As if having Komodo dragons wasn’t enough of an attraction, the Komodo-Rinca National Park also turns out to be one of the best diving spots in the world. All those powerful currents in the relatively narrow Komodo Strait mix warmer and colder water from the Flores Sea to the north and the Sunda Sea & Indian Ocean to the south, and that produces a huge diversity in marine life.
With my advanced diving certificate newly under my belt, I was dead keen to brave the currents and see how much I’d improved, so along with Victor and two of the others from the Komodo cruise, we popped into one of the dive shops in Labuanbajo (the main western port in Flores, and jumping off point for all boats into the National Park) and asked about diving the next day.
“Do you want to see big stuff or small stuff?” was the first thing he asked, and we all knew exactly what we wanted to see: big stuff, and in particular Manta Rays, which we’d heard were frequently seen around Komodo. So he promised to try his best to find us some big stuff, so the next morning we woke up for the last time on our boat, started saying our goodbyes to all our new friends, and prepared to head off to meet up with our dive boat.
Except there was one small problem we hadn’t factored in: the tide had gone out and the boat was too low down for us to reach the dock. After a few minutes trying to come up with an alternative, it soon became clear there was only one – we had to hop into the boat’s tiny canoe and be paddled out to the shore by one of the boat’s crew. Now these things aren’t the most stable at the best of times, but add in two huge backpacks and we were terrified we’d capsize, with all our luggage before we even reached land. Turned out that was the least of our worries – as the only place we could land was on a mudflat. So we had to get out of the canoe, put our backpacks on, and struggle across thick, calf-deep, slimy mud without falling. That was followed up by a scramble up the very sharp rocks that made up the edge of the harbour.
With that little mission out-of-the-way, we were soon on the dive boat and heading out into the Komodo Strait. The dive master had decided to save the Mantas til last, but he promised us we wouldn’t be disappointed by the sights on offer at the first dive site, and he wasn’t wrong. Within seconds of getting into the water we’d already come face to face with a black-tipped reef shark, and that set the scene for the rest of the dive – we saw loads of them prowling around along the coral wall. I’d only managed to see one previously in Honduras, and none on the Gili Islands, so seeing that many at once was incredible. If that wasn’t enough, we saw three big hawksbill turtles too. I’d seen turtles before, but only ever on the edge of the reef; this was the first time I’d seen them swimming freely in open water, and I was amazed to see how graceful they are compared to their awkwardness on land.
Amazing sights apart, the dive was a bit of a shock to the system for all of us – none of us were all that experienced and the currents were way stronger than anything we’d experienced before, which made the diving harder work, plus with their unpredictable nature we all found it much harder to control our buoyancy and keep a constant level. We could see properly why when we got back to the surface to wait for the other group – the dive site was around a little islet, and as the currents hit it, they swirled all around it creating ferocious torrents and whirlpools. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.
Dive number two took us to a site called Manta Point – named for obvious reasons – although he was keen to remind us that nothing could be guaranteed on a dive. After seeing some in the water from the boat while we suited up, we laughed this off – but soon realised he’d been right to damp down our expectations, as the dive was incredibly frustrating.
The dive site itself was easily the dullest I’ve been to, with very little live coral, and not many fish either. Furthermore, the current was even stronger than the previous one, so there wasn’t much to see and even that was hard work. From time to time we’d catch a glimpse of a ray in the distance, but nothing like I’d hoped for. With the time ticking on, and air running gradually lower, I was starting to resign myself to missing out.
And then, right towards the end, we suddenly came across a group of four not far away. We all swam over to a nearby rock, clung on for dear life (the current would have swept us in the opposite direction otherwise) and sat and watched, just a couple of metres away. It was worth all the wait, for they are truly stunning creatures. The biggest was huge – about 4m across – and they are so incredibly graceful. They were hovering on the spot in the current, gently flapping their wings up and down to keep them steady, while at the same time groups of tiny, colourful fish danced away right underneath them. We just sat and watched until it was time to head up for our safety stop. We only spent maybe ten to fifteen minutes of the dive with them, but it was a moment I’ll never forget. The Komodo Dragons may get all the fame (for obvious reasons), but for me my fondest memory of the national park will be those ten minutes I spent with the Manta Rays, they really are the most beautiful and graceful animals I have ever seen.