A message popped up from our travel buddy Deb, “Want to dive Komodo?” Visions of nine-foot-long dragons attacking our air supply went through our heads. “Let’s do a liveaboard in Komodo National Park, I hear the diving is killer.” Gulp. Deb is a proper scuba junkie with 357 dives around the world, and counting. So when she said this 29-island archipelago had some of the best diving on Earth, we booked a flight to Flores, Indonesia. This is where the cold currents of the Indian Ocean and warm waters of the Pacific collide…blending and churning, creating the perfect storm for a profusion of marine life. The nutrient-rich currents bring over 1,000 species of fish and 250 species of coral…and that’s just below the surface. Jagged mountains, pink sand beaches, and the only habitat for the world’s largest lizard are waiting in the islands above. Let’s dive in!
The Gateway to Komodo: Labuan Bajo
A one-hour flight east of Bali, Labuan Bajo is the gateway to Komodo National Park. It’s a no-frills port town that’s recently applying some lipstick and blush, as divers and backpackers are whispering about “The Next Bali” (which Flores truly is…but more on that later). We found a hovel of a place (thanks, Mike!), with a plastic cup that pulled double duty, as the toilet flusher and ladle for the “shower”…but it had the view above for $15/night….room for two, please.
Dive Komodo Crew
We met Deb at Dive Komodo, a pioneering dive shop with some of the best crew in the area. We signed up for 9 dives across 3 days on Tatawa, a custom liveaboard sailboat for up to eight divers…and lucky us, we were just four. Playing the currents, we spent most of our dive time around Komodo’s northeastern reefs, rocks, and channels, with Batu Balong, Crystal Rock, Manta Point, and the legendary Cauldron high on the agenda.
The Coral Triangle
Among our first dives was Castle Rock, a place so abundant with exotic coral, we thought it couldn’t possibly get better…but Komodo is just like this. It’s in the Coral Triangle, an area with 76% of the world’s known coral species in just 1.6% of its oceanic area. Corals with the looks of lace fans, striped grapes, alien organs, and feathers of a Phoenix, had us in awe, especially when an octopus or eel would emerge.
We descended into Makassar Reef, it’s where the biiiiig rays come to snack and play. Hanging out for ten minutes along the rocky bottom, we started to doubt its reputation as “Manta Point,” then seemingly on queue this beauty, with a 10-foot wing span, and a few friends gracefully flew past us.
Above Sea Level
During our five-meter safety stop, our minds raced with scenes of Nemos weaving through purple anemones, turtles nibbling on hard corals, and all the otherworldly beauty we had just encountered…then we breached the surface. A ring of rugged mountains, savanna swept islets, and pirate-style ships blew our minds all over again.
Life on the Boat
Between dives, we’d sunbathe on the bow, dive off the top deck, and stop at whatever islands called our names. We’d chill on the sandy beaches, climb the peaks, and rarely see a soul.
Night Muck Dive
Night would fall but that didn’t mean the diving was over. Some of the most curious critters…nudibranch, frogfish, seahorses, flamboyant cuttlefish…come out after dark, especially in “the muck.” The silty, rubbley bottom of the sea, where dead coral and fish skeletons come to decompose, doesn’t sound too sexy, but it’s a macro photographers dream (Huge love and props to our girl Deb Gersten for these awesome night photos). Our highlight? The Spanish Dancer…a massive red sea slug that fluttered like a senorita doing the Flamenco in a ruffled skirt. Watch this video clip (and listen for Mike’s yelp of utter joy).
The Cauldron (aka The Shotgun)
Three days of thrills culminated at The Cauldron, a place with such strong current you can literally see it bubbling from the surface. It began with an unassuming drift dive over a coral garden, complete with gorgonian fans and coral bommies, then the current began to pick up and the sea floor dropped from 45 to 75 feet. Soon we were speeding through a narrow canyon along a fish superhighway. Looking through the swirling water and past the tuna traffic, we spotted our guide signaling to huddle up and hang on! We secured ourselves with a reef hook and let the marine life — schools of midnight snapper, giant trevally, even a few sharks — whiz by. After 10 minutes, we pulled our hook and rode “The Shotgun” until the currents dissipated and our hearts stopped racing. Slightly terrifying, utterly amazing.
Trekking with Komodo Dragons
On our final day, we went to Rinca, the island with the densest population and best environment to view Komodo Dragons. Walking from the docks, we spotted three “baby” Komodos (still massive) scurrying up the cliffs. At the ranger station there were a dozen big dragons, some nine-feet long and ~250 lbs. Seeing a beast known for poisoning its prey with its toxic bite then stalking it for days until it dies, made us slightly nervous about the upcoming trek, but we pressed on. TIP: Opt for the two-hour watering hole trek for the best chances to see them lumbering through the savanna and stunning island vistas.
Sailing through a narrow island passage to the southern reaches of Rinca, the seas opened to a perfectly arced bay with white sand beaches and sculpted green mountains. We sat at the summit in complete awe, chatting about an incredible three days, and came to the consensus…if you combine the views above and below sea level, Komodo is among the prettiest places on Earth.
Komodo, Mini Guide
When to Go: The post-monsoon months from April-June make for lush mountains, plus calm seas with high visibility and tame currents. Avoid turbulent January-February.
Where to Stay: Bayview Gardens: In the hills above the Labuan Bajo, the rooms are lovely and secluded with spectacular views. Seraya Hotel: If you want the utter romance and privacy that a mile-long island provides, this chic hotel’s got it.
Dive Shops: Dive Komodo: Among the most established local liveaboard companies, with solid staff, equipment, and living quarters at reasonable prices ($575 for 3 days, gear, 9 dives, meals, and excursions.) Komodo Dive Center: Another solid outfitter for scuba diving Komodo, Indonesia, they also offer on-land accommodations.
Bonus Tip: Padar is Komodo’s supermodel isle with sharp peaks, four arcing bays, and sandy beaches in three colors. Hike to the top for views of the impossibly beautiful terrain, then visit one of the world’s few pink sand beaches. This can be combined with a tour to Rinca. Anyway you get there…Go, Go, Go!