To complete this report, Island Dreams' owner Ken Knezick, and a group of 26 divers from around the U.S.A., traveled to North Sulawesi to dive Kungkungan Bay Resort, and then on to the Hotel Santika Manado, diving with Thalassa Dive Center. Following successful completion of the group trip, Ken traveled to Bali to do a series of hotel inspections, and then boarded a sailing of Kararu Dive Voyages for an 11-night dive cruise between Bali and Komodo Island. Including 60 scuba dives and encounters with everything from tiny pygmy seahorses to an immense whale shark and the fearsome Komodo Dragon, the following information, impressions and opinions are based on Ken's extended journey:
North and South Sulawesi - An immense landmass in central Indonesia, Sulawesi is one of the largest and most intriguing islands on our planet. Due to its highly convoluted coastline, it is said that Sulawesi boasts more oceanfront than the entire coastline of the U.S.A. As Indonesia goes, Sulawesi is one of the easier areas to reach. Entry to Sulawesi is generally via Singapore, with a connection to Makassar (Ujung Pandang) in South Sulawesi, or Manado in the north. In this case, our group was well served by Singapore Airlines and its subsidiary Silk Air. We were met upon arrival in Manado, and driven the two hours to our first destination, Kungkungan Bay Resort.
Kungkungan Bay Resort - Located just south of Manado in Bitung, Kungkungan Bay Resort (KBR) is one of the world's most unusual diving destinations. Catering in particular to underwater photographers and serious critter watchers, the resort itself is quite comfortable and well suited to serving dive travelers' specific needs. Catering to a maximum of only 26 guests, lodging is in spacious individual cabins cooled by ceiling fans. Beds are large and comfortable, and the rooms are equipped with excellent high intensity halogen reading lights. Large and immaculately maintained bathrooms have plenty of fresh hot water. The dining room and guest area is in an immense two story octagonal wooden lodge built out over the sea. All meals are included in the package, and guests may order whatever they wish from an extensive menu of both Asian and Western faire. Remarkably, the restaurant is open for guests 24 hours. The dive shop is central to the property, and boasts the best camera preparation area I have yet encountered. All in my group expressed great satisfaction with the KBR experience, and it is a telling point that Kungkungan Bay Resort enjoys a return guest ratio exceeding 50%.
Diving the Lembeh Strait - Of course, we did not travel half way around the world just to relax and eat day and night. My group came to dive, and we were not disappointed. What makes KBR's diving unusual is the extreme biodiversity of the marine life in the waters at its doorstep, the Lembeh Strait. The term "muck diving" may have been coined in Papua New Guinea, but it is an accurate description of the dive site's appearance as one jumps in at a favorite Lembeh Strait spot such as "Hair Ball." The diver is initially met by a daunting expanse of seemingly featureless black volcanic sand. This depressing marine landscape is only randomly broken by small pockets of sponge, perhaps an anemone, or as often an old shoe, burlap bag, or scrap of newspaper. At first blush, the uninitiated might seriously consider climbing right back into the boat and looking for another place to dive.
The Guides - But this is where the sharp eyes of KBR's superbly trained dive guides come into play. Initially schooled by the resort owner/builder Mark Ecenbarger, and the equally renowned dive guide extraordinaire Larry Smith, these guys are nothing short of excellent fish finders. With the eager assistance of KBR's dive guides, Lembeh's muck diving reveals itself home to be one of the richest repositories of marine life on Earth. For the purpose of amplification, let me state that I have been diving for 20+ years, and am fortunate to have logged a few thousand scuba dives quite literally around the world. Yet in my week of diving at KBR, these waters quickly opened my eyes to a wealth of exotic sea creatures previously unknown to me, or recognized only as pictures in marine life reference books. In fact, the guides' eyes are so good that you might wish to bring a magnifying glass underwater, and/or your longest macro lens, to fully appreciate all that they have to share with you.
