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The water around the Komodo and Rinca islands are speckled with small islands ringed with beautiful coral reefs. It is also swept by fierce currents which makes for some challenging diving but also for encounters with big fish like sharks, rays and tunas. The Komodo and Rinca islands are the largest of about 80 islands that lie in between the islands of Sumbawa to the west and Flores in the east. Together with an extensive area of the surrounding ocean they form the Komodo National Park. Established in 1980, the park was declared a Man and Biosphere Reserve and a World Heritage Site in 1986. The park is most famous for its enormous lizards, the Komodo dragon (Varanus komodensis), the biggest reptile inhabiting the world today, but unfortunately endangered. But these islands also offer incredible riches underwater!
The Komodo islands are not very well known to divers and only a few liveaboards plus some dive operators from Labuan Bajo (Flores) visit these beautiful dive sites. This dive area is one of my favorite places in Indonesia and I have come back nearly every year to do a liveaboard trips around the islands. There is everything, a diver's heart wishes for, from large sharks, manta rays and tunas to colorful nudibranchs, special shrimps, frogfishes and also just the incredible colorful reefs. The reefs are all in pristine conditions, specially the area that belongs to the national park, only in the northeast towards Flores there is some damage from dynamite fishing.
Most of these dives are not for beginners! There are often very strong and unpredictable currents and undertows, and cold water often wells up to the shallow areas, resulting in water temperatures of 23 degrees or less. Good visibility. The daily conditions such as tides and currents have to be taken in consideration when planing a dive and sometimes a change of plan might be required. On those occasions don't dispute the opinion of your dive guide or your skipper, they know this place better than you do! If everything works out, this is diving of all the superlatives, but the dive can be a wild ride!
Diving in the north: The currents here seem to be more unpredictable, because the Indonesian throughflow hits the island straight on in the north. This makes for shiftling currents and eddies but also attracts large fish in quantity! The coral cover here is less colorful than in the south, but visibility generally better.
In the north of Komodo, two islands (Tatawa kechil and besar) and a sea mound called Current City close by make for excellent diving. We did a drift dive in the east part (east =Timur) of the larger island, Tatawa besar (No. 1) which was very nice, severqal sharks and turtles and a group of Bumphead parrot fishes and a current dive at Tatawa kechil (No. 2), but the best diving is at the submerged sea mound (top = 3m) called Current City south of Tatawa island.
3. Current City (Batu Bolong): Depending on the current you dive either the northern or southern side while the other side is inaccessible. Only on very rare occasions at slack tide (when the tide turns and there no appreciable tidal current flows) you can actually swim all around the rock. I liked the northern side better. Here you will dive on large rocks jutting nearly to the surface. While holding on with a fierce current tugging at you, thousands of fish are schooling around you - mackerels, trevallies, large tunas, rainbow runners, sweetlips, redtooth trigger fish and anthias. The south side is an easier dive with a large area protected from the strong current. Though to the left and right of this area the currents were so fierce that one of our group lost his grip (hold on to the tubecoral bolders and not to sponges!), got suck down from 27 to 48 meter while going head over heels in the whirl, he lost one fin and the other was ripped badly at the strap. His BCD was nearly lifted off his body (!) by the current and he surfaced out in the blue. There was no way we could (or wanted) to follow him, as soon as he lost his grip, we lost sight of him. So - computers and safety sausage are a must! We had a nice dive - we saw five small baby whitetip reef shark, turtles, Napoleon wrasses and tunas - but our dive guide went up early to check on our dive buddy.
4. Batu Samsia: This is one of a series of large underwater ridges in the middle of the channel between Siaba (north of Rinca) and Komodo. We had checked out the site twice before, but there was just too much current, but we saw 4 manta rays from the surface. The third time we were lucky and the currents calmed down for an hour. We dived on a long slope with several mini walls. The fish life was just amazing, specially a huge school of rainbow runners. Mackerels, giant trevally, Napoleon wrasses and tunas were mixing with unicornfishes and doctorfishes. We saw several turtles , sharks and really large groupers. A great dive! When we surfaced the currents started again and when we left the place was again closed for diving!
Manta Point (no number - also called Karang Makassar) lies north of Batu Samsia close to the Komodo mainland. you dive on a relatively flt channel covered with rubble and with only a few coral blocks and just look out for Mantas. They come here to get cleaned, so you can go relatively close to them to observe them. We also saw sharks and a really large thorny ray (Urogymnus asperrimus), some bumphead parrotfishes and a napoleon wrasse. We also must have covered over a kilometer of the channel going adrift with the current.....
