KM Black Manta Trip Reports

Oct 19, 2012

Komodo - Maumere, 6-12 Oct 2012

The highlight of this trip…Whale! Yes! We saw a whale cruising about 30-40 meters away from the boat while crossing to Maumere. Unfortunately it happened so suddenly that no one managed to capture the majestic creature on camera.

We speculate that it could be sperm whale, pilot whale, minke whale etc. The truth is, no one knows and none seem to be bothered by the lack of identity. A whale is a whale and that's all that matters. In the far distance we could see more water spouting and they appeared near the shore. It's a little strange to see whale near the shore in water of 30 degrees celsius, so I guess we are just lucky.

I was with twelve like-minded underwater photographers from on this trip to experience and capture the beauty of Komodo's underwater landscape. This was a special trip that everyone had been looking forward to, for months. Most, with their new "investments" in camera accessories: lenses; strobes and so forth, exclusively acquired for this trip. It's my second time in Komodo so I get to keep the bragging rights and managed everyone's "expectations", so to speak.

We organised ourselves into two groups and started the trip with a check-out dive at Bidadary. After the dive, the group told me that they were quite impressed with the critters at this dive site. Lembeh sea dragon, sea star shrimp, soft coral crab for a checkout dive had levelled up their expectations of Komodo, I supposed. Well, I know for sure that they were in for a real treat when we reach Komodo proper.

On the second day, we focused on the critter hunt in South Komodo. We were at Kode Island to do 3 dives at 'Torpedo Alley', 'Cannibal Rock' and 'Kode Bay'. The water was 24 degrees cold and by our standards that was akin to diving in a freezer. However, as soon as we descended into the water, the chill magically dissipated without trace. The muck diving in Torpedo Alley was an instant hit with the group - frogfish, mimic octopus, hairy frogfish, orang-utan & zebra crab and so much more.

Cannibal Rock was an interesting dive too, colorful reef full of nudibranch and critters but Torpedo Alley was unforgettable. We unanimously decided to skip Kode Bay for another dive at Torpedo Alley and even that wasn't enough critter hunting. We sailed northwards to the eastern part of Komodo Island for a night dive at Pink Beach. Interesting night-time discoveries of bobtail squid and many types of shrimps, yet Torpedo Alley was still the site of the day.

The third day diving was planned at Gili Lawa to dive the world renowned divesites of 'Shot Gun', 'Crystal Rock' and 'Castle Rock'. In my opinion, you haven't been to Komodo if you have not dived at these three sites. These are the landmarks of diving in Komodo, of sort, and not for the feint of heart. Cedric, our Cruise Director had planned the dives here earlier in the schedule, to avoid potential disappointment in case prevailing conditions prevented dives at these sites later in the trip. We can predict tides but we are always at the mercy of mother nature. We'll never know how strong the current is going to get and what visibility you can expect.

The dive at 'Shot Gun' was a bit of let down for me as visibility wasn't that good by Komodo standards. It was probably about 10-15 metres.

Whereas during my dive last year, I remember exactly the expression on everyone face when we descended to 25 metres. We looked in disbelief towards the surface to witness the sun right above our heads. The sandy landscape was ridiculously beautiful, graced with splatter of colourful soft coral and abundant marine life. It felt like diving in a giant fish tank.

This is also the place I saw my first manta ray in Komodo but it wasn't to be repeated today. To add insult to injury, when we reached Shot Gun, the current was actually moving backward against us. Stanny our guide and I had decided that we should called this dive site 'Gun Shot' instead! If any consolation, the other group saw a manta ray and marble ray on their dive.

Next dive was at 'Crystal Rock', a sea mount covered with beautiful soft coral and full of life. The current was fairly strong, as expected, but the visibility was much better. To sum up this dive, it's an enchanting spectacle of underwater chaos with white-tip, black-tip and grey reef sharks cruising at a diver friendly distance. Continuous hunting from the giant trevallies and dogtooth tuna entertained too. It was really difficult to get anyone's attention underwater because everyone was looking in different directions. It was a satisfying and exhilarating dive!

