Indonesia is an underwater photographer’s candy store. In recent years, it has emerged as a top international destination for those who want to photograph marine life of all sizes, shapes and forms. With 18,000 or more islands in the country, there are plenty of venues to choose from—and plenty more being discovered every year.
Many sites can be dove through land-based operations while others are remote and only accessible by liveaboard. Indonesia’s dive industry is getting more sophisticated as the pursuit grows and now sees an eclectic mix of divers from all over the world. Domestic flights have expanded greatly in the last five years with many destinations getting routes where previously they had none.
Of course, photography above and below the waterline figures prominently in the picture, and Indonesia has been a magnet for serious amateurs and pros for many years. Here, we’ll try to pick some of the more photogenic and productive sites in the country.
1. Bali: USS Liberty Wreck
Both shallow and a bit deep, this broken-up shipwreck is adorned with marine life, so conventional wisdom says bring your wide-angle lens and have fun. There is usually a current ranging from mild to somewhat strong rolling over the ship, making the many corals that adorn the Liberty open. Fish schools also like to frolic and feed in the current. I have used an 8mm lens and a 10–17mm aft here to capture the fish shoals and colorful fan and cotton candy corals, as well as a diver as an object of composition to fill out the scene. A zoom of 17–50mm or similar is great for fish portraits as the ship has plenty of sweetlips, surgeonfish and colorful anthias. Bumphead parrotfish also sleep on the wreck and can be seen at a cleaning station on early morning dives.
Tip: While you may get some strange looks, try macro on and near the wreck. The ship is home to frogfish, ghost pipefish and nudibranchs. The coral garden deep below the wreck at 100 feet is also very good for macro, and look in the barrel sponges on the slope aft of the wreck for hairy squat lobsters and pygmy seahorses.
The encrusting sponges and soft corals growing on the exposed hold walls and beams of this ship are perfect wide-angle fodder for framing your dive buddy model
This ornate ghost pipefish was photographed at a sea fan in the pretty current-fed coral garden that sits deep below the shipwreck
2. Bali: Scuba Seraya
The fine, dark volcanic sand at this boutique resort and beach area south of Tulamben has been producing odd and unusual critters for avid photographers ever since Patrick Schwartz pioneered diving here over two decades ago. Walk-in dives are the norm and many macro nuts spend hours in the shallows looking for seahorses, harlequin shrimp, mimic octopuses, hairy frogfish—and the list goes on. Goby lovers will also marvel at the various species found, from deep to shallow, in different habitats here.
Tip: While currents can kick up, do a night dive or two during a stay at Scuba Seraya. They can be very rewarding. Lots of crabs and shrimps and wanderers like Ambon scorpionfish come out at night. Flatworms and nudis also cross the sandy flats.
Gobies and the bulldozer shrimp resides in the open sand flats. Use a 105mm macro, as they can be shy
This beautiful Coleman shrimp pair was photogaphed in a fire urchin at roughly 80 feet, a short swim north of the Scuba Seraya beach entry
3. Komodo: Manta Alley
While Indonesia is especially good for fishy reefs and mucky dive spots, there are many places where big reef residents can be seen. One very popular site is Manta Alley, a series of sunken rocks that have passages between them where currents flow through. The mantas love to feed in these passages, often hovering close to the bottom, opening their mouths and just letting nutrients flow through their gills. They also love to play and can be seen in “trains” chasing each other and doing amazing aquabatics. Sit still in a protected place with your wide-angle lens and let them swim by for a great capture.
Tip: There is a cleaning station here, in deeper water away from the rocks, which is adorned in a huge school of glassfish and has sea fans and other marine life. It is a good place to check for a pretty reef image featuring a hovering manta. Look even deeper off this station for the occasional Mola mola.
Wait and be patient at this site, and the mantas will get curious and come by to have a look. You can shoot from below to silhouette the reef and the ray
4. Rinca: Yellow Wall
Rinca is another island in Komodo National Park that features a popular spot call Horseshoe Bay, which holds a safe anchorage and a number of dive sites. The bay is fed by cold currents and this seems to attract very colorful invertebrates, so while wide angle may produce nice shots of the beautiful sea fans and soft corals along this steep wall, try some macro, especially using a 105mm and assorted diopters. Look for oddities like pygmy seahorses and especially the funny little lady bug amphipods that make their homes on crinoids, soft corals and colorful tunicates. The spot is also great for nudibranchs. It seems one critter always has a passenger, so look for commensal shrimp, skeleton shrimp and tiny crabs hitching a ride on a host.
