dives. The advice you hear is true: Komodo is not the best spot for inexperienced divers, and you need to be ready for challenging conditions.
Diving Komodo was a great experience for this less-than-experienced diver. The 9 dives over 3 days were a good opportunity to learn from the more experienced divers in my group. My air consumption and buoyancy skills improved over those three days and now I feel more confident underwater.
Did Komodo live up to its reputation as one of the world’s best dive destinations? Absolutely. We want to go back when both of us have more diving experience (and more money), go on a true liveaboard, and dive all around the park. For divers who don’t have the cash for a luxury liveaboard, you can’t do better than Wicked Diving’s budget alternative.