The Critters - During our week of diving at KBR we encountered all manner of frogfish including Hairball's famous hairy frogfish, an amazing filamentous triggerfish, myriad nudibranchs, beautiful soft coral crabs, porcelain crabs, zeno crabs, orangutan crabs, hairy squat lobster, the "devil fish" inimicus, seahorses, pygmy seahorses, ribbon eels, snake eels, pipefish, crocodile fish, mantis shrimp, many species of anemone shrimp, cat shark, stonefish, stargazer, scorpion fish, leaf scorpion, and many other leaf fish. There are some "common" reef fishes here too, like lionfish and clownfish, but at KBR they are uncharacteristically ignored in the search for yet more fantastic creatures. Exotic critters such as the robust ghost pipefish and ornate ghost pipefish are so commonly mentioned in the dive briefings as to be reduced to acronyms, RGP and OGP. Still being scientifically researched in Lembeh is the recently described mimic octopus, and it's even more exotic relative currently known as "wonderpus." During my visit I was fortunate to have seen and photographed both of these rare species of octopus. In fact the KBR guides not only routinely find these creatures, and many more, but also go out of their way to help underwater photographers "get the shot."
Photographer's Paradise - As a result of the extraordinary marine life and "photo-sensitive" guides, many of KBR's guests are avid underwater photographers. The resort aids them further by catering to their specific needs with a well thought out camera prep area, and by providing various photo pro months during the year. During our stay we were treated to the invaluable expertise of professional photographers Denise Nielsen Tackett and Larry Tackett. Not only do these experts accompany divers on the daily boat trips, sharing tips and spotting critters, but with the aid of E-6 processing, they are able to provide on the spot photo critiques, and provide advice on how to markedly, and quickly improve your u/w photo results.
Finest Dive Resort in the World? - Kungkungan's basic dive package includes three daily boat dives plus unlimited shore diving. Beginning in 2001 they will offer the option of a fourth daily boat dive. The dive sites are so close, generally only 5-15 minute boat rides, that divers return to the comfort of the resort between each dive. It is indicative of the attention to detail, that every time we motored in from the second morning dive, waiters from the restaurant were waiting at the boat landing to take our lunch orders. By the time we had dropped our gear and rinsed off, our lunches were ready to be served. This is just one of many touches and demonstrations of attention to detail. When resort owner Mark Ecenbarger confided to me that he intends to continue improving KBR, and strives to make it, "the finest dive resort in the world," I did not doubt for a moment his resolve or ability to do so. Don't be put off by the term "muck diving." If Kungkungan Bay Resort and the diving of Lembeh Strait sound appealing, by all means I encourage you to come and experience it for yourself.
Manado, Bunaken, and the Northern Islands - Perfect compliment to a KBR visit, is an add-on stay in Manado, there to experience the blue-water and coral reef diving of the justly renowned Bunaken National Marine Park. Generally, the transfer between the two areas is accomplished via a simple two-hour car ride. But in the case of my group, I tried to further enhance their experience by arranging a special boat transfer, to include two dives in the remote Northern Islands. Many of the guests claimed that the second of our two dives, in a channel next to Banka Island, revealed the healthiest and most beautiful coral reef they had ever seen. Sadly, our experience was somewhat marred by a major squall at sea that blew up to envelope us as we continued our boat transfer along the coast to our next lodging. A few of the guests were quite shaken up by this brush with the power of the sea, but due to the exemplary boat handling abilities of both of Thalassa's dive boat crews, we all made it safely to the welcoming comforts of our 5-star hotel and the next chapter of our trip.
Hotel Santika Manado - Manado offers divers a number of lodging options, including well-known dive lodges such as Murex, Barracuda, and Nusantara. Having explored the choices, for my money there appears to be no better option than the luxurious 120-room Hotel Santika Manado. By far the finest quality lodging in Manado, this property offers fully-air-conditioned rooms with balconies overlooking Manado Tua Volcano, modern bathrooms, and T.V. with CNN, HBO, stock market, and world sports coverage. In the Island Dreams package, I included a full meal plan as well, so my guests received quite a comprehensive and comfortable experience in Manado. But what makes Hotel Santika the best divers option in Manado is its excellent location - it is without doubt the closest quality lodging to Bunaken Marine Park's diving.