5. Batu Tiga (three rocks): lies in the Linta strait and the currents can be quite fierce, so it is not always possible to dive here. This is a very nice dive on three underwater rocks and terraces. Several Napoleon wrasses accompanied us on our dive. We saw several blacktip reef sharks and really large groupers as well as bumphead parrotfish.
6. Pantai Mera: this dive sites lies very close to the Komodo ranger station and many boats come here for snorkeling. It is a slope with a sandy bottom. Some of the animals living mostly in the south like the small yellow sea cucumbers are already found here. A nice dive to do after you have visited the dragons or for a night dive.
13. Toro Moncong (Monco): You dive on a slope with some larger coral blocks on 25 to 30 meters. There is a very nice miniwall on the uppper part with cracks full of colorful glasfishes. The landscape underwater is beautiful with table corals, small sea fans and a lot of small fish and large schools of batfish. A place to relax and look for small animals. I was lucky and found a yellow baby warty frogfish (A. maculatus) only about 5cm large and on another dive a pair of tiny shrimps living in black corals and a rare nudibranch, Notodoris gardineri. The bay Teluk Toro Monco is a good place for a night dive.
14. Batu Toko-Toko (castle rock): This is an underwater mound (top = 7m) nicely covered with table corals and small gorgonians. We went there several times and always had a great time with lots of sharks, mackerels, tunas, Napoleon wrasses, jacks and snappers and sometimes also barrakudas. With a moderate current it is an easy dive(but usually ot so many fish), with a moderate current a lot of sharks gather(white tip and grey) but there canalso be some downcurrents and whirls in the water. There is a hollow at about 15m where sometimes huge schools of mackerels, doctor fishes and jacks are gathering,rising in a long band, then form whirls and walls. Just beautiful! At this place you might even see dolphins underwater, if you are lucky.
15. Batu Gili Lawa Laut (cristal bommie): This is a rock
that is submerged at high tide. The trick is to stay at a place where there
is some current so you can see big fish, but not so much current, that you must
hold on for dear life. At this dive site there is an area where you can easily
descend and ascend with beautiful staghorn and table corals. Further down (ca.
15 to 20m) there is a small valley where a large group of yellow Oriental sweetlips
and a pair of barramundi cods reside and then huge gorgonian sea fans around
30m. On one of our dives a eagle ray stayed with us very close, then lazily
flickered the fins just a bit and was off into the blue. We saw Napoleon wrasses,
large groupers and mackerels and we even saw a few pygmy seahorses living on
Muricella sea fans!
More to the east just below the lighthouse lies also a nice dive site, a slope covered with hard corals and lots of bushes of black coral. There are several sharks sleeping under the large table corals and the protected area her is also a good place for manta rays.
The water in the south of Komodo usually is much colder (21° to 26°C) than in the north. South of Pulau Damar there is a marked change in which animals you see. There are filterfeeders like featherstars and sea cucumbers everywhere and soft corals and sea fans in incredible orange, purples and yellows grow on every surface. The abundance of life is just amazing to beware! Diving in the south is best during the northwest monsoon, October to April. Some dive sites can be inaccessible because the seas are too rough. Visibility is sometimes not so good (10-15m) because the water is very rich in plankton.
7. Pulau Damar: A slope covered with small corals and sponges. There are some very interesting tunicates (Neptheis sp.) growing here. Instead of covering rocks with their colonies, they form a colony that looks like a grape with a stem.
8. Tanjung Lelok Sera: This dive site, in the southern part of Komodo close to the open sea towards Sumba, is very nice indeed. Here the water is much colder than in the north. You can dive along the coast towards the eastern edge but the best places are several submerged huge rocks with canyons between them that lie a distance from shore. Currents were very fierce and we had to keep to the lee side of the rocks but fish life is so rich there! Napoleon, sweetlips, snappers, groupers and a lot more. The ascend was difficult, since the pinnacles lie at quite a depth (top = 17m) and we were swept out with the currents. When we surfaced we realized, that the three of us were already in the middle of the strait between the mainland of Komodo and a small island, Batu Gaja, and were rapidly pushed out to the open sea south towards Sumba. Actually the boatman was in the process of picking up the other half of our group which hadn't made it to the pinnacles and didn't see us surface. We were swept out some more and were rescued after an hour of drifting about a kilometer and a half out. That was quiet scary until the boat found us.