Tip: The color and diversity seem to be fueled by a cold water upwelling that washes into the bay from the southern straits. Bring some warm gloves and something to layer your core so you will be able to search and shoot in warm comfort.
Photos of the diminutive ladybug amphipod can have very colorful backgrounds. They are quite tiny, so a 105mm lens with a +10 diopter will be very helpful
Yellow Wall could also be named “orange wall” for the heavy cover of soft corals found here. Shoot upward into the water column to produce a black background and make the corals stand out
Yellow Wall was named for the abundance of small, yellow sea cucumbers here. But look closely, as nudibranchs also thrive in this invertebrate haven
5. Lembeh: Hairball
Compared to almost anywhere in the world, Lembeh is pretty much the pinnacle of muck diving. The guides are good, the marine life varied, and it seems there are always surprises—which may be why macro nuts spend weeks, and even months, here. Lembeh hotspots change a lot, but the dives at Hairball, located on the Sulawesi side of the strait, seem to be productive most of the time. The amusing site name no doubt comes from finding hairy frogfish and tiny hairy shrimp here. Nearby is also a namesake resort. Mimic, coconut and wonderpus octopuses, frogfish (hairy or otherwise), ghost pipefish, jawfish, white-eyed morays with cleaner shrimp—the list is literally never ending. Be sure to spread out, as the silt is very fine.
Tip: Tired of macro after a few days? Ask your dive shop to drop you on the Mawali wreck. This WWII-era Japanese freighter has holds to explore, fish schools, and a big propeller to shoot for your wide-angle fix. And guess what? It also has some great macro life.
They may look like a ball of fuzz from afar, but the hairy frogfish is a great subject for a 60mm macro lens
Lembeh features critters that live on critters—like this white-eyed moray and his cleaner shrimp
6. Alor: Beangabang Bay
A small natural harbor in the southeast of Pantar Island, Beangabang Bay is home to a modest village, a tall church, a small school, and a dark sand beach, cut at one end by a river outflow. It was discovered by an exploratory dive a few years ago, and now liveaboards tend to spend the day here, as the muck diving and photography is very good. Macro buffs can switch between their 60mm and 105mm as there is impressive variety. Some spots are in fine silt near river mouths while others have coral bommies where jawfish and ribbon eels thrive. This is also another place to do a night dive.
Tip: Strap on the wide-angle lens and go deep to around 100 feet. There are big, colorful stalked soft corals and some large sea pens that are great for close-focus wide angle, especially if you have a model or buddy to add to the scene.
This young Clark’s anemonefish has a pretty flashy home in a fluorescent sea anemone at Beangabang
Look in the sand near the bay’s corals for the cantankerous but very photogenic ribben eels
7. North Raja Ampat: Black Rock
Black Rock is just that, a big basalt rock sticking out of the ocean begging to be dived. Although the water can be a green at times, it is amazingly colorful and bursting with fish—a must for wide-angle buffs. There is a chance to see small stuff here too, but the thick school of jacks and fusiliers, the roaming yellow goatfish, and the open Tubastrea corals and sea fans that thrive in these current-rich habitats are great for documenting the vivid colors of the many Kawe rocky sites on the way to Wayag.
Tip: The water may flow a little strongly here but there is always a lee side. Stay above 40 feet and deal with the currents for as long as you can, and then go hide in the lee. Try to stay on the rock as opposed to drifting away to experience the best of this active site.
The fairly constant current flow and the nutrients in the waters around Kawe mean the rocks below are covered in marine life
A wide-angle playground, Black Rock has a variety of fusiliers including thick schools of yellowtail fusiliers. Use a fast shutter speed to catch the shoaling formation or a slow shutter to get some blur and movement
8. Central Raja Ampat: Cape Kri
This is the cream of Raja Ampat diving, with non-stop action when there is current rolling along the reef. Definitely a wide-angle dive for big batfish schools, sweetlips shoals down deep and bigeye jack, barracudas, snapper and drum. Look also for bumphead parrotfish and, of course, the ubiquitous fusiliers. There are corals all along the slope, and the reef finger that divers normally encounter at the end of the dive has healthy hard corals. Be patient and don’t swim or drift too fast as the fish variety is excellent and the water is normally clear and blue. Great wide-angle country.