Thalassa Dive Center - In house at Hotel Santika is Holland-based Thalassa Dive Center, managed by a highly capable Dutch woman named Simone. The large dive shop area includes substantial storage space for your gear, big dip tanks, plenty of rental equipment, and a convenient area set aside for working on underwater cameras. The dive staff is trained to handle all of your gear, including removing it from the boat at the end of the day, rinsing it, and returning it to your dive boat the next day. Divers need only be responsible for their camera equipment and personal items. Due to the convenient proximity to the dive sites, boat rides average only five to fifteen minutes in Thalassa's simple but serviceable boats. If there is any downside to the set-up, it's the fact that the dive shop and boats are divided by a broad mangrove area, accessed via a 300 meter long jetty. Tip: If you have a big camera rig, store and service it in the dive shop's camera area, and rather than lugging it, in the morning just have the dive shop personnel drive it down to the boats.
Bunaken Marine Park - The Reserve having been in existence for some years now, Bunaken is probably the best-known scuba diving site in Indonesia. The good news is that it does live up to its nickname of Bunaken Sea Garden. After the muck diving of KBR, most striking and satisfying for me was Bunaken's beautiful blue water, visibility often well in excess of 100 feet, and the large schools of fishes. We swam amidst thousands of colorful tropical reef fishes - pyramid butterflyfish, redtooth triggerfish, bannerfish, Moorish idols, and the like. Equally pleasing is the opportunity to encounter pelagic animals such as shark, eagle ray, and Napoleon wrasse, all while swimming along coral reefs adorned in soft corals, sea fans, and big sponges. A realization was the fact that the guides at Thalassa were equally as well schooled as those at KBR, and able to show us many of the exotic creatures we had been photographing in Lembeh Strait. Bunaken too has immense biodiversity, including pygmy seahorses, ornate ghost pipefish, orangutan crabs, devilfish, ribbon eels and the like, all with the background of a healthy coral reef.
Topside Touring - Before departing the Manado region, it should be noted that there is some interesting topside touring to be done. One afternoon a small party of us enjoyed an optional visit to Tankoko National Park. We walked through virgin rain forest, listened to the rich sounds of the jungle, glimpsed the hornbill flying overhead, and spied upon black macaque monkeys as they made their evening camp in the treetops. At dusk we were led to a huge strangling fig tree with a hollow interior where we met, at point-blank range, the Tarsier monkey. Small enough to sit in a teacup, this tiny nocturnal primate has very large eyes to enable hunting its insect prey in the dark. The Tarsier is terminally cute, strongly reminiscent of the friendly version of the little monsters in the movie "Gremlin." We felt it was very much worth the two-hour drive and steamy jungle trek to see them face-to-face. If you can tear yourself away from the diving, give Tankoko a try.
Back to Bali - At this point in the journey, most of my guests began the return trip to the USA. For my part, a couple of short Garuda Airlines jet flights took me from Manado to Makassar (Ujung Pandang), and then on to Bali - quite fittingly known as "the Island of the Gods." Few visitors have come to Bali who do not immediately pine for a return visit - it is simply that exotic and satisfying an experience. Denpasar is Bali's largest town, site of the international airport, and it's true that the tourist areas around Denpasar can sometimes feel quite congested and commercialized. But with a short drive out of town, one may easily travel back in time, to a more natural environment where men, women and water buffalo tend to verdant rice paddies exactly as they did centuries ago. Bali is a land of temples and ancient ceremonies honoring a pantheon of Hindu and Animist deities. Renowned for its traditional dance and theatrical performances, wonderful cultural opportunities abound. Other visitors can't find time for such things, as they divide their time between luxury hotels, beckoning beaches, an electrifying nightlife, and unexcelled bargain shopping for everything from contemporary clothing to antique temple carvings. A recent and welcome addition to Bali's many attractions is a surge of beautiful new massage and health spa facilities ready to pamper both body and soul. Living on an island wealthy in lush physical beauty, agricultural resources and international tourism revenue, the Balinese people are clearly happy with their lives, and happy to welcome tourists to their land and culture. Tip: So much has been written about this island paradise that I will limit my comments to this, and simply offer an invitation. Come to Bali and you will find a great deal to experience and appreciate - and then you too will yearn to return to "the Island of the Gods." *Island Dreams offers a complete line of Bali lodging, touring, and spa options, from exceptional value to unabashed luxury. Contact us for details.