When we came back on the boat we realized, we were picked up close to the dive site with the name of The End of the World (No. 11) which lies close to Tala island. This dive site is a sheer wall of black rock that goes down to about 100meter. Next to it is Toro Bendera (No. 10), also called Colleen's Corner, a reef slope with blocks of rock and a lot of whip corals in the deeper areas.
9. Batu Gaja: This is a sharp edged rock formation and the diving takes place in the calmer are between these formations because as soon as you dive too close, the water turbulence such as down currents, whirls are soon just too much. We saw a huge grouper (about 2m), several turtles, rainbow runners and a large group of bumphead parrotfish.
12. Manta Valley (Manta point): We dived early in the morning and just before the high tide, when there was little current and the light was just beautiful over the coral reef. We stayed in shallow water all the time and just floated a couple of meters below the surface. Immediately the manta rays appeared swimming close to the surface and then swept past us several times. At one point a manta swam directly towards me, did a flip and passed me so close, that I could have touched it. After about half an hour they all disappeared and we continued our dive by looking at all the small stuff you find here also. The reef is beautifully covered and large schools of yellow snappers are everywhere. We also encountered some sharks and turtles and just before we surfaced, a manta came back as if to say good by to us!
If possible try to spend some time in the south. The water is very cold and visibility not the top, but I just love it here for the are and unusual critters you find. We anchored in the horseshoe bay just a short distance to the dive sites. This is a very nice place to spend a few days. The slopes are all covered with trees and the beach is visited by several animals like monkeys, Komodo dragons, pigs, deers and herons. There are several eagle nests on some of the larger trees and you can observe these beautiful birds how they catch fish.
16. Kerita Tol: lies east of Gili Motong (also called Gili Mota) in the Molo Strait. From what I heard you might see mantas and sometimes whalesharks here. It is supposed to be very cold (upwellings) and visibility not always very good.
18. Cannibal rock: This was one of my favorite dive sites in the south. An underwater mound covered with soft corals, sponges and hard corals. On every available surface there are either feather stars, brittle stars, sea cucumbers or sea stars. Both Cannibal rock and the Apple orchard (No. 17)are also literally covered with the colorful filter-feeding sea cucumbers called sea apples (Pseudocolochirus violaceus). This sea cucumber is round and of a bright red and purple color with white or yellow stripes. It holds on to the substrate with tiny feet (it looks like a colorful sponge) and stretches its tentacles into the current for planktonic food. It is rarely seen but here in the Komodo islands they are very abundant. Cannibal rock is well worth doing several dives because of the abundance of life here. On every dive we saw several species of rare nudibranchs, special crabs like Zebra crab or sea urchin shrimps, frogfishes and scorpionfishes. On the reef top there are a lot of anemones with their host anemone fishes, I recon there are at least 5 different species close to each other. The only disadvantage - the water here is really, really cold!
19. Overhang and Crynoid point (No. 20) are quite similar - walls covered with feather stars and sea cucumbers - and a short distance out the open ocean lies another excellent dive site, the Pyramid. To some divers feather stars might all look the same, but here you can really observe many different species! These dive sites are specially cold, since the water comes from the open ocean south of Rinca. Specially good for nudibranchs (I saw 8 species on one dive!), special shrimps like Vir philippinensis or the needle shrimp which lives between the spines of the sea urchins. On one dive there I even saw the extreemly rare Coleman shrimp on one of the colorful toxic sea urchins.
There are several other dive sites in the horseshoe bay. Batu Mandi Rinca to the west is a slope with large coral blocks covered with lots of hard and soft corals and the ever present feather stars. Torpedo looks similar but with more sandy areas between. Both are excellent for nudibranchs and frogfishes - but also look under the coral blocks for nurse sharks.
21. Chinese wall lies in the north of Rinca and the coral cover is similar to other northern dive sites. A slope with overhangs and small caves and bowls. We saw up to seven Napoleon wrasses together and also two sharks. There were a lot of angelfishes around and under the overhangs were several of their colorful juveniles.
