• Bil

Manta Madness

Updated: Oct 11, 2019

I turned around just in time to see a gaping 2-meter-wide mouth heading directly for me, but just before my head might be swallowed the awesome creature gracefully dipped under me and swam on by, showing her dark muscled back and wings. Before she had disappeared two more giant manta rays appeared, gracefully flapping their huge wings to glide by either side of me.


We had already completed our scuba dive and spotted about ten mantas swimming by while near the bottom, seeing them from the side and below where their large gills and white bellies were visible. Returning to the small dinghy we found that Susie had been snorkeling with dozens and dozens of mantas around the surface. Everyone immediately doffed their scuba gear and jumped back in to swim with these majestic creatures for another 30 minutes before they moved on. I have been looking forward to this moment for a long time! OMG!!!


Our latest adventure started out with a drive to the Lombok airport and an hour flight on a twin prop plane to Komodo Airport in Labuan Bajo, on the western end of Flores Island. It’s pretty obvious what the main draw is here with Komodo Dragon murals and photos everywhere, between ads for dive shops.


We had booked a 4 day/3 night trip on a liveaboard dive boat called the Mastro Aldo, through Komodo Dive Center. They sent a driver to collect us from the airport and we would our way down the hills to the dive shop, with amazing views out over the harbor with hills on either side. There were hundreds of boats docked at the piers and anchored in the harbor, from small to huge liveaboards, fishing boats, ferry boats and large cargo ships.


Arriving at Komodo Dive Center we met several of the crew and a delightful young couple from Germany, Zofia & Markus who would be joining us on the boat. After taking care of some paperwork at the shop the driver took us to our lodging for the night, with a quick stop for a bottle of Chardonnay and a couple of Smirnoff Ices. Golo Hilltop was a lovely place with a great view of the harbor and surrounded hills, with nice landscaping, pool & restaurant.


Thursday 19/09/19 - After a nice breakfast at Golo we met up at the dive shop with our dive masters and the other two divers from the Netherlands, Joyce & Jan. A small truck carried our bags while we walked to one of the piers where we piled into a small open boat and ran out into the harbor, threading between a myriad of vessels: from dilapidated local fishing boats to multi-million-dollar sailboats and motor cruisers.


Our vessel was the Mastro Aldo, a triple-decker 22 meter catamaran with twin 4 cylinder diesels and 2 generators. She was not the sleekest craft around but was built with comfort & convenience for divers in mind, with ample fresh water, aircon cabins, hot showers (usually), SCUBA tank compressor and lots of soda, beer & food! We were welcomed onto the boat with snacks and soft drinks or coffee.


By 10 am the captain motored out of the harbor and got us up to speed – maybe 6 or 7 knots! But no one was in a hurry and the sea was calm, so everyone (passengers – not crew!) grabbed a drink & climbed to the top deck where an assortment of wicker chairs and beanbags provided comfy seating while watching the scenery slide by.


Around 1pm we tied up to a mooring buoy at Sebayur Kecil for our first dive. This spot usually has no currents and a nice shallow reef, so it is a perfect place for the dive masters to asses the abilities of their new group. Joyce & Jan have been diving many years & locations, bringing their own diving gear & cameras, and they were led by Hans. Derik was the dive master for Zofia, Markus & me, while Susie snorkeled or read on the boat. This was the only dive where we entered the water directly from the big boat, stepping off the rear platform into the crystal-clear ocean.


Everyone adapted quickly and we started exploring the reef, which had many types of beautiful coral, and we spotted moray eels, garden eels, big snappers & lionfish. Near the end of the dive I heard the “tap tap” of an aluminum pointer stick against a dive tank and looked up to see two huge manta rays gliding by about 10 meters away. They make swimming look effortless as their wings move up and down rhythmically. Just Wow.


Back on board we were all ecstatic – mantas on the first dive! They are never seen at this site! Seems like a good omen to me. Time for a snack while the boat motors on westward, tying up to a mooring buoy near Siaba Besar. This will be our first night dive, so everyone is issued underwater torches (flash lights!).


This time we all suited up in the dive area on the rear of the Mastro Aldo and then clambered over to the side and down a wooden ladder into the (rocking) dinghy. Great fun with about 500 pounds of gear on your back! (ha – not really – but feels like it). 7 divers and 2 helpers head over to the spot. Now we hoist our butts onto the gunwale of the dinghy with tanks hanging over, masks on, regulators in – 3, 2, 1 – and all fall over backwards into the sea.