Ubud and Art - A trip to Bali is not complete without a drive north to the region surrounding the town of Ubud. Representing Bali's cultural heart, in Ubud you will find art galleries, painters, wood carvers, silver and gold smiths, weavers, batik printers, mask makers, and many other highly-skilled artisans. Outside of this bustling town, the region is a bucolic paradise of rice paddy, temples, bamboo forests, and rushing streams. There are many comfortable lodgings available, and another proliferation of spas offering traditional and modern massage, aromatherapy, and a plethora of other ancient and new age beauty treatments. Go for the shopping, the temples, the natural beauty and respite from the rigors of civilization, but when in Bali, do make a point of going to Ubud.
Bali Diving - Though it is often used as a transit point towards some of the world's best dive sites, it's a lesser-known fact that the reefs around Bali also have some excellent diving to offer. So if you've had enough of the beaches, temples, shopping, and nightlife, there are definitely some interesting diving options to be explored. Closest to Bali are the offshore islands of Nusa Penida and Lembongan, which may easily be dived on a day boat trip out of Denpasar. Water temperature and currents can be unpredictable, but you will find a broad range of marine life, and if you are lucky maybe even a huge Mola Mola (ocean sunfish). A two-hour drive up Bali's east coast will bring you to one of my favorite spots, Tulamben, where you have the choice of a good little reef dive with plenty of macro life displayed against black volcanic sand, or a wreck dive, the Liberty, covered in soft corals and schooling fishes. Best of all, both of these sites are reached via an easy shore dive right in front of your convenient Tulamben lodging. Another option is Menjangan Island, off the far northern Bali coast. Unfortunately, recent reports indicate that the diving around Menjangan has suffered greatly from the combination of a crown of thorns outbreak and substantial blast fishing. One of the newest sites on the Bali dive map is a place called Secret Bay, championed by Bali u/w photo pro Takamasa "Tono" Tonozuka. Though a somewhat arduous four-hour drive from Denpasar, Secret Bay is becoming renowned as a prime muck diving site and a favorite of underwater photographers. Another excellent new opportunity is the seven-night Bali dive cruise offered by Kararu Dive Voyages. In a week of live-aboard diving they will show you the very best diving Bali has to offer, including the remote and rarely dived Kangean Islands north of Bali. Tip: Wherever you choose to dive in Indonesia, be quite sure to bring a warm wetsuit complete with hood or hooded vest. Water temperatures can be quite changeable, even during the same dive, ranging from the low to mid 70's to the low 80's Fahrenheit.
Beyond Bali - Bali certainly can be a destination unto itself - beautiful beaches, great shopping, a nourishing spa experience, the realization of a spiritual question, maybe just the wildest Saturday night you'll ever have…or it can serve as the jumping off point for yet more intriguing escapades. This time around, as my Bali explorations concluded it was my good fortune that the adventure was to continue. On Saturday morning, right on schedule the driver from Kararu Dive Voyages arrived to transport me to Benoa Harbour, there to participate in one of the maiden voyages of their impressive new live-aboard dive vessel. Our destination? Komodo National Park!
Kararu Dive Voyages - Denoting the Minke whale in Indonesian, Kararu is the passionate enterprise of three young dive instructors, Tony Rhodes (U.K.), Lisa Crosby (Canada), and Sascha Dambach (Germany & Greece). With a combined 12-years experience in Indonesia prior to this venture, they have accomplished a long-term contract on a beautiful Pinisi-rigged wooden-hulled Bugis schooner. (Incorporating both Portuguese and Dutch design elements, the Pinisi is an amalgam of the best of the traditional sailing vessels that plied the trading routes of S.E. Asia, while the Bugis were the feared pirates of Sulawesi - and in fact origin of the word "boogie man.") Built in 1998, Kararu's ship is 35 meters (115 feet) long, 9 meters (20 feet) wide, and draws 3 meters (10 feet) of water. Made of teak and ironwood, and weighing in at over 400 tons, this is a substantial vessel. Fully rigged as a platform for scuba diving, in addition to a high capacity L & W air compressor, they have prudently installed a 4,500 PSI high volume air storage bank. As a result, tank fills are effortless and diving guests never hear the compressor as it is only operated while they are underwater. Served by a professional crew of 16, plus two experienced divemaster/instructors, the vessel has 12 spacious, air-conditioned guest cabins each with en-suite facilities. Despite this passenger capacity, to enhance the cruise experience Kararu sails with a maximum of only 16 divers. Single-side band and VHF radio keep the vessel within communications range of Bali at all times. Next to come is an Ericsson satellite phone/fax system, as well as E-6 film processing. All in all, Kararu's new vessel and crew makes an excellent first impression.
