Indonesian Odyssey - Part 1
Six destinations, seven weeks, 25 flights and 88 dives Aaron Gekoski goes epic in Indonesian. Here's part 1 of his adventure...
If I could do any trip before I die, this would be it,” says Neill Ghosh of Original Diving as he hands me my chunky 38-page schedule. Neill’s commissioned me to create a series of short destination videos on Indonesia’s top dive spots.
I have a flick through the glossy manual, trying to look cool as I discreetly wipe drool from my chops. If I could do any job before I die, this might just be it.
During the next couple of months I’ll be sailing on a luxury liveaboard to Komodo National Park and Alor, rummaging in muck to unearth the critters of Lembeh Strait, exploring the vast underwater walls of Bunaken Marine Park, wallowing in fish soup at Raja Ampat and hanging out with Lembongan’s resident manta rays. 'This is going to be epic,' are Neill’s parting words as we wave goodbye.
65kgs of kit
I leave the UK laden with lenses, bound for Bali. Due to a four-hour delay I arrive late at my hotel, Jimbaran Puri, leaving just enough time for a short chill out in my private swimming pool before a well deserved sleep. Not a bad start. The following morning I board a flight to Labuan Bajo, at the western end of Flores in the Nusa Tenggara region of east Indonesia. This small fishing town is my springboard to the world-famous Komodo National Park.
Or at least that’s the plan. 20 minutes before the flight is due to land our pilot makes an announcement: “Unfortunately Labuan Bajo is closed for renovations. We’re turning around and going back to Bali.” What transpires is the airport’s staff go home every day at 4pm. Our flight took off a little late, so they’d closed when we were midair.
I’ll spare you my thoughts on our unexpected about-turn. After a night spent in a sterile airport hotel, I’m back on the flight, which the carrier (to their credit) lay on specially. On the plus side, this pit stop gives me the chance to bond with other Arenui-bound passengers.
Built in the style of a traditional Indonesian Phinisi, or sailing vessel, the Arenui is essentially a floating boutique hotel. “This will be the liveboard by which you judge all others,” claim cruise directors Edu Espinel and Nicole Veltman in their welcome speech to a total of 11, predominantly wealthy American, passengers.
Everything about the Arenui oozes quality. Rich, polished teak – the majority of which is recycled – gives the boat a luxurious feel, as do bronze portholes, brass lamps and intricate hand carvings.
The Arenui is usually booked up years in advance, however a couple of last minute cancellations means I end up with a cabin to myself. I feel like flying back to the UK and kissing Neill - but there is diving to be done, delicious grub to be consumed, photos to be taken, and massages to be had.
An average day onboard the Arenui goes a little like this: wake up at 6am to calls of 'briefing, briefing, brieeeeeeefing', drink excellent espresso and eat homemade pastries, put in breakfast order, first dive, munch aforementioned breakfast (bacon and eggs for me without fail), look over pictures, second dive, sample classic Indonesian cuisine for lunch, have a nap, third dive, indulge in a post-dive snack, check photo equipment, night dive, lavish three-course dinner, crawl to bed exhausted, get rocked to sleep, repeat.
Guests are even helped in and out of their wetsuit by one of the Arenui’s 22 staff. It’s shamelessly decadent, and I love it.
Over the next week we visit Komodo’s top dive sites. Horseshoe Bay gives an insight into why Indonesian diving is regarded as the best in the world: bizarre sea apples replete with frilly tentacles, a frogfish the size of a rugby ball and zebra crabs on sea urchins all go about their business among a backdrop of luminous yellow sea cucumbers. The colours are insane – it’s like diving on acid.
One afternoon we pay a visit to Rinca Island where wild Komodo dragons patrol the beach. Edu and I head for a closer look, while the rest of the group stay on the safety of our tender. The largest of the Komodos takes an exception to our presence and tries to whack us with its meaty tail, while another licks my GoPro leaving a smear of toxic saliva. Komodo dragons are angry, intimidating beasts and I’m pleased to see the back of them.
My favourite dives in Komodo are at Castle Rock (a seamount frequented by huge schools of giant trevally, jacks, tuna, surgeonfish and fusiliers) and Batu Balong (a small island that we swim around and see fish in a feeding frenzy, octopus, gigantic pufferfish, sharks and zillions of reef fish). Not. Too. Shabby. Spectacular night muck dives produce bobtail squid, broadclub cuttlefish, ghost pipefish and even the notorious bobbit worm, which looks like something from the film Alien.