Quick check to ensure all are ok, then hold your BC hose up, press the air release button and start sinking into the darkness. And by now it was really dark, so without a torch there is not much to see – kind of disorienting at first, but we adapted quickly. Two cool things about night dives are some animals are more active at night, and the colors of many coral and fish in deeper water are more evident with torch light. This is because water filters out the reds, oranges & yellows the deeper you go so everything seems to be shades of blue by 30 meters.


Highlights of this dive were 3 whitetip reef sharks, huge redspot sponge crab, many turtles, lionfish & scorpionfish. After 45 minutes of bottom time we moved to our 3-minute safety stop at about 5 meters depth, then slowly ascended to the top and blew up our BCs for flotation to await the dinghy. When it arrived, everyone hung on a dock line along the side while we removed our fins, then climbed up a portable steel ladder into the boat – tons of fun with your tank still on, and feeling a bit tired. And COLD!


Back to the M.A. to strip off all the gear & suits, rinse off and get ready for a delicious dinner of tuna steaks, rice and veggies. Afterwards we gather to compare notes, update our log books and get a briefing for the next day. No late partying here – everyone is ready to hit the sack!


Friday is a full day, and the schedule is on the board:

05:45 – small breakfast 06:00 – Dive 1 – Batu Balong 08:00 – big breakfast 09:30 – Dive 2 – Makassar Reef, aka Manta Point (woohoo!) 12:00 – lunch 13:30 – Dive 3 - ? 16:00 – snack 18:00 – night dive - ? 20:00 – dinner & log book


05:45 comes really early but the sky is quite bright and sunrise is only minutes away. This close to the equator sunrise and sunset vary little, being close to 6 year around. Small breakfast is usually bananas and small cookies, with tea, coffee, water or soft drinks. Easy to get dehydrated diving in the tropics so drinking lots of water is mandatory. Rum is optional. (Actually – very expensive & hard to find!)


Squirming into a damp wetsuit at 6 in the morning is another joy, and yet we persevere, making our way to the dinghy for the ride over to Batu Bolong, which means “hole in the rock”, describing one of the rocks projecting above the surface. We are diving on a falling tide meaning the current is running north to south at this location, which determines where we drop in and come out.


Ocean currents are quite visible amongst all the islands we have seen, and particularly in the Komodo Islands where there is a large number of small islands and undersea structures scattered between the larger islands. As the tides change the currents reverse and flow between all these masses, and over the submerged sea mounts, creating a huge variety of fast & slow currents, upwellings and down-currents.


It is endlessly fascinating to me to watch the ocean surface and see the evidence of these changes in the water flow. The main ocean surface might have a light chop and then there is a very distinct demarcation where the flow looks like a river running 15kmh about 300 meters wide. Then there is another circular area that appears as a very calm slick of flat water but looks more like a boil as you approach. (I found a book called 'How to Read Water' in the main cabin on the M.A. that really spoke to me, and will download to my Kindle sometime. After all, my online alias has been Aquamusic for many, many years.)


Dive masters must take all of this into account when planning dives, and work with their client’s experience. Komodo diving is reputed as some of the strongest currents to deal with and can turn an ordinary dive into something else entirely quite rapidly.


This time our plan works well as we see a huge variety of small and large fish, including sharks, turtles, morays, grouper & triggerfish and many varieties of beautiful coral. Time is up – air is almost gone – back to the boat.


Big breakfast means just that! Served family style in large bowls, we have scrambled eggs, button mushrooms with onions, baked beans, chicken link sausage, hard boiled eggs with sauce and toast with butter, Nutella & jam! Oh – and fresh juice – mango this morning. Yum! Of course, we eat too much to go dive right away, but……


Manta Point! One of the main reasons I am here and the high point for many divers in their lifetime. It is an area between 5 & 15m deep, with a strong current that prohibits much coral growth, but provides high concentrations of plankton, which in turn attracts the mantas. There are also some small seamounts called “cleaning stations” where the mantas may hover to allow small fish to swim in and out of their mouths and gills, eating small parasites that have attached.


