Silversides cascading over a sea fan at Yellow Wall O’ Texas
What universal criteria must be met to make a dive site “iconic”? Having dove many of the world’s best sites over and over again for a living, I believe the true iconic sites are the ones that you never get tired of diving, the ones that consistently deliver dives that you wish would never end.
Horseshoe Bay, although technically an area comprising several dive sites, is just such a place. Located on the southern end of Indonesia’s Komodo Island, Horseshoe Bay derives its name from its similarity to the equestrian footwear when viewed on a chart, with the small island of Nusa Kode nestled in the center of a perfectly sickle-shaped bay.
Home to the world-famous Cannibal Rock and other well-known sites such as Torpedo Alley and Yellow Wall O’ Texas, the variety of diving here is staggering.
Coleman shrimp on a fire urchin at Cannibal Rock
The site itself was discovered and named by Burt Jones during his initial surveys of the area when he climbed to the top of a rise and looked down at the bay only to see one dragon eating another in front of what appeared to be a large shallow reef. After diving what would become one of the most famous dive sites in Indonesia, Burt named the site Cannibal Rock.
Centrally located in the bay, the dive site sits along the edge of a conical hill on a peninsula that juts out from the beach. Breaking the surface at very low tide, the reef slopes off in all directions. Swept by the tides, the slopes and large rock formations are covered in yellow and pink soft corals as well as tubastrea and other cup corals.
Silversides clog deeper parts of the reefs at certain times of year, Cannibal Rock
Amongst the verdant volcanic slopes are critters galore and schools of fusiliers dash about overhead. With turtles, giant trevally, and other pelagics making routine visits, there is always something to be seen away from the reef. Visibility during the dry season (the typical time to dive Komodo) maxes out at about 30 feet (10 meters) but can get as high as 110 feet (30 meters) in the rainy season.
The cold nutrient-rich water is probably what accounts for the lush growth within the bay, with temperatures often falling into the high 60s Fahrenheit. Among the critters commonly found here are the famous Wally’s squat lobster, the Miamira nudibranch, and frogfish aplenty.
Ceratosoma magnifica on Cannibal Rock
Giant frogfish yawning at Cannibal Rock
Sea apple feeding at Cannibal Rock
The black sand slope on the beach adjacent to Cannibal Rock, in addition to being home to grazing Komodo dragons, monkeys, and wild pigs, is a stellar muck dive. With rhinopias, ambon scorpionfish, frogfish, ghost pipefish, oodles of nudibranchs, and the critter for which the site is named, the electric torpedo ray, all commonly found. In addition, a unique type of extremely photogenic tunicate grows at depth.
Ghost crab displaying eggs at night in Torpedo Alley
Bottletail squid at Torpedo Alley
Yellow Wall O’ Texas
Stretching off into the Indian Ocean, this wall dive is replete with tiny copepods that have driven many underwater photographers to contemplate becoming wedding photographers. The colloquially named “lady bugs” skitter across the tunicate and soft corals, sometimes in large numbers. Silversides mass in the shallows, often swarming over crinoid-clad protrusions from the wall.
The march of the copepods: “Lady bugs” at Yellow Wall O’ Texas
Ladybug and coral polyps, Yellow Wall O’ Texas
This pinnacle faces the open sea off of Nusa Kode Island and can earn its name when the current picks up. Teaming with anthers and soft coral, this site is a reef shooters dream. In the winter months, visibility and water clarity rise dramatically, making this one of the prettiest sites in Horseshoe Bay.
Cup corals at Rodeo Rock
Underwater Photography in Horseshoe Bay
This area cannot be shot in one day, one week, or even in one month. With extremely variegated conditions, the trick to photography in Horseshoe Bay is to choose your equipment based on the conditions at that moment. This may involve quick changes right before the dive. Because of its geographic location, the bay can go from sun and puffy clouds to windy, gray, and rainy in minutes. The good news is that macro is always an option on any of the dive sites within the bay, but when the sun is shining, go wide!
Bronze sweepers at Cannibal Rock
Lenses & Strobes
Fisheye and super-wide rectilinear zoom lenses are essential equipment. With large bommies and outcroppings dripping with life, being able to cover more area is going to help truly capture the scene. Strobes are a must. With green water common during the summer months, natural light photography is not really an option, except at very shallow depths.
For macro, a super-macro setup is a must for shooting the “lady bugs.” Larger critters are also to be found, with frogfish by the handful, ambon scorpionfish, rhinopias, and octopus making appearances, so don’t leave that 60mm at home.
Purple rhinopias at Boulders
Crocodilefish at Boulders
Butterflyfish at Cannibal Rock
One of the best features of Horseshoe Bay is the underwater topography. At almost every site the reef comes almost to the surface, allowing you to eke out another few minutes at the end of your dive while still getting fantastic photo-ops.
Drooling dragons at the beach
Who To Dive With:
Although day boats and land-based diving centers visit Komodo, the best way to discover all the photographic opportunities of Horseshoe Bay is by liveaboard. The Indo Siren, Arenui, Komodo Dancer, Adelaar Cruises and The Seven Seas liveaboards spend several days of their itineraries in and around the bay.
When To Go:
May to October is the high season in Komodo, with warm, clear water in the northern part of the park, and cold, green water in the south (Horseshoe Bay and Manta Alley). From December to February, conditions switch, with the Indian Ocean (south Komodo) becoming clear with warm water, and the north becoming cold and green.
The Indo Siren operates in Komodo from June to October, while the Arenui cruises the area from May to October. Komodo Dancer operates during the months of December to February, as does The Seven Seas, which also visits Komodo National Park at various other times of the year. Adelaar Cruises offers 10-night cruises with yearly round-trip departures from Bali to Komodo.