Sailing to Komodo - The first afternoon and evening aboard ship were spent putting Bali well astern. Sailing through the night, our ship rode the seas quite smoothly, even as we crossed the deep waters of the Wallace Line. But be forewarned, while underway, her wooden decks creak with the motion of the waves. It's not a disagreeable sound, but if you are a light sleeper, bring earplugs. As the next day dawned, I was beckoned by the rattle of the anchor chain going over the side and came topside to find us moored off the east coast of the island of Lombok, where we spent the day making four dives. This was to be our pattern, the ship transiting at night while we slept, enabling us to arise each day to a completely new area of exploration. Over the next 11 nights we traversed more than 300 miles of ocean, enjoying excellent dining, an average of four dives per day, and the occasional shore excursion, including hikes, beach walks, hill climbs, and a memorable visit with the Komodo Dragons.
Dive Sites on the Road to Komodo - The beauty of Kararu's Bali to Komodo itinerary is that the diving just keeps getting better and better - each day surpassing its predecessor, and within Komodo National Park culminating in some of the world's very finest diving. Following is a very brief analysis of some of the dive sites we experienced:
Lombok - While many tourists will only dive places such as this, for me (spoiled dive snob that I suppose I've become) the reefs of Lombok offered the least interesting diving of the trip. It's just too close to civilization to suit me, or due to human impact too far from the natural reef environment. In any event, what Lombok does afford one is an opportunity to check out gear, weight properly for efficient buoyancy, and get the camera equipment properly sorted out. No need to worry…there is much more to come.
Satonda - We found very good macro diving here, including inimicus the Devil Fish. My dive buddy and I made a concerted search for the stargazer known here, did not find it, but photographed beautiful nudibranchs and a pair of leaf scorpionfish instead. Between dives we hiked inland to view a volcanic lake. At dusk, a splendid spectacle played out as tens of thousands of very large fruit bats, wingspans exceeding three feet, swarmed out of the trees and headed over to Sumbawa for their night of feeding. With out being asked, Kararu's excellent ship's captain conveniently maneuvered the vessel so that we could view the bats against the glow of the sunset. From the comfort of our sundeck lounge chairs, appropriate drink in hand, we enjoyed a remarkable finale to a fine day of adventure diving.
Sangeang Volcano and Banta Island - The boat made another major transit during the night. Coming on deck early the next morning, I was greeted by the site of a huge volcanic island just off our port beam. Sangeang Volcano last had a major eruption as recently as 1995, and smoke continued to leak from its caldera as I gazed upwards. The diving at Sangeang's base is like nothing I'd ever seen before. One must swim carefully, as the wall and bottom is composed of very fine black volcanic sand. Juxtaposed against that stark background are colorful anemones, sponges, crinoids, black coral bushes, long whip corals, and bright encrusting corals. The colorful contrast makes for excellent wide-angle photo opportunities, while the macro options included ornate ghost pipefish, cling gobies on the whip corals, dynamic duos of commensal shrimp and goby against the black sand, etc. Noting that all of this prolific marinelife has developed since the 1995 eruption, it's clear why photo-pro Burt Jones counts this spot among his ten best dive sites in the world. Two dives at Sangeang just scratched the surface, but during lunch we continued our voyage east arriving at another huge volcano, Banta Island, just in time for our third dive of the day. At Banta we cruised with the current along a steep drop-off swarming with life. The night dive at Banta was equally satisfying, offering bob-tailed squid, cuttlefish, anemone shrimp, a few more beautiful nudibranches new to me, and a meter-long cat shark that, blinded by my dive light, bumped into my camera, then lay down on the sand and allowed me to photograph at point-blank range.
