Scratching the surface of some of the best diving in the world
Komodo National Park is a huge draw for travellers, largely due to the infamous Komodo dragon that roams the rugged islands of Nusa Tengarra. However, beneath the surface, Komodo diving is up there with the finest in the world. One word of warning though… it’s not for the faint-hearted.
“Everyone ready?” Adrian, our dive master from Komodo Dive Center asked us just as out of the corner of my eye, I saw a boat spin past.
From the surface, Batu Bolong doesn’t look like anything special. It’s a nondescript rock that juts out from the surface of the sea. On a good day, the currents swirl around the rock relatively harmlessly. On a bad day, the same currents can be treacherous.
As we stared out at the dive site, all I could see was chaos. The competing currents swept around either side of the rock in a semi-circle to smash back into each other, creating mini whirlpools, spinning boats around and creating havoc for those trying to drop off and pick up divers.
So without further thought, we jumped in, touched our heads to let our crew know we were OK and, spinning round in the currents, descended under the water in an experience I could only compare to being flushed down a toilet.
Translated as Hollow Rock, Batu Bolong’s surface, calm or not, gives nothing away to the magic happening below.
The sheer rock face gives way to steep coral walls that descend 20m to a hotbed of marine life that would take your breath away if it wasn’t for the number one rule of diving: Never stop breathing.
The vibrant reef is in pristine condition with corals and sponges of every colour. Schools of fish so dense you can’t see through them, whirl around the rock. In the depths below, reef tip sharks hunt, along with tuna, giant trevally and other big fish.
Small and curious hawksbill turtles flit from coral to coral, munching away, whereas large, aloof green turtles get high on anemones and glare at you through slitted eyes. The majesty of their age is worn prominently on their expansive backs.
For all its beauty, and little mermaid-esque vibes, it’s not for the inexperienced. Divers need to zigzag down the site. Stray too far from the shelter of the wall and the side currents will inexorably pull you away from your path. Swim too far out from the protective shield and you risk being dragged down to the bottom, 70m below, by the powerful downward currents.
Random waves of freezing water will wash over you, threatening to push you into the coral wall. Boats with their propellers engaged fight for stability as they drop their divers off in safe entry points less than a dozen meters over your head, and novice divers cartwheel around the site as they fight to regain their buoyancy.
The combination of strong currents, fighting to keep off the corals and a rather bad hangover had me sucking back air like I had just run a marathon. And with worsening conditions on the site, as well as my fast-depleting PSI, our dive master made the sensible decision to call the dive short.
Once on the surface, our boat made a beeline for us, nervousness etched on their usually jovial faces. We were thrown a loose, dangling rope used to haul us in. As we took off our fins and handed them our gear, they suddenly shouted: “Do not let go of the rope!”
A fast-moving whirlpool raced towards us as I planted my feet against the hull of the boat. Already, I could feel the current trying to suck me downwards.
“Regulators! Put them in!” The crew barked, as two leaned down to grab my BCD as the harsh current tried to take control.
Feeling a little machine-washed, we were hauled on board and hightailed out of there back to Labuan Bajo on the western edge of Flores, an island in East Nusa Tengarra.
Even with these few tense moments, Batu Bolong is the best dive I’ve ever been on. As it should be, ranked as the 13th best dive site in the world, and arguably the best in Komodo National Park.
Intrepid travellers, dragon seekers and divers from all walks of life have been visiting this area since the 1980s, but with recent infrastructure upgrades, this once sleepy fishing village of Labuan Bajo is now the major gateway to explore the chain of islands that comprise the 1,817km2 national park.
Most famous for being home to the fearsome Komodo dragons, it’s what’s under the water that’s destined to impress.
Sitting within the coral triangle, the vibrant underwater environments are home to healthy corals, thousands of species of fish and a rich variety of marine life from pygmy seahorses to sharks, dolphins and whales.
But what really gives dragons a run for their money, and what draws divers from all around the world, is the almost certainty of diving with manta rays. These gentle giants are found all-year-round – much to a diver’s delight.
Growing up to 7 meters across, they blot out the sun when they glide above awestruck divers’ heads, their undersides a unique fingerprint of identification for conservationists and manta-enthusiasts.
A manta ray’s skin is covered in a protective phlegm, which can be damaged by human contact, and make them susceptible to shark attacks. It’s easy to forget that rule as mantas are incredibly curious and swim extraordinarily up close and personal with you.
This is all possible because the national park and its numerous islands are at an interesting intersection in the global ocean highway. The powerful Pacific Ocean comes rushing down with its cold currents to crash headlong into the warm, forgiving waters of the Indian Ocean. Together, these medleys of currents are the life force of a thriving ecosystem, which boasts some of the best diving in the world.
Although touted as the next Bali, Labuan Bajo still retains some small town charm, avoiding the influx of mainstream tourism, resorts and fast food restaurants.
This is changing, however, with the construction of new luxury hotels and resorts, which is sure to change the current laidback tropical atmosphere. So if you’d like to experience Labuan Bajo, Batu Bolong and the other wonders of Komodo National Park as they are currently, think about planning your trip soon, before the overflow from Bali finds their way to this magical part of the world.
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Originally published in South East Asia Backpacker