By Joseph Tepper
There aren’t many underwater photography destinations that conjure up as much mystery as Komodo. And while few people have been able to shout “there be dragons” at the sight of the prehistoric reptiles that patrol the sandy shores of the Komodo, even fewer know what waits under the surface.
Diving the waters of the Komodo National Park is much more than just diving Komodo Island. There is the spectacular critter diving in pitch-black sand off of Sangeang, curious pelagics in the ripping currents off of Gilla Lawa Laut and Gilla Darrat and the world famous dives at Cannibal Rock.
Sailing with a Siren- Diving on the Indo Siren
Underwater photographers are always looking for the next best thing- destinations, subjects, cameras and even liveaboards. While there are several options for liveaboard diving in Komodo, few are offer the luxury of the Indo Siren.
One of the newest boats in the Worldwide Dive and Sail Fleet, the 120-foot Indo Siren is handcrafted as a “gaft rigged Phinisi” from ironwood and teak in the traditional Indonesian style. Just as impressive as the beautiful aesthetic of the traditionally made boat are the spacious rooms, which feature your own personal computer loaded with movies and music.
What divers and photographers really care about is the workspace - the divedeck - and the Indo siren features a user-friendly for the most demanding divers. In addition to your own tank and hanging space, each diver has his/her own set of drawers and padded camera table to make room for your full set of camera and accessories before and after each dive. Then it’s off to the dinghy and the to discover the exhilarating diving of Komodo.
Leaving Port in Bima
Bima Bay and “The Unusual Suspects”
You can tell a lot about a destination from the check-out dive. “The Unusual Suspects” is not your typical liveaboard prelude - the visibility is bad enough to make you feel like you’re diving at night during the day! But you don’t need to see very far to find the stars of this site, like Coleman’s shrimp, mimic octopuses, ghost pipefish and frogfish. Just make sure to bring with a strong focus light to see through the muck.
One especially popular subject at this site for underwater photographers is the Zebra Crab, which tucks itself away inside fire urchins with color that cut through the muck. The crabs are interesting on their own, but the rainbow of colors on the spines of the urchin provides excellent negative space for snaps.
Gilli Banta and Sangeang Island
Only a night’s sail from the starting point in Bima, sift through brilliantly black sand for critter-gold on Techno reef, or go a little deeper in search for the pygmy seahorse at the site “Estuary” at Sangeang Island.
Because the pygmys are most often found around the 100-foot mark, the dive leader will often head straight down to their homes in the sea fan. Use this time to prepare your settings for the pygmy shot you have in mind, as you will probably have time for only a handful of frames before reaching your no-deco or patience limit of your photo-cohorts.
Underwater Photography in North Komodo
Castle and Crystal Rocks
It takes a little getting used to the fast-paced Komodo diving style; and the dives at Crystal and Castle Rocks are the perfect warm-up even for the experienced photographer or videographer.
Located just off of Gilli Lawa Laut in the north Komodo region, these two pinnacles rise out from the depths into current-laden waters teaming with life. The upwelling from the underwater mount is so unpredictable that the Siren’s captain is not eager to predict the difficulty of the dive- but the current has its benefits. Schools of baitfish and fusiliers shift between the lava rocks, often blotting out the sun in the sky above, making for excellent wide-angle oppertunities.
Climb your way through current on the rock to reach the reef’s edge, where white tip reef sharks and eagle rays cruise lethargically in the underwater breeze. If you’re especially lucky, Crystal and Castle rocks are also common sightings for passing dolphins. For this reason, and the timid nature of most of the pelagics, a wide-angle zoom lens is advisable when trying to leave the rock to chace a subject would probably result in you landing somewhere in Australia.
Because of the intense, unpredictable currents and experienced level of diving, it is best to find the right settings for shooting wide-angle and stick with them. Instead of fumbling with controls in a 4-knot current at 100 feet, use settings you are comfortable with and focus on the countless subjects flying by your dome port, trying to only change settings if the lighting conditions change dramatically.
Gili Lawa Laut
“Shotgun” is more than just a dive, it is a rollercoaster!
