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February 2003 Vol. 18, No. 2   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Komodo Liveaboards, Indonesia

can it get any better?

from the February, 2003 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver:

Indonesias Komodo Islands have legendary diving, but until just a few years ago, one was faced with selecting from primitive and barely seaworthy boats, amateur dive facilities, lousy food, and spartan accommodations. While I once took a certain smug pride in tolerating substandard boats and living conditions to get to the most remote sites, my enthusiasm for roughing it has been tempered with age. So, while Ive been fortunate to dive the world, I waited for the certainty that a quality liveaboard would eventually operate wherever the diving reality actually intersects with the promotional hype. So last May and June I took back-toback trips on the two 21st-century liveaboards for an incomparable, once-in-a-lifetime diving experience.

In 2000, Kararu Dive Voyages began operating the Sea Safari III, a 120-foot vessel constructed along the traditional lines of a local Pinisi schooner, a substantial craft built from local hardwoods. Though tricked out with sails from two masts, its primarily propelled by a reliable diesel engine at a comfortable nine to eleven knots. Because of the crafts swashbuckling romanticism, with tall masts and old world cache, I wouldnt have been surprised to find Captain Hook looking down from the rigging.

The vessels massive beam -- nearly 30 feet at its widest -- provides both stability and comfort. While there are 12 double staterooms, only 16 passengers are booked at a time. The staterooms are huge by comparison to other liveaboards, twice that of the average Aggressor cabin. Komodo Liveaboards, IndonesiaSome have twin lower berths, others a king-sized bed. Each cabin has a large ensuite head with a shower and toilet. Mirrors are large, but lighting in some rooms was inferior and badly placed, making shaving something of an adventure. Though cabins were cleaned daily, they werent spotless and the linens and towels showed signs of wear, but the owner said he was soon replacing them. Each cabin has individual air-conditioning controls, important in a climate that is both hot (85-98oF) and staggeringly humid. Kararus vessel stayed cool and dehumidified.

Theres plenty of space for privacy without having to hole up in a stateroom. The spacious main salon has several large dining tables. A starboard lounge is dedicated to viewing diving videos or movies and relaxing. I enjoyed the excellent library of diving reference books, as well as esoteric videos including the documentary Ring of Fire, which chronicles exploration of Indonesia by a pair of British would-be anthropologists. Aft on the third deck is a massive outdoor lounge protected by a sun awning and furnished with comfortable Balinese couches and chairs. Even during the hottest days, sea breezes cooled this area. Up a short flight of stairs is a sun deck with lounges and a bar. Forward on the primary deck is the spacious diving center. Individual lockers have loads of room for storage and theres ample space for hanging wet suits and skins. The port-side deck has separate lockers and a large counter devoted to camera and video equipment, but it can get crowded when everyone on board is a photographer. On-board film processing was available, and the service and quality were excellent.

Kararu is owned by three young partners who each take trip shifts to oversee the operation. On my 12-day voyage, partner Rhodes, an affable ex-pat Brit who spent many years in the diving business in Bali, looked after the 17 diving guests while supervising an Indonesian crew of nearly 20. We dived from two 20-foot aluminum launches with outboards. While crowded when full of photographers, the crew did a great job handling the load and caring for cameras. Typically, Rhodes and another divemaster accompanied each dive, while at least one crew member attended to pickups. Most sites were only five minutes from the main ship. Since my trip, Tony has replaced the original launches with larger, faster, and more spacious fiberglass boats. And former Texan Larry Smith, a legendary fellow who enjoys a reputation as Indonesias premier diver professional, joins the crew occasionally.

They serve meals in the air-conditioned main salon. The fare is mostly Indonesian with a preponderance of spicy sauces, curries, and plenty of rice. I loved the food and eagerly awaited the next special entre, but then Ive got a fondness for curry. You wont find much in the way of steak or hamburgers, and little to satisfy a strict vegetarian, but Tony says he can make reasonable food requests happen if given advance notice.

The second boat is the Peter Hughes Komodo Dancer, a newly constructed Pinisi 98-foot schooner. The overall space is considerably less, so it only carries 16 guests in eight staterooms. Like Sea Safari, each stateroom has its own private head and shower and individual a/c controls. The rooms are smaller but are immaculately clean and with the extra touches guests expect from Hughes fleet. Robes, soaps, towels, etc. are higher quality, and they give extra attention to bed turn downs at night, along with morning coffee delivery. They changed linens and towels whenever requested. Depending on the cabins, there are queen berths, twins, or upper/lowers. However, they are small. Storage is adequate, but dont leave anything lying around as it will immediately be underfoot and a nuisance. I do wish the air conditioning could have been cooler, however.

Sea Safari III

Sea Safari III

One big drawback is the lack of any real place to socialize. What would logically serve as a main salon in the main cabin was equipped with a computer, some reference books, and software programs to edit videos, and was mainly used as an office for the dive staff. A large table on the port side went unused, because the area was not air conditioned and was too hot. Comfortable furniture and climate control would go a long way toward creating a comfortable hangout.

