Diving in Komodo
The World Heritage Site
Komodo Island and national park reserve offers the liveaboard diver just about every type of tropical diving imaginable - from warm, calm and colourful shallow reefs alive with hundreds of colourful reef fishes and crammed with invertebrates, to current-swept deep cool water sea mounts, walls and pinnacles patrolled by sharks, tuna and other big fish.
The variety of marine life that you can see in Komodo rivals the world's best dive destinations. This is close to the world's epicentre for marine diversity and you'll see loads of stuff here on a liveaboard diving cruise that you just won't see anywhere else in the world.
From sunfish, mantas, dolphins and eagle rays to pygmy seahorses, ornate ghost pipefish, clown frogfish, nudibranchs and blue-ringed octopus, all are at home amongst a spectacular range of colourful sponges, sea squirts, tunicates and corals; Komodo is a macro enthusiast's heaven.
Geologically, Komodo Island and Rinca are part of Flores, separated from Sumbawa to the west by the Sape Strait. In the middle of the strait, the bottom drops to almost 300 metres. The many islands and relatively shallow seas between Flores and Komodo's west coast mean very fast currents at tidal changes, especially when the higher tidal waters of the Pacific Ocean in the north flow through into the Indian Ocean to the south. The upwellings from the deep surrounding seas bring nutrients and plankton to keep these waters rich and well-fed, which makes perfect conditions for some spectacular scuba diving.
Komodo Island is also famous for its Komodo dragon monitor lizard, the largest lizard in the world. An alert and agile predator and scavenger that can reach 2.5 metres in length and 125 kg, they are known locally as 'Ora' and now about 1,100 inhabit the island and about half that live on nearby Rinca Island.
Dive Site Descriptions
Batu Bolong - 'Hollow Rock' in northern Komodo is a rock pinnacle that lies in 75 metres of water between Tatawa to the east and Komodo main island to the west. It is one of northern Komodo's signature dive sites as the fish life here is always a full-on festival.
Due to the rock's topography and exposure to strong currents the reef has not been targeted by fishermen and is in superb condition. Hard corals and sponges cover the walls and slopes, but the main beneficiary here must be the fish life. The volume of fish here is awesome, right from the deeper water areas where Napoleon wrasse and whitetip reef sharks cruise, to the shallow where thousands of smaller reef fish battle it out for territorial and feeding rights.
Hawksbill turtles are frequent feeders on the sponges and tunicates, giant sweetlips lurk in the gullies and overhangs, palette surgeonfish dance across the current swept upper reaches of the rock. Stay a while here if you can as this dive site is really a great place to educate yourself and witness the full gamut of what being a reef fish is all about. Fish mating, fish laying and guarding eggs, fish hunting, fish hiding, fish fighting, fish feeding - it's all here on display from dawn 'til dusk.
Perhaps the most spectacular side of the pinnacle is the north side, which is much steeper than the other gentler sloping sides. It has a small submerged pinnacle in the north east, and a huge deep gully from the surface down to about 27 metres. You can choose to drop down to depth here and either zigzag up the northern face, or spiral around the whole rock if the currents allow.
Batu Bolong should not be dived if the currents in north Komodo are very strong since the site is small and there is no opportunity to drift. Slack tide is really the only occasion that you should dive here.
Cannibal Rock - Cannibal Rock lies in the channel just to the south of Rinca Island, east of Komodo, and 1 km off the northern coast of nearby Nusa Kode. You can just make out the top of the pinnacle, marked by breaking waves as you approach, but this belies the phenomenal marine life diversity once you enter the water. It is a truly world-class dive site and one of the top ones in Komodo.
Descend to the south to find the deepest diving section and where you'll find enormous green and blue magnificent anemones swaying back and forth. Sea apples (Pseudocolchirus Violaceus) are abundant, their bodies decorated in amazing maroon, studded with golden beads with bright yellow or cream tentacles that they use to filter feed on plankton.
Out of the depths, you may be visited on your dive by curious black-blotched stingrays, out on a hunting foray. Black snappers are also prevalent here with many juveniles, conspicuous in their black and white striped colours.
