Whenever diving in Komodo is discussed–or rather feverishly frothed over–the formidable strength of its currents dominates. Komodo National Park off West Flores, East Nusa Tenggara, is widely considered to be home to some of the world’s most challenging recreational diving. The frenetic currents are caused by the Indonesian Throughflow (ITF), first noted by Polish oceanographer Klaus Wyrtki in 1957. Because of the trade winds and ocean currents which run in opposite directions, the Pacific Ocean, to Indonesia’s northeast, is twenty centimetres above average sea level, while the Indian Ocean, to its southwest, is ten centimetres below. This thirty centimetre difference sets in motion a massive movement of water from the (higher) Pacific Ocean through the archipelago’s complex underwater topography—through trenches, basins, channels, ridges, shelves and sills—then out into the (lower) Indian Ocean.
As the above diagram states, fifteen sverdrups of water flow through Indonesia annually. A ‘sverdrup’, named after Norwegian scientist Harald Sverdrup, is a unit of measurement coined by oceanographers because the ITF’s volume is so gargantuan cubic metres and gallons didn’t do it justice. One sverdrup is the flow of one million cubic metres per second. The rate is seasonally affected and is fastest during August—Komodo’s peak diving season is June/July/August. It’s all part of the circulation of the world’s oceans—the Great Ocean Conveyor Belt:
“Think of a river one hundred meters wide and ten meters deep,” writes David Pickell in his book about diving in Bali, “which is flowing at two knots, and then imagine one thousand of these rivers—that’s one sverdrup. The Indonesian Throughflow, scientists estimate, represents 15 Sv, or fifteen thousand of these rivers.” So every year fifteen thousand rivers of warm Pacific Ocean water, chock full of tasty nutrients, fish eggs and invertebrate larvae, flow through the archipelago like the world’s biggest protein shake, crowning the region with the title of Coral Triangle—the global centre of marine biodiversity. I reckon old mate Wyrtki would’ve been pretty chuffed with his discovery.
As a relatively new diver with only 30-odd dives under my weight belt, wide-eyed accounts of Komodo’s flying drift dives, deadly down currents and descending bubbles always induced a prickly sensation of angst-tainted adrenaline. I’m a strong swimmer and I trust my ability to remain calm underwater, but for me divers’ stories of “being sucked down into the blue” became synonymous with Komodo. That wasn’t gonna stop me though.
On the flight from Bali I was in the aisle and so missed out on a sight I’d been daydreaming about for years: the iconic aerial view of the Komodo archipelago–dozens of dry islands strewn across a lapis and cyan sea. (I pilfered the above photo from aisle-seated fellow diver Andrea who cleverly thrust her camera at the lucky one in the window seat). I’d been waiting a long time to fly to Labuan Bajo, a long time to travel in Flores. Almost every tourist, domestic and international, who’d regaled me with tales of Flores’ wild beauty and ceaseless smiles said it was their favourite Indonesian island. Now I can say the same.
Just as I love etymology, when traveling I delight in toponymy, so I was elated when my hotel’s driver (who unbeknownst to me was awaiting me at the airport) immediately explained that Labuan Bajo is from pelabuhan (port), while Bajo refers to the Bajau people, marine nomads who spend most of their lives at sea. I told the driver I’d seen spindly seafront Bajau villages on stilts in the Togean archipelago in Sulawesi. He smiled and said that on the small island of Mesa, 15km east, is a village populated by the descendants of sailors, of ‘sea gypsies’ from Sulawesi.
From my high-on-the-hill room at CF Komodo Hotel my first bay view naturally made me swoon. On my to-do list while traveling was ‘start using Instagram’, and so I posted this:
(I didn’t use Instagram again, and posted only a few times on Facebook. In Flores I was constantly in the company of others or breathing in deep a spectacular landscape, defeating any desire to stare at a screen. Plus, the 3G connection was woeful.)