The memory of diving in Castle Rock last year is still fresh with me. It was the best dive of my life; one that I had always described to others as akin to watching Blue Planet in a front seat of the IMAX theatre, except you find yourself IN the scene.

Unfortunately, due to the very strong current we missed the dive site and landed on a beautiful reef instead. Schooling yellow snappers blanketed the reef and white-tip sharks cruised by. It was peculiar that all the fishes were very close to the foot of the reef. Sensing something was amiss, Stanny decided to abort the dive just as we were about to deploy our reef hook and set up cameras.

Once we we slightly away from the reef, I saw the bubbles exhaled from my friend Koh; had started going downwards! At this point, I realised we were caught in down-current and we were separated. However, we had maintained contact with our respective buddies. We began swimming away from the reef to escape the down current but we were eventually dragged down to 30 metres!

With only the dive computer as reference, we finned upward frantically. It took some effort to get to about 12 metres where the current suddenly subsided. Most of us ended the short dive with about half a tank of air left. Fortunately, all of us surfaced without any incident. I regard that Stanny's understanding of the current and quick reactions saved all of us from any unfortunate incident. An outstanding dive guide he is - we couldn't thank him enough.

On the fourth day, we started our dives at 'Golden Passage' shooting pygmy seahorse and the usual critters. We decided to attempt 'Castle Rock' for the next dive during the slack tide.

Finally, we really did dive at Castle Rock! It was the familiar IMAX setup with feeding action, reef sharks, schools of herring, sweetlips, snappers, bluefin trevallies, fusiliers and many more. The current was manageable and we saw what we came to see. It was not as intense as Crystal Rock on the previous day but a rewarding dive nonetheless.

We lunched in the tranquil bay of Gili Lawa, and later ventured into the island. We scaled the hill to get a magnificent view of the bays. It was an exhausting climb under the scorching sun but the view was simply outstanding.

We did our night dive at 'Wainilu' experiencing a myriad of the weird and wonderful: crocodile flathead, flying gurnards, decorator crab and a whole host of other strange things. We saw the biggest unidentified nudibranch on this dive.

On the last day in North Komodo, we dived 'Mantas on the Moon' in search of manta rays. Unfortunately, luck was not on our side. We didn't see any mantas here even after hanging out, patiently, at two different spots.

'Batu Bolong' was interesting with the swim throughs and a beautiful reef full of small fish. I spotted a scorpionfish feeding on a fish of comparable size. I was also grateful to the huge pufferfish which presented me with endless photo opportunities. In 'Sebolan', we saw a huge marble ray cruising by, and Stanny found another pygmy seahorse. We ended the Komodo leg of the trip with a dusk dive at 'Florotara' and waved goodbye to the enchanting Komodo before the boat set sail to Maumere.

We did two exploration dives in North Flores, 'Tanjong Besi' and another unknown site that Cedric simply named 'Fishy Corner'. These two sites shared similar topography with healthy reef and abundance of small fishes. It's an untouched reef probably due to it remote location. Among the finds were a leaf scorpionfish, a white nudibranch and lobster.

These were probably the best sites to shoot fire dart gobies because there are plenty of them on the shallow part of the reef. These beautiful fish with brilliant coloration are really hard to capture due to their timid nature. We were quite happy we all managed a shot or two of these.

During the sail to Maumere, we watched dolphins occasionally on the bow but the highlight has to be the Whale sighting. We can clearly see the blowhole and it was majestic, even from a distance. First time for most us, and a sweet end to the trip. That sums up our diving adventure in this memorable crossing trip.

Most of us from the group will be heading up to Raja Ampat in January for another underwater photography adventure on Black Manta.

Thanks to the hardworking and friendly Black Manta crew for making this trip a memorable one. See you in Raja Ampat!

Budin Aris
Slideshow and some images were taken with Olympus OM-D EM-5 which I'm reviewing on this trip.
Other images by Koh Sun Yew.