“Manta, Manta!” somebody shouts, and the whole boat rocks as BCDs are thrust on and weight belts collide. Those who are already ready are already in. The water is clear, but the current is strong. I rush my BCD on, go through the buddy safety checks, and try to hold myself as I realise that this is a first for me – diving with manta rays. Looking from the boat, large black silhouettes break the blue and drift below like kites. I bite the feeling, I bite the excitement and I jump. Into the blue, into Komodo, into the wild world.

Discovered by the scientific community in 1911 when a wandering explorer called J.K.H. van Steyn decided to go and check out reports of a boeaja darat – or land crocodile – on the island of Komodo, the National Park was officially established in 1980, and declared a World Heritage Site and a Man and Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 1991. Strict enforcement of anti-poaching and illegal fishing regulations – thanks to coordinated patrols by local park rangers, the Indonesian Navy, and the police – has made wildlife and natural resource crimes within the park much more difficult. Add to that the strong – very strong – tidal flows combining with the nutrient-rich water upwelling from the depths of the Indian Ocean, and you have an untamed, and spectacularly colourful coral reef bursting with innumerable tropical fish as well as large pelagics out in the blue. The islands themselves are inhabited by a population of around 5,700 Komodo dragons – surely the most famous species of giant lizard in the world.

Exploring Komodo National Park was always going to be something. Hosted by Wonderful Indonesia, our trip officially began from the tires of a propeller plane touching down on the coffee-coloured runway of Flores Island. It was dry season, and the many hills and peaks that surrounded the landing strip – and which our pilot had to carefully negotiate his way through to land – were dusty and empty like any Hollywood depiction of a “lost world”. It is the wild world, famously documented by Sir David Attenborough and dived by Jacques-Yves Cousteau, and as we left the small-scale port and the fish markets, and wooden houses on the hillside disappeared, we became immersed in Komodo wilderness. Brown mountain-scapes vaguely reminiscent of Bohol’s Chocolate Hills – but bigger and even more mutated – are surrounded by white sand beaches that reflect the afternoon sun and create, in every way, an aesthetic lost island paradise.

"Baku Batong, one of the most famous dive sites in Indonesia, and also one of the most dangerous, hosts perhaps the greatest collaboration of reef art and fish in the Park." © Ivan Choong @ Oceanic Focus

“Batu Bolong, one of the most famous dive sites in Indonesia, and also one of the most dangerous, hosts perhaps the greatest collaboration of reef art and fish in the Park.” © Ivan Choong @ Oceanic Focus

From dragons to dolphins

Diving in Komodo National Park

Depth: 5–40 metres

Visibility: 5–30 metres

Current: Strong

Surface conditions: Can be rough

Water temperature: 20–28ºC

Experience level: Intermediate – advanced

Number of dive sites: 35

Indonesia is famous for its diversity. After coming face to face with the Komodo dragons (from a safe place), and testing the cold with our check dive in clear waters, we were straight away descending into one of Komodo’s popular dive sites, Crystal Rock. With incredible visibility, the first thing you noticed was huge silver schools of large jacks, and you had to pass through these animal drapes to see the coral. And so it opened, like a theatre curtain, to reveal corals in hundreds of colours – a regular sight to many who dive in the Coral Triangle, but Komodo’s coral was different. It wasn’t just the colour that caught your eye, but the disorderly organisation of the reef, with thousands of tiny fish in psychedelic coloured patterns arbitrarily picking and choosing their routes. If it wasn’t so beautifully disorganised, then it would just be chaos – but Nature always has a way of working out the seemingly unorganisable.

When you rolled over, you saw the true beauty of the reef, the thousands of fish, the wide-open blue and the grey reef shark looking typically irritated every time you made eye contact with it. It was a decent dive. But it was made better with the appearance of the headline act – out of nowhere, as if teasing the crowd before appearing on stage, whistles, trills and cries came that echoed throughout the reef. Dolphins had joined the party. Diving down to the depths to nudge coral, and squeezing through the schools of fish – the moment was captured beautifully on video.