The day before I began diving I did the obligatory Komodo dragon day trip. As well as on pulau (island) Komodo and Flores itself the dragons dwell on Pulau Rinca, which is where most day trips go as it’s closer to Labuan Bajo. On the two-hour boat ride the strange sensation of being in drought-stricken rural NSW set in; never had I scrutinized an Indonesian environment so dry, almost devoid of green.
I knew we weren’t going to see dragons in the wild; they’re only active at dawn and dusk and by the time we arrived it was mid-morning. Sightings are guaranteed on Rinca though–a troupe (or should that be droop) of domesticated dragons doze near a house at the info centre. Fed on scraps from the kitchen they’ve grown fat and lazy, occasionally lifting their giant python-like head to consider a too-close tourist. There’s a reason why guides carry a very large stick, and I didn’t accept our guide Deni’s invitation of getting a bit closer for a photo. He explained Komodo dragons need only eat once a month–“and then it’s Ramadan”–but it was clear these languid lizards are dining daily.
On the hour-long trek over Rinca’s flax yellow hills I chatted with Deni in Bahasa, frequently exclaiming how peculiar I felt, as though I’d been transported back to Australia. I seize every opportunity to converse in Bahasa, but never had I been asked to refrain. One of our tour group, a disgruntled German, dourly requested Deni and I speak in English so the rest could understand. Sly-grinned I replied, “Don’t worry, we’re only flirting.”
Wicked Diving was recommended by an old Canberra friend, and the emails I’d exchanged with their bookings officer amounted to the best customer service I’ve ever had. I’d booked 12 dives over three nights on their ‘floating hostel’, the Cakrawala Biru, which unlike regular liveaboards is moored in the same spot in Komodo National Park while a small boat zips divers to dive sites. This way they save drastically on fuel, which according to their website makes it “the most affordable Komodo diving liveaboard option available”. After a fair whack of research I have to agree. Diving is a damn expensive hobby–PADI, the Professional Association of Diving Instructors, is also an acronym for Put Another Dollar In. Though I may not have been able to access as many dive sites as regular liveaboards, the budget option suited me fine.
My first day of diving was from the Wicked day trip boat, the Bunga Laut (flower of the sea), at three sites near Pulau Sebayor, about 25km east. From the crew I received emphatic approval of my brand new custom wetsuit. It has arm and leg panels in my second favourite batik motif, mega mendung from Cirebon, which straddles west and central Java. (My favourite is the parang motif, originating from Solo, central Java.) Mendung means cloudy–the motif has the curls and curves of cumulus. “Wetsuit saya merayakan jati diri Indonesia!” I beamed. My wetsuit celebrates Indonesian identity. The crew beamed back. O those NTT smiles!
Donning a hired wetsuit was an ever exasperating struggle; yanking and wrenching and tugging and stretching the neoprene over my thick calves and big hips always resulted in blisters. Chriswan, after a couple of seasons working as a dive master in the Gilis, was owed a few favours. Having witnessed my wetsuit woes he called one in, and on the day before I departed for Labuan Bajo I collected my custom-made wetsuit from Sea Gods in Sanur, without paying a single rupiah. How lucky am I!? As well as the batik print my wetsuit has another special feature: a genital zipper! No more rationing water for fear of needing to wee mid-dive, no more holding it in until that golden opportunity post-dive when one can jump back in the water and wiggle out of one’s wettie and rejoice in the warm relief! Weeing in a hired wetsuit is sacrilege, after all. Now I need only reach down and unzip. I was extremely excited about christening it.
The opportunity arose during the second dive at a site called Makassar, also known as Manta Point, if mantas are present. It was most definitely Manta Point this dive. After about ten minutes of gentle finning against a mild current across a sandy bottom speckled with sinister urchins, our dive guide signalled for us to stop. A giant black manta was hovering over a coral bommie–a cleaning station–slowly undulating its wings from left to right as cleaner wrasse and butterfly fish picked off its parasites. This mutualistic symbiosis always makes me smile. What a brilliant arrangement these fish have! The manta gets a bath, the fish an easy meal.