Horseshoe Bay at Rinca Island - Here I truly found myself in diver's heaven, for this has to be another of the finest dive sites in the world, bar none. Blanketed in myriad-colored hard and soft corals and thousands of crinoids, a pinnacle in the middle of the bay called Cannibal Rock absolutely swarms with color and life. I was quickly engaged in photographing everything from jacks frantically feeding on large schools of silversides, to fire urchins harboring Coleman Shrimp and/or Zebra crabs. Looking up from the minutia, I saw a white tip shark on patrol, and upon surfacing, spied a small Komodo dragon taking a leisurely stroll along the beach. Also immensely enjoyable were two wide-angle drift dives along each side of the "mouth" of the horseshoe. Steep walls were absolutely covered in crinoids and large soft coral trees. Voracious pelagic predators continued their swirling pursuit of thousands of fry, while an impressive 6-foot nurse shark cruised over to check me out. Fortunately "aged dive boy in black neoprene" was not on the menu! Back on Cannibal Rock pinnacle, the night dive was even more riotously colorful. Innumerable crinoids, now opened to their full glory, covered every available spot on the reef with the infinite patterns and colors of boundless life. A diver could spend days at this site and never run out of underwater beauty and excitement.
Exploratory Diving around Flores Island - While I had been loathe to leave Horseshoe Bay behind, this turned out to be excellent diving too. Though lacking some of Cannibal Rock's wall-to-wall color, these reefs were swarming with large fish. When I first jumped in, I was surrounded by a huge school of small baitfish, and then witness to close range dive-bombing runs by large groups of feeding tuna, jacks, and big snapper. Dropping down to the bottom, I resumed my mission of checking out fire urchins in search of Coleman shrimp and Zebra crabs. During the surface interval, some of our party went ashore to the local Ranger Station, and photographed a small Komodo Dragon strolling casually on the beach at the edge of the jungle. Then an afternoon drift dive on a steep wall yielded plenty of color, while the night dive turned out to be one of the best I've ever had anywhere. Sailing away that night, I knew we had just scratched the surface of exploring this area around Flores, so there should be plenty more fun to come.
Walking with Dragons - Considering the exceptional quality of the diving, you may imagine it would take quite an attraction to get me to give up my morning dive - but a chance to go ashore at the headquarters of Komodo National Park certainly qualified. Avoiding the heat we started just after dawn, and were rewarded with being the first group of tourists to arrive. Park Ranger armed with a stout forked stick leading the way, we began a walk along one of the promising paths on the lookout for megapode birds, flying lizards, and of course Komodo Dragons. Within minutes we had spotted our first dragon, which rather than try to eat us, shuffled off into the heavy underbrush to avoid our attentions. After the liberating realization that the flying lizards are only four inches long, and a few more dragon sightings including a seriously one big one jogging down the path just ahead of us, we made our way back to the headquarters. After two hours of hiking, we found that the biggest dragons of the day were lolling around the headquarters, with one ten-footer apparently content to live under the elevated cafeteria and gift shop. The more fearsome of the predators turned out to be the young salesmen back at the dock hawking dragon carvings, strings of local pearls, masks and such. It was good shopping for those who could handle the bargaining pressure, and definitely an effective means of putting some tourism money directly into the hands of the local people. You get a really cool souvenir from the source, while the locals gain a better means of supporting themselves and their families than dynamite fishing. So buy something!
Padar Island and Wesley's Reef - Following our Komodo Dragon encounter the boat was quickly moved to a nearby dive site called Pink Beach. After the sweaty hike it was delicious to slip back into the welcoming sea. Offering excellent visibility and swarming with fish, highlights of this dive site included a pair of leaf fish and a neon blue, white, and day glow orange nudibranch not included in any of the marine life guides I've consulted since. A bit farther south, off the island of Padar, we hit upon another winner. At a dive site called Wesley's Reef, we entered an environment as perfect as that at Cannibal Rock in Horseshoe Bay. Coming to within ten feet of the surface, three pinnacles were again absolutely covered in vibrant life. Photo highlights included pygmy seahorse, thousands of swarming anthias, moray eel with feisty red and yellow cleaner shrimp, and a beautiful pair of nudibranches that as I watched crawled together and began mating. Again, I could have spent days diving such a superlative site, but after two dives our itinerary sailed on, towards its eventual return to civilization. Unforeseen, there was still a fine adventure ahead.