Tip: Try wide-angle video here, which can be very rewarding. The current flows up and over the reef finger that extends from Kri Island. Find a good place to settle in and shoot the various schools and fish that swim by.
Down deep at Cape Kri, sweetlips hover over the rocks in thick schools—great for wide angle
While the blue at Cape Kri is fascinating, the sea floor can be home to a well-fed wobbegong shark or two
9. Triton Bay: Tim’s Rock
I don’t like this wide-angle haven just because it bears my name. It really is a fun spot and can be very productive—not that many divers actually venture to Triton Bay, but they should. Forests of black coral trees thrive here and there are many rocks and pinnacles that are covered in salmon and yellow Tubastrea corals. Fish love to hide in the undercuts so wide angle is good but also fish portraits of lionfish and sweetlips are easy to grab. Schools of mobula occasionally swim by and even a curious tiger shark has been seen more than once. Scout around for subjects, as there are many.
Tip: Try to dive this site when the water is flowing out of the bay. Even though it is tempting to drift around the other side, stay on the current side throughout the dive. Even the shallows have great soft corals and some small stuff too.
Stunning gorgonians, soft corals, black corals and more thrive in the outflow of the bay at Tim’s Rock
Some of the densest Tubastrea growth can be found on the rocks near the open channel. The yellow polyps open from their salmon-colored home to feed in the currents
10. Cenderawasih Bay: Hunger Games
What’s more fun than a whale shark? Two, three, four or more whale sharks! During this wide-angle dive, numerous whale sharks come and go when fishermen feed them from a platform called a bagan. Sometimes three will crowd in upright, mouths agape and tails fanning them in place, to suck in small fish that the fishermen have caught with the help of night lights. They will slurp in huge quantities of water and divers can grab a shot of the gaping mouths from quite close. They will do this as long as there are fish, so use many depths and angles to get a nice variety. There really is no better place to shoot these gentle giants.
Tip: Wait in the blue at about 30 feet away from the bagan to get a natural pose as they swim by with no manmade objects in the shot. They will cruise by digesting their meals and waiting their turn at the dinner table. Use a model to allow the viewer to appreciate their immense size.
Whale sharks feed by slurping massive gulps at the surface. A wide-angle opportunity usually presents itself as the sharks try to suck in the small fish that the bagan fishermen toss down
Use a model or dive buddy to give your whale shark some scale, as shown here with a 30-foot individual swimming with model Yoko Higashide
Planning Your Underwater Photography Trip to Indonesia
How to Get There: Visitors can enter Indonesia from Jakarta, Manado and Bali, and then take a domestic flight to the destination or liveaboard port. International flights are available via many carriers.
When to Go: Some areas have seasons, especially Raja Ampat and Komodo. Check with your liveaboard or resort to make sure conditions will be favorable for the type of diving and photography you want to accomplish.
Diving: Divers on liveaboards generally get four dives per day including a night dive. All diving is done from tenders. Resorts normally schedule two morning dives and an afternoon dive with an optional night dive. Diving can be a combination of boat and walk-in diving. Nitrox is normally available at better dive operations.
Dive Guides: It is possible to book your own dive guide to assist in focusing your dive and create a wish list to cover what you want to shoot.
Photography: Check to see the camera facilities and charging available. Photo-friendly resorts and liveaboards will have special climate-controlled rooms and separate freshwater rinse tanks for photo gear. Both 220V and 110V outlets are normally available in these camera rooms.
Tim Rock’s new book with Simon Pridmore is The 50 Best Dives in Indonesia: The Ultimate Guide to the Essential Sites. Indonesia is scuba nirvana—home to the greatest diversity of life forms on the planet. But there are so many wonderful dive sites in so many areas that it can be hard to choose where to start or, after you have started, where to go next. In this essential new guide, the authors aim to help you decide by presenting their take on the best of the best Indonesian dive sites—from the tip of Sumatra to the heart of West Papua.
Whether you’re an experienced veteran of Indonesian diving or a first-time novice, this book is for you. It covers the key Bali, Komodo and Raja Ampat hotspots and introduces you to top dives in less-visited parts of the country, such as Mapia, Maputi and Manuk. No matter how well you know Indonesia, you’ll certainly find something new and intriguing in these pages.
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