As instructed during the dive briefing we stopped a few metres away so as not to disturb the cleaning process. I’d stopped close to a trainee dive master, Celia, who offered me her reef hook and line to secure myself against the current while she used her pointer inserted into the sand. Our group of four had merged with another in a horseshoe around the bommie, and we all settled in, the front row of an underwater theatre, to watch the show. I’ve seen nothing more hypnotising in nature than the elegantly fluid flight of a giant manta, and observing one for fifteen minutes as it arced and dipped its wings in a slow sinusoidal wave was blissfully relaxing. It was then I needed to wee.
Gleefully I reached between my legs for my zipper, but as I was on the far left of the horseshoe closest to the bommie I was in full view of all the other divers. I swiftly retracted my hand. If anyone saw me unzip they’d know full well I was having a wee! It wasn’t as though I could duck behind a bommie for a bit of privacy. So it turned out watching manta bath time while tethered to a reef hook close to another diver in full view of the front row of a theatre was the least opportune moment to christen my genital zipper. But once on the surface it was wonderful. My genital zipper became the envy of all.
Not long after the third dive the Bunga Laut pulled up next to the Cakrawala Biru. It was moored in a calm stretch of sea rendered silver by the late afternoon light, with low flax yellow islands rising from the water like haystacks in a field. After poring over photos online I gazed adoringly at my home for the next three days. Three days at sea! Myself and two young American men farewelled the day trippers and climbed aboard. We were welcomed by Andrea, the head diver instructor, the crew and two German guests. A tall, lithe and handsome Italian with tousled sun bleached locks, Andrea is a ridiculously charismatic chain-smoking merman–I’ve never witnessed anyone so nimble in the water. I couldn’t have asked for a better teacher.
Each late afternoon the Cakrawala Biru’s small fibreglass dinghy zips guests to a nearby island for a sunset stroll. The powder white sand was luminous in the golden light, the water shimmered like ice. “Paling indah!” I exclaimed over and over to the crew. I’ve been to nearly 20 islands in Indonesia, I told them, and yours is the most beautiful. Two baby black tip reef sharks cruised in the shallows. I was in raptures.
On the Cakrawala Biru the day begins at 5.30, when the islands are still dark silhouettes and the first soft pink hues have settled on the mercury sea. Over ‘small breakfast’–cornflakes and coffee–Andrea perches on the ladder to the upper deck, whiteboard resting on his knee, to deliver the dive briefing. On the whiteboard is a map of the site complete with cute little cartoon sharks and rays. At Tatawa Besar, Andrea explained, we might see white tip reef sharks, napoleon wrasse, giant trevally, spade fish, scorpion fish, sweet lips and (my favourite) oodles of nudibranch.
After the dive over ‘big breakfast’–eggs and tomatoes, Nutella pancakes–everything Andrea listed I scribbled in my dive log, along with “hawksbill turtle, monster potato grouper lurking under a rock, Dave’s rave nudi”. With its fluorescent green lines and orange bronchioles and antennae I reckoned this nudi (Nembrotha kubaryana) would be right at home at a rave, so when I saw it–with as much of a grin as I could manage with my regulator in–I thought warmly of my dear old friend, the infamous party animal Dave Caffery.
The second dive was my inevitable introduction to Komodo’s currents. A few minutes after my dive buddy Jordan signaled he was at 50 bar we began our slow ascent, rounding a bend in the reef. I was on 100. On the other side of the bend the anemones, soft corals and sea grasses were angled south: a down current. Our dive guide Sarhil immediately motioned for us to swim lower, to stick to the reef. He found a safe section of rock for Jordan to grip while I finned towards an outcrop to shelter from the drift. We had no choice but to do our safety stop in the down current. After three minutes Sarhil clasped Jordan’s BCD and commenced the climb, while I finned strongly behind. Back on the boat I told Andrea it was my first taste of a down current, and a good learning experience. He replied softly, “That was small. Not even in the range of small to medium. But in three nights there’ll be a new moon. Then you’ll get a taste.” I was hungry for more.