Learning to Dive in Komodo

Why go to Komodo National Park?

If you want to see the most magnificent underwater world on Earth, you come to Komodo. The park should be on every diver’s bucket list. This is the place to see Manta Rays, Sharks, Turtles, Bumpheads, Octopus, and every imaginable fish big and small. The coral reefs are pristine and, for me, it is hands down the most beautiful place I have ever seen

But is this a good spot for a novice diver?

The park is also (in)famous for its very strong currents. Side currents, down currents, up currents, and whirlpools, Komodo has them all. Worse, the currents are extremely changeable. A placid dive can turn into an air-burning swim against a down current in seconds.

Komodo can be challenging even for experienced divers. Of course, the first thing you learn in your Open Water training is that diving always carries an element of risk. As if I needed reminding further, a Singaporean diver lost her life a few days before we arrived in Komodo.

For sure, this is no place to book your dives and/or dive courses based solely on budget. Choose a dive shop based on reputation. And dig deep into your splurge bucket in the knowledge that you will be well looked after.

Whoah! If this is an area for advanced divers, what the hell is a novice doing there?

I am still asking myself that question!

You don’t get a more novice diver than me! Although my swimming has improved over the past year and I no longer have an irrational fear of deep water, I am still very very cautious out in the open ocean. At the beginning of our trip, number one on my list of top ten activities I would NEVER DO was diving. To be honest, diving was number 2-10 too! It seemed infeasible, ridiculous even, that this affirmed landlubber would dive.

However, over the past couple of months my comfort levels had improved to the point where I could at least contemplate the idea of a discovery dive or maybe even an Open Water course. Time was running out, though. So I had to make the decision to try in Komodo, our penultimate dive destination, or wait until the Togean Islands, our last stop in Asia. Laura wanted to do several days of diving in Komodo. So, I either stayed on land to be a dive widow or jumped on in.

I chatted with Wicked Diving in Labuan Bajo, the regional hub for the park, about my options. We decided that I would do a half-day skills training in a sheltered bay before transferring to their ‘Floating Hostel’ liveaboard the next day to complete an Open Water diving course. If the skills day didn’t work out, I could join the liveaboard and just snorkel at the dive sites.

How did the novice do?

The dive boat. Komodo
Me on the dive boat.

Diving at Komodo was one of the most incredible, most exhilarating, and definitely, one of the most insane experiences of my life. But, it was a baptism of fire for someone doing their first dives. I am fairly convinced it was a bad decision to do my course here but I will never forget the experience of my nine dives at Komodo.

Day One of my Open Water Course

I spent the day in a sweaty bunker at Wicked Diving reading the SSI Open Water Manual and answering questionnaires based on the readings. It is like a firehose of information but it sets you up for the more practical skills work the day after.

Day Two of my Open Water Course

The day before heading out to the liveaboard, I met my instructor, Sarah, a 22 year old French woman with an incredible 2000 dives under her belt, and a trainee divemaster, Scott, for skills training. We headed out to a sheltered bay. Before the skills training, I had to show I could swim 200 meters. Easy, right? Should be. But somehow I managed to make an ass of myself!

Usually, I swim wearing goggles since I wear contact lenses. But, shit, I had left my goggles on shore and for some reason this really unnerved me. I swam like a Chinese tourist with lead weights attached to my neck. Damn! It was all over before it had started! Two minutes in and I had wasted $95. Laura will be pissed. Grrr!

Generously, Sarah and Scott reckoned I had completed 200m. Hmmm! Thankfully, I managed part two OK. I floated on my back for ten minutes. This surprised me since I am usually terrible at this.

Next up, the boat captain dumped my BCD (buoyancy compensation device) and attached diving gear off the boat and I had to put it on in the water. Easier said than done. This was harder than persuading Japan to give up whaling. After contorting myself like the rubbery dude from the Fantastic Four, I finally got my gear on. Now all I had to do was sink.

This was the funny part. Laura would have pissed herself laughing. I spent months worried I would spontaneously sink upon hitting seawater. Now that I needed to sink, I couldn’t. I was beginning to wonder if I was on Candid Camera.