Top diver Alvin Javier captures footage of dolphins in Komodo

An ode to mantas

Batu Bolong, one of the most famous dive sites in Indonesia, and also one of the most dangerous, hosts perhaps the greatest collaboration of reef art and fish in the park. A pinnacle protects the sloping reef that slides down to nowhere and plays host to fish from the strong down-currents that flow either side. The reef has everything, from turtles passing overhead silhouetted by the sun, to a large inquisitive moray eel that slithers up and down the slope – to the delight of underwater photographers.  

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

“The reef has everything, from turtles passing overhead silhouetted by the sun, to a large inquisitive moray eel that slithers up and down the slope – to the delight of underwater photographers.” © Ivan Choong @ Oceanic Focus

Komodo National Park Biodiversity

  • More than 260 species of reef-building coral
  • More than 1,000 species of tropical fish, including Napoleon wrasse and groupers
  • Approximately 70 species of sponges
  • 7 species of sharks including hammerhead sharks and grey reef sharks
  • Marine mammals such as whales and dolphins
  • Rare and endangered species such as the dugong

Less colourful, but no less enchanting, was the eery and seemingly empty world of Manta Point. After rolling into the blue, we had to push through the strong currents by descending to the bottom (around 15 metres) to avoid the strength of the flow. Even at the bottom you could feel the drift. But our minds were only on one thing – crawling to those cleaning stations to see the manta rays. The seabed was mainly rounded pebbles and large boulders – with an abundance of sea urchins that we had to be careful of touching – with corals forming the cleaning stations. Fighting the current was near impossible, and so we drifted on the current en rout
e to the first cleaning station. 

It was to be my first encounter with manta rays, and I didn’t know what to expect. You can watch as many YouTube clips of manta experiences, or read as much dive literature on how it feels to glide with one, but you never truly understand what it really feels like until you’re slowly crawling in harsh currents behind a boulder to turn your eye on this hauntingly beautiful “thing”. And so there I was, blown away by both the moment and the current. Grappling onto boulders until I could fasten my reef hook to hold onto my position. The manta, just there, hovering or gliding seemingly unphased by the Indian Ocean current hammering us landsmen. Naturally, the manta finished and took off along the coral runway to soar with the down-current out into the open blue, and all we saw was it fade away, gently beating its wings.

"Naturally, the manta finished and took off along the coral runway to soar with the down-current out into the open blue, and all we saw was it fade away, gently beating its wings." © Ivan Choong @ Oceanic Focus

“Naturally, the manta finished and took off along the coral runway to soar with the down-current out into the open blue, and all we saw was it fade away, gently beating its wings.” © Ivan Choong @ Oceanic Focus

The drift route of Manta Point has some of the best pit-stops. Throughout the dive we encountered a dozen more mantas, each with distinct characteristics and each of which allowed us a little more time or a little less, depending on their temperament. Previous to the trip, I had been on a call with Dr. Andrea Marshall, who was explaining her own experiences with manta rays and who had gone on to loosely suggest that each individual also possessed a unique personality. Remaining respectful to the creatures, the last manta encounter before we surfaced was with a full-black manta. Calm in the current, it observed us crawl a little closer to get a better look. This one seemed different. The flow picked up one of the divers and pushed them closer to the manta, and convinced that this manta was going to flee after realising it was being watched, we unhinged our hooks and got ready to do our safety stop. But amazingly, as the diver was carried ever closer, the manta refused to flee, and sort of “side-stepped” him as he drifted away with the current. Black mantas do not move for anyone.

There’s a strange feeling that I still get when I think of diving in Komodo. At times, I doubt that I ever really went there, that such a place even exists. In our soulless cities where skyscrapers loom above the traffic jams and noise of the shopping malls and crowds, it’s easy to place untamed worlds like Komodo as purely fictitious settings. And as that world was drowned out upon our final descent into the blue, and we came face to face with the quiet life that exists almost peacefully below, I knew that it would be an experience hard to comprehend. Indonesia continually surprises, continually excites, continually remains unchanged, for the better.

For more information visit Wonderful Indonesia.