Making your way east and north you'll be astounded by the sizes of the purple gorgonian fans, some over 2 metres tall. These fans are home to the pygmy seahorse, always a thrill to spot. Dense thickets of lime green whip coral ferns and yellow and white spiral corals mark your trail. Be on the look-out for yellow-ribbon sweetlips - endemic to Komodo - and sweeps of gold-striped fusiliers. Green turtles are also frequent visitors to this dive site to feed on the soft corals.
The shallows are loaded with featherstars of all colours, and blue tunicates add ultraviolet shades to the already colourful kaleidoscope.
End of the World - Tala is a tiny, angular island in Langkoi Bay, just south of the southernmost part of Komodo Island, offering some excellent dive sites. It is one of the most southerly Komodo islands. The inner passage between Tala and Komodo proper is shallow and has ripping currents, but the southern point of the island has The End Of The World to the west in very deep water.
Here is a sheer wall of rock, broken up by some nice cuts, overhangs, and sandy shelves down to about 40 metres, and from there on a flat, black plane. There are white-tip sharks, rays, morays and rich coral growth in the cuts and shelves.
The flat areas of the wall are covered with extensive fields of marigold cup corals, a beautiful and vivid effect against the dark rock.
Gili Lawa - Crystal Bommie is a pinnacle that just breaks the surface off the northern side of the 2 small islets to the north of the main island of Komodo. It is another excellent dive site and very similar topographically to the famous GPS Point.
The reef is packed with bronze and rust coloured sponges and soft tree corals. The shallows host thousands of anthias and damselfish, large cuttlefish, pyramid butterflyfish, hawksbill turtles and several red octopus.
On the north west side of the pinnacle is a submerged mound that rises to 14 metres or so, with a 20 metre deep saddle between the 2. Due to the strong easterly currents you'll need to make a quick descent to reach this area in anything other than slack tide conditions but the reward can be worth the effort since there is always great schooling action here. There are schools of yellow-ribbon sweetlips, black snappers, bluefin and bigeye trevally, and whitetip reef sharks.
1 kilometre further north from Crystal Bommie is Castle Rock, another submerged mound. This site is even more exposed to the prevailing Komodo currents but for the experienced diver this is a exceptional treat. Whitetips, blacktips, grey reef sharks and giant trevally all frequent this site. The fish life is simply stunning with groupers, midnight snappers and frequent schools of fusiliers passing through.
In recent times a pod of bottlenose dolphins have made this spot one of their favourite hunting grounds, and you can often see them on a dive. These creatures are amazingly agile at work and to watch them in their natural environment is an experience not to be missed.
The Passage between Gili Lawa Laut and Gili Lawa Darat islands is a good option for a late afternoon or sunset dive as the bottom is only 20 metres or so deep. Currents can be very strong but the narrow strait often hosts several manta rays, and mobula rays that hunt the silversides in the shallows.
Strong currents can prevent dives on Gili Lawa and the correct conditions must exist before undertaking any dive here. One of the delights of diving in Indonesia is that the area is so large and the dive sites so numerous that it is possible to come across fantastic sites which are still relatively unchartered.
GPS Point - Located off the north east point of Gili Banta Island, 10 km north east of Komodo, the famous GPS Point is a must on any liveaboard cruise here and is often considered the best northern dive site in Komodo. It attracts lots and lots of fish and is often swarming with dogtooth tuna, and big schools of barracudas and surgeonfish.
The top of this small sea mount rises to just 5 metres of the surface and hosts snowflake morays, cowries, spider and hermit crabs, nudibranchs, scorpionfish and cuttlefish.
The soft coral growth at GPS Point in particular is excellent, and the entire surface of the sea mound is richly overgrown with invertebrates. In some areas there are dense fields of staghorn corals overflowing with gold and orange anthias.
The deep waters provide the opportunity for encounters with hammerhead sharks and Napoleon wrasse as well as the more common snappers, batfish, white-tips, grey reef sharks and nurse sharks.
Strong currents often to 3 knots can sweep the top of the mount making safety stops a little problematic. Things settle down at around 25 metres deep or so, but this is not really a beginners dive. Visibility here is variable, and can drop below 10 metres due to plankton, but it is usually clearer at depth.
Manta Alley - A bit of a giveaway from the name of the site, but this signature dive is the main location in Komodo to find manta rays - often as many as 10 or 20. It's a rock islet that just punctures the sea's surface in a small craggy chain, inside the bay along the south coast of Komodo Island.