Whale Shark and Manta Ray, Gifts from Baruna, Balinese God of the Sea - One morning towards the end of the trip, three of us awoke at dawn and were in the water by 6:00 a.m. The ocean was still quite dark as I descended into the depths, dipping below the thermocline where visibility opened up markedly. Daring not stay too long at depth, I began my gradual ascent along the wall where, due to a surfeit of plankton, the visibility declined to no more than 30 or 40 feet. Looking down I located my buddy, Kararu's Tony Rhodes, still 20 feet below me poking into nooks and crannies in the reef with his big dive light. I then casually raised my eyes in the water column to be met with an 18-foot long whale shark, only 10 feet away, and swimming directly at me. Our eyes connected, and this wondrous, plankton-eating behemoth veered slightly off its line so as not to run right over me. Having been fortunate to encounter whale sharks on previous occasions, I took this opportunity to "calmly" swim along side the great fish and gently grasp its tall dorsal fin. Now fish and man swam together. Carefully holding on with one hand and continuing to kick, between inspections of its great mottled body I fortunately had the mindfulness to check my gauges - plenty of air, but we were at 104 feet and, in the limited visibility, gradually descending down and away from the wall. I clung to this diver's dream as long as I could, reluctantly letting go at 130 feet to watch the stupendous fish continue down until it disappeared into the inky depths. Feeling immensely happy to have dragged myself out of the bunk for a dawn dive, I resumed my ascent to find the wall, my dive buddy, and a huge, white-bellied manta ray doing barrel rolls as it too fed on the rich plankton. Such a double blessing from the bounteous sea should be enough to make any diver a morning person. Tip: Want to experience your own big animal encounter? Just keep in mind that you can't swim with a whale shark while watching T.V., surfing the Internet, or even sitting on the sun deck of your dive boat. No, you have to gear up, get wet, and keep watch on the open water. When you do…may Baruna, Balinese God of the Sea, smile on you too!
Reef Conservation at Komodo National Park - Until recently, it was feared that even as remote and remarkable a place as Komodo was in grave danger from destructive fishing practices. During this trip I saw first-hand that the Indonesian government has finally taken a firmer hand against illegal incursions into Komodo National Park. Marines now supplement the Park Rangers, and are equipped with multiple shore-based stations, radio communications, and speedboats serving as mobile Ranger Stations. This combined force is charged with actively interdicting illegal fishing operations. In the cases where poachers have put up resistance, or tried to run, the Marines have orders to arrest them. According to very recent reports, some blast fishermen have been killed, and others arrested. While it may sound extreme, past history has proved that only far-reaching measures such as these can halt the destruction of pristine reefs. It is heartening to learn that the Indonesian Government now realizes the value of the country's exceptional underwater natural resources, and is finally enabling sincere measures to protect them.
The Nature Conservancy (this information submitted by Mr. Mickey Resonau) - The marvelous state of coral preservation in Komodo National Park - - located at the epicenter of the earth’s unbleached coral - - and the variety of marine life are both truly impressive. Even experienced divers will enjoy many firsts visiting this astoundingly beautiful marine park.
The long-term health of this unique destination depends not only upon nature, but also is importantly aided by The Nature Conservancy’s Coastal and Marine Program. This program provides scientific leadership and essential support for marine park conservation projects to: Teach and expand seaweed farming and mariculture, both of which create alternative livelihood options for local fishermen; place permanent moorings at popular dive sites; replenish fish stocks with deeply anchored fish aggregation devices; and provide the mother ships for the armed park ranger patrols. Without these conservation efforts the park’s marine resources would suffer from the over fishing and destructive effects of dynamite and cyanide that are so readily apparent just outside the park’s boundary.