They serve meals outside on a long table mounted to the main deck, where a sun awning and plenty of chairs at the table make this the social center. Dive lockers are spread around the other areas on the main deck, along with hanging lines for suits, etc.

The food was the best Ive had on any liveaboard, and Ive been on plenty. Although Indonesian offerings were always available, they oriented the cuisine toward western tastes. Roast beef, chicken, seafood, steak, and savory stews were among the typical fare. Each was superbly prepared and presented by an attentive wait staff. They include a full selection of wines and soft drinks as well. The alfresco dining arrangement was never too warm and on clear nights with the stars in full splendor, the setting was perfect. Guests tended to linger over dinner and drinks, and some lively storytelling resulted. Overall, a charming ambience and a doting staff make this a great experience.

Diving is conducted from two fiberglass outboard launches and supervised by Gary Bevan and his personable staff. Gary, another British ex-pat, worked with Tony Rhodes before joining the Dancer. Susanna Henderks is a veteran instructor and photo pro. Indonesian Yan Alfian is the third divemaster. All three are thoroughly professional with a can do attitude that delivered outstanding diving at every stop. The Dancer offers Nitrox at slight extra cost, and they do TDI Nitrox certifications on board. All the dive staff ensured that each guests interests were fully realized whether it be photography, critter spotting, or merely serving as a watchful dive partner.

To dive Indonesias southeast islands, one must go during the dry monsoon season, June through October or November. Monsoon refers to the predominant wind pattern that affects water temperature, visibility, and the surface wave conditions. The dry monsoon should provide calm seas, high 70s to low 80s oF water, superb visibility (75-200 feet), and little rain. However, when the boats venture south less than 20 miles, expect dramatically colder waters -- low 60s, even 59oF! -- and reduced visibility, thanks to upwellings from the southern ocean, which bring nutrient- rich waters and plankton. But these cool waters around the southern end of Komodo and Rinca showcase perhaps the most incredible macro and critter populations in the world. While Kararu staff say 60oF is very uncommon, youll need at least a 5mm suit and hood for comfort.

Since both vessels berth in Balis southeast harbor, its at least an overnight of steaming to get to the good diving. Most itineraries include a first stop around the volcanic island of Sangeang and later Gili Banta before arriving in Komodo and the park sanctuary islands. Both islands offer macro subjects in astounding numbers. At high voltage seamounts, including GPS, I had electric encounters with pelagics, including 6- to 8-foot reef sharks, and massive schools of tropicals all washed in brisk currents. Along Gili Bantas protected shores, with beautiful beaches, lay superb hard coral gardens, colorful soft corals, and excellent drop offs. I could easily spend a week just exploring the richness of this one island.

A short distance to the east lies Komodo, with two principal protected anchorages and a palette of small surrounding islands. Komodo Liveaboards, IndonesiaHere, diving meets the expectations of the most refined critic. I was particularly taken by the diversity of corals and fish around both Gili Lawah Laut and Gili Lawah Darat. A series of tiny islets and rocks offered enormous cuttlefish and superb manta encounters -- think of Yap with better visibility. Rinca is farther east from Komodo and a wealth of intriguing and diverse sites. Cannibal Rock was named after its discoverers observed a Komodo dragon devouring another on a ledge above a mini-wall that begins in only 3 feet of water and drops to 10 feet. Visibility was horrible and the cold water took my breath away ... but so did the extravagance of nudibranchs, ghost pipefish, fire urchins, pygmy seahorses, crinoids, and an absurd abundance of tropical fish species and soft corals that occupy every square inch of the wall. Ive heard that some macro photographers have spent days here shooting in what is arguably the most biodiverse site anywhere.

Komodo diving is simply overwhelming with a staggering variety of walls, coral gardens, sea mounts and pinnacles, drift dives, and tranquil, placid sites that challenge the photographer to shoot wide angle or macro. On some dives both systems were necessary to avoid missing once-in-a-lifetime subjects. While some sites do require a comfort level with currents and surge, plenty of locations are easy for the average diver. Its also worth noting that the corals in the Komodo region have virtually no trace of blight or bleaching, which has affected Palau and Fiji. In fact, the diversity of corals and staggering formations of vast virgin forests and coral heads equal the best to be found anywhere in the world. Ive been around, and more important, Ive hit Fiji, Micronesia, Australia, the Solomons, the Red Sea -- and all within the last five years, not just in their heyday many years back. Komodo is tops on a world scale today.

