Nudibranchs and Dragons: Diving the Islands East of Bali
by Andy Alpine
Some divers have dubbed them "butterflies of the sea." Others have commented that their psychedelic patterns look as if they had been daubed by Picasso on amphetamines. They come in disco-gaudy colors: fluorescent orange, fuschia, purple.
Consequently, I've always had a love affair with those brightly colored marine invertebrates, the nudibranchs. Flamboyantly marked and rather sedentary, they are the darlings of underwater photographers like myself. And nowhere else in the world have I encountered specimens as beautiful as those in Nusa Tenggara--the Lesser Sunda Islands of Indonesia.
With its 17,000 plus islands, Indonesia offers adventurous divers a wide range of possibilities. On previous trips to the region, I dived the islands of Sangihe and Talaud off the coast of Sulawesi and had heard of the excellent diving in the Banda Sea. However, I knew very little about Nusa Tenggara when I was invited to go there this spring.
Stretching across the Indian Ocean about 400 miles east of Bali, the group includes island jewels such as Lombok, Sumbawa, Moyo, and Komodo. Unlike Bali, these isles receive few tourists and even fewer divers. The best way to discover their underwater sights is aboard the M.V. Baruna Adventurer; a live-aboard dive vessel offering week-long excursions.
After a comfortable night stay at the beautifully designed Novotel Benoa Bali Hotel in Nusa Dua, I boarded the ship. At 100 feet in length and with a 20-foot beam, she looked elegant alongside the large cargo ships and fishing trawlers at the docks. Each of the 10 roomy cabins, with either double or twin beds, had a private shower and toilet. My corner cabin had windows on two sides and what looked like a queen-sized bed.
The dining salon featured large picture windows and four-person booths. Breakfast was selected from a menu, while lunch and dinner were served buffet style. Blending Indonesian and Western specialties, the menu offered choices from fish curries to T-bone steaks. We topped off meals with exotic fruits such as makisah, rambotan, and mangosteen. After a little instruction from the crew on peeling and eating etiquette, these tropical delights became big favorites with us all.
Our diving was from comfortable rubber inflatables (Zodiacs) with easy access from the main ship. The dive deck was spacious and had large storage bins to stow towels and other essentials. The crew of 20 was always nearby to answer any questions and provide immediate assistance with our gear. It was quite a smooth operation.
After motoring through the night (seas were calm the entire trip), we made our first dive at Moyo Island. From the moment I entered the water, the dive set the stage for a week of breathtaking corals and fish life that ranked with the best I had witnessed over the years, especially the pristine and prolific plate corals.
Afterward at Panjang ("Long") Reef, the action was nonstop: white tip and black tip reef sharks, schools of Trevally jacks, free-swimming lion fish, and even a blue ribbon eel. It was such a memorable spot, we returned for a second dive later in the afternoon.
The next day, we arrived at Banta Island, which turned out to be Nudibranch Heaven! Practically the first thing we saw after our descent was several nudibranchs mating. During our deco (decompression) stop at 15 feet, we saw a large, pink-and-yellow specimen (most are about two inches in length) and then a purple and orange one. We were literally spotting one nudibranch on the way to see another.
At Pillar Rock off Padar Island we found small caves with multi-colored soft corals on the sides of the walls. In addition to clown trigger fish, three very large bumphead parrot fish cruised by. The top of one sea mound looked like a glass paperweight. With their iridescent and pastel colors, the small soft corals blended with tiny sea plants and pink-and-purple schools of antheas. We even spotted a rock fish camouflaged with its surroundings.
During a dusk dive at Padar Island, many juveniles ventured from their daylight hideouts to search for food. We spotted young barrimundi, lionfish, and harlequin sweetlips--all unique finds. On this same dive, we also found cowrie shells; one was pure white without its mantle extended.
At Rinca Island, we did several dives directly from the Baruna Adventurer. On the first plunge, we saw four blue ribbon eels under a ledge, swaying in the current, waiting for their dinner of small fish to float by. Since pigmentation (and sex) changes as the eels mature, each had a different hue, from dark navy to vibrant cobalt, accented by a yellow stripe. On the second dive, we stared at a very rare comet fish hiding beneath a small sea fan, and a male jawfish carrying his mate's eggs in his mouth.
Rinca Island together with neighboring Komodo Island make up Komodo National Park, home of Varanus Komodoensis, the Komodo dragon. Largest of the monitor lizards, this species is the sole survivor of prehistoric carnivores that thrived in tropical Asia during the Jurassic Age, some 100 million years ago.
Measuring up to ten feet in length, the dragons roam freely throughout the island devouring deer, wild pigs and chickens with their saw-like teeth. We were required to have a park guide with us at all times. Although he was only armed with a forked stick, we trusted his abilities and experience to ward off any would-be attackers.
The dragons were not timid in the slightest. While we were being assigned to a guide at park headquarters, several of the island's reptilian denizens sauntered over to take a better look--or whiff (they have an uncanny sense of smell); one even had the feathers of its last meal dangling from its lips.
After hiking inland for half an hour, we came upon an eight-foot dragon slumbering by a water hole. As I came closer to take a picture, I heard a very definite growl that started deep in the lizard's throat warning me to back off. Komodo dragon talk is very easy to understand!
After several dives off the coast of Komodo Island (luckily the dragons can't swim too far), we returned to Moyo Island on our way back to Bali. There was a strong current at the beginning of our last dive, so we decided to let it take us. Joyfully, we drifted on a magic carpet ride through schools of banner-fish, jacks, butterflyfish, triggerfish, and more. Moray eels and stingrays glided over the sandy bottom.
The "ride" provided a perfect synopsis of all we had seen during the week. As the schools of fish whirled around us, they merged and shifted like themes in a piece of classical music . . . orchestrating a grand finale to a wonderful adventure.
To book the M.V. Baruna Adventurer, contact: Tropical Adventures Travel, 111 Second North, Seattle, WA 98109. Phone: (800) 247-3483 or (206) 441-3483; Fax: (206) 441-5431; E-mail: email@example.com.
For reservations at the Novotel Benoa Bali, call (800) 221-4542.
For information about additional programs and tour operators, see the Geographical Index under "Bali" and "Indonesia." ::::