We make our way to Alor via Komba Island, home to an active volcano. We spend hours watching Batu Tara explode at 18-minute intervals. The optical display is cranked up a notch as night falls and the air blackens; iridescent lava trails becoming visible as they tumble into the sea below.
With far less tourist traffic than Komodo, Alor is a small isolated island north of West Timor. At neighbouring Pura Island we dive Pantar Strait. Among a disheartening amount of plastic bottles and garbage, we spot the rare rhinopias frondosa, plus an aesthetically challenged warty frogfish.
After surfacing I take some over/under photographs of children playing in the water. I head exhausted to my bed counting up the amount of hours spent in the ocean today: a grand total of six! The following day Anemone City turns out to be one of the most wonderful dive of our trip: miles upon miles of anemones carpet the seabed.
Small things bright & beautiful
Under normal circumstances I would have locked myself in my cosy cabin and simply refused to leave the Arenui. However, my next destination is the one and only Lembeh Strait. After a flight, long layover, two more flights, a vehicle transfer and boat ride, I arrive bleary eyed into Lembeh Resort at 1am.
Lembeh is all about the smaller things in life – or 'critters' as they’re commonly referred to here. However, it wasn’t always this way. From 1996-1997, a gigantic 'net of death' was erected in Lembeh Strait. In the ensuing carnage, 18 whale sharks, 1,424 manta rays, 577 pilot whales and countless other species died. While much of the megafauna was lost, species small enough to evade this, and other nets, have thrived in the nutrient-rich waters.
At the resort’s dive school, critters@lembeh, all guests are given a 'wish list' of crazy creatures they’d like to see over the course of their stay. Mine include some of the star attractions: the hairy frogfish plus any of the area’s funky octopuses, including the blue-ringed, mimic, coconut and wunderpus.
The dive school is inundated with fellow photography nerds. A quick peak into the customers’ kit room reveals individual booths with every photographic toy imaginable: snoots, diopters, focus lights, strobe extension arms, underwater tripods and more. Lembeh Resort even has its very own video centre run by professional underwater videographer Sascha Janson. The centre’s latest addition is a 3D printer that can reproduce lost or damaged bits of kit.
I spend the next three days rummaging around in the volcanic sand on a treasure hunt for a variety of warty, flamboyant, decorated, pygmy, spotted, leafy critters. Unlike many dive destinations it’s hard to get bored here: there are simply so many species to see on every dive, along with the chance of witnessing fascinating animal behaviour.
I get a shot of a clownfish with a tongue-eating isopod in its mouth. This parasite gets in through the clownfish’s gills and attaches itself to its host’s tongue, which eventually atrophies away. The isopod then lives in the poor fish’s mouth. At sunset I go from the beastly to the beautiful and watch mandarinfish mate among the coral.
It’s hard to fathom how species evolved to look like the creatures of Lembeh. My macro lens is being given the workout of its life capturing critters such as the xeno crab and stargazer – the Freddie Kruger of the marine world. While I don’t see a hairy frogfish or blue-ringed octopus, I leave gob smacked at the ocean’s unparalleled ability to surprise.
From little to large
I travel a short distance to Siladen Resort and Spa in northern Sulawesi. Located in the heart of Bunaken Marine Park, on the tropical island Pulau Siladen, the resort juxtaposes the relentless dive machine that is Lembeh.
A maximum of 30 guests - mainly older couples – come here for their diving and relaxation fix. In between scuba sessions they opt for massages at the spa, or a lounge on Siladen’s pristine beach. This is peace personified.
The resort has formed an excellent relationship with the local community. They provide four hours of electricity per day for the village, have built roads, a jetty and school, and employ 90 staff - almost all of whom were born on the island.
They even have a small turtle sanctuary and have released more than 500 individuals to date. I’m fortunate to be there on a release day as dive managers Stephan Moir and Valentina Buganho plus guests kick start the reptiles’ life in the wild.
It turns out that the diving’s great too. Bunaken’s giant underwater walls plunge as deep as 2,200m and are infused with more than 500 species of coral, 2,000 species of reef fish, along with gigantic numbers of turtles: on one dive I count 13. Along with this, I snap schools of game fish, sharks, rays and (this is Indonesia, after all) an outstanding array of macro life.
My dive guide, Delly, is the best I’ve had all trip. He goes out of his way to ensure I get the shots and is clearly an experienced underwater model. While the diving doesn’t have the wow factor of neighbouring Lembeh, the coral life is impressive and it’s impossible to tire of so many turtles.
In Part 2: Raja Ampat, Cape Kri & Bali - out on 15 January