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An Archipelago Adventure - Komodo
 July 22, 2008 @ 02:00 AM (EST)
by Keri Wilk
 
I started this year off with two things: a shiny new engineering degree, and an overwhelming desire to remove myself from the heart of another ridiculous Canadian winter. Having lived on a student budget for the past 4 years, I wasn’t in a financial situation that would allow me to fulfill my desire. Fortunately, I knew my daily sacrifice of a roll of film and relentless praying to the photo contest gods were heard when I received an email from Jason Heller. Apparently, I had been awarded an 11 day trip aboard the Archipelago Adventurer II as a prize from thie 2008 Wetpixel & DivePhotoGuide underwater photo contest at Our World Underwater. In the following few weeks, I also found out about a few more prize trips coming my way from other contests. All of a sudden I had myself the ultimate graduation present – a two month Indonesia/PNG voyage!

After convincing my brother, Kris, to join me, I secured a pair of spots aboard one of Archipelago Fleet’s Komodo itineraries near the end of May. Andy Shorten and Gede Sartana made this process a breeze by doing something important that other liveaboard staff sometimes don’t…..that is, efficiently responding to emails. In addition to being prompt, they made sure to accommodate my ‘economic’ lifestyle by setting me up with an affordable hotel and cheap domestic flights.

The next few months were a bit of a blur. I was busy trying to pay off my new (large) credit card debts, going to scuba shows, and spending quality time with my girlfriend before I abandoned her for the summer. As quickly as the trip was booked, it was time to pack and leave.

After about a month of diving Raja Ampat and a few parts of PNG, the time came to make our way to Labuan Bajo (western tip of Flores). The short flight from Bali to Flores gave a nice view of the ocean peppered with small islands.

Indonesian Island by Keri Wilk


We were greeted in Labuan Bajo by the talented photographer and Scuba Diver Australasia field editor, Simon Buxton, who would be our cruise director for the trip. We made our way to the massive Archipelago Adventurer II (second largest liveaboard operating in Indonesia), and within 2 hours we geared up and got in for a check-out dive just off of Tebolon island at a site called “Coral Garden”.

Archipelago Adventurer II by Keri Wilk


Somewhat typical for a ‘check-out' dive, it was rather uneventful, but still yielded some interesting nudibranchs and gobies. My uncharged strobe batteries didn’t help my frustration.

Goby by Keri Wilk


I came out of the water a bit disappointed, but very quickly my spirits changed drastically. I wrapped a towel around my waist, pulled off the old trunks, and was planning to take a nice warm shower, when I noticed something tiny skip a few feet across the surface beside the boat. After walking down the side steps to water level, I realized what it was… a juvenile flyingfish (about an inch long), drifting by in the current. I’d only seen a juvenile one other time in 13 years of diving, so I decided that I wouldn’t let the opportunity pass. I jumped into the current bare-assed sans mask to stay with the little guy, knowing someone eventually would come to help me. Sure enough, Kris jumped in and made his way over with my housed D300 and mask in hand, and was followed soon after by one of the crew in a support boat. I’m glad I took that naked leap of faith, since a few nice images resulted, including this one. Those are clouds in the background, shot from below.

Juvenile Flyingfish b y Keri Wilk


Still in the harbor of Labuan Bajo, we had a night dive at the same site, before a much needed gourmet dinner. The night dive was very productive, and so was dinner... my stomach hadn’t been stuffed like that in recent memory.

Soft Coral Crab by Keri Wilk


Overnight, we ‘sailed’ west toward Komodo, stopping midway in the Tatawa Besar region for a pair of frustrating, but beautiful, morning dives. I say they were frustrating because I had my macro setup when the 2 eagle rays, giant trevally, and school of sweetlips decided to make an appearance in the crystal clear water! Nonetheless, typical for most Indonesian waters, there were still plenty of macro subjects to keep me happy and busy.

Blenny by Keri Wilk


After surfacing, we continued the trek from Tatawa Besar to Komodo, arriving in time for a late afternoon and night dive at “Pink Beach” and “Sodo Lia”, respectively.

Goby by Keri Wilk


On the night dive, one of my strobes "went Caribbean" on me (i.e. worked when it wanted to), so I had to do some ‘macgyvering’ to get it back in proper working order. I have to commend Archipelago Fleet designers for designating such a large area of the boat for underwater photo gear…the camera area is larger than most liveaboard dining areas, iit's on the main level of the ship, and is a controlled indoor environment perfect for taking care of your expensive gear.