Eventually, I sank to the bottom. A mere 3m down. I only have to drop another 15m over four dives and that certificate would sit proudly in my hand. But, I did not like this one bit. Underwater you have to communicate using dive sign language. I had learned the sign for “go up” and I put it into practice immediately! I absolutely hated the sound of the regulator and bubbles. I wanted out. Sarah, my instructor, was having none of this. She indicated to me that I should breathe in and out slowly and calmly. Yeah, right!

I signed “up” again. Sarah grabbed me by the arm and led me on a merry dance along the sandy bottom. After what seemed like an eternity of gently swimming along the bottom I calmed down. Sarah knows her shit… she had seen this a gazillion times.

Slowly but surely we turned to the practical exercises. I was actually terrified of the idea of removing the regulator from my mouth and replacing it. But it really was nothing. The same with sharing someone’s air and throwing off my mask, putting it back on, clearing it, and moving on. OK. Maybe, this isn’t as scary as I first thought.

Eventually, we surfaced, removed the gear, and got back into the boat.

Paul to Sarah: ‘How’d I do?’
Sarah: ‘I have seen worse. At least, I didn’t have to rescue you’. (Gallic shrug).
Paul: ‘So, I shouldn’t go on the liveaboard’

Long pause.

Sarah: ‘Yep! Let’s do it.’
Paul: (Thinks to himself) ‘Oh, fuck! There goes my get out of jail card!’

Day Three of OW Course/Day One of Liveaboard

Dive #1 Sebayor. 12m deep and 43 minutes underwater. No currents.

Before I knew it, we were hurtling out into the deep ocean on Wicked’s day boat. I barely had time to think before I was trussed up in my scuba gear and shuffled out to the back of the boat. This is not sensible, Buxton! Sarah yelled up, ‘Take a big step forward and drop into the water’. It’s pretty hard to yell, ‘You have got to be fucking kidding’, with a ball gag, sorry, I mean, regulator, in your mouth. Sarah was not kidding. I could tell this even though I could barely see her face.

Like a man condemned to die by hanging, I shuffled slowly to the trap door, er, back of the boat. Some higher being must have picked me and chucked me in since soon enough I was flailing around in deep water. WTF am I doing. Now, some crazy French lady is telling me to deflate my BCD and sink. Since I did not wake up from a horrific dream I figured this was real, so I dutifully complied and sank.

Jeez! This is getting worse. Someone must have spiked my drink with acid since I seem to be in a psychedelic landscape with fish of all size and color whizzing around me. Well, I suppose if I am going to die this is a helluva way to go out! Weirdly, I felt a calm descend on me. Since I was not compelled to head for the white light, I figured I must still be with the world. Well, Sarah was still close by and there was clearly some oxygen on tap. I might as well pretend I like this.

I sank to the bottom and went dutifully about proving my worth as a diver. I whipped my regulator out and shoved it back in again. The mask came off and back on again. I happily drank up air from Sarah’s regulator and generally felt OK among the coral.

The dive site is called Sebayor. Within minutes, I saw a huge bumphead parrotfish. I had been trying to see one for months but was never in the right place at the right time. I was happy already. The visibility was fabulous. The coral utterly beautiful. And, there were insane amounts of fish gliding around me. I dropped down to 12m and spent 43 minutes underwater.

To be honest, I was pretty ungainly in the water. I am no merman. It took a lot of effort (usually, Sarah’s) to stop me clattering into the coral. A real no-no. Worse still, once in awhile I manoeuvred myself around by touching patches of dead coral or sand. Even I know this is dumb. Potentially, life threatening. The coral gardens look like paradise but there are plenty of gnarly beasts knocking around that could inadvertently harm you. Stonefish. Scorpion fish. Sting Rays. They are all here awaiting a careless diver to touch them.

Thankfully, I survived. After struggling to maintain buoyancy during our 3 minute five meter safety stop, I eventually popped up to the surface. It was a wild ride but I had logged my first dive. We got back on the boat just in time for second breakfast.

Dive #2. Makassar Reef aka Manta Point. 12m. 37 minutes. Moderate currents.

Manta approaching. Makassar Reef, Komodo.
A manta and diver at Makassar Reef.

I was really looking forward to the second dive. Laura and I love manta rays and this was our first opportunity to see them from a diver’s perspective. One of the divemasters gave us a briefing of the site, the dives, and ocean conditions. This was to be a typical scenario before each and every dive.