Both Kararu and the Komodo Dancer use excellent well-secured hotels in Balis Sanur Beach zone to house guests. Bali is an amazing island filled with terraced rice paddies, dense jungle, exciting river rafting, ancient Hindu temples, wild monkeys and exotic birds, and spectacular beaches. I stayed in a private suite at the beautiful Pun Santrian on Sanur Beach for less than $90 a night, including breakfast and afternoon tea. In the aftermath of the October attack, many hotels have slashed their rates to attract tourists back. (See page 12 for a full report on safety.)

So what boat to take? Both are captained by Indonesian masters. The Komodo Dancer lacks the sheer size of the Sea Safari. While it has two salon/ lounges and a separate sun deck/bar, the Dancer has only a small sitting area above its main deck around the pilot house. My group didnt seem to mind the lack of social spaces, in part because the food and weather were so good. Then again, they hadnt seen the alternative. The Sea Safari has ample air-conditioned public space and lounging areas, but it loses points for overall housekeeping and the perks that Peter Hughes lavishes on guests. The Dancer wins on food quality and presentation but you sacrifice a proper inside lounge and must live with smaller staterooms. Both dive staffs are excellent and the two vessels essentially ply the same routes and visit the same dive sites. With three to four dives daily (some days even five), on either boat I was free to dive however I pleased; most photographers elected to go solo. If a less than competent diver wanted to go off alone for photo purposes, a divemaster discretely shadowed him. The dive staff was always happy to accompany any diver and were expert at locating and pointing out the many special critter subjects that abound. A slight edge went to the Komodo Dancer staff, who seemed absolutely committed to seeing that everyone, photographer or not, saw the macro subjects, special gorgonians, crinoid colonies, and coral gardens. And, while they routinely check divers in and out, they make no comment about profiles or decompression status. Night dives were available nearly every night, sometimes at dusk, sometimes at dinner. My bet is that most divers will be happy on either vessel. Though Nitrox is coming to the Sea Safari, for now only the Dancer offers it. All things considered, I will return, and Ill pick the Sea Safari, on space alone.

Finally, I must add that my editor, Ben Davison, complained that my piece sounded too much like a Skin Diver piece. Cant you find anything to be critical about? After I told him what he could do to himself and the horse he rode in on, I told him that both these operations do an excellent job of getting people to superior diving consistently and deserve the descriptions I have honestly offered.

I am perhaps the harshest critic around and loathe over-hyped mediocre operations wherever they may be. This is a special region that is largely unvisited, up to now, by divers, and I have fairly pointed out the few negatives. Overall, these guys are doing a great job in an area where their level of quality is hard to achieve. The diving is spectacular, nuff said. Ask me to review a few other liveaboards we all know, and Id shred them to pieces for overly restrictive dive rules, inattentive crew, so-so food, crappy boat designs, and diving that is mediocre at best. But this is some of the best diving in the world and deserves to be reported accurately.

-- C.V.

P.S.: Eight months after our reviewer was aboard the Dancer, a well-traveled reader, Richard Lehach, of Larchmont, N.Y., was aboard. We think its important to conclude with his remarks, which show how boats change, chefs change, things change:

Komodo has some of the best reefs I have seen for color and diversity. Some over-fishing is evident in the scarcity of large fish at some sites. On two dives in late December and early January, visibility ran a disappointing 10-15 feet; it averaged 30-50 feet and a few dives had 80-90 feet. The main salon is cramped with a full boat. Unfortunately, the salon leaked when it rained, as did four of the eight cabins. Breakfast was standard liveaboard; lunches were usually very good, but the sit-down dinners were usually on the poor side (the chef should stick with what he knows, dinners were usually more western-style dishes and inferior in quality).

The Dancer left port without enough fuel and we lost a full day of diving in Komodo because we had to refuel outside Komodo. I expected 46 dives to be available on an 11-day trip (9.5 days of diving), but only 30 dives were available (a maximum of four dives on full dive days). This was a disappointment, and Peter Hughes should change the advertising if this is what is to be expected. Komodo Dancer is on the pricey side and would be worth it if the boat were in top condition and all dives advertised were delivered, unfortunately neither occurred. It is a shame because the crew was very friendly and helpful.

Komodo Liveaboards, IndonesiaDivers Compass: You can book through dive travel agencies, which is helpful if you plan additional travel ... Two we recommend: Island Dreams (www.islandream.com; Tel: 1 800 346 6116; Fax: 1 713 973 8585) and Reef and Rainforest (reefrainfrst.com; Tel: 1 800 794 9767; Fax: 1 415 289 1763) ... Or you can book directly ... Sea Safari III (www.Kararu.com; Tel: (62) 361 282 931; Fax: (62) 361 289 120) or Komodo Dancer (www.Peterhughes.com; Tel: 1 800 932 6237; Fax: 1 305 669 9391 ... Komodo Dancer runs from $1,845 to $2,045 for seven-night Bali cruises; the Sea Safari is $1,845 to $2,245 ... each boat offers other itineraries and longer cruises ... There is a hyperbaric chamber at Denpasar, Bali.

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