22. Lohkima / Buaja: On my fifth trip to the Komodos I didn't feel like going on land to see the Komodo dragons, so I made a dive close to the ranger station in Rinca. First it didn't look very promising - lots of dead corals and low visibility, but then we started to discover things - nudibranchs, some of them only a centimeter long, three types of mantis shrimps, banded pipefishes and to top it off several Mandarin dragonets hiding under the large black sea urchins! So next time there I want to do an early evening dive because then the Mandarin fishes come out for foraging and mating.
Padar is a smaller island lying in-between Komodo and Rinca. These two dive sites are both in the southeast of Padar.
23. Pillarsteen: A tremendous dive site where the underwater topography includes huge bolders and rocks with nice cuts, swimthroughs, chimneys and canyons. There are some caves at about 40 and 16meter. Everything is beautifully covered with colorful soft corals, gorgonians, hydroids, sponges and also the sea apple (see No. 18). This was one of the nicest dive in this area but we sure had to swim a lot against the current (on an other dive it was much easier, it just depends on tides and currents)!
24. Three sisters: These are three large rocks connected to each other, nicely covered with corals and just teeming with life. Around 30m are two smaller boulders that are specially nice. We saw several species of nudibranchs, small seacucumbers and a special starfish. You dive in the shade of the current and finish the dive on the peaks which top at 6,7 and 8 meters respectively.
Banta is not part of the Komodo National Park but well worth a visit. Some of our best dives were around this island in the northwest of Komodo, sitting pat in the entrance to Sape Straight. Currents are specially strong here because this is one of the widest gaps between islands in Nusa Tenggara, although only 200 to 300m deep. Cold water from the Flores basin in the north is pressed against and up through this gap so temperatures are low but visibility is good.
25. Tondok Rasa (Roller coaster): The fierce currents that
can develop here give this dive site its name. Actually on one of our dives
we startled a shark which was laying in one of the crevices and even he started
to struggle getting swept up and down until he managed to get around the corner
to calmer waters! The conditions made for a exhilarating dive. On another dive
we had so much up current, that we were swept dangerously fast up form about
18m to 8m and had to finish the dive early out in the blue - there was no way
we could have gotten back to the reef.
But this dive site is also the place I saw the largest group of sharks while diving in the Komodo area. There is an impressive area with large blocks of rock and a deep canyon between them around 45 meter depth. On the way up I had just spotted three large whitetips below me, when a large gray shark appeared in the somewhat murky water (visibility around 15m) and swam directly towards me. Suddenly there loomed another gray just behind him and they started to circle. I had to go up, because my computer showed me deco approaching fast, when suddenly five whitetips joined the grays. Great!
26. Tanjung Tondok Rasa: The large bay (tanjung) between GPS-Point and Tondok Rasa forms a protected area ideal for a night dive. On one dive we so saw so much, we didn't want to leave the water! It started with a small black frogfish perching on a red sponge, then a real stonefish, large nudibranchs and several species of colorful flatworms, crabs and shrimps and to top it off a sleeping shark.
27. GPS-Point is a submerged sea mound and lies some distance north of Banta in an exposed area. This dive was recommended to us by several fellow divers and it lived up to our expectations! Currents were moderate (but our dive guide said, they can be fierce!) but we saw eight whitetips, a large school of barracudas, several groups of king mackerels and dogtooth tunas and a large turtle. But even with relatively calm waters it was amazing how just a couple meter over and closer to the reef there were strong whirls and eddies.
28. Galley rock (Ghally's rock): When we arrived by boat we circled around the rock and tried for some fishing. Looking at the surface current it seemed a dangerous place to dive. Everywhere whirls and the water crashing against the jutting rocks. Several times the whole boat was slightly turned by the strong current. Then our dive buddy (an Englishman who actually likes to cook, specially if it is freshly caught fish), who was fishing caught something so large, that it got off the hook again (there went our dinner - sigh!), we decided this had to be a great dive area. When the current calmed down some time later we jumped in the area just in-between the two arms of current running against and around the rocks. A great dive with sharks, large tunas, yellowfin barracudas and several Wahoos. The dive area is first a gentle slope but then changing to a wall, then around 30m it is relatively flat with large sponges. You can dive both the north and the south side depending on the currents. Actually there is a difference in the type of animals living on each side, similar to the differences observed when diving in the northern or southern part of the Komodo islands. What was not so great here - it was 24° C- f... cold!