Our “5 minute boat ride” turns into about 15 or 20 minutes as the outboard engine sputters and misses, running about 1/3 speed. An eternity with your gear and tank on your back. The current is not so bad where we drop but picks up quickly as we move along the bottom. I am using my pointer stick to slow down and struggling to keep near Derick while he is setting a reef hook and handing the cord to Zofia. Then he grabs a loose piece of rock or coral and I get a hold on his tank, and we all hang there blowing in the current, watching for the mantas. (see opening paragraphs above)


Back to the boat to clean up & get ready for lunch as the captain takes the boat farther north, much to Zofia’s delight. She and Markus had already done a couple of day dives in north Komodo and loved it. Lunch was a large piece of chicken with some sauce over a bed of rice with some veggies on the side. Susie had tempe as she is not crazy about eating much chicken.


Almost everywhere we have been in Indonesia the boats tie up to mooring buoys instead of dropping an anchor. This prevents more destruction of the life-giving coral reefs every time an anchor is dropped or drug along the bottom. The coral has already been stressed from cyanide fishing, blast fishing, earthquakes, diving and global warming.


We are starting to get into the feel on onboard life and it is great! Pretty nice to be “waited on” much of the time and the whole crew of 8 is super friendly and accommodating. Hans, Derick and the captain speak very good English, and the others not so much. After meals we tend to congregate on the top deck in the beanbags to talk and snooze and look out over the gorgeous expanse of azure and sapphire waters between the myriad islands. There are quite a few other large liveaboard boats at some locations and day boats as well. But high season is over, so we are usually the first divers in the mornings.


This is the first time since leaving the states that we have been in a group of people for a few days, and we were fortunate enough to fall in with a great bunch! Zofia & Marcus are an energetic young couple from Germany traveling and diving for 9 months. She was extremely helpful with me getting my gear on and off, and generously shared her amazing underwater photos and videos.


Joyce & Jan hail from Holland where he works with wind tunnel research at a university, testing everything from vehicles to sports suits in the tunnel. Jan was a total hoot, and keep everyone laughing with his goofy sound effects, impersonations and “not politically correct” observations of other tourists! They all made the trip much more than just a diving trip, and we look forward to joining together on future adventures.


Our afternoon dive though the Golden Passage was another drift dive through a cut and then cruising to the sides to view more beautiful coral and fish. After the afternoon snack Han came upstairs for the night dive briefing, and I just had to pass, along with Zofia and Markus. So off went Joyce & Jan while the rest of us recuperated!


Saturday morning came bright and early (!) and everyone was ecstatic to see a few Mantas swimming near the boat on the edge of the current coming through Golden Passage. Our group was excited that the first dive was the Cauldron, aka the Shotgun. Well, I wasn’t over excited as I had not heard of reputation of this dive site, but others had. We motored over to the area as Hans & Derick peered into the water to find the best drop zone.


3,2,1 – over backwards – brrrr. The chilly (25 – 26 degree C) water runs into our wet suits and gradually warms as we get oriented, then start our descent. The drop spot is a large sandy bowl-shaped area about 20 meters deep. We swim lazily around the bowl and over to a nearly vertical wall covered with gorgonians and other gorgeous coral. Stingray, snappers, triggerfish and many other tropicals abound. The wall gradually ends, and we slowly rise over the shelf at the end and WHAM – we are hit with a roaring current that immediately starts carrying us away!


It takes me a moment to get oriented and see that Derick is swimming to the left with his reef hook out. I start kicking like mad to follow, while he makes it look like he is barely trying! Dang! Derick gets his hook into a solid piece of coral and Zofia grabs the cord, and I manage to just reach Derick’s arm before I am swept away. After I get one hand on the cord Derick falls back and holds on to our tanks, and we all hang there, while Zofia gets some GoPro shots of us with our hair blowing back in the torrent.


After 5 minutes or so we let go and drift with the flow before kicking to the side where the current decreased significantly and we could swim towards shallower water to end the dive. Just before we had to surface, a wonderful huge manta flew leisurely by, waving her wings at us.


Second dive on Saturday was at Castle Rock which was literally teeming with fish in the whole water column. We settled close to the bottom where we could observe many colorful schools of hundreds of blue & yellow fusiliers swimming back and forth, with dozens of big black jacks moving in and out of the smaller fish, and several sharks cruising on the periphery. Many other schools of other small fish moved in and out, and there was a group of (bigeye?) tuna circling near the surface. Quite amazing and overwhelming.


Crystal Rock was the 3rd dive site on Saturday with notable sightings being clown triggerfish, sweetlips, close up whitetip shark and several large puffers and porcupine fish. But the ultimate was a large Day Octopus I spotted, with most of his head exposed and tentacles tucked away. Wish I could have enticed him to come out and play!