An overnight steam brought us to one of the holy grails of diving, Rinca Island, where we would remain for the next few days. Visibility was not the best and the water was cold (77 C), but the green nutrient-rich water brought with it a reason for the reef to come alive. Someone even likened the experience to swimming in a tropical fish tank on steroids. In spite of the poor visibility, I couldn’t help but take a stab at shooting wide-angle in such a beautiful area.

Coral Reef by Keri Wilk


Coral Reef by Keri Wilk


I gave it my best shot, but came out with somewhat mediocre images, so I opted for the trusty 105mm macro to maximize my productivity while still stationed at this gold mine.

Zebra Crab by Keri Wilk

Shrimp by Keri Wilk

Blenny by Keri Wilk

 
Nudibranch by Keri Wilk

As fascinating as the creatures were in the waters around Rinca, the ones on land got very much attention as well. Monkeys, deer, and boars occasionally made an appearance on shore, but the main attraction was the giant monitor lizards (aka Komodo dragons). Each morning, a few dragons would come to the beach to catch some rays….some from the sun and some from our flashes. In hindsight, it was probably foolish to get as close as we did, but Simon and I found ourselves sprawled out in the sand only a few feet (in some cases inches) from the reptiles.

Komodo Dragon by Keri Wilk


Komodo Dragon by Keri Wilk


Komodo Dragon by Keri Wilk


Komodo Dragon by Keri Wilk


The time came to pull anchor and start heading toward northern Komodo. We stopped for a pair of manta dives along the way at a site called “Toro Lenkoy”, and had varying success. Our first attempt was uneventful, having only one show up at the end of the dive. However, the second attempt was much more exciting. The current was powerful so our group decided to go with the flow and cross our fingers. My brother and I stopped for a moment for a few quick photos, and were immediately separated from the rest of the group. We drifted on and on, figuring we’d catch up to the group at some point, but came to a split in the current so stopped to decide which path to take. Before we knew it, there were three large mantas swooping only feet from our heads.

Manta Ray by Keri Wilk


We remained at the base of a large coral head as they circled, but they suddenly got spooked and bolted away with the flick of a fin. Confused, my brother and I looked at each other with ‘what the hell?!?’ faces, but immediately realized what had happened…a flock of divers had just poured into the water above us and turned on their hyper-jets toward the mantas to get a closer look. The sight of this new group  scaring off the mantas was quite disturbing, so we called it a dive and started surfacing. After doing our safety stop, and briefly encountering another pair of mantas, we popped up to find ourselves dangerously far away from the ship. Without the sea floor as a reference, the strength of the current was impossible to detect. Safety sausages were inflated and after a few tense minutes, we were spotted and retrieved by one of the two sharp-eyed tenders.

We continued the journey north, stopping at Tatawa Besar again. The current was strong when we entered, making photography difficult. After momentarily being distracted by a beautiful scene of soft corals, Kris and I once again found ourselves separated from the rest of the group. As if the manta dives we just did weren’t enough to complete the trip, a few eagle rays and white-tips came by, and then out of the blue, a 12-foot Minke whale graced us with its presence. Sadly, I was only able to get ‘proof-shots’ of it. Kris and I surfaced expecting others to have had a similar experience, but were surprised to find an empty support boat. Apparently, the current where we stayed had died down, while the rest of the group was whisked away in a torrent, ending up on a beach more than a kilometer down the coast. This is Komodo diving.
Coral Reef and Diver by Keri Wilk

We stayed overnight near a small island (Gili Lawa Darat) just off the northern tip of Komodo, and did two morning dives close by. These sites, “Hard to Find Rock” and “Easy to Find Rock”, were stunning underwater pinnacles. Current was minimal since we entered during slack-tide, and had encounters with a small group of pygmy seahorses, large schools of jacks and sweetlips, and a platoon of nearly 100 mobula rays.

Table Coral by Keri Wilk

Sweet Lips by Keri Wilk

Anemone and Diver by Keri Wilk

In the afternoon we moved to Banta, our final dive destination. We dropped anchor in an idyllic bay and got in the water. Not expecting any large animals, everyone setup for a macro dive…then Murphy’s law presented itself in the form of mantas, mobula rays, and eagles rays coming at us from all directions. That’s the way it goes sometimes, I guess. Again, as frustrating as that was, the macro life in this area made up for it within a few minutes.