We were to drop 12m down, practice a few skills, and then find a manta cleaning station. After the relative plain sailing of the first dive, dive #2 felt like an unmitigated disaster. I had real problems equalizing my ears. Before I hit the bottom, I had a screaming pain in my right ear. I tried to equalize my ears by pinching and exhaling through my nose but to no avail. I thought my eardrum was going to explode. I tried to sign to Sarah that I was in pain but the message did not get through. Sarah signalled that I was to continue to descend. The pain got worse, I lost control, and merrily floated to the surface.

Well, now the ear problem was solved but I was 12m above Sarah. Obviously, I had to descend but instead of keeping still, emptying out my BCD, and serenely dropping for some reason I decided to upend myself and kick to the bottom. All good! I got there! However, I had burned up a ton of air and was exhausted!

Sarah grabbed me by the hand, and like a matron pulling a naughty schoolboy by the ears, she efficiently deposited me at the manta spot. Thankfully, mantas do not judge people by their diving skills. They were happy to parade before me in all their magnificent glory. We saw 6, 7, maybe, 8 mantas. Truly astonishing.

Dive #3. Siaba Kecil. 12m and 44 minutes. Strong but predictable current.

The dive platform's home base. Komodo
The view from the Wicked Diving dive platform.

We got to the liveaboard just in time for lunch. You eat a lot between dives.

The boat is appropriately called a floating hostel. Take away the water and the dive gear and it could have been a backpacker haunt anywhere in Asia. The setting was stunning. A lovely bay with astonishing turquoise waters.

But, less of this. We are here to dive!

The dive briefing was done by one of the Indonesian dive masters, Illy. His English is really good. But, due to lack of nuance in his speech he seemed to play up the dangerous elements of the dive and made it sound more adrenaline sport rather than nature watching. All I heard was, ‘Strong currents. Some of the fastest in Komodo. Really really powerful currents’.

For the first time today, I became very apprehensive. Mind you, Sarah exuded extreme confidence in me so in we went. I dropped backwards off the day boat. Something else I thought I would hate. Nothing to it really.

We dropped 12m and the current found us immediately. If you want an impression of what it looked like to me find a copy of Blue Planet, find an episode on the Barrier Reef, and press fast forward. Watch for 15 minutes while rolling around on the floor. It was unbelievably exhilarating! Somehow along the way, I managed to see some giant fish that I had wanted to see. I can now add jacks, batfish, clownfish, sweetlips and trevally to my fish spotter book.

Thankfully, the current died down after 15 minutes and we could enjoy the scenery at a more sedate pace.

It was jaw-droppingly beautiful and a bit more of a buzz than I had planned on. It took a lot of effort to keep control on the dive. At our debriefing after the dive, Sarah and I decided that it would be a bad idea to continue with the skills courses for the next two days. I wasn’t strong enough in the water to go out on day three without the close attention of a guide. No worries! I could just enjoy the dives without the stress of the course.

Second Manta Dive at Makassar Reef

Manta at Makassar Reef. Komodo
A manta at Makassar Reef.

It took us a while to find the mantas this time, but when we did, they gave me the most amazing 15 minutes of the trip. The currents were quite strong so Sarah found me a piece of rock to cling to on the seabed. Amusingly, she had deposited me within two feet of a very large Devil Scorpionfish, which seemed to delight in edging towards me every two minutes.

Two enormous mantas rose up from behind the cleaning station. The biggest one was at least 4.5m across. At first, they kept their distance. But, after a few minutes they did a few flyovers directly above us. A few more minutes, they took a closer look at us. And, I mean real close. At one point, I had both Mantas within touching distance right above my head. I could see right into their gills on their underside. They carried on like this for five minutes or more.

At one point, they wheeled away above us and Sarah joined them in their crazy dance swirling around above our heads. Well, what was going to better that? If it was my last dive, at least it was the best ever.

But, of course, diving is very addictive so next day….

Crazy Currents at Tatawa Kecil

We woke up really early on day three to hit Tatawa Kecil before the currents got unruly. The dive is fairly straightforward but if you are in the water when the current changes then conditions become challenging quick. I was worried about this but Sarah said we would be OK.