Back at the boat Zofia is the only one up for a night dive, and she & Susie talk me into going. Just a short ride to the edge of the bay where we are moored and we drop in at sunset. It is a chilly and unremarkable dive with a pretty nudibranch, banded coral shrimp, several lionfish and a pacific pearl oyster. When we surface there was no one around other than several big boats near the moorings. It took our dinghy driver about 10 minutes to come over & retrieve us. Brrrrrrr!


Sunday 22/09/19 – Last day already??? The main engines cranked up about 4:30 to move us near our last 2 dive spots: Tatawa Besar & Pengali Kecil. Both morning dives are easy with huge amount of tropical fish, turtles and lovely coral. It can become easy to think it is jus another dive, but if you just slow down and look, there is a million living things to be seen in every square meter of coral. Truly amazing.


After lunch we all put on our “civvies” and putted over to the Komodo National Park entrance on Rinca Island, excited to see some real, live “dragons”! There were many boats moored in the small bay and several smaller craft tied up to the pier. Out we went and walked several hundred meters on a wooden catwalk to the headquarters, over an area of dusty dirt. This is the dry season, so all the islands are dusty and brown with a minimal amount of vegetation. We can see monkeys all around, and large footprints in the dust with a track down the middle.


As soon as we get to the ranger’s office, we spot several dragons lying in the shade of the building. Probably 2 or 3 meters long and looking pretty fat to us. Our group is assigned 2 guides and they give us some background, saying these guys here eat about once a month and probably last fed 3 weeks ago. So don’t get too close! There are another 3 or 4 around back, and one is awake and looking around, but not moving. The ones hanging around the buildings are normally pretty docile, but one did chase a tourist yesterday until a guide fended her off with a forked wooden stick they all carry.


Komodo Dragons are the largest living lizards and will eat about anything they can catch. They typically will ambush their prey: deer, boar & water buffalo, and quickly sprint in for the kill. Some say they bite once and wait for their victim to die, and other experts say they just attack and bring down their prey at once, when able. There is also some disagreement about the content in their saliva – some combination of venom, bacteria and anti-coagulant. They have been known to attack and kill humans.


We take the medium trek, which is about 2km long, and it is HOT! No lizards, or anything living is spotted, but we do see one nest where a female Komodo has laid about 30 eggs. Maybe 5 or 10 will survive, between birds, snakes and other dragonslooking for an easy meal.


Everyone is ready for a break by the time we get back to the ranger station, and of course there is a souvenir counter with carvings, shirts and jewelry. There also happens to be a couple of beat up acoustic guitars, so you know, doesn’t take much before our group is singing Beatles & Funky Music, much to the bewilderment of the masses of tour groups that have just arrived. Time to go!!!


Back at the Mastro Aldo it is time for our crazy bunch to pack up and load onto the transfer boat that will take us back to Flores. We round up all the crew and divers for photos and fond farewells. This has really been a wonderful trip for all us, and we will miss our new friends from the crew. We all slip some Rupiah into the crew tip box, and give our dive masters some extra for taking such good care of us mere mortals.


As we cruise back towards Labuan Bajo with the sun sinking behind us, the mood is mellow and reflective, with everyone sharing photos and videos from the past week. I had ordered a nice underwater camera from Amazon a month ago and paid extra for it to arrive at the dive center before we departed. Of course it didn’t, and has been in customs at Denpasar for weeks. Trying to coordinate with DHL has been a nightmare, and it’s likely it won’t arrive before we leave Indonesia. In which case I will void the credit card payment & let Amazon & DHL sort it out. Grrrrrrr. Luckily, Zofia, Joyce & Jan all had cameras and were very helpful in giving me copies of many of the shots and videos they took.


Back on dry land we booked a room at the same place Zofia & Markus were at and all went out for dinner & drinks at Mediterraneo Italian Restaurant, exchanging contacts and talking future plans. Monday was a day of rest – lying about on dry land to get rid of that constant rocking sensation!


Tuesday – We met a charming single man from Taiwan, who has been waiting for his lost luggage several days. It came today and he showed us his collapsible spinning rod and a good size spinning reel. Good Luck sir!


In the afternoon we bid a sad farewell to our wonderful new friends, Zofia & Markus. They are now heading north into Sulawesi for some explorations in some very remote areas. Maybe we will see them in Thailand later this year – or Bavaria when we get up that way.


Auf Wiedersehen!


*Manta photo by Hakai Magazine

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