Goby by Keri Wilk

Sea Hare by Keri Wilk


Before the night dive, a few of us chose to go for a little hike up the hills of Banta, since we’d heard that the view was incredible. What an understatement…

Rinca Island by Keri Wilk


The final night dive of the trip did not disappoint. Ghost pipefish, shortfin lionfish, napoleon snake-eels, and several bobtail squid were all waiting for us, allowing for loads of macro photography.

Goby by Keri Wilk


After the night dive, we had our final dinner on board, accompanied by the crew playing, singing, and dancing to traditional Indonesian music.

The following morning everyone was eerily quiet, since we all knew the trip was two dives away from being finished. Thankfully, we ended on a high note, since “Tanjung Tanduk Rasa” and “GPS Point!” impressed us all with reefs teeming with life. Eagle rays, cuttlefish, a colony of pygmy seahorses (barbiganti), large schools of various species, and more anthias than you could shake a stick at were the highlights of these dives.
 
Coral Reef by Keri Wilk


Coral Reef by Keri Wilk


By the time I dried off and showered after the last dive, the crew had already washed all of my gear and hung it in the sun to dry, which was a very pleasant surprise. I should note that the level of pampering in general on Archipelago Adventurer II was a few notches above most other liveaboards that I’ve experienced. Simon Buxton (cruise director), the dive guides, and the whole crew were knowledgeable and well prepared for any issues that needed addressing, including the safe transport of a couple’s bulky rebreather equipment to and from a support boat on each dive, which isn’t often encountered. Thanks to you all, you did a wonderful job.

By the early afternoon, we had already made it west to Bali, and were promptly transported by a pre-arranged taxi back to the airport where we all went our separate ways. That marked the end of my first ‘Archipelago Adventure’, but I’m sure it won’t be the last.
Indonesian Taksi by Keri Wilk


A big thanks goes out to staff Archipelago Fleet for continuing to sponsor underwater photography competitions and making my trip possible!


All images are uncropped, and taken with a Nikon D300 in an Ikelite housing with two DS125s and a ReefNet Subsee magnifier.

RELATED CONTENT

Andrea Ferrari
Jul 22, 2008 3:45 AM
Andrea Ferrari wrote:
Kudos for that spectacular juvenile flying fish shot - I wish we could have used it in our latest book! That's creative, instictive, Zen-like shooting at its best...my compliments to Keri for that and several other beautiful shots. Keep up the great work, pal :-)!
Matt J. Weiss
Jul 22, 2008 6:12 AM
Matt J. Weiss wrote:
Keri and I crossed paths while we were both in Bali during our trips. He has several other shots that I am sure you would also love Andrea. I guess the world will have to wait for the whip coral goby shot, huh bud?
Keri  Wilk
Jul 23, 2008 6:59 AM
Keri Wilk wrote:
Thanks Andrea, those comments mean a lot coming from you! I've been a great admirer of your work for some time. Kudos back at you for your new book, it's beautiful, and I would've been honored to be a part of it. Maybe you can include me if you make the sequel: "The LUCK of Underwater Photography"...it was dumb luck to stumble across that little guy. I've gotta say, it was liberating shooting buck-naked... :)

Yes Matt, the world will have to wait...I'm going to ease that one into the world like an old man into a hot bath. lol
Andrea Ferrari
Jul 24, 2008 5:31 AM
Andrea Ferrari wrote:
Ah, but the really good photographer is the one which knows how to take advantage of luck! That is what makes the difference - being able to SEE things and act accordingly without pausing (and without swimming trunks :-)))...catch the moment! Your pics are really inventive, we all have something to learn from each other and I see a really special talent in your shots - keep up the good work!
Jason Heller
Jul 24, 2008 12:09 PM
Jason Heller wrote:
Yeah Kerri kicked butt on this trip. That juvi flying fish shot is indeed awesome and unique. Hope to see that in some contests!
David Sifre
Jul 30, 2008 12:07 PM
David Sifre wrote:
We are heading to Komodo on the Adventurer in August 2009. Glad to hear such a positive report! Hopefully the seas will be calm for us, and there will be plenty of things to see!
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