The dive really was magnificent. The coral was incredible and the sea life a veritable fish soup of the biggest and best the ocean has to offer. We saw Moray, Bumpheads, Batfish, Jacks, Fusiliers, Grouper, Sweet lips, Nudis, Shrimp, Octopus and Napoleon Wrasse. The current was strong but nothing to be concerned about. Then, we turned a corner…

The water suddenly got really warm and the ocean seemed to be slowly boiling. The fish seemed to scatter fast or go nowhere with a lot of effort. Sarah found me a spot to hang on to on a coral drop off. It took me a minute or two to realize that we had moved into one of Komodo’s notorious down currents. Sarah signalled that we were OK and that I was to slow my breathing and watch her at all times. I clung on for what seemed like an eternity.

It was akin to climbing at high altitude, wearing lead boots, and being pounded by a warm waterfall. After a few minutes, I saw another dive group fighting their way up from the depths. It was Laura and her dive buddies. We joined up forces and slowly made our way sideways out of the down current. Ash, one of our fellow divers,lost his hand hold and one point and fell on to me. Ouch! We carried on crawling around the coral until we found a safe spot to ascend.

This ain’t an easy spot to dive in but, shit, you learn a lot fast! We dragged ourselves back on board and breathed… deep! This was the first time that Sarah really congratulated me on my performance. She had been supportive throughout but this time I had done good. I stayed calm, breathed sensibly, watched the divemaster at all times, and made the right moves at the right time. In very difficult conditions for a novice.

Octopus Encounter at Mawan

Like an aquarium. Mauan
Coral and fish at Mawan.

This was a fantastic last dive of the trip. It was mellow, I was getting the hang of buoyancy, and my air consumption was pretty good. The coral was spectacular and there were tons of fish.

About 20 minutes in, we bumped into another dive group. The divemaster was frantically tapping on his tank with a metal rod and gesturing downwards. I feared the worst. Had we swum into another current area? Was he warning us of trouble ahead? Anyways, Sarah deposited Gary and me at a large lump of coral and I clung on for dear life.

After a few minutes, I got bored and started checking out my patch. I looked over my giant lump of coral and saw an octopus. It was tucked in a hole and madly changing color. After a while, it crawled up the coral until it was practically face-to-face with me. I motioned gently with my hand, the Octopus twitched, and changed color. We played this game for a while. I started thinking of John Hurt in Alien and I was half expecting it to attach to my face!

Sarah came over and gestured that this was cool! Damn right it is cool!! The Octopus crawled back down and I leant over to watch some more. It was pulling itself out of its coral hole. It looked like the coral was giving birth to the world’s ugliest baby. It was quite a struggle. In the end it popped free and shot across the water. It was joined by two friends. I am sure they hugged before shooting off. One of the Octopus was black and white striped and seemed to have miniature pyramids all over its skin. Definitely the oddest beast I have ever seen. A perfect end to three unbelievable days.

Final Thoughts

Paul after the last dive. Komodo
Me after my last dive in Komodo.

Thirteen months ago, I refused to jump into the deep end of a swimming pool even in the presence of three lifeguards. Less than two months ago, I was still apprehensive about swimming over a coral reef dropoff even when wearing a life vest. So, how the hell did I manage to go diving in Komodo? In the main, I reflected on the fact that while the fear factor seemed insurmountable when I thought about a scary activity, when I was literally in deep water the fear seemed to float away. I jumped in and each time I always came up for air.

I have met a few people since I did my course who are deeply apprehensive about diving. This is what I think. The stuff that sounds scary, such as removing your regulator underwater, sharing air, clearing your mask, and dropping backwards off a boat, becomes second nature after the first couple of attempts. You barely notice the depth at all. You have to be cognizant of ‘the bends’ but it is not really a risk at the depths recreational divers go to. My issues were all around general manoeuvrability and comfort in the water. If you are a strong and confident swimmer, these should be non-issues.

There is no denying that currents can be a little scary.To be honest, I should never have been in an area with down currents. But, shit happens, we were unlucky that the currents changed and we had to deal with them. I stayed calm, followed the instructions of my guide, and eventually, we got out. Weirdly, it seemed way less scary than jumping in the pool at home!

One thought on “Learning to Dive in Komodo

  1. Pingback: Scared Swimmer to Scuba Diver. Paul's Odyssey. | Design Think Travel

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