Scuba divers who visit the Komodo area have an obligation to support this important work and can easily do so by making contributions directly to The Nature Conservancy’s Coastal and Marine Program (4245 North Fairfax Drive, Suite 100, Arlington, VA 22203-1606) or to the Bali office’s Coastal & Marine Conservation Center (Jl. Pengembak No. 2, Sanur 80228, Bali, Indonesia). Considering the considerable expense of getting to this destination, such donations represent only a small token from the diver’s viewpoint. However, they provide direct support to help assure that the park enjoys continued preservation for both divers and the local communities. For more information see: The Nature Conservancy
Food aboard Kararu (back to Ken's Report) - As I experienced it, the diving afforded aboard Kararu Dive Voyages was so good that a dedicated diver would gladly suffer certain hardships in order to enjoy it. Fortunately, that was not in the least necessary for the superior services aboard ship did not stop with a spacious air-conditioned vessel and well laid-out dive deck. With a one-to-one crew to guest ratio, these people clearly plan to pamper you topside as well as underwater. Each morning we were greeted with a "pre-breakfast" that included coffee, tea, juice, freshly baked croissant, pan au chocolat, and an assortment of tropical fruits. That was just fortification for the first dive, after which we surfaced to a second breakfast cooked to order. Selections included omelet or eggs any style, toast, pancakes, crepes, or Indonesian specialties such as nasi goreng or mie goreng, plus more coffee, tea, juice, and fruit. Lunches were equally varied, often including sate, a local favorite of grilled skewers of meat provided with a sweet peanut dipping sauce. During our cruise, beef, pork, chicken and fish were served, as well as plenty of fresh salads and vegetables. Each evening meal began with a home-cooked soup, freshly baked rolls, and usually came couched in a regional theme. We had Italian night, French, Asian, Indian, and even a Cajun Night. The American Night featured hamburgers, fries, salad, and a dessert of chocolate brownies with vanilla ice cream. The Chef easily accommodated my personal dietary preference with a couple of veggie burgers. All meals were well prepared and carefully spiced for delicate palates. But if you like it hot, as I do, there's always an assortment of wonderful local chili peppers, hot oil, and/or a spicy, freshly-prepared sambal to light up your life. Most of the time dessert was a delicious (and healthy) assortment of prepared fresh fruits, but cake or ice cream was also served from time to time. Lest anyone's appetite fail to be sated with all of the afore-mentioned fare, coffee, tea and snacks were served between afternoon dives along with an ever-present bowl of fruit, cookies and chocolate bars. Kararu certainly heeds the call of "Eat, Sleep and Dive," with impeccable service throughout. No, it's definitely not the diet cruise, but calories don't count on vacation, and you do deserve the best, don't you?
Back to the Real World - Author, photographer, and Indonesia expert Kal Muller has called the country a "Paradise on the Equator." My own explorations this time around straddled the equator, eventually keeping me in Indonesia for a month. Traveling thousands of miles and familiarizing myself with many resorts and hotels, I still had the good fortune to log a 60 scuba dives. There is no doubt that my journey was blessed with generally fine weather, water temperatures cozier than expected, and visibility appreciably better than the norm. But the fish sightings described in this report, and the equally interesting topside encounters, are exactly what you too may expect of Indonesia. No, I can't promise you a whale shark ride, but everything else reported herein is pretty much guaranteed to the diver willing to explore and dive this remarkable country.
The Bottom Line - Composed of 13,000+ mostly uninhabited tropical islands, Indonesia is an immense, diverse, and intriguing nation. Despite the well-publicized political divisions, in reality the great majority of Indonesia remains peaceful, easily accessible to travelers, and a superb tourism value. Whether scuba diving or exploring on land, Indonesia provides the adventurous traveler equally broad, varied, and exciting opportunities. The various dive and tourism options of Sulawesi, Bali and Komodo are a great place to begin your journey. Should you care to learn more about Indonesia, you will find an extensive array of informative travel guides and photo essays available - some of which are detailed in the Bibliography below. Of course, should you also wish to have the benefit of first-hand knowledge and years of experience, I, and the entire staff of Island Dreams Travel, stand ready to assist you in making your Indonesian Island Dreams come true.
Wishing you great diving, and a world of adventure! Ken
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