You'll start your dive to the east of the rocks where another submerged mound rises to just a few metres below the surface. In the lee area between this mound and the rocky islet, where the maximum depth is 15 metres, there are almost always a couple of juvenile mantas playing around.
Another option however, is to drop down the steep eastern slope of the mound to the site's deepest section. Follow the slope of orange soft corals and encrusting invertebrates down to depth where giant trevally, white tip and black tip reef sharks roam in search of food. Make your way round to the north and in the direction of the islet chain, keeping alert for some huge black fantail rays resting on the bottom of the reef's substrate.
Eventually you arrive at a series of 3 underwater channels that run between the islet and its most northerly rocky protrusion. The channels are 18 metres or so deep and quite wide. Often schools of large bumphead parrotfish hang out here and mantas circle this area too.
Once you're through the channels onto the west side of the islet, you'll be out of bottom time and making your way up to 5 metres. Again the shallows here seem to be a favourite jaunt with manta rays. If the rays are not present then watch the surge areas close to the rocks. These are home to some formidably sized fish such as mangrove red snapper, emporers and giant sweetlips. Great barracuda often patrol here too.
Manta Alley is always one of the most frequently requested dives on any Komodo liveaboard, provided that you can handle the chill of these southern waters.
Pantai Merah - 'Red Beach' is located just in front of the old dragon feeding station in the eastern part of Komodo Island, directly across the bay from Komodo Village.
Snorkelling here is excellent over a healthy shallow reef. Diving is at the sloping reef edge where the bottom drops down to 25 metres. Half way along the beach front is the best spot, where the reef slope gives way to a more abrupt wall with lots of green branching cup corals and stinging hydroids.
Thousands of fish of every colour and shape are here including yellow damsels, regal angelfish, checkerboard wrasse, masked unicornfish and schooling reef fish such as striped fusiliers, against a beautiful backdrop of acripora corals, gorgonian fans and sponges. Frogfish also hang around the wall, blending in colourfully with their host sponge and surrounds.
Mantis shrimps are always in attendance with their housekeeping as they remove rock from their burrows. Their darting bulbous eyes are thought to be the most complex in nature, and they can strike prey with a crustacean karate chop from its claw, hard enough to crack a pane of glass. Other common residents in the rubble and sand substrate are crocodilefish, shrimp gobies and burrowing jawfish, protecting their broods of eggs in their agape mouths.
Pillarsteen - 'Pillar Rock' lies a couple of kilometres to the south east of Padar Island, between Komodo and Rinca.
The best plan at this top notch dive site is to drop at a pinnacle at the southern-most point and let the strong current and surge take you west. To the south lies deeper water and a series of caves, chimneys and rocky outcrops. Here you'll find large mid night snappers, huge boxfish, and 6-banded angelfish.
To the west Pillarsteen's walls are painted yellow, green and orange by the dense colonies of soft corals. Yellow and white sea squirts are found here in their thousands. With funnel-shaped bodies and spout-shaped open mouths, these colourful creatures can easily be mistaken for aqautic versions of pitcher plants.
In the shallow waters the wall ends and becomes a sloping reef. Here are masses of gigantic soft brown leather corals (Scleronephthya, Sinulana and Sarchphyton). You'll see tiny bright yellow sea cucumbers, so common in Komodo, attached to most of the corals. They look surprisingly like members of the sea slug family, but Pentacta Lutea are indeed Holothurians. Strong surge can make this area hazardous amongst the rocks and corals, especially with the presence of highly toxic but brightly coloured red and purple fire urchins.
Tatawa Island - The prevailing current, north or south, will dictate where you enter at the main dive site of Tatawa Besar ("Big Tatawa"), some 30 km east of Komodo's northern-most point. When the current runs south, chances are you'll drop into a 2 or 3+ knot white-water current, probably on the north west corner of the island.
The first stage of your dive can happen rather quickly and will require all of your attention as you are hit with an up-current just before you reach the split in the current. Then you'll descend down the endless sloping reef of orange soft corals that runs along the western coast of this island, to around 20 metres.
Turtles seem to be everywhere and you can expect to see many as you navigate the site. Before you leave the currents behind watch out for the blacktip reef sharks, giant trevallies, great and black-tail barracudas. Manta rays also make occasional guest appearances.