29. Batu Baso: This partly submerged rock lies smack in the middle of the Sape strait, a short distance south of Banta. This strait is a major throughflow for water coming from Sulawesi in the north and flowing to the Indian ocean in the south. Currents mostly flow north to south and around an obstacle like Bato Baso. From the boat we could see whirls and whorls trailing the rock for hundreds of meter! We dived both sides before and after the change of tides. This is such a great place! On our first dive we saw a marble ray that must have been more than 2 meter in diameter and a huge school of rainbow runners and several Spanish mackerels. On the second dive there were so many sharks (small and middle size, whitetips and greys) that I gave up counting. Deep down, large schools of bannerfish and damselfish were doing a syncopated dance for us.
Sangeang island is formed by the volcano Gunung Api (fire mountain). This volcano, one of the most active in the Lesser Sunda Islands, is perfectly cone shaped and rises up from the sea to 1949 meters. The last eruption of some smoke was in 1999. The island is about 13 km wide and lies to the northeast of Sumbawa Island.
Black Forest (Hot Rocks): This dive site on the north east of the island really makes you realize what it means to dive at an active volcano! There is a area with bubbles rising from warm black sand, the water at some places is really hot (see also Siau dive site). Further down you have a really nice dive area with black coral bushes, gorgonians with hawkfishes and pygmy seahorses living in them. Currents can be a bit tricky here.
Tanjung Menjangan (Lighthouse Bay): A sheltered dive site with black sand and a colorful coral garden. A great place for small critters like nudibranchs, shrimps and crabs (even boxercrabs), frogfishes and pipefishes and a place to see the flame file shell which shows electric flashes. Really good muck diving!
Bantoh: A small fishing village on the west side of Sangeang. A good place for a night dive.
Currents are very fierce and there are nearly always down currents and large eddies, whirls as well as swells. Why is this so? Geologically, Komodo and Rinca are part of Flores lying on a relatively shallow shelf and are separated from Sumbawa by the Sape Strait where depths are almost 300m. This strait is one of the main channels for the Indonesian Throughflow (as is the Lombok Strait between Bali and Lombok and the Ombai Strait between Alor and Timor), a water movement that starts in the Philippines, flows past Sulawesi on the west and east and then hits the barrier of what is Nusa Tenggara (Lombok, Sumbawa, Flores). From here it finds its way to the Indian Ocean in the south. The Indonesian Throughflow is strongest during the southeast monsoon (June, July, August) which means, that currents can be really strong here, reaching up to 8 knots (1 knot = 1 nautical mile per hour = 1.852 km per hour)! Just to show you how strong this is - while shipping worth against the current our ship started to go backwards. Since she normally made a good 8 knots, the current must have been around 9 knots!
During these months water temperatures are low, 21° to 27°, so better bring a 5mm wetsuit with a hood and wear gloves. Otherwise you will learn a new Indonesian word: "Ding ding" (very cold). Actually on our trip with the liveaboard Komodo plus it was so cold, that one of my dive buddies made a hood out of a plastic bag, so he wouldn't be freezing his ears off! The months of January to February are not so good, there might be some rain. The visibility in the north worsens and the south although warmer than usual can be difficult to reach because there often is a lot of wind.
There are some easy drift dives around the Komodo islands, but most of the interesting diving is done close to rocks or small islands sticking out just a bit during low tide, or on underwater sea mounds. Usually you dive on the lee side, where the current is not so strong and where there are some areas where it is safe to ascend at the end of the dive. The other side usually is totally inaccessible due to the fierce currents. Still, this kind of diving is only for someone who knows how to handle currents! Computer and gloves are a must because you might have to hang on for dear life. You better have a safety sausage (inflatable signal device) along with you in case you get swept off and away to the open ocean after a dive.
At the apply named dive site "Current City" for example we hang onto the peaks of the underwater mounds with both our hands (no camera), barely daring to look over the edge to the schooling mackerels, sweetlips and snappers below. Our masks were wobbling and the regulator was trying to escape sideways from our mouths. The air from our regulators was sucked straight down and out, forming a cloud of bubbles below us. When we let go to ascend to the surface (with minimum 70 bars) we were first sucked down several meter while finning frenetically, then suddenly swept upwards (too fast, computers beeping) again (dumping air like crazy) to end up in 6m but with our air bubbles going up in little tornado shaped whirls and the coral mountain receding fast in the distance! Our group was separated and was picked up quite a distance apart, the surface current was so fast. For some more stories read the description of the dive sites.