Situated in the valley between two islands that rise out of the sea, Shotgun begins as a fairly calm dive in a rounded sandy bottom known as the fishbowl. Why is it called that? Because there are so many small fish in the sand valley you will probably feel like one of those wind-up plastic divers in a fish tank. For macro subjects, try to focusing on the whip coral shrimp and blennies, which can be found scattered all throughout the fishbowl valley.
After exploring the fishbowl, you will want to make your way to the bottleneck (or barrel) of the shotgun. Most impressive at high tide, the waters of an entire bay are funneled through the slender, shallow shotgun barrel, sending divers shooting from zero to three knots in a split second. BOOM!
The Big (and Cold) Photography in South Komodo
It may seem like every corner of the world has a “Manta Alley” of its own, but rest assured that not all alleys are created equal.
Located along the south coast of Komodo, Manta Alley is marked on the surface by two rocky pinnacles that poke their head just above the surface at low tide. Underneath the water, the site is a dramatic series of three wide channels carved out 50 feet below the choppy waves above.
The site is a local haven for mantas, but it is the variety of shooting and diving options that are truly attractive to a photographer or videographer. You can spend your time at the very tips of the valleys in shallow water (less than 30 feet deep) to try to capture a light blue background with sunballs, as dozens of juvenile mantas fly by.
Of course, the deeper you go, the less light there is to work with; so make sure to boost your ISO upwards of 400 if need be. The advantage to venturing into the deeper waters is more quality time with larger mantas, as they spin in circles around your bubbles.
Walking onto the boat deck the first morning in southern Komodo’s Nusa Kode, I felt more like I was in the Pacific Northwest than the tropical pacific. Graceful eagles poised high above in thick foliage dominate my memories above water; while underwater this area of Komodo National Park is unique on its own.
Named for the brilliant yellow soft coral draped over the steep wall, the "Yellow Wall" site is best known for a subject the size of a pin head- the Gammaridean Isopods. Ladybug isopods, as they are appropriattely called, are one of those macro subjects you have to see to believe. (Note: the stalks of the seafan in the image below are roughly 1/4 of an inch)
Better known as the underwater ladybug, these seemingly infinitesimal isopods blanket corals on the wall and can only really be seen with a magnifying lens or a serious external diopter on your macro lens. What makes these miniscule critters especially difficult to shoot is the fact they are often attached to coral overhanging a dropoff that falls to several thousand feet.
It is important that you are comfortable with your bouyancy and macro focusing skills before you venture over the wall's edge in search of ladybugs. Even in broad daylight make sure to flip on a powerful focus light to give your eye or the camera's autofocus the best chance possible.
If you get the chance to dive Yellow wall more than once, do not pass it up!
Pop on your dome port and capture the many subjects that are actually visible to the naked eye interacting with the dramatic wall.
If it seems like every dive site in Komodo is iconic, then you would be right—and Cannibal Rock is no exception.
Another pinnacle site that breaks the tempested surface at low tide, Cannibal Rock is not for the faint of heart or casual underwater photographer. Jumping out of the dinghy, the group will descend as fast as possible to grab hold of the rock before drifting into the abyss. Once latched on with a gloved hand or reef hook, just sit and wait for the magic to unfold.
Land-Ho! Photographing Dragons and More...
The irony is that, for the world-class diving destination that is Komodo, the most infamous of its inhabitants rarely enters the water- but an underwater photographer can hope, right?
There are only a handful of diving destinations where the land tours generate as much buzz amongst the divers as the attractions underwater. About 4 days into your trip, you will take a break from the pulse pounding diving and go on land for the (dramatic music) “Dragon Walk.”
The land tour at the Komodo National Park is much more than a dragon walk- water buffalo, eagles and the rugged landscape are all popular photo subjects. Make sure to pack a pair of tough shoes or boots- you don’t want to be wearing flip flops when a dragon runs you down! The best oppertunities to shoot the dragons are not on the land tour, but from a special dinghy trip to the shoreline at dragon feeding time.
If you aren't feeling especially protective of your housing, you could even set it on video or time lapse and set it on the shoreline for some close encounters with their heat seaking tongue.
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