Once you round the southern corner, the rollercoaster is over for this dive and you'll have time to appreciate the remainder of your stay at this beautiful site. Bumphead parrotfish are resident here and you're likely to meet quite few of them in loose groups.
Further south and slightly west of Tatawa Besar is a rocky islet called Batu Besar, meaning big stone, and this is the location of a dive site called 'Current City'. Scuba diving in Komodo often takes the form of drift dives. East of the Batu Besar, as the name suggests, currents can regularly exceed 3 knots, making for some serious drift diving. If the current is this strong along the east face however, it is usually fairly calm along the west.
The west face of Batu Besar offers a series of steep drops to about 30 metres, and several interesting coral caves. The soft coral cover is very good, and there are lots of fish, including large schools of sweetlips. Sharks are again common here, as are turtles and very large fantail stingrays.
Also to the south of Tatawa Besar is Tatawa Kecil ("Little Tatawa"). It's best to dive the west coast of this island to explore its vibrant shallow coral gardens full of anthias. Its caves and boulders are perfect harbours for larger groupers. There are also large schools of humpback snapper, titan triggerfish and the occassional orange-spotted trevally.
White Angels - Off the north west point of Gili Banta, north east of Komodo, the White Angels steep reef and wall are at their best early morning when pelagic fish are out to feed on the bounty provided by the swift currents.
From a shallow sheltered bay the reef quickly drops to 35m and then beyond. You'll need to swim against a current over a short distance to gain the corner of the bay, but once around it's all plain sailing as you drift along assisted by the currents with queen mackerel, yellowtail tuna and grey reef sharks.
A quarter of an hour or so into your dive and you'll come into a shallower reef section in still water. Here you'll find a fantastic array of sponges and corals.
Lionfish, batfish and oval-spot butterflyfish are here, along with countless and colourful nudibranchs.
Yellow Wall of Texas - This is the wall running down the east coast of Nusa Kode, to the south of Rinca Island, east of Komodo. Yellow Wall of Texas is best dived in the afternoon, when the sun provides more natural lighting.
The shallows are very rich in fish life, particularly plankton feeders. Fork-tailed fairy basslets swarm around the drop-offs in great orange and purple schools. Pairs of colourful butterflyfish forage in the reef crannies for small crustaceans or coral polyps.
Clown triggerfish, perhaps the most distinctively marked of all the reef fishes with its black body, round orange mouth, yellow face band, white-spotted underbelly and yellow tail, stake out their territory along the face of the reef.
In the deeper waters a couple of white-tip reef sharks may swing around to give you a close look. Red snappers with bright yellow eyes will keep a wary distance, and green turtles often row by.
How to Dive Komodo
Although there are a few resorts beginning to pop up around the area, the dive sites are well spaced out and the only way to truly see all of Komodo Island and the surrounding area is by liveaboard. There are plenty of liveaboards and you should find something for every budget.
You can go liveaboard diving in Komodo all year round. The liveaboards here do not close for an off-season because every month of the year promises top quality action. Some consider April to November to be the best time to visit as the weather is best then and November to March is rainy season. April, just after rainy season, is often considered the best month.
Normally the water is cooler (average 20 to 25°C) in the south and warmer and clearer in the north (average 25 to 28°C), but this can change. The absolute best time for good visibility in Komodo is from November to January when 30+m is common. July and August, having cooler seas and being more nutrient-rich, have lower visibility but have blooming marine life.
January to March can have rough surface conditions at the northern dive sites. July and August can have rough seas in the south and Rinca. But these conditions rarely interfere with the liveaboard schedules to any great extent.
As far as seasonal patterns for big marine life go, the best time for manta sightings is December to February (though they are seen all year round), and for Mola Mola the best month is generally August.
Good for: Large animals, small animals, wall dives, underwater photography, drift diving, reef life and health and advanced divers
Not so good for: Wrecks and beginner divers
Depth: 5 - >40m
Visibility: 5 - 30m
Currents: Can be very strong
Surface conditions: Can be rough
Water temperature: 20 - 28°C
Experience level: Intermediate - advanced
Number of dive sites: >35
Distance: ~490 km east of Bali (24 hours), 20 km west of Labuan Bajo (Flores, 2 hours), 90 km east southeast of Bima (Sumbawa, 8 hours)
Access: Komodo liveaboard cruises
Recommended length of stay: 6 - 11 days